Jones is represented by well-known Houston attorney “Downtown” Oliver Brown, who earlier this month filed an anti-Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP) motion to dismiss the election contest filed by Republican Tami Pierce in the race for the 180th District Criminal Court.
Invoking the Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA), Brown claimed the election contest infringed on Jones’ rights to freedom of speech and freedom of association under the Texas constitution.
Retired Judge David Peeples is presiding over contests filed by 21 candidates after Harris County’s 2022 elections were marred by delayed openings, malfunctioning equipment, and a ballot paper shortage that may have impacted at least 121 polling locations on Election Day.
During a Thursday hearing, Peeples also denied a motion from an attorney for Harris County Probate Judge Jason Cox for “special exceptions” that would force Republican candidate Rory Olsen to revise and refile his complaint.
Cox’s attorney Chris Feldman said that while there may be approximately 23,000 Harris County votes in question, Cox had won by more than 33,000 votes. Feldman also cited state election contest cases dating back to 1897 to argue that Olsen, represented by attorney Jared Woodfill, must provide the names of voters who voted illegally or were denied the opportunity to vote.
In addition, Feldman alleged that Cox was being used by Republicans to promote election-related legislation, as Texas Sen. Paul Bettencourt (R-Houston) proposed additional reforms the day after the election contests were filed.
“We have a real concern, my client does, in being used as some sort of unwitting prop in a lawsuit with no facts to further a piece of legislation or a legislative effort to take over Harris County elections,” claimed Feldman.
Woodfill vigorously denied the allegations, saying, “Feldman spent very little time talking about the special exceptions themselves, instead talking about conspiracy theories between Senator Bettencourt and the other contestants in this particular case.”
After overruling the request for special exceptions, Peeples assured all parties that every contestee would have a later opportunity to challenge the legal sufficiency of the cases.
In reference to requests for inspection of records, Peeples said, “It does seem to me we’ve got to see what the election records show.”
“I don’t know how far it will go, but it needs to go farther than it’s gone so far,” he added.
Under state law governing election contests, attorneys may inspect unredacted election records at county offices or at the district attorney’s office.
Attorney Elizabeth Alvarez, who represents 17 of the candidates, including Alexandra Del Moral Mealer, took issue with Feldman’s allegations.
“I am becoming rather tired of hearing conspiracy theories and accusations that this is some sort of coordinated political thing and have it go on for half an hour,” said Alvarez. “My clients are being billed for me to come to this hearing to listen to a press conference that they don’t have evidence for, that frankly is unethical.”
Peeples said that he preferred to let “people talk,” but asserted to the parties, “I am as impervious to political pressure from the outside as anybody that ever sat on the bench in Texas.”
“We’re going to do our best to litigate this case within the rules based on whatever evidence there is and the law that’s in the election code and the cases that interpret it, and let the chips fall,” added Peeples.
Alvarez informed the court that she had sent subpoenas to the county with a deadline for response slated for March 27.
In addition to the pending election contests, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg is conducting a criminal investigation in conjunction with the Texas Rangers, and the Texas secretary of state has begun an audit of the county’s elections since 2020.
Other election-related lawsuits pending include one from the Harris County Republican Party regarding future elections and a second from Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale and reporter Wayne Dolcefino seeking election records the county refused to turn over in public information requests.
The next hearing is set for March 2, 2023.
A copy of Peeples’ order can be found below.
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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.