Update on Commissioners Court and Contempt/Disruption Charges

Bowie County TexasYesterday after Commissioners Court, I spoke with Bowie County Legal Adviser Carol Dalby about the incident two weeks ago involving disruption of Court.

When Judge Lacy asked to have County Clerk Tina Petty removed for disrupting the Court, Ms. Dalby purportedly showed Sheriff Prince a section of the law which states that any action of the Court requires a vote, and that any item requiring a vote must be placed on the agenda, with at least 72 hours of notice to the public.

Yesterday morning, I asked which section of the law addressed that, but this time, she didn’t have those documents with her. Yesterday afternoon, I stopped by the District Attorney’s office in Texarkana, and she sent word to look in Texas Local Government Code Chapter 81. I couldn’t find anything regarding the procedure she mentioned, and after a couple of phone calls, she informed me that it was in section 81.023. I read that section to her –

Sec. 81.023. CONTEMPT. The commissioners court shall punish a person held in contempt by a fine of not more than $25 or by confinement for not more than 24 hours. A person fined under this section may be confined until the fine is paid.

– and said I didn’t see anything about a vote. She told me that everything done by the Court requires a vote. I asked if that was assumed since it wasn’t mentioned, and she replied that it was the law.

Since the event two weeks ago, I have had several conversations with one of the associate counsels for the Texas Association of Counties. Much of our discussion centered around Bowie County Commissioners Court’s rules of procedure, conduct, and decorum (PDF). This document is very similar to those from many other counties in Texas, which are all based on an original supplied by the Allison-Bass law firm for the Texas Association of Counties. (Readers will remember that attorney Jim Allison has provided much input to the Court over the last several years.)

In this document, approved by Bowie County Commissioners Court on 13 June 2011, there are several relevant portions.

  • Bowie County Commissioners Court is a Constitutional Court, with both judicial and legislative powers
  • The County Judge is the presiding officer of the Bowie County Commissioners Court
  • The presiding officer of the Commissioners Court is responsible for conducting all meetings
  • Violation of the Court’s rules may result in the following sanctions:
    1. Cancellation of a speaker’s remaining time
    2. Removal from the Commissioners Courtroom
    3. A Contempt Citation (as noted in Texas Local Government Code 81.023 above) and/or
    4. Such other civil and/or criminal sanctions as may be authorized under the Constitution, Statutes and Codes of the State of Texas.

Some commissioners courts in Texas allow for another member of the court to ask for a vote to not hold someone in contempt, but that language is not in Bowie Count’s rules.

Ms. Dalby’s assertion is that anything the Court does requires a vote is not evident in these rules. Indeed, it doesn’t seem likely that the Court would be required to vote to have someone removed for being disruptive; if that was the case, someone could continue their disruption without consequence for 3 days. (72 hours notice is required for putting an item on the agenda of the Court, whether a regular or special session.)

And that brings up the main point – Judge Lacy DID NOT mention contempt of court, but rather asked for Ms. Petty’s removal when she refused to stop being disruptive. According to the counsel for the Texas Association of Counties, the presiding officer of the court is not only allowed, but required to bring disruptions to a halt, whether by reprimand or removal.

I specifically asked about the requirement to vote (and the necessary 72 hours notice to the public) on these issues, and the counsel told me that there is a difference between the legislative processes of the court and procedural ones. Otherwise, the court would not even be allowed to call for recess.

The counsel for TAC told me that he spent quite a bit of time between our phone calls looking for any law which supported Ms. Dalby’s direction to the Court two weeks ago, but said that he could find none.

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