The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.
Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.
Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.
Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.
If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.
“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”
And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.
“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”
And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.
“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”
Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.
“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”
It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.
“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.
If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.
“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”
The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.
“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”
Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.
Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.
Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.
“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.
If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.
“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”
I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.