Compelling the Attendance of Absent Members

States are different based first on the unique state constitution of each state, followed by the statutes (laws) of each state. When observing activities in state legislative chambers, it can also be helpful to consider that the rules of one chamber can differ from the rules of another. What is possible in one chamber might not be possible in the other, especially when that other chamber is in a different state.

In a few states, approximately five, it is possible for the members of the Minority caucus to shut down the process by denying quorum to the Majority caucus, simply by refusing to appear in the chamber. That is not possible in the Colorado House and Senate, where the quorum requirement is based on a simple majority of members elected to a chamber.

Beyond that simple math, there is another important factor that determines whether a minority number of members elected to a given chamber can control the operations of that chamber. That factor or legislative tool is referred to as a “Call”.

Article V, Section 11 of the Colorado Constitution defines the Quorum Requirement of the state House and Senate as, “A majority of each house shall constitute a quorum,…”, which means a simple majority (the next whole number greater than half) of those members. That Section then goes on to state, “…but a smaller number may adjourn from day to day, and compel the attendance of absent members.” That last part refers to issuing a “Call” of that chamber, which means that members who are not present are called back to the chamber and, if necessary, can be returned to that chamber.

From there, one might consult the Rules of the Colorado House and Senate, which are available here. House Rule 19 provides that ten members of the House “…may require a call of the House and cause absent members to be sent for,…”. Senate Rule 20  provides that “Any five Senators may demand a call of the Senate, and require absent Senators to be sent for;…”. Both Rules then provide authority to the presiding officer of each chamber to send the sergeant-of-arms of that chamber and, if necessary, his/her assistants, to retrieve those members who are absent. Each of those Rules also states that absent members may be “taken into custody” by the sergeant of arms and returned to that chamber.

Based on press reports, it seems that members of some other state legislative chambers might be able to refuse to return to their respective chamber. However, one might question if such press reports fully consider whether a “call” could be issued and/or a member could be taken into custody and returned to that chamber. Remember: states are different. When observing the Colorado House and Senate, keep in mind that both of those options are available in our state legislature.

Finally, it can be helpful to consider whether one or more members might attempt to force the presiding officer of their chamber to have them taken into custody and returned to that chamber. Such action might be viewed as a demonstration of principle or determination. However, such an effort could easily backfire because a presiding officer is not required to take those actions. Rather, the presiding officer could simply mark a member(s) Absent and then proceed without them.

That is an important consideration to make here in Colorado because the one actual power that the people of each state House and Senate district delegate to their respective state Representative and Senator is the power to vote “Yes” or “No” on their behalf. Being counted “Absent” would fail that one responsibility. Thus, in Colorado, based on our simple majority quorum requirement, the power of a call, and the authority of each presiding officer, members are more likely to be in the chamber to express their positions and to have their votes recorded.

Again, states are different. What might have worked in another state legislature may not work here. Why? Because, since statehood in 1876, that’s how the people of Colorado wanted it to work.

** The information provided herein is intended for general educational purposes only and is not legal advice. If you have questions of a legal nature, please consult with an attorney.

** Civics Corner content was written with the help of former Senate Majority Leader Chris Holbert.

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