State Supreme Court Rules Absconding Texas Democrats Not Protected From Arrest

The Texas Supreme Court ruled against state House Democrats on Tuesday, potentially clearing the way for them to be arrested for fleeing the state to block a Republican voting bill.

Republican Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan signed the warrants last week more than a month after over 50 Democrats left the state to stop the restrictive bill from moving forward. Although a district court soon issued a temporary restraining order preventing the warrants from being enforced, the state Supreme Court had already temporarily blocked the restraining order prior to issuing Tuesday's ruling.

"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 James D. Blacklock wrote in Tuesday's decision. "We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the [temporary restraining order]."

The civil arrest warrants are based on internal state House rules and will not result in any criminal charges for the Democrats, although the lawmakers could be physically compelled to return to the state Capitol. While some of the Democrats may still be out of the state and therefore beyond Texas' jurisdiction, those who have returned home could now be subject to arrest.

The absence of the House Democrats blocked the GOP bill from moving forward because it denied the chamber a quorum—the minimum number of lawmakers required to attend a session that is capable of conducting valid business, such as passing laws.

A two-thirds majority is required to form a quorum, meaning that at least 100 Texas House members must be present. The chamber is composed of 82 Republicans and 67 Democrats, with one seat vacant. Republicans are hoping to force at least 18 Democrats to attend the current special session before it expires in September.

Democrats say they took the drastic action of denying quorum to prevent the passage of what they characterize as a voter suppression bill. Republicans insist that the bill is focused on maintaining election integrity.

Some Democrats named in the warrants have already returned to the state Capitol of their own accord. Although Texas House Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Black has delivered warrants to the offices and homes of the more elusive lawmakers, the voting bill has remained stalled since the House has continued to fall short of achieving a quorum.

A similar walkout did not take place in the Texas Senate, which passed the voting bill last week. The bill passed along party lines shortly after Democratic Texas state Senator Carol Alvarado held a 15-hour filibuster in protest.

Newsweek reached out to the Texas House Democrats for comment.

texas supreme court texas democrats return arrest
The Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that restraining orders the state Democrats had to protect them from arrest warrants were not valid. This photo shows Democratic Chair Rep. Chris Turner (TX-101), Rep. Rafael Anchia (TX-103), Rep. Senfronia Thompson (TX-141), and Rep. Rhetta Bowers (TX-113) during a news conference on voting rights outside the U.S. Capitol on July 13. Kevin Dietsch/Getty