Opponents of Houston’s equal rights ordinance dropped their request for a temporary injunction Friday that could have triggered a repeal referendum this November.
Now, their lawsuit against the city is scheduled to be heard Jan. 19, 2015, a trial date ordinance opponents called “expedited” and among the reasons they agreed to withdraw the request. For the city, though, the withdrawal marks a victory in what could be a lengthy legal battle.
The injunction sought by the ordinance foes would have forced City Secretary Anna Russell to certify their petition and sent the issue to an emergency city council vote in order to get the repeal referendum on the November ballot. The group of conservative pastors and activists was also asking the city to suspend enforcement of the ordinance, though Mayor Annise Parker had already agreed to do so until a ruling is issued.
Early in Friday’s injunction hearing, state District Judge Robert Schaffer questioned why the plaintiffs were seeking the same outcome via injunction that they are asking for in their lawsuit.
“If I grant the relief you’re asking for, isn’t that granting you everything you’re asking for in your petition?” Schaffer asked.
The announcement that the injunction request would be dropped came after Schaffer consulted with both parties in his chambers. During the roughly 45 minutes of oral arguments, attorneys touched on legal flashpoints that are likely to be central to January’s hearing.
Geoffrey Harrison, a Susman Godfrey attorney representing the city, said that the “plaintiffs come to this court with unclean hands,” alleging not only that the opponents made notary mistakes, but that there were also “multiple instances” of petition fraud and misconduct.
“The plaintiffs have fabricated their entire case on a house of cards,” Harrison said.
Andy Taylor, the opponents’ attorney, said that it was unconstitutional for the city to throw out valid signatures based on notary mistakes. And though he withdrew the request for the injunction, he urged the judge to put the issue to voters as soon as possible.
Ready to testify
“We are entitled to an immediate calling of a City Council vote,” Taylor said.
He added that he was prepared to have signature gatherers testify about their signature collection methods and question specific pages that had been disqualified.
Opponents filed their lawsuit last week after Parker and City Attorney David Feldman announced foes had not gathered enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum.
Critics largely take issue with the rights extended to gay and transgender residents under the ordinance. City Council approved the ordinance in May, banning discrimination among businesses that serve the public, private employers, in housing and in city employment and city contracting. Religious institutions are exempt. Opponents vowed to send the issue to the voters.
Russell initially counted enough signatures to do just that, with about 600 more than the required 17,269 signatures. Feldman then looked through all of the petition pages to see if those who gathered signatures met city charter requirements – that they were registered Houston voters and signed off each page, for instance.
That process disqualified more than half the group’s 5,199 pages. In their suit, opponents claimed Russell’s original count should be the most important one and alleged Feldman had illegally inserted himself into the process.
‘We won the battle’
Solidifying that the issue won’t go to voters this fall, Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals on Friday denied a separate request from opponents to force the city secretary to certify the signatures on their petition and trigger a referendum.
A three-judge panel ruled that the emergency writ of mandamus plaintiffs sought would have the same result as a favorable ruling in their pending lawsuit that went before Schaffer’s court Friday. The plaintiffs, the judges wrote, could appeal after a ruling comes down at the trial court level.
Outside state district court, Taylor and plaintiff Jared Woodfill, a conservative activist, denied that the withdrawal was a blow to their case. They cited the “expedited” court date, which Woodfill said was unusual, as a success. Woodfill said he was also satisfied that the equal rights ordinance will not be enforced until the case is resolved.
“We won the battle today,” Taylor said.
City Attorney David Feldman said the legal events Friday were “entirely consistent” with what the city expected to happen.