Judge issues preliminary order on Starr electioneering ban

McALLEN — A federal judge delayed ruling Monday on an application for a temporary restraining order against Starr County’s electioneering regulations.

The lawsuit and the temporary restraining order (TRO) application were filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) on behalf of Hilda Gonzalez Garza, a Starr County attorney running for Democratic Party precinct chair, and Rosbell Barrera, the Starr County Republican Chair.

Both were filed in an attempt to block a county ordinance adopted in January, which banned electioneering — or “politicking” — on county property. Per state law, electioneering is already prohibited within 100 feet of a polling place door.

Early on in Monday’s hearing, U.S. District Judge Randy Crane ruled that the county’s electioneering ordinance was “constitutionally vague” and said, as written, wasn’t really an order and only expressed what the county wanted to do.

“I think everyone would concede it was poorly written,” Crane said, adding that the ordinance wasn’t enforceable.

The focus of the hearing then shifted to the county’s property use policy, which was adopted Feb. 12 and overrides the electioneering ban. The policy allows for use of county property, as long as that property is not designated a parking area.

Attorneys representing the county called on District Attorney Omar Escobar to testify and he explained that the property use policy, which he helped draft, was implemented after realizing there was no policy regulating the use of county property.

Escobar clarified that under the policy, anything not designated a parking zone is a common-use area and thus available for any use — including electioneering — with a county-issued permit.

Celina Moreno, an attorney with MALDEF, argued that the property use policy was not narrowly tailored and thus overly broad. Nina Perales, also with MALDEF, stressed that the policy could do more to distinguish between active electioneering, such as engaging with voters, and passive electioneering, like wearing a political T-shirt.

Efrén Olivares, an attorney with TCRP, argued that while the policy may be designed to regulate property, in practice, when it comes to speech, it only affects political speech.

Olivares cited an incident over the weekend in which sheriff’s deputies asked Gonzalez Garza to leave a sidewalk in front of the courthouse because she was wearing a campaign T-shirt. Gonzalez Garza said at the time she was standing next to another woman who was not asked to leave.

While Crane agreed in its applicability that the law may be discriminatory, he said on its face, the policy was neutral. While Gonzalez Garza believed she was asked to leave because of her T-shirt, the judge said the actual reason the deputies made her leave was unclear.

The judge also tried to discern just how far the county property use policy went, asking the attorneys for the county if a person would have to seek a permit to watch a baseball game at the county’s baseball field, have a picnic at a county park or hold a protest on county property. He expressed concern over how the policy affected use of county sidewalks.

Crane ultimately said he needed more time to consider the nuances of the property use policy, telling the parties he hoped to make a ruling on the TRO application within the next few days.