AUSTIN — As the Texas Legislature convenes to make important decisions for citizens across the state, the Texas attorney general has issued a statement clarifying that citizens should have access to their state government during the critical session.
On Tuesday, Attorney General Ken Paxton released an opinion regarding the opening of the state Capitol and protocols for legislators.
“Article III, section 16 of the Texas Constitution requires that sessions of each House be open, except when the Senate is in executive session. Thus, when the Legislature meets for session in the Capitol, it must be open and accessible to the public,” Paxton wrote. “The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution prohibits laws that abridge the freedom of speech or the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Paxton’s statement comes as a response to an inquiry from State Rep. Briscoe Cain (R–Deer Park) and broader questions surrounding the Capitol opening. The state government had closed the building to the public since March, only reopening it earlier this month with restrictions.
Leaders in the Republican Party of Texas passed a resolution in December demanding the Capitol reopen without restriction.
Paxton explained that neither the governor nor the Legislature could use any disaster provisions in this circumstance to justify restricting or closing the Capitol.
“[B]ecause [of] the nature of the disaster, this section does not apply to the current COVID-19 emergency … the constitutional mandate that the legislative session be ‘open’ supersedes any statutory emergency authority that may otherwise apply to the Capitol,” Paxton said.
He added that while the House and Senate can “determine the rules of its own proceedings,” such as the logistical order of a meeting, they are not allowed to make rules that violate citizens’ rights.
“The House and Senate must determine procedures, consistent with the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, for providing public access, conducting public testimony, debate, and voting on legislation during the legislative session.”
Paxton also addressed whether legislators have to be physically present in the legislative chambers to vote.
“The means to vote remotely have existed throughout the lifespan of the Texas Constitution, including by phone, mail, or messenger. Nonetheless, the Texas Constitution has never included language permitting the use of such tools for voting,” Paxton said.
“Just as the Texas Constitution provided no expectation that voting by phone would be permissible in 1918, so too does the Constitution provide no basis for remote voting by teleconference in 2021,” he added.
With constitutional protections for Capitol access confirmed, citizens are encouraged to contact their state representatives about issues and desired actions. The state Legislature began its session today.