A Galveston district court judge Tuesday dismissed a long-running lawsuit against the county judge after a Texas Supreme Court ruling issued last week reversed a lower-court ruling.
Lonnie Cox, judge of the 56th District Court, moved to dismiss the suit, saying he recognized the Supreme Court decision affirming the commissioners court’s right to set the salary range for the justice administration position that spurred the suit.
“I do recognize the Supreme Court also acknowledged the commissioners court’s right to set the salary range for this position,” Cox said. “For these reasons I have elected to dismiss my case today and take no further action except to work collaboratively to fill that position within the posted salary range.”
The move brings to an end a three-year legal battle pitting Cox against County Judge Mark Henry, who are now political opponents in the race for county judge. The suit cost taxpayers more than $1.2 million.
In the judgment, the court ruled Cox will be responsible for court fees, although did not mention legal fees. Cox paid his attorneys fees, which he estimated around $30,000.
The state’s highest court had knocked down Cox and told district judges they couldn’t legislate from the bench, Henry said.
“Lonnie Cox’s frivolous lawsuit finally ended,” Henry said. “Cox owes me an apology and owes the taxpayers $1.2 million.”
“Some may say that Mark Henry won, however that could not be further from the truth,” Cox said.
“Remember: I filed in the district court after Mark Henry terminated Bonnie Quiroga, our justice administrator, to preserve, protect and defend the judiciary’s right to hire and fire that position. Prior to argument, Mark Henry conceded that point.”
The judiciary had gotten what it demanded by having the commissioners court allow it to appoint a position for the court administrator, Cox said. Cox plans to meet with the district judges and ask them how to move forward on filling that position, he said.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Don Willett, the court Friday ruled the trial court had erred by issuing a temporary injunction requiring Henry to reinstate a county judicial employee at a specific salary. Further, the trial court lacked the authority to bind the Galveston County Commissioners Court to any action because Cox failed to name the other commissioners in the suit.
“Here, the county’s judicial branch encroached on the county’s legislative branch, the Commissioners Court, which was performing a constitutionally and statutorily authorized function,” Willett wrote.
“Personnel is policy, as they say, and fiscal-policy decisions, including staffing, are quintessentially legislative prerogative.”
A divided appellate court had upheld the trial court’s temporary injunction in 2016. Henry appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard arguments in the case in March in Austin.
The ruling Friday reversed the appellate ruling and sent it back to the trial court to be heard again with the highest court’s decision in effect. The case could continue in the trial court or the parties could reach a collaborative agreement, the ruling said. With the case now dismissed, any decision will be reached outside of the courts.
The nearly three-year dispute stems from the 2014 firing of Director of Justice Administration Bonnie Quiroga. Henry had fired Quiroga, citing poor work performance. The commissioners court later ratified the termination.
Cox sued Henry, arguing he had overstepped his authority and was undermining the independence of the county’s judicial branch because many of the duties of the fired employee performed served the trial judges.
Henry had argued he had the right to fire her because the position is a county employee position.
The Galveston County Commissioners Court in 2000 hired Quiroga as director of justice administration at a salary of $48,000. When Henry fired her in 2014, her salary was $113,000, according to court documents.
After Quiroga’s termination, the county posted an advertisement for a new director of justice administration. Cox issued an order requiring Henry to reinstate Quiroga, court documents said. After tussling, the district judges and commissioners court agreed to a workaround that would create a new position, director of court administration, with fewer responsibilities.
The district judges requested the new position have a salary range of $85,000 to $120,000. That proposal was slated for consideration by the commissioners court in June 2015.
Ahead of the hearing, district judges, led by Cox, informed the commissioners court that the judges intended to reinstate Quiroga at her former salary of $113,000 with the new, reduced job responsibilities of the new position, the ruling said. Cox followed up with an order that the county judge and commissioners should comply with his earlier directive, according to the ruling.
The commissioners court later accepted the proposed director of court administration position, with some of the district judges’ recommendations, including giving administrative judges supervision over the role, limiting the duties to court-related responsibilities and allowing the judges to pick the appointee, the ruling said. The court set the position salary at $63,695.
Cox filed suit in his district court for a hearing before a visiting judge, arguing the salary was unreasonable. Visiting District Court Judge Sharolyn Wood in July 2015 granted a temporary injunction reinstating Quiroga to her old title with her $113,000 salary with decreased duties, the ruling said.
The decision was upheld by a state appeals court in December 2015, and Henry’s attorneys subsequently appealed to the Supreme Court. There was a partial dissent to the appellate court ruling that argued the lower court lacked the authority to order Henry to pay Quiroga $113,000 as a set salary.
In Friday’s opinion, the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the appellate court’s dissent. The highest court sided, too, with Henry’s attorneys’ arguments the trial court erred by directing the lawsuit against Henry instead of the commissioners court as a whole and exceeded its authority when it directed Quiroga be reinstated at her former salary.
The state’s constitution grants the commissioners court — the legislative branch — budget-making authority and the ability to set salaries, Willett wrote. The constitution does grant the court the authority to compel a commissioners court to pay a salary for functions that ensure justice is properly administered, the ruling said.
“Here, the commissioners court did set a salary range,” Willett wrote. “The local district judges may reasonably think it unreasonable, but separation of powers forbids them from mandating specific compensation outside the designated range.”
“If they believe the range set by the commissioners court is unwarranted — either too extravagant or too miserly — they can tell the commissioners court to reset it. And perhaps re-reset it. Nothing more.”