The Texas Supreme Court handed a loss to local government on Friday, striking down a Laredo ban on plastic bags. The decision imperils about a dozen other cities’ bans across the state.
In a decision viewed as one of the court’s most highly politicized of the term, justices ruled unanimously that a state law on solid waste disposal pre-empted the local ordinance. That decision drew immediate responses from both sides of the aisle, with high praise from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who had weighed in against the bans, and condemnation from environmental groups, which had argued the ban kept at bay the harsh environmental damage brought by plastics.
The court’s ruling resolves a long-standing question over whether local governments may impose such bans, as cities including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas have in recent years. Friday’s unanimous holding makes those bans unenforceable as well, and likely tosses the issue over to the Texas Legislature for debate.
The court said in a unanimous holding that its intent was not to wade into the “roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs” but simply to resolve the legal question at hand.
“Both sides of the debate … assert public-policy arguments raising economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the court. “We must take statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”
While arguments have seemed to center on semantics, the court’s decision is likely to have major implications for local control issues across the state. It’s a loss for local governments, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.
“Plastic bags are the perfect case for why different geographies need different sets of rules,” Sandlin said. “This is a sad day.”
A long list of lawmakers have weighed in on the case, including by filing friend of the court briefs. Twenty Republican state lawmakers filed a brief against the ban in an earlier appeal of the case. And state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, told the Texas Supreme Court she supports the city’s ban.
In 2017, state Sen. Bob Hall filed a bill that would have prevented Texas cities from enforcing bag bans.
Now that the court has ruled, the issue is likely to become one for legislators to take up. Justice Eva Guzman urged lawmakers to do just that in a concurring opinion Friday.
“The legislative branch, not the judiciary, bears the unenviable task of making complicated policy decisions that balance the benefits of uniform regulation and the myriad burdens (financial or otherwise) that may be imposed on taxpayers, businesses, and the environment,” Guzman wrote.
She added, “I urge the Legislature to take direct ameliorative action. … Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning—it will invite one.”
See here and here for the background. Yes, the Legislature could remediate this – the case hinged on the definition of a “container”, which I think we can all agree is not something that was handed down by God to the Founding Fathers. But we all know that’s not what this Legislature is going to do. Quite the reverse, in fact. So while I appreciate Justice Guzman’s concern about the “ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem”, I would encourage her to venture out of the ivory tower once in awhile to observe what is actually happening around her. In the meantime, we can all do our part to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic bags. The Observer and the Current have more.