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Legal matters

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

A state district judge on Thursday ordered the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Police Officers’ Union to enter into mediation as they seek to resolve lingering differences over the implementation of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered the mediation after hearing arguments in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pay parity amendment. During the hearing, Garrison said she would not issue a ruling on the case “any time soon,” concluding it would only set back ongoing negotiations to phase in firefighters’ Prop B-mandated raises.

“If I make a decision on this one way or the other … it will be the equivalent of throwing a bomb in the middle of the attempts to negotiate a resolution,” Garrison said.

The judge gave the parties until noon Monday to agree on a mediator. The court would appoint a mediator if they cannot settle on one.

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

The mediator may suggest ways to resolve the dispute but cannot impose judgment, according to a list of rules attached to Garrison’s court order. If the parties do not voluntarily agree to a settlement, the issue returns to Garrison.

See here, here, and here for the background. As long as the mediator isn’t Tony Buzbee, I’m sure it will be fine. As a reminder, City Council will vote on the layoff plan on Wednesday (the agenda item was tagged last week), so perhaps that will provide some incentive to make things happen. In other news, the city provided financial data that the firefighters’ union had been demanding, though whether that will settle that argument or be the cause of further arguments remains to be seen.

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

Chick-fil-A follies, part 2

Noted for the record.

Best mugshot ever

The city of San Antonio voted 6-4 in late March to exclude Chick-fil-A from its renovation of the airport food court offerings due to the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Shortly after the city’s decision, public outcry in Buffalo, N.Y., led to a concessions company nixing the brand from its plans for the nearby Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Chick-fil-A told Buffalo news station KBKW recent coverage of the company drives an inaccurate narrative about their brand. “More than 145,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs represent the Chick-fil-A brand. We embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the city of San Jose, Calif., voted unanimously to settle the debate in an entirely different way — by flying rainbow and pride flags in front of Chick-fil-A locations both inside and outside of the airport.

On Thursday, the San Antonio city council will reconsider its previous vote. Councilman Greg Brockhouse said the city’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A “embarrassed” the city, KTSA reported.

“Every day the Chick-fil-A removal decision is allowed to stand hurts our reputation nationwide as a welcoming and inclusive city. It sends a message we are anti-faith and we cannot stand by without speaking the truth and standing up for our principles,” he said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what the city of San Antonio is going to do at this point. There’s certainly a practical argument to be made that they have more to lose than to gain by picking this fight. But like Pete Buttigieg, I think there’s a lot of value in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of anti-gay animus, especially from Christian conservatives. Let the Chick-fil-As and their enablers explain why they choose to discriminate. Also, Greg Brockhouse can go jump into a vat of dipping sauce. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Paxton gives the middle finger to House Oversight Committee

I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am.

Best mugshot ever

Facing an investigation over the state’s botched efforts to screen its voter rolls for noncitizens, the Texas Attorney General’s Office is declining congressional leaders’ request for information about the review.

In a Thursday letter to top officials with the House’s main investigative committee, Jeffrey Mateer, the state’s first assistant attorney general, indicated the state was brushing off a request for documents and communications from the Texas secretary of state and attorney general because the committee lacks “oversight jurisdiction.”

Instead, Mateer wrote, the state will treat the congressional inquiry as a public information request under state law, which grants the Texas attorney general’s office broad control over what information can be withheld from the public.

“We do not interpret your letter to be a subpoena issued under applicable House Rules. Nor do we consider it a request for information under any applicable federal law,” Mateer said. “For the foregoing reasons, and because the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its subcomittees lack oversight jurisdiction over constitutional officers of the State of Texas, we must interpret your request under Texas state law.”

[…]

A spokesperson for the committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the AG’s letter. But in announcing the Texas investigation — part of a broader probe of voting irregularities in multiple states — Cummings and Raskin cited their authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. The committee has the authority to issue subpoenas. Raskin chairs a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties.

See here and here for the background. I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but it’s about as surprising as a humid morning in July. What happens next is probably a subpoena, but after that it’s anyone’s guess.

The committee said in response to Paxton’s letter that it still expects to receive the documents.

“The right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and Congress is charged with protecting and defending the Constitution,” the committee said in a statement.

“Congress has an independent responsibility to investigate violations even when there may be separate litigation involving the same or similar matters. We expect full compliance with the Committee’s request.”

A committee spokesperson would not address a question about the use of a subpoena to obtain the emails and other documents.

[…]

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said even if the House does file a subpoena, the Attorney General could decline to cooperate.

The larger legal question of whether the committee has jurisdiction in a state matter may ultimately have to be solved by a court, Larsen said.

Normally, congressional oversight is for the executive branch, which does not include states, he said.

“It’s the idea that the federal government cannot be micromanaging what’s going on in the states unless that power is directly given to them by the Congress,” Larsen said.

But the committee could make the argument that it has the right under the “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution to ensure that federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act aren’t being violated.

“That’s going to be a fight,” Larsen said. “It’s a fair argument on both sides.”

Better hope the courts are sympathetic to that line of reasoning. Our next chance to hold these amoral assholes accountable isn’t until 2022, and we can’t afford to wait that long.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

The Orbit lawsuit

Now here‘s an interesting case.

A Montgomery County woman has filed suit against the Astros, alleging she suffered a broken finger when her left hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from an air-powered cannon wielded by Orbit, the ballclub’s costumed mascot, at an Astros game last July.

Plaintiff Jennifer Harughty seeks damages in excess of $1 million from the Astros in the suit, which was assigned to 157th state District Court Judge Tanya Garrison.

The lawsuit, filed by Houston attorneys Jason Gibson and Casey Gibson, says Harughty has required two operations to repair damage to her left index finger, which was shattered when her hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from the Orbit character’s “bazooka-style” air cannon during the seventh inning of an Astros game July 8, 2018, at Minute Maid Park.

Harughty, 35, of Montgomery, who works as a real estate broker, said her finger remains locked in an extended position with little to no range of motion and that she continues to suffer discomfort from the injury, the lawsuit said.

Jason Gibson said the lawsuit was filed only after the Astros refused to pay Harughty’s medical bills associated with the injury.

“Nothing was going to be done,” the attorney said. “We were directed to the general counsel, and he basically said ‘file your lawsuit.’ He asked for it, and he got it. We were hoping to get this resolved, but that didn’t happen.”

The suit said Harughty was struck on the palm side of her left hand and required treatment at an emergency room after the game. She required surgery four days later to insert two screws into the injured finger and a second operation in October to remove the screws and attempt to restore range of motion to the finger.

Major League Baseball tickets include what has become known as the “baseball rule,” which states that a ticket holder “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game, and all other activities, promotions or events at the Ballpark before, during and after the baseball game, including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by baseballs, equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas.”

That stipulation, which is included on the Astros’ website under season ticket policies, says that by attending a game, the ticket holder releases the Astros and Major League Baseball from liability for “injuries or loss of personal property resulting from all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game and the risks or any incidents associated with crowds of people.”

Gibson said he is acquainted with Astros owner Jim Crane and with members of the Astros’ ownership group and that “everyone loves the Astros.” However, he said he did not believe that the liability waiver covers cases such as Harughty’s.

“That’s not the type of risk you assume going to a baseball game, although they may take that position,” Gibson said. “Ours will be that you don’t assume the risk of having someone fire a cannon at you that creates that much force at that proximity that can cause that kind of damage.”

A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. Let me remind everyone that I Am Not A Lawyer, so what I say is simply the speculation of a layman. I find myself rather sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments. T-shirt cannons, as fun as they are, are totally the team’s decision to use, and not an inherent risk of attending the game as they are a recent innovation. I mean, no one was hurling things into the crowd when I was attending Yankees games back in the 70s and 80s. (Things may have occasionally been hurled out from the crowd, but that’s another story.) People understand that a batted ball may be coming their way and they need to pay attention when the game is in progress. But mascots like Orbit do their thing in between innings, when you’d think it’s safe to check your phone. And by the way, teams have been putting up more netting around the lower decks of the stadiums, to better protect people from those increasingly hard-hit balls. If teams are willing to mitigate those risks, it’s not unreasonable to think they might mitigate a non-game risk like a projectile fired at high velocity from a T-shirt cannon. My advice, for all that it’s worth, is to offer to settle the suit for the woman’s medical costs and a bit more, and to take a closer look at how those T-shirt cannons are being operated. Why make a bigger deal out of this than necessary?

Third Census lawsuit ruling against Trump administration

Once, twice, three times an injunction.

A federal judge in Maryland ruled Friday against the government’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, The Washington Post reported Friday.

Judge George J. Hazel found that in deciding last year to add the question, the government violated administrative law, according to The Post. The ruling will probably be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as is expected with two similar cases.

The case has Texas connections. Lawyers representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Senate Hispanic Caucus, and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino and Asian residents have appeared before Hazel to make arguments in the case.

The plaintiffs have challenged the inclusion of the citizenship question on several fronts, alleging that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the Enumeration Clause and a federal law that governs federal agencies and their decision-making processes.

The Post reported that in his ruling, Hazel wrote, “The unreasonableness of Defendants’ addition of a citizenship question to the Census is underscored by the lack of any genuine need for the citizenship question, the woefully deficient process that led to it, the mysterious and potentially improper political considerations that motivated the decision and the clear pretext offered to the public.”

See here and here for the previous rulings, and here for more on this case. All three rulings focused on statutory issues, with constitutional issues either not being part of the case (as with the first lawsuit) or not getting the same favorable treatment. That may bode well for the forthcoming appeal to SCOTUS, as the questions are much more narrowly defined. Here’s hoping. Daily Kos has more.

Chick-fil-A follies

I have three things to say about this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is investigating the city of San Antonio for potential First Amendment violations after the City Council voted to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken,” Paxton, a Republican, wrote in a Thursday letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the rest of the council. “Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”

In a 6-4 vote, the council voted last week to keep the franchise from opening at the San Antonio International Airport. The decision quickly drew national headlines and condemnations from conservatives across the country.

Chick-Fil-A, a national franchise with locations throughout Texas, is known for its leaders’ staunch Christian views and close ties to groups that worked to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. Its corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” It is, famously, “closed on Sundays.”

Paxton, a Christian conservative who has long billed himself as a crusader for religious liberty, has also asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to open an investigation into the city’s actions. Paxton said in a news release Thursday that federal regulations governing grant money that flows to the San Antonio airport prohibit discrimination.

1. If we must accept that corporations can have “religious beliefs” – I don’t, but SCOTUS has imposed it on us, so here we are – then we ought to be able to criticize those beliefs. Governments make policy decisions all the time based on who they do and don’t want to do business with (see, for example, the state of Texas picking a side in the Israel/West Bank conflict), for reasons one may or may not approve of. Often, these decisions are made in response to feedback from constituents. It’s a tool that activists have in their toolbox for holding corporations accountable for their actions. It’s messy and often contradictory, but it’s long been a part of the democratic process. I don’t think letting corporate “religious beliefs” serve as a get-out-of-consequences-free card is a good idea.

2. All that aside, isn’t the fact that Chick-fil-A closes on Sunday a factor here? Surely the city of San Antonio would like to have a full range of dining options for those who pass through its airport, as they can’t just go somewhere else if their needs aren’t being met. If the choice is between a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, and a restaurant that’s open six days a week, you’d think the former would be preferred.

3. San Antonio isn’t the only city cordially dis-inviting Chick-fil-A from its airport. However you feel about this issue, it’s not going away.

LULAC settles its SOS lawsuit

Good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The state of Texas is ending a program to purge voters it claimed were noncitizens in order to settle lawsuits brought by civil rights groups over the plan.

The deal was reached following a meeting Monday in San Antonio between acting Secretary of State David Whitley and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs.

The groups brought three separate lawsuits — filed in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston — alleging the program illegally targeted immigrant voters and resulted in voter intimidation. The suits were consolidated into one in San Antonio with the lead case, which was filed by LULAC and Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

As part of the deal, Whitley and his staff will tell county voter registrars and local election administrators to take no further action on any data files the state had sent them in late January, but may start a new program that won’t demand voters prove their U.S. citizenship.

[…]

As part of the settlement, the state will scrap the data it used for the first program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

The state will also work with LULAC and the other plaintiffs groups on the plan by sharing the methodology and data used.

The process will enable the state to remove voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, while being the least disruptive to those who are U.S. citizens, LULAC said.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As noted, both of the other two lawsuits were joined with this one, so what happens here is going to be the final word. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I was not able to find a copy of the settlement, but this sure looks like a big win for the plaintiffs. Honestly, just the fact that the state is settling and not taking its chances with the Fifth Circuit tells you something. Kudos to the plaintiffs for forcing some accountability into this mess.

UPDATE: It’s not fully done, but it’s close.

A deal was about “99 percent” done Monday, after Secretary of State David Whitley met in San Antonio with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs, said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel.

As part of the tentative agreement discussed Monday, the state would scrap the data it used for the first voter purge program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” Vera said. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

The parties were to return to the table Tuesday to hammer out additional terms before taking the final deal to a judge for review.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the secretary of state, said that while there is no official settlement yet, progress was made Monday.

“We are encouraged by the positive and constructive progress we have made with the plaintiffs, and we remain committed to our goal of maintaining accurate voter rolls while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on eligible Texas voters,” Taylor said.

Stay tuned.

Judge tosses Dave Wilson’s lawsuit against HCC

Sorry, Dave.

Dave Wilson

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Community College that had been filed by one of the Board of Trustee’s controversial members.

Dave Wilson claimed in a lawsuit that the college violated his First and 14th Amendment rights. But in a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt said Wilson “failed to demonstrate any injury-in-fact.”

Wilson claimed in the lawsuit that the college’s board violated his free speech and due process rights when they voted to publicly censure him in January 2018. The board’s censure said Wilson’s conduct was “detrimental to Houston Community College Systems and its mission.” The board members also said Wilson violated the college’s bylaws, failed to engage and respect the board’s decision-making process and their differing opinions, and that he did not interact with trustees in a “mutually respectful manner.”

[…]

Wilson, a District II trustee, called Hoyt’s decision a “bad ruling” and said that he was disappointed that the judge didn’t address the fact that he could be censured again.

He and his lawyer are considering an appeal, he said. “We’re still thinking about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I didn’t appeal it,” he said.

When he was censured last year, the trustees also decided that Wilson was not eligible for travel-related expense reimbursements and would need board approval when requesting funding for community affairs programs for the 2017-2018 college year. They also determined he could not be elected for a board officer position in 2018, all of which Wilson said violated his rights, according to court documents.

But Hoyt concluded that the board’s resolution did not infringe upon Wilson’s First or 14th Amendment rights because Wilson could freely speak in public and could attend and express his views at board meetings, according to a court document.

See here and here for the background. The facts alleged in the suit seemed awfully thin and un-actionable, but Dave Wilson does what he does, and that’s all there is to it. Which means he’s considering an appeal, because what else does he have to do with his time? Well, there is one thing:

Despite Wilson’s volatile relationship with the HCC board, he has no intention of giving up his position as a board member and said he plans to run for re-election in November. He was elected to the board in 2013.

“I love Houston Community College and what they can do for this community, but I hate the way special interest groups are eating away at it and the students aren’t the main focus,” Wilson said.

“Trump wanted to drain the swamp. I’m going to drain the cesspool at Houston Community College,” Wilson said. “I got on the board to clean this place up, and I’m going to continue to work.”

Yes, he’s running for re-election. At least this time, we can see him coming. And we damn well better send him packing.

Trump goes all in against health care

Game on.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Trump administration wants the federal courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, an escalation of its legal assault against the health care law.

The Justice Department said in a brief filed on Monday that the administration supports a recent district court decision that invalidated all of Obamacare. So it is now the official position of President Trump’s administration that all of the ACA — the private insurance markets that cover 15 million Americans, the Medicaid expansion that covers another 15 million, and the protections for people with preexisting conditions and other regulations — should be nullified.

When combined with Trump’s endorsement of the various Republican legislative plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and other regulatory actions pursued by his subordinates, the Trump administration’s clear, consistent, and unequivocal position is that millions of people should lose their health insurance and that people should not be protected from discrimination based on their medical history.

The Justice Department had previously said that only the ACA’s prohibition on health insurers denying people coverage or charging people higher premiums based on their medical history should fall in the lawsuit being brought by 20 Republican-led states. But their latest brief removed that subtlety, saying that the entire law should go.

Legal experts dismiss the states’ argument as “absurd,” yet they have worried it could find a receptive audience among conservative jurists, given the prior success of anti-Obamacare lawsuits thought to be spurious that still found their way to the Supreme Court.

The argument has already won in the US district court in northern Texas, after all, though that decision is on hold pending appeal.

See here and here for some background. Did we mention this ridiculous lawsuit got its start in Texas? Bad lawsuits seem to be our main export these days. There’s not much we can do about what the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS will do, but in the meantime, health care is once again a huge issue for the next election. We won once on that, we need to do it again.

World’s worst pastors drop Austin equal rights lawsuit

Good.

A conservative Christian organization has dropped a federal lawsuitthat sought to overturn an Austin anti-discrimination ordinance that offers employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dave Welch, head of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, said the decision was based on the advice of the group’s lawyer but might not be the last word on the matter.

“Our position has not changed. We’re just going to revisit how we approach the suit, and we’re hoping there’s still a possibility at some point of refiling it,” Welch said.

The council’s lawsuit, filed in October, argued that Austin’s ordinance is unconstitutional and invalid because it does not include a religious exemption for 25 member churches in Austin that refuse to hire gay or transgender people as employees or clergy.

Austin asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin to dismiss the lawsuit last month, arguing that the city ordinance does not apply to a church’s hiring of clergy and that no church expressed a problem with the city’s employment protections.

In addition, the city argued, the lawsuit failed to list the 25 member churches or show how any of them had been harmed by the anti-discrimination protections.

“There is no allegation the ordinance has been enforced, or is about to be enforced, against any of the unnamed Austin churches, and no allegation that any of them have in fact been restricted in their hiring decisions,” the motion to dismiss stated.

See here for the background. Makes you wonder why their lawyers didn’t give them this advice before they wasted their time and money on the lawsuit, but whatever. Rational explanations don’t mean much to these guys. Dropping this lawsuit doesn’t mean these idiots are giving up, of course. As the story notes, there are various anti-equality bills in the Lege that would accomplish their goals. One is HB1035, which would provide a “freedom of conscious” exemption for religious organizations so they could discriminate in hiring or whatever else as they saw fit. That bill’s author is Rep. Bill Zedler, who by the way is also one of the leading anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Beating him in 2020 – he had a close win in 2018 – would go a long way towards making the Lege a better place.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

A second win for plaintiffs in Census citizenship question lawsuit

It’s all up to SCOTUS now.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in “bad faith,” broke several laws and violated the constitutional underpinning of representative democracy when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to review Furman’s narrower decision, with arguments set for April 23, but may now need to expand its inquiry to constitutional dimensions.

[…]

Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify the decision.

He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said.

That would have probably reduced the representation in Congress — and thus in the electoral college that decides the presidency — of states with significant immigrant populations, notably California.

Because census data is used to apportion distribution of federal funds, an undercount would also have cheated these same jurisdictions, the judge said.

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

In reality, the “evidence establishes” that the voting rights explanation was just “a pretext” and that Ross “acted in bad faith” when he claimed otherwise.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is embedded in this Mother Jones story. I don’t have much to add to this other than it’s a big honking deal and would have a negative effect on Texas just as it would on states like New York and California that filed the lawsuits against it. You wouldn’t know that from the words and actions of our state leaders, though. USA Today and NPR have more.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Testimony ends in SOS advisory lawsuit

Now we wait for a ruling. We’ve already sort of gotten one, but it’s not all official yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As part of an ongoing flurry of litigation in federal court here over the state’s bungled citizenship review of its voter rolls, a federal judge on Monday told a handful of Texas counties they may not — for now — purge registered voters or send them letters demanding proof of citizenship.

Eight counties named in one of three pending lawsuits over the review effort agreed last week that they will not cancel any voter registrations as lawyers from a host of civil rights groups tangle with the state in court. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said from the bench Monday that the other counties named in a separate lawsuit should consider themselves restrained in the same way as litigation proceeds.

That doesn’t apply to the other 200-plus counties in the state, but “we expect all the counties are watching these proceedings,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups suing Texas and several counties.

[…]

Still to come from the judge’s chambers is a decision on civil rights groups’ broader requests to block the state from taking any further action related to the list as the lawsuits proceed. And the judge seemed at least somewhat amenable to that argument during a day of testimony that revealed fresh troubles with the state’s initial rollout of what it has come to characterize as “routine list maintenance activity.” Critics label it as an attempted widespread voter purge.

State officials conceded in federal court here Monday that a quarter of the nearly 100,000 voters flagged for citizenship review are naturalized citizens whose voter registration should never have been questioned in the first place.

And the list is only expected to get smaller, Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, acknowledged during cross-examination Monday.

The initial number shrank to about 74,000, Ingram explained, after “additional refinement” of data sourced from DPS, where Texans can register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses.

About half of the 25,000 flagged erroneously were what Ingram called “code 64s” — a bureaucratic tag indicating that the voters registered at DPS while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Since Texans have to present documentation, either as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident, to receive an identification card from the state, voters who registered at DPS would have demonstrated citizenship status.

The other half of the 25,000 “refined” off the flagged list had demonstrated citizenship to DPS but not registered to vote at the same time, Ingram said.

Before the original list was rolled out at the end of January, the state wasn’t aware it could utilize DPS data in order to narrow its target list, elections officials said Monday.

“I wish all of this could’ve been done back as the original effort,” Biery said. “Would you agree that all of this refinement would not have been done but for the sunshine light of the press and litigation?”

“The thing is that it’s the category of Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘unknown unknown’ — the things you don’t know you don’t know,” Ingram responded. “We didn’t know until the counties reported to us.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, sure, mistakes were made and all, but you know what made those mistakes so much worse? Handing the original, unvetted, known to be full of mistakes list to the rabid dogs at the AG’s office and then offer “these things happen” regrets when the Twitter crapstorms get unleashed. David Whitley is bad at his job – frankly, I’m not all that impressed with Keith Ingram, either – and everything he did made this worse. There were many ways in which this could have been handled in a more professional, less messy fashion. Maybe the next Secretary of State will be capable of doing that. The DMN has more.

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.

SOS advisory lawsuit continues

From Day Two of testimony:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Despite a glaring error in the original data that questioned the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters, a state elections official defended the investigation in federal court Wednesday, saying some potential illegal activity has been uncovered and blaming several county officials for problems that have arisen.

Keith Ingram, head of the Elections Division at the Texas secretary of state’s office, said 43 people on the list of suspect voters contacted his agency and asked to have their voter registration canceled because they were not U.S. citizens.

“I believe some have voted,” he told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery during a hearing into efforts by civil rights groups and an affected voter to halt the investigation as an error-riddled effort that improperly singles out naturalized citizens.

An additional 37 people asked to be removed from the state list of registered voters but gave no reason for the request, Ingram said.

[…]

Under questioning by opposing lawyer Chad Dunn, Ingram admitted that his agency’s original list of 95,000 suspect voters included about 20,000 people who had shown proof of citizenship to the Department of Public Safety.

Ingram blamed the mistake on the DPS, saying officials originally indicated that the information was not reliable because it was self-reported by the 20,000 people, only to later say that each registered voter had provided the DPS with proof of citizenship.

Asked by Dunn if his agency had publicly acknowledged that “the 95,000 figure is wrong and ought to be reduced,” Ingram said it had not.

Ingram also blamed officials in several counties for jumping the gun by immediately sending investigation letters demanding proof of citizenship to registered voters on the suspect list, saying they failed to heed warnings from his office that the names needed to be investigated first.

Ingram acknowledged that state officials were aware that the list included an unknown number of naturalized U.S. citizens because of shortcomings in citizenship data provided by the DPS.

See here for more from Day One of the trial, in which we first observed the state strategy of blaming the local county administrators for this fine mess we’re in. Sure seems to me that a lot of this could have been avoided if 1) the SOS had been more clear in its advisory to counties that there were likely a lot of false positives, 2) SOS wannabe David Whitley hadn’t stoked the fire by immediately referring the whole known-to-be-deeply-flawed list to the Attorney General, and 3) the SOS had at least backed off its initial and highly problematic “95,000 suspect voters” claim. The fact that we’re here in federal court tells you all you need to know about that.

In the meantime, there was a bit of drama in that courtroom.

A federal judge weighing whether to block Texas’ effort to investigate the citizenship of tens of thousands of people on its voter rolls said he wants to hear from a secretary of state employee who abruptly resigned from the office.

Betsy Schonhoff ran a nearly yearlong effort to match the state’s voter lists with databases at the Department of Public Safety for people who had obtained driver’s licenses when they weren’t citizens.

But she has not been served a subpoena, and there is evidence that she has been “evading service for five days,” said Chad Dunn, a lawyer for Julie Hilberg, a naturalized citizen whom the investigation flagged for review.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery made it clear he wanted to hear Schonhoff’s testimony in his San Antonio court, saying he knows U.S. marshals “who are very good at finding people.”

“She’s going to be here,” he said.

Late Wednesday, the Texas Attorney General’s office pushed back on the plaintiff’s characterization of efforts to reach Schonhoff.

“It’s our office’s understanding that, despite not having been served, the former employee of the Secretary of State’s office is willing to voluntarily appear at the next scheduled hearing and will do so,” Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the office said in a statement.

That next hearing will be today, and I for one would also like to hear what Ms. Schonhoff has to say.

Later in that first story, we learn that the lawsuit filed in Corpus Christi by MALDEF on behalf of seven naturalized citizens has been consolidated with this one. The third lawsuit, filed in Galveston by a coalition of civil rights groups who had initially demanded that the advisory be rescinded, will also have a hearing today following a phone conference on Wednesday to address a state request to fold this into the current suit as well. That’s pretty common – there were many lawsuits relating to the 2011/2013 redistricting that were eventually all joined into one action – but the plaintiffs may oppose the motion and there may be reasons to keep them separate. We shall see. In the meantime, MALDEF has already come out swinging.

Lawyers for two Texas naturalized citizens who landed on the state’s list of “potential noncitizen voters” are re-urging a federal court to block state and county attempts to remove people from voter rolls before their clients lose their right to vote next week.

In a Thursday filing, Nina Perales of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery in San Antonio that the “situation is urgent and requires the Court’s immediate intervention.”

“If they do not comply with the purge letter’s demand and provide proof of U.S. citizenship they will lose their right to vote on March 2, 2019,” the filing says.

The two clients, identified as Jane Doe #1 and John Doe #1, received letters in late January from Smith County, where they are registered to vote, asking them to verify their citizenship within 30 days or be taken off the voter rolls. Jane Doe #1 is a college student who has an internship in Austin through the end of May and can’t return home to procure the documents, according to the filing.

John Doe #1 said “he does not want to be treated like a second class citizen” simply because he is naturalized and “will not go through Smith County’s additional steps and requirements” because he has already proven his citizenship, the filing said.

You can see that brief here. I’m hopeful that the plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, though whether it would stand up on appeal is a more fraught question. I’ll be keeping an eye on this as always.

First day in court for SOS advisory lawsuits

First day for the first lawsuit, one of three filed against that bogus SOS advisory.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge in San Antonio will hear arguments Tuesday in one of three legal challenges to the state’s initiative to purge tens of thousands of Texans from voter rolls who officials claim are not U.S. citizens.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery will hear a request by a group headed by the League of United Latin American Citizens seeking a court order to block the plan. LULAC and others say many of the people targeted by the rollout were wrongly placed on the purge lists.

The state, in court records, defends the initiative as necessary. The hearing could last much of Tuesday, and possibly into Wednesday, but the judge is not expected to issue an immediate ruling.

[…]

LULAC’s suit said the initiative amounts to a discriminatory “witch hunt” targeting mostly Hispanic voters, in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act. The Campaign Legal Center joined the suit, adding constitutional concerns. The groups also filed a request to turn it into a class-action lawsuit for others who might be wronged.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund later filed a separate suit in Corpus Christi, which contends that state officials singled out naturalized citizens because they were born outside the country. A coalition of other groups — MOVE Texas Civic Fund, Jolt Initiative, League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP of Texas — filed a third lawsuit in Galveston to prevent the purge, saying Texas officials are treating those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens. Both lawsuits are pending.

See here for more on the LULAC lawsuit, and here and here for the other lawsuits. The Trib filed a story later in the day with more details about what happened so far.

Facing three federal lawsuits challenging the legality of Texas’ efforts to review the citizenship of 98,000 registered voters, a top lawyer for the state opened up his defense in one of the cases by claiming the state had not made any mistakes or imposed unconstitutional burdens on certain voters in rolling out the review. Actually, he argued, it was certain county election officials who had acted “contrary to state law.”

In a federal courthouse Tuesday, Assistant Attorney General Chris Hilton repeatedly questioned why two local election officials — Kerr County Tax Assessor Bob Reeves and Blanco County Tax Assessor Kristen Spies — immediately sent voters who were flagged by the state letters demanding that they prove their citizenship in order to remain on the voter rolls. Hilton said counties should have first reviewed their lists to determine whether they had reason to believe a voter was ineligible.

The two voter registrars told the court their staff was simply following the state’s instructions — laid out in an official election advisory — on how to determine if those individuals were in fact U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote. In her reading of the state’s advisory, in which state election officials repeatedly noted they had worked to provide counties with “actionable information,” Spies said she believed that meant “that we should work the list.” She was echoed by Reeves, who indicated the state’s decision to flag those voters gave them enough reason to move forward with those notices.

[…]

Hilton contended the secretary of state had merely told counties they had the choice to investigate the voters or take no action — not immediately send out notices.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Reeves, I think your staff has acted contrary to state law,” Hilton told Reeves, who oversees the county’s voter rolls and whose staff sent out 68 proof-of-citizenship letters the day the county received its list of voters from the state.

[…]

Chad Dunn, one of Hilberg’s attorneys, followed Hilton’s questioning by projecting a copy of the secretary of state’s advisory onto a large screen in the courtroom and reading from the part of the document that indicated that state officials “believe” the data they provided “can be acted on in nearly all circumstances.”

“Is a reasonable reading of that sentence that this list of voters is ready to be sent notices without any further steps?” Dunn asked.

“Based on this, yes,” Reeves responded.

Dunn then asked what effect a combination of that advisory and the statements made by top Republican officials about supposed voter fraud had on Reeves’ understanding of whether he needed to send those notices.

“To the best of my knowledge, that’s why my office sent that out,” Reeves said.

Classy move by the state, blaming the local officials for the SOS’s actions. The case continues today, and we probably won’t get an immediate ruling. And whatever happens here, those other lawsuits are out there as well.

A lawsuit against bail reform

That would be a No from me.

A Harris County judge has sided with lawyers for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and a slate of new Democratic judges vying to loosen misdemeanor bail rules this weekend, rather than grant a request of three bail bond companies that would have delayed the start of the proposed revisions .

The companies argued Thursday that the court-ordered bail reform — believed to be a key step in a lengthy legal fight over the pre-trial detention of poor, low-level offenders — would jeopardize their Houston bail bonds business.

“They won’t get to write as many bail bonds as they did before and they won’t make as much money as they did before,” said Allan Van Fleet, a lawyer representing the judges.

[…]

The reform, the companies argue, violates state law because it would guarantee many defendants a specific type of bail without first providing them individual hearings before a judge, and because it would require the sheriff to reject some bonds that otherwise would be valid under state law, among other reasons.

“We have a constitutional right to make our living by bail bonds and if they want to amend the way the things are, they can do that but it still has to be by state law,” said Kevin Pennell, who represented Set ‘Em Free Bail Bonds, A Better Bail Bond and Advantage Bail Bonds in the county suit filed Thursday.

Eightieth Civil Court Judge Larry Weiman countered the argument before he denied the order.

“Doesn’t the court have to balance the constitutional right of the defendants, those who are arrested and charged with a crime,” Weiman asked, before resetting the temporary injunction hearing to March 11.

I’ll bet tobacco farmers used to make a pretty good living, too. I don’t know about you, but I’m not sorry for the societal and legal changes that led to the decline of that profession. There will still be a need for bail bonds going forward. There just won’t be as much of a need for them. That is as it should be. A hearing to review the proposed settlement in the original lawsuit will be on March 8. We’ll see where we stand then.

Texas Central gets an adverse court ruling

Hard to say how much effect this will have.

The planned high-speed rail project from Houston to Dallas hit a big obstacle last week in rural Leon County when a judge there declared the project’s backers did not have authority to force landowners to sell or provide access to properties.

Opponents of the rail project on Monday cheered the ruling as a death knell for the line — albeit one that will take years to savor and finalize.

“This project cannot be finished without eminent domain and the project is completely off track,” said Blake Beckham, the Dallas lawyer who has represented opponents of the Texas Central Railway project.

Company officials said Monday many of the opponents’ claims and the significance of the ruling were exaggerated.

“Texas Central is appealing the Leon County judge’s decision and, meanwhile, it is moving forward on all aspects of the train project,” the company said in a statement.

The heart of many of the legal fights, and Monday’s decision, center on whether the company is, in fact, a railroad. Backers since 2014 have insisted the project — using Japanese bullet trains to connect Houston and Dallas via 90-minute trips as 220 mph — is a railroad and entitled to access to property to conduct surveys and acquire property via eminent domain.

“Texas has long allowed survey access by railroads like Texas Central, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy,” the company said.

Opponents have insisted that since the company does not operate as a railroad, owns no trains and has not laid a single piece of track. it is not eligible for the access.

“Simply self-declaring that you are a railroad … does not make it so,” said Kyle Workman, one of the founders of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Judge Deborah Evans of the 87th District Court agreed, issuing an order Friday that found Texas Central and another company it formed “are not a railroad or interurban electric company.”

[…]

The ruling covers Freestone, Leon, and Limestone counties where the line is planned.

In previous court cases related to land access in Harris County and Ellis County, the company has been denied access or dropped its request in the face of mounting questions from the court or opponents.

“They have lost every single legal interaction,” Beckham said.

Texas Central disputed that in a statement.

“A judge in Ellis County said trials should be held on survey cases for three local property owners,” the company said. “The judge did not rule on the merits of those cases, instead only saying they should proceed to trial.”

See here and here for some background. We’re still very early in the legal process, with some procedural rulings but nothing decided on the merits yet. It will be years before the courts sort it all out, and nothing will be settled until the Supreme Court weighs in. In the meantime, there will be further attempts by members of the Lege to put roadblocks in Texas Central’s way. KUHF has more.

Whitley’s “apology”

He can do a lot better than this. He should do a lot better than this if he wants to get confirmed.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Facing an uncertain path to confirmation after ordering a deeply flawed voter citizenship review that seemingly focused on naturalized citizens, Texas Secretary of State David Whitley is apologizing to state lawmakers for the way his office bungled its rollout of the review — but he is still holding firm behind the overall effort.

In a letter sent to state lawmakers late Wednesday, Whitley largely defended the review efforts as a legally sound exercise, and he did not admit that his office had erred when it mistakenly threw into question the eligibility of tens of thousands of U.S. citizens or when it sent counties lists of voters it knew very likely included naturalized citizens.

Instead, Whitley vaguely admitted there were some shortcomings to the data his office used to flag almost 100,000 registered voters for citizenship reviews and noted his office should have devoted more time to “additional communication” with local and state officials to “further eliminate anyone from our original list who is, in fact, eligible to vote.”

“After close consultation with the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS), the counties, and members of the Texas Legislature, I have discovered that additional refining of the data my office provides to county voter registrars, both in substance and in timing, is necessary to ensure a more accurate and efficient list maintenance process,” Whitley wrote in the letter obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

In his letter to lawmakers, Whitley said his announcement “could have been communicated better” by including “more substance” from the advisory his office sent out to counties detailing the release of the data and “by emphasizing my goal to ensure that no qualified voters are removed from the rolls.”

“I recognize this caused some confusion about our intentions, which were at all times aimed at maintaining the accuracy and integrity of the voter rolls,” Whitley wrote. “To the extent my actions missed that mark, I apologize.”

You can click over and see the letter if you want – I see no real value in that, given the clear lack of substance. Nothing about this should inspire any confidence in David Whitley’s ability to do the job. At the very least, we deserve an explanation of how this shoddy list was constructed, why there were no controls in place to properly vet it, why it was referred to the AG’s office despite these obvious shortcomings, and what is being done to prevent anything like this from happening again. Oh, and an apology to the people who have been wrongly accused. Come back after that and then we can talk.

In the meantime:

The confusion and chaos caused by Texas’ bombastic voter fraud allegations has manifested in almost every element of the fallout.

The latest example is a voter purge notice sent out by one Texas county that lacked basic contact information or even an official letterhead.

The notice left one citizen mistakenly flagged by the stake feeling “very worried” and a “sense of fear,” according to court documents filed Monday.

[…]

In Wood County, those notices went out with the space left blank where the phone number of the local elections office should have been. The notices also lacked the response form the recipients were asked to use to reply, and there was no letterhead on the notices.

A woman in the court docs known as “Jane Doe #2” — who received the notice despite being naturalized in March 2018 and voting legally in that year — recounted in a declaration her frustration and her “sense of fear,” given that she could not tell if the letter was fake or real.

“I questioned whether I had done something wrong, or if somebody was trying to prank me.” Jane Doe #2 wrote in the declaration. “I did not know where to go or who to call to receive answers to my questions.”

She first tried to call the county clerk’s office, where the staff member who answered her call said the letter might be fake and that the person whose name was on the notice didn’t work for the county clerk, according to Jane Doe #2’s statement. She finally got in touch with the county elections administrator, Lisa Wise, who explained that the notices had been sent out without the contact information by mistake. Jane Doe #2 eventually traveled to meet Wise in person and showed Wise a copy of her naturalization certificate.

This was part of a filing by MALDEF in their lawsuit against the SOS. What would David Whitley say to Jane Doe? What he has said so far is completely inadequate.

Time again to talk judicial elections

Here we go again, like it or not.

In the wake of a midterm election that swept some 20 Republican appellate judges out of office, Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht called on the Texas Legislature to reform a system he called “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

“When partisan politics is the driving force and the political climate is as harsh as ours has become, judicial elections make judges more political, and judicial independence is the casualty,” Hecht told both chambers of the Legislature on Wednesday morning in his biennial address, a wide-ranging speech that touched on judicial salaries, technology and bail reform. “Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind.”

In recent history, partisan judicial elections have played well for Texas’ majority party; the state’s two high courts, in which justices run statewide, comprise all Republicans, as they have for two decades. But last year, as turnout surged in urban areas and voters leaned heavily toward the straight-ticket voting option, Democratic judges were swept onto the bench on the coattails of candidates like Beto O’Rourke. All told, Hecht said, in the last election, Texas’ district and appellate courts “lost seven centuries of judicial experience at a single stroke.”

“Qualifications did not drive their election,” Hecht said. “Partisan politics did.”

It wasn’t a new criticism, nor was it the first time Hecht has made such a call. Justices on Texas’ two high courts have been among the most vocal critics of a system that requires justices to run as partisan figures but rule as impartial arbiters, and the state has been challenged in court over the practice. But the call took on new significance after a shattering judicial election for Texas Republicans, who lost control of four major state appeals courts based in Austin, Houston and Dallas. Judges and lawyers who practice before those courts have fretted not just about the startling shift in judicial philosophy, but also the abrupt loss of judicial experience.

Hecht called on lawmakers to consider shifting to a system of merit selection and retention elections — or to at least pass legislative proposals that would increase the qualification requirements for judicial candidates.

You know how I feel about this, so I won’t belabor the point. I don’t doubt that Justice Hecht is sincere But:

1. Republicans have had complete control of Texas government since 2003. That’s eight regular sessions, and however many special sessions, in which they could have addressed this but chose not to.

2. Hecht and former Justice Wallace Jefferson have spoken about this before, but if anyone was talking about it before 2008, when Democrats first started winning judicial races in Harris County, I’m not aware of it.

3. The judges who were voted out may well have been experienced, but that doesn’t mean they’d make better judges than the candidates who replaced them. And the main consideration people had was voting for change. Maybe as part of the party in power, Hecht should given that a little more consideration.

Anyway. Until someone proposes an actual system to replace the one we have, one that takes into account the inherent politics of the process and deals with it in a way that truly enables merit and produces a judiciary that reflects the population it judges, it’s all just noise to me.

(Justice Hecht also had some loud and laudable words in favor of bail reform, which I appreciate. Go read the rest of the story for that.)

Paxton asks for summary judgement to end DACA

Not much coverage of this, and I’m not sure what that means.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday asked a federal judge to strike down Obama-era deportation protections for immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children.

In a motion filed in Brownsville federal court, Paxton asked U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen to follow through on his ruling in August, when Hanen determined that the Obama administration did not have the authority to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

At the time, however, Hanen declined to issue an injunction blocking enforcement of DACA.

In Monday’s motion for summary judgment joined by seven other states, Paxton asked the judge to end the program and block the federal government from issuing or renewing any more DACA permits to young immigrants.

Congress, not the president, has the authority to determine federal immigration law, he said.

“Whatever its policy merits, DACA is clearly unlawful, as this court has already held,” Paxton’s motion said. “Underlying the program is a limitless notion of executive power which, if left unchecked, could allow future presidents to dismantle other duly enacted laws. The court must not allow that to occur.”

[…]

If Hanen agrees to issue an order ending DACA, he would be in conflict with federal judges in California and New York who have blocked the Trump administration’s effort to end the program in 2017. DACA remains in force while appeals in both cases proceed.

See here and here for the background. The Statesman was the only news outlet with a story on this, which may mean there’s little chance it will go anywhere or it may mean we’re all so distracted by the eleventy jillion other news stories out there that no one is paying much attention to Paxton’s latest stunt. SCOTUS just declined to take up the Trump administration’s appeal of lower court rulings keeping DACA in place, which you’d think might give pause to even a Paxton-friendly judge. I’m never quite that optimistic. Anyway, I’m noting this for the record so when something happens I’ll be able to refer to this at that time.

(And a day later, he’s petitioning to have abortion and transgender health protections “wiped permanently” from Obamacare. I think he feels emboldened after having survived re-election. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’d use those new powers he wants responsibly.)

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

Second lawsuit filed over bogus SOS advisory

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Latino voters is suing top state officials who they allege unlawfully conspired to violate their constitutional rights by singling them out for investigation and removal from the voter rolls because they are foreign-born.

Filed in a Corpus Christi-based federal court on Friday night, the suit alleges that the decision by state officials to advise counties to review the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters it flagged using flawed data runs contrary to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act because it imposes additional requirements to register to vote on naturalized citizens.

Joined in the suit by several organizations that advocate for Latinos in Texas, the seven voters suing the state all obtained their driver’s license before they became naturalized citizens and subsequently registered to vote.

Their lawsuit — which names Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas secretary of state David Whitley, attorney general Ken Paxton and one local official as defendants — asks the court to halt the state’s review and block officials from taking any action against them based on their national origin. It also asks Whitley to refrain from targeting new citizens for voter purges and to withdraw his current list “unless and until it acquires information that the voters are currently ineligible to vote.”

[…]

One of the plaintiffs — Julieta Garibay — has confirmed with Travis County election officials that she is on the list they received from the state. Five others believe they were included on the state’s list. Another plaintiff — Elena Keane — received a notice from Galveston County stating “there is reason to believe you may not be a United States citizen” and asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days to remain on the voter rolls.

Two days later, Keane received a second letter stating she had received the first letter in error.

Here’s the latest on that first lawsuit. This one was filed by MALDEF on behalf of the voters. The ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project have threatened to sue if the SOS doesn’t rescind the advisory, so we may get a third filing before all is said and done. Keep at it and don’t let up, I say. The Chron has more.

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

SOS advisory lawsuit update

Add another plaintiff, litigate till done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A naturalized citizen — who immigrated to Texas from the United Kingdom and is a registered voter — is joining a Latino civil rights group in suing top Texas officials after her voter registration was flagged by the state for a citizenship check.

Signing onto a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, Atascosa County resident Julie Hilberg on Friday alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s move to question the legality of tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas was an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the right to vote.

Hilberg — who also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens in its claims that Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton have violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights that prohibits the intimidation of voters — added her name to the suit, but she is also seeking to represent all of the legitimately registered voters who appear on the state’s list as a plaintiff class.

“The burden imposed by Defendant Whitley’s new voter purge program — both the current list of 95,000 registrants flagged for potential removal and the plan to continue this practice on a monthly basis — imposes a severe and plainly discriminatory burden on naturalized citizens who wish to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint reads.

[…]

After learning about the citizenship checks in the news, Hilberg on Thursday went to the local elections office with her naturalization certificate in hand to figure out if she was among those voters.

Hilberg suspected she would be on the list because she had most recently renewed her driver’s license in 2014 — the year before she took her oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in San Antonio. She had registered to vote in Atascosa County in June 2015, and then voted in several elections from 2016 to 2018.

When Atascosa County’s election administrator, Janice Ruple, confirmed Hilberg was on the list they had received from the state, Hilberg assumed any questions about her citizenship status would be resolved in that moment because Ruple knows Hilberg — and her citizenship status — personally, according to the complaint.

Instead, “Ms. Ruple was unable or unwilling to give Ms. Hilberg any information or assurances about whether her registration would be in jeopardy because her name was on Defendant Whitley’s list,” the lawsuit reads.

See here for the background. I don’t know what difference it makes from a legal standpoint to include a plaintiff who was directly affected, but I presume it can’t hurt. Ms. Hilberg was done wrong, and she deserves redress for it.