December 9, 2015 by Robert Tharp at 12:00:00 am
From the state’s first same-sex marriage to the international fallout over a student-built homemade clock mistaken as a bomb, the past 12 months have marked another eventful year for Texas legal news. Here are the Top 10 Texas Legal News Stories of 2015 as determined by Androvett Legal Media & Marketing, which specializes in public relations and marketing for law firms and legal clients from offices in Dallas and Houston.
10. US Supreme Court to Hear Texas Abortion Lawsuit
Since 1973’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision, which was based on a Dallas case, Texas has been intrinsically linked to the abortion rights debate. That includes the 2013 passage of Texas HB 2, which established stringent regulations on abortion procedures, providers and facilities. Under the bill, nearly all of the state’s 44 abortion clinics would be forced to close, leaving some women more than 300 miles away from the nearest qualified doctor. One Texas lawsuit challenging the law worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which announced in November that it will hear the case, Whole Woman’s Health, et al. v. Cole, Comm’r, Texas DHS, et al. The ruling is expected to have repercussions for similar state laws across the country.
9. Rocky First Year for Dallas DA
Susan Hawk’s inaugural year as the first woman to be elected district attorney in Dallas County got off to a rocky start when she fired several key staff members; later, news broke that she had sought help for prescription drug use. Additional staff firings preceded a highly publicized leave of absence that lasted nearly two months while Hawk dealt with depression. Hawk returned to work in October and, despite litigation aimed at removing her from office, began fulfilling campaign promises, including personally trying and winning a murder case and holding regular public meetings. She also announced plans to create an assistance program for mentally ill offenders and to develop one of the largest pre-trial diversion programs in the nation for young offenders.
8. Jail Protocols Scrutinized after Sandra Bland Death
What started out as a simple traffic stop in the college town of Prairie View quickly spiraled out of control in a videotaped confrontation between Sandra Bland, a black woman, and state Trooper Brian Encinia, who is Hispanic. The officer had stopped her for failure to signal a lane change. An argument over Bland’s unwillingness to put out her cigarette ended with Encinia pulling her from her car as he threatened to “light (her) up” with a Taser. Booked into the local jail for resisting arrest and reportedly unable to find family or friends to post her bail, Bland was found dead in her cell three days later following an apparent suicide. Under a national media spotlight, her death raised obvious questions about law enforcement treatment of African-Americans. And it also led to an assessment of jail operators’ methods of spotting defendants at risk of suicide, as well as bail bond requirements. Bland’s family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit; a criminal investigation continues.
7. Same-Sex Marriage Legalized
Diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer, Sarah Goodfriend needed to provide her longtime partner Suzanne Bryant with the protections that only a marriage license can deliver. On the morning of Feb. 19 following a state judge’s order, they became the first legally married same-sex couple in Texas. Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fight to void the union was mostly rendered moot in June with the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which guaranteed same-sex couples the right to marry. After Paxton issued a written opinion that county clerks with religious objections could opt out of issuing same-sex marriage licenses, a few initially heeded his advice while others resigned in protest as the vast majority of Texas counties quickly began issuing licenses to same-sex couples.
6. Houston’s Equal Rights Ordinance Derailed
Although designed to protect 15 different classes of people in matters of employment, housing and public accommodations, the opposition to the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO) assured its defeat in the November elections by focusing on just one small aspect of the ordinance – the rights of transgendered citizens to use public bathrooms. Opponents of the law ignored the protections that would be granted to other citizens based on race, age, military status, national origin and disability under HERO, instead claiming that male sexual predators could misuse the ordinance to enter women’s restrooms. Enlisting civic and religious leaders, sports heroes and citizens to campaign against passage, the opponents defeated HERO with 61 percent of the vote, leaving Houston as the largest city in the country without guaranteed nondiscrimination protections for all citizens.
5. Blue Bell Contamination
There may be no more iconic Texas-made food than Blue Bell ice cream. But love for the “little creamery in Brenham” was put to the test when listeria contamination was discovered in March following the deaths of three people in Kansas. Eight million gallons of ice cream were recalled as manufacturing plants in Oklahoma, Alabama and Texas were shut down. Even as reports of unsanitary practices and a long history of violations came to light, many supporters eagerly counted down the days until Blue Bell’s return to grocery shelves in August. But not everyone was so eager to forgive and forget. Blue Bell currently faces several lawsuits filed by those who claim to have contracted listeria, and the company also must answer a federal class-action claim regarding how customer refunds were handled.
4. Open Carry Set to Take Effect
Another Texas culinary institution, Whataburger, made headlines in July when it announced that customers would not be allowed to openly carry guns in its restaurants when the state’s open carry law takes effect on Jan. 1. Championed by defenders of the Second Amendment, the new law expands the scope of a concealed handgun license to allow licensees to carry handguns in a belt or shoulder holster while in public places. Prior to the law’s passage, Texas was one of only five states with an outright ban on open carry, but the rollback of the 140-year-old ban has helped Texas bolster its reputation as a pro-gun state. Only a bare minimum of restrictions have been placed on open carry. Locations that can ban guns include bars, large sporting events, school grounds and courthouses, with private businesses such as Whataburger being allowed to determine for themselves how to respond to the new law.
3. Student’s Homemade Clock Creates Firestorm
A clock made by a 14-year-old Irving MacArthur High School student of Sudanese descent set off a firestorm when a teacher reported that she thought it resembled a bomb. After bringing the clock to class, Ahmed Mohamed was sequestered, questioned and taken into police custody before being released with no charges filed against him. The boy and his family say he was the victim of racial profiling, and Ahmed has earned worldwide fame as a result of the incident. In November, the Mohamed family’s attorneys sent letters to the city of Irving and the school district outlining their grievances and demanding $15 million to resolve the dispute. No lawsuit has been filed as yet.
2. Biker Shootout at Twin Peaks in Waco
On a seemingly otherwise unremarkable Sunday in May, a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco became ground zero for a shootout between rival motorcycle gangs that left nine bikers dead. A reported fight over a parking space preceded the gunfire between the warring bikers before police responded with shots of their own. Police arrested 192 bikers, confiscating hundreds of weapons of all types in the process. With each defendant initially facing a $1 million bond, many remained in jail for months and McLennan County was required to request public defender assistance from eight surrounding counties. The last of those arrested was released at the end of October, followed by the announcement of sealed indictments of nine defendants in November. Claims that police and prosecutors have mishandled the case have resulted in numerous allegations of civil rights violations and at least one negligence lawsuit filed against Twin Peaks.
1. Texas Top Politicians Face Legal Troubles
Former Gov. Rick Perry did not find much relief when the calendar flipped to 2015. Initially indicted in 2014, he continued to fight first-degree felony charges for alleged abuse of power while governor, along with an additional third-degree felony claim of coercion. Calling the charges politically motivated, his attorneys appeared before the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals in November to argue that the charges be dismissed. By then, however, the damage had already been done. With the charges still hanging over him, Perry suspended his presidential campaign to become the first to drop out of the crowded Republican primary field for next year’s election. Another high-ranking Texas politician, Attorney General Ken Paxton faces his own legal battles. The state’s first sitting attorney general to be indicted since Jim Mattox was hit with bribery charges in 1983, Paxton faces a potential of 99 years in prison if convicted of three felony counts of securities fraud and failure to register with state securities board. He is accused of misleading investors while serving in the Texas House of Representatives by convincing them to contribute more than $600,000 toward a technology company without acknowledging that he was earning a commission.
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