With Democrats in the Texas House having now fled to Washington, D.C., for more than two weeks in their attempt to halt progress on election integrity legislation and other items, one Republican lawmaker is seeking an opinion from the state’s top lawyer on whether their seats can be declared vacant.
State Rep. James White (R–Hillister), who serves as the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security and Public Safety, sent the letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday, in response to what he referred to as a “thoughtful inquiry” from one of his East Texas constituents.
— Rep. James White (@James_E_White) July 27, 2021
For the House to conduct business, a quorum of two-thirds of the chamber’s members (100 out of 150) is required to be present. A 30-day special session began on July 8 to address issues like omnibus election integrity legislation, which the Texas House failed to pass during the regular session. Just a few days in, however, more than 50 Democrat House members left, leaving the House unable to consider legislation for the past two weeks.
Those Democrats have not given any indication of when they plan to return, leading White to ask the following question of Paxton:
With this in mind, does our constitution or state statutes expressly allow for the vacating of legislative seats or seeking a determination if legislators have vacated their legislative seats when members deliberately deny the constitutional quroum [sic] requirement, announce intentions to leave and remain outside the State […] in order to prevent the presiding officer from compelling attendance, and have taken the oath of office?
Were the seats to be vacated, special elections would be called to replace the absent members.
Though some attorney general opinions take months to gather, White asked for an “expedited response” given the time frame, adding, “[I]n times such as this we need the cooling saucer of reasoned and constitutional deliberation and not the cauldron of ideological fervor.”
Currently, the Texas House and Gov. Greg Abbott have done little to compel Democrat lawmakers to return.
Although the House is currently under a “call of the House,” during which members are to be compelled to return to the chamber and those that are in the chamber can not leave, House Speaker Dade Phelan has given permission slips to Democrats and Republicans alike. This led Democrat State Rep. Philip Cortez (San Antonio) to travel back and forth between Austin and Washington, D.C., prompting Phelan to issue a civil arrest warrant to bring him back to the Capitol.
Though Abbott promised on television appearances that Democrat lawmakers would be arrested and brought to the state Capitol, no other arrest warrants have yet been issued for the other quorum-busting Democrats.
Additionally, Phelan has refused to strip Democrats from the committee chairmanship positions he placed them in earlier this year, with the sole exception of stripping State Rep. Joe Moody (D–El Paso) of his speaker pro tempore title.
With the current special session more than halfway over and no clear end in sight, it remains to be seen which tools Republicans will be willing to use to bring their Democrat colleagues back.