First District holds county attorney could not bring suit against commissioner’s court for budget policies

Hobbs, Williamson County Attorney v. Dan A. Gattis, et. al., 01-19-00025-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], Oct. 15, 2020).

This is a declaratory judgment case where the First District Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of the County Attorney’s challenge to a commissioner court policy regarding the budget.

Hobbs, acting in his official capacity as the Williamson County Attorney, sued the Williamson County Judge and Williamson County Commissioners, all in their official capacities, seeking a declaratory judgment that certain policies and orders were void for exceeding the power of the Commissioners Court.  The County defendants filed a plea to the jurisdiction which was granted. Hobbs appealed.

Hobbs challenged a policy that appeared to limit the salaries of his employees, even though the budget allocated for his office had sufficient funds.  The County’s plea challenged the pleadings only and were taken as true. The County defendants argued that Hobbs had no authority to bring suit in his official capacity.  Since Hobbs was only complaining about budgetary issues, the defendants did not invade his elected sphere of control. However, the funds had been budgeted for the County Attorney’s office and Hobbs complained of the policies imposed on how those funds were spent (specifically regarding hiring and salary aspects of assistant county attorneys). A commissioner’s court has broad discretion on budgetary decisions, and such decisions are ordinarily protected from judicial scrutiny by the separation of powers doctrine. But it is limited by certain judicial controls. A commissioner’s court and county officers may not interfere with or usurp the duties delegated by the Texas Constitution and by statutes to independent county officials and their employees.  However, the live pleadings did not list a controversy where potential employees did not accept employment due to the limits or that any other employees were affected. Alleging the policies could hamper Hobb’s office is an allegation of an uncertain or contingent future controversy, not an allegation of a live controversy.  Further, the live pleadings do not show Hobbs, in his official capacity, suffered a distinct and individualized injury. Hobbs acknowledged in his pleading that the county attorney has no individual stake differing from that of other Williamson County elected officials since he is suing in his official capacity only.  A district court has certain constitutional supervisory controls of the commissioner’s court; however, those require an act that is illegal, unreasonable or arbitrary. The challenged policy does not necessarily reduce any employee salary as compared to the amount adopted in the budget. Given the broad budgetary discretion of the commissioner’s court, Hobbs failed to allege facts triggering the district court’s constitutional supervisory control. The plea was properly granted.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justices Kelly, Goodman, and Countiss.  Opinion by Justice Kelly.

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