Judge nixes Houston pastors' petition for anti-bias policy vote

by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 4/18/15, 11:22 am

HOUSTON—A Harris County district judge ruled Friday that plaintiffs fell 585 signatures short of the required count on a petition recalling a controversial non-discrimination ordinance. Plaintiffs and their supporters, a racially diverse coalition of pastors and civic leaders, will appeal the decision, but they are running against the clock to get an approved referendum on the November ballot by the mid-August deadline.

“We’re going to file a notice of appeal on Monday and vigorously pursue Houston’s right to vote,” plaintiffs’ attorney Andy Taylor told me Friday evening.

In a two-sentence statement on the City of Houston website, Mayor Annise Parker urged against an appeal and lauded the judgment saying, “Now all Houstonians have access to the same protections.”

The Houston Area Pastors Council (HAPC) and supporters gathered over 50,000 signatures last June in an effort to rescind the ordinance, which makes sexual orientation and gender identity protected classes. But Parker and then-City Attorney Dave Feldman dismissed the majority of signatures. The coalition sued the city of Houston and Parker claiming signatures were indiscriminately disqualified. A jury in February ruled in favor of the city.

Judge Robert Schaffer dismissed some of the jury’s findings and established new criteria for determining which voter signatures the court would accept, beginning two months of wrangling over legibility, residency, and the identities of the petition circulators.

In his final ruling, Schaffer found plaintiffs had 16,648 applicable signatures, 585 below the requisite 17,269 but 65 more than the defense allowed in its final judgment.

“The Court therefore finds as a matter of fact and as a matter of law that the referendum petition is not valid or enforceable in all respects,” Schaffer wrote.

Parker gave no indication when the ordinance, which was suspended during the referendum process and trial, would be enacted. Schaffer did not issue a stay pending appeal. Parker, who is a lesbian, said the ordinance was personal to her.

“We have a HERO!” Parker wrote on her Twitter feed, using the acronym for Houston Equal Rights Ordinance. “We passed a good ordinance. We were right to reject repeal petition; jury agreed with us, judge agreed with us!”

Taylor, the lone attorney for the plaintiffs, said Schaffer’s judgment set a dangerous precedent requiring legible signatures on each page of the petition from the people circulating it, a subjective standard with the judge as the final arbiter.

“That is not what the law says,” said Taylor, an expert in election law who worked for George W. Bush during the Florida ballot recount in the 2000 presidential election.

From last August until the end of the trial Feb. 13, the defense team of at least 12 city and private attorneys claimed 2,500 petition signatures were invalid based on illegible circulator signatures; if the circulator signature on a petition page was not legible, than all voter signatures on that page were disqualified. After Schaffer affirmed that standard in a post-trial ruling, the city’s number of invalid signatures due to circulator illegibility rose to 8,500, Taylor said.

“The fact that the city’s own numbers of how many valid signatures we had submitted materially changed nearly a dozen times since August illustrates how desperate they are to keep this off the ballot,” HAPC executive director Dave Welch wrote in an email to supporters.

In one of her first public statements about the petition and trial, newly appointed Houston City Attorney Donna Edmundson took a swipe at the character of coalition members, many of whom are African-American pastors old enough to recount stories of their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

“This is a great victory in the courts, and a great day for civil rights in Houston, Texas,” Edmundson stated in a prepared release on the city’s website. “I am gratified that the judge signed a final judgment rejecting the plaintiffs’ claims and confirming that their pro-discrimination referendum petition failed.”

Throughout the trial, African-American pastors have been outspoken in their criticism of Parker and the city’s efforts to disqualify voter signatures and discredit petition organizers. The civil right at issue, they said, is the right to vote.

Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie reports on First Amendment freedoms for WORLD Digital.

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