South Padre Island food trucks ask Texas Supreme Court to rein in city flouting constitutional ruling

J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · March 18, 2021

SOUTH PADRE ISLAND, Tx.—Late last year, Texas Judge Arturo Cisneros Nelson struck down South Padre Island’s anti-competitive 12-permit cap and restaurant permission scheme, declaring them unconstitutional and ending two years of litigation. This was great news for area food truck owners, who began taking steps to take full advantage of the busy travel season kicking off with Spring Break.

But South Padre Island, after conferring with the Texas Municipal League, astonishingly chose to defy the district court’s order. The city did not appeal or seek to stay the loss. Instead, it continued enforcing both its cap on food truck permits (ensuring no more than 12 food trucks on the island) and its restaurant-permission scheme, which says that food truck owners must obtain approval of a local restaurant owner to qualify for a permit.

The city initially claimed that its defiance was because it did not understand the court’s order, but it simultaneously refused to ask the district court for clarity. And at the same time, the city misled the public on its official Facebook page, indicating that the district court had not done what it did. Based on that misrepresentation, the city announced that both the permit cap and restaurant permission scheme “will remain in effect.”

The city’s behavior is a direct slap in the face of the Texas courts, which exist to protect Texans’ constitutional rights. So today the Institute for Justice, working on behalf of a group of food trucks, has asked the Texas Supreme Court to intervene and force the city to comply with the Judge Nelson’s court order and the Texas Constitution.

“When a law is ruled unconstitutional by a Texas court under Article I of the Texas Constitution (Bill of Rights) that law is immediately void and unenforceable” said Arif Panju, Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Texas office. “By continuing to fence out food-truck competition at the behest of local restaurant owners, the city is not only defying the authority of Texas courts, but also preventing food truck vendors from earning a living. Now the city must answer to the Texas Supreme Court.”

In February 2019, IJ challenged the city of South Padre Island’s anti-competitive restrictions on behalf of food truck owner SurfVive, a local nonprofit spearheaded by Erica Lerma, and the Brownsville-based Chile de Árbol food truck operated by brothers Anubis and Adonai Avalos. Both food trucks were forced to the sidelines for over two years and could not operate under the city’s permitting scheme. After taking the city to court to vindicate their constitutional rights, they won in the district court after proving that the two restrictions had nothing to do with protecting health and safety, but rather only the profits of local restaurant owners who wrote the ordinance.