Prolonging a showdown over proposed new voting restrictions, a Texas judge temporarily blocked the arrest of Democratic legislators who fled the state to stop the legislation, a move that will allow members of the group to return from Washington without the threat of being detained.
State District Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat, signed a temporary restraining order late Sunday in a case newly filed by 19 Texas House Democrats against Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, both Republicans who have called for arrests to restore a quorum in the House. The lawsuit argues that the state’s “power to arrest and incarcerate cannot be used for political purposes” under the Texas Constitution and the rules of the Texas House.
The Austin-based judge agreed that Democrats would suffer “imminent and irreparable harm” if Republicans are not barred from ordering arrests, which they threatened to do if members of the minority party returned to the state. Last month, 57 House Democrats left for Washington to advocate for federal voting rights protections, leaving the chamber without the minimum attendance required to do business and continuing a stalemate that began with a similar walkout in May.
It “clearly appears” that Abbott and Phelan have “erroneously interpreted Texas law and legislative rules to permit the detention, confinement, or other restriction [of state legislators] … in response to a call for quorum,” Urrutia wrote in the order.
The order, which could expire in 14 days without an extension, specifically bars Abbott and Phelan from issuing warrants or ordering law enforcement to “detain, confine, or otherwise restrict” House members’ movement within Texas. A hearing on the order is scheduled for Aug. 20.
Texas House Democrats broke quorum for the third time over the weekend, as Phelan launched a second special legislative session aimed at approving new voting restrictions, among other agenda items. After Democrats’ exodus last month, Republicans overwhelmingly approved a “call of the House,” an order allowing law enforcement to track down absent members if they came back to Texas. Abbott also committed to arresting the Democrats on their return to the state.
There is no current “call of the House” in place, and the only arrest warrant issued during the last special session for a quorum-breaking Democrat has expired.
In anticipation of a possible Senate vote on a narrower elections-and-ethics bill before the August recess, Texas House Democrats announced Saturday that 26 of them would maintain an “active presence in Washington … for as long as Congress is working and making progress” on the issue.
“Because of our advocacy, and that of the hundreds of legislators and allies around the country who rallied to our cause, we are that much closer today to the enactment of the most sweeping voting rights legislation since the signing of the Voting Rights Act 56 years ago,” members of the delegation said in a statement, adding: “Texas House Democrats will continue to resist, and hold the line, by any legal means necessary.”