Category Archives: Texas constitutional law

Temporary Injunction Hearing in Hidalgo City Council Case Re-Set for Friday Morning

The temporary injunction hearing in Palmas v. Sanchez, the Hidalgo, Texas case in which two city councilmen are challenging a request for an illegal injunction to prevent them from voting on certain matters, has been re-set for tomorrow at 9 a.m.

Najvar Law Firm is representing defendants challenging the injunction request.

Another TRO Issued Against Hidalgo Councilmembers; Ordered to Mediation With Taxi Drivers

The story in Hidalgo continues to get even more interesting.  Dave Hendricks of The Monitor reports the latest here.  See my previous post regarding the serious constitutional problem with a court enjoining a legislative body from engaging in the legislative process.  I’m quoted in the article:

On July 22, Rudy Franz convinced state District Judge Juan Partida to sign a temporary restraining order against Ramirez and Sanchez, forbidding them from voting on the bus permit. When that case was removed to federal court, Rudy Franz obtained another temporary restraining order from another district judge on Aug 12.

Once again, the court blocked Ramirez and Sanchez from voting, and the bus permit stalled again.

After reviewing the initial legal filings, a Houston-based attorney called the situation “crazy” and questioned the willingness of district judges to stop local elected officials from voting.

“No federal court would ever issue an injunction against Congress and say ‘Congress can’t vote on this trade bill because some member of Congress said it would harm his business,’ and that’s exactly what happened here,” said Jerad Najvar, a Houston attorney who handles political law issues, including campaign finance and ethics.

My criticism goes to the power of the judiciary vis a vis legislative bodies in a system of separation of powers. Most people think of the separation of powers in terms of “checks and balances” among the branches of the federal government, but it is no less important in local government. It seems somebody should raise a (Texas law) constitutional objection to the injunction, and the order to mediate. This injunction, like the previous one, was issued ex parte, so it appears the defendants did not yet have a chance to answer.

Here’s the new order: 20130812 Hidalgo TRO Temporary Restraining Order Rudy Franz

Hidalgo Council Lawsuit, Franz v. Ramirez, Removed to Federal Court

I have been informed by the state court clerk that there was no hearing yesterday regarding the temporary restraining order entered previously against two Hidalgo councilmen, as the case was removed to federal court. (See here: Notice of Removal Franz v Ramirez.) Initial hearing set for Oct. 9 before Judge Crane.

Unless some other order has been entered that I’m missing, the TRO has expired and the two councilmembers are no longer prohibited from voting.

Monitor Editorial Takes Issue With Hidalgo CM Franz’s Request for Injunction

ICYMI (as I did): This Monitor editorial from July 30 is right on point:

Franz claims that Ramirez and Sanchez had a vendetta when the duo voted last month to amend a Hidalgo ordinance that allows a third tow truck company — one that isn’t owned by Franz or his family — into the rotation for non-consent towing for the Hidalgo Police Department.

Regardless their motives, Ramirez and Sanchez should be congratulated for such action. To allow an elected member of city government to control a potentially lucrative monopoly on city business would be an abrogation of duty for any council.

The paper goes on to say Franz should withdraw his injunction request and stop holding the city hostage. Assuming Franz doesn’t have a sudden change of heart, the court should withdraw the injunction anyway, because it is totally illegal.

Separation of Powers and the Wild World of Hidalgo City Politics

I said in a previous post that I’d be interested in finding out what could possibly have justified a Hidalgo County district court’s temporary restraining order–granted at the request of a member of the Hidalgo City Council (Rudy Franz)–prohibiting two other members of the Council from exercising their duties as elected officials and voting on certain matters before the Council. (Documents are linked below.)

Specifically, the TRO prohibits Councilmembers Guillermo Ramirez and Gustavo Sanchez from “participating in an act of retaliation specifically the voting on any item in the City of Hidalgo that relates to the business operations…of [Councilmember Franz].”  You see, Franz operates a bus company and a taxi company, and he apparently is interested in preventing the Council from granting a permit to a new company, S to N Transportation, which would be in competition with Franz’s operations. The 275th District Court granted the temporary restraining order (TRO) on July 22 and set a hearing for Monday, August 5. As reported by The Monitor:

With the one-page document, Rudy Franz paralyzed the City Council and blocked a new bus company, which met all Hidalgo’s permit requirements, from serving the Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge. Mayor Martin Cepeda called the incident a black eye for Hidalgo.

Of course the TRO–by definition–is temporary; the hearing Monday will determine whether the injunction shall remain in force while the litigation proceeds. I have reviewed Franz’s “emergency motion” seeking the TRO, which includes affidavits from Franz and a few other witnesses, and the court’s ex parte order (there was no response by defendants to the motion, although they have filed an answer to the underlying suit.).

While the documents evidence a fascinating world of Hidalgo politics, there is nothing stated in Franz’s motion that would appear to provide any basis for protecting Franz’s businesses from competition.  Perhaps more importantly (and the point on which this blog will focus), even if there were some substantive basis for protecting Franz’s business, pursuant to separation of powers principles, a court does not have the authority to enjoin city council members from voting on matters before the Council.

The underlying lawsuit, filed by Franz in May, alleges that he was defamed by the defendants as they pushed for their desired slate of candidates in school board elections.  The political factions in Hidalgo are the “red team” (Concerned Citizens of Hidalgo) and “blue team” (Community United). According to the affidavits submitted by Franz, the two defendant Councilmembers changed their allegiances from the red team to blue and began urging folks to vote with the blue team in the school board elections. (This Monitor story by Dave Hendricks gives more background.) The various affidavits, submitted by folks in the community, all basically state that Defendants Sanchez and Ramirez contacted them and urged a vote for the blue team because Franz had been “stealing” for 30 years, they were tired of it, and the blue team meant change. Citing “slander,” Franz says he was compelled to sue.

After the suit was filed, Franz alleges, the defendants began pushing items on the city agenda that would harm Franz’s business interests. Franz says that (i) he and his wife operate the “only two towing companies in” Hidalgo; (ii) as retaliation for Franz’s lawsuit, “and as a political vendetta[,] the two defendants passed an ordinance specifically drafted to hurt my towing business”; and (iii) the defendants were pursuing “an agenda item on the City of Hidalgo Regular Meeting to specifically destroy my transportation business.”  Franz alleges a “systematic and ongoing political retaliation,” and Defendants “have acted under color of law to attack [Franz’s] economic interest and valuable property right.”  He alleges that “[t]hese actions are violations of my Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Association and are violations of the Texas Constitution[.]”

There is no support for the substantive rights asserted; Franz merely cites to section 19 of the Texas Constitution, providing in relevant part that no citizen may be deprived of “property” without “due course of…law.”  But this does not advance Franz’s claim that he has any cognizable property right implicated by a proposal to permit a competing transportation company.  Injunctions are proper sometimes to prevent irreparable harm to a cognizable business interest, but the operative term there is cognizable. Franz doesn’t have a right to operate a de-facto towing and transportation monopoly in the city.

In order to secure the extraordinary remedy of an injunction, one is required to show a likelihood of success on the underlying claim.  Franz’s motion cited absolutely no city ordinance, other law, or contract that gives him a government-protected monopoly on the transportation business in Hidalgo. Without any substantive right against competition, he has no basis for a cause of action, and on that basis alone, the TRO should not have been granted. (While the Open Meetings Act (TOMA) does allow courts to issue injunctions against violations of TOMA, and while Franz’s motion makes a passing reference to the Act, there are no facts provided to establish any violation and the motion does not otherwise cite the Act. The terms of the TRO reveal that it was not directed at a TOMA violation, as it prevents voting on matters related to Franz’s business, regardless of compliance with TOMA.)

On to the separation of powers issue.  Even if Franz could establish with certainty that some proposed action of the council would harm his property rights, the district court had no authority to enjoin councilmembers from voting on a matter or otherwise inhibit the legislative process itself. In a seminal case from 1912, the Texas Supreme Court considered a claim that an injunction should issue against the canvassing of the results of an initiative election, which would “prescrib[e] the fares to be charged passengers of street railway companies operating in that city.”  City of Dallas v. Dallas Consol. Electric St. Ry. Co., 105 Tex. 337 (1912). The plaintiff was–not unlike Franz–a transportation company arguing that the ordinance approved in the election would harm its business interests, and asked the court to stop the canvassing process so that the allegedly-illegal provision would not become law. Relying on fundamental principles of the separation of powers, the Supreme Court correctly held that judicial authority was not properly directed at inhibiting steps in the legislative process.  The Court said:

The case is not one where the enforcement of an enacted and effective city ordinance is attempted to be enjoined because of its invalidity and prejudicial effect upon property rights. It is one where, upon such grounds, it is sought, in effect, to prevent by judicial remedy the enactment itself of an ordinance by enjoining the act which will put it in force. It is therefore necessary to the decision that there be clearly ascertained, determined, and respected that boundary line that separates political power and judicial authority and defines their respective limits.

Id. at 293-94 (emphasis added). The Court went on:

To interfere with the enactment of legislation is not within [the judicial] province. [Judicial] remedies lie ready, but at rest, until proper occasion demands their use. They are not available against void legislation enacted under color of authority until its enforcement…is attempted or threatened to the destruction or impairment of property rights. Until then in the eyes of the law there is no invasion of such rights, and without such invasion of rights there can be no lawful exercise of judicial authority.

In other words, there is no judicially-cognizable injury from the mere passage of a law; judicial power is implicated only when the law is enforced. These principles have long been applied to prevent courts from enjoining municipal bodies from enacting ordinances.  “The restraining of the passage of an ordinance is a legislative act, and such restraint cannot be exercised by the courts.”  City of Monahans v. State ex rel. Cook, 348 S.W.2d 176, 179 (Tex. Civ. App.–El Paso 1961, writ ref’d n.r.e.).  This is true even if an ordinance appears to be clearly invalid.  Although there is an exception where the “mere passage” of an ordinance would work an irreparable injury, that is a rare circumstance, and would not apply here.  (It is the actual operation of a competitor that stands to harm Franz’s business (and benefit everybody else), not the granting of a permit itself).

These principles are well-settled.  The Thirteenth Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Hidalgo County, applied them in 2006 to hold that the lower court “had no authority to invade the legislative functions” of the City of Port Isabell “to the extent it sought to enjoin the future passage of annexation ordinances.”  City of Port Isabell v. Pinnell, 207 S.W.3d 394, 417-19 (Tex. App.–Corpus Christi 2006, no pet.).

The district court should let the injunction expire after the hearing Monday; if not, there will be solid grounds for an appeal so that the City of Hidalgo can get on with its business.

Update (more background): see this May 2012 story about how then-HIdalgo Police Chief Rosser effectively ended his career by stating publicly that Rudy Franz was the real power-broker in the city and that the council had denied vehicle permits that year to protect Franz’s business, despite the positive recommendation of Rosser that the companies met permit requirements.