IN RE: NORMA RAMIREZ

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Court of Appeals of Texas, Corpus Christi-Edinburg.

IN RE: NORMA RAMIREZ

NUMBER 13-18-00031-CV

Decided: February 01, 2018

Before Chief Justice Valdez and Justices Rodriguez and Hinojosa 1

MEMORANDUM OPINION

Relator Norma Ramirez filed a petition for writ of mandamus in the above cause on January 17, 2018. Through this original proceeding, Ramirez seeks to compel the disqualification of Daniel “Danny” Diaz as a candidate for Chairman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party in the 2018 Primary Election, or alternatively, to compel the trial court to vacate its order dismissing Ramirez's case for want of jurisdiction and to address her claims on their merits. Ramirez contends that Ricardo Godinez, the current Chairman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, erred in refusing to disqualify Diaz because Diaz prematurely filed his application for candidacy and that the trial court erred by dismissing her lawsuit for want of jurisdiction.2 We deny relief on the merits.

I. BACKGROUND

Ramirez and Diaz both submitted applications to be placed on the ballot for the position of Chairman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party in the 2018 Primary Election. They filed their applications with Chairman Godinez. Contending that Diaz filed his application outside of the timeframe allowed by the Texas Election Code by filing too early, Ramirez demanded that Chairman Godinez declare Diaz ineligible to be placed on the primary ballot. Her argument hinged on section 172.023 of the Texas Election Code which governs the “regular filing period” for candidates and provides in relevant part:

(a) An application for a place on the general primary election ballot must be filed not later than 6 p.m. on the second Monday in December of an odd-numbered year unless the filing deadline is extended under Subchapter C.

(b) An application, other than an application for the office of precinct chair, may not be filed earlier than the 30th day before the date of the regular filing deadline. An application for the office of precinct chair may not be filed earlier than the 90th day before the date of the regular filing deadline.

TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 172.023 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.). For the 2018 Primary Election, the time frame for candidates to submit their applications was November 11, 2017 through December 11, 2017. Diaz filed his application with Chairman Godinez on September 12, 2017. Chairman Godinez inspected, accepted, and signed Diaz's application that same day. Chairman Godinez did not return the application to Diaz or otherwise notify him of any error with regard to the application. Ramirez thereafter filed her application with Chairman Godinez on November 21, 2017. On December 15, 2017, Godinez submitted the candidates' information to the Texas Secretary of State for certification.

On December 28, 2017, Ramirez challenged Diaz's application as untimely and requested that Chairman Godinez disqualify Diaz as a candidate. Chairman Godinez did not disqualify Diaz. Ramirez then filed suit against Diaz and Chairman Godinez, in his official capacity, in the 430th District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas. Ramirez sought temporary and permanent injunctive relief to prevent Diaz from campaigning for the position of Hidalgo County Democratic Party Chairman, advertising his candidacy, and requesting and receiving campaign contributions. She requested declaratory and emergency relief regarding these issues and sought an order disqualifying Diaz as a candidate. Ramirez contended that because Diaz failed to tender his application within the statutory time period, Chairman Godinez was required to reject his application, declare him ineligible, and refuse to place his name on the ballot.

After a non-evidentiary hearing, the trial court concluded that it lacked jurisdiction over the claims raised and that exclusive jurisdiction vested in the appellate court. The trial court dismissed the matter for want of jurisdiction by order rendered on January 11, 2018.

This original proceeding ensued. This Court requested that the real party in interest, Diaz, or any others whose interest would be directly affected by the relief sought, file a response to the petition for writ of mandamus. See TEX. R. APP. P. 52.2, 52.4, 52.8. We received responses to the petition from Diaz and Chairman Godinez in his official capacity.3 Diaz contends generally that (1) mandamus relief is unavailable because there is no specific statutory authority requiring a political party chair to declare a candidate ineligible on grounds that the candidate filed his application too early; and (2) equitable relief is warranted to provide placement on the ballot where a candidate's application fails to comply with the election code requirements due to the party's failure and not his own. See, e.g., In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d 534, 536 (Tex. 2006) (orig. proceeding); In re Gamble, 71 S.W.3d 313, 318 (Tex. 2002) (orig. proceeding); In re Holcomb, 186 S.W.3d 553, 555 (Tex. 2006) (orig. proceeding). Chairman Godinez asserts, inter alia, that: (1) this issue is moot because he no longer has authority to act, see TEX. ADMIN. CODE ANN. § 81.112 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.); and (2) Ramirez cannot establish that she has a clear right to relief or that Chairman Godinez has a ministerial duty to act. Ramirez filed replies to both responses.

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

Mandamus is an extraordinary remedy. In re H.E.B. Grocery Co., 492 S.W.3d 300, 302 (Tex. 2016) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam). Mandamus does not issue unless the relator has a clear legal right to performance of the acts he or she seeks to compel, and the duties of the persons sought to be compelled are clearly fixed and required by the law. In re Watkins, 465 S.W.3d 657, 659 (Tex. App.—Austin 2014, orig. proceeding); In re Cercone, 323 S.W.3d 293, 295 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2010, orig. proceeding). Mandamus may issue to compel public officials to perform ministerial acts, as well as to correct a clear abuse of discretion by a public official. In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d 819, 821 (Tex. 2015) (orig. proceeding); Anderson v. City of Seven Points, 806 S.W.2d 791, 793 (Tex. 1991) (orig. proceeding). “An act is ministerial when the law clearly spells out the duty to be performed by the official with sufficient certainty that nothing is left to the exercise of discretion.” Anderson, 806 S.W.2d at 793; see In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 793.

Section 273.061 of the Texas Election Code authorizes the supreme court or court of appeals to issue a writ of mandamus “to compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with holding an election ․ regardless of whether the person responsible for performing the duty is a public officer.” TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 273.061 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.); see id. § 161.009 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.) (“The performance of a duty placed by this code on an officer of a political party is enforceable by writ of mandamus in the same manner as if the party officer were a public officer.”); see also In re Woodfill, 470 S.W.3d 473, 481 (Tex. 2015) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam).

III. JURISDICTION

Ramirez's request for alternative relief argues that the trial court should be required to set aside its order of dismissal and adjudicate this matter. The trial court, in dismissing the case, analyzed the Texas Election Code and cases pertaining to jurisdiction. See, e.g., TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 273.061 (providing the supreme court or a court of appeals with original jurisdiction to compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention); In re Sanchez, 81 S.W.3d 794, 795 (Tex. 2002) (orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (conditionally granting mandamus relief and directing the city secretary to place the candidates' names on the ballot); Bejarano v. Hunter, 899 S.W.3d 346, 349 (Tex. App.—El Paso 1995, orig. proceeding) (“As a threshold matter, we note that jurisdiction to compel an election officer to remove a candidate's name from the ballot is vested in the appellate courts.”).

“It is true that a mandamus proceeding to compel public officials to put something on the ballot may start in district court,” however, “mandamus proceedings may also originate in the appellate courts.” In re Woodfill, 470 S.W.3d at 481; see Anderson, 806 S.W.2d at 792 n.1; Coalson v. City Council of Victoria, 610 S.W.2d 744, 745–46 (Tex. 1980) (orig. proceeding); see also TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 273.081 (West, Westlaw through 2017 1st C.S.) (“A person who is being harmed or is in danger of being harmed by a violation or threatened violation of this code is entitled to appropriate injunctive relief to prevent the violation from continuing or occurring.”); In re Meyer, No. 05-16-00063-CV, 2016 WL 375033, at *6 (Tex. App.—Dallas Feb. 1, 2016, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.) (discussing the jurisdiction of both trial and appellate courts in election cases).

Given the procedural posture of this case, the exigencies presented by its time-sensitive nature, and the profound significance of the case as it pertains to access to the ballot, we deny Ramirez's alternative request that we direct the trial court to adjudicate the dispute, and we address the merits of relator's complaints here.

IV. ANALYSIS

Ramirez contends that Chairman Godinez was required to reject Diaz's application and declare him ineligible to be placed on the ballot for the 2018 Primary Election because “Diaz failed to tender his paperwork within the time period specified by statute.” The arguments here concern the statutory requirement that an application “may not be filed earlier than the 30th day before the date of the regular filing deadline.” See id. In analyzing this issue, we note that Ramirez's sole complaint with regard to Diaz's application is that it was prematurely filed. Further, there are no disagreements about the material facts regarding the events at issue

When a defect in a candidate's application for office could have easily been cured had party officials properly performed their statutory role, the Texas Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the Texas Election Code does not require exclusion of the candidate as a mandatory remedy and courts may grant equitable relief to allow that candidate access to the ballot. See, e.g., In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 541 (holding that the trial court must allow a candidate to cure defects that a party chair overlooked in an application); In re Holcomb, 186 S.W.3d at 555 (holding that the candidate was entitled to an opportunity to obtain replacement signatures for a petition after the filing deadline); In re Sharp, 186 S.W.3d 556, 557 (Tex. 2006) (orig. proceeding) (granting the candidate the opportunity to cure a presumed defective petition filed the day of the deadline); In re Gamble, 71 S.W.3d at 318 (stating that “a candidate's fault” does not “automatically” preclude his or her right to seek equitable relief with regard to a place on the ballot); see also In re Angelini, 186 S.W.3d 558, 560 (Tex. 2006) (orig. proceeding) (stating “that defective filings could be remedied after the filing deadline to correct a party official's violation of a statutory duty”); Davis v. Taylor, 930 S.W.2d 581, 583 (Tex. 1996) (orig. proceeding) (summarizing supreme court cases declining to “require rigid adherence to statutory deadlines when a candidate otherwise entitled to a place on the ballot faces elimination from a race because of an election official's failure to perform a nondiscretionary duty through no fault of the candidate”). According to the supreme court:

Candidates have a duty to file applications for office that comply with the Texas Election Code. But the ballot is not restricted to those who never make a mistake. To the contrary, the Election Code anticipates that candidates will occasionally err and specifically requires party officials to assist them so that no candidate is excluded from the ballot unnecessarily. When a defect could have easily been cured had party officials properly performed their statutory role, nothing in the Code requires exclusion as a mandatory remedy.

In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 536. In so ruling, the supreme court analyzed section 141.032 of the election code pertaining to the role of the authority with whom a candidate's application is filed. Under this section, “the authority with whom the application is filed shall review the application to determine whether it complies with the requirements as to form, content, and procedure that it must satisfy for the candidate's name to be placed on the ballot.” Id. at § 141.032(a). With certain exceptions not applicable here, “the review shall be completed not later than the fifth day after the date the application is received by the authority.” Id. at § 141.032(b). And, “[i]f an application does not comply with the applicable requirements, the authority shall reject the application and immediately deliver to the candidate written notice of the reason for the rejection.” Id. at § 141.032(e).

Prior to 2011, when the foregoing cases were decided, the Texas Election Code neither specifically authorized nor specifically prohibited amendments to applications for positions on a ballot after the filing deadline for such applications. In 2011, the Legislature amended the election code to specifically bar a potential candidate from amending an application or an accompanying petition after the filing deadline. See TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 141.032(g), .062(c) (added by Act of May 19, 2011, 82nd Leg., R.S., ch. 254, §§ 1, 2, 2011 TEX. GEN. LAWS 834, 834); Risner v. Harris Cty. Republican Party, 444 S.W.3d 327, 434–44 (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] 2014, no pet.); In re Wilson, 421 S.W.3d 686, 689 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2014, orig. proceeding); see also In re Falgout, No. 03-17-00852-CV, 2017 WL 6757065, at *1 (Tex. App.—Austin Dec. 22, 2017, orig. proceeding) (mem. op.). Thus, the Legislature has foreclosed the opportunity to cure any defects in an application or petition discovered after the filing deadline. In re Wilson, 421 S.W.3d at 689. Subsection 141.032(g) prohibits the trial court from granting a candidate an opportunity to file an amended application and from requiring a party chair to accept an amended application after the filing deadline. Risner, 444 S.W.3d at 343.

“Access to the ballot lies at the very heart of a constitutional republic.” In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 542; see In re Stalder, No. 01-17-00957-CV, 2018 WL 326542, at *1, __ S.W.3d __, __ (Tex. App.—Houston [1st Dist.] Jan. 9, 2018, orig. proceeding). Therefore, provisions of the election code “that restrict the right to hold office must be strictly construed against ineligibility.” In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 542 & n.34; see Wentworth v. Meyer, 839 S.W.2d 766, 768 (Tex. 1992) (orig. proceeding) (stating that appellate courts are required to “strictly construe election law restrictions against ineligibility”). Broadly construing deadlines in the election code in favor of eligibility and access to the ballot ensures that decisions regarding elected positions “are made by voters, not technicalities.” In re Watkins, 465 S.W.3d 657, 659–60 (Tex. App.—Austin 2014, orig. proceeding). We conclude that the Legislature's 2011 amendment to the election code did not address the premature filing issue present in this case, where a candidate's application was otherwise accurate and complete on its face, but was filed prematurely, and the party chair failed to fulfill the statutory obligation to timely review the application and notify the candidate that the application was filed too early. In such a case, there is nothing to amend so as to trigger the prohibition against late amendments found in the election code. See TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 141.032(g).

Further, the 2011 amendment did not eliminate courts' equitable powers with regard to the election code. The Legislature could easily have amended the election code to eliminate equity jurisdiction in election cases; however, it did not. As stated previously, the Texas Supreme Court has recognized that a court may fashion equitable relief regarding violations of the election code, including the placement or removal of a candidate's name on the ballot. See In re Gamble, 71 S.W.3d at 317 (“As is evident, the Legislature has specifically called upon the courts to exercise their equitable powers to resolve election code violations.”); see, e.g., TEX. ELEC. CODE ANN. § 273.081; In re Rodriguez, 397 S.W.3d 817, 822 (Tex. App.—Beaumont 2013, orig. proceeding); see also Ramirez v. Quintanilla, No. 13-10-00449-CV, 2010 WL 3307370, at *9 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi Aug. 20, 2010, pet. denied) (combined appeal & orig. proceeding).

The equitable powers of Texas courts are not unrestrained in election cases. The relief requested in such a case must: (1) be timely to correct the alleged violations; (2) not seek to delay or cancel an election; (3) not interfere with the elective process; and (4) not inquire into or declare the validity of the election. See Blum v. Lanier, 997 S.W.2d 259, 263 (Tex. 1999); Ex parte Barrett, 37 S.W.2d 741, 742 (Tex. 1931); see also Cahill v. Bertuzzi, No. 13-09-00183-CV, 2010 WL 2163136, at *6 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi May 27, 2010, pet. denied) (mem. op.). Further, courts have no power to control the electoral process or matters referable to the internal issues of political parties:

Except to the extent that jurisdiction is conferred by statute or that the subject has been regulated by statute, the courts have no power to interfere with the judgments of the constituted authorities of established political parties in matters involving party government and discipline, to determine disputes within a political party as to the regularity of the election of its executive officers, or their removal, or to determine contests for the position of party committeemen or convention delegates.

Wall v. Currie, 213 S.W.2d 816, 817 (Tex. 1948); see Dick v. Kazen, 292 S.W.2d 913, 916 (Tex. 1956) (“The holding of elections and the election procedure is a part of the political power of the State, and except as provided by statute, the judiciary has no control over them.”); see also In re Cahill, 267 S.W.3d 104, 106 (Tex. App.—Corpus Christi 2008, orig. proceeding); Runyon v. Kent, 239 S.W.2d 909, 910 (Tex. Civ. App.—San Antonio 1951, writ ref'd); Ramirez, 2010 WL 3307370, at *8–9. And, the supreme court has cautioned us that “[a] Texas political party is a free and voluntary association of citizens of the state. Such parties cannot operate if the courts entertain the suit of every member who concludes that he is in disagreement with its decisions.” Holland v. Taylor, 270 S.W.2d 219, 221 (Tex. 1954); see also Cahill, 2010 WL 2163136, at *7.

For the 2018 Primary Election, the time frame for candidates to submit their applications was November 11, 2017 through December 11, 2017. Diaz filed his application with Chairman Godinez on September 12, 2017, two months early. Chairman Godinez did not recognize the defect in Diaz's application and did not return the application to Diaz or otherwise notify him of any error with regard to the application. The application was otherwise unassailable. Ramirez filed her application with Chairman Godinez on November 21, 2017. On December 15, 2017, Chairman Godinez submitted the candidates' information to the Texas Secretary of State for certification.

On December 28, 2017, after the filing deadline for applications and after Chairman Godinez had submitted the candidates' information to the Secretary of State, Ramirez challenged Diaz's application as untimely and requested that Chairman Godinez disqualify Diaz as a candidate. See In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 540–41 (stating that under an equitable analysis, candidates' “[o]pponents would no longer be able to win elections by default by pointing out defects only after it is too late to correct them”). In balancing the competing equities, the harm to Diaz in denying him a place on the ballot due to a premature filing would be irreparable, whereas, in contrast, any harm to Ramirez would be the inability to receive a windfall in the form of an unopposed primary election. See In re Gamble, 71 S.W.2d at 317. Further, the alleged harm to Ramirez is far outweighed by the voters' interest in electing the candidate of their choice. See Triantaphyllis v. Gamble, 93 S.W.3d 398, 405 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2002, pet. denied); Sachtleben v. Bennett, No. 14-10-00322-CV, 2010 WL 3168395, at *3–5 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Aug. 12, 2010, no pet.) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The right to vote for a candidate of one's choice has been described as “the essence of a democratic society.” Reynolds v. Sims, 377 U.S. 533, 555 (1964); see Triantaphyllis, 93 S.W.3d at 405; Sachtleben, 2010 WL 3168395, at *3–5. And, as our Texas Supreme Court has noted, the “public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” In re Francis, 186 S.W.3d at 542; see also In re Stalder, 2018 WL 326542, at *1.

In keeping with these principles and consonant with statutory interpretation and supreme court precedent, we deny Ramirez's petition for writ of mandamus. She has neither shown that Chairman Godinez violated a ministerial duty nor that the election code mandates that Diaz be excluded from the ballot. We note that our disposition of this case is tailored narrowly to the specific and narrow issue presented and is informed by the procedural underpinnings of the case, the urgencies presented by the election schedule, and the specific arguments and evidence presented here.

V. CONCLUSION

The Court, having examined and fully considered the petition for writ of mandamus, the responses, the replies, and the applicable law, is of the opinion that Ramirez has failed to meet her burden to obtain mandamus relief. Accordingly, we DENY the petition for writ of mandamus.

FOOTNOTES

2.   This original proceeding arises from trial court cause number C-0079-18-J in the 430th District Court of Hidalgo County, Texas and the respondent is the Honorable Israel Ramon Jr. See TEX. R. APP. P. 52.2. Ricardo Godinez, the Chairman of the Hidalgo County Democratic Party, appearing here in his official capacity, is both a real party in interest and a respondent. See id.

3.   Diaz filed an unopposed motion for extension of time to file a response to the petition for writ of mandamus, but nevertheless filed his response timely. Accordingly, we dismiss his motion for extension of time as moot.

ROGELIO VALDEZ Chief Justice

Dissenting Memorandum Opinion by Justice Leticia Hinojosa.

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