HOUSTON, Texas — A U.S. district judge appointed to the bench by then-President Ronald Reagan has rejected another effort from the City of Houston to have a case regarding “spousal” benefits of homosexual government workers decided in federal court rather than by state judges, and has ordered the City to pay the attorneys’ fees of the pastor and accountant who filed suit.
“This is the fourth time that a court has ruled against the City of Houston in this case,” Jonathan Saenz, an attorney with Texas Values, said in a statement on Wednesday. “It’s utterly irresponsible that the City of Houston continues to violate the law and spend thousands and thousands of taxpayer dollars on a legal matter that they keep losing.”
“Having considered the plaintiffs’ motion to remand, the court finds that: (1) The court lacks subject-matter jurisdiction over this lawsuit; (2) The defendant’s notice of removal is time-barred; (3) The defendants’ arguments for removal are foreclosed by the doctrines of issue and claim preclusion; and (4) No federal law or constitutional claim is presented by the plaintiff’s pleadings…,” wrote U.S. District Judge Kenneth Hoyt.
As previously reported, in 2013, Houston Mayor Annise Parker issued an order that required the city to provide benefits to homosexual city workers “legally married” out-of-state as same-sex nuptials were illegal in Texas at the time.
The following month, a pastor and an accountant filed suit against the city, stating that Parker’s order violated the Houston city charter, the Texas Defense of Marriage Act and the state Constitution.
State Judge Lisa Millard granted an injunction against Parker, but the city moved the legal challenge to federal court, resulting in the injunction becoming moot. However, the federal court moved the suit back to the state on jurisdictional grounds.
Following the 2015 Supreme Court ruling of Obergefell v. Hodges, an appeals court lifted the injunction and plaintiffs Jack Pidgeon of West Houston Christian Center and accountant Larry Hicks took the matter to the state Supreme Court. The court declined to hear the appeal in September 2016, but supporters—with the agreement of Gov. Greg Abbott—urged the justices to reconsider.
In January 2017, the court agreed to rehear the case, and released its written opinion in June, allowing Pidgeon and Hicks’ lawsuit to proceed.
“We agree with the mayor [of Houston] that any effort to resolve whether and the extent to which the Constitution requires states or cities to provide tax-funded benefits to same-sex couples without considering Obergefell would simply be erroneous,” Justice Jeffrey Boyd wrote on behalf of the panel. “On the other hand, we agree … that the Supreme Court did not address and resolve that specific issue in Obergefell.”
“The Supreme Court held in Obergefell that the Constitution requires states to license and recognize same-sex marriages to the same extent that they license and recognize opposite-sex marriages, but it did not hold that states must provide the same publicly funded benefits to all married persons,” he said. “Of course, that does not mean … that the city may constitutionally deny benefits to its employees’ same-sex spouses. Those are the issues that this case now presents.”
The court unanimously sent the matter back to the trial court for further consideration.
Following the ruling, Houston appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the high court denied the petition in December. Houston officials again sought for the case to be transferred to federal court, but on Tuesday, Judge Hoyt refused the request, returning the legal battle back to the 310th District Court of Harris County.
“The court also finds that the defendants had no objectively reasonable basis for removal, and the plaintiffs are entitled to recover an attorney’s fee,” he wrote.
Alan Bernstein, the spokesman for new Mayor Sylvester Turner, said that the City will continue to pursue the matter.
“We are surprised by the district court’s ruling,” he told the Dallas News. “Wherever the case is litigated, the city will protect the rights of city employees under United States Supreme Court case law.”