AUSTIN — Filings were due Friday in the state Office of the Attorney General relating to whether or not a House speaker can be removed by the same members who put him or her into office.
The 80th Legislature started off with a speaker’s race - and ended in controversy when incumbent Speaker Tom Craddick, R-Midland, fended off numerous attempts that sought his removal during the session’s waning days.
The floor fight that ensued saw the resignation of the House parliamentarians, the installation of two Craddick allies as their replacements, numerous questions asked of the chair and repeated refusals by same to recognize any member wanting to make a motion to vacate the chair.
In a press release, Craddick’s office said he was within his rights in refusing to recognize the members.
“The rules that govern the proceedings of the Texas House of Representatives do not authorize a ‘motion to vacate the chair’ or any similar motion,” the release reads, noting Craddick declined to recognize members for that purpose.
“It has been common practice for speakers, long predating the current speaker, to decline to recognize members, including for purposes for which the rules specifically contemplate recognition, let alone one that the rules don’t allow,” the release reads.
The press release asserts Craddick would have prevailed if a vote would have occurred but says he “acted properly by not recognizing such a motion.”
“His rulings were correct under the House Rules, the Texas Constitution, and they were consistent with the traditions of the Texas House,” the release reads. “Most importantly, he served the citizens of this state by successfully fulfilling his obligation to see to it that the House finished its work on their behalf.”
After the session’s end, two representatives, Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, and Byron Cook, R-Corsicana, filed a request with Attorney General Greg Abbott, seeking an opinion on what some have described as a potential constitutional crisis.
In turn, Abbott extended an invitation for interested parties to file briefs with his office, receiving among others a 42-page brief from Craddick; a 29-page brief from state Rep. Brian McCall, R-Plano, and several other representatives; and a 10-page brief from state Rep. Jim Pitts, R-Waxahachie.
McCall and Pitts both had launched speaker candidacies prior to the start of the session, citing Craddick’s heavy-handed and threatening management tactics as the reason for seeking a change. McCall withdrew from the race before the session started to lend his support to Pitts, with Pitts withdrawing his candidacy the first day of the session after a key procedural vote indicated an 80-68 vote in favor of Craddick.
Undercurrents of unrest continued throughout the session however, surfacing again at its end and centering on a key question: Is the power of the speaker absolute?
In his call for briefs, Abbott asked for input along four areas:
the question of whether the speaker is a legislative officer or a state officer per the constitution the effect of impeachment on membership in the House the power of the House to select a new speaker after the session has commenced absolute power of the speaker
In his response, Pitts argues, “In short, there is simply no legal authority to support the notion that person who is selected as speaker by the House when it first assembles is entitled to remain in that position for two years. In fact, there are numerous authorities that stand for the opposite proposition.”
Among others, Pitts cites Mason’s Manual, Section 126, which reads, “Complaint of the conduct of the presiding officer should be presented directly for action by the House, in which case the presiding officer should vacate the chair and call a member to preside until the matter is settled.”
Relating to the House Rules adopted at the start of the session, Pitts argues, “None of these provisions preclude the House from selecting a new presiding officer if the office of speaker is declared vacant. Moreover, none of these provisions support the contention that the House may not create a vacancy in the office of speaker by a simple majority vote.
“In other words, inherent in the right to select a presiding officer is the right of the body to remove that presiding officer and the framers of the Texas Constitution and subsequent legislatures have declined to reject longstanding parliamentary law which prescribes the resolution of these issues by the membership,” Pitts’s brief reads.
Relating to the absolute power issue, Pitts argues, “ … the view that such a power is inherent in the speakership is extreme and not supported by law or precedent.”
Pitts, who is in his eighth term of office as representative for Ellis and Hill counties, asserts his and others’ arguments “underscore that neither the House Rules, House precedent, the Texas Constitution nor parliamentary law were ever intended to create a divine speakership that undermines the power of the members to remove their presiding officer.
“Any other view would subject the House that elected that speaker to an outright abuse of discretion, create an entitlement to the office and shield that presiding officer from the ultimate form of accountability,” Pitts argues in his brief, adding, “I simply do not believe that the people of Texas sent their representatives to the Texas House to represent their districts and conduct the state’s business while having their interests subjected to the ‘caprice or passion’ of the speaker.”
According to Abbott’s initial letter to Keffer and Cook, a response from the AG’s office has a due date of Dec. 15.
“We will respond by that date or before if possible,” the letter reads.
Highlights of brief filed by Rep. Pitts:
Among the citations in state Rep. Jim Pitts’ brief to Attorney General Greg Abbott as to whether an incumbent speaker of the House can be removed by the members who elected him:
Under ordinary conditions, the authority of the presiding officer is derived wholly from the body itself. The presiding officer is the servant of the body to declare its will and obey its commands. - Mason’s Section 578. Cushing’s Legislative Assemblies, Section 294. A speaker may be removed at the will of the House and a speaker pro tempore appointed. - Jefferson’s Manual, 2 Grey, 186. 5 Grey, 134. Complaint of the conduct of the presiding officer should be presented directly for action by the House, in which case the presiding officer should vacate the chair and call a member to preside until the matter is settled. - Mason’s Manual, Section 126. A presiding officer who has been elected by the House may be removed by the House upon a majority vote of all the members elected and a new presiding officer pro tempore elected and qualified. - Mason’s Manual 581 When there is no fixed term of office, an officer holds office at the pleasure of the organization or until a successor is elected and qualified. Mason’s Manual 582. A proposition to elect a speaker is in order at any time and presents a question of the highest privilege. Canon’s House Precedent VIII, 3383. A chairman does not sit here to expound rules according to his own arbitrary views. A just deference for the opinions of his fellows should constrain him to give precedent its proper influence; and until the House shall reverse them, to give them all the consideration which is due to cases heretofore settled by a solemn decision of the House. - Hinds Congressional Precedents, Volume II, 1317.
Also noted by Pitts in his brief: “Our speaker’s position - that the chair’s power of recognition is absolute and unappealable - is curious given the role that he played as one of the ‘insurgents’ (or ‘Dirty Thirty’) who challenged the abuse of power by Speaker Gus Mutscher during the Sharpstown scandal, and one wonders whether Speaker Craddick as a member back then would have considered the legal position that he so fervently articulates today as rational or reasonable.”
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