6/20/2011Federal Judge Overturns Public Vote in Houston, Texas
Traffic camera company finds friendly federal judge to overturn results of anti-camera referendum in Houston, Texas.
American Traffic Solutions (ATS) on Friday advanced toward its goal of reactivating the red light cameras to Houston, Texas. A majority of voters demanded in a November ballot vote that the cameras be taken down, but US District Court for the Southern District of Texas Judge Lynn N. Hughes believes the people had no right to vote.
The ruling was a major victory for the legal strategy of ATS General Counsel George Hittner, who worked with the Houston city attorney to create a lawsuit in which city officials, who want the cameras back, sued ATS, which also wants the cameras back. The case was not filed in state court, which would be the proper venue. Instead, Hittner had the case filed in the federal courthouse where his father happens to serve.
Judge David Hittner and Judge Hughes were confirmed to the federal bench within six months of each other and have worked together for twenty-five years. In a separate case last month, Hughes had ruled the government cannot "gag citizens when it says it is in the interest of national security." In the Houston case, he effectively ruled the government can gag citizens on behalf of corporate interests like ATS. Once an ordinance takes effect and its consequences are apparent, Hughes insists the public is powerless to overturn it.
In November, Houston voters approved an amendment to the city charter that stated the city "shall not use photographic traffic signal enforcement systems." Hughes and ATS argue that this was not really a charter amendment, but a referendum. A referendum must be filed within thirty days of the passage of an ordinance because doing so temporarily suspends the ordinance from going into effect. No such deadlines are imposed on charter amendments.
"The proposition repealed an ordinance," Hughes insisted. "Although the petitioners and city call it a charter amendment, it is a referendum. Its whole process was years outside the time that the rules of the city allow under these circumstances."
In overturning the vote, Hughes insisted that there was a better way to remove red light cameras.
"The deadline is short, but the people have an alternative, recurring way to repeal an offending ordinance," Hughes wrote. "Since the referendum deadline passed, the city has held three general elections for the mayor and council. The same energy and organization that went into the effort to repeal the ordinance may be applied in future elections as an alternative to a referendum."
Sponsors of photo enforcement ballot initiatives point out that such electoral challenges are difficult because photo enforcement issues cut across party lines. In Florida, Republicans were responsible for pushing red light camera use statewide. In Maryland, Democrats were responsible for enabling legislation. Opposition has come from left-wing groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and NAACP working together with right-wing groups like the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes. Voting against a pro-red light camera candidate would often require Republicans to vote for Democrats, and vice versa. The group responsible for Houston's initiative itself plans to fight back against the ruling.
"We have anticipated this, we are prepared for it, this is not the end of it," Citizens Against Red Light Camera spokesman Philip Owens told TheNewspaper. "We are prepared to take it all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary, where we will ask the question who rules this nation? The people or the politicians?"
A copy of the decision is available in a 200k PDF file at the source link below.