HERO opponents ask judge for jury trial

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Opponents of the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance squared off in court on Friday, trying to persuade state District Judge Robert Schaffer to grant a jury trial in their challenge to the ordinance. 

Conservative opponents of HERO sued the city after a decision in August to throw out signatures from a petition seeking to put the ordinance before voters. Invalidating some signatures left opponents about 2,000 shy of forcing the public referendum.

On Friday, both sides faced off in court as preparations continue for a trial later this month. 

Schaffer didn't issue a ruling on whether he or a jury will hear the highly-technical case, according to the Houston Chronicle. That's likely to come from the judge next week.

City attorneys argued that the case is governed by the state's election code, which states that all election contests must be heard by a judge, not a jury. An attorney for the plaintiff argued that because the equal rights ordinance has not gone to the ballot, the issue does not qualify as an election contest.

Both sides have battled over the case in motions, including one filed by the city in November arguing that throwing out some signatures was the correct move as they were “purportedly from many different people, all of whom have the same handwriting,” according to the Houston Press. Conservative anti-gay activist Steve Hotze pulled out of the lawsuit, which city attorneys also pointed to in court filings.

Via the Houston Press:

These allegations were enough for plaintiff Steve “Birth Control Pills Make Women Less Attractive to Men” Hotze, to drop out of the suit — something the City's attorneys say is evidence that “misconduct and non-accidental defects are so pervasive” throughout the petitions. Listen, it's a bad sign when your co-plaintiff is Steve Hotze. But it's a really bad sign when Hotze drops out from fear that he may not have a legally sound argument.

The City Council approved the measure in May, but the threat of a lawsuit prompted Mayor Annise Parker to put HERO on hold. In October, Parker came under intense national scrutiny after attorneys for the city issued subpoenas to pastors involved in the HERO petition. She later reversed course and withdrew them. The battle over the ordinance prompted dueling rallies in November.

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