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Federal lawsuit filed in Hood County

That sound you hear is the rubber meeting the road.

The motion for a temporary injunction and temporary restraining order was filed this morning in Fort Worth federal court on behalf of Soifer’s clients, Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, who’ve been together for 27 years. The couple has been trying to get a marriage license ever since the Supreme Court made it legal in all 50 states on June 26, only to be told, repeatedly, the clerk’s office isn’t issuing licenses.

Initially Katie Lang, the county clerk, said her office wasn’t issuing licenses because of her religious beliefs; she then clarified her statement to indicate she wouldn’t issue licences, but her staffers would. But on Thursday, the couple says they were told the the same thing The Dallas Morning News was when we called to inquire about the issuing of licenses: It would take several weeks because the clerk’s office didn’t yet have the forms from the state.

According to the lawsuit, on Thursday the couple went to the clerk’s office and “produced a copy of the revised application for marriage license, promulgated by the state and available to county clerks, and asked if they could use it to apply.” But a woman named Virginia in the clerk’s office “told them she could not accept that form. Then Clerk Lang asked everyone to leave the office, stating that no media was allowed. Jim replied that Joe and Jim were not media, but instead taxpayers of Hood County, there to get a marriage license, but the Clerk said they needed to leave as well, which was humiliating. Clerk Lang also apparently called the Sheriff’s Department, because by the time Joe and Jim left her office, approximately half a dozen deputy sheriffs had arrived to stand guard outside and immediately inside the Clerk’s office.”

The suit says the couple “found the entire process to be humiliating and degrading, and have no reason to believe that they would receive a marriage license without having to file a lawsuit to get it.”

See here for the background, and click the link above to see a copy of the lawsuit. This was bound to happen as long as County Clerk Lang refused to obey the law and do her job. The good news is that in spite of all that, Cato and Stapleton got their marriage license.

A Granbury gay couple on Monday obtained a marriage license from the Hood County Clerk’s office after filing a lawsuit against the clerk in federal court.

But attorneys representing Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, who have been together for 27 years, said the couple will move forward with their lawsuit until the county clerk’s office agrees to issue marriage licenses to all couples.

“Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton are delighted that they finally have been issued a marriage license and can get married in their home county,” the gay couple’s attorneys, Jan Soifer and Austin Kaplan, said in a statement. “It’s a shame that they needed to hire lawyers and file a lawsuit to make that happen.”

The Hood County Clerk’s office would not say whether it is issuing same-sex marriage licenses and referred questions regarding the licenses to County Clerk Katie Lang’s personal attorneys.

Lang’s lawyers at the Liberty Institute, which specializes in religious freedom litigation, said the clerk’s office was unable to issue the license on Thursday “because of software issues” and “lack of guidance” from the county attorney on using existing forms.

“The Clerk’s office was unable to issue a license at close of business on Thursday, even though everyone left with the understanding that one would be immediately available on the next business day,” said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at the Liberty Institute. “The office was closed Friday. This morning, as of about 8:00 a.m., there is a marriage license waiting for the couple that has, for some reason, sued Hood County.”

Yeah, that’s a mystery to me too, pal. Congrats to Cato and Stapleton, and may the courts deliver a swift and decisive smackdown of Lang, so as to serve as a bucketful of cold water in the face of other derelict public officials and those that would enable them. More coverage from CBS Local and Hood County News, and be sure to see Bud Kennedy as well. Thanks to Somervell County Salon in the comments for the tip.

Posted in: Legal matters.

And the battle moves to Irion County

“Where the heck is Irion County?” I hear you cry. Just the home of the next County Clerk that needs to be schooled on the Constitution, and not her dime store “understanding” of it.

The county clerk in tiny Irion County is standing firm on her decision to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, outlining her opposition in a “declaration of obedience to law and defense of natural marriage.

Molly Criner, clerk in the West Texas county, wrote her response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent gay-marriage ruling on Saturday – July 4. In it, she quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., referenced Thomas Jefferson and cited the court’s Dred Scott decision.

“I … shall resist unlawful federal or state court encroachments upon the prerogative of the people of Texas to protect natural marriage, and shall only issue marriage licenses consistent with Texas law, so help me God,” she wrote in her conclusion.

The “declaration” was released on Monday by the Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based nonprofit firm that focuses on religious issues. The group – which has ties to Liberty University, founded by Jerry Falwell – is providing pro bono counsel to Criner.

“Like Molly, each of us should vow not to be intimidated but, instead, to stand united for our God-given liberties and the rule of law,” Mat Staver, Liberty Counsel’s founder, said in a news release.

[…]

It’s unclear how that situation might play out in Irion County, population 1,573.

I’ll get to that in a minute. I doubt there’s much to be learned from her screed, but it’s reprinted on Glen Maxey’s Facebook wall if you don’t want to get cooties from clicking that Liberty U link. You may note that Glen writes they are looking for some plaintiffs in that post, so you can probably guess how this will likely play out. Hood County, despite all of its County Clerk’s bluster, folded like a cheap suit once the lawsuit was filed. The main complication I see here is that there may literally be no one in Irion County to apply for a marriage license and get rejected; if a couple has to be imported to do this, I don’t know if that changes anything, legally speaking. If it does, then this standoff could last for awhile, but in the end someone will explain to Ms. Criner, using small words, that the Constitution doesn’t mean what she thinks it means. Some lessons just have to be learned the hard way. WOAI has more.

In related news from the ranks of the dangerously ignorant, Texas’ gay-hatingest legislator, Rep. Cecil Bell, did some more stupid things to ensure that his name will go down in the history books for all the wrong reasons. You can read the story for yourself – I’m certain this will be a campaign issue in March, and I fully expect that a barrage of hateful bills will be filed in 2017, but for now it’s a bunch of hot air. Remember what’s being said now and make sure you do everything you can to mitigate against it in 2016.

Posted in: Legal matters.

TOP calls for changes in construction incentives

From Prime Property:

Members of the Texas Organizing Project stood with signs across from a 40-story building under construction at Preston and Milam just off the park on downtown’s north side.

The group was hoping to draw attention to the Downtown Living Initiative, a program that offers $15,000 per unit in tax rebates to developers building new housing units in the city center.

Many of the developers receiving the incentive are building projects with high-end amenities and charging rents well above $2,000 per month.

Only wealthy people can afford to live in these units, “furthering economic segregation of our city,” said Tiffany Hogue, a spokeswoman for TOP, an advocacy group that promotes social and economic equality for low-income and working class Texans.

[…]

The city’s program, which could result in up to $75 million in subsidies, is meant to lessen the hurdles to developing downtown, chiefly high land costs and the complexity of construction.

The group hopes Houston’s next mayor hold developers to higher standards.

“Our mayor should hold private multi-million dollar developers accountable to real standards if they want our tax dollars, standards like creating affordable housing, generating good, sustainable jobs for Houston families, and investing in neighborhoods that need it most,” TOP leader Bishop David Pittman said in a statement.

See here for some background. I’m not averse to the arguments for encouraging downtown residential development. Downtown is a better place than it was 20 years ago, and its improvement has been a key in the renaissance of Midtown and EaDo and other areas nearby. All that said, this is a lot of money being used to subsidize high-end development, which is exactly the sort of thing that ought to be able to stand on its own. If the city were reaping a full economic benefit from this that would be one thing, but in a revenue cap world, the marginal benefit of another high-end high-rise are limited. We need to pay attention to making Houston affordable again. As I’ve said many times over the past few months, we need to know how the Mayoral candidates feel about this.

Posted in: Local politics.

What Dallas County can teach us about jail overcrowding

Why can’t Harris County be more like Dallas County, at least in this regard?

go_to_jail

Dallas County’s jail population has hit an all-time low. That means more spacious jail tanks and fewer bologna sandwiches.

If the trend continues, it could add up to big savings for taxpayers.

The jail, the seventh-largest in the country, is the biggest expense item in the Dallas County budget, at $107.7 million annually.

For the past two years, the average jail population each month has hovered around 6,100. Last month, it was 5,618.

[…]

County officials said there’s no single explanation for the current population decline. Some possible factors:

1. Fewer book-ins: So far this year, there have been fewer new arrivals than in 2013 and 2014.

2. More diversion programs: For most inmates, the jail serves as a holding facility. From there, they return to society, go to prison or get sent to another institution, such as a drug treatment center or hospital.

A variety of programs can shorten jail stays. Low-risk offenders who can’t post bail can pay a small fee and get out before their trial dates. Some can serve their sentences under house arrest instead. Others go to diversion courts, such as drug court or mental health court, which focus on their particular needs.

A federally funded project helps identify inmates who are mentally ill so they can be moved out of custody and given help. In the past six months, the number of inmates identified as mentally ill has gone up, Stretcher said.

3. New software: Criminal case files have gone digital, thanks to new software launched in the spring.

Now, attorneys, investigators and victim advocates can look at the same file at the same time. They don’t have to pass a paper file from person to person.

Cases can be presented to grand juries faster, which shortens jail stays, said Ellyce Lindberg, an assistant district attorney. The software allows the county to track where cases get stuck.

4. More bus rides to prison: Inmates bound for state prison are shipped out on buses run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Those buses can haul off 150 to 200 people per week, resulting in significant drops in the jail population.

For years, the county has worked to speed up the paperwork needed to move these prisoners. And the reduction in book-ins means there’s been more time to catch up on backlogs.

5. Foul weather: Jail populations typically fluctuate seasonally, said Noonan of the Bureau of Justice Statistics. In general in Dallas County, bookings increase in the summer and drop off slightly in the fall and winter.

That pattern may have been thrown off by the exceptionally heavy rains in the past several weeks.

Emphasis mine. This isn’t rocket science. We can choose to keep fewer people in jail if we want to, and we can do so at very little risk to public safety. In every other context when it comes to spending taxpayer money, there are plenty of people there to intone somberly about “making tough decisions” and “living within our means” and so forth. For some reason, they’re not nearly as much a part of this kind of budget discussion. You tell me why that is the case. Link via Grits.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Here come the lawyers

I don’t see how the squadron of anti-equality attorneys has a case in the wake of Obergfell, but they’re gonna try their best to muck things up anyway.

RedEquality

Now, conservative attorneys are gearing up to defend [government employees who refuse to recognize gay marriage because of religious objections], saying they are confident existing laws will ensure their religious freedom. But the legal arguments they are likely to make are complex, legal experts say, and could test the courts’ capacity to balance gay rights and religious freedom.

As indicated in Paxton’s opinion, there are no blanket protections for county clerks and other government employees who reject same-sex marriage in their official capacity. Instead, the strength of religious claims are considered on a case by case basis.

County clerks, for example, must prove they are refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses because doing so would violate a “sincerely held religious belief” — a legal standard courts are accustomed to considering, said Jeremy Dys, senior counsel at the Plano-based Liberty Institute, which specializes in religious freedom litigation.

Conservative attorneys suggest these cases can be resolved by guaranteeing that the government official is offered a “reasonable accommodation.” In cases of a county clerk refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds, that task could be delegated to a deputy clerk or another qualified staff member who has no objections, said Mat Staver, founder and chairman of the conservative Liberty Counsel, a national nonprofit that offers pro bono legal assistance on religious freedom issues.

“What’s happening is that you’re allowing individuals to participate in the change that occurred by the Supreme Court on Friday and you’re allowing individuals who have a religious objection to be able to have that religious objection,” Dys said.

Gay rights attorneys and civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union agree that there is room for religious accommodations for government officials — so long as those accommodations do not discriminate against specific groups, like same-sex couples, by intentionally burdening them.

There is a distinction between a county clerk’s freedom to express religious beliefs and the freedom to impose those beliefs on others in “the execution of their duties,” said Justin Nichols, a San Antonio-based attorney who focuses on gay and lesbian-related legal matters.

He added that reasonable accommodations for county clerks who object to issuing same-sex marriage licenses must ensure that same-sex couples still have the ability to obtain a license in their county without delay and aren’t required to travel to another county to exercise their constitutional rights.

“That’s like saying you can always get a public school education that’s not segregated if you just go to another county,” Nichols said.

Religious freedom hawks and gay rights activists are also at odds about the rights of judges and justices of the peace to refuse to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.

In his opinion, Paxton wrote that so long as other individuals authorized to perform same-sex ceremonies are willing to conduct them, judges and justices of the peace can refuse on religious grounds; they are not outright preventing a same-sex couple from participating in a ceremony.

But others asserted that the risk of litigation for judges and justices of the peace lies in picking and choosing between performing marriage ceremonies for heterosexual couples and same-sex couples.

“A judge or justice of the peace is authorized to perform a marriage but is under no obligation to do so,” Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, a Democrat, wrote in a memo Wednesday to the county clerk, local judges and justices of the peace. “However, once the judge elects to undertake the performance of marriages, the service must be offered to all (including same-sex couples) in a non-discriminatory manner.”

You can see a copy of Ryan’s opinion on judges and JPs here. Ryan is an unsung hero here in Harris County. Unlike a lot of County Clerks who apparently had their heads in the sand, Ryan was ready for the SCOTUS ruling and had an opinion on what it meant for the Harris County Clerk ready to go the same day. There’s no way Stan Stanart would have issued a same-sex marriage license that Friday if Ryan hadn’t forced his hand. Keep that in mind when he’s up for re-election next year.

As far as the religious objections of County Clerks and their employees go, I say public officials and employees are there to serve the public – all of the public, not just the public they approve of. If there’s someone in a County Clerk’s office that can’t bear the idea of issuing a marriage license to a same-sex couple, then they need to find another job. If the county in question can accommodate them by placing them somewhere else – Stanart brought up the example of an employee who was moved elsewhere because she objected to issuing liquor licenses – that’s fine, but if not, then they are welcome to look elsewhere. “Reasonable accommodation” does not mean “any and all possible accommodation”. If you can’t perform your job duties, someone else will.

What worries me is the possibility that the Fifth Circuit, being the giant bag of suck that it is, may decide that if it’s not an “undue burden” for a woman to have to travel to another state to get an abortion, it’s no biggie for a gay couple to go a county or two over to get hitched. I mean, as long as Travis County exists you can still get your license, right? I know, the SCOTUS decision in Obergfell didn’t allow for any such consideration, but then Roe v. Wade was a pretty clear ruling too, and look where we are now. My point is, these guys are going to make some form of argument that as long as this right is available somewhere, it doesn’t have to be available everywhere, and I fear some idiot judge will buy it.

The problem is that the standard of religious beliefs being “sincerely held” is unsustainable, as the various guerrilla actions by the Satanic Temple should make clear. If that’s all it takes, then anyone can carve out any exception for themselves as long as they believe in it hard enough. Lots of people used to “sincerely believe” that God intended the races to be separate and thus interracial marriage should be illegal because the Bible said so, no matter how much the current batch of Pharisees insists that this is totally different. The Bible will always say what people like that want it to say. That should not give them any special rights as a result.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Paxton’s cronies

This guy really is a piece of work.

Ken Paxton

When seeking a job at the Texas attorney general’s office, it’s less about what is on your résumé than who you know.

In Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first weeks in office, he filled his higher ranks with at least 14 people connected to him and other prominent Republicans — quiet “appointments” that his office defends in spite of state law, which requires that jobs be advertised when they’re filled from outside the agency.

An American-Statesman review of more than 1,800 pages of personnel files reveals that hiring procedures were relaxed or altogether ignored for those who had worked for Paxton, former Gov. Rick Perry or U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Records show several were hired weeks before they had even applied for the jobs, if an application was completed at all.

Meanwhile, people whose résumés didn’t include political connections often faced months of red tape, interviews and vetting — just the sort of competition that state law envisions for coveted state jobs.

It is not uncommon for elected officials to ignore a decades-old law meant to prevent political patronage in Texas, but the number of Paxton’s so-called appointees is notable, and correspondence obtained under the Texas Public Information Act suggests Paxton was promising lucrative jobs to his political allies months before he took office.

[…]

The Statesman asked three state agencies how state law might allow for “high-level appointments,” as Paxton’s office called them. None would provide answers.

The Texas Workforce Commission, the designated arbiter for job postings, deferred to the attorney general’s office, which stopped answering questions from the Statesman for this story. The Texas Legislative Council, whose lawyer assists legislators in drafting laws, deferred first to the attorney general’s office, then back to the Texas Workforce Commission.

The commission’s spokeswoman, Lisa Givens, said her office provides no guidance or oversight to ensure state officials are following the law. They just take what other agencies send them and post it.

“We don’t enforce the rule,” she said. “We accept the postings. There’s no enforcement in this provision.”

Givens did note, however, the statute says “any agency, so that would be any agency.”

Because the law is 25 years old, wrapped into two omnibus revisions of chunks of state law, it has received little attention in recent years. But earlier this year the Senate Research Center, providing context for another bill, was succinct in its interpretation: “State agencies are required to list job openings with the Texas Workforce Commission.”

“The job posting requirement is black and white,” said Craig McDonald of Texans for Public Justice, the left-leaning watchdog group whose ethics complaint against Paxton spurred an ongoing grand jury investigation into possible securities violations.

“In Texas, cronyism is allowed,” McDonald said. “But you have to at least follow the rules.”

Still, an official determination on whether Paxton broke the law can only come from the attorney general himself.

Isn’t that special? Read the whole thing, it’s a nice piece of reporting. There’s not much else that can be done, though perhaps if he’s still claiming to caer about ethics, perhaps Greg Abbott could add this to the Lege’s to do list in 2017. Beyond that, if nothing else this serves as further evidence, as if it were needed, that Paxton has the ethical and moral compass of a Russian hacker. His downfall, when it finally happens, is going to be epic.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.

Circling back to city finances

I have three things to say about this.

BagOfMoney

This time, [City Finance Director Kelly] Dowe insists, the $126 million deficit he projects for the budget year that starts next summer is not going to disappear, as past projected shortfalls have. There are no more payments to defer, he says, no more valuable city-owned land to sell.

As a result, the city could be facing layoffs and cuts to services within a year – perhaps pool closures, restricted library hours and parks going to seed, and perhaps worse.

“We have an unsustainable financial model,” Councilman Dave Martin said. “We cannot continue to do this. If we continue down this path, we’ll be belly up.”

Dowe and his boss, Mayor Annise Parker, know Houstonians are confused as to why their government would face layoffs and service cuts while the region’s economy booms.

There are several reasons for this, all a decade or more in the making.

The city has been spending more than it brings in for years, a structural gap driven chiefly by soaring pension costs and, in recent years, a spike in debt payments. Houston typically bridges this gap by budgeting conservatively, being happily surprised when tax revenues exceed projections during the year, then using those “extra” dollars to balance the next year’s budget.

To balance the current budget for the fiscal year that started last week, council approved taking $86 million from last year’s leftover savings, the largest such transfer in a decade.

“Obviously we carry the reserves over from year to year. That’s money that’s not generated or not expected to be generated in the next budget cycle,” said Controller Ronald Green, the city’s elected financial watchdog. “Clearly, if you want to be technical, it is not a structurally balanced budget.”

This history of disappearing deficits has made some council members skeptical of just how dire current projections are. Dowe acknowledged that he originally projected an enormous shortfall for the current budget, which wound up being balanced without layoffs or service cuts.

But he also ticked off a litany of reasons that he says will make another easy fix harder in the future.

First, the city has run into a cap on property tax revenues that voters imposed a decade ago. Houston can collect more property taxes each year than the year prior, but is limited to the combined rates of inflation and population growth.

The city now knows exactly what it will collect each year from its largest source of revenue, and no number of new skyscrapers or townhomes will change that. The typical way the city has wound up with “extra” money at the end of each year is thus gone. Without the cap, the city would have had another $53 million to spend this year.

[…]

Each of the next two years also will bring a $50 million payment to the police pension, triggered under the pension board’s contract with the city because sluggish investment returns have eroded its funding level.

Without an increase in revenue, Dowe said, the only option is to cut services.

“Debt is what it is, pensions are what they are,” he said. “We will continue to get more efficient, we will continue to cut costs where we can, but in the long term it would be hard to say you wouldn’t affect services with the outlook we have.”

Debt payments for past public projects have risen by more than half over the last five years, to $346 million this year, and are projected to reach $411 million by 2020. Pensions are devouring $308 million of the city’s main operating fund this year, nearly three times what is spent on parks and libraries combined.

1. There’s no serious solution to this problem that doesn’t include repealing the revenue cap. Every candidate running for office runs on a promise of promoting economic growth and prosperity. Houston has had that these past few years, but thanks to the cap we’re being penalized for it. Fifty-three million dollars is a lot of money and would do a lot to reduce the scope of the problem we’re facing, and that’s just for this year. You want to argue that we don’t have a revenue problem in Houston I’ll be sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean that throwing away extra revenue like this makes any sense. There is no good reason not to use all available resources.

You may argue that the people won’t go for it, and you may be right. What evidence we have from limited polling certainly suggests that’s a strong possibility. To that I say, how about a little leadership from those who want to be Mayor? Politicians love to talk about “making the tough choices”, yet somehow choices like this never seem to be on the table. To be fair, at least some Mayoral candidates have mentioned this – I know Chris Bell has, I’ll have to check on some others – and Mayor Parker has brought it up as well. Any candidate who says they want to make “tough choices” but doesn’t consider this is to my mind not to be taken seriously.

2. Similarly, I don’t know how anyone can look at the debt figures and not support ReBuild Houston. One of the defining purposes of ReBuild Houston was to pay down existing debt and reduce the amount of future debt needed to pay for infrastructure. Put aside the extra revenue stream that ReBuild Houston represents, why would you want to add to the debt burden at this time? I’m not against using debt to invest in the city’s infrastructure, but now is not a very good time for it. What exactly is the case for going back to a bond-based system of paying for street and drainage improvements?

3. Finally, the pension issue. The choices are the same as they’ve always been – try to convince the Legislature to grant the city the authority to make changes to the pension plan; try to negotiate a different agreement with the firefighters; suck it up and figure out how to pay what we owe. I’m not sure why anyone thinks they’d be more successful at #1 than Mayor Parker has been, and I can’t imagine anyone advocating for #3. Maybe I’m missing something, I don’t know. I don’t know what else there is to say on this.

Posted in: Local politics.

Metro and your smartphone

Nice.

HoustonMetro

As Metropolitan Transit Authority officials planned for the new system – which will affect practically every bus ride in the region – they have also focused on offering new services. One of those, a system that allows bus riders to text a code listed at each bus stop and receive a reply with the time of the next bus arriving, will debut in August, at the same time sweeping changes come to Metro’s bus routes.

The second new feature, an application to allow riders to buy fares and display them on their smartphones, will be ready in October or November, said Denise Wendler, Metro’s chief information officer.

Officials last month approved a $244,090 contract with GlobeSherpa for the smartphone payment system. Wendler said it would take 60 to 90 days to unveil the first phase, available only to purchase regular fares and day passes. A second phase would enable riders to buy fares specific to park and ride and to pay with online tools such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet.

The new text and smartphone payment systems are intended not only to provide better service for existing riders, but to attract new Metro users, officials said.

Metro does already have a smartphone app, the TRIP app, available on its RiderTools page. That will clearly need an update once the new bus system is rolled out. I suspect the text-to-find-the-time-of-the-next-bus service will be easier to use. As for the pay-by-smartphone app, it’s a great idea that I hope does help increase ridership. Not everyone carries cash, not everyone has a Q card, but lots of people have smartphones, and as long as you do you can catch a ride. I look forward to hearing what kind of numbers they see from this.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Weekend link dump for July 5

“This column looks back at Jaws and another shark attack movie that disappeared from U.S. theaters after lawyers sank their teeth into it.”

Wait, Ann Coulter is still a thing? Who knew?

And sadly, she’s just as horrible as always.

Uber is now operating a water taxi service in Istanbul.

Please dispose of unwanted goldfish in an environmentally safe manner. Don’t contribute to the invasive species problem.

“After Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling, there’s no longer any doubt: Barack Obama is one of the most consequential presidents in American history — and he will be a particularly towering figure in the history of American progressivism.”

RIP, Chris Squire, founder of and bass player for the band Yes.

“Your mom is not a threat to America, if she happens to be gay or bisexual. Nor is your dad. Nor your sibling, or your best friend, or Doug from Accounting or Jillian down the street or Ellen DeGeneres. Who are you going to choose to stand with? Your sister, or some dude at a pulpit demanding we believe the bowels of Hell will empty if she marries her girlfriend? Your sister’s girlfriend is awesome! That guy is a jerk!”

Don’t Let The Chief Justice Drive The Bus and other #Scalia4Kids jiggery-pokery.

The asteroid problem no one wants to deal with.

“If you’re a NFL fan who isn’t cool with state capitols proudly hoisting a banner synonymous with slavery, segregation, lynchings and hate, you shouldn’t be cool with Washington’s racist nickname. No matter how much you love the team.”

The only thing funnier than these #AskBobbyJindal questions is the fact that the hashtag was a super PAC’s idea.

“You get the distinct sense that we are being told by Green and other Christian Right folk that we must choose between letting them have their own country where they will be free to teach what they want at public expense and discriminate against anyone they wish—or shutting down Christianity altogether.”

“With concerns raised over Backpage.com’s role in facilitating sex trafficking, Mastercard and Visa have stopped doing business with the classified ad site and users will no longer be able to use the credit cards to place ads.”

“The Bible, in its writing, content, and canonization, is wonderfully complex and we do not do it justice, nor are we always able to discern God’s will, simply by quoting a handful of verses. If it worked this way we’d still embrace slavery, polygamy, and concubinage. Victims of rape would still be forced to wed their rapists.”

RIP, Nicholas Winton, the “British Schindler”, savior of over 650 Jewish children.

Tiffany and I visited Athens in 2000, when the city was busy building Olympic venues, among other things. Those venues stand abandoned and derelict today, a sad metaphor for Greece’s economic situation and a dire warning for any city (*cough* *cough* Boston *cough* *cough*) that would consider hosting the Games these days.

Happy 30th birthday, Back to the Future.

Best wishes for a happy retirement to Sonia Manzano, better known as Maria from Sesame Street.

What’s a guy got to do to get on the (very) long list of things that Mike Huckabee has denounced?

Becky Hammon will coach the Spurs during the NBA Summer League.

Mark Evanier writes about Glen Campbell.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Paxton takes the culture-warrior lead

Well, at least he’s found his calling in life.

Ken Paxton

In the six months before Ken Paxton won election as Texas attorney general last fall, he stayed largely out of sight. Under an ethical cloud amid claims of financial fraud, he avoided public events and rarely spoke to reporters, coasting to victory as part of new Republican leadership including Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick.

Lacking Patrick’s knack for political theater, and yet to display the lawyerly intellect of Abbott, his predecessor as the state’s top attorney, the 52-year-old former legislator struggled to emerge from their shadows during his first several months in office.

But now, even as his personal legal troubles resurface, Paxton is poised to claim his place in the sun as the state’s top culture warrior.

Two days after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Texas’ long-standing same-sex marriage ban, Paxton issued an opinion telling county clerks with religious objections that pro bono lawyers were standing by to help defend them against legal challenges if they denied licenses to same-sex couples.

“Our religious liberties find protection in state and federal constitutions and statutes,” he said. “While they are indisputably our first freedom, we should not let them be our last.”

The missive launched him into the national consciousness, earning comparisons to George Wallace, the former Alabama governor who fought desperately to preserve racial segregation in the 1960s. Blasting Paxton for encouraging state officials to violate the law, a Democratic lawmaker has since asked the U.S. Justice Department to monitor the implementation of the Supreme Court’s decision.

The nonbinding opinion amounted to more of a statement of moral support than legal defiance. But to social conservatives — some beginning to feel abandoned by a governor who has declined their requests to call a special legislative session to address the issue of same-sex marriage — it bolstered the McKinney Republican’s standing as one of the last guardians of religious liberty.

“Texas often tries to bill itself as the most conservative state in the union, which isn’t very often the case actually. We have a reputation that we don’t live up to. But I think that Ken Paxton is living up to it,” said Julie McCarty, president of the NE Tarrant Tea Party, which wields considerable influence in Republican primaries. “I haven’t heard anything from our governor, which is not surprising, but again disappointing.”

Even Patrick, who came to power with the backing of the conservative movement, has not avoided the perception that he failed to do enough as the Senate’s presiding officer to protect traditional marriage this session.

“There’s a lot of other things that should have been passed, that the rest of the Republican leadership caved into the homosexual demands — that would be Abbott and Patrick and [Speaker] Straus,” said Steve Hotze, a Houston doctor who operates the powerful Conservative Republicans of Texas political action committee.

Paxton’s office was “very instrumental” in pushing lawmakers to pass legislation affirming religious officials’ rights to refuse to perform same-sex marriages known as the Pastor Protection Act, said Hotze, whose group distributes mailers and scorecards to a vast network of GOP voters.

“Most people don’t understand, but Ken Paxton does understand the direction of this movement, and he is speaking out,” he said. “Abbott has been AWOL on the issue.”

[…]

Based on the questions about Paxton’s ethical compass, former Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman, the candidate who came in third in the primary, later endorsed Paxton opponent Dan Branch in the runoff.

But concerns about Paxton’s business matters did not dissuade conservatives in 2014, and don’t seem to have gained traction among them recently.

McCarty said Thursday she was not aware that Paxton could face a felony charge, but said it did not affect her support for him.

“This is how politics goes. People are always pressing charges and making frivolous suits just to smear someone’s name,” she said. “The general public doesn’t follow it closely enough to know when everything’s been cleared and that it was all trumped up for nothing. Until we have a conclusion, I would definitely side with Paxton and give him the benefit of the doubt because I just know that’s how these games are played.”

So this is where we stand. And just to add a little gasoline to the fire, there’s this:

As if Attorney General Ken Paxton didn’t have enough troubles with a potential felony indictment, now he’ll be fighting off an ethics complaint over his opinion on same-sex marriage.

[…]

Now long-time Travis County Democratic mainstay Glen Maxey has savaged that opinion as nothing more than political cant, and filed a complaint with the Texas State Bar Association against Paxton. In it, the Texas Democratic Party county affairs director alleges multiple violations by Paxton of the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, including that Paxton made a false statement of law that is “flatly inconsistent with the United States Constitution”, as well as violating the statutes defining his official duties, the oath of office as attorney general, and the terms of his license to practice law in the state of Texas.

In a statement Maxey, who was Texas’ first openly gay state representative, writes, ““It’s irresponsible for an elected official – and a lawyer – to tell other elected officials to break the law. He’s misleading county and state officials based on a false premise that they can discriminate against same-sex couples.”

You can see a copy of the complaint here. It’s not the first time someone has complained to the State Bar about Paxton. I’m not a lawyer and will pass on evaluating the merits of Maxey’s complaint. If that’s in your wheelhouse, by all means please chime in.

As for the larger issue with Paxton, all this raises the stakes on the grand jury/special prosecutor investigation against him. He can complain all he wants about being made a target, but he’s not being tried in Travis County and may have a hard time making that charge sound believable to anyone outside of Ms. McCarty’s circle. If he gets no-billed or manages to beat the charges one way or another, he’ll be in a very strong position politically. If he goes down, there could be collateral damage. At some point, Abbott and Patrick and the rest are going to have to decide if they want to stand by Ken Paxton or let him sink or swim on his own. I imagine there have been a few very off the record back-room discussions about how to play things if it all goes to hell for the state Republican brand. Trail Blazers and the Trib have more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Supreme Court to hear school finance appeal in September

Mark your calendars.

The Texas Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Sept. 1 in the long-running case challenging the state’s school-finance system.

“We are very pleased that the court is moving so expeditiously,” attorney David Thompson, representing the Houston Independent School District, Fort Bend ISD and dozens of others, said Friday. “We think it’s a recognition of how important this issue is to every community in the state.”

More than two-thirds of Texas districts sued the state in 2011 after lawmakers cut $5.4 billion from public education amid a budget crunch while raising academic standards. In the suit, hundreds of school districts argued that, despite warnings from the Texas Supreme Court over the years about school funding, “the State has fallen back on temporary fixes that ultimately fail to support the increasing expectations Texas has set for a student population that is rapidly growing and disadvantaged.”

In response, the suit argued, districts have had to respond “in what amounts to an unconstitutional state property tax.”

In addition, the suit also claimed the current system was inefficient and inadequate to fund districts at a constitutional and equitable level.

[…]

Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott, now governor, appealed the ruling directly to the state Supreme Court, which agreed to hear the case in January.

“After nearly four years of successful litigation, the inequities in the current system remain critically excessive,” said Wayne Pierce, executive director of the Equity Center, which provided research and testimony for the Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition representing the school districts in the suit.

He said the system has long been broken, with many districts underfunded while taxpayers are burdened with property taxes.

“It is not unusual at all for the poorest districts to receive 50, 60,000 dollars less per typical elementary classroom than what the state system routinely makes available in the wealthier districts,” added Pierce.

Just as a reminder, the original trial was held in 2012 with the first of the six suits being filed in October of 2011; the final verdict was rendered last August after a rehearing in June of 2013 to consider the effect of that year’s legislative session. Abbott appealed the latest ruling last September, and here we are. Depending on how things go, we could have a special session sometime next year, or the Lege could try to address any needed changes in the regular 2017 session. If Judge Dietz’s ruling is upheld and the Lege is going to have to pony up a few more billion dollars to the schools, it will make for a very interesting session, that’s for sure.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Clinics consider reopening

There’s a lot of uncertainty in the decisionmaking process, that’s for sure.

Abortion providers cheered a move by the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily block part of a Texas law that would have closed more than half the state’s 19 remaining abortion clinics. Now they are studying whether it could also allow them to reopen some previously shuttered facilities and whether that would even be feasible.

“We may have gotten more than we even asked for,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, chief executive of Whole Woman’s Health, which sued to overturn the law. But she cautioned that reopening clinics would be expensive and difficult, not just “a turn of the key and turn on the lights.”

Meanwhile, anti-abortion advocates insisted Monday’s ruling, while at least a short-term victory for abortion providers, isn’t as sweeping as those groups hope.

Both sides agree the two-paragraph order blocks a requirement that would mandate abortion facilities be constructed like surgical centers. It was the final major component of the 2013 law set to take effect.

Abortion providers also said they were analyzing whether the order goes further and temporarily wipes out an additional requirement that abortion doctors have admitting privileges at local hospitals.

[…]

Without the Monday ruling, the state would have had no clinic west of San Antonio. Only one would have been able to operate on a limited basis in McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

Stephanie Toti, a lawyer for the Center for Reproductive Rights who is representing the clinics, said some clinics that had previously closed might be able to reopen.

“We are hopeful,” Toti said. “But some of those clinics have been closed for so long.”

See here for the background. Reopening a clinic that had been closed would require money, hiring or rehiring staff, and applying for a state license, among other things. This may be one of those other things.

Texas doctors performing abortions must still obtain admitting privileges at nearby hospitals despite a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the Texas Department of State Health Services, said on Thursday.

The department’s statement comes days after the Supreme Court put on hold an appellate court’s ruling that would have closed at least 10 abortion facilities. Abortion restrictions passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 — and set to go into effect Wednesday — would have required Texas’ abortion facilities to meet hospital-like standards, including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other modifications.

Attorneys for the abortion providers had said the high court’s order also blocked the state from enforcing a separate provision of the law that requires doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. The Supreme Court restored a lower court’s ruling striking down both provisions of the law statewide, the attorneys said.

But on Thursday, Williams said the Supreme Court’s intervention only suspended the provision requiring hospital-like standards. Only some doctors at two clinics — Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso — are exempt from the admitting privileges requirement, Williams said. (The El Paso clinic has been closed for months.)

In light of the health department’s statement, Stephanie Toti with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Texas abortion providers, said it is “studying the Supreme Court’s order to determine its impact.”

“We are hopeful that it may allow some of the clinics that had been previously closed due to the state’s admitting privileges requirements to reopen,” Toti said in a statement.

I have no clue what the effect of that may be. Beyond that, there’s no guarantee that the clinics would be able to stay open for more than a few months – while the expectation is that SCOTUS will hear the HB2 appeal, if they choose not to then the law goes into effect as soon as they make that decision, which would be in the fall. I don’t know what the licensing entails, but I doubt the state would feel any incentive to be very responsive about it. I don’t think fundraising to cover costs will be a problem, and I suspect there will be enough people dedicated to the cause to enable the clinics to be properly staffed, but these things take time as well. I hope they go forward, but I definitely understand if they are reluctant to do so. Daily Kos has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

The wedding industry is rubbing its hands with glee

Nothing like having your market dramatically expanded overnight.

RedEquality

Within hours after the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in Texas and across the country, local wedding businesses and venues already began getting orders and bookings from same-sex couples. Those in the wedding industry said they expect a surge of gay couples who were hoping to marry in Texas.

“The gay wedding business will grow instantly,” said Mariana Lemesoff, owner of AvantGarden, which received three new wedding requests from gay couples on Friday.

One study estimated an economic boost of $181.6 million in Texas during the first three years of legalization through direct wedding spending and spending by out-of-state wedding guests.

Until the high court’s 5-4 ruling, Houston had been missing out on the gay wedding business, said Betsy Gelb, a marketing professor at the University of Houston’s C.T. Bauer College of Business.

Competing primarily with Austin, Houston will have an opportunity to attract same-sex wedding business from other Texas towns where people aren’t as comfortable with their union, Gelb said.

“We are, in a sense, behind the curve in cities realizing there is money to be made in LGBT weddings,” she said.

[…]

In some weddings both women wear dresses. Other couples want pantsuits. Either way, [Christine Nokta, public relations director for Impression Bridal] said, the bridal store is expecting an increase in business.

“Two dresses, that’s better than one as far as we’re concerned,” she said.

Indeed. And don’t forget the boon that county coffers will receive by issuing all those marriage licenses, as places like New York City have been doing for years. You may recall that the original anti-gay marriage bill that was taken up in the Lege this year, from Sen. Charles Perry and Rep. Cecil Bell, would have transferred the marriage license business to the Secretary of State’s office. County Clerks raised a huge fuss about that, since that would have been a real financial loss to them. That’s a small amount compared to what this boost in the wedding business will be, however. Just remember, the next time Greg Abbott claims credit for Texas’ economy, SCOTUS and marriage equality will be a part of that. The Huffington Post has more.

Posted in: Bidness.

Saturday video break: A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam

Taking a break from cover songs for a good, patriotic reason today:

I’d love to see a modern take on that. Imagine Jay-Z interpreting and re-choreographing Jimmy Cagney’s song and dance above. Or Bruno Mars, or Justin Timberlake, or maybe even Katy Perry, if someone can figure out how to make “a real live niece of my Uncle Sam” work lyrically. They’d need to find a way to work Left Shark and his dance partner into the chorus, that much I know. What do you think? Happy Fourth of July!

Posted in: Music.

Lawsuit threatened in Hood County over clerk’s refusal to issue marriage license

I was beginning to think that none of Texas’ 254 County Clerks were going to attempt to martyr themselves in the name of their “religious freedom” to not issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. I shouldn’t have worried.

Attorneys for a same-sex couple are preparing to sue Hood County Clerk Katie Lang after the couple was unable to obtain a marriage license.

Two Austin attorneys representing Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, who have been together for 27 years, sent a letter to Lang on Thursday demanding that her office issue the couple a marriage license by the end of the business day or risk being sued in federal court Monday morning.

As of Thursday evening, the couple was unable to obtain a marriage license from the county, so attorney Jan Soifer confirmed that they would move forward with filing suit.

[…]

Citing her religious beliefs, Lang initially said her office would not grant same-sex marriage licenses.

She later backtracked, saying that she would “personally refrain” from issuing licenses but that other members of her staff would grant the licenses once “the appropriate forms have been printed and supplied to my office,” Lang wrote in a statement posted to the county website.

But obtaining those forms — the county clerk’s office told The Dallas Morning News — could take three weeks.

Pointing to revised forms available on the Department of State Health Services’ website, Soifer and attorney Austin Kaplan wrote that Lang had “absolutely no valid reason” to delay issuing marriage licenses.

“Our clients have been waiting for 27 years to marry, they have a constitutional right to obtain a marriage license in Hood County, where they reside, and there is no valid reason for them to have to wait ‘at least another three weeks’,” the attorneys wrote.

“Three weeks” to obtain those forms is the definition of BS. Here’s the latest survey of Texas’ counties, via Glen Maxey on Facebook at 9 PM on July 1:

So our friends at “Texans for Marriage” led by my great friend Nick Hudson give the Rainbow Report tonight:

Here’s where we are at end of day Wednesday:

235 Texas Counties — 93% — are either issuing marriage licenses already or are planning to issue licenses soon
At least 175 Texas Counties — 69% — said they were issuing marriage licenses by today
60 counties — 24% — say they are not currently issuing marriage licenses but plan to soon (this number may be lower IF the clerks in these counties have already started issuing marriage licenses. A full pass has not been made on the counties in this category in 24 hours.)
10 Counties unknown because nobody is answering the telephone

One of those 175 counties in that report was Hood. That was because Hood County Clerk Katie Lang had appeared to concede the fight. She hadn’t.

When last we heard Hood County Clerk Katie Lang wasn’t going to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples — because, she wrote, of “the religious doctrines to which I adhere” — but her staff would. Turns out, not so much: The clerk’s office now says it will take three weeks to get the proper paperwork. A woman named Virginia in the clerk’s office says only, “We don’t have the forms.”

As a result, two attorneys from Austin are on their way to Granbury at this very moment. They want just one thing: for the clerk’s office to issue a marriage license for their clients, Jim Cato and Joe Stapleton, who have been waiting to marry for 27 years. If they do not get one, says attorney Jan Soifer, she and attorney Austin Kaplan will sue the Hood County Clerk’s office first thing Monday morning.

“After [Lang] changed her tune Tuesday, my clients gave her a day and waited till this morning to get their license,” says Soifer. “They said, ‘No, no, no, it will take three weeks.’ They said, ‘We’re not ready to do it, we don’t have the forms ready.’ We sent them the link to the website with the form they are supposed to use. It’s posted. It’s available to them. We know 205 other counties in Texas have already been issuing them.”

But not Hood County.

Indeed. I suppose Lang could fold again, but I suspect this one is going to go to court. At this point, the professional grievance holders have arrived, and the crowds have been whipped up. That they have no legal led to stand on isn’t going to stop them. Someone is going to need to be smacked down, and the first someone in line for that is Katie Lang. As a wise man once said, hold on to your butts.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Cardinals identify a fall guy

The latest Hacked-Stros news.

The St. Louis Cardinals have terminated the contract of their scouting director, Chris Correa, as investigations continue into alleged hacking of a Houston Astros database.

A Cardinals’ lawyer, James G. Martin, confirmed the move Thursday, saying Correa already had been on an “imposed leave of absence.” Martin declined to comment on the reason. And he would not say whether any employee has admitted hacking the Astros, citing ongoing investigations by the club, Major League Baseball and the FBI.

Correa declined to comment.

In a prepared statement, Correa’s lawyer, Nicholas Williams, wrote: “Mr. Correa denies any illegal conduct. The relevant inquiry should be what information did former St. Louis Cardinals employees steal from the St. Louis Cardinals organization prior to joining the Houston Astros, and who in the Houston Astros organization authorized, consented to, or benefited from that roguish behavior?”

Giles Kibbe, the attorney for the Astros, reaffirmed an earlier denial that neither the Houston organization nor any previous Cardinals employees now with the Astros had taken anything proprietary from the Cardinals.

Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow, who as head of the Cardinals’ analytics department had helped build the database used here to evaluate players, has said that everything he and others did in Houston was accomplished “from scratch.”

“We stand by all of our previous comments,” Kibbe said. “We’re looking forward to the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation. I stand by all that Jeff has said on this matter.”

Correa has admitted hacking into a Houston database but only to determine whether the Astros had stolen proprietary data, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

Correa did not leak any Astros data and is not responsible for additional hacks that the FBI has alleged occurred, said the source.

[…]

The source said that Correa’s involvement in the hacking began in 2013, in an attempt to determine whether Luhnow or any other former Cardinals employees took proprietary data to the Astros.

Correa’s suspicions were aroused in part by a résumé in which a job seeker claimed expertise that Correa believed could have come only from working with Cardinals data, the source said.

He used an old password from a former Cardinals employee working for the Astros to access the Houston database “a few” times but did not download data, the source said. The source claims Correa located some data on the website, but did not report it to his bosses because the information was outdated and unreliable without being redone.

The source said that others must have accessed Houston’s database if federal investigators’ claims about the number of hacking attempts are correct.

See here and here for the background. The counter-charges are interesting and I suppose could be a potential line of defense in the event this ever goes to a courtroom in some fashion. Whether it might mitigate any future punishment by MLB is another matter. The Chron story adds a bit more detail.

Giles Kibbe, the Astros’ general counsel, said in an e-mail, “We stand by all of our previous comments. We look forward to the FBI concluding their investigation.”

Major League Baseball, similarly, plans to await the conclusion of the FBI’s investigation, a person familiar with the league’s thinking said. A league spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

The FBI has not commented on details of its investigation but repeated a previously issued statement: “The FBI aggressively investigates all potential threats to public and private sector systems. Once our investigations are complete, we pursue all appropriate avenues to hold accountable those who pose a threat in cyberspace.”

[…]

Washington D.C.-based attorney Peter Toren, who handles cases involving intellectual property and commercial litigation, said that were a civil case to be filed, the Cardinals might be able to allege as a counterclaim against the Astros that Astros personnel improperly used information obtained in their time as employees for the Cardinals that could be classified as a trade secret.

Major League Baseball forbids clubs from suing each other, instead directing disputes to the commissioner as arbitrator. He can then award the Astros damages.

Luhnow and director of decision sciences Sig Mejdal worked with the Cardinals before joining the Astros, for whom they launched a database called “Ground Control.” The Cardinals had their own database, called “Red Bird Dog.”

“Ground Control” includes statistics, player evaluations and, at least up until last spring, logs of trade negotiations. Those logs were posted online and widely viewed at the website Deadspin last June, prompting an FBI investigation.

As first reported by The New York Times and confirmed by the Chronicle, the Cardinals had a master list of passwords, and at least one of the Astros’ departed executives did not alter his password well enough upon departure.

While Astros amateur scouting director Mike Elias also worked with the Cardinals in St. Louis and came over to the Astros with Luhnow, a person familiar with the investigation said Elias’ log-in credentials were not at issue. It’s unclear if the log-in information of both of Luhnow and Mejdal or just one of the two was in some way utilized in accessing Astros information.

Luhnow told Sports Illustrated he knows “about password hygiene and best practices” but did not directly address whether both he and his employees followed those practices to the necessary extent. Luhnow has turned down repeated requests for comment.

“I’m very aware of intellectual property and the agreements I signed,” Luhnow told Sports Illustrated. “I didn’t take anything, any proprietary information. Nor have we ever received any inquiries from anybody that even suggested that we had.”

Regarding the use of information obtained while working for another employer, Toren said, “That scenario is probably the most common type of trade secret case. One employee moves jobs and takes information with him to a new job for his use. The question then is: Is the employee generally allowed to take with him general knowledge?”

Toren said courts have ruled that employees can use general knowledge and skills gained on one job when they move to their next employer. However, he said lines can become blurry over “the type of information that really belongs to the employer that goes beyond … and really is specific knowledge.”

I still say having a master list of passwords is a terrible idea, whether Luhnow and the others who jumped from the Cards to the Stros practiced good password hygiene or not. I can’t wait to see the FBI report. Craig Calcaterra, who is not impressed by Correa’s attorney’s claims, has more.

Posted in: Baseball.

Adickes documentary

I’d watch that.

Recently local video production company The Storyhive announced details of an upcoming documentary about Houston artist and sculptor David Adickes, the man behind many of the large-scale public art pieces dotting the Bayou City area.

The film, titled “Monumental,” will chronicle Adickes who at the age of 88 is still exercising his creative muscles daily. The film has been in production for three years now, according to the producers.

They shot footage with him in Huntsville at his old high school, which he turned into the Adickes Art Foundation Museum in 2012. They just recently spent a day with him at his house in the Montrose area as he created a mock-up for a statue of an astronaut for a project he’s currently an integral part of.

It could one day be the second-tallest statue in the United States, right behind the Statue of Liberty in New York City, if the project is completed as planned.

“He’s talking about his entire life in the film and the production will focus on his life in Houston after he returned from Europe mostly,” says The Storyhive’s Jena Moreno. The film only has a crew of three people.

Here’s the Facebook page for the project. If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know I’m a big fan of Adickes’. The film is aiming for a 2016 release, and I intend to be at a screening. I’m so glad someone is doing this.

Posted in: TV and movies.

Friday random ten: Revisiting the Rolling Stone 500 Greatest Songs list, part 2

Here’s their list, and here’s mine for this week:

1. How Soon Is Now? – Love Spit Love (#477, orig. The Smiths)
2. Where Did Our Love Go? – Diana Ross and The Supremes (#475)
3. Into the Mystic – Van Morrison (#474)
4. Surrender – Cheap Trick (#471)
5. Rain – Flying Fish Sailors (#469, orig. The Beatles)
6. Respect Yourself – Huey Lewis and The News (#468, orig. The Staple Singers)
7. Soul Man – The Blues Brothers (#463, orig. Sam and Dave)
8. Pressure Drop – Toots and The Maytals (#453)
9. Come As You Are – Midnight Juggernauts (#452, orig. Nirvana)
10. Come Go With Me – The Georgetown Chimes (#449, orig. The Dell-Vikings)

Song I used to have but don’t any more #1: “Do Right Woman – Do Right Man”, The Commitments (#476, orig. Aretha Franklin). Had it on CD, but I think it went with my former roomie Matt when he moved to New York. I just need to buy the whole soundtrack again.
Song I used to have but don’t any more #2: “Runaway”, Del Shannon (#472). Had it on a collection of hits from 1961 that I had on vinyl. Don’t remember when or where or why I got it, but I don’t have it any more.
Song I don’t have but should: “Welcome To The Jungle”, Guns ‘n’ Roses (#473). Formerly the semi-official song for the Rice Owls basketball team when their home court didn’t have air conditioning. Yes, you read that right, a gym in Houston with no air conditioning. And we liked it that way. Well, we liked taunting our opponents about it, anyway. Not being dumb and in my 20s any more, I much prefer the mod cons of the new gym now, thanks.
Song I heard often enough while watching “Groundhog Day”: “I Got You Babe”, Sonny and Cher (#451). Seriously, Rolling Stone?

Posted in: Music.

Paxton could be in real trouble

Whoa.

Ken Paxton

The criminal investigation against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has taken a more serious turn, with special prosecutors now planning to present a first-degree felony securities fraud case against him to a Collin County grand jury, News 8 has learned.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer told News 8 Wednesday afternoon that the Texas Rangers uncovered new evidence during the investigation that led to the securities fraud allegations against the sitting attorney general.

“The Rangers went out to investigate one thing, and they came back with information on something else,” Schaffer told News 8. “It’s turned into something different than when they started.”

Schaffer, a Houston criminal defense attorney, said the securities fraud allegations involve amounts well in excess of $100,000. He declined to comment specifics of the fraud allegations.

A first-degree felony conviction is punishable by up to life in prison.

Ponder that for a moment – “punishable by up to life in prison”. Not that I expect any such outcome, but how often do you hear that sort of thing said about an incumbent elected official? Again, this may very well turn out to be nothing, or at least something a lot less than that. But still.

Schaffer said he and the other special prosecutor will begin presenting their case to a Collin County grand jury within the next few weeks. He said he anticipates eight to nine witnesses will appear before the grand jury.

“We believe that there’s sufficient evidence to present to a grand jury,” Schaffer said.

Schaffer said he also anticipates presenting a case involving failing to register, which is a third-degree felony.

The investigation had started with allegations that Paxton violated the law when he failed to register as an investment advisor with the state.

News 8 also learned Wednesday that Paxton had hired a former federal district judge.

“I met with General Paxton and he had retained me to look into the matter,” said Joe Kendall, who practices in Dallas. “I am honored that he did. He’s a good man.”

Kendall told News 8 that he met with Paxton “very recently” in Dallas and confirmed that he was hired within the past two days.

“I’m going to be helping look into the matter,” Kendall said, declining to comment further.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Chron story dredges up a quote from Paxton’s longtime flak Anthony Holm in which he says that “at least three other entities have thoroughly reviewed these matters and each chose not to proceed”. One of them was the Travis County DA’s office, which concluded it didn’t have jurisdiction. One was the Dallas County DA’s office, which didn’t say why it declined to move forward. I’m not sure who the third was, but this sure is beginning to sound like whistling past the graveyard.

Perhaps that’s why Paxton was so aggressive in his response.

“This appears to be a politically motivated effort to ruin the career of a longtime public servant,” Paxton spokesman Anthony Holm said in a statement that also accused the two attorneys of building their case in the press. “These attacks on Ken Paxton appear to have become a political hit-job in the media, perhaps having the effect of inappropriately influencing the grand jury.”

[…]

Holm said Thursday that neither Schaffer nor Wice have “significant prosecutorial experience,” adding that it appears only one case has been prosecuted between the two of them. Neither Schaffer nor Wice has worked as a prosecutor, but both have extensive backgrounds in criminal defense. Wice was on the team that defended former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, against corruption and money laundering charges.

“Not only do they appear inexperienced as prosecutors, they are from Houston,” Holm said. “Meanwhile thousands of experienced prosecutors and former prosecutors are in the Dallas area.”

Wow. One wonders who it is that authored this “hit job” on Paxton, given that (as a commenter on this Trib story noted) he’s been “indicted in one of the most Republican counties – Collin County – by a special prosecutor appointed by a Republican judge who is a friend of Paxton, in an investigation that was led by the Texas Rangers, which is part of the state government, which is led by all Republicans”. I know he’s just playing to the cheap seats, but you’d think he could at least let us know who he thinks is persecuting him. As for the dig on the special prosecutors, I’m pretty sure that Schaffer and Wice know their way around a criminal courtroom, regardless of what table they’re sitting at. When was the last time Paxton himself was in a courtroom? If this were the runup to a sporting event, we’d say that he just provided some bulletin board material for his opponents. I don’t know if this would be motivational to Schaffer and Wice, but they’re human beings, too. I know I’d focus a little harder after being insulted like that.

Anyway. In case anyone is wondering, if at some point Paxton resigns, the Governor appoints a replacement, who must be confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the Senate. That could get interesting, but we’re way ahead of ourselves. I can’t wait till the grand jury proceedings begin. A statement from Texans for Public Justice is beneath the fold, and Burka, PDiddie, Campos, Juanite, the Current, and the Trib have more.

UPDATE: Well, this sure answers my questions about Schaffer and Wice.

Reached for comment late Thursday, Schaffer said Holm “never denies the criminal conduct.”

“I noticed that in Mr. Holm’s obligatory statement there was not one time that he said that Mr. Paxton did not do the things that we are looking at,” said Schaffer. “I found (that) very concerning.”

Wice and Schaffer issued a lengthy statement criticizing Holm’s remarks as “the usual sound bites, culled from the play book of any public official whose conduct places them in the cross-hairs of a grand jury investigation.

“Tellingly, Mr. Paxton feels that a Dallas address or a career spent as a prosecutor somehow trumps our over seven decades of trial and appellate experience as two of Texas’s most respected criminal lawyers,” the statement reads. “We were brought in from Houston to ensure that an investigation that could have easily been driven by partisan politics and political agendas would not.”

It adds, “The facts, which Mr. Paxton would rather ignore than acknowledge, are, as Churchill said, stubborn things. And that’s exactly what we will provide the grand jury with: the facts. Our investigation will continue to be informed by what our oaths as special prosecutors commands: to do justice. And sound bites and personal attacks won’t change that.”

It. Is. On. Get that popcorn popping.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Now Texas is suing the EPA over its clean water plan

Another day, another anti-environmental lawsuit. It’s what we do.

For the 20th time since the Obama administration took office in 2009, the federal Environmental Protection Agency is facing a lawsuit from Texas.

Joined by Louisiana and Mississippi, Texas is challenging the “Waters of the U.S.” rule which the EPA finalized Monday. That rule is aimed at better defining the scope of bodies of water protected under the Clean Water Act. Members of the farm lobby and Republican leaders say the rule will lead to more regulation and a takeover of private property.

In a statement, Attorney General Ken Paxton called the rule “so broad and open to interpretation that everything from ditches and dry creek beds, to gullies, to isolated ponds formed after a big rain could be considered a ‘water of the United States.'”

The EPA has claimed it does not plan to expand the waters under its jurisdiction, only to clarify what they are.

“The very structure of the Constitution, and therefore liberty itself, is threatened when administrative agencies attempt to assert independent sovereignty and lawmaking authority that is superior to the states, Congress, and the courts,” the states’ lawsuit reads.

I’m reminded of a bit of dialog from a classic TV show:

Giles: It’s the end of the world.
Buffy, Willow, and Xander: Again?!

I’m just saying. The usual suspects scored a victory the other day, but overall the EPA and the Obama administration have done very well. We’ll see how it goes this time. ThinkProgress has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

What about LGBT asylum seekers?

Good question.

Sulma Franco

As millions waited this week for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, dozens of LGBT immigrants sat in American detention centers after fleeing what they say is persecution in their homelands because of their sexual orientation.

Now, a coalition of attorneys, lawmakers and immigrant rights groups are calling on the federal government to release some of the asylum-seekers, arguing they remain at risk for violence while they are locked up. The groups also want the government to collect better data that would shed more light on how many people are fleeing because they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.

Opponents of releasing asylum-seekers from detention centers say such immigrants would be unlikely to show up for hearings.

The issue hit close to home for many LGBT Texans when earlier this month, Sulma Franco, a lesbian from Guatemala, sought sanctuary in a Central Austin church after being denied asylum.

Immigration Equality, a New York-based group that advocates and provides legal services for LGBT and HIV-positive immigrants across the country, recorded more than 500 cases involving LGBT asylum-seekers from 2010 to 2014. But that number is only a fraction of the bigger picture, said Sharita Gruberg, a policy analyst with the Center for American Progress.

Though immigration agents question asylum-seekers about their concerns, the federal government does not track the number of people seeking asylum specifically because they are LGBT.

“We’ve been advocating for the government to collect data on this,” she said. “We don’t get a good picture of who’s seeking protection.”

LGBT asylum-seekers who are released from detention are likely to show up for their hearings because their cases have merit, said Vanessa Allyn, a managing attorney at Human Rights First, an advocacy group whose Houston office has secured two asylum claims for LGBT people in the past year and has five more pending.

“The real question is: Why are we detaining these individuals in the first instance? If they can articulate a credible claim of fear on recognized grounds for protection, then they are going to show up for their hearings,” she said. “There is no reason for them to disappear into the ether of the United States. They are definitely going to come and they are going to articulate their claim and they are probably going to be granted relief.”

Ms. Allyn’s claim is based on a 1994 ruling by AG Janet Reno in which a gay Cuban man was granted asylum due to his sexual orientation, known as the Toboso-Alonso case. Cuba’s a class by itself in immigration law, but the argument for asylum is strong on its own. We granted asylum on grounds of religious persecution to plenty of immigrants in the 70s and 80s, often to folks from countries whose (Communist) governments we didn’t like. Lord knows, there are plenty of countries in which being LGBT can put your life in danger. We’ve spent the past few days celebrating the victory won at the Supreme Court, but this deserves the same attention, too. It’s why Jennicet Gutiérrez spoke out at the White House during the annual LGBT Pride reception.

Whatever you think of Ms. Gutiérrez’s actions, they had an effect.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement will implement new guidelines designed to better protect transgender people in immigration detention facilities, the agency announced Monday.

The announcement comes after 35 congressional Democrats wrote to U.S. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson earlier this month asking ICE to change it’s policies toward those detainees. The lawmakers also asked ICE to collect better data on how many people flee their homelands for fear of persecution because they are gay, lesbian transgender or bisexual.

“We want to make sure our employees have the tools and resources available to learn more about how to interact with transgender individuals and ensure effective standards exist to house and care for them throughout the custody cycle,” Thomas Homan, executive assistant director for ICE’s Office of Enforcement and Removal Operations, said in a statement.

According to the memorandum, ICE will now collect data on how many immigrants in its custody are transgender, and provide training and guidance to ICE officers to keep those detainees safe. ICE will also name of a special coordinator to manage such issues for each of its 24 field offices.

It’s a small step forward and it is one of the things that immigration activists asked for, but it’s not that much and it’s not going to get anyone out of detention. Activists were critical of this and will continue to push for asylum. I think the President needs to listen to them.

Posted in: La Migra.

Texas throws in the towel with the Fifth Circuit

Hallelujah.

RedEquality

The 5th Circuit should affirm a lower court ruling that overturned Texas’ long-standing ban on same-sex marriage, Scott Keller, the state’s solicitor general, wrote in a letter to the appellate court. That letter was in response to the appellate court’s request that the state and the plaintiffs advise the court on the next steps in the Texas case.

Citing the Supreme Court’s ruling, a three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit then affirmed a lower court ruling that the state’s ban is unconstitutional.

Same-sex marriage “is the law of the land and, consequently, the law of this circuit and should not be taken lightly by actors within the jurisdiction of this court,” wrote circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith, adding that the Supreme Court ruling also required the state to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

[…]

Though it was clear that the Supreme Court would have the final word on the matter, the parties in the Texas case had hoped the 5th Circuit would still rule on their case.

But after the high court legalized same-sex marriage, the attorney for the Texas same-sex couples, Neel Lane, asked the 5th Circuit to affirm Garcia’s ruling and direct him to wrap up the case.

In a letter to the court, Lane wrote that Garcia’s final judgment should prohibit the state from enforcing the state statute that banned same-sex marriage, any related provisions in the Texas Family Code, and “any other laws or regulations prohibiting a person from marrying another person of the same sex or recognizing same-sex marriage.”

Additionally, Lane asked that the courts “take any and all steps necessary to enforce” that final judgment.

In siding with the same-sex couples, the 5th Circuit directed Garcia to enter his final judgment on the case by July 17.

The Fifth Circuit’s opinion is here. There wasn’t any actual doubt about how this would be resolved at this point, but this gesture does save everyone some time and energy. It also highlights just how much all that “saber-rattling” has been little more than posturing for the rubes. They know the gig is up, they just don’t want to have to say it out loud.

Other signs of progress:

A local woman who wed her partner in a same-sex marriage in Hawaii last year has legally changed her name in Nueces County.

Bridget and Molly Brundrett married in Hawaii last October because the Aloha State already recognized same-sex unions. When they returned to Corpus Christi, Molly tried to legally take her wife’s last name. She took her Hawaii marriage license to the local Department of Motor Vehicles to legally change her name but was turned away. She says a female employee at the DMV office even threatened to have her arrested if she didn’t leave.

That was last November.

Fast forward to this week — and it’s a different story.

Following the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage last Friday, same-sex marriage is now recognized in Texas.

On Monday, the couple went to the DMV office off Interstate 37 with their Hawaii marriage license in hand and it was accepted. In fact, they say the DMV employees cheered for them.

“We actually walked up and she started applauding and cheering. It was like – oh my God, my first one! It was very moving. It was very sweet. They took our pictures,” said Molly.

That’s what marriage equality is all about – you get to have the same choices and options as anyone else. I hope this means that Connie Wilson can get her Texas drivers license, too. Congratulations, y’all.

UPDATE: The Fifth Circuit ruling applies to Louisiana and Mississippi too, though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal continues to be a jerk about it.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Outsourcing inmates again

We’ve been down this road before.

go_to_jail

For the first time in three years, the Harris County sheriff began transferring busloads of inmates this week to other correctional facilities to avoid overcrowding at the state’s largest jail.

The jail population is currently at 93 percent of its 9,434-bed capacity, Harris County Sheriff Ron Hickman said Monday. He said part of the problem may stem from two recent back-to-back storms with flooding that delayed magistrate courts and consequently stalled the release of some low-level offenders.

Hickman also indicated that judges who set monetary bail for inmates have influenced the rising numbers because 62 percent of the jail’s occupants are awaiting trial.

The fluctuating jail population, he said, is out of his control. “In large part, the jail population is controlled by the courts, who determine which offenders will be released pending adjudication and which will be detained until trial,” Hickman said.

[…]

Hickman said another round of storms and flooding could cause the jail population to climb again.

“A singular event, like another bad rain and floodwaters, would cause us to shut courts down which would back prisoners up on the capacity side of our storage, and we’d be in violation of jail standards again,” he said.

The sheriff said he had very few options for dealing with the high numbers.

See here for previous blogging on this topic. This may be a temporary situation exacerbated by all the damn rain we’ve been having, but we wouldn’t be in this position if the overall jail population hadn’t been trending up. If we want to avoid being vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the TDCJ and the weather gods, there are three things we can do.

1. Bail reform. There are too many people sitting in jail awaiting trial. Some of them belong there, but some of them don’t. Less onerous bail amounts, and more personal recognizance bonds, would solve this problem.

2. Expand Medicaid. OK, I know, there’s nothing Harris County can do about this, and our state leaders are a bunch of deranged lunatics on the subject. Be that as it may, as we well know the Harris County Jail is the country’s largest mental health hospital. Many of the people in the jail getting treatment for mental illness can only get that treatment when they are in jail. You know what would change that? If they had health insurance. How could they get that insurance? If they were eligible for Medicaid. We’ve been over this before, too. The state of Texas and it’s Republican-fueled refusal to expand Medicaid are a big cause of Harris County’s jail overcrowding. Every taxpayer in the county is paying for that.

3. Review and possibly expand the existing early release and ankle monitor programs that were put in place by then-Sheriff Garcia and the courts. Direct deputies to issue citations instead of making arrests for minor violations. None of these would likely be very big, but every little bit helps, and they are options that Sheriff Hickman himself has some control over. Surely that’s worth consideration. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

San Antonio wants a do-over on Uber and Lyft

Maybe the third time will be the charm.

Uber

Mayor Ivy Taylor said Friday that there’s a demand for transportation-network companies in San Antonio and signaled that she wants to work a new deal that would allow Uber and Lyft to restart operations here.

Taylor told the City Council during an all-day retreat that she has directed City Manager Sheryl Sculley to develop a plan for bringing the transportation-network companies, or TNCs, back to San Antonio while the council is on summer break next month. The council met for team-building Friday at Hardberger Park on the North Side.

“We’ve never wanted them to leave,” Taylor said in a Friday interview. “We’ve always wanted Uber and Lyft to be here.”

The ride-hailing firms, however, disagreed. After operating in San Antonio for about a year without regulation, the companies shuttered when the City Council approved policies that the companies found too onerous.

City officials thought they’d come to an agreement with the companies when they approved the updated ordinance, but unresolved concerns over how background checks on drivers would be conducted ultimately drove the companies out of town. The taxi industry lauded the council’s decision, saying “public safety” won the day.

[…]

Lyft

“I am directing the city manager to develop a framework for operating agreements which would allow for TNCs to return to San Antonio during a pilot period,” she said. “This framework will be brought to council for review the second week of August and action thereafter. I have asked Councilman (Roberto) Treviño to be the council representative during this process.

“It is important that we get this issue resolved soon, and I do not want the work to stop during the month of July. Safety will still be a top priority for all of us, and that won’t change.” she said.

Taylor said a data-driven discussion about the merits of the firms’ background checks had been missing from previous discussions. She said she wants to delve deeper into that.

Uber spokeswoman Debbee Hancock said Friday that company officials are looking forward to restarting discussions in San Antonio.

“We are heartened to hear that Mayor Taylor has made it a top priority to bring back ridesharing this summer,” she said. “And we are excited to continue working with the mayor and City Council to make this a reality.”

See here and here for some background. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff is a fan of Uber and Lyft, and the other cities in the county have explored having them operate in the non-SA parts of the county, so there was some pressure on Mayor Taylor beyond the tech/millennial community in town to revisit this. We’ll see what happens. The Rivard Report and the Current have more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Texas blog roundup for the week of June 29

The Texas Progressive Alliance is still celebrating love’s victory as it brings you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

On to the benefits

Now that same sex marriage is the law of the land, Texas employers need to make sure that the spousal benefits they offer apply to all spouses.

RedEquality

“If an employer provides benefits to anyone who is currently married, they must now treat gay and lesbian employees the same and offer them the exact same benefits,” said Neel Lane, a San Antonio lawyer at corporate law firm Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.

“The ruling has an enormous impact on employers and employees in Texas,” said Lane, who represents on a pro bono basis a gay couple in Texas who have challenged the state’s ban on same-sex marriages.

[…]

Lawyers said they have been inundated with calls – mainly from small- and medium-sized business owners – seeking legal advice on updating employment and benefits forms but also asking if there are ways under Texas law to avoid having to make changes.

James Griffin, an expert on employment benefits and federal tax law at Jackson Walker in Dallas, said the legal advice he is giving his business clients is simple.

“Don’t waste your time looking for ways to defeat this,” Griffin said. “The Supreme Court decision is very broad. This issue is done. Make the changes and move on.”

Griffin and other lawyers say most large corporations implemented policies years ago that extend benefits to same-sex couples.

But they say some Texas-based companies that operate exclusively within the state have not addressed the issue because they have never had employees come forward and say they are gay and want benefits for their partners. Lawyers say that because Texas political leaders have been adamantly anti-same-sex marriage and benefits, many workers were afraid to step forward.

“Now, because of the Supreme Court ruling, a lot of people who have been reluctant are going to raise their hand for the benefits and the companies have to address it,” said Mark Shank, an employment law partner at Gruber Hurst Elrod Johansen Hail Shank in Dallas.

Among the employers who have already taken action is the state of Texas.

The state’s bureaucracy is moving forward to comply with the U.S. Supreme Court’s gay-marriage decision, even as state elected officials – including Gov. Greg Abbott – have lambasted the landmark ruling.

Starting Wednesday – less than a week after the decision – the Employees Retirement System of Texas, the University of Texas System and the Texas A&M System will extend benefits to spouses of gay and lesbian employees.

That means the state’s largest employer, the State of Texas, will join the list of those providing equal benefits to same-sex partners.

The decision is latest sign that state government is accepting the ruling, which struck down gay marriage bans in Texas and other states. And that bureaucratic churn provides a notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling by Abbott and other top Republicans.

“This is all kind of new for us,” said Catherine Terrell, a spokeswoman for the Employees Retirement System of Texas. “We’re just looking at what other employers have seen.”

The state employees some 311,000 people, according to the state auditor’s office. Terrell said ERS, which handles benefits for most state employees, was anticipating that about 1,500 spouses of gay employees would now enroll for benefits.

A “notable counterbalance to the saber-rattling”. I like that. When you consider all the county clerks who ignored Ken Paxton’s legal “advice”, it’s quite clear who’s really out of touch here. That doesn’t mean they’re going to acknowledge it any time soon.

The Teacher Retirement System of Texas is also providing these benefits now; they weren’t included in the Trail Blazers post. Regarding the UT and A&M systems, I like the quote in this Trib story about that:

Professors at Texas’ public universities celebrated the extension of benefits, saying the policy change will offer relief for many gay and lesbian employees and reduce the rate at which they leave Texas institutions in search of schools that accommodate same-sex couples.

Patrick Burkart, a communications professor at Texas A&M University, said extending benefits for same-sex couples will put the university on the “same competitive footing” as other research universities across the country because it will help retain and recruit top faculty and staffers.

“What we’re going to find out is how expensive it’s been to keep a discriminatory policy on the books as we have,” said Burkart, the secretary and treasurer of the A&M chapter of the American Association of University Professors, which has pushed for the benefits for years.

Burkart, who has served on several faculty search committees, indicated that the previous policy denying benefits to same-sex spouses or partners kept potential candidates from applying for posts at the school.

Hundreds of colleges across the country offer benefits to same-sex spouses or same-sex domestic partners.

”I think our university has suffered for it, and now is a great time to catch up and gather our strengths,” Burkart said.

I’m willing to bet none of our “saber-rattling” state leaders ever considered that, and if any of them did, I seriously doubt they cared. It is of course one big reason why so many private employers have been doing this for so long – you’ve got to keep up with the competition. Burying your head in the sand never works.

Let’s go back to the first story for a minute to see an example of another place where they can demonstrate that:

Legal experts also say the first major domino likely to fall will occur in federal court in Wichita Falls, where a federal judge in March, at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Paxton, issued an injunction that prevented the federal Family and Medical Leave Act from applying to same-sex couples in Texas.

Because of the ruling, Texas was one of four states in the U.S. where FMLA benefits have been denied to gay couples involved in civil unions.

“That decision will almost certainly be reversed right away,” said David Coale, a partner at Lynn Tillotson Pinker & Cox. “State political leaders may try to fight it, but they are going to lose, and then they are going to have to pay a lot of money to lawyers for pursuing frivolous legal claims.”

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit involved federal employees in Texas, who were covered by an Obama executive order extending employment benefits to same-sex spouses. In the face of Obergfell v. Hodges, the injunction that was granted is clearly out of order. I presume a motion to lift the injunction will be filed shortly, and will be granted right away. Any other outcome is unfathomable.

Moving on, all the newly-married couples in Texas can now sign up for health insurance if they need to.

Same-sex couples who marry have had what the Affordable Care Act considers a “qualifying life event.” And that triggers a special 60-day enrollment period to purchase health insurance from Texas’ federally run, online marketplace, a group promoting enrollment said Tuesday.

Enroll America, a nonprofit supporting Obamacare, said in a release that under the health law, marriage is one of the unusual phenomena that allow consumers a mid-year bite at the apple. The others are having a baby, moving to a different coverage area, getting divorced and experiencing certain changes of income that would affect tax credits and cost-sharing subsidies.

“People don’t know that the special enrollment period exists,” Enroll America spokeswoman Annette Raveneau said in an interview.

[…]

Newly married same-sex couples and others with qualifying life events can sign up all by themselves, using HealthCare.gov.

Raveneau, though, strongly recommends that shoppers meet in person with a certified assistance counselor or Obamacare navigator. They can schedule appointments using Enroll America’s “Get Covered Connector.”

“The people who use an in-person assister, which are free, are twice as likely to finish the enrollment process and actually get a plan,” she said.

How many people might be able to do this? We can only guess, in part because the state has no plans to count how many same-sex couples get hitched.

Though Texas collects detailed data on marriages by county and age, getting better information on same-sex marriage rates in Texas could take years since the state has no plans to separately track those unions. Following Friday’s ruling, the Department of State Health Services released a new gender-neutral marriage application for counties to use. The application does not ask for the sex of either of the applicants.

“We are not specifically tracking those at this time,” said Carrie Williams, a spokeswoman for the department. “The application asks for Applicant One and Applicant Two and currently does not ask for gender.”

States in which same-sex marriage was legal before Friday have taken different record-keeping approaches. Oregon, Vermont and Washington track marriage licenses specifically issued to same-sex couples. California and Florida simply track all marriages, and do not differentiate between same-sex and opposite-sex unions.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey estimated in 2013 that there were 252,000 married same-sex couples in the country, but later said that was likely an overestimate, citing flawed data. A recent paper from a census researcher put the figure at closer to 170,000.

The patchwork of data collection means reliable numbers on how many same-sex couples are getting married in different states may not be available until the next census in 2020, said Drew DeSilver, a senior writer with the Pew Research Center who has researched the issue.

I guess I’m not too bothered by this, since there doesn’t seem to be a single standard practice nationwide. It would be nice to know, but given the way the updated form is worded, I understand the reasoning. I’m sure there will be a million ways to come up with reasonably accurate estimates – new Obamacare enrollments will be one data point – and we’ll have Census data soon enough.

Posted in: Society and cultcha.

Ready to engage in the next fight

No rest for the righteous.

RedEquality

On Monday, national and state gay rights leaders and the plaintiffs who sued for marriage equality convened in front of the Texas Capitol to make a different kind of vow: The fight for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people is not over. The next frontier, they said, is pushing for more protections against discrimination in areas including employment and housing.

“In many states, including my home state of Ohio and right here in Texas, you can get married but then suffer consequences,” said Jim Obergefell, the lead plaintiff in the landmark case that legalized same-sex marriage. “You can get married and then lose your job, lose your home and so much more because we are not guaranteed nondiscrimination protections. … Friday’s historic ruling is a victory, but it’s just the beginning.”

Obergefell was joined Monday by a coalition of from the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent LGBT civil rights organization; Democratic state Rep. Celia Israel of Austin; Equality Texas; two same-sex couples who filed suit over Texas’ same-sex marriage ban; and others who announced that they would be part of a statewide campaign for nondiscrimination protections.

[…]

Texas is a huge part of a national strategy to pursue nondiscrimination ordinances because it’s the largest state in the country that offers no statewide protections for LGBT residents, Equality Texas executive director Chuck Smith said Monday.

Democratic proposals for statewide nondiscrimination laws have been non-starters in the Republican-controlled Legislature, where conservatives have tried to override local ordinances. Among opponents of the nondiscrimination ordinances are Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott, who as the former state attorney general said such ordinances violate freedom of speech and religion.

This has left Texas with a patchwork of local protections against discrimination in employment, housing and other public areas like buses and restaurants.

At least nine Texas cities with a population of more than 100,000 have passed some nondiscrimination rules or legislation.

[…]

In defending the need for more protections for LGBT residents, Mark Phariss, one of the plaintiffs in the Texas gay marriage case, likened those protections to the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities like Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since he was paralyzed from the waist down in a 1984 accident.

At the time of his accident, Abbott was not protected against discrimination “as a result of that disability,” said Phariss, who attended law school with Abbott and said he visited him in the hospital after his accident.

“That has been fixed. The ADA now provides protections for Americans who are disabled, just like Greg, from being discriminated against in their workplace and in public accommodations,” Phariss said. “And that is the exact same protection that we seek for ourselves — nothing more, nothing less.“

Of course, Abbott opposes the ADA, too. All of his accommodation needs have been met, so what does he care about anyone else? Enacting NDOs in more cities and eventually at the state and national level are important and need to be done, but as noted before there are other fights as well, including the birth certificate issue for adoptees and transgender folks, transgender issues in general, and just making sure the laws that are on the books now, including marriage quality, get enforced. Towards that end, Sen. Rodney Ellis sent a letter to the DOJ.

Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, on Monday sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking the department to “monitor the implementation of Obergefell and intervene, if necessary, to ensure that Texas officials do not flout the Supreme Court’s ruling and blatantly discriminate against same sex couples.”

[…]

In his letter, Ellis blasted Paxton for the guidance and said “religion must not be relied upon as an excuse to discriminate and refuse to fulfill the duties of government taxpayer-funded jobs.”

“Where does this end?” he asks. “Will judges be able to argue that they should not have to recognize or authorize divorces if it offends their religious sensibilities? Could a judge refuse to sentence a defendant to the death penalty under his or her belief that ‘thou shalt not kill’ means just that?”

A copy of Sen. Ellis’ letter is here. Slippery slope can be tendentious and sometimes ridiculous, but when the state’s top lawyer encourages local officials to ignore a Supreme Court ruling, it’s hardly unfair to ask these questions. And nothing would make me laugh harder than having DOJ observers camp outside Ken Paxton’s office. All Paxton needs to do to make this go away is promise to obey the law. That may be tricky for a guy with Paxton’s past history to promise, but it is what he needs to do.

Posted in: Legal matters.

SCOTUS gives polluters a win

Alas.

Martin Lake coal plant

Martin Lake coal plant

t emissions of mercury and other hazardous air pollutants, but it may only be a temporary setback for regulators.

The justices split 5-4 along ideological lines to rule that the Environmental Protection Agency failed to take cost into account when it first decided to regulate the toxic emissions from coal- and oil-fired plants.

The EPA did factor in costs at a later stage, when it wrote standards that are expected to reduce the toxic emissions by 90 percent. But the court said that was too late.

The rules, which took effect in April, will remain in place while the case goes back to a lower court for the EPA to decide how to account for costs, environmental advocates say.

They were supposed to be fully in place next year. The issue was whether health risks are the only consideration under the Clean Air Act.

[…]

Writing for the court, Justice Antonin Scalia said the EPA was unreasonable in refusing to consider costs at the outset. He was joined by Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito.

In dissent, Justice Elena Kagan said it was enough for EPA to consider costs later in the process.

“Over more than a decade, EPA took costs into account at multiple stages and through multiple means as it set emissions limits for power plants,” Kagan said.

She was joined by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor.

The EPA said it is reviewing the court’s decision and will determine any appropriate next steps once a review is completed.

“EPA is disappointed that the Supreme Court did not uphold the rule, but this rule was issued more than three years ago, investments have been made and most plants are already well on their way to compliance,” EPA spokeswoman Melissa Harrison said.

Indeed, more than 70 percent of power plants already have installed controls to comply with the rules, said Vicki Patton, an attorney at the advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund.

“EPA already has an economic analysis that it can rely on to demonstrate that the public health benefits of the standards far outweigh the costs,” Patton said.

See here and here for the background. I would obviously have preferred a win here, but at least the EPA will get another shot at this. As noted in the story and acknowledged by ERCOT, most power plants are already there, and there are (in Texas, at least) no new coal-fired plants about to come on line. As Vox explains, the national effect of this ruling is likely to be minimal as well.

That’s the only thing at stake here: how long these 22 plants get to keep spewing [hazardous air pollutants, HAPs]. That’s not nothing — especially to the vulnerable populations exposed to those toxic pollutants — but it amounts to a mopping-up operation.

You might note an irony here. The entire Supreme Court case is premised on the fact that [mercury and air toxins, MATS] regulations are “the most expensive ever.” Industry claims it’s outrageous that EPA didn’t consider these extraordinary costs, which it says could cause blackouts and destroy the power sector and leave the US a smoking ruin.

Oh, but, by the way, while we were debating this, the power sector went ahead and complied with the regulations. Notice any blackouts? Any big bankruptcies in the power sector? Any economic devastation? No. As usual with air pollution rules, when the power sector quits complaining and starts complying, the costs turn out to be much lower than anyone anticipated. This case was a fight over a question that’s already been settled by facts on the ground.

So there’s that. The bad news is that the coal-fired plants we have now in Texas are chock full of mercury and other toxins, which they release into the atmosphere every day. So every extra day we have to wait for the new rules means that much more poisonous filth in our environment. Isn’t that nice? Daily Kos, Kevin Drum, and Ed Kilgore have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

One more holdout concedes

Hood County and its outspoken County Clerk bow to the inevitable.

Counties issuing same sex marriage licenses

A Texas county clerk said on Tuesday her office will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, reversing a previous decision that was based on religious objections.

Some counties in other socially conservative states such as Kentucky have declined to issue such licenses since the U.S. Supreme Court said on Friday the U.S. Constitution provides same-sex couples the right to marry. The controversy could result in a new round of lawsuits over gay marriage.

Katie Lang, clerk of Hood County, southwest of Fort Worth, said staffers will issue the licenses although she will not do so based on her Christian beliefs, which she believes are protected under the Constitution.

“I am grateful that the First Amendment continues to protect the sincerely held religious beliefs of public servants like me. That has not changed since last Friday,” Lang said.

Hood County will begin processing same-sex marriage applications when it receives the appropriate forms, she said.

Lang had previously drawn attention for her mule-headed defiance, so it’s a particular pleasure to see her cave. As both Somervell County Salon and the Dallas Voice note, she’s not exactly being honest about her earlier actions, but at this point I don’t care. The point is that her office is doing its duty. Everything else is details.

Overall, we’re not quite at half of Texas counties being in compliance, but the vast majority of people live in a county where a same-sex marriage license is now available.

The Austin-based group Equality Texas has been tallying Texas counties that have confirmed they are issuing the newly legal marriage licenses, and the number as of Tuesday afternoon was 115. It’s an inexact count, but it lines up with a tally taken by the Dallas Morning News on Friday.

Project coordinator and Equality Texas legislative specialist Daniel Williams said that doesn’t mean none of the remaining 139 counties are issuing licenses — only that a substantial number are not.

“For the most part, there seems to be confusion about how to do it,” Williams said. “In some cases the counties have data systems that have to interact with the [federal] Bureau of Vital Statistics forms, and they’re having difficulty getting the systems to line up.”

When the Houston Chronicle called around to about a dozen county clerks, many echoed that conundrum. Seven counties were still waiting on software updates, and they relied on a variety of manufacturers, both in and out of state, who they said were working with a severe backlog because of the quantity of requests for updated digital forms.

“Some counties were prepared for this and some were overwhelmed and were taken unaware,” Williams said.

Many depend on software products from Plano-based Tyler Technologies or San Antonio-based Property Info, and are waiting on the companies to issue updates.

Officials in Hill County, north of Waco, said they were waiting on an updated design for their physical marriage license from Wichita Falls-based Bear Graphics. None of the three companies was immediately available for comment Tuesday.

However, even counties waiting on products to issue same-sex marriage licenses said they would be ready as soon as possible. Most estimated they’d be ready within days. Some predicted early next week.

The embedded image is from Williams’ Facebook page. As of last night, with Hood County in the fold, the count was at 117, covering 84% of the state’s population. At this point I’m not aware of any other Lang-level disobedience – it’s all just waiting for the upgrades, which may or may not reflect a certain amount of disorganization or unpreparedness, but at least isn’t willfulness. My guess at this point would be that by this time next week we should be at or pretty close to full compliance. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Legal matters.

HBU contraceptive coverage decision overturned

Good.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has turned back a challenge brought by several Texas religious organizations that oppose offering insurance contraceptive coverage to their employees, concluding that the plaintiffs have no right to challenge the conduct of third parties.

The recent decision also found that U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial 2014 Hobby Lobby decision was of “no help” to the plaintiffs, which included East Texas Baptist University and the Catholic Diocese of Beaumont, among others. That 5-4 high court decision held that corporations opposed to offering contraceptive coverage to their employees are exempt under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act [RFRA].

[…]

In his decision, Judge Jerry Smith wrote that the Fifth Circuit was joining several other circuit courts in finding that the ACA’s contraception coverage mandate doesn’t present a substantial burden to the plaintiffs’ religious freedom.

“Although the plaintiffs have identified several acts that offend their religious beliefs, the acts they are required to perform do not include providing access to contraceptives. Instead, the acts that violate their faith are those of third parties,” Smith wrote, reversing the trial court decisions in the cases.

“Because RFRA confers no right to challenge the independent conduct of third parties, we join our sister circuits in concluding that the plaintiffs have not shown a substantial burden on their religious exercise,” Smith wrote.

While the plaintiffs complain that sending in a notion of opposition will authorize or trigger payments for contraceptives, that is “not so,” wrote Smith, who explained that “the ACA already requires contraceptive coverage.”

Smith also noted that the Hobby Lobby decision mentions that certain religious organizations have already been “effectively exempted” through the ACA’s accommodation.

“Thus, Hobby Lobby is of no help to the plaintiffs’ position, and the requirement to offer a group health plan does not burden their religious exercise,” Smith wrote.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As Think Progress reminds us, Judge Smith is a very conservative Reagan appointee who is a reliable vote against abortion rights, so it’s not a case of getting lucky with the three-judge panel. The full circuit may be asked to review this, and it will certainly go to SCOTUS, though as RH Reality Check notes, every appeals court so far has sided with the feds on this. So there’s some hope that the dreadful Hobby Lobby decision will not expand any farther in scope. Hair Balls has more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

More counties issuing same sex marriage licenses

Montgomery County:

RedEquality

Montgomery County Clerk Mark Turnbull said he turned one same-sex couple away on Friday who requested a marriage license, but wound up issuing the license after regular hours on Saturday.

He initially refused because he was waiting for clarification from the state on what form to use, but after the courthouse closed Friday evening, Texas Department of Health Services sent a revised form that removed all gender references and referred to those applying for the license only as “applicant one” and “applicant two,” Turnbull said.

With a new form in hand, he telephoned Pam Kunkle, 55, an insurance manager in Houston and her partner, Connie Moberley, 67, and asked them to return to the Montgomery County courthouse so he could issue the license Saturday.

“We needed some time to make adjustments with the language and make sure it worked on our computer program. We were glad they volunteered to come back and be our first guinea pig to make sure the system worked,” he said, adding none of the clerks in his office had raised any religious objections to issuing licenses to same-sex couples. “We are officers with ministerial duties. We have no discretion. We follow rules listed in our handbook.”

However, he recalled a former employee who objected to issuing liquor licenses on moral grounds and said she later switched to another county job where that did not pose a problem.

That’s Montgomery County, one of the reddest in Texas. The theme of “we do what the law says we are to do” is one you will see again.

Tarrant County:

Tracey Knight didn’t know if the day would ever come when she would be legally married in the state of Texas.

At long last it did come Friday, after a landmark Supreme Court ruling swept away the state’s longtime ban against same-sex marriage.

“We dreamed of this day,” said Knight, a corporal with the Fort Worth Police Department who serves as the LGBT community liaison. “We weren’t sure if it would ever happen. Now we have started planning our wedding.”

Knight and her wife, Shannon, who wed two years ago in California but wanted to exchange vows again in Texas, shared smiles and tears Friday as they were the first same-sex couple in Tarrant County to receive a marriage license.

Several other counties in North Texas were awaiting “guidance” from AG Ken Paxton. Denton County, which had originally refused to issue same sex marriage licenses, has now become compliant with the law of the land.

The Denton County clerk’s office is now issuing same-sex marriage licenses, following Friday operations that turned at least three couples away.

Whitney Hennen and Sara Bollinger was the first same-sex couple in the county this morning to be given a marriage license.

On Sunday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton declared religious objections a legitimate excuse for county clerks and their staffs as a means of denying licenses to same-sex couples.

Denton County Clerk Juli Luke said she is opposed to gay and lesbian couples getting married for religious reasons, but maintained her personal beliefs cannot prevent her from issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

“Moreover, my faith in Christ ensures I have compassion and respect for those who feel differently,” she wrote in a statement.

See, Ken Paxton? It’s not hard to do at all. Collin County has joined in as well, though several other counties in the area are not there yet.

Williamson County has fallen in line, too.

Williamson County is now issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, as of 8 a.m. Monday. That comes after getting advice from County Attorney Dee Hobbs.

“I would like to acknowledge the gravity of the Supreme Court decision and the passion citizens have on both sides of this issue,” reads a statement by Hobbs, posted outside the Williamson County Clerk’s Office. “I would like to thank those that contacted this office for being respectful int heir questions and also understanding regarding time to review.”

That’s two outlaw counties that have come back to their senses. Smith County makes three, with Gregg thrown in as a bonus.

An East Texas same-sex couple became the first in Smith County to be issued a marriage license on Monday morning.

About 8:30 a.m., a couple showed up seeking a marriage license at the Smith County courthouse. Karen Wilkerson and her fiance Jolie Smith began the process to obtain their marriage license shortly after 8:30 a.m. and were issued the document about 9:20 a.m. The couple was the first to show up at the courthouse office.

The license was issued following a Friday Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states.

Earlier in the day, the Smith County Vital Statistics Department was temporarily closed for a staff meeting. A sign posted in the courthouse said the department was also testing the system to accommodate new forms.

Smith County Clerk Karen Phillips said the state changed the vital statistic form needed to issue the licenses.

Midland County was a Friday adherent, but neighboring Ector was a holdout. Not any more.

Ector County Clerk Linda Haney will issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, opting not to take an out offered by Attorney General Ken Paxton for clerks who wish to deny such licenses due to religious beliefs.

“I took an oath to uphold the law and I intend to follow the law,” Haney said, although the marriage licenses could not be issued early Monday morning because the new application was not yet available on the computer system.

Her decision comes after the Friday ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that marriage is a Constitutional right for same-sex couples.
Sunday, Paxton issued an opinion that clerks could deny licenses based on religious beliefs, just as justices of the peace could decline to perform the weddings based on religious beliefs.

Haney, however, said she will follow the Supreme Court’s ruling and what she believes is the correct thing according to the law.

“An act of civil disobedience on my part would not honor my God and I don’t want to put my county at liability either,” Haney said. “I do have strong religious convictions and anybody that knows me knows what those convictions are. But I did take an oath and I will follow the law.”

Amazing how clear and simple that is, isn’t it? I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to see all these counties, from different parts of the state, ignore Ken Paxton’s advice and do the job they’re supposed to do. And congratulations to Karen Wilkerson and Jolie Smith!

Not all counties needed prodding. Fort Bend County had it right from the beginning.

While the topic has produced a variety of opinions among the American public, the Fort Bend County Clerk’s office has issued a direct statement – current marriage forms won’t be modified, but when new forms arrive for same-sex marriage, they will be honored in accordance with the new law.

Same-sex couples will be allowed to marry, using the current forms, until the updated ones arrive.

Again – easy peasy. So simple even Ken Paxton should be able to understand it. Let’s let Brazoria County explain it to him anyway, just in case.

After an opinion from the District Attorney’s office this afternoon, County Clerk Joyce Hudman said Brazoria County is officially issuing same-sex marriage licenses.

Hudman said her offices have been issuing licenses since 1:30 p.m. and will throughout the day.

District Attorney Jeri Yenne gave the county clerk’s office a one-sentence opinion that issuing same-sex marriage licenses is mandatory based on the Supreme Court’s decision today.

“As a follow-up to your inquiry regarding marriage licenses, please be advised that on today’s date, the Supreme Court of the United States issued an opinion indicating the Fourteenth Amendment requires a state to license a marriage between two people of the same sex,” Yenne’s memo reads.

After getting that memo, Hudman said her offices were instructed to grant the licenses.

One couple already has obtained a marriage license from the Pearland clerk’s office, she said.

A “one-sentence opinion” that explained the facts. Are we going to fast for you, Kenny?

Unfortunately, every state has its slow learners.

“I’m standing up for my religious liberty,” said Hood County Clerk Katie Lang, who said her office would not give out same-sex marriage licenses on religious grounds. “I do believe that marriage is for one man and one woman because it did derive from the Bible.”

After the decision Friday, some county officials said they would wait to hear from state Attorney General Ken Paxton, who issued a written opinion Sunday saying clerks with religious objections to same-sex marriages can refuse to issue those licenses. But if they do so, he wrote, they might face fine or lawsuits.

Paxton said pro bono lawyers would be ready to defend those who refuse, noting “the reach of the Court’s opinion stops at the door of the First Amendment and our laws protecting religious liberty.” Lang said after reading Paxton’s opinion, she chose to face possible legal action.

“I could get fined and I could get sued,” she said, “but you could get sued for anything.”

You can also be held in contempt of court if it comes down to it. And remember, for this you could be sued personally, not just named as a defendant in an action against the county or your office. But hey, every cause needs a martyr, and I’m sure that future Fox News gig will be sweet.

That’s about all the counties I have the energy to look up today. Other resources: The DMN has an interactive map that’s at least somewhat inaccurate since they have no report on Fort Bend’s status. The Current has contacted a bunch of Hill Country counties and reports that all except possibly Kerr are now in compliance. Glen Maxey has been keeping tabs on Facebook – see here for his running count, and be sure to see the comments for updates. If you don’t see your favorite county listed somewhere, you may just have to call the Clerk’s office there yourself. Overall, though, the picture is pretty good and it appears to be improving. All the national headlines have been about Paxton and his get-out-of-following-the-law opinion for County Clerks, but at this point very few clerks, almost none in larger counties, have heeded him. Unlike Greg Abbott, they understand how the law works and they respect it. Paxton’s words – and Dan Patrick’s, and Greg Abbott’s, and Ted Cruz’s – will make Texas look bad to the rest of the country, but at least we still have enough sensible local officials to maybe mitigate that a bit.

In closing, here’s a non-legal opinion regarding a better way for county clerks with religious objections to handle this:

Religious freedom is so central to our nation that no public official should be required to do anything that violates the religious principles that direct his or her life.

And there is clear and proper recourse here for any public official who, as a result of this landmark change in the law, finds himself or herself uncomfortable with or unable to perform the revised duties of office.

They should quit.

Amen. Thankfully, very few of them have decided that they cannot do their jobs. Let’s hope the remainders follow their lead and not Paxton’s. Trail Blazers and BOR have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

SCOTUS puts HB2 back on hold

Good. For now, anyway.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday sided with Texas abortion providers and temporarily put on hold a ruling that would have closed about half of the state’s abortion facilities.

There were 19 abortion providers performing the procedure in Texas as of earlier this month.

Abortion restrictions passed by the Texas Legislature in 2013 — and set to go into effect Wednesday — would have required Texas’ abortion facilities to meet hospital-like standards, including minimum sizes for rooms and doorways, pipelines for anesthesia and other infrastructure. Only a handful of Texas abortion clinics — all in major metropolitan areas — meet those standards.

[…]

“The justices have preserved Texas women’s few remaining options for safe and legal abortion care for the moment,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which brought the lawsuit on behalf of Texas abortion providers. “Now it’s time to put a stop to these clinic shutdown laws once and for all.”

The Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The high court voted 5-4 to put the ruling on hold, with Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Samuel A. Alito voting against the delay.

See here and here for the background. It sure has been a consequential few days for SCOTUS, hasn’t it? The good news is that this awful law is still not being enforced. The bad news, as dKos points out, is that it means SCOTUS will hear the case in the fall, thus opening a big ol’ can of worms that may or may not ever get re-canned. But it’s where we are, and it’s the only hope we’ve got. Let’s pray that Justice Kennedy is having a good day when the arguments are held. Trail Blazers, Hair Balls, RH Reality Check, the Observer, the Current, BOR, and Newsdesk have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Bail reform for Harris County?

This would be a big deal.

go_to_jail

In jails across the country, including Harris County, a majority of the people behind bars have not been convicted of a crime. In the jail complex on the north side of downtown Houston, more than 6,600 people, about three-quarters of the prisoners there, are waiting to go to trial. Each one costs taxpayers about $45 a day.

Those prisoners are there because they can’t afford to pay bail, the debt a judge imposes to make sure defendants return to court.

Advocates for bail reform have said the system can be burdensome for low-income defendants, saying it inhibits their ability to go back to work, support their families and aid in their own defense.

Leaders at both the local at state level are now looking at ways to change that, possibly allowing defendants charged with lower level crimes to remain free without bail, but with a pledge to return to court. They will use a screening process that can predict whether defendants will return to court or if they might commit more crimes if released.

Earlier this month, Nathan Hecht, the Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court, announced the creation of a committee to study the issue for the Texas Judicial Council, the policy-making body for the state judiciary. Depending on the results, they may throw their support behind changes in the next legislative session.

Hecht said a recent report by the National Conference of Chief Justices showed that bail for suspects of non-violent crime, like drug offenses, is an unnecessary expense.

“It doesn’t help them and it doesn’t help the criminal justice system and it doesn’t help society,” he said. “It just creates additional burdens. If it’s easy to avoid and you end up at the same place, why wouldn’t you do it?”

Hecht said he wants to be able to prove that point before advocating for a change.

“The District of Columbia is pretty far along in revamping their system so that bail is not required,” Hecht said. “We’ll have Texas look at this and see if we can’t make some improvements.”

[…]

Some of those who oppose changing the system are the bail bondsmen who stand to lose business.

“Who’s going to chase these people when they miss court?” said Michael Kubosh, a bail bondsman and a city councilman. “You’re going to have to hire more government people to do it.”

When defendants use a bondsman to secure bail, they pay a fee-10 percent or more of the bail amount-and pledge collateral, usually property or automobiles, for the remaining amount.

If a defendant does not show up for court, the bondsman either has to pay the entire bail or go on a manhunt.

“If someone has a financial interest, then we can get ‘Billy Bob’ to show back up because someone will produce them,” Kubosh said. “Their mom will produce them before she’ll lose her house.”

He noted the cost of current system is paid by the people accused of crimes, not spread among taxpayers.

“If they miss court, a bondsman is financially obligated to the state to get these people back in custody,” he said. “We monitor every one of them every day, at no cost to the taxpayer.”

All due respect to CM Kubosh, but Harris County doesn’t owe bail bondsmen a living. The issue here isn’t with the people who make bail, it’s with the many people who can’t, and who as a result sit in jail – for which the taxpayers do foot the cost – even though they haven’t been convicted of anything and may never be convicted of anything, or – even worse – plead guilty to something they didn’t do in order to get out of jail. Basically, some number of people – more than is the case now – need to be released on their own recognizance, and more people need to be assessed a lower and more affordable bail amount. The goal here is to have fewer people in jail at any time, which is both more just and less expensive. If that means leaner times for the bail bonding business, well, that’s okay by me. The tradeoff is more than worth it.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Sales tax revenues take a dip

Don’t freak out just yet, but do be a little worried.

Houston’s 53-month consecutive span of year-over-year sales tax revenue gains has come to an end, five months into an energy slump analysts said could dent the city’s economic numbers for the rest of the year.

The city’s $50.1 million sales tax revenues for April, received this month as its allocation from the state, represented a 2.3 percent decline from a year ago, according to the Texas Comptroller’s Office.

One month’s spending activity doesn’t represent a trend, and revenues from various sectors of Houston’s economy were all over the map. Among the top-grossing sub-sectors providing tax revenue in Houston, reported collections were down roughly 2 percent at discount department stores and family clothing stores that month compared with 2014, and off 2.6 percent at supermarkets and grocery stores. Full- and limited-service restaurant collections, on the other hand, rose 4.7 percent and 10.1 percent, respectively, figures show.

But as Houston’s sales tax revenues declined 2.3 percent, the state’s $2.6 billion in sales tax revenue represented a 5.2 percent increased over April 2014, suggesting that a sharp downturn in the oil and gas industry so crucial to Texas has affected Houston more significantly than the rest of the state.

[…]

In Houston, sales taxes account for 30 percent of the city budget’s general fund revenue. As the city prepares its next budget, whether the monthly dip is a blip or a more sustained rattle is being monitored, city Controller Ronald Green said.

“I think now’s the time not to panic but for us to kind of determine if there’s going to be a trend in this,” Green said, adding he needs two more months of data to determine whether’s April’s revenues were a trend or an anomaly.

Compared to the doom-and-gloom predictions of late last year, steadying crude prices for the last several weeks are a sign industry is making adjustments, said Ed Wulfe, chairman and CEO of Wulfe and Co., a commercial retail real estate brokerage firm. “I think it has corrected itself already,” he said of the energy downturn. “By and large, we’re starting to get back on the normal speed and level already.”

Crude oil prices began dipping last summer after reaching a peak above $100 per barrel and have hovered around $60 since April.

The effects of that sharp price decline began arriving at the beginning of April, said Jesse Thompson, business economist with the Houston branch of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

“At this point, the only thing that’s hitting us is what’s happening in the energy market,” Thompson said.

I basically agree with Ronald Green. A one month dip like this can be brushed off as an aberration. Three months of it is a serious problem. If it’s about what’s happening in the energy industry, there’s not much to be done about it except adjust behavior and expectations accordingly. Check back in August and we’ll see where we are.

Posted in: Local politics.