Concerned Texans have been fighting Gov. Greg Abbott over shutdown orders and the recently signed agreement to bring contact tracing to Texas in the court of public opinion.
Now that fight will soon be moving to federal court.
This week, a federal lawsuit was filed in the Southern District of Texas, targeting both the shutdown orders decreed by Abbott over the past few months in response to the Chinese coronavirus, as well as the $295 million, 27-month agreement with New York-based MTX Group to implement contact tracing statewide.
Led by Conservative Republicans of Texas’ Dr. Steve Hotze, the case includes nearly 1,500 other plaintiffs, including State Rep. Bill Zedler (R–Arlington) and former State Reps. Molly White, Rick Green, and Gary Elkins.
The suit argues that the shutdown orders, strict reopening guidelines, and contact tracing program violate Texans’ constitutional rights under the First and Fourth Amendments, as well as their right to due process and equal protection:
“Under Governor Abbott’s Executive Orders, and in his contact tracing contract, Plaintiffs and their businesses are assumed to be virus incubators despite a lack of evidence demonstrating so and without providing those businesses with any due process to contest that assumption…
“The rationale behind Abbott’s mass “lock-down” includes an assumption that each citizen is a threat to their fellow Texan. The only governmental interest in a pandemic is to prohibit individuals who are a contagious threat from spreading the disease. To presume in the definition of a crime that the essential element of the crime already exists, is a fundamental contradiction of the presumption of innocence…
“Through his numerous executive orders, Abbott, not the legislature, has created (or mimicked) classes of people, business, and services he defines as “essential services,” “non-essential services,” “reopened services,” and “closed” businesses. Through his executive orders, Abbott has picked winners and losers, allowing some businesses to stay open, some to partially reopen, and ordering others closed.”
Contact tracing is a disease-mitigation strategy that involves tracking individuals who test positive for the virus and determining who they may have come into contact with while infectious. Tracers then urge those who may have come into contact with the virus to get tested or exercise some form of social isolation, with the stated goal of preventing further spread of the virus.
Though the contract signed with MTX Group is mostly limited to a call center of around 4,000 employees to contact potential carriers of the virus, the suit alleges “smart phones, such as iPhones and Androids, are reportedly being reprogrammed to facilitate the unconsented tracking of Texans by Defendants, compiling information in ways that invade the privacy of Plaintiffs and other Texans.”
“As reliance on digital technology replaces interview models, which also raise serious constitutional concerns, serious constitutional and privacy concerns are implicated, including, but not limited to violations of the First and Fourth Amendments to the United States Constitution.”
It remains to be seen whether or not Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will defend the program in court. As of publishing, Paxton’s office had not responded to an inquiry from Texas Scorecard.
Hotze has also filed a separate suit in state court, taking aim at Abbott’s use of emergency powers under the Texas Disaster Act, which is currently on petition to the Supreme Court of Texas.