Challenge to Houston Equal Rights Ordinance Heads to Federal Court with Allegations of “Federal Rights Violations”

August 7th, 2014

Earlier this year, Houston passed the  The Houston Equality Rights Ordinance, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics in city employment, city services, city contracting services, housing, public accommodations and private employment.” Led by the Harris County GOP and a number of Churches, signatures were collected for petitions to put on the ballot a repeal of the ordinance. Approximately 18,000 signatures were needed. Over 50,000 were collected. I noted last week that an anonymous group (irony) posted all 50,000 signatures, and their contact information, online.

Subsequently, the Houston City Attorney–appointed by the Mayor–deemed many of the 50,000 signatures invalid. Specifically, he found that the group was 2,000 names short of the 17,269 threshold. So of course, this went to court.

Mike Morris at the Chronicle reported earlier this week:

Opponents of Houston’s new nondiscrimination ordinance sued the city late Tuesday, one day after city officials rejected a petition the group had submitted in hopes of forcing a repeal referendum in November.

The lawsuit asks a state district judge todeclare that City Secretary Anna Russell met her legal duty by verifying a sufficient number of signatures to force a vote, only to have City Attorney David Feldman illegally insert himself into verifying the petition, invalidating more than half of the petition’s 5,200 pages for failing to satisfy legal requirements in the city charter. That left opponents roughly 2,000 names short of the 17,269-signature threshold needed to force a referendum.

In a memo to Mayor Annise Parker and the City Council, Russell said she had found 17,846 valid signatures before Feldman reviewed the pages, and attributed the lower count to her review of his office’s work. At an injunction hearing Tuesday night, plaintiffs argued Russell’s initial count was the important one by law and should have triggered a referendum. City attorneys disagreed, saying Russell ultimately found there were not enough signatures.

“If he (Feldman) felt there were underlying problems with the petition then he, like us, has the right to file a lawsuit if he doesn’t agree with what the city secretary did,” said conservative activist Jared Woodfill, one of the four plaintiffs. “Going in before she’s ever made the decision and influencing her is inappropriate, it’s illegal and we believe the court will agree with us and that folks will have their voices heard in November on this issue.”

Woodfill, the former chair of the Harris County GOP, was one of the lead organizers of the petition drive. As I noted earlier, Feldman is appointed by the Mayor, who was a champion of this ordinance. This is a huge political issue in H-Town.

It seems most of the signatures were tossed, not because individual signatures were invalid, but because all signatures on a page were thrown out.

Feldman and his staff threw out more than half the 5,199 pages, containing about 16,000 signatures – many of them likely valid. Most pages were thrown out because those who collected names for the petition were not registered Houston voters or did not sign the petition themselves. Those errors invalidated more than 2,000 pages with about 11,300 signatures.

The city charter provision regarding attempts to repeal an ordinance hasn’t come up since a 1996 repeal effort over affirmative action, officials said. The city has mostly dealt with petitions to amend the city charter, which require only the verification of whether the signatures belong to registered Houston voters.

Russell, who has worked for the city more than six decades, said earlier Tuesday that she could not recall another instance in which city attorneys reviewed the pages of a petition. However, she said, the petition process to overturn an ordinance is unusual in itself because other petition processes do not require that each page be notarized.

In effect, the votes of thousands would be tossed out if this policy is adhered to.

Bob Stein, a political science professor at Rice University, said the city’s process for repeal referendums is likely to come up in court. “The real question is whether or not you can invalidate a signature because it happens to be on a page that is invalidated,” he said. “This is going to be an issue of voter’s rights.”

Today, the City of Houston has removed the case to federal court, as the plaintiffs raised the issue of federal rights.

Feldman and Mayor Annise Parker said opponents’ court filing offered grounds to move the case to federal court.

In paragraph 17 of the opponents’ filing, they said that the city’s “improperly rejecting” the petition  “stripped these Plaintiffs from their right to petition government for a redress of their greivances” under city charter and state and federal laws.

“It’s either going to be upheld in the courts or it’s not,” Mayor Annise Parker said of the suit. “But they raised the issue of federal rights violations.”

Plaintiff Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist, said the move was a “delay tactic.” Woodfill and opponents sought an injunction in state court Tuesday night, asking visting Judge John Coselli to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, effectively triggering the referendum process. Parker already has said the city will not enforce the ordinance until there is a legal ruling.

Stay tuned.