The Texas Supreme Court today issued a decision (with no dissenters) ordering the City of Houston to place on November’s ballot the question whether the city’s recently-enacted “Equal Rights Ordinance” shall be repealed. Mayor Parker and the City Attorney’s office have been arguing that the petition was insufficient for various reasons (some of which I have written about before), and Council had refused to honor the petition claiming there were not enough signatures. However, the City Secretary had initially “certified” that the petition contained a sufficient number of valid signatures. The wrinkle was that the City Attorney had conducted his own review, overlapping with the Secretary’s, concluded the petition was insufficient, and the Secretary’s report to Council referred (but did not adopt) the City Attorney’s contrary finding.
The linchpin of the decision is the fact that the Charter vests the City Secretary alone with the duty to certify whether a petition contains a sufficient number of valid signatures. The Supreme Court’s analysis is pretty simple: because the Charter vests the Secretary with certification responsibility, and the Secretary’s report stated that she had certified a sufficient number of signatures, the Council’s duty to act (repealing the ordinance or putting it to a public vote) immediately kicked in. The Court conditionally granted a writ of mandamus ordering the Council to either repeal the ordinance itself or put it to a vote on the November 2015 ballot, which are the only two options available under the Charter once a sufficient petition has been certified.
This blog will cover this case going forward. If the City wants to challenge the validity of the petition, the Supreme Court states that the City has the duty to seek affirmative relief stopping the election process. However, this points up another thorny issue as to when it is appropriate for a court to enjoin an election process that has already begun. I suspect Mayor Parker will want to file an immediate original petition in district court.
The decision will be warmly received by petition groups across the State. Municipalities commonly throw up objections to petitions, claiming–often disingenuously–that signatures are invalid for various reasons. This decision will solve that problem, at least in cases where the official vested with certification duty (like the Secretary here) certifies the petition. Most charter petition procedures are written like Houston’s, where the Council’s duty to act becomes ministerial upon certification. However, if the official with certification authority acts like the City Attorney’s office did here, petitioners will still be required to go to court first.