Houston lawsuit looks to zap Texas' oppressive 'Death Star' law

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Houston officials on Monday filed a lawsuit to stop the state of Texas from enforcing a draconian law that critics have dubbed the “Death Star” bill (a reference to the powerful space station used by “Star Wars” villains). Republican Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill into law last month, and it’s set to take effect Sept. 1.

The legislation (officially known as HB 2127) bars localities from passing certain laws if they contradict state law related to agriculture, business and commerce, finance, insurance, labor, local government, natural resources, occupations or property. (It’s pretty expansive, to say the least.)

In the suit, lawyers representing Houston call the law “hopelessly vague” and claim it violates the state constitution by broadly pre-empting local laws. The city asks the court to deem the law “void and unenforceable.”

“Because of HB 2127’s vagueness, Houston will not know with any certainty what laws it may enforce, and its residents and businesses will not know with certainty what laws they must obey,” the suit says. “This high level of uncertainty and confusion concerning the validity of virtually all local laws in important regulatory areas and those concerning health and safety themselves constitutes a concrete injury.”

As an example, the suit claims the Death Star law is bound to cause confusion because it doesn’t require that a local law actually conflicts with a state law to be barred from going into effect. 

“Under HB 2127, if the State regulates anything in an unspecified ‘field,’ local regulation is arguably entirely precluded in the undefined area unless there is express legislative authorization,” according to the lawsuit.

Before the bill passed, many opponents were deeply critical of Texas Republicans for effectively creating a force field around legislative areas they think should remain untouched. 

The suit also refers to the possibility that people and businesses will use the law as a way to deregulate Texas cities. 

“Houston will have to defend against a likely barrage of lawsuits brought by trade associations or individuals essentially to deregulate their industries or businesses at the local level,” the suit claims. 

The suit goes on to accuse Republican legislators in Texas of creating “a public/private enforcement regime that will penalize and raise the risk of Houston’s exercising its clear and expansive constitutional authority.”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, a Democrat, said in a statement Monday that the law “reverses over 100 years of Texas constitutional law without amending the Constitution.” The law fits a trend I’ve written about in recent months: conservative officials’ looking for ways to impose their policies on liberals against their will and by circumventing the typical processes — like seeking voter input — to do so. 

But Turner vowed to ensure Houstonians hold on to their rights: “Houston will fight so its residents retain their constitutional rights and have immediate local recourse to government.”

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