Texas law enforcement deputized to round up absent House Democrats, intensifying battle in the lower chamber
The Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for absent House Democrats’ civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting them from such a move.
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Texas law enforcement was deputized Thursday to track down Texas House Democrats still missing from the chamber and bring them to the state Capitol in Austin, a process that Speaker Dade Phelan's office said "will begin in earnest immediately."
The news came as the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for their civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting 45 Democrats from such a move.
Law enforcement was tapped “to assist in the House’s efforts to compel a quorum,” Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in an emailed statement. Earlier this week, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, signed warrants for those missing lawmakers, many of whom have refused to return to the chamber for weeks to block a GOP elections bill. Their absence has prevented the chamber from having a quorum, the number of present lawmakers needed to move legislation.
If lawmakers are arrested, they will not face criminal charges or fines and could only be brought to the House chamber.
Earlier Thursday, state Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, told The Texas Tribune that 44 of his colleagues had joined him in gaining temporary protection against those warrants should law enforcement track them down. Three judges in Harris County granted the orders.
"Nobody can detain or drag us back to the House floor against our will," Wu said in a statement. "We will not be willing participants in the silencing of our communities.”
By the time the House came to order around 4 p.m. though, news had surfaced that both law enforcement had been deployed and the all-GOP Supreme Court had halted Democrats’ efforts to block their civil arrests, with the court setting an 8 a.m. Monday deadline for a response.
After Wu was granted his request for temporary protection Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear he would fight that order in a similar manner to how the state fought a previous temporary restraining order by a state district judge in Travis County that also sought to block the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.
In that case, the Supreme Court voided the order temporarily on Tuesday, though Democrats have said they plan to push forward in their request for a temporary injunction on Aug. 20. If granted, that injunction could again grant them protection from arrest.
During the first special session ordered by Abbott that ended last week, over 50 Democrats flew to Washington, D.C., to break quorum in the chamber and block a GOP elections bill that would, among other things, further tighten the voting-by-mail process and bolster access for partisan poll watchers.
Republicans have championed the proposal as “election integrity” that would bring what they argue are much-needed reforms to the state’s voting system, while Democrats and voting rights groups have criticized the proposal as a vehicle that would harm marginalized voters in the state.
Since the second overtime round began Saturday, a number of Democrats have returned to the state but haven’t yet come back to the chamber.
When the House met shortly Thursday afternoon, Phelan reminded any member who has been absent to check in and then laid out the schedule for the next several days, saying the chamber planned to meet at 2 p.m. Friday, 10 a.m. Saturday and 4 p.m. Monday. After about a half hour of standing at ease, the House gaveled out for the day.
Patrick Svitek contributed to this report.
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