Houston sues the state over ‘Death Star Bill’ that will override local ordinances

The law is scheduled to go into effect Sept. 1.

By Sarah AschJuly 6, 2023 10:46 am,

The City of Houston is suing Texas over a new law that critics say will invalidate local ordinances. 

House Bill 2127 earned a nickname from opponents during the 88th legislative session: The Death Star Bill. This, of course, is meant to conjure up images of that planet-destroying weapon from Star Wars wielded by Darth Vader’s team. 

When it takes effect Sept. 1, a blast from HB 2127 will have the power to wipe out local ordinances related to a wide range of broadly-defined categories like finance, labor and agriculture in jurisdictions across Texas. Critics say the language is so broad, it’s not entirely clear which local ordinances it invalidates and which it does not.

» RELATED: Texas’ ‘Death Star’ bill could kill a slew of local laws. Here’s how.

At a press conference earlier this week, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said HB 2127 would invalidate rules for tow truck companies, outdoor music festivals and boarding homes, for example. Turner said the new law means cities like Houston cannot pass ordinances in a wide range of areas without explicit permission from the state of Texas. 

Jasper Scherer, who covers the capital for the Houston Chronicle, said this bill is part of a long time struggle between local and state power in Texas. 

“This is kind of a continuation of this long running battle,” he said. “I think the distinction here is in the past, the state government has kind of taken aim at one-off individual ordinances that just affects certain regulations, maybe even just one particular city. This is, you know, outlawing rules, local regulations across huge swaths of different categories. So it’s kind of a big ramp up in that battle.”

This law has the potential to impact any number of areas of local control, Scherer said.

“There’s finance, anything related to commerce, property as well, which could cover certain regulations with housing and relations between tenants and their landlords. So there’s all kinds of things,” he said. “One criticism from cities is that within those, we kind of don’t know the full extent of what that’s going to cover. And it could kind of be left up to the courts to settle some of these gray areas.”

Houston’s legal argument hinges on the Texas constitution. 

“They’re essentially saying that the law is so vague and indefinite that it doesn’t actually tell cities what types of laws they can enforce,” Scherer said. “And in their initial court filing, they pointed to some legal precedent that essentially requires ‘unmistakable clarity’ in state laws that are looking to preempt local regulation.

So they’re saying that this runs afoul of that and then also just would kind of put the city on the hook for all these legal fees from possibly frivolous lawsuits that would just present kind of an unsustainable cost to the city in their eyes.”

The state has not offered insight into how they might defend this law in court — the defense will be up to the attorney general’s office, which is facing separate legal trouble right now with Ken Paxton suspended from his role pending an impeachment trial. 

“The Republican bill author has made some brief comments just expressing confidence that the law will withstand legal scrutiny,” Scherer said. “But I think more broadly, Republicans have been saying that the bill is necessary to give companies across the state more consistency from cities and that it’s kind of within the state government’s right to ensure that cities and counties aren’t overstepping their bounds and kind of going beyond state laws. So there, I think, they’ll probably argue some sort of argument in that area, but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Scherer said that while Houston is currently the only city involved in this lawsuit, other cities could submit briefs in court, since this law affects all municipalities in the state.

“The bill is scheduled to take effect Sept. 1,” he said. “Officials are seeking a temporary court ruling that would prevent the law from going into effect while the court case is playing out. So at the moment, we’re waiting for the state response and then for a court decision on just whether this is going to be kept in place or not on a temporary basis.”

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