US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Texas councilwoman First Amendment retaliatory arrest case News
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US Supreme Court hears oral arguments on Texas councilwoman First Amendment retaliatory arrest case

The US Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday on the case Gonzalez v. Trevino, which concerns the arrest of a Castle Hills, Texas councilwoman who argues that she was arrested in retaliation for her critical speech about the city’s government. The case is an appeal from the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which ruled against the councilwoman.

In 2019, Sylvia Gonzalez was elected to the Castle Hills city council. Allegedly, by accident, after a council meeting, Gonzalez took a petition that she initiated which criticized the city manager. Later, the police charged Gonzalez with violating a state law prohibiting impairing or removing government records. Police arrested Gonzalez for the crime, but the city prosecutor dropped the charges. This led to Gonzalez suing several city officials, arguing that police arrested her as part of a retaliatory scheme by the city government.

Much of Wednesday’s oral arguments focused on the Supreme Court case Nieves v. Barlett. In that case, the court ruled that probable cause to make an arrest defeats a claim that the arrest was in retaliation for speech protected by the US Constitution’s First Amendment. The court concluded that “the presence of probable cause should generally defeat a First Amendment retaliatory arrest claim.” However, the court noted that there is an exception to this rule if the plaintiff can show that others who were not engaged in the same kind of protected speech were not arrested for the same crime in the past. The court illustrated this exception with a hypothetical of a person being arrested for jaywalking, a crime that police do not usually arrest people for.

Attorney Anya A. Bidwell argued on behalf of the councilwoman. During her arguments, Bidwell and the justices wrestled with the narrowness to the probable cause exception to Nieves. Justice Clarence Thomas pressed Bidwell on the fact that there was an arrest warrant for the councilwoman, unlike in Nieves. However, Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted that some warrants are false and based on “material falsehoods.” Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion in Nieves, pointed out that the probable cause exception is narrow.

Attorney Lisa S. Blatt argued on behalf of the city officials. Blatt argued that expanding the probable cause exception could lead to excessive litigation. Sotomayor made a point of differentiating the charge in this case from the court’s hypothetical of jaywalking in Nieves. In response, Blatt noted that the federal government has a similar government document law and that there was supporting evidence to arrest Gonzalez.