Texas Supreme Court rules AWOL Democrats may be arrested

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that House Democrats may be arrested and brought to the chamber to restore quorum as the runaway state lawmakers continue to steer clear of the state capitol in Austin.

The court overruled the Aug. 8 temporary restraining order issued by a Travis County district court judge preventing Republican Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan from arresting the wayward legislators, who fled the state July 12 to thwart passage of a Republican elections bill.

“The legal question before this court concerns only whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock said in the opinion. “We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the [temporary restraining order].”

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton praised the court’s ruling, saying, “As predicted, the law is on our side.

“House Democrats were elected to do a job — and it is time for them to come home and do just that, regardless if the outcome doesn’t lean in their favor,” Mr. Paxton tweeted. “Childish antics will not be tolerated.”

Justice Blacklock stressed that the decision had nothing to do with the debate over specific legislation under consideration in the second special session called by Mr. Abbott this month.

“The question now before this court is not whether it is a good idea for the Texas House of Representatives to arrest absent members to compel a quorum,” he said. “Nor is the question whether the proposed voting legislation giving rise to this dispute is desirable. Those are political questions far outside the scope of the judicial function.”

He cited Article III of the Texas Constitution giving the legislature the power to “compel the attendance of absent members.”

“The text of article III, section 10 is clear, and the uniform understanding of the provision throughout our state’s history — including around the time of its enactment—has been that it confers on the legislature the power to physically compel the attendance of absent members to achieve a quorum,” Justice Blacklock said.

A few House Democrats have trickled back to the legislature, but the chamber still lacks the 100 members needed to reach a quorum and pass legislation.

The Democrats have blasted the elections bill as voter-suppression legislation, which Republicans deny, arguing that it expands early voting while also ending measures enacted during the pandemic such as 24-hour voting and drive-thru voting.

The state Senate, which has a quorum, passed the bill last week on an 18-11 party-line vote, the third time the chamber has approved the measure.

Mr. Phelan signed arrest warrants last week for the 52 House Democrats who continue to break quorum, although only those present in Texas may be detained and returned to the chamber.

The state high court, whose eight justices are all elected Republicans, has consistently sided with the governor and Republican House leadership, overruling Aug. 12 orders by Harris County judges blocking the arrest of more than 40 of the House Democrats.

“Despite the high court’s ruling, Texas House Democrats remain committed to fighting back with everything we have to protect Texans from Republicans’ repeated attacks on our freedom to vote,” said Democratic state Rep. Gene Wu after the Harris County ruling.

Nearly 60 House Democrats flew via chartered jets last month to Washington and stayed at the Washington Plaza Hotel as they sought to convince the Senate to pass sweeping federal voting-rights legislation.

With the Senate in recess, it is not clear how many Texas Democrats remain in the nation’s capital and how many have returned to Texas.

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