WACO – It is in the opinion of Chief Justice Tom Gray of the Texas 10th Court of Appeals that the 249th District Court in Somervell County incorrectly ruled against Somervell County Hospital Board member, Paul Harper’s motion to dismiss a removal petition filed by Somervell County resident Darrell Best.
In the 23-page opinion filed April 21, Gray outlines several reasons as to why the plaintiff, a role assumed by the State of Texas on behalf of Best, failed to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt any of the non-criminal allegations against Harper. At the same time, Gray concluded that the Texas Citizens Participation Act – more commonly know as the Anti-SLAPP statue – should indeed protect Harper and with his First Amendment right to free speech.
“Having determined that the trial court erred in failing to dismiss the State’s petition for removal, the trial court’s order denying Harper’s motion to dismiss signed March 11, 2015 is reversed,” said Gray in his conclusion. “This proceeding is remanded to the trial court for rendition of an order granting Harper’s motion to dismiss and for a determination of Harper’s request for court costs, reasonable attorney’s fees, and sanctions.”
The original petition, which is a civil suit and not a criminal matter, was brought about when Best felt Harper was out of line after suggesting a possible cut or even elimination of the SCHD’s tax, previous reports state. According to the opinion, the State then intervened and amended the suit to add a claim that Harper violated the Texas Open Meetings act when he sent a series of text messages to three other board members and mentioned conversing with a fourth outside of a board meeting.
However, Gray – along with Harper’s representatives from Cantey Hanger, LLP – pointed to a new question that surrounds “the evolution of a citizen’s interaction with government.”
“The question, as applied to this suit, is whether we have arrived at the place where an unhappy politically-active citizen who runs for office is elected in a general election can then be charged as incompetent when, as an elected officeholder, the elected official tries to constrain or even eliminate the organization to which he was elected,” the opinion reads. “If the State of Texas can maintain a suit to hold an elected official incompetent under these circumstances, we have effectively criminalized the ability to shirk government by the political process. Historically, there would be no way to summarily stop such a suit.”
In other words, if the official is fairly elected in a general election, argued Harper’s lawyers, Mary H. Barkley and Christopher A. Brown in a press release, then he or she should not be able to be found incompetent or removed from office by a civil suit.
“This opinion is an important win for elected officials and First Amendment advocates,” the release states, “because it ensures that elected officials’ ideas should be judged at the ballot box by the electorate and not by a lawsuit to remove them from office.”
Former Gov. Rick Perry signed the Texas Anti-SLAPP statue, which was cited by Harper in his motion to dismiss, into law June 17, 2011. Laura Lee Prather, a partner and head of media law practice for Haynes Boone, LLP in Austin, spearheaded the efforts to pass the bill through both legislative chambers details the basics of the Anti-SLAPP statue on the website slappedintexas.com.
“This is a great piece of legislation that protects the little guy, promotes judicial economy, provides for tort reform and advances the First Amendment rights of all Texas citizens, “ Prather said.
The State declined to comment while the issues of Harper’s court costs, attorney fees, and other sanctions are pending. But Harper himself was quite pleased with the outcome in Waco.
“We at the Harper household are very please with the 10th Court of Appeals opinion and judgment against the state of Texas,” an elated Harper said.
As of press time, there had yet to be a court date set to address the remaining fees and costs.