A jury in the trial surrounding Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance issued a mixed slate of decisions Friday, giving neither side the obvious upper hand as a district judge now uses those findings to decide whether opponents submitted enough valid signatures to trigger a repeal referendum.
The jury decided whether certain contested pages are valid, and now state District Judge Robert Schaffer will likely begin counting whether the signatures on those pages, along with uncontested signatures, reach the required threshold of 17,269 registered Houston voters necessary to force a referendum on the law.
If that bar is reached, the law will go back to City Council and, assuming the body stands by the 11-6 vote of support for the ordinance it tallied last May, the issue would go to voters. If the judge finds there are not enough valid signatures, he would uphold the city’s decision last August to reject opponents’ petition.
Either way, the case is likely headed to the appellate courts.
See here for the last update. Basically, the jury tossed some petition pages and allowed some others, and now Judge Schaffer gets to tally the final result. Chron reporter Katherine Driessen did a nice summary on her Twitter feed. A sample:
City attorney says fact that there was a mixed ticket is great for the city in #hero trial
— Katherine Driessen (@KatDriessen) 4:47 PM – 13 Feb 2015
We knew this verdict would be complicated but city attorneys claim verdict is good for them in #hero trial. Plaintiffs disagree, of course.
— Katherine Driessen (@KatDriessen) 4:49 PM – 13 Feb 2015
The city got a good response from jurors on forgery question. They found 12 circulators submitted pages with forgeries #hero
— Katherine Driessen (@KatDriessen) 4:50 PM – 13 Feb 2015
“I am very pleased with the jury’s verdict, and I expect the court will apply the law to the verdict and issue a final judgment confirming that the petition failed. The City of Houston has had in place for over 100 years the same rules and legal requirements governing the referendum process to ensure fairness and avoid fraud, and the jury’s verdict confirms that the petitions did not meet the legal requirements. The plaintiffs are expected to appeal any outcome that is not in their favor. That would be unfortunate for the City. I believe that 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. The City is confident it will prevail.”
We’ll see. I’m guardedly optimistic, but remember that whatever Judge Schaffer rules, it’s far from the final answer. This will get appealed until there are no more appeals to be made. Given the lateness of the jury decisions, there’s not a whole lot of other analysis out there yet. I’ll keep my eyes open for what else is being said. The HRC Blog and Equality Texas have more.
UPDATE: The updated Chron story has some more detail.
“Anyone who was hoping that the jury’s verdict would give a clear indication that the Houston equal rights ordinance is valid and will withstand this attack should be thrilled and dancing in their kitchen because that’s what the jury did here,” attorney Geoffrey Harrison said. “The jury rejected out of hand the repeal petition from the plaintiffs.”
Harrison contends the group is more than 10,000 signatures below the threshold. He said the jury’s ruling that 12 of 13 circulators in question submitted pages containing forgery and that some high-volume circulators did not properly sign the pages they collected bodes well for the city. The law’s conservative opponents, however, maintained they would prevail when the judge begins his review, saying he has the power to reject some of the jury’s findings.
Lawyer Andy Taylor cited the jury’s conclusion that none of the 13 circulators in question submitted pages containing fraud as a victory. And on the big-ticket question of whether or not 98 different circulators correctly “signed and subscribed” the pages they submitted, Taylor said he was encouraged by the 33 signatures gatherers the jury found had done so.
“The thing that is super significant here is that the jury found no fraud,” Taylor said. “This mayor has been claiming for over six months that these hardworking citizens committed fraud and this jury found that they did not. So they can take that to the bank.”
Both parties will get a better sense of whether their claims to victory are likely to hold up when Schaffer meets with the attorneys Feb. 19 to discuss what happens next.
Taylor is doing some lawyerly parsing here, since “forgery” is of course a type of “fraud”. But we’ll know more next week. All eyes are on Judge Schaffer now.