A federal judge on Friday ruled that Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corp. must allow the Texas Republican Party to proceed with an in-person convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center, though the party now only intends to use the facility as a backup option.
Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas found the city had infringed upon the Texas GOP’s constitutional rights by canceling the convention, which initially was set to run from Thursday through Saturday before Turner ordered Houston First, the city’s convention agency, to nix it.
Hughes gave the party the option of using the convention center this weekend and next, according to Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze, who initially filed the lawsuit with a handful of other plaintiffs.
The party began its convention online Thursday but encountered numerous technical difficulties, forcing officials to postpone the event until Saturday. The party joined Hotze’s lawsuit Friday “to provide a last-resort method in-person if we needed it to secure our national election obligations,” Chairman James Dickey said in a statement following Hughes’ ruling. He said the party still “is on track to hold its convention online.”
Party officials will elect their party chair and select delegates for the national Republican convention at the state convention.
“Our online convention provides the greatest opportunity for as many delegates who want to participate in the convention as possible,” Dickey said. “We learned a hard lesson yesterday and with this win today, if for any reason there is an issue tomorrow, we know that we have a single location where, with the necessary SREC authorizations, we could” elect delegates to the national convention.
Turner in a statement blasted the party for its legal efforts to proceed with the convention, and said the city and Houston First would appeal upon receiving a written order from Hughes.
“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying,” Turner said. “The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention. This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city.”
Hughes, in granting the Texas GOP an injunction that bars Turner from canceling the event, agreed with the argument by Hotze and the party that Turner’s move to cancel the convention “at the last minute” deprived party members “of their right to express their political beliefs, and make core political determinations,” a right protected by the First Amendment.
In a court filing Friday, Woodfill wrote that the party “has attempted a virtual convention and found that it is an unworkable platform.”
“Accordingly, the Republican Party of Texas has no choice but to seek relief from the Court to allow the Republican Party of Texas to prepare for the upcoming election season,” Woodfill wrote.
See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs knew which judge to pick, you have to give them credit for that. The judge bought the argument that the late cancellation of the convention, which came after they had considered but rejected changing to an online convention, which Mayor Turner begged them to reconsider, plus the GOP’s complete inability to get Zoom to work, meant that their rights were being infringed. Putting it another way:
So as #COVID19 rages through TX, we will all now be subjected to a superspreader event, and workers lives will be put in danger just because @TexasGOP can’t figure out the internet? @TexasAFLCIO @texasdemocrats
— rick levy (@RickTxAFLCIO) 5:34 PM – 17 July 2020
The city and Houston First will appeal, so we’ll see what happens. Even on the Republican side, this was a bit controversial:
Before Friday’s ruling, Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said the party was still working toward resuming the virtual convention Saturday.
“Today we have been hard at work for hours already on Plan A and Plan B and Plan C,” Dickey said during an interview with Texas Values. “We are going to make sure that we can move forward with our convention virtually tomorrow.”
Dickey’s chairmanship is on the line at the convention, where he faces a serious challenge from Allen West, the former Florida congressman. The election is tentatively scheduled for Sunday.
West has mostly stayed out of the debate over holding the convention in person, though he has increasingly questioned Dickey over the voting technology for the virtual meeting. And earlier Friday, West’s team seemed to reach a boiling point when word got out that the party was making a last-ditch legal push to join Hotze’s lawsuit.
“It is beyond belief that Chairman Dickey and the RPT allowed a foreseeable catastrophic failure such as this to unfold,” West lawyer Clyde Siebman wrote in a letter to Dickey. “Colonel West grew to doubt that it was by mere negligence but continued to give fellow Republicans the benefit of the doubt — until today.”
The party’s 11th-hour participation in the lawsuit “proves an intent to disenfranchise large blocks of grassroot Republicans across Texas,” Siebman added.
I don’t know what’s going to happen at this point, but my advice is to avoid downtown until this is over. And pray for those workers whose lives are being put in danger.