The state’s high court on Friday reversed an appellate court ruling in a long-running legal dispute between County Judge Mark Henry and 56th District Court Judge Lonnie Cox.
The ruling was the latest in a three-year scuffle that has influenced county politics and cost taxpayers more than $1 million. By the end of the day Friday, both sides were declaring a victory.
In an opinion delivered by Justice Don Willett, the court 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 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.
“We trust the parties, all public servants of goodwill, will reach a collaborative agreement sooner rather than later,” Willett wrote.
The law and the county had prevailed in Friday’s order, Henry said.
“We’re relieved the Supreme Court recognizes that a district court judge does not get to legislate from the bench and replace their discretion for that of the legislative body of government,” Henry said. “The unfortunate part is that Cox’s actions have cost the taxpayers of Galveston County over $1 million to push back on his encroachment of county government.”
The greater issue of separation of powers had already been resolved in courts in favor of the judges, Cox said.
“As a member of the judiciary I couldn’t agree more with the Supreme Court,” Cox said. “I’m anxious to return this case of separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary back to the trial court for a final resolution in favor of the judges.”
I would prefer an amicable resolution,” Cox said. “Instead, commissioners court has spent approximately $1.3 million taxpayer dollars in attorneys’ fees fighting the judges. This doesn’t count the approximately $30,000 that I have spent.”
The judiciary is willing to work toward a reasonable solution with the commissioners court, Cox said.
“To date, they have not been willing to be reasonable,” Cox said. “Hopefully, they are willing now.”
The ongoing case — and any resolution or continuation in court — is sure to play a part in the November 2018 election for county judge. Cox earlier this month officially announced he is running against Henry for county judge.
The lawsuit brought against the county should be something voters consider, Henry said.
“I would hope people would see him for who he is: a bully and a bully who has no problem seeing the law in the terms that serve him,” Henry said.
The nearly three-year long 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 $113,00 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, limited 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.”
As of March, taxpayers have spent nearly $1.2 million on Henry’s legal representation for the suit against the county. Cox paid for his attorneys fees, which he estimates are close to $30,000.