AUSTIN - Attorney General Greg Abbott has agreed with House Speaker Tom Craddick’s argument that he’s a state officer subject to removal from office by impeachment, but he refused to wade into the debate over House rules.

Abbott said impeachment is not the only way to remove a speaker. He issued his opinion late Friday in a clash stemming from Craddick’s declaration of “absolute authority” to deflect attempts to unseat him during the tense final days of this year’s legislative session.

Craddick, a Republican from Midland, could face another challenge to his leadership when the Legislature convenes again in January 2009.

State Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie, who challenged Craddick for the speaker’s chair at the start of the 80th legislative session, issued the following statement after reviewing the opinion.

“I respect the attorney general’s decision to leave the business of interpreting legislative rules of procedure to the Legislative branch and, in this case, the House of Representatives,” Pitts said. “However, I continue to believe it should be up to the members of the Texas House to decide how the election and removal of a speaker should be handled. Many of the issues raised last session remain valid and I feel confident the members of the House will find a consensus on them next session.”

Pitts’ challenge to Craddick came up short after he and his supporters posted 68 votes to Craddick supporters’ 80 votes on a key procedural issue. Pitts - who had challenged Craddick’s authoritarian manner and strong-arm handling of the House - withdrew his challenge shortly thereafter, saying he wouldn’t put his supporters in further harm’s way.

Abbott, also a Republican, provided the opinion at the behest of two GOP lawmakers who argued that Craddick exceeded his legal power when he refused to recognize lawmakers for a parliamentary maneuver that would have led to a vote of the 150-member chamber on whether to oust him last May.

“In football terms, the attorney general’s advisory opinion has punted this issue to the courts and has fumbled in its attempted summary,” state Reps. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, said in a joint statement. “Craddick is elected from his Midland district, which is only 1/150th of the people of Texas. Based on this, we strongly disagree with the unprecedented contention that the office of speaker is a statewide officer.

“Furthermore, it is unprecedented to contend that the House speaker is subject to removal by a vote of the Texas Senate,” the two representatives said. “Sadly, the attorney general’s advisory opinion only reaffirms the adage: ‘Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Tom Craddick’s declaration of ‘absolute authority’ is an abuse of power and undermines the basic premise of democracy in Texas government. We firmly believe Craddick’s application of ‘absolute authority’ has violated constitutional rights of members of the legislature and the constituents they serve.

Texas House Democratic Leader Jim Dunnam said he wasn’t surprised by Abbott’s ruling and pointed to ties between the attorney general and the speaker.

“From the start, many other Texans and I expressed concern that the financial ties between Abbott and Craddick raise serious doubts about the fairness and independence of the opinion process,” Dunnam said in a statement issued after the opinion’s release. “They are wed at the hip by the same donors and the public record makes that clear.”

Dunnam’s statement notes that Ethics Commission reports indicate Abbott and Craddick have taken more than $13.6 million in combined contributions from sources that gave $2,500 or more to each man.

“Unfortunately, Texas’ current Republican leadership puts allegiance to one another over the fundamentals of democracy,” Dunnam said. “The result is what anyone would expect from the legacy of Tom DeLay politics.

“Beneath the tortured legal reasoning is this fundamental fact: Greg Abbott threw a lifeline to his ally Tom Craddick. Craddick’s lawyers concocted the notion that the speaker serves a fixed two-year term and the speaker that House members elect cannot be removed without Senate permission - what a joke,” the Waco Democrat said. “Now, his political partner Greg Abbott has backed up that ridiculous claim. They hope this AG opinion will prevent any honest debate of the dictatorial and undemocratic methods we have come to expect. In that hope, they are wrong.

“The speaker welcomes the attorney general’s opinion and his acknowledgment that the rules of the House, as well as the interpretation of those rules, are matters to be determined solely by the members of the House,” Craddick spokesman Alexis DeLee said in a written statement. “The attorney general’s opinion affirms the speaker’s position on all issues, including that the speaker is an officer of the state, who serves a two-year term of office.”

Impeachment, which would require a majority vote of the Senate, would not necessarily mean removal from office, nor is it the only way to remove a speaker from office, Abbott said.

Abbott would not answer questions about the House rules and parliamentary procedure.

“This office will adhere to the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine and long-standing precedent in declining to answer questions requiring an interpretation of Senate and House rules or questions regarding legislative parliamentary decisions,” he said in a summary of the opinion.

Craddick argued that it’s within his power to recognize or not recognize lawmakers for House business. But his opponents said the law allows him to only recognize the order in which they will be recognized.

Craddick kept his seat through the May uprising, but many expect repercussions during the legislative primary races next spring. His critics say his assertion of absolute power during the imbroglio is an example of their gripe — an unyielding leader. While opinions by the attorney general are advisory, they carry the weight of law until they are overruled by legislation or a court.

Keffer has filed his candidacy to replace Craddick when his current term expires with the start of the next legislative session in 2009. Two House parliamentarians stepped down when Craddick did not heed their opinions.

“No person with a common sense understanding of the fundamentals in our country, much less a trained lawyer, can condone Abbott’s opinion that Craddick should have the absolute power of a Tito, Mussolini or Stalin,” Dunnam said.

“If Greg Abbott really believes that, then we need a new attorney general.

“Tom Craddick’s refusal to let members vote on his removal was the ultimate in political cowardice. Abbott’s silence regarding Craddick’s refusal to recognize members for that debate shows an equal lack of spine,” Dunnam said. “As many work to ensure the rights of free men and women are available around the world, and as Texans are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan right now for those rights, it is regrettable that those same rights are absent in the Texas House, and that Greg Abbott condones that.

“The ruling means one thing: Texans must vote for representatives who will elect new leadership for the Texas House in January 2009,” Dunnam said.

Craddick was elected speaker in 2003.

“Speaker Craddick commends Gen. Abbott and his office for an excellent analysis of these important legal issues,” DeLee said. “The speaker believes the analysis will be of tremendous assistance to the House of Representatives well into the future.”

The issue of whether or not the speaker has “absolute power” isn’t over.

“We firmly believe our state constitution did not create the Texas House speaker post as a dictatorial position,” Keffer and Cook said. “It is our understanding of the state constitution that the speaker is a legislative post constructed to serve the members of the Texas House of Representatives as a presiding officer over its operation. Because of the attorney general’s own admission of a lack of clarity by past court cases, it now appears that the integrity of Texas government is still at a critical crossroads.”

“Enough is enough,” Keffer and Cook said. “The people of Texas need to let their local representatives know that they’ve had enough of Tom Craddick’s one-man dictatorship.”

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Daily Light Managing Editor JoAnn Livingston contributed to this report.

House Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, submitted the following statement for inclusion in the House Journal on May 26, after denying repeated requests to hear a motion to vacate the chair.

Craddick’s journal entry is as follows:

The office of Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives is the only constitutionally-mandated officer of the House by virtue of Article 3, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution. All other officers of the House, including committee chairs, are chosen by rule. The Speaker occupies a unique position in this state as an officeholder in his capacity as a state representative from a particular district of this state and also as the constitutional officeholder of the position of Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

The Texas Constitution speaks to the exclusive grounds for the removal of officeholders. Article 16, Section 5 is applicable to all officeholders and is automatic upon conviction for bribery. Article 3, Section 11 is specific to the legislature, and authorizes each house of the legislature to expel members for offenses upon a two-thirds vote. Article 3, Section 8 vests procedural authority upon each house to judge election contests and qualifications to hold office as a state legislator.

Furthermore, a unique provision of the Texas Constitution, Article 15, Section 7, mandates that the legislature can only provide for the trial and removal from office of any officer of this State by enactment of a law if a mode for a state officer's removal has not otherwise been specifically provided for in the Texas Constitution.

This unambiguous provision of the Texas Constitution overrides any supposed merit to the suggestion that a process to remove an officer of this state can be created by one house of the legislature during a legislative session and used to remove that officer from office. Because Article 15, Section 7 specifically forbids the result that Representatives Smith, Hill, and Dunnam seek to accomplish by motion, their reliance on precedent from sources outside of the Rules of this House, the Texas Constitution and the laws of this state is misplaced and violates the specific substantive provisions and procedural guarantees of the Texas Constitution.

Additionally, and independent of the foregoing, the House Rules do not have a provision for members to remove a Speaker during mid-session for the reason that Article 3, Section 9 of the Texas Constitution governs the timing and authority for the election of the Speaker. A motion to amend the rules to provide for electing a Speaker by a new and different method from that set out in the Texas Constitution is, in essence, an attempt to amend the Texas Constitution by the passage of a motion in one house. Amendments to the Texas Constitution can only come about by the passage by two-thirds vote in both houses of the proposed amendment which must then receive voter approval in an election called for that purpose.

Given that the motion being proposed is not authorized by law, and furthermore conflicts with applicable provisions of the Texas Constitution, the effect of passage of such a motion would be invalid. As a matter of public policy, for a Speaker to recognize a member for such a motion would not only be disruptive of the legitimate business on behalf of the citizens of this state that the House should instead be conducting, but it also would undermine the institution of the office of the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives.

Therefore, pursuant to my authority under Rule 5, Section 24 of the House Rules, I denied the requests to be recognized for the motion.