By Chuck Lindell and Jonathan Tilove, Austin American-Statesman
AUSTIN, Texas – The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected two appeals that sought to resurrect the state Republican Party’s in-person political convention after it was canceled by Houston officials amid a growing coronavirus outbreak.
GOP officials had hoped the all-Republican Supreme Court would allow the meeting to take place at the end of this week.
Instead, the court’s 7-1 ruling said the party could not rely on state law or the Texas Constitution to enforce its contract with Houston or Houston First, which operates the city’s convention center.
“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,” the court said in an unsigned opinion.
“The duty the Party seeks to compel Houston First to perform is imposed by contract, not imposed by law,” the court said.
The court also denied without comment an appeal from conservative leaders, including Steven Hotze, that sought to allow an in-person convention.
After party officials rejected pleas to cancel its convention amid a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases in the state’s largest city, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner stepped in Wednesday to cancel the convention center contract, citing a “force majeure” clause that permits cancellation for situations beyond control, including “epidemics in the City of Houston.”
The GOP filed suit the same day, and on Thursday, a state district judge held a brief preliminary hearing on the lawsuit and declined to order Houston to honor its contract with the party, which appealed to the Supreme Court. The district judge set a full hearing on the matter for today.
State GOP Chairman James Dickey said party lawyers have shifted efforts to that hearing, which began at 9:30 a.m., in hopes of a legal victory that will allow for an in-person convention.
“We believe that Mayor Turner used his control of city-owned property to disenfranchise Republicans and attempt to deny them the opportunity to cast their votes for national delegates and electors in-person in Houston,” Dickey said in a statement.
Whether online or in person, Dickey said, “we will have our Convention on time as scheduled,” with party leaders set to meet “to finalize our path forward” once the legal fight concludes.
On Saturday night, the State Republican Executive Committee met for more than three hours to discuss the convention and the legal challenge. Members expressed hope that the Supreme Court would rule in their favor, allowing an in-person convention, and rejected any effort to seek another location for a live event in Montgomery County or elsewhere.
Without a reprieve from the court, the party would now be expected to trigger its backup plan for a virtual convention.
In the meantime, the party’s temporary Rules, Platform, Resolutions and Legislative Priorities committees are proceeding with their meetings today at the Marriott Marquis, the convention hotel in Houston.
One Supreme Court justice, John Devine, dissented from Monday’s ruling, saying he would “hold the City to its word” and order officials to allow the convention to proceed.
Devine said a plain reading of state election law gave the court the power to enforce the party’s convention contract as “appropriate – but necessary – to preserve the sanctity of contract and our elections.”
The party, Devine added, had developed extensive safety protocols for its gathering while Turner, the city’s Democratic mayor, had not shown the same safety concerns while participating in social justice protests weeks earlier.
Devine also dissented from the denial of the Hotze petition.
Jared Woodfill, a Houston lawyer who filed the Hotze lawsuit, vowed Monday to continue fighting.
“I’m not giving up until we have explored every legal vehicle available to the delegates. They have worked too hard for too long to be left behind,” Woodfill said.
Justice Jeff Boyd recused from the GOP and Hotze appeals.