Criminal JusticeJudicialLocal NewsState Supreme Court Declines to Block San Antonio ‘Justice Policy’ Special Election

The state’s highest civil court denied an emergency petition prior to a charter amendment vote that covers multiple criminal justice-related policies.
March 17, 2023
The Supreme Court of Texas has denied an emergency request to halt or alter a City of San Antonio charter amendment special election scheduled for May 5.

Earlier this year, criminal justice reform activist groups successfully collected enough signatures to petition the city for a charter amendment on “Justice Policy” that would cover multiple topics, including prohibiting enforcement of state laws related to marijuana possession, theft offenses, and abortion; banning no-knock warrants and chokeholds; and replacing warrants for certain property crimes with citations. The amendment would also create a “justice director” to advise the city council on policy.

Arguing that the proposed charter amendment language violates a state law limiting amendments to one subject, Texas Alliance for Life and San Antonio resident Maria Teresa Ramirez Morris petitioned the Supreme Court last month for a writ of mandamus ordering the city council not to certify the amendment for the May 5 election.

In addition to asking the court to separate the issues into multiple proposals and revise the ballot language, plaintiffs amended their original petition to note that city council did not issue an order at least 78 days prior to the election as is required by Texas law. Therefore, plaintiffs requested that the court order the election to be rescheduled for November 2023.

In delivering the opinion denying the petition, Justice Jane Bland wrote that there are legal remedies to address issues after an election, but there is no avenue for “pre-election judicial meddling.”

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“Adhering to our longstanding commitment to avoid undue interference with elections, we deny relief. Sufficient post-election remedies exist that permit the voter to challenge any infirmity in the proposed amendment and its placement on the ballot-after the voters have had their say,” wrote Bland.

While the majority of the court voted to deny the petition, Justice Evan Young penned a dissenting opinion supported by Justices John Devine and Jimmy Blacklock calling the proposed charter amendment election a “clear violation of the Election Code.”

“The law requires 78 days, not 69. That 78-day requirement is clear and unambiguous,” wrote Young, noting that an appropriate “pre-election remedy” in this case would be to direct the city to hold the election later at the right time.

Young also noted that the court will eventually have to tackle questions about the state’s “single-subject” requirements for ballot questions, and questioned whether the court can address legal questions before or only after an election.

“If the goal is to ensure that voters spend their time and civic energy only on properly framed ballot items, it seems suitable-when possible to provide pre-election relief,” added Young.

The San Antonio Justice Policy Charter includes 14 sections, including a new “cite and release” policy that would prevent police from arresting suspects for theft of property or services valued at less than $750, for graffiti with damage of less than $2,500, or criminal mischief with damage less than $750. Police would also be prohibited from arresting those with contraband in a correctional facility or driving with an invalid license.

The proposal also states that the city will not report any information to other governmental bodies or agencies about abortion, and will not request, conduct, or obtain testing of “any cannabis-related substance to determine whether the substance meets the legal definition of marijuana under state law.”

Activist groups ACT4SA and Ground Game Texas are largely responsible for collecting signatures to place the Justice Policy Charter on the ballot; other supporters include the Texas Organizing Project and Move Texas.

Seven city council members voted for the proposal.

The measure has drawn opposition from the San Antonio Police Officers’ Association with President Danny Diaz asserting in a statement that chokeholds and no-knock warrants are already banned except in life or death situations and that a total prohibition on the techniques would put officers’ lives at risk.

Among the proposals prioritized during this year’s state legislative session, both the House and Senate will consider additional punishments for judges and district attorneys who do not follow state laws, including those governing abortion.

If the charter amendment is approved by voters in May, the issue is likely to draw legal challenges over the issues denoted in the Texas Alliance For Life petition as well as alleged conflict with state and federal laws.


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Holly Hansen

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.