Texas Supreme Court holds constables work for a “police department” and are allowed to collectively bargain

 

Jefferson County, Texas v. Jefferson county constables association, 16-0498, — S.W. 3d. – (April 13, 2018)

The Texas Supreme Court ends a split in the circuits and holds constables are “police officers”  who work for a “police department” for purposes of the collective bargaining statute.

Jefferson County (“County”) and the Jefferson County Constable Association (“Association”) entered into a collective bargaining agreement (“CBA”) under Tex. Loc. Gov’t Cod ch 174.  The County and Association had a disagreement regarding the County’s ability to abolish positions and the dispute was submitted to an arbitrator. The arbitrator ruled for the Association, holding the County violated the CBA by eliminating certain positions. The County appealed asserting the arbitrator exceeded his authority.  The trial court ruled for the County and the Association appealed. After the parties completed principal briefing in the court of appeals, the County filed a supplemental brief arguing for the first time that the CBA was invalid, depriving the arbitrator of jurisdiction.  Principally the argument goes the Association is not allowed to utilize Chapter 174 for collective bargaining since the chapter only applies to “police officers” as defined by Texas law. The County asserted the CBA was void.  The 13th Court of Appeals held the constables were “police officers” for purposes of Chapter 174. (summary found here).   The County relied on the line of cases such as Wolff v. Deputy Constables Ass’n of Bexar County, 441 S.W.3d 362 (Tex. App.—San Antonio 2013, no pet.) holding constables do not fit the statutory definition of police officers for collective bargaining purposes. (Wolff summary found here). The Texas Supreme Court granted the petition for review.

The Court first held that unlike the Wolff case (where the associated sued to compel the county to engage in collective bargaining), Jefferson County had already entered into a CBA and was trying to enforce the CBA, not Chapter 174 (“the Act”). Therefore, the Association in this case has standing to bring suit to enforce the CBA.  The enforcement of the CBA does hinge, however, on the language of Chapter 174. Whether the deputy constables are “police officers” entitled to collectively bargain is a matter of statutory interpretation. The term “police officer” is statutorily defined in the Act as “a paid employee who is sworn, certified, and full-time, and who regularly serves in a professional law enforcement capacity in the police department of a political subdivision.” Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §174.003(3). The parties’ principal dispute is whether the deputy constables serve in “the police department of a political subdivision.” The Act does not define the term “police department,” but its ordinary meaning is “a governmental department concerned with the administration of the police force.” In turn, a “police force” is “a professional body of trained officers . . . entrusted by a government with maintenance of public peace and order, enforcement of laws, and prevention and detection of crime.” The Court reviewed a spectrum of statutes governing the authority and duties of constables and other law-enforcement officers. It went through various duties and powers.  The Court analyzed the word “the” to determine if a County can have more than one police department. The sheriff’s office is already defined as the County’s police department. Other peace officers are commissioned by and serve entities that clearly do not qualify as police departments, such as school districts, water control and improvement districts, and hospital districts. To some extent, deputy constables’ daily responsibilities vary by county and even by precinct. But their statutory duties are identical, and the Court did  not read the Collective Bargaining Act to apply to some deputy constables as “police officers” but not others. It focused on the statutory duties, not the individual county facts. After over ten pages analysis the Court held that deputy constables “regularly serve[] in a professional law enforcement capacity in the police department of a political subdivision.” Therefore, the CBA is valid and constables may utilize the Act. The Court then analyzed the arbitrator’s award. The arbitrator did not quibble with the County’s right to abolish as many deputy positions as it deemed necessary or prudent, nor did he order the County to create or fund positions that no longer existed. He merely determined that, upon eliminating funding for eight deputy-constable positions, the County was required under the CBA to consider the deputies’ countywide seniority in determining which eight deputies were to be terminated. As a result he did not exceed his authority.

The dissent stated the policy decision to grant them authority to engage in collective bargaining belongs to the Legislature, not this Court. Adopting the reasoning in Wolff, the dissenting opinion stated deputy constables are not “police officers” any more than police officers are deputy constables.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel consists of Justice Chief Justice Hecht, Justice Green, Justice Guzman, Justice Devine, Justice Brown, and Justice Blacklock. Justice Lehrmann delivered the opinion of the Court. Justice Boyd delivered a dissenting opinion, in which Justice Johnson joined, found here.

 


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