Beaumont, January 4 – The Beaumont Court of Appeals decided that it could no longer countenance delays by criminal defendants Craig Doyal, Montgomery County Judge, Charlie Riley, Precinct Two Montgomery County Commissioner, and Marc Davenport, local political boss and consultant. The Court of Appeals ruled yesterday on its own motion that it would handle the appeal concerning the criminal allegations against Doyal, Riley, and Davenport on an accelerated basis without oral argument and would begin its deliberations to determine the outcome of the appeal on January 24, 2018, one day before the oral argument was to occur.
This development is striking, because it reflects the recognition of the Court of Appeals of the importance of this case to the future of the citizens of Montgomery County. The criminal allegations against Doyal and Riley are so severe that they constitute “official misconduct” under Texas law which, if convictted, would subject Doyal and Riley to removal from office. A San Jacinto County commissioner suffered removal from office for official misconduct after his conviction in 2017.
It is quite possible that by handling the appeal on an accelerated basis, voters could have a decision from the Court of Appeals before the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election when voters must decide if they want to return Doyal and Riley to office even though they face potential removal from office if they’re convicted.
Doyal and Riley, along with Davenport, face criminal charges, after a Montgomery County Grand Jury indicted them in July, 2016, for violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). The primary defense Doyal, Riley, and Davenport have attempted to raise is that TOMA supposedly violates their first amendment right to free speech. That argument is contrary to approximately 150 years of Supreme Court decisions which have held that reasonable time, place, and manner restrictions are permissable with respect to political speech. Nevertheless, in what was clearly a politically driven decision, a visiting district judge dismissed the three criminal defendants’ cases on April 3, 2017, without requiring the three criminal defendants to face a Montgomery County Jury.
Doyal, Riley, and Davenport have argued that TOMA is unconstitutional, because, they claim, it violates their rights of free speech under the United States and Texas Constitutions. Their broad attack on TOMA and its public policy of “open meetings” has drawn the ire of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton who has sided with the Special Prosecutors seeking to convict Doyal, Riley, and Davenport, which such conviction would likely lead to the removal of Doyal and Riley from office for “official misconduct,” if they’re found guilty.
The elected Texas Attorney General, Paxton, explained in his Brief that his interest in the case is “The Office of the Texas Attorney General defends Texas statutes that are challenged under the Constitution of the United States…[T]he Office of the Attorney General has a specific and heightened interest in this litigation because the Texas Open Meetings Act is a predominantly civil law that is vital to the open functioning of all levels of government in Texas.”
In his Brief, General Paxton explained, “Section 551.143 makes it a misdemeanor for members of a governing body to knowingly conspire to circumvent TOMA’s disclosure requirements by deliberating public issues with a quorum of that body through a series of meetings, none of which by itself has a quorum.” In this instance, the Montgomery County Grand Jury indicted Doyal, Riley, and Davenport for conducting a series of meetings to negotiate the terms of a November 2015 road bond that they sought to set for a referendum.
Paxton made three primary arguments in his Brief.
First, the Texas Attorney General, speaking on behalf of the citizens of Texas, noted that disclosure laws such as TOMA, which prohibits governance in secrecy, promote First Amendment values while not preventing anyone from speaking in the public. Paxton noted that since in our society the citizenry is the final judge of the proper conduct of public business, openness in the democratic process is of critical importance. He explained, “Open meetings promote accountability, prevent corruption, and ensure that officials with minority views are not shut out by the majoring. By enforcing open meetings, section 551.143 [of TOMA] advances these interests, and is constitutional. Indeed, it is telling that Defendants do not cite a single case striking down an open meetings provision.
Second, the Attorney General explained it is a content-neutral provision that is merely aimed at hiding information from the public. He wrote, TOMA “does not concern what is said, but only whether it is said in private, away from voters who need that information to hold their elected officials accountable.”
Making sure that what is said is in private is precisely what Davenport, Doyal, and Riley seek. They want to make sure that voters who need information to hold their elected officials accountable do not have that information. Paxton noted that Section 551.143 of TOMA “is narrowly tailored to promote Texas’s compelling interest in good governance.”
Third, Attorney General Paxton made clear that TOMA is not overbroad or vague. The criminal prohibition under Section 551.143 of TOMA only applies to those who “knowingly” seek to circumvent TOMA’s disclosure requirements. Although Doyal in particular tried to argue in his briefing that he has trouble interpreting TOMA and trouble understanding it, Paxton rejected that argument entirely. The Attorney General said, “…that is irrelevant. What matters is whether it is clear what the statute prohibits at its core. And section 551.143 clearly prohibits persons from knowingly conspiring to circumvent TOMA’s disclosure requirement by secretly deliberating with a quorum of a governmental body through a series of discussions.”
The criminal case, also known as the “Trial of the 21st Century” because of its potential impact on the future of Montgomery County politics, could have an enormous impact on the outcome of the March 6, 2018, Republican Primary Election where Doyal has drawn the ever popular and staunchly conservative State Representative Mark Keough as an opponent, where Riley has drawn two opponents in local businessman Brian Dawson and former Comal County Commissioner Greg Parker, and where Davenport’s wife, County Treasurer Stephanne Davenport, faces the immensely popular and fiscally conservative Melanie Pryor Bush.