Pressley: Further Unto the Breach
Defeated Council candidate continues appeal
In what will likely be a surprise to nobody, defeated City Council candidate Laura Pressley says she intends to press on in her election challenge against District 4 City Council Member Greg Casar, despite judicial sanctions that could cost her $165,000 in penalties before the matter comes to a legal close. On July 23, Judge Dan Mills issued his amended final judgment in the contest, and confirmed his earlier summary judgment in favor of Casar; he also granted sanctions of roughly $100,000 against Pressley and her original attorney, David Rogers. Nevertheless, Pressley then told the Chronicle she will likely appeal (she previously filed a notice of appeal to the 3rd Court of Appeals), although she said she and current attorney Mark Cohen have not yet formally made a new filing to do so. "We saw the [judge's] order," Pressley said. "We respectfully disagree with the findings."
In his ruling, the judge reiterated his earlier "no evidence" summary judgment, declared Casar the winner of the Dec. 16 run-off, and granted sanctions on the grounds that Pressley and her attorney knowingly pursued frivolous claims against Casar, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and other county and state officials. Mills reiterated at length that Pressley and Rogers made no attempts at legally required "reasonable inquiry" to confirm whether their claims – including of election irregularities as well as criminal conduct by public officials – had any evidentiary basis.
The judge ruled that by their actions, Pressley and Rogers had violated the Texas Civil Practices and Remedies Code. Accordingly, he assessed $40,000 in sanctions against Pressley and $50,000 against Rogers, to address in part the $150,000 in attorneys' fees already incurred by Casar, and another $7,794.44 in related legal defense expenses. He additionally ruled that should Pressley unsuccessfully pursue her appeals through to the Texas Supreme Court, she and Rogers could be liable for $65,000 in additional sanctions.
Related court costs bring the initial total just above $100,000 – and do not attempt to address the costs incurred by the County Clerk's and Attorney's offices, which have devoted many hours and resources to defending the county's election procedures and DeBeauvoir – targeted for her use of the "eSlate" voting system, which Pressley considers flawed and inadequate, despite its certification by the secretary of state.
Casar said that while he's pleased that the judge signed off on the sanctions, "Much of this shouldn't have happened in the first place." The sanctions will at least allow him to "focus more on the city budget instead of the budget for my lawyers." His lead attorney, Chuck Herring, acknowledged that the ruling is unlikely to end the matter, as Pressley appears determined to appeal. Nevertheless, he said, the "substantial" sanctions award "sends an important message and acts as a deterrent to other defeated candidates: 'Don't file a frivolous lawsuit that lacks factual or legal basis, just because you lose an election.' ... I think it sends a good message, helps protect our democratic process and the taxpayers." Herring noted that if Pressley pursues her appeal, the case – already seven months into a two-year Council term – may linger on into next year, despite additional potential sanctions for Pressley and her attorney.
Pressley said she is encouraged that the judge did not specifically sanction her for her central argument, that "cast vote records" are not "ballot images," although he did note that they are considered identical in both law and election practice. "We think the secretary of state is giving bad legal advice," said Pressley. "We're here for the truth, we're here for justice, and we're looking forward to a ruling by the Court of Appeals on the ballot image issue."