City claims HERO win despite mixed verdict

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In the leadup to a trial over Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, anti-LGBT activists demanded that the case be heard by a jury, not a judge, saying it was their constitutional right. 

Now that the jury has rendered a verdict, opponents of the ordinance reportedly are hoping the judge rejects some of its findings. But they also say that if they lose, which now appears likely, they're prepared to appeal the ruling all the way to the Texas Supreme Court. 

After six days of deliberations, the jury handed down a mixed verdict Friday about which signatures should be considered valid on a petition to repeal HERO. Now, based on the verdict, Judge Robert Schaffer must make a final ruling about whether the petition has the 17,269 valid signatures needed to qualify for the ballot. 

Attorneys for the city, which is defending the ordinance passed by the council last May, are signalling victory. Geoffrey Harrison, the city's lead attorney, told the Houston Chronicle that HERO supporters should be “dancing in their kitchens” based on the jury's verdict. 

Mayor Annise Parker, who authored the ordinance, also expressed optimism in a statement. 

“I am very pleased with the jury's verdict, and I expect the court will apply the law to the verdict and issue a final judgment confirming that the petition failed,” Parker said. “The City of Houston has had in place for over 100 years the same rules and legal requirements governing the referendum process to ensure fairness and avoid fraud, and the jury's verdict confirms that the petitions did not meet the legal requirements. The plaintiffs are expected to appeal any outcome that is not in their favor. That would be unfortunate for the City. I believe that the majority of Houston wants this divisive fight to be over so that we are able to provide equal rights protections for all of our residents. The City is confident it will prevail.”

In a damning indictment of the petition drive to repeal the ordinance, the jury found evidence of forgery by 12 of 13 circulators in question, according to Harris County court records. Jurors also found that 12 of 13 circulators' affidavit oaths were not true and correct, and that six of 13 circulators submitted pages including “non-accidental defects.” 

The jury found no evidence of fraud among circulators — defined as “a knowing misrepresentation of the truth or concealment of a material fact to induce another to act.” However, it found that 65 of 98 circulators failed to properly sign and subscribe petition pages. 

The Chronicle reports that HERO opponents “maintained they would prevail when the judge begins his review, saying he has the power to reject some of the jury's findings.”

Meanwhile, both plaintiff Jared Woodfill and the Texas Pastor Council issued statements saying they're confident Schaffer will determine there are enough valid signatures on the petition. However, the Pastor Council also conceded it may have to appeal the judge's ruling.  

“The Mayor’s lawyers went to extraordinary lengths to discredit, demean, denigrate and disqualify as many petitions and signatures as possible,” Pastor F.N. Williams said in the TPC statement. “Thankfully, in spite of an incredible amount of detail presented and even oft repeated by the city’s attack team, our God has again raised His standard of justice.” 

Pastor Hernan Castano added: “We are thankful that the God of justice stood with this David again against the Goliath of the machinery of city government in the hands of those like Annise Parker intent on serving her personal agenda even at the cost of voting rights of the people.”

However, Pastor Steve Riggle seemed less optimistic about the judge's ruling.  

“We have known from the onset that we would have be to committed to standing strong and taking this all they way to Austin before the Texas Supreme Court,” Riggle said in the release. “We are resolved to do so and greatly confident that justice will be served and the people will have our day at the ballot on this very important matter of protecting our families and our God-given, Constitutionally guaranteed rights.”

Also issuing statements in response to the verdict were Equality Texas and the Human Rights Campaign. 

“All people — including those who are gay or transgender — should be treated fairly and equally by the laws of the City of Houston, and should have the opportunity to earn a living to provide for themselves and their families,” Equality Texas Executive Director Chuck Smith. “Nobody should have to live in fear of being fired for reasons that have nothing to do with their job performance. Equality Texas looks forward to the day very soon when HERO will be enforced and every resident of Houston will be protected from discrimination in city employment, city services, city contracting practices, housing, public accommodations, and private employment.”

“Protecting people from discrimination, including LGBT people, is about treating people fairly and equally under the law,” HRC National Field Director Marty Rouse said. “When it comes to being able to earn a living, having a place to live, or being served by a business or the government, people should be judged on their merits and not on the basis of who they are.”

Schaffer reportedly will meet with attorneys to discuss next steps on Feb. 19.

[image via KTRK] 

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