Lawmakers from Tennessee have been in the headlines all week after expelling two Democratic representatives who led a decorum-breaking gun policy protest in the statehouse last week.

Although both lawmakers from Tennessee were reinstated this week, the incident brought attention to a process that is generally reserved for clear violations of an ethics code.

Utah's constitution allows for a similar process of expulsion of lawmakers, but it hasn't been used to remove anyone from the Legislature, according to Ballotpedia, which acknowledges that its list is not comprehensive.

KSL.com spoke with the top Republican and Democrat on Utah's House Ethics Committee to understand the state's process.

How expulsion works

The state constitution gives each chamber in the Legislature the power "punish (lawmakers) for disorderly conduct" and to remove members from the body by a two-thirds majority vote, but the leaders in each chamber generally refer complaints to the House or Senate Ethics Committee for investigation and recommendation before asking the full body to vote on expulsion.

Unlike most standing committees, the ethics committees are bipartisan, meaning they have an equal number of Democrats and Republicans and are co-chaired by a member of each party.

Rep. Jordan Teuscher, R-South Jordan, who has chaired the House Ethics Committee since 2021, said the committee only meets when it receives a complaint to investigate, usually referred by members of the Legislature or the Independent Ethics Commission. He said the last major ethics violation that warranted investigation was in 2008, meaning the committee hasn't had much on its plate in the 15 years since.

"We haven't had much need for the Ethics Committee to get together, but it serves as both a standing and an interim committee that can be brought together at any time to review any sort of ethics violation," Teuscher said. "But, it doesn't have any power in and of itself to punish members, only to make recommendations to the Legislature at large."

He described the committee as a "fact-finding committee" with power to subpoena testimony and evaluate the credibility of allegations. And even if a representative were voted out by two-thirds of their colleagues, Teuscher said the Legislature can't remove someone from office, it can only prevent them from participating in legislative activities.

In most cases, he said, an expelled lawmaker would likely choose to resign rather than leave their constituents without a voting member, at which point the seat would be filled just as if it were vacated for any other reason.

What behavior warrants being expelled?

As someone who "kind of loves rules and lists and actual structure," Rep. Ashlee Matthews, D-Salt Lake City, said she can't anticipate every possibility that could lead to a lawmaker being expelled but generally feels comfortable following the code of conduct training that legislators are required to take every year.

"I would say anything that's covered specifically in our training (as a hard 'don't do') would be a no-brainer for me," she said. "But anything beyond that would be on a case-by-case basis, depending on the facts and the evidence."

Teuscher agreed, saying it's hard to say what might warrant an automatic expulsion, and it would depend on each case and any mitigating circumstances.

"What is interesting is that we do judge our own," he said. "These are colleagues of ours, and in most cases, we're friends and we work together. We would really try to find what the best solution is for the institution as we all take that responsibility very seriously in determining whether expulsion or some other punishment is merited."

Tennessee Republicans have been accused by Democrats of political retaliation against the two lawmakers who were expelled, but Teuscher said he believes Utah's process — if it ever needs to be used — would be free from political motivation.

"I think that's why we set up our ethics committee to be completely bipartisan, 100%," he said. "Because we don't want the Ethics Committee being used as a tool for political purposes; it's really used as a tool when there have been real allegations and real facts that voters didn't know about when they were elected."

Teuscher said he looked into the history of the Ethics Committee and didn't find a single instance of the process being abused for political gains.

"We have different philosophical beliefs on the role of government and certain political issues, but generally, we're all friends and we all have the same motivation to do the best thing for our state," he said.

"(It's) about maintaining not just the honesty and integrity, but the trust of voters," Matthews said. "I think it's important that the public knows that the rest of the Legislature as a whole would take it very seriously and make sure that we are maintaining that integrity and that trust."

"I feel like we are able to collaborate and be productive for the most part," she continued. "I'm confident that what happened in Tennessee wouldn't be anything that we would be seeing out here in Utah."