The Texas legislative stalemate continues basically unchanged, but a new and somewhat bizarre wrinkle has been introduced. Speaker of the House Dad Phelan (R-Beaumont) has issued an arrest warrant for a single Democrat, State Rep. Philip Cortez (D-San Antonio).
Cortez is part of the group of fifty Texas House Democrats who fled the state in order to deny Governor Greg Abbott a quorum to pass voter rights and access restriction legislation in the special session. The group has been holed up in Washington D.C. attempting to convince the federal congress to take action by setting national voter guidelines that would thwart the attempts of Texas Republicans. Progress there has been slow as the congress tackles President Joe Biden’s massive infrastructure proposal as well as hearings on the attempted insurrection from January 6.
Cortez decided to return to Austin last to speak with Republicans about a path forward. The move angered his fellow Democrats, who Cortez did not inform of his plan. Cortez also tried to bolster public support for his efforts with a statement.
“I returned to Texas to try and engage in good-faith dialogue about the aspects of the bill that I, and others, think are harmful,” it read. “We need to fight this battle in parallel tracks in Texas and Washington D.C. with one goal in mind: full and open access to voting for all Texans.”
Ultimately, Cortez’s actions produced no real movement and possibly just made things more volatile. He was granted permission to leave the House floor temporarily and then proceeded to fly back to Washington. Phelan then accused Cortez of breaking his trust and issued the warrant.
In practical terms, the warrant is virtually meaningless. The Speaker of the Texas House has no jurisdiction beyond the borders of the state, and law enforcement is powerless to touch Cortez as long as he remains in Washington.
Even if Cortez was to return to Texas, there’s a fair amount of legal question as to what the warrant would ultimately mean. The Texas constitution does explicitly say that fleeing members of the legislature can be arrested and brought back to work. Some, like Sen. Ted Cruz, have asserted that this means the members of the legislature can be “put in leg irons,” but his interpretation of the law is not hared by all.
Annoying as the actions of Cortez may be to Phelan and other Republicans keen to prune voter access, those actions are not actually illegal. Phelan’s warrant is a civil one, not a criminal one, and none of the Democrats have committed any crimes. If the matter was pursued into criminal court, all parties would be venturing into new legal territory.
Also murky is when this warrant may expire. Criminal warrants in Texas do not expire ever, but as stated Cortez has not broken a law. The Texas constitution empowers officials to arrest and compel errant lawmakers back to work, implying that if the session is closed then there is no place to send the Democrat. Phelan may have to issue a new warrant for the next session.
The current special session ends on August 6, but Abbott has already stated that he plans to call another special session immediately. With the important issue of redistricting still to be decided in August once the Census data is released, and with possible control of the U.S. House of Representatives hanging in the balance, it’s not likely that the Democrats can hold on forever. Likewise, Abbott may capitulate and call the next session strictly for the redistricting business, although nothing stops him from calling another session immediately afterward.