Federal court OKs advocacy during Texas House speaker’s race
AUSTIN, Texas — A federal judge has suspended a Texas law that prevents advocacy groups from spending money to campaign and lobby for the selection of the speaker of the state House of Representatives.
The decision by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel — who said the law could be considered a violation of free speech — could prompt advertising in the final days before the March 4 primary and beyond. It also would allow those groups to lobby lawmakers about the speaker’s race.
The preliminary injunction issued Feb. 26 by Yeakel is not the final decision on whether the law is unconstitutional, but it does protect groups from prosecution if they support or oppose a candidate for House speaker.
A trial on the issue could be held later and the state could appeal Yeakel’s ruling. Republican Attorney General Greg Abbott’s office is reviewing the ruling, a spokesman said.
The speaker’s race, usually a public afterthought in a campaign season, is a critical topic in several House races — Democrat and Republican — after a failed attempt to oust Republican Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland in the waning days of the 2007 session.
The so-called “speaker’s statute” was passed in 1973 to ban advocacy groups from spending “anything of value” to influence the election of the speaker, who is chosen by legislators every two years. The penalty for a violation was up to one year in jail and a $4,000 fine.
The American Civil Liberties Union, the Texas Eagle Forum and the notably conservative Liberty Legal Institute sued to overturn the law, calling it an assault on free speech.
“Whatever your politics, the First Amendment protects every Texan’s right to speak out for, or against, speaker candidates,” said Lisa Graybill, legal director for the ACLU Foundation of Texas, in a statement. “We’re delighted that Judge Yeakel enjoined this unconstitutional law, and look forward to elections unimpeded by arbitrary restrictions on free speech.”
Hiram Sasser, an attorney for the Liberty Legal Institute, said selection of the highly influential speaker was not merely an administrative matter, but affected all issues before the Legislature.
“All other issues flow through the speaker of the House,” Sasser said. “The citizens of Texas can now freely speak on how this primary is going to affect the speaker’s race.”
But Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that tracks money in politics and has filed unrelated complaints against Craddick, said he doubted the ruling would have much impact.
“We can’t envision this has much meaning in the real world,” McDonald said. “It’s hard to imagine outside groups would mount large media campaigns to support a speaker candidate.”
Craddick’s attorney, Roy Minton, attended the Feb. 26 court hearing.
Deputy attorney general Beau Eccles argued the law doesn’t apply during the primary, but to the period of time between the November general election and the first day of the legislative session in January.
The plaintiffs, however, said a 2001 letter from the state ethics commission suggested they could be prosecuted if they advocated for or against a speaker candidate at any time.