Red Light Camera Ban Tossed Out

A federal judge has thrown out the city's ban on red light cameras because it came from a referendum, not a charter amendment.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said the changes mandated by voters last November were not valid -- they could only have been accomplished via a charter amendment, and that would have needed to be done almost immediately after the red light camera ordinance and contract were approved in 2004. Referenda aimed at specific city ordinances are not valid, he ruled.

Mayor Annise Parker said, "Judge Hughes's ruling means that we have several options to consider. I will consult with City Attorney Dave Feldman and City Council members as we deliberate the future of the red light camera program in Houston. Right now the cameras continue to monitor intersections, but no tickets are being issued."

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Hughes noted that the city insisted its action was a charter amendment and therefore legitimate, but, he wrote, "Abraham Lincoln once asked 'If Congress said that a goat's tail was a leg, how many legs would a goat have? Four. Calling a tail a leg does not make it so.'"

Hughes admitted (here's a link to the opinion) the time to overturn an ordinance by referendum is limited, but he said opponents have other options: Voting in new city councilmembers who will overturn it themselves.

"Those who favor repeal will react that this distinction is a legal technicality." wrote Hughes, who is known for his sharply worded and vivid written rulings. "In some sense, all law is a technicality. It draws lines and defines categories. It is the antithesis of passion and plurality. The Founders' definition of tyranny was arbitrary government. Timid and overenthusiastic city officials can destroy regular government as easily as a king."

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