Texas Democrats win lawsuit against Gov. Abbott

GOP leaders threatened to arrest protesting Texas Democrats on civil warrants to force them back to Austin

Published August 9, 2021 6:27PM (EDT)

Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)
Texas Governor Greg Abbott (Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

This article originally appeared on The Texas Tribune.

The Texas Tribune is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Twenty-two Texas House Democrats sued some of the state's top Republican leaders in federal court in Austin late Friday, alleging that GOP officials' efforts to bring them home for a special legislative session infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The lawsuit was filed on the final day of the first special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott — and on the eve of a second specially called legislative session — and names as defendants Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and State Rep. James White.

Abbott has called for the arrest of the more than 50 House Democrats who fled the state last month for Washington, D.C., to block the passage of an elections bill they said would restrict voting rights in the state. Their departure left the House without a quorum, the number of present members needed to pass bills, stalling the chamber's operations. Phelan put the chamber under a "call" in an effort to regain quorum and signed a civil warrant for state Rep. Philip Cortez, D-San Antonio, after he returned to the Texas House only to depart for the nation's capital again a few days later.

It's unclear why White was listed as a defendant. White said Friday night he did not know he'd been sued or why he was named as a defendant. The lawsuit also did not use Phelan's legal name, which is Matthew McDade Phelan.

Abbott and Phelan did not immediately have a statement on the lawsuit.

The Democrats' attorney, Craig Anthony Washington, is a former Democratic lawmaker who is practicing law under a probationally suspended license, according to the State Bar of Texas.

The lawsuit alleges that some Democrats are being targeted because of their race and skin color, but then provides no evidence.

It also claims the three Republican lawmakers acted together under the "color of law" to cause the harm alleged in the suit, but then points no specific harmful actions other than "public statements." The lawsuit also says some individual plaintiffs experienced "retaliatory attacks, threats and attempts at coercion relating to the exercise of their First Amendment rights" but again does not provide specifics.

The plaintiffs listed in the case are state Reps. Senfronia ThompsonTrey Martinez FischerGene WuVikki GoodwinRon ReynoldsEddie RodriguezJon RosenthalJasmine CrockettMary Ann Perez, Alma AllenChristina MoralesNicole CollierCelia IsraelAna-Maria RamosBarbara Gervin-HawkinsTerry MezaDonna HowardJarvis JohnsonRay LopezShawn ThierryElizabeth Campos and Gina Hinojosa.

But Saturday morning, Thierry issued a statement saying she had not asked to have the suit filed in her name.

"I did not request, review or authorize the filing," she said.

Collier issued a similar statement about an hour later.

Washington declined comment.

The lawsuit alleges that the three Republican lawmakers have attempted "by public statements and otherwise, to attempt to deny, coerce, threaten, intimidate, and prevent" the Democrats and their constituents from voting in all elections, petitioning the government for redress of grievances, speaking publicly about their constitutional rights, exercising their right of association and their right to not being arrested without probable cause. The Democrats allege that in acting together, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive them of their constitutional rights.

Because of the defendants' actions, the complaint alleges, the plaintiffs have been "deprived of liberty for substantial periods of time, suffered much anxiety and distress over separation from their families, and much discomfort and embarrassment." They also have suffered damages to their reputations and have had to spend time traveling to Washington to lobby Congress to pass laws that would protect voting rights.

The complaint then claims $5 in actual damages and $10 in punitive damages.

Disclosure: The State Bar of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

By James Barragán

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