Texas Judge Temporarily Blocks Abbott From Arresting Democratic Lawmakers

AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 08: Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference at the Texas State Capitol in Austin, Texas on June 8, 2021. Abbott signed Senate bills 2 and 3 into law to reform the Electric Reliability Council of Texas and weatherize and improve the reliability of the state's power grid. The bill signing comes months after a disastrous February winter storm that created widespread power outages and left dozens of Texans dead. (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)
AUSTIN, TX - JUNE 08: Texas Governor Greg Abbott speaks during a press conference (Photo by Montinique Monroe/Getty Images)
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August 9, 2021 2:42 p.m.

A Texas judge has granted temporary reprieve to Democratic lawmakers who fled the state in an attempt to block Republicans’ tranche of restrictive voting legislation.

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R) and Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan (R) “erroneously interpreted Texas law and legislative rules to permit the detention, confinement, or other restriction of members of the Texas House of Representatives within the state of Texas in response to a call for quorum,” Travis County District Judge Brad Urrutia wrote in the order. 

It was a response to a lawsuit filed by 19 Texas House Democrats who argued that the state’s “power to arrest and incarcerate cannot be used for political purposes.” 

Urrutia’s order specifically bars the Republican leaders from ordering a whole battery of law enforcement — including the Texas rangers and the House sergeant-at-arms — from restricting the lawmakers’ movements within the state.

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The judge also wrote that the Democratic lawmakers will “suffer imminent and irreparable harm by either the loss of liberty or the loss of real and personal property, personal, professional, and political relationships with family, friends, staff, and constituents, and mental anguish of being separated from home.” The risk of detainment back in Texas made some lawmakers wary about returning.

“Angry Republican threats to dispatch troopers to arrest, cuff, shackle, drag in, and cabin duly-elected lawmakers isn’t just meant to chill our speech and impair our ability to represent our districts; it has left our families, friends, and neighbors anxious for our wellbeing and safety,” said Texas Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D) in a statement. 

The relief is temporary, though, and will expire in two weeks without an extension. The judge set a hearing on the Democrats’ request for a temporary injunction for August 20.

Some Texas Democrats signed off on a separate lawsuit in federal court last Friday, though multiple lawmakers said that their names were signed to the document without their consent. 

In July, 57 Texas House Democrats fled the state for Washington D.C., using what little power they have in the Republican trifecta state to deprive the chamber of the quorum needed to pass the restrictive laws. 

They used the same gambit on a smaller scale on the last day of the regular legislative session in May, slowly trickling out of the chamber as midnight loomed, ultimately breaking quorum and running out the clock. An incensed Abbott said that he’d call a special session to get the legislation passed.

That session ended last Friday; Abbott then called a second one, which began Saturday.

“With a second special session beginning tomorrow, the Texas House remains committed to fulfilling its responsibilities as soon [as] our Democratic colleagues return from Washington or from their vacations abroad,” Phelan snarked in a statement, referring to two Texas Democrats who reportedly decamped to Portugal rather than lobbying D.C. lawmakers to pass federal voting safeguards. 

For now, 26 Texas Democrats have committed to staying in D.C. to continue pressing for federal voting rights legislation. They simply don’t have the numbers to vote down the Texas bills, should they return.

The bills in question would ban 24-hour and drive-through voting, embolden and empower partisan poll watchers and up the penalties for election workers who do not comply with regulations, prohibit the distribution of unsolicited mail-in ballot applications by elections officials, and institute new ID requirements for mail-in ballots, among other things. The Texas effort is part of a nationwide movement from state-level Republicans to react to 2020 losses by making it more difficult to vote.

Texas Democrats have pointed to the Senate’s quiet effort to set up another, albeit narrower, voting rights push as proof that their lobbying is working.

“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,” they said.

Read the judge’s order here:

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