The Texas Supreme Court on Friday issued its last opinions of the 2017 term. As the nine justices set out for their summer recess, here’s a look back at some of the cases they decided.
In perhaps its most highly-anticipated opinion of the term, the court on Friday threw out a lower court ruling that same-sex spouses of Houston city employees were entitled to employee benefits. The decision sends the case back to a trial court for reconsideration.
Oil and gas
Much of the court’s caseload this term — 21 of 81 decisions — involved major players in one of Texas’ biggest industries. That’s a lot of oil and gas rulings, “even for Texas,” said Don Cruse, who runs the Supreme Court of Texas Blog. The cases ran the gamut from disputes over drilling sites to questions over whether an oil company could be held responsible for an employee fistfight in a convenience store. Two cases involved BP America; three involved ExxonMobil. And Chief Justice Nathan Hecht authored six of his nine opinions this term on oil and gas cases.
Lies, bias and defamation
The court took on a number of interesting defamation cases this term, including several involving media outlets. D Magazine in Dallas was sued for publishing an article identifying a woman as a “welfare queen;” the high court questioned a lower court’s reliance on Wikipedia as a dictionary in deciding against D Magazine, and sent the case back to the trial court.
The court also concluded that a newspaper article in the West Fort Bend Star damaged its subject’s reputation, affirming a court of appeals decision to send the case back for a new trial. And all nine justices agreed that Facebook statements calling a man a “home wrecker” were not “defamatory per se.”
Meanwhile, a Texas Tech professor and associate dean sued a colleague for defamation after he was passed over for a promotion; the court unanimously dismissed the case.
What they didn’t do
The court refused to block a race and sex discrimination suit filed against the University of Texas by Bev Kearney, a former women’s track coach who was fired after UT learned she had a relationship with one of her athletes. Kearney alleges that UT held her — a black woman — to a higher standard than white male coaches engaged in similar misconduct. That lawsuit will continue unless the parties reach a settlement.
The court also declined to block the release of footage from the night of country music star Randy Travis’ 2012 DWI arrest, standing by a court of appeals ruling that the video is a public record.
According to Supreme Court of Texas Blog data, the court in its 2017 term issued far fewer dissents than in years past — only 11, down from 18 in 2016 and 15 in 2015. The court tends to issue more dissents toward the end of its term, as more controversial cases take longer to sort through. (Its dissents this term doubled in the past month alone.) Still, there was far more agreement among justices this year than in years past.
Experts speculate that the increased consensus stems from the nine Republican justices having spent so many years together. But they also cautioned against reading too much into it. “Everything depends on the issues coming before the court, and more consensus doesn’t necessarily mean anything,” said Connie Pfeiffer, a partner at the Texas law firm Beck Redden who has argued before the court.
Bits and pieces
The court ruled unanimously in favor of the state's ban on direct corporate campaign contributions, denying a challenge from a Tea Party group that called it unconstitutional.
The court sided with the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, where a police officer shot and killed a student in 2013, ruling that the university should be considered a “governmental unit” when it comes to law enforcement because it employs its own campus police force. The ruling could help the university defend itself against a wrongful death suit filed by the student's family.
Disclosure: ExxonMobil, BP America, Texas Tech and the University of Texas have been financial supporters of The Texas Tribune. Find a full list of donors and sponsors here.