Lawmakers on the Senate Jurisprudence Committee have amended a trivial bill to include a controversial anti-free speech measure that is pending in the House.

As Texas Scorecard previously reported, Senate Bill 896 by State Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola) would weaken free speech protections in the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which allows individuals to file a motion to dismiss a “strategic lawsuit against public participation,” or SLAPP, halting all trial proceedings if the motion is granted or a denial is appealed.

The latest version of the measure would allow the stay on trial proceedings to expire after 60 days if a judge determines the anti-SLAPP motion to dismiss is frivolous, not filed on time, or does not apply because the case falls under one of several categories of exemptions such as those involving trade secrets, evictions, and legal proceedings pertaining to family issues like divorce, child custody, and protective orders.

House Bill 3129 by State Rep. Bobby Guerra (D-Mission), on the other hand, simply renumbers provisions of a statute in the Civil Practices and Remedies Code.

Since the statute addresses appeals to preliminary court orders, Hughes said it is a “germane vehicle” for incorporating SB 896.

He noted that SB 896 “made it over in the House” and is “still in the process, but, of course, it’s getting late, so we’re looking for vehicles.”

The House considered the bill during a hearing of the Judiciary and Civil Jurisprudence Committee last month and approved a revised version on May 3. It is currently awaiting action in the House Calendars Committee; the deadline for the House to pass Senate bills is Tuesday, May 23.

Since changes have been made to both measures, each still needs the approval of the House and Senate before it can go to the governor’s desk.

Central Texas attorney Tony McDonald described the move by the Senate committee as “outrageous” and “totally inappropriate and underhanded.”

“This kind of behavior—shoving controversial legislation into a non-substantive revision bill—is exactly the kind of garbage Texans hate about Washington,” he argued.

He also said it likely violates the Texas Constitution, which limits bills to a single subject.

Previously, McDonald explained that “Texans rely on the TCPA to know that they will not be buried in litigation in response to their speech,” arguing that “[i]f this bill passes, it will leave many Texans victimized by abusive lawsuits and forced to fight on multiple fronts, in the trial courts and courts of appeals.”

“Put simply, SB 896 will chill Texans’ speech,” he asserted.

State Rep. Jeff Leach (R-Allen), the House sponsor for SB 896, described the TCPA as a tool “originally designed to be a shield [that] has in many cases become an unwieldy and abusive sword.”

During the House committee hearing, advocates for the legislation argued that anti-SLAPP motions are being used to delay trial proceedings and can be extremely costly for litigants.

A website promoting the passage of SB 896 lists the Texas Association of Business and Texans for Lawsuit Reform as supporters of the legislation. Representatives of both organizations testified in favor of the bill during the House committee hearing, as did a representative for Ryan, LLC, a prominent tax firm headquartered in Dallas.

However, Arif Panju, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, said during the same hearing that a SLAPP suit is “the bending of the power of the court against an individual to silence them, to drain them of their resources, and make them shut up,” adding that “those that can afford big firms that like to litigate a lot in courts often will try to water down anti-SLAPP statutes.”

Having received the approval of the Senate Jurisprudence Committee, HB 3129 could come up for a vote of the full Senate next week.

The 88th Legislative Session ends May 29.

Darrell Frost

Since graduating from Hillsdale College, Darrell has held key roles in winning political campaigns, managed a state legislator's Capitol office, and taught at a classical charter school. He enjoys participating in outdoor activities, playing the harmonica, and learning about the latest scientific developments.

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