A good first step, but we’re far from finished here.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Tuesday appealed the decision of a judge to temporarily block a new law passed by Republicans to abolish Harris County’s elections chief position. The decision earlier Tuesday by a Travis County district judge found that the law is unconstitutional and would disrupt this fall’s elections.
The Texas Attorney General’s Office filed its appeal in the Texas Supreme Court, keeping Travis County District Judge Karin Crump’s order from taking effect.
The law, which would have forced the county to eliminate the county’s elections administrator and transfer all election duties to the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector, is set to take effect Sept. 1, weeks before early voting begins for the county’s November municipal elections.
Nonetheless, Harris County officials said the earlier injunction was a “win” for the county and “local officials across the state.”
Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee filed the lawsuit in Travis County District Court last month and argued the law, Senate Bill 1750, violates the Texas Constitution because it was used by the Legislature to single out one county. Menefee asked Crump to prevent the law from taking effect.
Crump agreed and in her ruling added, “Not only will this transfer lead to inefficiencies, disorganization, confusion, office instability, and increased costs to Harris County, but it will also disrupt an election that the Harris County EA [elections administrator] has been planning for months. The Harris County Clerk and the Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector have had no role in preparing for the November Election.”
Those were the same concerns Menefee detailed in his initial filing to seek an injunction.
“Without court intervention, the public’s selection of their elected representatives — the core process on which our democracy rests — will be risked in Harris County,” the filing says.
At a Tuesday news conference celebrating the decision, Menefee called the law an “existential” threat to county sovereignty.
“The Texas Constitution says what it says,” he said. “This filing is much bigger than this particular law.”
Menefee said Harris County’s lawsuit is “reining in misguided legislators” whom he said “aren’t playing in good faith anymore.”
The Texas Legislature approved the measure in May, taking an unprecedented step to remove a local official by targeting just one county without its consent.
Under SB 1750, the duties for overseeing elections in Harris County revert back to two elected officials, the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector, who ran elections until Commissioners Court voted in 2020 to create an elections administrator position. The administrator is appointed by a five-member commission that includes the county judge, the tax assessor, the county clerk and the chairs of the Harris County Republican and Democratic parties.
While more than half of Texas’ 254 counties have appointed elections administrators — including Bexar, Tarrant, Dallas and Collin — SB 1750 was written to apply only to counties with a population over 3.5 million on Sept. 1, 2023. Harris County is the only county of that size.
There’s two points here. One is the “without its consent”. I’ve said that the laws are full of statutes written to cover a particular county or city, but it is the case that these laws were written with the input of those cities and counties. I don’t know how much that matters, but it is a difference. The other one is the setting of a date for the population stipulation. My understanding is that is something that hasn’t been done before, and the key here is that it really does ensure that only Harris County could ever be the subject of this law. Without that “on September 1, 2023” condition, this law could eventually affect Dallas or Bexar counties, and maybe others later on. That wasn’t the intent of the law, which again goes to Harris County’s argument.
Will that work with the Supreme Court? I don’t know. As has so often been the case in recent legislative years, we’re in uncharted waters. I don’t care to guess what SCOTx will make of this. Harris County has filed a motion for temporary relief preserving the trial court’s injunction while the appeal is pending in response to the state’s appeal, which automatically put the ruling on hold. The goal is to keep the current setup for the 2023 election, which really ought to be an easy call. But we’ll see.