Yet another weapon in Governor Greg Abbott’s arsenal against the absent Texas Democrats has been defused. A judge temporality blocked the arrest of the missing congressional members on Sunday.
The order comes from Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat who serves the 450th District Criminal Court. Filed by lawyers representing 19 of the Texas Democrats, the signed order establishes that the law does not “provide for the physical confinement of lawmakers who have committed no crime.”
Fifty members of the Texas House and Senate fled the state at the beginning of the first special session of the legislature in July. Abbott planned to use the session to pass massive restrictions on voter rights and access, such as restricting polling times and the distribution of mail-in voting literature. Proposed increases in protections for poll watchers and punishments for election workers who interfere with them gave voting rights activists concerns about voter intimidation and bullying. The bill is largely based on the Big Lie that former President Donald Trump only lost the 2020 election through massive voter fraud or deep state trickery. No evidence that widespread tampering happened has ever held up in court or through state audits.
After several attempts to water-down the bill failed, the Democrats left the state in order to deny the Texas House of Representatives a quorum. The first special session ended with no bills passed, and the second one looks to be going the same way.
The Texas Constitution does provide the governor’s office with the authority to compel lawmakers to return to the capitol for work, and Abbott had issued warrants for any Democrat that returned to the state. One representative, Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio) did return to try and reason with Republicans. When the talks proved fruitless, he again left. Cortez’s second departure prompted Speaker of the Texas House Dade Phelan to also issue a warrant for Cortez’s arrest.
With Urrutia’s order in place, the Democrats are temporarily safe from being thrown in jail if they return. However, it’s more likely they will remain in Washington D.C. petitioning the federal government for help in bolstering voter rights. The temporary order expires after 14 days, and it is almost certain that Abbott and Phelan will try to assert their rights to round up the Democrats in court.
In the meantime, the Democrats are actually not even technically able to even be compelled since a roll call of the House has not been called for the second special session. On paper, they are not yet absent, though that is likely to change at any moment. The agenda for the second special session still includes the voter restrictions bill as well as other far-right priorities such as prohibiting trans students from participating in high school sports.
With new judicial clout at their back, the Texas Democrats improve their already strong position and weaken that of Abbott’s. We’ve pointed out before that the majority of the Democrats are in incredibly safe districts which they will probably not have to campaign much for in order to hold, and the postponement of the coming redistricting session can only benefit Democrats if the matter is put in the hands of the courts through inaction. With Abbott not even to threaten the Democrats with arrest, he’s running out of options aside from negotiating.