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Travis County Sues Paxton Over His Ruling on Program for Job-Seeking Ex-Convicts

Marjorie Kamys Cotera
Texas Tribune

From the Austin Monitor: Travis County has officially launched a lawsuit against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a dispute over how much information the county should share about a program that seeks to give ex-convicts access to jobs.

County Attorney David Escamilla filed a six-page brief with the 98th District Court on Wednesday challenging a recent ruling made by Paxton on an activist’s request for public records related to the County Justice Planning Department’s Workforce Development Services program.

The program is a service that links private employers to job seekers with criminal backgrounds. On its website, the department states, “Out of respect for employers’ privacy, the WDS program coordinator does not publicize which businesses are engaged with the program.”

However, in December activist Zenobia Joseph submitted a public information request to the county to obtain the names of the companies that participate. After the county blocked that request, Joseph appealed to Paxton’s office, which opined last month that the Public Information Act does not protect the identities of the employers.

At its regular voting session last Tuesday, the Commissioners Court voted 3-0-1 to challenge Paxton’s ruling in court. Commissioner Margaret Gómez abstained, and Commissioner Gerald Daugherty was absent.

In the petition filed on Wednesday, Escamilla hinges his argument on two pieces of the Texas Government Code. The first states that information determined to be private – either constitutionally, by statute or through judicial decision – can be withheld from the public.

“The doctrine of common law privacy protects from disclosure information that (1) contains highly intimate or embarrassing facts about a person’s private affairs such that its release would be highly objectionable to a reasonable person and (2) is of not legitimate concern to the public,” the suit states. It also contends that “releasing this list of employers would violate their privacy and create a stigma that would be detrimental to their business. The stigma place on hiring ex-offender (sic) is undeniable and real.”

The second section of the code cited by Escamilla blocks from disclosure any information that could promote unfair competition. Along with arguing that revealing the employers’ identities could create a chilling effect that would sink the Workforce Development Services program, Escamilla writes that the “release of the information would provide an advantage to competitors of the private businesses involved in the WD Program, in that these competitors could exploit society’s stigma of hiring ex-offenders in an attempt to deter the public from doing business with these businesses.”

In addition to asking for a ruling to block disclosure of the information, Escamilla is also requesting that the judge require Paxton to cover the cost of the case.

Read the petition from plaintiff Travis County below.

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