After two weeks of testimony and more than a year of controversy, the future of Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance is now in the hands of a jury.
The two sides wrapped up closing arguments Thursday in the trial over whether the petition to repeal HERO has enough valid signatures. The jury began deliberating Thursday afternoon and is scheduled to resume Monday. If it decides in favor of the plaintiffs, it would force Houston City Council to either repeal the ordinance or place a referendum on the November ballot.
The trial included testimony from Mayor Annise Parker and former City Atttorney Dave Feldman, the two officials who rejected the petition in August, saying it didn't have enough valid signatures. Also taking the stand were Texas Pastor Council Executive Director Dave Welch, whose group led the petition drive, and former Harris GOP Chair Jared Woodfill, who filed the lawsuit against the city after the petition was rejected.
In their closing arguments, attorneys for the city reportedly focused on technical issues about whether specific signatures and pages met requirements laid out in the city charter — including allegations of fraud, forgery and perjury. Opponents largely pandered to jurors' emotions, according to the Houston Chronicle.
Andy Taylor, attorney for the plaintiffs, painted the case as pitting the desire of the people to vote versus an all-powerful City Hall. Gesturing to the city's many pro bono lawyers, Taylor invoked the Bible. He stacked the binders of signatures opponents collected, allowing the “thump” of each to echo in the courtroom.
“Help us beat Goliath,” Taylor said. “Help us beat City Hall.”
The Chronicle reports that jurors must decide six key questions related to which signatures and pages from the petition should be considered valid. Based on their determinations, Judge Robert Schaffer is then expected to issue a ruling about the final count.
“I have to start from zero and work up,” Schaffer said, according to the Chronicle. “I'm not looking forward to that.”
The City Council approved the ordinance in May 2014, making Houston the latest major city in the US to add LGBT protections. Opponents claimed they gathered more than 30,000 signatures on the petition to repeal the ordinance, but the city determined that only 16,500 signatures were valid, fewer than the 17,269 needed. Attorneys for the city now say that based on a subsequent review, only 3,905 signatures on the petition are valid.
In his testimony earlier this week, Feldman shed light on one of the problems with the petition: incendiary language attacking the merits of the ordinance at the top of the pages took up so much space that there wasn't sufficient room at the bottom for the oath, signature and notarization. Meanwhile, a handwriting expert testified that a large number of signatures on the petition appeared to be forged or otherwise fraudulent.
One of those forged signatures, attorneys for the city suggested, may belong to Celeste Woodfill, the plaintiff's wife. It reportedly looks nothing like her signature from other documents. Jared Woodfill suggested in a deposition last year that he may have signed for his wife, but he now insists she signed it herself. She even took the stand to defend against the forgery allegation.
“I was holding my 30-pound son in one hand and trying to sign with the other,” Celeste Woodfill said on cross examination, according to the Chronicle. “Breakfast, getting the backpacks packed, it's a totally different situation … than sitting at a table. Any mother would understand.”