Here’s a question that’s rarely come up before:
Could the speaker of the Tennessee House be fired?
The current holder of that position, Glen Casada, says he plans to remain. That’s despite calls from Democrats — and some fellow Republicans — to step down amid a scandal involving racist and sexist text messages. But there’s little they could do to force Casada to give up the speakership.
One of the few people who has tried to find out if a speaker can be removed is Victor Ashe, the former ambassador to Poland, ex-mayor of Knoxville and one-time state Senator.
“I don’t recall why I asked for it, other than just curiosity,” Ashe says.
That was way back in 1979. And the answer he got from the state’s attorney general was essentially that the House and Senate speakers can’t be removed, because the Tennessee Constitution says explicitly they serve for two years, and there’s no way to cut that term short. (Read the 1979 opinion here and a follow-up from 2008 here.)
It’s one of a few quirks that come into play. Another is that a speaker doesn’t even have to be a lawmaker. So, conceivably, legislators could kick the speaker out of the House, but not take away the gavel.
But that’s the legal analysis. Ashe, the veteran politician, says there are practicalities that also have to be taken into account. He argues, a speaker’s power derives from having the backing of lawmakers.
“I can’t conceive of any speaker continuing if he knew that 50 members wanted him gone,” Ashe says. “And particularly if a majority of his caucus wanted him gone.”
So far, nowhere close to that many lawmakers have asked for Casada to resign. And there’s a practical consideration: The legislature has adjourned for the year, and would have to call a special session to get back together. Gov. Bill Lee says it’s “premature” to do that.
Which leaves persuasion. Franklin Republican Sam Whitson says he’s contacted the speaker directly to explain why he believes Casada should step aside.
“I called Glen as a friend and associate and asked him to do what’s best for the state and the General Assembly,” Whitson says. “And I hope he honors that.”
But even if he does hang on, Casada has already been weakened. Just the fact that some lawmakers are exploring the question of whether a speaker can be removed speaks volumes.