A curfew in Chambers County, masks in Harris County, businesses on lockdown, all on the orders of the county judge.
Similar orders are in effect in many counties, but the orders vary based on the rate and spread of the virus.
Who knew that the county judge was so powerful? Most people probably can’t even name their judge, and even if they could, they often don’t realize that it is more of an executive than a judicial position.
In heavily populated urban counties, the city mayor is the face of government. Folks in rural counties like Chambers and Liberty are far more attuned to the role of the judge, as small town mayors don’t garner much media attention.
For decades, county judges and county commissioner courts were referred to as road commissioners. Other than law enforcement, road construction and repair comprised the bulk of their duties.
Natural disasters like the virus and Hurricane Harvey remind us just how much power is invested in the counties, sort of a crash course in civics.
Lt. Gov. Patrick and State Sen. Bettencourt expressed outrage at the extensive and draconian nature of the lockdown orders, arguing that county officials are exceeding their authority and violating the Texas Constitution.
However, the Texas Government Code grants the county judge extensive power to restrict movement and shut down business activity during a natural disaster.
This decentralized and locally dominated power structure traces back to Reconstruction.
Right after the Civil War ended, Texas drew up a new constitution in 1866 that ended slavery, renounced secession, and swore allegiance to the union.
Despite the new constitution, the old Confederates continued to discriminate against the freedmen, denying them their civil rights and blocking their access to education and private property.
Outraged by the blatant intransigence, radical Republicans in Congress imposed military rule on the south. The good old boy network was stripped of power, the 1866 Constitution was scrapped, and Edmund Davis was selected as governor.
Davis was a Texan who stayed loyal to the union, and he served as an officer in the Union Army. He did not trust local officials associated with the old Confederacy, so he purged them and replaced them with people committed to the goals of Reconstruction.
When Reconstruction ended, the old Confederates were back in power. They quickly wrote the 1876 Constitution, the very document that we live under today.
The writers of the new compact were mortified by how much power Davis had exercised over local matters, so they deliberately stripped the governor’s office of the power to appoint and control local officials.
Local control was touted as a check against tyrannical state government. It also explains why Texas has a dizzying number of local officials to elect every year or two.
Even though Gov. Abbott has the power to override county authority, he only chose to exercise that authority on Monday, six weeks into the pandemic.
Before you get mad at Judge Sylvia or Judge Hidalgo or Gov. Abbott, please direct your ire at the long deceased Edmund Davis.
Dr. Steve Showalter is a government professor at Lee College in Baytown.