"Not worth the paper it's printed on": Texas Republicans ignore ruling against Abbott's "Death Star"

Judge rules that a law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott banning water breaks during Texas heat waves is unconstitutional

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Staff Writer

Published August 31, 2023 1:39PM (EDT)

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference at the Texas State Capitol on June 08, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott speaks during a news conference at the Texas State Capitol on June 08, 2023 in Austin, Texas. (Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

A Texas judge ruled on Wednesday that a law dubbed by critics as the "Death Star" and championed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is unconstitutional.

Signed into law by Abbott in June, the top-down legislation prohibited cities from passing local ordinances that contradict state legislation in eight broad areas like government, finance and labor. The GOP-backed effort was widely seen as a power grab meant to curtail the progress of Democrat-led cities in the Lone Star state. 

Abbott explained that he signed the bill to "cut red tape & help businesses thrive," arguing that "Texas small businesses are the backbone of our economy" and "burdensome regulations are an obstacle to their success."

But District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble disagreed.

The decision against the state Wednesday afternoon came as a response to a lawsuit the city of Houston filed last month. "I am thrilled that Houston, our legal department, and sister cities were able to obtain this victory for Texas cities, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner wrote in a statement posted to X, formerly known as Twitter. "HB 2127 was a power grab by the Legislature and an unwarranted and unconstitutional intrusion into local power granted to Houston and other home-rule cities.

"While we expect an appeal, it remains clear this law is an unacceptable infringement on the rights of Texans and cities."

The mayor went on to call for an end to the "self-defeating war" on cities, including home-rule municipalities like his, San Antonio and El Paso, that he says have "long been the drivers of the State's vibrant economy."

"The Governor's and Legislature's ongoing war on such home-rule cities hurt the states and its economy, discourages new transplants from other states, and thwarts the will of Texas voters who endowed these cities in the Texas Constitution with full rights to self-government and local innovation," Turner said.

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The law's author, meanwhile, Republican Rep. Dustin Burrows, criticized the ruling on social media, asserting that it's "not worth the paper it's printed on."

"The Texas Supreme Court will ultimately rule this law to be completely valid," Burrows asserted on X. "The ruling today has no legal effect or precedent, and should deter no Texan from availing themselves of their rights when HB2127 becomes law on September 1, 2023"

The Texas Attorney General's office immediately appealed the decision, staying the effect of the court's declaration and allowing the bill to go into effect on Friday. The office's director of communications, Paige Wiley, told Insider in a statement that while Gamble declared the law unconstitutional, "she did not enjoin enforcement of the law by Texans who are harmed by local ordinances, which HB 2127 preempts."

But Houston City Attorney Arturo Michel told The Texas Observer that, unlike the federal Constitution, Texas' Constitution does not permit the state to preempt local laws in broad areas like the ones HB 2127 addresses.

"For 100 years, cities have had home rule powers, the power of self-governance, under the state constitution, that does not require the legislature's permission to pass laws," Michel told the outlet. "The state is trying to turn that on its head." 

The legislation came under fire among Texan workers and their allies as a deadly heat wave shook the state earlier this summer because the law, once in effect, would overturn ordinances that mandated measures and labor protections like water breaks for outdoor workers and prevent localities from passing new ones.

The state saw protests from construction workers who said that an end to local water break mandates would precipitate more incidents of heat-related illness and death.

"This is a HUGE win for the working people of Texas, local govs, and communities across our state," labor federation Texas AFL-CIO tweeted of the decision. "While we expect an appeal, it remains clear this law is an unacceptable infringement on the rights of Texans and cities."

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"This law was targeting very openly, very basic worker protections that workers and unions and community organizations have fought for for many years," the group's policy director, Ana Gonzalez, told The Observer. "This included other ordinances that were targeted like payday lending, and tenant protections, non-discrimination ordinances, fair chance hiring, and many other things that local elected officials have passed and response from their community needs will remain in place for now."

Other state and local officials celebrated the ruling on social media Wednesday with some vowing to continue to fight the law after its appeal.

"HB 2127 declared unconstitutional for good reason ! This is a big win for Texan workers, Municipalities, and local control," Texas Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D, wrote on X.

"Texans already knew this law — designed to block worker protections like the right to a water break — was dangerous & wrong," state Rep. Greg Casar, D, tweeted. "This good ruling will likely be appealed. I'll continue to fight for workers at every level of government."

"In a MASSIVE win for local governance, democracy, and freedom, the Death Star Bill (#HB2127) has been declared unconstitutional," Austin City Council member Vanessa Fuentes added. "This could allow localities to enact more life-saving measures, tenant protections, on-discrimination ordinances, and MUCH more."

By Tatyana Tandanpolie

Tatyana Tandanpolie is a staff writer at Salon. Born and raised in central Ohio, she moved to New York City in 2018 to pursue degrees in Journalism and Africana Studies at New York University. She is currently based in her home state and has previously written for local Columbus publications, including Columbus Monthly, CityScene Magazine and The Columbus Dispatch.

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