For the first time, the Tennessee Senate on Wednesday voted to expel a senator, stripping Sen. Katrina Robinson of her elected position following her federal conviction on federal wire fraud charges.
Robinson, D-Memphis, had decried the Senate’s move as racist and misogynistic and called the expulsion a “procedural lynching” Wednesday. The senator grew emotional on the Senate floor before her colleagues voted to expel her, calling the decision a foregone conclusion and the Senate’s debate “a show.”
“I was raised in a very no-nonsense manner. I’ve gone two years and never let the public see me cry,” Robinson said. “I continued to push through this ordeal to get here every week for session, for committee, to get back to my community even when I couldn’t raise money because people thought I was a thief.
“I went in my own pocket to give to kids who were looking forward to events that normally I would have support for. I stood out front this whole time, and I haven’t shied away from any fight, and I can’t do it here. Some of you think I would maintain my dignity through resignation, but for me the only way to maintain my dignity is to stand here and stand up for myself, and anyone else who would go through this.”
The Senate voted 27-5 to expel her from the Senate.
“While the expulsion of a Senator for the first time in history was not something any of us wished to see, it was a necessary action,” Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, said in a statement following the vote. “The integrity of the Senate is of paramount importance. Senator Robinson was given every consideration and due process.”
McNally said the Senate could have acted right away following her conviction but gave her time to pursue her legal case. The Senate delayed action to allow her “time to reflect and resign,” he said.
“She declined that opportunity,” McNally said.
He called Wednesday a “sad day for the Senate.”
Robinson previously said prosecutors unfairly targeted and pursued her on trumped up charges, which are unrelated to her role in the Tennessee General Assembly. Robinson was initially charged with 48 counts in connection with her ownership of a nursing school and its management of federal grant funds.
The prosecution’s case did crumble in part through Robinson’s trial last year, with the charges dropping to five during trial. A jury found Robinson guilty of four charges related to less than $3,500. Last month, a federal judge acquitted her of two of the charges, but upheld the remaining two and declined her request for a new trial.
“I refuse to resign because I do not want to succumb to the narrative that has been put out in the media and that you all have been swayed by,” Robinson said before the Senate vote. “I am not guilty of a crime, and I maintain that.”
In January, she unsuccessfully fought to delay a Senate ethics committee vote until after her final sentencing, set for March. Robinson said she would resign following final sentencing, if she was still in office.
Tennessee state law bars people convicted of felonies from serving in public office.
After the vote, Robinson told reporters she didn’t expect to win over any Republican colleagues with a “last-minute floor speech.”
“I knew the day that I received that letter from the ethics committee that they were going to go there,” Robinson said. “Why? Because they have a history of wielding their power to do things, just like this: Unconstitutional, against the will of the people and just because they can.”
GOP defends process, Democrats sought delay
Sen. Ferrell Haile, R-Gallatin, defended the Senate’s process on Wednesday, noting Robinson served through multiple regular and special sessions while her case moved through the courts.
“[The Senate] chose to wait through the judicial process. The committee has given deference to court proceedings and Sen. Robinson in this matter,” Haile said.
He said the Senate ethics panel only moved forward after Robinson’s request for a full acquittal or new trial was denied by a federal judge in January.
Senate Democrats pushed Wednesday to delay the expulsion vote until after Robinson’s sentencing. The motion failed on an unusual tie vote, with Sen. Brenda Gilmore, D-Nashville, absent Wednesday due to illness.
“If removal occurs today, that’s something that cannot be undone,” Sen. Raumesh Akbari, D-Memphis, said. “We as a body will have removed a member based on something that was not final and not true. I don’t want that on my conscience.”
Democrats pointed to a 2019 opinion from Attorney General Herbert Slatery, who found there is “no historical precedent of expelling a member other than for conduct that occurred while the member was in office.”
Slatery released the opinion in reference to Rep. David Byrd, who face repeated calls for his resignation after three women said he sexually assaulted them when he was their high school basketball coach in the 1980s.
In Byrd’s case, the assault accusations had been made public when he was reelected, and Slatery noted the conduct “was known to the member’s constituents” at the time of election. Byrd weathered the calls for resignation, despite apologizing to one of his accusers, though he has said he will not seek reelection again.
Slatery said while there is no historical precedent, policy doesn’t prohibit the legislature expelling members for conduct occurring before their public service. He cautioned legislators should use expulsion power “only in extreme circumstances and with extreme caution.”
Robinson mounts her defense
In her defense on Wednesday, Robinson went through a list of unnamed lawmakers who face current or previous criminal charges or scandals.
Robinson referenced Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Germantown, who is awaiting federal trial on campaign finance charges, and Sen. Joey Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who faced domestic violence allegations and was professionally disciplined by Tennessee’s medical board over unethical opioid prescriptions.
“We throw around this term moral turpitude,” Robinson said. “I ask this body, What are your moral values?'”
Robinson’s expulsion from the Senate is the upper chamber’s first.
In 2016, a bipartisan House vote expelled Rep. Jeremy Durham, R-Franklin, over sexual misconduct allegations. He was accused of inappropriate conduct with at least 22 women while serving in the lower chamber.
The House previously expelled Rep. Robert Fisher in 1980 over a bribery allegation.
The Senate in 2006 voided the election of Ophelia Ford, also a Memphis Democrat, over voting discrepancies in a special election. Ford later went on to win election and serve.
Eddie Weeks, the legislative librarian, said this week other than two failed or withdrawn attempts to expel senators in the late 19th century, there has been no Senate expulsion in the available legislative record from the Civil War onward.
McNally and other Senate staff have said it is the first ever.
Reach Melissa Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This article originally appeared on Memphis Commercial Appeal: Tennessee Sen. Katrina Robinson expelled from Senate over fraud conviction