"Guest Column: When Mob Rule Overwhelmed Democracy" was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.
On Tuesday morning, the Texas Senate convened to take up and debate Senate Bill 5, a bill that would have protected innocent life and improved health care for women. The bill ensured that women who make the incredibly difficult decision to have an abortion receive the proper care they deserve in a safe, medically appropriate environment. Ultimately, even though it had the votes to pass, SB 5 was killed using procedural tactics, including a filibuster by Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, who opposed the legislation.
When senators are filibustering, they must stay on topic and cannot eat or drink, leave the floor, sit down, lean on their desk or receive help from another senator. If any of these rules are violated, precedent in the Senate is a “three strikes you’re out” policy. On the third strike, a simple majority of the Senate can vote to end debate and the senator filibustering must yield the floor. Several hours after Davis began her filibuster, a few senators noticed she was breaking the rules by twice going off topic and receiving help from another senator. Consequently, three points of order were called, and each was ultimately sustained.
It was upon the issuance of the ruling from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst on the final point of order that the mob began its rule of Texas.
What had begun as a day of parliamentary maneuvering by senators on both sides of the issue turned into a day where democracy was subverted by a vocal minority. Abruptly, the filibuster moved from the Senate floor to the gallery, where hundreds of unruly activists screamed — some yelling obscenities — at the senators below who were trying to peacefully conduct the people’s business. From approximately 11:38 to midnight, incited by Democratic senators and representatives, the mob loudly reigned supreme, making it impossible to hear on the floor, much less pass legislation.
Simply put, what happened on Tuesday night was both shameful and dangerous. The precedent set was truly awful, regardless of the ends it achieved. It was awful particularly because it worked. The “gallery filibuster” tactic is now in the playbook of both political parties, as well as every special interest group with enough emotional supporters to pull it off. Those who opposed SB 5 can celebrate that it did not become law, but they should not celebrate the means used to defeat it.
What happened Tuesday night was not democracy in action — it was mob rule. It wasn’t rule by law — it was rule by thuggery. It was a reminder that one of the greatest benefits of the evolution of the rule of law is that might no longer equals right. It was a lesson that we can’t resort to allowing a shouting match to determine which laws pass and which laws don’t.
Although those in the Senate gallery Tuesday night may see themselves as heroes of democracy, they are no heroes. They weren’t there to save democracy — they were there to commandeer it. The people of Texas deserve better. They deserve democracy, not mob rule. The precedent cannot stand that any time a couple hundred Texans decide they don’t like something, they can show up in the gallery and shout down representatives of the people. If we are to consider our government a democracy, the fate of all legislation must be decided by elected officials, no matter how wrong one group thinks those officials may be.
Although short lived, the mob’s rule lasted just long enough to deny the people their chance to protect innocent life and improve women’s health care. Using its collective voice, the mob ensured that the thousands of unborn children aborted in Texas each year never have one. But now mob rule has ended, the chants have faded and another special session has been called. The people have a second chance; it’s their turn to speak. Through their elected officials, they will use their voices not to shout down those with whom they disagree, but to save innocent life while improving health care for mothers. The people of Texas are intelligent, courageous and strong. They are the true heroes of democracy.
Craig Estes, R-Wichita Falls, represents Senate District 30 and is president pro tempore of the Texas Senate.
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