The Texas Supreme Court handed a loss to local government on Friday, ruling that a Laredo ban on plastic bags violates state law. The decision imperils other cities’ bans across the state.
The court’s ruling resolves a long-standing question over whether local governments may impose such bans, as cities including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas have in recent years. It comes a year after a legislative session marked by challenges to the power of local governments.
City ordinances cannot conflict with state law, the court said in a unanimous holding, stating clearly that its intent was not to wade into the “roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs” but simply to resolve the legal question at hand.
“Both sides of the debate… assert public-policy arguments raising economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the court. “We must take statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite cleary. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”
The unanimous holding delivers a blow to proponents of local control, and likely means an end to the other Texas cities that impose similar local regulations.
The Laredo Merchants Association sued the city back in March 2015, arguing that the city’s ban on single-use bags conflicted with a state law regulating solid waste disposal. But the question stretches back even further than that. In 2014, then-Attorney General Greg Abbott issued a non-binding opinion advising that bag bans are legal if they are not aimed at “solid waste management.” That murky phrase, which appears in the Texas Health and Safety Code, has become the fulcrum for debate on the issue.
The Laredo case, which made its way to the Texas Supreme Court in January, has focused on that semantic difference. Lawyers for the city, led by former Texas Supreme Court Justice Dale Wainwright, argued that the bags are not garbage and are therefore are not covered by the relevant state law. Lawyers on the other side, who have been joined by the Texas Attorney General’s Office, argue that they are.
While arguments have seemed to center on semantics, the court’s decision is likely to have major implications for local control issues across the state. A long list of lawmakers have weighed in on the case, including by filing friend-of-the-court briefs. Twenty Republican state lawmakers filed a brief against the ban in an earlier appeal of the case. And state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, told the Texas Supreme Court she supports the city’s ban.
The issue has also come up in the Legislature. In 2017, state Sen. Bob Hall filed a bill that would have prevented Texas cities from enforcing bag bans.