House Speaker Dade Phelan, right, greeted Gov. Greg Abbott during opening ceremonies of the 2021 regular legislative session. Credit: Bob Daemmrich/ Capitol Press Photo/ Pool
BY JAMES BARRAGÁN
Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan asked the Texas Supreme Court on Monday to overturn a ruling by a Travis County state district judge that blocks them from ordering the arrest of Democratic lawmakers who are refusing to show up at the Legislature.
The news, first reported by the Austin American-Statesman, comes after Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat in the 450th District Court in Travis, signed a temporary restraining order barring state officials from arresting the quorum-busting Democrats, who were in Washington, D.C. for about a month. Urrutia’s order opened the door for those Democrats to return to Texas without the threat of arrest. Abbott and Phelan have asked the state’s highest court to void Urrutia’s order.
The Democrats had left the state to block the passage of a Republican elections bill they say would restrict voting rights in the state. They successfully blocked its passage during a 30-day specially called session that ended on Friday, but Abbott immediately called for a second special session which began on Saturday. Though some House Democrats have returned, many have stayed away from the capitol and have blocked the chamber from reaching a quorum to conduct its business.
Without the Supreme Court’s intervention, Abbott and Phelan have no assurance whether the temporary restraining order will be lifted and such orders are not appealable. The first scheduled hearing in the case is on Aug. 20 when Urrutia will decide whether to grant Democrats a temporary injunction. Waiting until then “virtually guarantees that no significant legislation will be passed during this session,” Judd E. Stone II, the state’s solicitor general argued in his emergency motion to the Supreme Court.
Because of that, the state asked the court to grant an order blocking Urrutia’s restraining order no later than 5 p.m. on Tuesday. Without such relief, Stone argued, the state would be harmed by Urrutia’s order.
“Compelling the attendance of absent members by the House is a quintessential legislative act,” the state’s motion read, adding that Urrutia’s “hasty” order “ignores this fundamental principle.”
The state also argued that the House Democrats’ claims are “quintessential political questions” that lie beyond the court’s power to decide. The House’s rules allow for present members to compel the attendance of missing lawmakers and at least 41 other states have similar provisions in their constitutions, the motion read.
The state also argued that the Supreme Court’s action is warranted because the House speaker is immune from suits for legislative acts.