The Texas Supreme Court unanimously ruled Friday that a city ban on single-use plastic bags in Laredo, Texas, violates state law, calling into question similar ordinances in other cities across the state, including in Austin.
The Laredo Merchants Association sued the city of Laredo in March 2015, arguing that the city’s ban on single-use plastic bags conflicted with a state law regulating solid waste disposal, and thus was in violation of the Texas Constitution, which holds that city ordinances cannot violate state law.
Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote in the ruling, “We must take statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”
The Austin connection
Austin City Council unanimously approved a Single-Use Carryout Bag Ordinance in 2011 that went into effect in 2013. It was meant to encourage a shift to reusable bags through regulation.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has been a vocal critic of such bans and has requested the state Supreme Court review the legality of ordinances such as Austin’s.
In June of 2017, Paxton filed an amicus brief requesting the state Supreme Court to affirm an August 2016 decision by the San Antonio Court of Appeals that ruled the Laredo bag ban illegal.
“Cities across Texas are failing to respect the rule of law and unlawfully passing the burden of municipal solid waste management to residents and retailers through bag bans,” Paxton said at the time. “Municipalities do not get to violate Texas law merely because they don’t like it. We’re asking the Texas Supreme Court to uphold the law so that the ruling can be used to invalidate similar ordinances across Texas.”
The Supreme Court announced its affirmation of the appellate ruling on Friday.
In a statement released after the ruling, the city of Austin said it is “reviewing this decision to determine how it might impact Austin’s regulations.”
“The City’s single-use bag ordinance has been in place since 2012 and has served as a model for engaging stakeholders to develop effective local legislation,” the statement read.
With this ruling, bag bags in Laredo, Austin and other cities are now unenforceable.
In a concurring opinion, Texas Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman suggested that the state Legislature intervene.
“The legislative branch, not the judiciary, bears the unenviable task of making complicated policy decisions that balance the benefits of uniform regulation and the myriad burdens (financial or otherwise) that may be imposed on taxpayers, businesses, and the environment,” Guzman wrote.
“I urge the Legislature to take direct ameliorative action… Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning—it will invite one.”
The issue of local control
The bag ban is one of of many ordinances that are being debated by Texas cities and the state government, as noted in the court’s ruling.
“The roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs has not, with increased age, lost any of its vigor. From public education to immigration policy to fracking to shopping bags, the sides are always deeply divided,” Hecht wrote.
“Judges have no dog in this fight. Our duty is to apply the rules fairly and equally to both sides.”
Most recently, Austin City Council passed a paid sick leave ordinance that state Rep. Paul Workman, R-Austin, has already promised to fight when the next legislative session begins in January 2019.