Judge denies Texas Republican Party’s request to force Houston to host party’s in-person convention

(CNN) — A county court judge denied a request by the Texas Republican Party to hold its convention in Houston afte Democratic Mayor Sylvester Turner canceled a contract to hold it in the city, the party said.

Harris County District Judge Larry Weiman denied the party’s request to block the city from restricting the convention on the grounds of limiting coronavirus risk, the party said in a statement Thursday night.

The party said that it “will proceed in filing its appeal directly to the Texas Supreme Court given the time sensitivity of the matter as the Convention was scheduled to begin its committee meetings on Monday at the George R. Brown Convention Center.”

The party has also called for a meeting of the State Republican Executive Committee on Saturday to “finalize location matters based upon the outcome of the case,” according to the statement.

The party is suing Turner, the convention venue’s operator and the city for breach of contract and had asked a judge to force the convention center to comply with the contract, according to an earlier news release.

“Our objective is that the courts will hear and rule in our favor in time to open up the George R. Brown Convention Center Monday morning so that we may safely begin our vital work in the electoral process,” the party said in a statement earlier Thursday.

Turner said Wednesday that he had asked the city’s legal department to review the contract between the State Republican Executive Committee and the convention venue’s operator, Houston First Corporation. He announced later Wednesday that he had officially instructed Houston First Corporation to cancel its contract with the state GOP.

Turner told reporters during a press conference on Thursday that he had yet to see the lawsuit filed by Texas Republicans, but welcomed the legal challenge. Turner pointed out that they planned to ask a court — that still isn’t meeting in person — to grant their request for a big, in-person event.

“It’s ironic that they are going to the courthouse, that in many cases is hearing and seeing cases virtually, to ask them to agree to allow 6,000 people to meet in person when even the judicial community — the United States Supreme Court, I believe, is hearing cases virtually. Now isn’t that ironic? I don’t think I need to say anything more,” he said.

Turner garnered national attention in making the announcement, with the Democrat speaking in deeply personal terms about the memory of his late mother to explain his decision.

“The linchpin for me (was) when one of the people on my staff, combined with my sister, who said to me, ‘Mayor, brother, your mom was a maid working at these hotels. And if your mom was alive today working at one of these hotels (would) you as the mayor still allow this convention to go forth and run the risk of infecting your mom?’ ” he said.

The decision by Turner is a first in a showdown between Republican and Democratic leaders in the battle over safely reopening the country. Republicans, led by President Donald Trump, have pushed for holding campaign events in person as opposed to virtually as they push toward the fall election. While some local leaders have expressed concern about large-scale political events and rallies, this is the first time an elected leader has made a formal move to prevent one from taking place.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the city’s health director, Bruce Dart, expressed concerns about the Trump campaign’s rally last month in that city, but Republican Mayor G.T. Bynum and the Oklahoma Supreme Court declined to prevent it from happening. In New Hampshire, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu said that he personally wouldn’t attend the Trump rally has planned for Saturday because of the health concerns but declined to prevent the gathering from moving forward.

The legal battle in Houston could serve as a precursor to the situation in Jacksonville, Florida, where GOP leaders are planning their national convention. Unlike in Houston, Jacksonville’s Mayor Lenny Curry is a Republican and has been supportive of plans to hold the event in his city. Despite his support, a group of Jacksonville residents have banded together and filed a lawsuit in an attempt to either scale back the event or or prevent from happening altogether.

Texas is one of several states grappling with increasing coronavirus cases, with Houston having been eyed last month as one of the potentially hardest-hit cities in the US. Harris County, which encompasses Houston and is the most populous county in Texas, has led the state in confirmed cases.

Dr. David Persse, who serves as health authority for the Houston Health Department, said during a news conference last week that the city had reached a 25% positivity rate.

“The virus is very prevalent in the community,” Persse said, adding that at the time there were more than 1,200 people in Houston hospitals and more than 500 of them in the ICU due to complications from the coronavirus. “The virus is very much out there,” he said. “It’s very much actively spreading.”

Last month, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott suspended all elective surgeries in hospitals in four counties that are home to the cities of San Antonio, Dallas, Houston and Austin. The counties had had “significant increases” in Covid-19 hospitalizations, Abbott said.

Texas is expected to see nearly 2,000 new hospitalizations per day by mid-July, according to forecasts published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The state has already seen more than 225,400 cases and over 2,800 deaths from the virus, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

This story has been updated with additional developments on Thursday.

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