Both sides are claiming victory after the jury reached a mixed verdict Friday in the trial over a petition to repeal Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance.
But we won't know which side is right until the judge issues a final ruling about how many valid signatures are on the petition. And even then, the decision is likely to be appealed.
The Houston Chronicle reports:
The ruling is not final, and a judge will now consider the jury's findings about the work of more than 100 circulators of the petition that the city rejected last summer, citing overwhelming notary and signature-gatherer errors.
District Judge Robert Schaffer was not present for Friday's ruling after nearly six days of jury deliberation. Attorneys on both sides said he will now begin counting which signatures are valid to see if opponents have reached the needed 17,269-signature threshold. Schaffer retains wide legal discretion in what he deems valid.
The jury's ruling Friday will trigger a series of legal dominoes that, eventually, will yield a definitive answer: The judge will count the signatures, issue a decision on whether the petition is valid and then the case will almost certainly go to the appellate courts
Jurors determined there was widespread forgery on petition pages they reviewed, but no fraud. They also found that in many cases circulators failed to properly sign and subscribe petition pages.
Geoffrey Harrison, the lead attorney for the city, told the Chronicle that supporters of the Equal Rights Ordinance should "be thrilled and dancing in their kitchen" about the verdict. Mayor Annise Parker, who authored the ordinance, issued this statement:
"I am very pleased with the jury’s verdict, and I expect the court will apply the law to the verdict and issue a final judgment confirming that the petition failed. The City of Houston has had in place for over 100 years the same rules and legal requirements governing the referendum process to ensure fairness and avoid fraud, and the jury’s verdict confirms that the petitions did not meet the legal requirements. The plaintiffs are expected to appeal any outcome that is not in their favor. That would be unfortunate for the City. I believe that the majority of Houston wants this divisive fight to be over so that we are able to provide equal rights protections for all of our residents. The City is confident it will prevail."
But opponents of the ordinance were also claiming victory. Plaintiff Jared Woodfill, the former chair of the local GOP, sent out a press release under the headline, "Favorable Jury Verdict Should Result in Victory for Voters and Religious Liberty!"
"Great news...the jury returned a verdict that should allow the people to vote on Mayor Parker's Unequal Rights Ordinance," Woodfill wrote. "Judge Robert Schaffer will now apply the ruling to the almost 55,000 individuals who signed the petition. I am confident he will conclude we had the requisite 17,269 signatures necessary for the people to vote on this issue."
The Texas Pastor Council, the anti-LGBT group that led the petition drive, also said it's confident the judge will determine there are enough valid signatures:
The coalition of pastors and community leaders behind the historic referendum effort to repeal Mayor Annise Parker’s pro-LGBT so-called “Equal Rights Ordinance” and the corresponding lawsuit after Parker and her legal team invalidated the petitions, responded with faith, confidence and optimism to today’s jury verdict that was nearly a fifty/fifty split on questions they considered.
“The Mayor’s lawyers went to extraordinary lengths to discredit, demean, denigrate and disqualify as many petitions and signatures as possible. Thankfully, in spite of an incredible amount of detail presented and even oft repeated by the city’s attack team, our God has again raised His standard of justice,” stated Dr. F.N. Williams, lead plaintiff for the pastors of the No UNequal Rights Coalition and Senior Pastor of Antioch Missionary Baptist Church as well as President of Houston Ministers Against Crime. ...
“We are thankful that the God of justice stood with this David again against the Goliath of the machinery of city government in the hands of those like Annise Parker intent on serving her personal agenda even at the cost of voting rights of the people,” added Pastor Hernan Castano, an influential Hispanic pastor and network leader as well as one of the “Houston Five” subpoenaed by the Mayor.
Watch a report from KTRK-TV, AFTER THE JUMP ...