J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · April 24, 2023

CASTLE HILLS, Texas—Today, the Institute for Justice (IJ) announced that it has filed a petition for certiorari with the United States Supreme Court on behalf of Sylvia Gonzalez, a 76-year-old retiree and a resident of Castle Hills, Texas, who was arrested in punishment for criticizing the city’s management and officials. Sylvia faced harassment, false charges, and even imprisonment, all stemming from her efforts to hold Castle Hills city officials accountable for their actions.

The petition raises pressing constitutional questions concerning free speech, retaliatory actions by government officials, and the limits of qualified immunity. 

Sylvia’s case began in 2019. After winning a hard-fought election, Sylvia Gonzalez became the first Hispanic councilwoman in Castle Hills history. In response to concerns raised by her constituents, she championed a nonbinding, citizen-signed petition calling for the removal of the city manager. This act of political speech and petition, protected by the core of the First Amendment, was met with a coordinated campaign of retaliation by Castle Hills officials. 

Two months after presenting the petition, city officials engineered her arrest for allegedly tampering with a government record. They argued she’d stolen her own petition from the mayor as she was gathering her papers at the end of a council meeting. “Instead of issuing a summons for the nonviolent misdemeanor,” noted Judge David Alan Ezra, “[the city] obtained a warrant to arrest the 72-year-old, which ensured that she would spend time in jail rather than remaining free and appearing before a judge.” 

After spending the day in an orange jail shirt, sitting on a cold metal bench, Sylvia was eventually released. That evening her mugshot was splashed across local media along with the baseless allegations. Sylvia was mortified. Although the district attorney immediately dropped the trumped-up charges, Sylvia knew the intimidation would continue and decided to resign from the city council.

But she wasn’t done fighting. 

Two years after she was jailed, Sylvia partnered with the Institute for Justice to file a federal lawsuit to vindicate her First Amendment rights and hold the city officials accountable for engaging in censorship by retaliation. The city attempted to have the case dismissed, but failed. When it appealed, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals astonishingly agreed, holding that Sylvia failed to prove that the arrest was unequivocally retaliatory—despite an exhaustive analysis showing no one has been prosecuted for a similar action in the last ten years in Texas. 

“The Fifth Circuit’s decision sets an impossible standard for victims of retaliatory arrest and punishment to prove their cases,” said Anya Bidwell, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. “It ignores the clear evidence of retaliation against Sylvia, who was exercising her First Amendment rights. We are taking this case to the Supreme Court to ensure that government officials are held accountable when they violate the Constitution and that we stop this censorship by retaliation.”

At issue in this case is how qualified immunity—the controversial legal doctrine protecting government officials from being held accountable—should shield government officials who engage in a calculated effort to violate someone’s rights. Unlike on-the-beat police officers who are forced to make split-second decisions, the officials in Sylvia’s case spent months hatching a scheme to punish her. And yet the Fifth Circuit held, over dissents by Judges Andrew Oldham and James Ho, that the city officials’ actions were no different than those of a beat cop; that no amount of scheming or evidence of retaliation diminished the near-absolute immunity offered to government officials by the courts. 

As Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas recently observed, that makes no sense. He asked why should government officials, “who have time to make calculated choices about enacting or enforcing unconstitutional policies, receive the same protection as a police officer who makes a split-second decision to use force in a dangerous setting? We have never offered a satisfactory explanation to this question.” 

“This petition gives the Supreme Court an opportunity to clearly state that a government official cannot conspire to deprive someone of her constitutional rights and get away with it,” said IJ Senior Attorney Patrick Jaicomo. “Sylvia’s case is a stark example of a concerted campaign of retaliation against someone who dared to stand up for her community. In theory, the Constitution guarantees the right to speak out without fear of retaliation, but that Constitutional guarantee is meaningless if there is no means of enforcing it.”

The lawsuit is part of IJ’s Project on Immunity and Accountability, dedicated to the principle that government officials are not above the law. The project seeks to ensure that if citizens must follow the law, then government officials must follow the Constitution. It is also one of the latest examples of IJ’s longstanding practice of representing victims of government retaliation.