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Texas Supreme Court hears oral arguments in plastic bag ban case

Lawyers spent almost an hour in the Texas Supreme Court arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban on plastic grocery bags was illegal. The future of bag bans in cities across the state could hinge on the case.

Single-use bag ban advocates hold a press conference before the Texas Supreme Court prior to oral arguments on the legality of Laredo’s ban on Jan. 11, 2018. 

Plastic bag bans in Texas are hanging in the balance following oral arguments in a state Supreme Court case Thursday morning.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal. 

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

Definitions of words like “solid waste,” “containers” and even “garbage” were called into question during the arguments.

Richard Phillips, Jr., a lawyer representing the Laredo Merchants Association, said single-use bags are “clearly” defined as containers under the law.

“The plain meaning of [a container] is something you use to carry something else,” Phillips said.

The merchants also had the support of state Solicitor General Scott Keller, who argued for about five minutes. Keller's boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, had previously submitted two friend of the court briefs in support of eliminating Laredo’s ban. Paxton issued a statement Thursday afternoon saying Laredo and cities with similar bans "flout the law" when they pass single-use bag bans.

Prior to the hearing, supporters of Laredo’s ban held a press conference in front of the Supreme Court building to display the environmental merits of bag bans.

Tricia Cortez, who led Laredo’s original effort to pass the ban in 2015, said the ban is necessary because plastic bags are such an easy source of pollution to eliminate. 

“It’s such a visible environmental problem,” said Cortez, executive director of Rio Grande International Study Center. “There’s all kinds of pollution and all kinds of problems, but plastic bags are so visible and easy to address we thought, ‘Why can’t we do it?’”

Cortez also argued the original drafts of the ban had nothing to do with the language argued in the courtroom.

“In the ordinance, never anywhere in the drafts there was anything about solid waste management,” Cortez said. “It was always about beautification and flood control.”

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

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