Staley v. Harris County

Last modified 2011.09.15

  • Status Closed
  • Type Counsel
  • Court U.S. Court of Appeals
  • Issues Religious Displays, Religious Minorities

This case challenged a memorial donated by the Star of Hope Mission and placed outside the main entrance of the Harris County courthouse. The memorial, dedicated to a local businessman, consisted of an open King James Bible atop a stone podium. It was dedicated and later rededicated with considerable religious fanfare.

In October 2004, a federal district court held the display unconstitutional. When the County appealed the ruling, the attorney for the plaintiff asked AU to come in as lead counsel, which we did.

We prevailed in our opposition to the County’s request for a stay of the District Court’s injunction, so the Bible was removed pending appeal. Thereafter, we filed a brief opposing Star of Hope Mission’s appeal of the denial of its motion to intervene in the case. And in May 2005, we filed our brief on the merits, responding to the County’s brief on appeal and to nine amicus curiae briefs filed on behalf of the County.

The Court of Appeals held oral argument on both the merits and intervention appeals in December 2005. The merits appeal was argued by AU Legal Director Ayesha N. Khan, and Assistant Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued the intervention appeal.

Shortly thereafter, the panel issued a ruling agreeing that the requested intervention was impermissible. Then, in August 2006, the Court of Appeals issued its decision on the merits, ruling in the plaintiff’s favor. In the 2-1 decision, the Court held that an objective observer would conclude that the monument has been an official endorsement of religion since its refurbishment by a local judge who campaigned on a platform to restore Christianity to government.

In August 2006, the County filed a petition for rehearing en banc, which the Court granted. The Court ordered the parties to submit supplemental briefing regarding whether the case had been mooted by the County’s then-planned removal of the monument as part of a building renovation. We submitted a supplemental brief in January 2007, arguing that the panel should remand the case to the District Court for a determination of mootness; and that, if the case was moot, the Court should dismiss the appeal, retain the District Court’s decision, and award attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff. Four days before oral argument, the County removed the monument. Oral argument was heard in January 2007.

In April 2007, the en banc Court ruled that the case was moot, but the Court agreed that the County is not entitled to have the District Court’s decision vacated and that the plaintiff is entitled to attorneys’ fees.

On July 23, 2007, the County filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case, contending that the Fifth Circuit erred by not vacating the District Court’s decision and by awarding attorneys’ fees to the plaintiff. On August 29, 2007, we filed an opposition to that petition, as well as a conditional cross-petition asking the Supreme Court to review the issue of mootness if (and only if) the Court were to grant review on the issue of vacatur. The Supreme Court denied review on November 26, 2007. We have since reached an agreement with the County regarding attorneys’ fees. The case has concluded.

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