Lawsuit pending over Williamson County constable interviews

By Claire Osborn

Updated: 10:04 p.m. Tuesday, May 21, 2013

American-Statesman Staff


A Central Texas civil rights group is threatening legal action after Williamson County commissioners interviewed candidates for a constable job and asked about their views on abortion, gay marriage, religion and politics.

Such questions violate the Texas Constitution, as well as the First Amendment, said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project. “It’s just astounding that they think they can ask these questions.”

“You can’t have a religious test for employment, according to the Texas Constitution,” Harrington said. A government employer also can’t discriminate on the basis of “irrelevant personal views,” he said.

Neither commissioners nor Williamson County Judge Dan A. Gattis responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

“Williamson County will decline to comment further at this time regarding the interviews due to the reported threat of a lawsuit by the Texas Civil Rights Project,” said Connie Watson, a county spokeswoman.

Commissioners interviewed five candidates on March 18 to fill the Precinct 3 position vacated when former constable Bobby Gutierrez resigned to take another job. The precinct includes a large swath of north central Williamson County, including Florence, Georgetown, Jarrell, Weir and a portion of Round Rock.

Candidate Robert Lloyd said the first question commissioners asked him was what his view on abortion was. Commissioners also asked Lloyd whether he was for or against gay marriage and then inquired whether he was a Democrat or Republican and what his voting record was, he said.

“I was freaked out,” said Lloyd, a Burnet County sheriff’s deputy who has worked in law enforcement for 26 years. Lloyd said the questions “just didn’t feel right.”

Commissioners also interviewed Fred Churchill, the police chief of Morgan’s Point Resort; Wade Fowler, a Precinct 2 deputy constable; Robert Goodrich, a bailiff for the Williamson County sheriff’s office; and Kevin Stofle. All interviews were conducted behind closed doors. After the interviews, commissioners voted unanimously to give Stofle the job.

Stofle is a former assistant chief with the Georgetown Police Department. His brother-in-law is Hal Hawes, the attorney for the Williamson County Commissioners Court.

The constable’s position pays $71,784.78 a year, Watson said.

Churchill, Fowler and Goodrich could not be located for comment Tuesday. Stofle also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Lloyd said he approached the Texas Civil Rights Project last week about filing a lawsuit.

Voters usually elect a constable, but if a vacancy happens during a constable’s term, the Commissioners Court appoints a replacement, Watson said.

At least two commissioners have defended the line of questioning.

“In general, this is a process that is different than a normal employment interview, because it is an elected position,” County Commissioner Valerie Covey told KXAN-TV. Commissioner Cynthia Long told the station the questions were appropriate because the court was making a political appointment to what’s usually an elected position.

Harrington disagrees.

“Questions about gay marriage and abortion are not permissible questions, and how you vote is clearly a First Amendment protected activity,” he said.

Texas Bill of Rights, Article 1 Section 4:

No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust, in this State.

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission:

An employer may not base hiring decisions on stereotypes and assumptions about a person’s race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), national origin, age (40 or older), disability or genetic information.