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While state courts sort out the legal battle between Harris County and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton over the county’s guaranteed income program, a political battle is playing out in public.

At issue are legitimate legal questions over the meaning of a Texas Constitution provision that bars taxpayer money from being given to individuals if there is no public benefit.

However, the discourse around the case has been dominated by accusations Paxton is suing the county for purely political reasons and claims the Texas Supreme Court cannot rule impartially on the case.

“This is the state once again trying to bully Harris County,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said during a Tuesday news conference.

Paxton sued Harris County April 9, filing a politically charged brief declaring the county’s Uplift Harris guaranteed income program a “socialist experiment by Lina Hidalgo and the progressive democrats responsible for the Harris County disaster.”

The county’s program to send no-strings-attached $500 monthly stipends to more than 1,900 low-income households is hardly novel — nearly 60 cities and counties across the country, including three in Texas, have launched similar programs, according to Mayors for a Guaranteed Income. Uplift Harris is funded through $20.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The county prevailed in district court last week, and a state appellate court blocked Paxton’s request for an emergency stay of the program on Monday. The attorney general’s office found success with an emergency appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, where he asked the justices to expedite their ruling ahead of the anticipated wiring of the first $500 payments on Wednesday.

Tuesday morning, county officials said the first payments would, in fact, be sent out that day. Within hours of that announcement and about 45 minutes before county officials said the payments would have been sent, the Supreme Court issued an emergency stay – without ruling on the merits of the lawsuit – forcing Harris County to pause the program.

The high court’s expedited ruling clearly was made to prevent the county from sending out payments, said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee.

“It’s not uncommon for courts to issue administrative stays so they have enough time to take in all of the briefing and the information and make a reasoned decision,” Menefee said Wednesday. “That said, the fact the court did that when they did that … it means something for a court to make a ruling that quickly.”

Supreme Court’s impartiality questioned

Since the case progressed to the Supreme Court this week, Menefee has made it clear he does not believe the court will rule in the county’s favor.

Menefee cited Justice John Devine’s December comments that Harris County had “bastardized” state elections laws and that Democrats would cheat in coming elections, which first were reported by the Texas Tribune earlier this month.

Menefee said Devine, who was a state district judge in Houston from 1995 to 2002, should recuse himself from the Uplift Harris case and all future cases involving Harris County.

“Harris County and any other litigant is entitled to 9 out of 9 impartial justices,” Menefee said. “It’s wholly unacceptable and not fair to the county. Devine is not one part that can be separated from the court. He is in the institution.”

Menefee pointed to a long string of defeats for Harris County in high-profile cases before the court, claiming it as evidence the justices are biased against the county.

Despite his qualms, Menefee said he intends to argue the case before the court on its merits. He accused Paxton of bringing a politically motivated lawsuit that was tailored from the beginning for a conservative audience.

Menefee pointed to the attorney general’s initial brief, which declared Uplift Harris the “Harris Handout” and made several mentions of Hidalgo, a frequent target of local and state Republican ire.

“(The brief) read like a Truth Social post,” Menefee said, referring to former President Donald Trump’s social media website. “It’s unbecoming of members of our profession, and I think it shows how much politics has degraded our institutions, including law.”

The fact that Paxton sued Harris County, despite other local governments in Texas enacting similar guaranteed income programs, is a clear sign of the politics behind the lawsuit, Menefee said.

The attorney general’s office did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday. 

‘Valid arguments on both sides’

Charles W. “Rocky” Rhodes, a professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said he agreed that Devine should recuse himself from the case, but also argued that Menefee’s public comments disparaging the court are only adding fuel to the fire.

Rhodes said Paxton’s legal arguments have at times read like political speeches. He also pointed to the repeated mentions of Trump’s 2020 COVID-19 relief checks in Harris County’s legal response, despite that federal expenditure having nothing to do with Texas state law.

“There are valid legal arguments on both sides … but it's become, instead of a judicial battle, a political one,” Rhodes said.

Jon. R Taylor, chair of the political science and geography departments at the University of Texas at San Antonio, said both sides see an advantage to waging a political battle in the case.

Paxton’s lawsuit continues his long-standing battle against the Democratic-controlled county, which many conservative voters in the state appreciate, Taylor said. By defending the program, Harris County officials can argue they are standing up for the poor and maintain a moral high ground that is important to their voters, he added.

By suing the largest, most Democratic city in the state, Paxton also is sending a message to other local governments enacting similar guaranteed income programs without actually having to sue them all, Taylor said.

Other local governments are watching

El Paso County is closely following the legal proceedings as it works to launch its own guaranteed income program in the coming months, said Irene Gutierrez, the county’s community services director.

Prior to Paxton’s lawsuit, Gutierrez said the county had no idea the program was a legal risk. The county has not been contacted by the Attorney General’s Office, she added.

“Any time we have any program, we always think about what the state of Texas could come up with to sue us,” Gutierrez said. “Counties are in a tough position.”

Despite Paxton’s lawsuit, a statement issued by the city of Austin said leaders are confident the city’s own guaranteed income program is constitutional. Austin’s program includes “data gathering and performance measures to ensure compliance,” the statement read.

Austin has not been contacted by Paxton’s office, according to the statement.

As Menefee prepares to fight the case in front of the Supreme Court, he defended his comments disparaging the court and Paxton’s lawsuit.

“Some may not want us to say the quiet part out loud, but it’s just the reality,” Menefee said.

The Supreme Court has asked the county to respond to Paxton’s request for the emergency stay by April 29.

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Paul Cobler covers politics for the Abdelraoufsinno. Paul returns to Texas after covering city hall for The Advocate in Baton Rouge. During two-and-a-half years at the newspaper, he spearheaded local accountability...