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Supreme Court allows Castle Hills retaliation lawsuit to move forward

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

The U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday sided with a San Antonio area woman against the city of Castle Hills. 

Sylvia Gonzalez said she was the victim of a politically motivated arrest. 

Gonzalez had been elected to Castle Hills’ city council in 2019 and led a petition drive to remove the city manager. At the end of a marathon council meeting, Gonzales scooped up the petition — which was city property — and kept the papers in a folder in front of her for five minutes.

Two months later, she was charged with tampering with a government document. After a full day being booked in the Bexar County jail, Gonzalez was released. The charges were eventually dropped. But Gonzalez says she was humiliated. Under pressure, she resigned from city council.

Gonzalez tried to sue the city of Castle Hills, but the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled she couldn’t because she didn’t have enough evidence to prove the arrest was an act of political retribution.

The 8 to 1 Supreme Court ruling found Gonzalez may pursue the retaliatory arrest claim. Clarence Thomas was the lone dissenting justice.

The case, Gonzalez v. Treviño, will now head back to lower courts for further consideration.

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.

Castle Hills Mayor JR Treviño, one of the defendants in the lawsuit along with the city of Castle Hills and the police chief, said that many of the justices noted there was "probable cause" for her arrest for tampering with a government document.

“This marks the first time in four years that an opinion has taken note of the true facts, including Ms. Gonzalez’s admission that probable cause existed for her arrest,” Treviño said. “Although this extends the timeline, we welcome the further review of the case by the 5th Circuit."

The Supreme Court's decision to allow this lawsuit to move forward opens the door to future retaliation lawsuits. Previously, qualified immunity has protected government officials from such lawsuits.

“The Supreme Court’s revision of its First Amendment retaliation doctrine ensures that Americans can seek justice when they have evidence of a retaliatory arrest," said Anya Bidwell, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. "Retaliatory arrests undermine the very foundation of our democracy, and this ruling helps safeguard the rights of all Americans to speak out without fear of retribution."

Gonzalez said in a statement that the past few years have been a nightmare for her.

"But finally, I can sleep knowing that the nightmare I’ve gone through will protect critics from retaliation in the future," she said. “This fight was always about more than just me. No one should have to go through what I went through, and with this decision, I’m confident it won’t happen again."

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