Appeals court rules Starr DA could fire employee for political affiliation

Omar Escobar Jr.

An appeals court ruled that the Starr County district attorney could legally fire one of his employees for her political affiliation, dealing a blow to that employee’s lawsuit against him that alleged he violated her rights to freedom of speech and association when he terminated her in March 2018.

The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court decision to dismiss the case filed by Bernice Garza, the former coordinator of the Crime Victims’ Unit for the 229th District Attorney’s Office which prosecutes cases for Starr, Jim Hogg and Duval counties.

Garza filed the lawsuit in August 2018 against 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar, alleging he terminated her because she worked on her sister’s political campaign.

Garza’s sister, Leticia “Letty” Garza Galvan, unsuccessfully ran for Starr County judge during the March 2018 Democratic primary.

But Escobar denied the claims and filed a motion to dismiss the case which U.S. District Judge Micaela Alvarez granted in April 2019.

In the opinion, Judge Alvarez stated that political affiliation is a necessary job requirement for some positions, depending on their duties.

The judge noted that Garza’s job, crime victims’ unit coordinator, required her to work closely with Escobar’s office, implement his policies, serve as the public face of his office when working with crime victims, and raise funds for the office by applying for grants.

“ Each of these supports finding that Plaintiff’s position as Coordinator of the CVU is one in which political affiliation ‘is an appropriate requirement,’” Alvarez stated.

The Fifth Circuit Court upheld that decision on Friday, writing: “We hold that Garza’s position as CVU Coordinator is one for which ‘party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for effective performance’ … and the First Amendment thus did not shield her from dismissal.”

In making their decision, the court pointed to Garza’s own allegations in which she underlined her responsibilities.

“As CVU Coordinator, she was ‘the head of that department’ and supervised five other employees,” the court wrote. “As department head, she ultimately ‘shoulder[ed] the important responsibility of communicating with and assisting crime victims.'”

“Garza took the lead in these important roles,” they added. “In addition to those responsibilities, Garza was ‘the grant manager for the 229th Judicial District Attorney’s Office,’ and she ‘prepar[ed] and manag[ed] grant requests.'”

Her duties, the court said, established that Garza functioned as a policymaker and as a “confidential employee.”

They further stated that her political activities could have and did negatively affect the district attorney’s ability to serve the public.

“After Garza’s political actions, Escobar was unable to place absolute confidence in her performance of her vital statutory duties,” the court’s opinion stated. “In performing those duties, Garza was representing Escobar, the elected DA. He was thus entitled to her loyalty and needed confidence in her representation.”

Since her firing from the district attorney’s office, Garza was hired by the Rio Grande City school district.

Escobar, meanwhile, did not win reelection during the March 2020 Democratic Primary and is set to leave office in January.