Petition recount underway in Houston anti-bias policy fight

by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 2/23/15, 03:18 pm

HOUSTON—The attorney for a coalition of pastors fighting an anti-bias ordinance is cautiously optimistic a judge’s ruling on Friday will validate enough petition signatures to put the city policy on the ballot later this year.

After the city council passed the ordinance in May, making sexual orientation and gender identity a protected class, the pastors launched a petition drive to give voters a chance to repeal it in November. Mayor Annise Parker’s administration threw out a majority of the petition signatures, and the opponents sued.

The jury verdict on Feb. 13 found no instances of fraud but acknowledged some cases of possible forgery. On Friday, Judge Robert Schaffer issued his determination about which of the 5,199 petition pages would be considered valid.

“What it looks like is we go over the top,” plaintiffs’ lawyer Andy Taylor told me in a phone interview Monday. “I’m prayerful that we have enough.”

During a Feb. 19 hearing called by Schaffer to outline the questions he would address in his ruling, defense attorney Geoffrey Harrison pressed Schaffer to adopt the most restrictive interpretation of the Houston City Charter in order to nullify the petition. Schaffer repeatedly rebuffed Harrison and said he would be guided by the jury decision but not bound by it.

“We never had any intention of accepting the jury’s ruling as is,” Schaffer told Harrison during the hearing. “I am going to accept petitions I believe were signed and subscribed. I have said all along that I will.”

While the jury accepted the defense’s restrictive argument mandating petition circulators “sign” and “subscribe” the document’s oath, Schaffer, citing appellate court rulings as his guide, gave a much broader interpretation of that requirement. A single, legible signature—print or cursive—at the bottom of the page sufficed to complete the circulator’s oath, he ruled.

The city’s attorneys argued the jury’s finding of forgery, even if only on one page, should discredit all of a circulator’s work, which could include multiple pages. But Schaffer ruled only the names shown as forgeries—most often “family units” where one family member signed for others—should be dismissed.

Taylor admitted Schaffer’s ruling on one or two other key issues could make the plaintiffs’ victory a narrow one. With both sides recounting the petition signatures—using the jury’s and judge’s rulings as the validation criteria—the process could produce disparate numbers and require clarification from Schaffer. Taylor expects to have a final number in about two weeks.

“Given the judge’s directions provided to the lawyers, I expect the court will apply the law to the verdict and issue a final judgment confirming that the petition failed,” Parker said Monday. “The plaintiffs are expected to appeal any outcome that is not in their favor.  That will be unfortunate for the city because the majority of Houston wants this divisive fight to be over so that we are able to provide equal rights protections for all of our residents.”

Attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit have said they would appeal an unfavorable verdict.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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