On Monday, Representatives Briscoe Cain (R-Deer Park) and Bryan Slaton (R-Royse City) each filed resolutions seeking impeachment of Judge Chris Morton of the 230th District Court in Harris County and Judge Brad Urrutia of the 450th District Court in Travis County.
Both resolutions cite the actions of the respective judges in blocking the arrest of Democrats who refused to attend the House regular and special sessions.
“Judge Brad Urrutia violated the separation of powers of the Texas Constitution when he interfered in the business of the Texas House,” said Slaton in a statement to The Texan.
“The Constitution makes clear that the House has the power to compel the attendance of absent members. Judge Urrutia should be held accountable, just as the quorum-breaking democrats should be held accountable.”
The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) agreed with Slaton’s assessment when it wrote that “the district court very clearly abused its discretion by issuing the [temporary restraining order].”
Slaton’s House Resolution (HR) 133 calls for Urrutia to be suspended and for the governor to make a provisional appointment during impeachment proceedings.
Cain’s HR 132 states that Morton “exceeded his jurisdiction” and “violated separation of powers, entertained political questions, disregarded explicit constitutional authority, and demonstrated conduct unbecoming a judge by allowing partisan interests to make rulings inconsistent with governing law in relation to writs of habeas corpus filed by multiple state representatives.”
According to the Texas Constitution, the House may conduct impeachment proceedings either during regular or special sessions, and under some conditions when the legislature is not in session. Judges may be impeached for “wilful [sic] neglect of duty, incompetency, habitual drunkenness, oppression in office, or other reasonable cause[.]”
In the final days of the regular session of the legislature, nearly 60 House Democrats absconded Austin for Washington, D.C. and other locales to deny the House a necessary quorum. The group remained absent throughout the first special session and into the second special session.
During those sessions, remaining House members voted for a “call of the House,” which then opened the door for Speaker Dade Phelan (R-Beaumont) to take steps to compel members to attend, including by issuing civil arrest warrants.
During the first special session Phelan only issued one civil arrest warrant for Rep. Phillip Cortez (D-San Antonio), but after the launch of the second special session a group of 19 Democrat House members sought intervention from the courts to block Phelan or Governor Abbott from issuing any further warrants.
On August 8, Urrutia signed a temporary restraining order against Abbott and Phelan, saying the two had “erroneously interpreted Texas law and legislative rules to permit the detention, confinement, or other restriction of members of the Texas House of Representatives,” but SCOTX swiftly overruled the lower court judge, and Phelan proceeded to issue arrest warrants for 52 absent Democrats.
The following day Morton signed a writ blocking the arrest or attempts to compel House attendance for Rep. Gene Wu (D-Houston) and other Democrats, prompting another stay from the state’s highest court.
On August 17, SCOTX ruled that the House could legally compel the attendance of its members by arrest if necessary.
The final SCOTX opinion signed by Justice James D. Blacklock scolded the district court for scheduling related hearings well into the second special session indicating a lower court reluctance to rule before the expiration of the session.
“Whatever one’s view of the politics of the situation, it should be clear that an ex parte proceeding where one side is totally shut out of the process was an improper way to resolve matters of such significance,” wrote Blacklock.
Morton has also come under fire for his court’s frequent release of habitual violent suspects with minimal bail or restrictions, and gubernatorial candidate and former Republican Party Chair Allen West called for the impeachment of Morton and three other judges earlier this month.
The second special session is set to expire this Sunday, September 8, and it appears that both impeachment resolutions will also expire at that time. The House may move to impeach outside of a session however, if the speaker is petitioned in writing by 50 or more members, by proclamation of the governor, or by proclamation in writing signed by a majority of the members.
Cain told The Texan that new resolutions for impeachment would be filed in an expected third special session and that there may be impeachment calls for other judges as well.
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Holly Hansen is a freelance writer living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.