HERO trial could deliver big win before it starts

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A jury trial in the lawsuit aimed at repealing Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance was slated to begin this week, but first a judge must rule on several motions, including one that could put an end to the trial before it begins.

Houston Public Media reports that the city is seeking a summary judgment declaring that anti-LGBT groups didn't gather enough valid signatures on their petition to repeal the ordinance. If granted, the motion would deliver a major victory to gay Houston and HERO supporters.

Among other things, the city's motion alleges “forgery, fraud or other non-accidental defects” in the petition.

“I think that the clear legal entitlement is that the plaintiffs’ petition failed, that the plaintiffs and their coalition members did not comply with the election code and the City Charter, and so summary judgment throwing out their case is appropriate,” Geoffrey Harrison of Susman Godfrey LLP, an attorney representing the city, told HPM.

If 152nd District Court Judge Robert Schaffer grants the motion, it would be a coup for supporters of the ordinance, which is not currently being enforced pending the outcome of the trial. Last week, Schaffer denied a motion by the city asking for a bench trial instead of one by jury.

Andy Taylor, who represents plaintiffs led by former Harris GOP chair Jared Woodfill, told HPM he's confident the judge will deny the city's motion for summary judgment.

“I think they’re just having a hard time accepting the fact that the mayor is going to have to go before a jury of her peers and reconcile why it is that she had trumped-up reasons to stiff-arm the voters,” Taylor said.

Jury selection is now tentatively scheduled to begin on Monday. The trial could last several weeks as jurors weigh technical issues to determine how many of the petition signatures are valid.   

Dave Welch, executive director of the anti-gay Texas Pastor Council, noted Wednesday that attorneys for the city have also filed a plea to the jurisdiction, seeking to remove the city as a defendant, leaving only Mayor Annise Parker and City Secretary Anna Russell. 

Even if the judge denies the plea to the jurisdiction, Welch said attorneys for the city could appeal the decision, which would further delay the proceedings. 

“Ultimately the city is trying to keep this delayed as long as possible from going to trial,” Welch told Project Q Houston. “If they can delay it long enough, obviously they can keep it off the ballot in 2015 also, which would get it past Mayor Parker's administration and let her off the hook.” 

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