AUSTIN

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.

Marissa Barnett: 409-683-5257; marissa.barnett@galvnews.com

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(58) comments

Carol Dean

"It's not over till the fat lady sings"!

Carlos Ponce

Correct me if I'm wrong but isn't the Texas Supreme Court as far as this case can go?

Ken Hufstetler

Every county in Texas owes Mark Henry a thank you for protecting the separation of powers. I don't know who the fat lady is here, but she needs to leave it alone. She has already caused the Commissioners Court to unnecessarily defend the separation of powers not only for Galveston County, but every county in the state. Fat lady, let it go, you have already cost the taxpayers too much on this battle. Let the citizens determine the final outcome in the upcoming election. Henry and Cox are running for the same office.

Ken Hufstetler

Sounds to me like the Supreme Court sent it back to the trial court. Doesn't that mean it could continue at the taxpayers expense. The Supreme Court suggested that the parties reach an agreement. That is the best solution to save the taxpayers the cost of continuing this disagrement.

Carol Dean

Yes, the Supreme Court has sent the case back to the trial court. There are several things that could happen at that point and Ike I continue to say, "The Fat Lady Isn't Singing Yet".

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

Pardon me, but, I told you so.

Carol Dean

Pardon me, if I say, this is NOT over yet. It was Mark Henry who spent more then 1.3 million of public money to prevent Bonnie Quiroga from working at the county. Judge Cox has spent his own money. The complete issue has yet to be resolved. Let's see if Henry and Court are willing to come up with a fair and workable situation or if they will continue to spend unlimited public funds in his effort to persecute a judiciary employee!

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

The Commissioners' Court was right and Judge Cox was wrong. Pretty much over.
I have been posting on this forum for the last three years that Henry had the law on his side when he fired Bonnie. Maybe you didn't read what I posted.

Carol Dean

No, it's not over yet.

Harold Womack

Curtis, I'm new to local politics (I kind of thought national politics were more important) so I haven't seen your posts, but I sure can see how you were right on this. At the national level, how does a federal judge anywhere get to tell the Congress how to vote? It's just absurd!

Harold Womack

I just read the Supreme Courts Order did you? Cox lost HUGE!

Carol Dean

Harold, do not let the article mislead you. There are more facets to this case then they have addressed. Of course, Judge Cox even said in the article that he agreed with the SC decision; they are now sending it back to the original court, that's all.

Harold Womack

If Cox sued me (the taxpayer) how is Henry wasting money? Cox wasted my money and I want it back! If Henry had wasted my money, I would ask him too. Cox, I'm done wit you, pay me back or resign!

Carol Dean

You would be wise to look at the overall facts before making demands. It is NOT over yet!

Harold Womack

So Cox is going to ignore the Supreme Court? Now I KNOW I'm done with him. I'm going to believe the Supreme Court looked at more "facts" than I can Carol. I'm just a plant worker but I have faith in a 9-0 vote from judges MUCH smarter than I am. Bye Cox and Quoraga!

Jack Cross

I am posing this as a question, because I am not sure.
1. Henry fired Quoraga
2. Quoraga filed a lawsuit and is still working without pay
3. The courts and the Commissioners agreed to split the positions
between court administrator and jail pretrial
4. The commissioners court hired another employee to handle the new position
so I would assume that although the Quoraga position has been relieved of some of
the duties and the salary reduced, no money has been saved plus the Supreme
court says this salary can and should be negotiated
5. Did I miss something, although Henry fired Quoraga, I did not see where the
Supreme court ruled on this? Does Quiraga still have her job? It is the salary that is
in dispute? Was the only thing the Supreme court ruled that the commissioners
have the right to set the salary range? It there two trials pending, Cox's lawsuit
plus Quoraga?
Looks like to me the spending continues and it may be the voters who decides
the issue in November. I am sure there are some smart legal minds who
will set me straight on this.

Carol Dean

Good questions, Jack; exactly part of the reason I keep saying do not be mislead by Henry's comments and the fact that there is still more to come.

Donald Glywasky

Hundreds of thousands paid for attorneys fees when a couple of staff attorney's could have handled it.

Carol Dean

Yep! Why don't you ask Mark who he plans on using for the rest of his defense??? This thing is not over yet, regardless of what "they" want you to believe!

Carol Dean

Mark Henry made the decision to hire the excessively expensive attorneys outside the scope of Galveston County Government. He will most likely continue to do the same in regards to further rulings on this issue.

Mark Stevens

I think it is now clear that the Juges--Not Henry or the CC--get to pick the Director, i.e., Ms. Quiroga's position.
The County Could have settled this before hearings in June, 2014. In fact, they convened in executive session to consider a proposal by Judge Cox. They did not do so and spent about $274,000 in attorneys fees just to try the case.
After the Temporary Injunction issued, we had a trial setting for January 11, 2015. Henry and the CC could have settled then or at least honored the injunction and had the trial in January of 2015. Instead, they brought a special appeal (Interlocutory") at a cost of about $1 million dollars.
We are back to square one, arguing about relatively inconsequential dollars.
I hope we can get it done in one hearing but I am concerned that this nonsense will go on as long as Henry and the C-Court continue to pay his hand picked lawyers $470 per hour.
Don't take my word for it. Ask your own lawyer what he or she thinks of those fees...
Mark W. Stevens

The overall beef was about 20,000 or so in annual salary differential.

Harold Womack

Sounds like you got shellacked and are trying hard to spin your losses.

Carol Dean

Harold, things aren't always the way they appear to be. If you are smart...you will confront Mark Henry and tell him that you do not want him to spend anymore of YOUR money. He and CC have been given countless opportunities to correct this mess. Here we are back again at square one.

Harold Womack

Carol, that seems like a smart idea. I email Judge Henry and within 10 minutes he agreed to meet with me. I go back on nights tomorrow but will try for Thursday and report back here what I find. I'll print these blogs and see where we are after that. Good advice.

Carol Dean

Thank you, Mark Stevens for setting the record straight! Mark Henry and CC have needlessly spent tax-payer dollars on an issue that should have been resolved at the onset. I can only hope that "the reasonable man theory" will prevail this time rather then allowing Henry's inflated ego to get in the way.

Jack Cross

My questions are still out there, I think I understand the salary issue, but was firing B.Q. legal ? What if B.Q. wins her trial? I assume she gets all her back pay. I don't have a dog in this fight but if we agree that B,Q. works for the courts, then would that not make a strong case that Henry overstepped his authority firing her. After all, it would be a jury who makes the decision, if I understand this, the court ruled on a salary and a budget issue, not who B.Q. works for and since there is a new employee doing part of her former duties, a reduction in her salary may be justified and easier to settle. But what about her job? Just asking

Jack Cross

I am not trying to second guess the courts and I am posting how I see things.
Again it is not clear to me if the court ruled on the firing of B.Q. if the court only made a ruling that the commissioners are responsible for the budget and setting a salary range, then her firing was not about any salary range because it was not in dispute at the time of the firing. If that is the case, then why couldn't Henry walk into the tax office and fire one of Cheryl Johnson's deputies, or any other department.
Surely I must be wrong because if not, there could be a lot more legal fees.

Harold Womack

I read the Supreme Court Order, she didn't work for Cox (or judges or whatever), they agreed Henry could fire her. Are we reading different Orders? It's online.

Carol Dean

Rather then just filing a case against just Mark Henry, it is possible that Judge Cox should have included the entirety of the Commissioner's Court in his suit. Here we are back at the beginning. Yes, there are also other pending law suits out there against Mark Henry. Please do not rush do judgment in this case if you are not aware of the facts.

Harold Womack

"Here, the county’s judicial branch encroached on the county’s legislative branch," This seems pretty clear to me, Cox was wrong!

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

Read the Supreme Court's judgment, it says Bonnie was hired as Justice Director in 2000 by the Commissioners' Court. That's it. The Court had asked the judges who they would like and the judiciary said Bonnie was fine with them. The Commissioner's Court hired Bonnie. They hired her, they can fire her. End of story.

Jack Cross

Thank you Curtis, mine was a question, but I have another question; "Is this a grey area, common sense leads me to believe the reason the commissioners Hired her 17 years ago was because the courts requested the position be created. It is my understanding that her work and scheduling centered with and around the judiciary.
Since this was a new position obvious to streamline the courts and ease the burden of the courts, would not this new position and its 17 year history establish "precedent" as a "rule of law established for the first time by a court (commissioners) for a particular type of case and thereafter referred to in deciding similar cases.
There is no argument that the commissioners court established the position, and the fact that the commissioners court established the budget and sets the salary range for this position has been settled, but I still have questions who she works for. What is the difference if the sheriff asks to create a new position and the commissioners court agrees?
I would expect that over the years a lot of positions in other departments have been created. I also suspect that the commissioner court can eliminate positions, but can the county judge walk in to these departments and fire people?
Is it a good standard for the commissioners’ court to fire people in other department without first discussing the matter with the people the employee works for. Since the majority of the District judges appear to be satisfied with her work performance, what is the issue?

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

Ha! The current County Judge walked onto a cruise ship and sent a flunky (sorry Freeman) with a letter firing me. I insisted that the entire court ratify Henry's action and they did.
But, in answer to your questions, you should remember that Bonnie was not our first Justice Administrator, Ed Wells was. Ed became the Chief Clerk for the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals in Houston ( a much better paying gig.) Bonnie replaced Ed. But your characterization that the courts requested the position be created in inaccurate. To do so would have required a formal written letter asking the position be created at budget time. That would have caused a budget hearing and I am sure you or members of the press would have noticed. That never happened. Not until just recently has the judiciary requested such an arrangement.
The "issue," in my humble opinion was that this employee was no longer doing her job in a manner expected by her boss. While the Judges liked and approved of her the problem was her job was to be able to deliver the bad news that the Commissioners' Court wanted this or that from the judges and not to win popularity contests with folks, who, while powerful were not her boss.

Donald Glywasky

The Justice Adminsitrator position because Ed Wells worked to the District Clerk, When that clerk died and Ed's mother became clerk, the position was created to deal with the nepotism issue.

Ken Hufstetler

I may be wrong, but it seems to me that it was the judicial branch that initially took this issue to the courts. If I am correct, then I question who actually caused the county to spend so much money on this issue. In reading the SS decision I think it is obvious that the CC picked the right attorney to represent them. Sometimes you have to pay more to get the best.

Carol Dean

So, Ken are you saying the attornies who are currently on the County payroll are not good enough to handle County issues; maybe we need fewer of them at higher salaries?

Ken Hufstetler

Typo - SS should have been SC for Supreme Curt

M. FARRIS

**Simple Solution...Vote Henry out of office! **
He never was a good Judge and never will he! He pushes his own agenda and believe me when I tell you he makes everything personal. Him and Bonnie had a disagreement...she had to go! He used the IT Director "he hired" to let me go. He didn't like me any more than I did him but I was a damn good employee for 25 years. And he did this to many GOOD, loyal employees! So, Remember...VOTE HENRY OUT of Galveston County!! We will all be better for it!

Carol Dean

M. Farris I have recently heard talk about why Mark Henry fired Ms. Quiroga and "oddly" it involves Commissioner Ken Clark. "Oh what a tangled web they weave." Maybe we should start directing our questions to Mr. Clark and look very closely into some of his past "indiscretions". Funny how your past can ultimately catch up with you.

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

The fat lady has sung.

Carol Dean

Hope you are not holding your breath, Curtis.

Ken Hufstetler

I thought we were waiting for "the fat lady to sing". Has she sang yet? If now, when will it happen? I await with bated breath.

Carol Dean

Ken, have you ever tried Listerine?

Carol Dean

Nope, hasn't happened yet. The Ken Clark stuff is too good to miss!

Ken Hufstetler

Maybe she sang and I missed it because now the discussion has switched to Ken Clark. If at first you don't succeed, switch to a different rumor attack.

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

The Aria is over. The curtain has come down. Time to go home. Good night.

Carol Dean

That would be your choice if you so desire.

Ken Hufstetler

Carol, what does listerine have to do with "bated breath"?

Carol Dean

That is for YOU to figure out, Ken! LOL!

Ken Hufstetler

Carol, "with bated breath, with breath drawn in or held because of anticipation or suspense"

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

Carol, you are sitting in an empty theater. The next show isn't until the Fall. Don't listen to those people sweeping up between the rows of seats. Go home.

Carol Dean

Na, this is too much fun watching your uninformed posts! LOL!

Jack Cross

Curtiss Brown, who has lengthy service with the commissioners court was kind enough to answer my stack of questions in a email he sent me. His answers made sense and I accept them. Regardless of the past, the positions are now split wit the Judges responsible for hiring the court administrator and the commissioners court hiring the pre trial employee. it is settled tne commissioners make the budget and set the salary range. It looks like both sides won, the judges got the court administration under their control and the commissioners set the salary.
However. this was never about money and it is costing more money for two people and two pensions to do the job that one person was doing. Who is to blame? I guess voters will decide that in November.

Harold Womack

"Both sides won"? Wow, that's like telling the chicken at KFC "both sides won".

Dne News

Its such a nice article..
Dne News

Carol Dean

Harold, if you haven't figured it out by now, you might want to get someone who is honestly informed, explain it to you.

isleshire
Curtiss Brown

The fat lady is dead on the stage.

Carol Dean

Ileshire, why don't you ask Henry who he plans on using for THE REST of his legal defense, since you think this is all over.

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