Just over a month ago, the Texas Supreme Court delivered a stinging rebuke to the Parker Administration, holding that Mayor Parker’s handling of the rain tax referendum was deceptive and misleading to voters.
Last Friday, the Texas Supreme Court delivered another stinging rebuke to Mayor Annise Parker, this time on her signature issue: the so-called equal rights, gender self-identification ordinance. In a per curiam ruling, the Supreme Court held that the Parker Administration acted unlawfully in attempting to usurp the power of City Secretary Anna Russell, who had certified that opponents of the mayor’s pet ordinance had gathered enough signatures for a vote on the issue:
The Relators assert that under the Houston Charter, after the City Secretary certifies the petition’s sufficiency, the City Council has a ministerial duty to immediately reconsider the ordinance and, if it does not repeal it, put it on the November 2015 ballot. The City responds that the City Council has no duty to act because the City Secretary did not certify a sufficient number of signatures. Moreover, according to the City, disputed fact issues, such as whether signatures were forged or affidavits were defective, preclude mandamus.
We agree with the Relators that the City Secretary certified their petition and thereby invoked the City Council’s ministerial duty to reconsider and repeal the ordinance or submit it to popular vote. The City Secretary unequivocally stated that “I am able to certify that . . . [t]he number of signatures verified on the petition submitted on July 3, 2014 is 17,846,” and that only 17,269 were required. As for the City Attorney’s findings, the City Secretary merely stated that “[a]ccording to the City Attorney’s Office and reviewed by the City Secretary,” there were not enough valid pages. The City Secretary did not expressly adopt the City Attorney’s findings, and she never reviewed his reasons—she merely reviewed his math. The Charter requires the City Secretary to “certify” her findings, and the only findings she expressly certified were her own. The City Attorney may, no doubt, give legal advice to the City Secretary, but he cannot assume her duties. Though the City Secretary’s report mentions the City Attorney’s findings, the City Secretary did not adopt the City Attorney’s findings as her own, review the substance of his findings herself, or certify the inadequacies to the City Council.
Once the City Council received the City Secretary’s certification, it had a ministerial duty to act.
That legal reasoning is clean and uncomplicated, relying on precedent and powers/duties spelled out in the City Charter.
More generally, it represents a stinging rebuke of the effort by Annise Parker, and her expensive City Attorney (at the time) David Feldman, to run roughshod over City Secretary (and City of Houston institution) Anna Russell, whom they effectively tried to bully into acceding to their political demands. That attempted exercise of naked power was shameful and contrary to the rule of law — ironic, since Parker claims to be “standing up” for those who might be bullied for other reasons (in her view). Of course, these same politicos, Parker and Feldman, attempted to bully their perceived opponents in the clergy with the threat of subpoenas over this same issue, before concluding that wasn’t such a good move.
It’s good to see the Texas Supreme Court rebuke public officials who abuse their power and exceed their authority in such arrogant fashion, even though it’s a shame that it takes so long (this petition was submitted over a year ago) and requires such extraordinary efforts by private citizens simply to force public officials to adhere to the rule of law.