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Gonzalez v. Trevino: Castle Hills retaliation case goes before the U.S. Supreme Court

Castle Hill, Texas city hall
David Martin Davies
Castle Hill, Texas city hall

The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear arguments in a case that has its roots in small town petty politics in Castle Hills but it could have implications for the future of free speech and what’s known as qualified immunity.

At the heart of Gonzalez v. Trevino is the question: should government officials be shielded from lawsuits when their critics are jailed?

Castle Hills is a long way from the white marble of the Supreme Court. It's a small enclave municipality tucked inside San Antonio. With a population of fewer than 4,000, it’s a quiet community. But things do get rowdy at their city council meetings.

Sylvia Gonzalez experienced that at her first meeting after being elected alderwoman in May 2019.

“Well, the meeting was not in control," Gonzalez told TPR, recounting a struggle to get a word in without being interrupted.

The then 72-year-old was the first Latina elected to city council.

She had started a petition to remove the city manager — alleging that he wasn’t doing his job — especially when it came to having the streets paved.

“It was just a petition. I mean, it's in our constitution. We have a right to petition our government,” Gonzalez said.

At the end of the marathon meeting, Gonzalez scooped up the papers in front of her — including the petition which was now city property.

“So I just took all these papers like this and I stuck them on the table and I opened my folder and put them in there. That petition was in my folder for less than five minutes,” she said.

But that was long enough for mayor JR Trevino.

Two months later, Gonzalez was in the Bexar County Jail — handcuffed and wearing orange prison garb. She was charged with tampering with a government document.

After a full day being booked, Gonzalez was released. The charges were eventually dropped. But Gonzalez says she was humiliated. Under pressure, she resigned from city council.

“This has proven, and they have done a good job of getting rid of me,” she said.

Former Castle Hills Alderwoman Sylvia Gonzalez at her kitchen table with documents from her Supreme Court case
David Martin Davies
Former Castle Hills Alderwoman Sylvia Gonzalez at her kitchen table with documents from her Supreme Court case

In 2020, Gonzalez sued the city of Castle Hills, Trevino, and the police chief — accusing them of retaliatory arrest for exercising her First Amendment rights.

Trevino and other officials declined TPR's request for comment due to the ongoing litigation.

Suing a city and city officials isn’t easy because of a thing called qualified immunity, which is where the Supreme Court comes in.

Qualified immunity protects government officials from lawsuits. It’s often applied to police officers. It also protects city officials from liability. But critics of qualified immunity say it shields officeholders from accountability and can lead to abuse of power.

“Normally when people think about the constitution, they want to figure out, well, did they violate my rights or did they not? That's part of the question, but it's not all of the question,” said University of Texas Law Professor Tara Grove.

When it comes to qualified immunity, the question of motivation is key.

“It's really hard for anybody to know what other people were thinking,” Grove said. “At least when we're talking about a court of law. Of course, we all have our views about a set of facts when we look at it, but courts have to figure out. ... What does the evidence show?”

Gonzalez’s attorney Anya Bidwell said her client’s case is about more than nasty small-town politics. But she says it’s in communities like Castle Hills where the Constitution is so important.

“Look what happened to Sylvia. It's very difficult for her to even operate comfortably within her little city. So it really shows you the message. You stand up to your critics in your small community, you will be ostracized.”

Gonzalez said she never imagined that she would be at the Supreme Court but she also never imagined that she would be arrested for speaking out.

Now she just wants the Supreme Court to clear her name. And she says she plans to stay out of Castle Hills politics.

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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi