June 6, 2024

Texas Supreme Court rules absent Democrats can be arrested

Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives who have refused to show up at the state Capitol now face being arrested and forcibly returned to the House chamber.

KIRK MCDANIEL / August 18, 2021

The Texas State Capitol in Austin. (Courthouse News photo/Kirk McDaniel)

AUSTIN, Texas (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court ruled late Tuesday that Democratic state representatives denying a quorum can be arrested and returned to Austin by force.

This ruling comes after multiple legal challenges from Texas Democrats against Republican efforts to regain a two-thirds presence of lawmakers in the House chamber that is required to conduct legislative business, in order to force through GOP-backed voting restrictions.

A day after the Democrats left the state Capitol in protest of the controversial elections reform legislation, Republicans in the chamber issued a call of the house order, a procedural move that is aimed at forcing a quorum. The order allows for lawmakers to be locked inside the House chamber, only allowed to leave if they have written permission or upon adjournment. House Republicans also voted to send Texas law enforcement to arrest the rogue Democrats and have them returned to Austin.

Both of these moves sparked lawsuits from Democrats who avoided being arrested by fleeing to Washington, D.C., outside of Texas law enforcement jurisdiction. In their first challenge against the orders, 19 representatives filed a complaint with a Travis County District Court seeking injunctive relief and for the procedural moves to be enjoined.

On the same day that Democrats filed their complaint, a state judge issued a temporary restraining order protecting them from being arrested. But shortly after the restraining order was issued, Republican Governor Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan filed an emergency motion for mandamus relief with the Texas Supreme Court seeking it be overturned. The high court issued a stay of the lower court’s order, thus allowing for the forcible return of absent lawmakers.

In a final ruling on the issue Tuesday evening, the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court granted Abbott and Phelan’s motion for mandamus relief, overturning the district court’s decision and removing Democrats’ shield from being arrested.

 Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in his opinion that the issue before the court is not whether it is a good idea to arrest state lawmakers or if voting reform legislation is needed, but “whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members.”

Blacklock found that Article 3, Section 10 of the state constitution allows for representatives to be brought to the state Capitol by force to compel a quorum.

“Plaintiffs proffer a novel understanding of article III, section 10 under which the House’s power to ‘compel the attendance of absent members’ authorizes only persuasion and dialogue, rather than true compulsion,” Blacklock wrote. “That is simply not what the constitution says.”

Blacklock also said that even if the Texas Constitution lacked clarity on this issue, the U.S. Supreme Court long ago ruled that the U.S. Constitution gives Congress the authority to force a quorum. Quorum requirements in Congress differ from those in the Texas Legislature – instead of two-thirds, only a simple majority is required.

Turning to the district court’s temporary restraining order, Blacklock said the lower court “very clearly abused its discretion” in light of the Supreme Court ruling and ordered it to rescind its protections for the rogue lawmakers.            

Last month, Texas House Democrats walked out of the Capitol to deny their Republican colleagues the ability to pass a controversial elections bill known as House Bill 3. The bill, along with a similar one in the Texas Senate, seeks to reshape how elections are conducted in the state. Both bills were originally filed during the first special legislative session called by Abbott, and then filed again in the ongoing second special session.   

The bills would ban 24-hour and drive-thru voting and expand the rights of poll watchers at voting sites. They would also bar election officials from sending vote-by-mail applications to people who did not request one and set new identification requirements for voting by mail. 

Republican lawmakers widely support the bills and have made passing such legislation a priority. State Senator Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, authored SB 1 and has repeatedly said that it will “make it easier to vote and harder to cheat.” But Democrats see the bills as voter suppression and claim they are “a solution in search of a problem.” 

Last week, State Senator Carol Alvarado, D-Houston, delivered a 15-hour filibuster in which she sought to bring attention to parts of the bill that she believes will harm Texas voters.

“Where does it end? Today it is SB 1, and tomorrow it will be some other manufactured crisis to justify the systematic chipping away of our voting rights,” she said during her overnight filibuster. Moments after Alvarado finished, the Texas Senate voted along party lines to pass SB 1. It is now pending in the state House, which still lacks a quorum due to the Democratic holdout.

Texas House Democrats traveled to the nation’s capital to pressure Congress and the Biden administration to pass voting rights legislation that would supersede Texas’ efforts and nullify similar bills successfully passed in other states like Georgia and Florida earlier this year.

The Democrats so far have been able to successfully hold up House legislative business, preventing Republicans from passing any bill. However, Abbott has vowed to continue calling special sessions until lawmakers pass pieces of his conservative agenda. Lawmakers have slowly begun returning to Austin, but as of Wednesday the House still lacks the quorum needed to conduct business.

Source: Texas Supreme Court rules absent Democrats can be arrested | Courthouse News Service