Coronavirus and its ham-handed effect on Texas has led to a cornucopia of lawsuits challenging some statutes, and actions by the state and its leaders.
The Texan has compiled updates for the various coronavirus-related cases covered since the pandemic hit Texas.
Being not only an election year, but a presidential election year, voting is at top of mind for many Texans. The Texas Democratic Party (TDP) has long advocated for expanded mail-in-balloting and saw coronavirus’ spread as a chance to solidify that practice.
They filed two lawsuits, one in state court and one in federal, making two distinct arguments for the same objective: drastically expanded mail-in-voting.
At the state level, TDP argued that a lack of immunity to coronavirus classified as a disability under the state’s election code, which governs who is eligible to vote-by-mail. The Supreme Court of Texas (SCOTX) ruled against the plaintiffs.
At the federal level, a district judge sided with the TDP ruling that Texans could vote-by-mail due to fear of contracting coronavirus. The judge further concurred with the TDP’s argument that the federal constitution requires Texas to expand its mail-in-voting procedures since he finds “no rational basis” for the distinction between voters 18-64 and those 65 and older who are allowed to vote-by-mail unobstructed.
The federal judge then ordered state officials to expand mail-in-voting to all registered voters. But that decision was swiftly stayed by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. On Thursday night, the Fifth Circuit voided the lower court’s order and sent the case back down for further deliberation.
The other widely discussed mail-in-ballot-related lawsuit involves Harris County. The commissioners court approved $27 million for its election budget to expand mail-in voting capabilities.
Part of this involved sending applications to vote-by-mail to every voter. But after the Secretary of State’s Office sent a letter to Harris County Interim Clerk, Chris Hollins, directing him to halt that initiative, the issue gained significant attention.
Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Harris County in a county district court. Last week, the SCOTX issued a temporary restraining order, halting the county’s effort while the case is reviewed by the state’s highest court.
HEB Grocery tycoon, Charles E. Butt, filed an amicus letter on behalf of Hollins and Harris County, advocating for universal mail-in voting. No decision has yet been made.
Third-Party Ballot Appearance
Texas Libertarian and Green Party candidates across the state have failed to meet new ballot certification requirements set by House Bill 2504 last year. A few Texas Democratic candidates sued last month to remove their Green Party counterparts from the ballot, an effort which succeeded in front of a state appeals court.
Shortly after, a number of Texas Republicans were named in a suit filed on their behalf against the Libertarian Party which aimed to do the same thing but through different procedural grounds. SCOTX ultimately ruled against the Republicans and, as of now, Green Party candidates will not be on the ballot while Libertarians will be.
Texas’s alcohol retailers have struggled to stay afloat after not one, but two different closure orders were issued by Governor Greg Abbott. Two notable lawsuits have been filed by bar owners in Texas.
The first was filed by the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance at the end of June against Abbott. That motion was dismissed by Judge Robert Pitman of the U.S. Western District Court as lacking proper jurisdiction.
The second was filed late last month by a different group of plaintiffs against Abbott and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC). It is currently pending review in the 200th District Court of Travis County.
Back in April, the historic owner of the Gage Hotel in Marathon, J.P. Bryan, filed suit against Brewster County Judge Eleazar R. Cano for violation of the law under the 14th Amendment, specifically the “equal protection clause.”
The plaintiff and defendant were ordered to mediation in late-July by the court but have yet to carry out the order. Judge David Fannin presides over the case in the U.S. Western District Court.
San Antonio Private School
A private, church-affiliated school in San Antonio sued Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff in July after he prohibited schools from operating in-person instruction until September 7.
The lawsuit challenged the ability of an “unelected civil servant” to issue a directive and challenged the constitutionality of the derivative authority. Paxton issued an opinion stating that religious schools are exempt from local closure orders.
On September 1, the plaintiffs filed an amended petition but the case is still pending in Bexar County district court.
It’s been five months since Governor Abbott’s agreed to a $295 million contact tracing program — designed to track the potential spread of coronavirus between individuals — with a relatively unknown company, MTX Group.
In August, a group of five Texas legislators filed a legal challenge aimed at the constitutionality of the program itself and the governor’s authority to unilaterally tie the state to the contract’s terms.
The suit was filed in the 261st District Court of Travis County but hasn’t moved since.
Violent Felon Release
Back in March when local emergency orders, and the policies therein, began popping up, Harris County took the opportunity to free up space in its jail. They began releasing prisoners, some with violent histories, prioritizing those deemed more at-risk to COVID-19.
The attorney general warned Harris County officials against breaching their authority by releasing the prisoners, while local officials planned to release some 4,000 inmates. This spurred Governor Abbott to issue an executive order prohibiting the release of inmates with violent priors.
Paxton and the state jumped head-first into the lawsuit then making its way through federal court, arguing against the case for release. Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Sheriff Ed Gonzalez then adjusted their motion allowing for the release of “non-violent” offenders, drawing a distinction between them and the “violent” inmates making headlines.
A pre-existing lawsuit alleging oppressive bond was repurposed to argue for inmate release due to coronavirus-related concerns.
Dallas plaintiffs then joined the effort, filing their own lawsuit to secure the release of inmates in state court.
In April, a Travis County district court judge issued a temporary restraining order halting the governor’s order in a case filed on behalf of 16 county judges who argued their authority to issue bonds had been superseded by Abbott’s order.
It was immediately stayed by the SCOTX, but local judges continued to grant low-cost personal bonds to free up space in the jail. The state’s highest court eventually ruled against the judges and dismissed the case, finding that they lacked standing to sue over the issue.
For the original lawsuit in federal court that was repurposed to include the coronavirus-based release question, a motion to dismiss was filed by the state in July. No movement has occurred since.
Republican Party of Texas Convention
Preceding what would become a tumultuous virtual convention, the City of Houston issued a last-minute cancelation of the Republican Party of Texas’ (RPT) in-person convention in July. The party immediately filed suit, challenging the city’s authority to exercise such a power and its use of the force majeure clause.
SCOTX denied the RPT motion to force Houston to allow the in-person convention. The Friday of the convention, a federal district judge ruled in favor of the party, ordering Houston to permit the in-person event. Being too-little-too-late, the party proceeded with a virtual convention riddled with technological and logistical issues. But most of the necessary party business was conducted, including the election of a new chair in Allen West.
That federal case, however, was dismissed on July 29.
The state court suit still survives as the RPT attempts to recover damages from Houston after its eleventh-hour cancelation. The case is currently pending.
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Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad watching and quoting Monty Python productions.