Leal-Hudson filed to run for Harris County’s 313th Juvenile Court with the county’s Republican party on December 13, 2021, the last day of the filing period. On that day, she submitted her application along with filing fees and 530 voter signatures.
Judicial candidates in counties with populations of more than 1.5 million must collect at least 250 voter signatures before filing. Since there are often signatures that later prove to be invalid due to duplication or residency in another jurisdiction, candidates typically gather far more than necessary and frequently hold signing events or attend large functions at which candidates can obtain multiple signatures.
Sometime after Leal-Hudson filed, another Republican primary candidate for the 313th court, Julie Ketterman, requested that Harris County Republican Party (HCRP) Chair Cindy Siegel disqualify Leal-Hudson claiming the collected signatures were not valid. When Siegel refused, Ketterman filed a lawsuit against HCRP and Siegel alleging that some of Leal-Hudson’s signatures were not collected in accordance with requirements under Texas Election Code.
Although typically rules of procedure require 45 days’ notice of a first trial setting in a civil case, the trial court under Judge Beau Miller of the 190th Civil Court set a jury trial to begin on February 1, 2022. Leal-Hudson’s attorney objected to the accelerated timeline, but Miller said if the parties insisted on waiting for the usual 45 days he would enjoin Leal-Hudson from campaigning during the interim.
Some previous lawsuits over the validity of signatures have focused on falsified signatures or non-existent persons. However, the Ketterman v HCRP trial centered on 10 of the 530 voter signatures submitted, alleging that Leal-Hudson’s husband, rather than Leal-Hudson herself, had read aloud the required disclosure and had witnessed the signatures although Leal-Hudson had signed the accompanying affidavit.
Persons other than the candidate may legally collect the voter signatures, but that person must read aloud the disclosure, witness the signatures, and then sign the required affidavit.
The 10 signatures in question were among 103 collected before and after a Sunday morning worship service that took place at Leal-Hudson’s church in December.
Witnesses testified that both Leal-Hudson and her husband were present when the signatures were collected and that as signers each fully understood they were supporting Leal-Hudson’s quest to run for office. The jury, however, found those 10 signatures were invalid due to confusion about whether the husband or wife signed the related affidavit, and thus constituted “fraud.”
During the course of the jury trial, Miller did not permit Siegel to testify about the process or requirements for collecting voter signatures. He also did not allow entry of Ketterman’s submitted signatures for comparison.
After the jury’s verdict, on February 4, Miller ordered Siegel to disqualify Leal-Hudson from office and enjoined Siegel from canvassing and counting votes for Leal-Hudson.
With early voting for the 2022 primary only 10 days away and overseas mail ballots already sent out, attorneys for HCRP and Leal-Hudson appealed directly to the Supreme Court of Texas in an emergency petition, arguing that even if all of the 103 signatures collected at the church signing event were ruled invalid, Leal-Hudson still had more than the required number of signatures and that there is nothing in Texas Election Code that would allow for disqualification of the candidate.
Last Thursday, the state’s highest court granted a stay of Miller’s decision, thus allowing HCRP to proceed with holding the primary election and Leal-Hudson to continue to campaign for office while the case remains pending.
In a sound rejection of Miller’s orders, the Supreme Court of Texas ordered that Leal-Hudson remain on the ballot “without regard to the district court’s final judgment which shall have no effect pending further order of this Court.”
Ketterman told The Texan she did not understand why the party would take Leal-Hudson’s side in the case.
“A jury of her peers found fraud,” said Ketterman. “Do you really want someone who’s had a finding of fraud by a jury making decisions for your family and your children?”
Ketterman has been endorsed by the United Republicans of Harris County and the Mexican American Bar Association of Texas, while Leal-Hudson has support from the Conservative Coalition of Harris County, Houston Region Business Coalition, Kingwood Tea Party, and Houston Police Officers’ Union.
Attorney for HCRP Steve Mitby told The Texan that the party had no quarrel with Judge Miller saying, “I think he was trying his very best to be fair, but obviously the Supreme Court saw it differently.”
“We think that ultimately Ketterman’s challenge has no merit.”
“I’m representing the Republican Party, I’m not taking sides in the dispute between Rachel Leal-Hudson and Julie Ketterman,” said Mitby. “Our belief is that they should both be on the ballot and that voters should make the decision between the two of them.”
In their motion before the Supreme Court of Texas, Mitby and Leal-Hudson’s attorney assert that none of the signatures submitted are fraudulent and note that they will continue to appeal the case.
Should Ketterman’s case ultimately succeed, it could prompt multiple lawsuits from judicial candidates and parties over the process of signature collection and verification.
The winner of the Republican primary will face incumbent Democrat Judge Natalia Oakes in the November 2022 general election.
Editor’s note: The piece has been updated to more clearly specify how signatures were collected, and with additional context about the process.
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Holly Hansen is a regional reporter for The Texan living in Harris County. Her former column, “All In Perspective” ran in The Georgetown Advocate, Jarrell Star Ledger, and The Hill Country News, and she has contributed to a variety of Texas digital media outlets. She graduated summa cum laude from the University of Central Florida with a degree in History, and in addition to writing about politics and policy, also writes about faith and culture.