Texas Supreme Court holds election contest moot, but trial court was still in error when it awarded sanctions
Laura Pressley v Geregorio Casar, 17-0052 (Tex. January 25, 2019)
This is an election contest case for a city council seat where the losing party and her attorney were sanctioned for bringing a frivolous claim. The Texas Supreme Court reversed the award of sanctions and dismissed the case as currently moot.
Gregorio Casar and Laura Pressley finished first and second, respectively, in the 2014 Austin City Council general election for the District 4 council seat. Pressley filed a request for recount, which included a recount of the electronic voting system information. For the manual recount, the CVR file for each voter was printed and counted by hand. The manual recount found no discrepancies with the original canvass and confirmed the original results that Casar won. Pressley next filed an election contest, arguing that CVRs are not “ballot images” or “images of ballots cast,” as the Election Code requires. She also asserted the election officials failed to allow her and the poll watchers the ability to observe the retrieving of the images from the machines. Casar filed traditional and no-evidence summary judgment motions and moved for Chapter 10 sanctions, which the trial court granted and the court of appeals affirmed.
The Court first noted Casar was reelected and began his second term in 2017. Because Pressley’s petition for review was filed after the completion of Casar’s contested term, the Court decide is whether the election contest is moot.
Casar argued this election contest is moot because no remedy exists to contest an expired term of office. The Court agreed and no exception to the mootness doctrine applied. However, even though the election contest provision is moot, the Court still considered the sanctions holdings. Chapter 10 of the Civil Practice and Remedies Code permits sanctions for pleadings that are filed for an improper purpose or that lack legal or factual support. Pleaded claims must be warranted by existing law or a nonfrivolous argument to change existing law. The trial court sanctioned Pressley and Rogers for three claims in which they alleged: (1) election irregularities, (2) criminal violation by election officials, and (3) voter disenfranchisement. After analyzing each, the Court held at least some evidence exists to support the claims asserted. There is nothing frivolous about presenting a statistical analysis showing that the results were unlikely as persuasive support. Pressley’s computer-science and data expert testified that he found at least nine corruption errors in the files, which constitute irregularities and is also an indicator of potential corruption. The seals on the election machines were also broken. Pressley did not need to be right or produce enough evidence to prevail on her entire suit to avoid sanctions. These claims have some evidentiary support and that is enough to make them non-frivolous. The sanctions order was reversed and the remainder dismissed as moot.