HOUSTON (CN) — The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state Republican Party’s petition for an order to let it hold its in-person convention this week in Houston despite a surge in coronavirus cases.
In a 7-1 ruling, with one justice recusing himself, the state high court found it lacks jurisdiction, disposing of the Republicans’ claims the Texas Election Code imposes a duty on Houston First Corporation to honor its contract to lease the George R. Brown Convention Center in downtown Houston to them for the convention scheduled for July 13-18.
Houston First, a government corporation established by the Houston City Council, manages the convention center. Citing the city’s spike in Covid-19 cases, it notified the Texas Republican Party on June 8 it had canceled the contract authorizing the event.
The party’s last hope for holding the convention in Houston was snuffed out Monday afternoon when Harris County District Judge Daryl Moore denied its request for a temporary injunction.
Party leaders said its executive committee will vote Monday night on moving the convention online.
The litigation unfolded as Houston grapples with a surge in coronaviruses cases, with some hospitals reporting their emergency rooms are being overwhelmed with people suffering from the respiratory illness.
The federal government is also helping the city deal with the surge in cases. The U.S. Department of Defense deployed an 85-soldier Urban Area Medical Task Force of Army Reserve medical professionals to Houston hospitals that will arrive Monday and a Disaster Medical Assistance Team from U.S. Health and Human Services has also been sent to Houston, the local NBC affiliate KPRC-TV reported.
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, urged Republican Texas Governor Greg Abbott to “shut things down for the next couple of weeks to take the energy away from this virus” on Saturday, the same day Texas set a record of 10,351 new cases.
The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling comes after the office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, unexpectedly sided with Houston in the dispute.
Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, writing for the AG’s office, told the state high court in a letter Saturday that despite the “troubling factual allegations” raised in the Texas Republican Party’s challenge, he did not think the court had mandamus jurisdiction under the Texas Election Code because the dispute is over a private contract.
Seven of the Texas Supreme Court’s justices agreed Monday it does not have jurisdiction.
“The party does not assert that Houston First owes it any such duty,” the three-page, unsigned majority opinion states. “The party argues it has constitutional rights to hold a convention and engage in electoral activities, and that is unquestionably true. But those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use of the center. Houston First’s only duty to allow the party use of the center for its convention is under the terms of the parties’ agreement, not a constitution.”
The majority also rejected a parallel challenge over the convention cancellation brought by Houston Republican activist Dr. Steven Hotze, apparently finding neither Hotze nor four other individuals who joined him as plaintiffs have standing to litigate contractual disputes involving other parties.
Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeffrey Boyd recused himself from both the GOP’s and Hotze’s appeals. All nine members of the court are Republicans.
Dissenting from the majority’s decision in the Texas Republican Party’s appeal, Justice John Devine wrote the Texas Election Code gives the high court the power to compel Houston to let the GOP convention proceed.
“Houston First has a ‘duty arising by contract’—or a ‘duty imposed by law’—to host the Republican Party’s convention at the George R. Brown Convention Center. A plain reading of the Election Code thus supports our power to compel via mandamus any failure to fulfill that duty,” he wrote in a 10-page dissent.
He also said the convention should go ahead to ensure the “smooth functioning of the electoral process,” as the Texas Republican Party will elect presidential electors at its convention to cast the state’s 38 votes in the Electoral College should President Donald Trump win there in November. Because Texas, like 48 other states, has a winner-take-all system for the Electoral College, if Democrat Joe Biden receives a majority of votes in the presidential election, he will get all the state’s 38 votes.
Devine also agreed with the state Republican Party’s claims that Houston had improperly cited the city’s spike in Covid-19 cases starting on Memorial Day weekend as triggering the contract’s force majeure, or “act of God,” clause allowing Houston to cancel the convention.
The Republicans say the convention center rental contract states a force majeure claim must be made with seven days of the occurrence, and more than seven days had passed since Memorial Day weekend, which started May 23, before the city canceled the contract.
The Texas Republican Party and Hotze both sued Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and Houston First Corporation on Thursday, claiming Turner was engaging in political viewpoint discrimination.
They said Turner’s concerns about convention center workers being exposed to the virus as they served meals to, and cleaned up after, the 6,500 to 7,000 Republicans expected to attend the convention was political hypocrisy.
The GOP claims the mayor expressed no concerns about virus transmission when 60,000 people, most of them wearing masks, packed into the streets around City Hall on June 2 for a protest over Houston native George Floyd’s killing by police.
The Republicans and Hotze appealed to the Texas Supreme Court after their petitions for restraining orders to block the city from canceling the contract were rejected Thursday by Harris County District Judge Larry Weiman.
Despite the delays caused by the litigation, Chairman James Dickey said the party will meet its deadline for picking presidential electors.
“In spite of the obvious politically motivated efforts of the mayor to disrupt our convention, we will duly elect our national delegates and the presidential electors for our President Donald J. Trump on time as planned,” Dickey said in a statement.
The pandemic has also thrown in doubt the Republican National Convention, set for Aug. 24- 27 in Jacksonville, Fla.
With Covid-19 cases also spiking in the Sunshine State, a group of Florida residents suing on behalf of themselves and the state filed a complaint last week against the Republican National Committee, the Trump campaign and Jacksonville, claiming their plans to hold the convention in a Jacksonville arena during the Covid-19 pandemic will be “a nuisance injurious to the health, welfare and property rights … of the community of Jacksonville.”Follow @cam_langford
Subscribe to Closing Arguments
Sign up for new weekly newsletter Closing Arguments to get the latest about ongoing trials, major litigation and hot cases and rulings in courthouses around the U.S. and the world.