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Judge blocks arrests of Texas Dems who refuse to return to Capitol

By James Barragan, The Texas Tribune
Judge blocks arrests of Texas Dems who refuse to return to Capitol
Vice President Kamala Harris meets with Texas House Democrats in Washington, D.C. on July 13 after they had fled Austin to forestall passage there of a law that would put new voting restrictions in place. File photo by Oliver Contreras/UPI | License Photo

Aug. 9 (UPI) -- A Texas judge on Monday issued an order blocking the arrest of House Democrats who broke quorum by leaving the state, paving the way for those who remain outside of Texas to return home without threat of apprehension.

State District Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat, granted the temporary restraining order late Sunday night restricting Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan from "detaining, confining or otherwise restricting" the free movement of House Democrats within the state or issuing any warrants ordering their confinement.

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The order expires in 14 days unless extended by Urrutia. The Travis County court will hear arguments on a temporary injunction on Aug. 20, and Abbott and Phelan must show why a temporary injunction should not be filed against them.

Last month, more than 50 House Democrats decamped to Washington, D.C., during a 30-day specially called legislative session to block the passage of an elections bill they said would restrict voting access.

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The remaining members in the chamber, mostly Republicans, voted to authorize a "call of the House" under which all entrances into the chamber can be locked and lawmakers are not permitted to leave without permission from the speaker.

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They also asked the chamber's sergeant-at-arms and other law enforcement officers to bring the missing lawmakers back "under warrant of arrest if necessary."

Abbott had called for the arrest of the Democratic lawmakers as soon as they returned to the state, and Phelan signed a civil warrant for Rep. Philip Cortez after he returned to Austin from Washington in July only to leave the state capitol again a few days later.

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The petition for the restraining order appears to be preemptive in nature, as the House has not yet voted to renew a call of the House in the second special session, which began Saturday.

"[T]he Speaker thinks he can wave his hand and have his political opponents rounded up and arrested. We're watching a major political party backslide in real time from fair representation, the rule of law, and democracy itself," said Dallas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Enrique Marquez, a Phelan spokesman, said in a statement: "Any legal filing that seeks to undermine the Texas Legislature and the Texas Constitution will be met with a swift response, and we are confident that the recent challenges made by a dwindling number of House Democrats to subvert the authority of the legislative branch will be overturned."

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"The ruling by the Travis County judge is contrary to the Texas Constitution and violates the separation of powers between the different branches of government," said Renae Eze, an Abbott spokeswoman. "We are confident that this overstep will be overturned. Texas Democrats need to stop the charades and get back to work."

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 19 House Democrats by attorneys Samuel E. Bassett, Jeremy Monthy and Megan Rue.

"No matter what the Governor or Speaker have said, it is a fundamental principle in this country that no one has the power to arrest their political opponents. That is why this action had to be filed," Bassett said in a statement.

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