Judge: Houston can't ban convention; GOP deciding next move

A federal judge ruled Friday that Houston can’t ban the Texas Republican Party from holding its convention in-person, but it was not clear whether the GOP would move for a physical meetup or keep the event virtual as the coronavirus continues to surge.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes ruled verbally that the city failed to make a case compelling enough to trump the party’s First Amendment right to meet, said Jared Woodfill, attorney for GOP party activist Dr. Steven Hotze. A written order was to be filed later.

“He gave us everything we asked for,” Woodfill said. “This is a great victory for the First Amendment.”

Hughes ordered the city to accommodate the party convention this weekend or the following weekend, at the GOP’s choice, Woodfill said.

James Dickey, chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, said the party is still on-track to try a virtual gathering this weekend but said it's good to know the option for an in-person convention exists. He hopes the ruling will set a precedent “for other state and local Republican parties and organizations who come against a bully Democrat mayor’s malicious shutdown,” he said.

In a statement, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner noted that the city plans to appeal the ruling.

“We are in the midst of a pandemic, a public health crisis. More people are being admitted to our hospitals and ICUs, and more people are dying. The State Republican Executive Committee is being totally irresponsible in continuing to push for an indoor, in-person convention. This reflects a total disregard for the health and safety of employees and people in our city," he said.

Turner, a Democrat, had directed operators of the George R. Brown Convention Center to cancel the Texas GOP’s contract to hold an in-person convention this weekend at the center. The mayor said he believed the three-day event could not be held safely with the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, running rampant in Houston and much of Texas.

The party sued, alleging breach of contract, but lost an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court on Monday.

The convention typically draws thousands of attendees and was scheduled to begin this week. Following the losses in court, the party’s executive committee voted overwhelmingly Monday night to move the event online.

But the plan didn't work well. The GOP tried to hold a virtual convention this week, similar to one held last month by the Texas Democratic Party. The first day “was a disaster because a virtual platform cannot support the work the Republican Party of Texas does at its convention," the party said in its written pleadings. The Texas GOP “was unable to conduct business and hold elections necessary for the Republican Party of Texas to organize for the upcoming elections.”

Woodfill argued that Turner was trying to muzzle the GOP in an effort to deliver Texas to Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. “If the Republican Party can't deliver Texas, President (Donald) Trump won't get re-elected.”

Gilberto Hinojosa, chairman of the Texas Democratic Party, said the ruling shows the Texas GOP is “now willing to risk the lives of millions of Texans because they are too technologically inept to continue in a safe and distant manner. Shame on the judge who issued this ruling. ... If this proceeds, Texans will remember who put their lives at risk to hold a pep rally."

Hughes, an appointee of President Ronald Reagan, is the only judge in the Southern District of Texas still holding court, in person and maskless, in his courtroom, the Houston Chronicle reported.

Texas health officials announced that the state set a new daily record for virus deaths with 174 on Friday alone, and reported more than 10,000 confirmed new cases for a fourth consecutive day.