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Texas House authorizes arrests of AWOL Democrats after state Supreme Court intervenes

Vote came after justices issued a temporary stay allowing Democrats to be arrested if they refused a new order to return to the Legislature.

Updated: August 10, 2021 - 11:16pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

The Texas House of Representatives voted 89-12 on Tuesday evening to authorize state law enforcement to corral and potentially arrest AWOL Democratic members who fled Austin to stop passage of election integrity legislation.

The vote allowed the House sergeant-at-arms to send law enforcement officers to force the attendance of missing Democrats “under warrant of arrest, if necessary.”

House Speaker Dade Phelan subsequently signed arrest warrants Tuesday that were to be served on Wednesday morning.

Phelan spokesman Enrique Marquez said the warrants targeted 52 Democrats who failed to return during the fifth day of the House’s second special session, leaving the chamber eight members short of a quorum.

The dramatic escalation occurred hours after the Texas Supreme Court handed Gov. Greg Abbott a win, temporarily suspending a court order that had prevented the arrest of state legislators who fled the state.

The ruling created a 48-hour window for the Democrats to respond, meaning lawmakers who returned to Texas but continue to break quorum in a new special legislative session could be arrested.

"Relators' emergency motion for temporary relief granted, stay order issued, response requested due by 4:00 p.m., August 12, 2021," the court wrote in a brief order that issued a stay of Travis County District Judge Brad Urrutia's order.

Urrutia's ruling Sunday barred Abbott and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan from "issuing any warrant or other instrument" and "detaining, confining, or otherwise restricting a Texas House Democrat's movement without his or her consent."

The justices still must decide the broader issue. Their stay came less than 24 hours after they handed Abbott another win, upholding his veto of funding for the Legislature to punish the Democrats who fled the state to avoid doing their job.

The state’s highest court ruled Monday that Democratic lawmakers who sued to protest the veto could have taken action to overrule it had they not skipped town.

“While the interference by one branch of government with the effectual function of another raises concerns of separation of powers, the issue presented here is primarily one of differences among legislators,” the justices wrote. “Although the Governor certainly seeks to advance legislation he favors, the majority of the members of the Legislature support the same legislation. Relator House members oppose that legislation and have broken quorum to further their opposition.

“It appears from the record of the special session that they could have restored Article X funding for the Legislature had they been present to vote to do so. … The Legislature was free to use the special session to reinstate Article X funding,” the justices wrote.