AUSTIN, Texas—The Supreme Court of Texas on Tuesday allowed for the arrest or detention of Democratic lawmakers who fled the state to stop passage of an election reform package they view as an assault on voting rights.
Gov. Greg Abbott (R.) and statehouse speaker Matthew "Dade" Phelan (R.) have threatened to detain the runaway Democrats in the state capitol and force them to discharge their legislative duties once they return from Washington, D.C. On Sunday night a state court judge in Travis County issued an order blocking Abbott, Phelan, and other officials from taking that step. Tuesday’s move by the state supreme court voids the order for the time being.
"The Supreme Court of Texas swiftly rejected this dangerous attempt by Texas Democrats to undermine our Constitution and avoid doing the job they were elected to do," Abbott spokeswoman Renae Eze said. "We look forward to the Supreme Court upholding the rule of law and stopping another stall tactic by the Texas Democrats."
The Texas Supreme Court’s stay will remain in effect only on a temporary basis. The court gave the Democratic lawmakers a Thursday deadline to file legal papers addressing the controversy ahead of further proceedings.
Four lawmakers who participated in the quorum-bust have since returned to Texas, but the state legislature is still a few members short of the attendance threshold necessary to conduct business.
Apart from the detention dispute, the state supreme court on Monday upheld Abbott’s veto of funds appropriated for statehouse operations, which include salaries for lawmakers and their staff. The governor said tax dollars should not be awarded to public officials who quit their jobs.
A coalition of Democratic legislators and state workers contested the veto in court, arguing it amounted to an attempt by Abbott to abolish the state legislature, in violation of the Texas constitution.
The state supreme court rejected the Democratic petition. In an unsigned opinion with no noted dissents, the court said the controversy arose from the fact the state legislature has chosen to prioritize the election reform package over all other pieces of legislation in the pipeline, including appropriations for its own operations. The chamber’s Republican majority has said it will address funding for the legislature only after its elections bill passes.
"While Democratic members object to this ordering of bills, such internal disagreements among legislators are routinely part of the legislative process and do not implicate the separation-of-powers doctrine," the court’s unsigned opinion reads. "This political dispute within the legislative branch is not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide."