Gov. Greg Abbott pledged to arrest Texas Democrats upon their return. Can he do that?

Brandon Mulder
Austin American-Statesman

Twenty-four hours after Democratic lawmakers fled to Washington, D.C., the remaining members of the Texas House passed a motion ordering authorities to track down their absent colleagues. 

The motion, known as a Motion for Call of the House, directed the House's sergeant-at-arms to dispatch state police to find and return the missing members, using the power of arrest if necessary.

"Members, the sergeant-at-arms and the officers appointed by him are directed to send for all absentees whose attendance is not excused for the purpose of securing and maintaining their attendance — under warrant of arrest, if necessary," House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said from the floor. 

More:Texas House OKs arrests for absent Democrats; Senate takes up GOP elections bill

As long as members remain beyond the reach of Texas police in Washington, they appear safe from forced attendance. But it's unlikely the members can stay outside of Texas forever. And as Gov. Greg Abbott made very clear Monday, state authorities will await their return.

"As soon as they come back to the state of Texas, they will be arrested," Abbott said. "They will be cabined inside the Texas Capitol until they get their job done."

Empty seats are seen in the Texas House chamber Tuesday. Many Texas House Democrats left the state to block sweeping new election laws, with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott threatening them with arrest the moment they return.

What would an arrest of Texas Democratic lawmakers look like?

Details are scarce on exactly what such an arrest would look like or to what lengths law enforcement officers may go to take lawmakers into custody. Texas House Rules don't provide any guidance on this point. The rulebook only says that when the House issues a Motion for Call of the House, all absent members may "be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained."

The sergeant-at-arms issues civil warrants, not criminal — meaning that errant lawmakers aren't charged with a crime for their nonattendance, and thus wouldn't be taken to jail.

More:Texas Democrats descend on US Capitol to lobby lawmakers on voting rights legislation

So what if members, upon returning to Texas, locks themselves away at home and absolutely refuse transportation to the Capitol? What level of force could officers use to make an arrest and return them to the House floor? Would they be placed in handcuffs?

Neither Phelan's office nor the House sergeant-at-arms, Michael Black, have responded to questions about the mechanics of such an arrest.

But a source within the Texas Department of Public Safety said that law enforcement is legally unable to compel lawmakers in violation of House rules to do anything or go anywhere. 

Longtime political consultant and lobbyist Bill Miller compared the situation to students skipping school.

"It's like being a truant at school," Miller said. "You're supposed to be in the classroom, but you're not. Well, I have the power to send someone to find you and bring you back to the classroom. Let's assume you don't want to return to the classroom. What does that truant officer have to do? What can they do? What are they willing to do to bring them back? That's what you have — you have truancy here in the purest sense of the word.

"These officials don't want to be back in the chamber, and if you're going to bring them back, you're probably going to have to resort to something that you're not going to be happy about," Miller said.

Never in Texas history have state police successfully captured quorum-breaking lawmakers. But there have been close calls. 

During the legislative session of 1979, an alliance of liberal senators known as the Killer Bees broke quorum for several days and evaded police by bunkering in a garage in Austin. One state senator, Gene Jones, left the garage to see his granddaughter in Houston, prompting Texas Rangers to search for him. 

"Photo in hand, they knocked on his door. A man who looked a lot like the picture opened the door. The Ranger asked him if he was Jones. He said, yes. They arrested him and took him to Austin. He was Jones all right, but not Gene Jones. They had arrested Gene’s brother, Clayton," recalled then-Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. "When the knock came at the door, the senator had jumped over the back fence and stayed lost for another day."

In 2003, when 11 Democratic Texas senators evaded a special session by hiding in an Albuquerque, N.M., hotel, police officers chased down numerous rumors of lawmakers slipping back into Texas. According to Harold Cook, who worked as a consultant for the Senate Democratic Caucus that year, officers had staked out the home of Sen. Eddie Lucio in Brownsville for several days.

"But I was with him in Albuquerque, N.M., the whole time," Cook said. "He had gone nowhere."

Texas House Speaker Dade Phelan tries to maintain order as the House attempts to get a quorum of members the day after most Democratic members left the state.