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Legal matters

Restraining order lifted on firefighter pay referendum

Back to the planning stage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.

State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.

[…]

The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.

The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and [Judge Kristen] Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.

The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.

As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. Neither the HPOU nor the city plans to appeal at this time, so as things stand the city will need to figure out how to move forward with Prop B while the litigation plays out, as was the case with Renew Houston. It’s not going to get any more cordial from here, that much I know.

The ACA decision

Utterly ridiculous, and likely to be short-lived.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas threw a dagger on Friday into the Affordable Care Act, ruling that the entire health-care law is unconstitutional because of a recent change in federal tax law.

The opinion by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor overturns all of the sprawling law nationwide.

The ruling came on the eve of the deadline for Americans to sign up for coverage in the federal insurance exchange created under the law.

Since the suit was filed in January, many health-law specialists have viewed its logic as weak but nevertheless have regarded the case as the greatest looming legal threat to the 2010 law, which has been a GOP whipping post ever since and assailed repeatedly in the courts.

The Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional in 2012 and 2015, though the first of those opinions struck down the ACA’s provision that was to expand Medicaid nationwide, letting each state choose instead. No matter how O’Connor ruled, legal experts have been forecasting that the Texas case would be appealed and could well place the law again before the high court, giving its conservative newest member, Justice Brett Kavenaugh, a first opportunity to take part.

Not mentioned in this story, as it came out very quickly after the ruling was released late Friday afternoon (*), is that the judge also denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction. This means that the ruling, which is so absurd that even conservative legal experts who oppose the ACA were appalled by it. What happens next is a bit unclear – there will of course be an appeal, and this will almost certainly go to SCOTUS – but for now this is mostly a big legal turd in the punch bowl. Enjoy that health insurance while you can, sure would be a pity if something happened to it. The Trib, Nicholas Bagley, and Daily Kos, among many others, have more.

Spec’s sues TABC

Another lawsuit to watch.

The state’s largest liquor chain — Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods — is suing the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission for “abusive regulatory overreach” over an enforcement action that dragged on for almost two years before falling apart in administrative proceedings last year, court documents show.

The federal lawsuit, filed in Houston in late August but only recently unsealed, alleges that the TABC “wrongfully and maliciously” attempted to “extort” money from Spec’s by threatening to effectively shut the company down or by making the family-owned business fork over more than $700 million in civil penalties.

The TABC, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment.

In a stinging rebuke of the TABC last year, a pair of administrative law judges said the agency failed to prove dozens of allegations and chastised the agency for failing to disclose evidence to their own witness (and the court). The judges also called out the agency for “stacking” charges, a tactic commonly used to pressure defendants into a settlement. In the end, the judges recommended no fines be assessed against the liquor chain.

Now Spec’s is seeking an unspecified amount of money for damages that include lost profits, more than $1 million in attorneys fees and harm to its reputation. The lawsuit includes a request to impose exemplary, or punitive, damages — which are three times the amount of actual damages.

“Acting under color of law, [the TABC] threatened and pursued groundless allegations and enforcement actions,” the lawsuit says. “[The TABC] intentionally trumped up false claims in knowing violation of the law.”

The lawsuit also alleges the agency provided false testimony during the spring proceedings, which were the administrative equivalent of a trial.

The whole story is fascinating, and more than a little gross and enraging on the part of the TABC. Follow the links in the Trib story to see how all that went down last year. They’ve done a lot to clean up their operations, but stains like that don’t come out on their own. The TABC is in for a spanking from the legal system, and it’s one they have coming. The only question is how big the number will be.

Lawsuit filed over Driver Responsibility Program

This ought to be interesting.

A national civil rights organization on Wednesday sued Gov. Greg Abbott and four top officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety, arguing that the state’s Driver Responsibility Program traps many of Texas’ most vulnerable people in a cycle of debt and hardship.

“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” says Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney in the case and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, the organization behind the lawsuit. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”

The 66-page suit is filed against Abbott, DPS Director Steven McCraw, as well as DPS Chairman Steven Mach; Skylor Hearn, DPS’ deputy director of Administration and Services; and Amanda Arriaga, division director of the driver license division. The suit argues the Driver Responsibility Program violates the rights of the its plaintiffs to due process, unfairly impacts the state’s poorest residents, and violates their rights to equal protection under the law.

It is brought on behalf of four plaintiffs, ranging from a 75-year-old San Antonio resident, two U.S. Navy veterans and a man experiencing homelessness after he was unable to find adequate work without a license.

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the article. Equal Justice Under Law is of course one of the groups that has led the litigation against Harris County’s bail practices, so the state is going to have a real fight on its hands. They have filed similar suits in other states, and you can read their statement about this action here. The original intent of the DRP was to generate revenue for hospital trauma centers, and hospital groups have opposed killing this program on the very rational grounds that the Lege would simply not make up the funding to them if this were cut out. I sympathize with their plight, but there really is no justification for this, and it’s ridiculous that a state like Texas, with good financial resources, can’t help out the trauma centers without imposing an unfair and unequal burden on low income residents. It’s time for the DRP to go, and if the Lege won’t do it, the courts will need to. KUT, which notes that there are bills filed, by Democrats and Republicans, to do away with the DRP, has more.

Moving forward on Section 3

There’s still redistricting litigation action happening.

Late Friday afternoon, the coalition of voting rights groups that have fought the state for fairer legislative districts since the last round of redistricting in 2010 filed a pair of new briefs with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. They seek to have the state forced back into federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

States subject to the VRA’s preclearance provision must seek and receive federal approval for any changes they make to any law that applies to voting. Texas has been free from the requirement since 2013, when the Supreme Court cleared the list of states subject to preclearance, but could be placed back on the naughty list if federal courts determine that the state is intentionally discriminatory in its voting laws.

The groups argue that returning Texas to preclearance status for at least the next five years is the only thing that will stop state legislators from drawing unconstitutional district boundaries during the state’s next round of redistricting following the 2020 elections.

“[T]his vital, but time-limited remedy — this Court’s imposition of a preclearance requirement and retention of jurisdiction — is the most statutorily appropriate and equitable action that can ensure the State’s next redistricting plans do not discriminate against minority voters, particularly in light of this Court’s identification of the recent intentional discrimination employed by the State in redistricting and the persistent pattern of discriminatory governmental action in Texas directed at minority voters for generations,” the plaintiffs write.

[..]

“The Supreme Court held that the discriminatory intent of the 2011 legislature was erroneously imputed to the 2013 legislature, it left the findings of intentional discrimination as to the 2011 plans untouched, ‘express[ing] no view on the correctness of this holding,’” the plaintiffs, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, write. “This Court’s findings of intentional discrimination in the 2011 Congressional and State House plans remain in place, and these findings — coupled with Texas’s persistent history of continued intentional discrimination — amply justify Plaintiffs’ request for relief under Section 3(c) [of the Voting Rights Act].”

See here and here for the background. The joint plaintiffs and Quesada plaintiffs’ petition for relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act is here, the Task Force plaintiffs’ request is here, and every legal document associated with the case is here; scroll all the way to the bottom to see the most recent stuff. I haven’t seen any other news about these filings, so I guess this subject isn’t as sexy as it once was. Understandable, given the SCOTUS vandalism to the Voting Right Act, not to mention the likelihood of success, but this is still important. The state has till January 15 to respond. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Paxton sues San Antonio over “sanctuary cities” law

This is gonna be ugly.

Best mugshot ever

Texas is suing the city of San Antonio for an alleged violation of the state’s new anti-“sanctuary cities” law, in the state’s first enforcement action against a city under the controversial statue.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Travis County District Court, centers on a December 2017 incident when San Antonio police discovered a trailer carrying 12 individuals from Guatemala who were suspected of being undocumented. The city’s police department charged the driver with smuggling of persons, but released the migrants without involving federal immigration authorities, as the new law requires, according to the state’s lawsuit.

The 2017 “sanctuary cities” law, known as Senate Bill 4, says police departments can’t bar their officers from questioning the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. It also punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation

San Antonio’s police department policy states that officers will not refer individuals to Immigration and Customs and Enforcement unless they have a federal deportation warrant. That policy, the Texas lawsuit claims, “prohibits and materially limits the enforcement of immigration laws.”

The lawsuit seeks hefty civil fees from the city, including a $25,500 penalty for nearly every day that the city’s immigration procedures violated state law. The law went into effect Sept. 1, 2017 — meaning those fees could amount to some $11.6 million.

[…]

Paxton’s office has asked the court to issue an injunction requiring the city to comply with the new law, as well as assess major civil penalties against the city, police department and McManus.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, slammed the lawsuit, claiming it had “three obvious purposes: to intimidate and frighten immigrants in the state of Texas, to pressure Texas localities to violate constitutional rights, and to attract public attention for Paxton from the nativist fringe.”

I don’t know why Paxton is filing a suit now over something that happened nearly a year ago. I mean, Republicans have been braying about this particular incident all along. Maybe he didn’t want to take action before the election, but you’d think this is the sort of thing the likes of Paxton would see as an asset. Bear in mind, there is also the lawsuit against the “sanctuary cities” law, which is still to be heard in court. There’s a lot of ways this could wind up going.

HPOU files first Prop B lawsuit

And away we go.

Courthouse officials were scrambling to find a judge Friday afternoon to hear a lawsuit by the Houston Police Officers Union against the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, that seeks an immediate halt to implementation of a voter-approved ballot initiative that would give Houston firefighters “pay parity” to police officers of similar status.

The lawsuit, filed midday Friday in the 234th state district civil court, seeks to block “Proposition B,” arguing it amounts to an unconstitutional amendment to Houston’s charter, and was void from the start. After hearing initial argument by the police union lawyer to put on the brakes, State District Judge Wesley Ward indicated to lawyers he planned to recuse himself and needed to find another judge in the building who could take over.

Ward, a Republican who was voted out last month on the same ballot with Proposition B, reportedly told attorneys in chambers he had a conflict of interest because he planned to join a law firm where one of the attorneys on the case works.

[…]

The 25-page suit argues that the pay-parity charter amendment is unconstitutional because it “is preempted by and directly conflicts” with state law requiring that firefighters be paid to comparable private sector employment, as well as posing an “irreconcilable conflict” with state law because it ties firefighter compensation to those of other public sector employees, and further conflicts with state law because the two professions do not require “the same or similar skills, ability, and training.”

The measure “undermines and interferes with HPOU’s right to collectively bargain, because both HPOU and the City are forced to consider the economic effect of a third-party’s interjecting interests,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that the requirements of Prop B put the HPOU in the position of representing firefighters who had not chosen the union to represent them and who do not have the same responsibilities as police.

The suit also argues that Prop B runs contrary to local government code mandates that say police and fire departments are “separate collective bargaining units unless they voluntarily join together” for collective bargaining with a public employer.

Well, I don’t know what the city’s lawyers will tell them, but clearly HPOU’s attorneys are not hesitating. The ordinance that Council passed to accommodate Prop B is set to take effect on January 1, so I presume the cops are seeking to get a judge to put it on hold pending the litigation. That’s usually the way these things work. We’ll see now if the city joins this lawsuit or files their own; I presume the latter, though most likely in the end the two will be combined. December is already shaping up to be quite the month.

UPDATE: That was quick:

A state district judge Friday evening granted a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment requiring the city of Houston to grant its firefighters “pay parity” with police officers of similar rank and experience.

State District Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins granted the TRO Friday night at the request of the Houston Police Officers Union, which filed a lawsuit earlier in the day against the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. The judge set a hearing for Dec. 14.

The fire union opposed the TRO request, but lawyers for the city did not.

Buckle up, y’all.

AG rules Confederate plaque can be removed

Let’s get a move on then.

Rep. Eric Johnson

The Texas Legislature or a state board chaired by Gov. Greg Abbott can remove a plaque in the Capitol honoring Confederates, Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a published opinion Wednesday, providing clarity to a longstanding question over who has the power to do so — and how it can be done.

The “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque, which asserts that that the Civil War was “not a rebellion, nor was its underlying cause to sustain slavery,” had been the cause of controversy for lawmakers for months. Several have called it offensive and historically inaccurate.

Last October, state Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, called for the plaque’s removal and submitted a formal request to do so to the Texas State Preservation Board, which is chaired by Abbott and includes four other Republican elected officials and one citizen representative. Johnson, whose office is near the plaque, renewed those calls on Wednesday, noting that his request was never approved.

“They could take it down before the end of business today,” he said in an interview. “There shouldn’t be any confusion that the method I’ve chosen to go about this is the right one.”

Abbott said following a meeting with Johnson last year that he would have the preservation board “look into” how to remove the plaque. Paxton’s opinion made clear that three groups could make that decision: the Legislature, the Texas Historical Commission or the preservation board.

And any legislator can submit a form to request the removal of a “monument or memorial” — as Johnson did — and submit it to the preservation board, Paxton said. The curator of the Capitol, who works for the board, can approve the change — or the board has the discretion to do it itself.

See here and here for the background. Rep. Johnson is correct that he has done all the right things, and he has every reason to expect that the Preservation Board, under Greg Abbott’s direction, will follow through. And when they don’t – because honestly, no one should expect Greg Abbott to show leadership or do the right thing when it doesn’t advantage him – he will surely file a lawsuit. That can all be easily avoided, if Greg Abbott does his job. We’re all waiting.

Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon settle

Our long animal mascot-based intellectual property litigation nightmare is finally over.

Popular Texas convenience store chain Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon, a competing store that was found by a federal jury to infringe Buc-ee’s beaver logo, agreed Thursday to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the damages portion of the trial won’t take place.

The damages portion of the trial was slated to begin in May 2019, but according to court records the parties attended mediation on Oct. 9 and entered a settlement agreement resolving all outstanding claims. On May 22, jurors found in favor of Buc-ee’s on all claims after hearing four days of testimony, agreeing Choke Canyon’s logo of a cartoon alligator wearing a cowboy hat was too similar to Buc-ee’s logo of a cartoon beaver wearing a baseball cap.

Charles Hanor, who represents Choke Canyon, told Law360 on Thursday the terms of the settlement are confidential and declined to comment further. Buc-ee’s general counsel, Jeff Nadalo, issued a statement to Law360 that the settlement meant Choke Canyon “surrendered its federal trademark registration of the offending logo, removed all offending logos and products and has paid substantial damages to Buc-ee’s.”

In the joint stipulated dismissal filed by the parties in federal court in Houston on Thursday, the stores told the court they had agreed to dismiss with prejudice all remaining claims.

“The permanent injunction the court entered on Aug. 3, 2018 will remain in full effect,” the brief filing reads. “Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon each shall bear their own costs, expenses and attorneys’ fees.”

That injunction, issued by U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison, bars Choke Canyon from using its cartoon alligator logo on store-branded products, in advertising, or in any other capacity — including color and black-and-white versions of the logo, and versions of the logo with and without Choke Canyon text surrounding the mascot.

Hanor had told Law360 at the time it would cost Choke Canyon more than $100,000 to comply with the judge’s order. Choke Canyon has already put to use a new logo, this one featuring a cartoon cowboy who is winking and wearing a cowboy hat.

See here, here, and here for some background. For you law nerds, the case is Buc-ee’s Ltd. v. Panjwani et al., case number 4:15-cv-03704, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Choke Canyon had been planning to appeal, based on some evidence the judge didn’t allow and other factors, but in the end decided this was the better way to go. I wish them the best of luck in their non-animal-logo future.

The Innocence Project and the prosecutor

Fascinating case.

Attorneys with the group that helped exonerate Texan Michael Morton two decades after he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife were back at the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday. But this time, instead of uncovering prosecutorial misconduct, they were sticking up for a former prosecuting attorney who they say should be a model for how to do the job.

Eric Hillman was an assistant district attorney in Nueces County who was fired in 2014 after refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to hide evidence that was favorable to a defendant in a felony intoxication assault case.

The New York-based Innocence Project took on Hillman’s case in March after lower courts dismissed his wrongful termination lawsuit, citing Texas sovereign immunity laws that protect government agencies from lawsuits in the interest of saving taxpayers money.

Hillman’s attorneys, Chris Gale and Philip Durst, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, argued that his firing goes against a state law designed to prevent wrongful convictions. They also asked the court to amend a 1985 ruling to give prosecutors and district attorneys additional protection if they are fired for refusing to break the law.

“The state has had more exonerations than any other, and has taken remarkable steps to prevent wrongful convictions by passing a series of laws to correct the system’s flaws,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, in a statement. “But these new laws can only work if the prosecutors who enforce them are also protected.”

The Innocence Project helped argue the case before the Supreme Court, the first time in the organization’s 27-year history that its lawyers appeared in court on behalf of a prosecutor. The nonprofit legal group is best known for helping exonerate 350 wrongfully convicted individuals.

So consider this another reminder that taking the time and making the effort to achieve justice rather than rack up results means fewer innocent people in jail, more guilty people being arrested, and far less resources being used on the back end trying to fix the godawful mess that sloppy, indifferent, and often racist prosecutions create. Sure seems to me like the better way to go.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

Second trimester lawsuit appeal heard at the Fifth Circuit

Elections or no elections, the world keeps spinning.

The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday morning about whether Texas should be able to ban doctors from performing the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, called dilation and evacuation.

In a nearly hourlong hearing, attorneys for Texas and lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood argued in front of a panel of three judges.

At issue was Senate Bill 8, a law signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 but blocked by a federal judge that would ban abortions in which a doctor uses surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue. The law would only allow the procedure to be done if the fetus is deceased.

[…]

Janet Crepps, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued that the state’s proposed law was “invasive, medically unnecessary and poses a dangerous risk” to women. She said injections with potassium chloride using a three-to-four-inch spinal needle puts women at risks for infection and hospitalization.

“Just the idea the state thinks that’s what’s within its power is contrary to the whole idea that women have a right to autonomy, dignity,” Crepps said after the hearing.

The appeals case comes nearly a year after Judge Lee Yeakel said the provision imposed an “undue burden” on women seeking second-trimester abortions in Texas. The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood filed suit last summer on behalf of several women’s health providers in the state. Yeakel issued a temporary restraining order on enforcing the measure in August, a day before the ban’s effective date.

Throughout the hearing the three judges asked questions around how to best interpret a Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked Alabama’s dilation and evacuation ban from going into effect; how the injections work; and who are the women likely to need these services.

Medical professionals deem the dilation and evacuation method the safest way to perform an abortion, and reproductive rights groups have said this ban would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any faith in the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court interpreting “undue burden” in a meaningful fashion, but I’ll be happy to be surprised. Whatever the outcome of this case, if we don’t have a federal law protecting access to abortion on our near-term goals, we’re doing it wrong.

A step forward in Waller County

Some progress.

Two days after students at Prairie View A&M University sued Waller County over allegations that the county is suppressing the voting rights of black residents, the rural county said it is expanding early voting opportunities for students at the historically black university.

The county will now open a Sunday polling place at Prairie View City Hall and expand voting hours at the university’s campus center on Monday through Wednesday of next week to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of the original 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the NAACP. Students can continue to early vote at the Waller County Community Center in Prairie View on Thursday and Friday of next week.

According to Waller County’s website, there is still no location on campus or in the city of Prairie View available to the students during the first week of early voting, which is what originally prompted five students to sue the county, accusing it of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution by denying them “an equal opportunity to vote” compared to the county’s non-black voters.

[…]

In a statement released Thursday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called the expanded early voting plan “an improvement over the original plan, but still not equal to what other Waller County residents were offered.”

See here for the background. This is better than it was before, and that’s always something. But seriously, why is this so hard? Why isn’t Prairie View being treated like other voting locations? There’s no acceptable answer to that question.

UPDATE: State Sen. Borris Miles is not impressed with the latest announcement.

Prairie View students sue over lack of on campus EV site

The fight continues.

Five students at Prairie View A&M University are suing Waller County, which is home to the historically black university, over allegations that the county is suppressing the voting rights of its black residents.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, the students accused the county of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by not providing any early voting location on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting. The suit says the county’s decision “imposes a substantial and unwarranted burden” on student voters and denies them “an equal opportunity to vote” compared to the county’s non-black voters.

“There is no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for defendants to deny opportunities for early voting during the first week to plaintiffs and black voters in Prairie View on an equal basis with other non-black voters of the Waller County,” the lawsuit reads.

Alleging that the county was treating black voters as second-class citizens, the students — represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — asked a federal judge to force the county to set up an early voting site on campus that offers weekend hours.

In the lawsuit, the students noted that the county failed to set up any polling locations on campus or in the city of Prairie View, which has a majority black population, during the first week of early voting. The plaintiffs noted that the county is planning to provide five days of early voting in Prairie View during the second week, but early voting during two of those days will be held at an off-campus location that is not easily accessible to students that lack transportation. Neither site would offer weekend hours.

Meanwhile, voters in the city of Waller — which has a majority white population and half of the eligible voting-age population of Prairie View — will have access to two early voting sites during the first week of early voting. Both of those sites will also be open on Saturday. A polling site will also be open in the city of Waller during the second week of early voting.

I mean, come on. You could at least have a location in the city, with the same hours as the other sites, for the duration. The inequality here is right out in the open. There’s no good reason not to do this, and no, cost is not a good reason in this case.

World’s worst pastors file suit against Austin’s equal rights ordinance

Exactly what you’d expect from these jerks.

A Houston-based religious nonprofit behind the so-called bathroom bill is suing the City of Austin over its anti-discrimination hiring ordinance. The U.S. Pastor Council filed suit in a federal district court late last week, alleging the city rule’s lack of exemptions for churches or other religiously affiliated groups violates state and federal law.

The suit asks the court to block the enforcement of the ordinance on behalf of its 25 member churches in the Austin area “because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered people as clergy.”

In a June letter to the Austin City Council, Executive Director David Welch reasoned that the ordinance didn’t provide wide enough berth for religious exemption – and that Catholic churches refusing to hire women as priests or “homosexuals as clergy” would be violating the city law.

“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” Welch wrote. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”

In a written statement today, the city defended its anti-discrimination ordinance.

“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. This is all transparent bullshit, but that’s par for the course with these clowns. The good news is that the good guys aren’t worried about this, or the accompanying state lawsuit that was also filed.

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions.

[…]

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights.

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit.

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.”

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination.

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.”

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions.

Good to know, but as always it all comes down to what the judges make of it. I guess I have more faith in the federal courts at this point than our state courts, at least at the higher levels, but we’ll see. ThinkProgress has more.

Dallas County gets the Harris County treatment in its bail lawsuit

We have a precedent, even if everything is still a work in progress.

Taking a cue from the rulings on Harris County’s bail-setting practices, a U.S. district judge in Dallas issued a temporary order Thursday evening saying the county’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The judge gave the county 30 days to change its ways.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas said that the county has to stop the practice of imposing pre-set bail bond amounts, which often keep poor defendants locked up for days or weeks while letting wealthier ones go free, without individual consideration if arrestees claim they can’t afford it. He sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the county uses “wealth-based detention.”

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” Godbey wrote. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

[…]

Godbey relied heavily on Harris County rulings from the federal district court and the appellate court. He said the cases had the “same roots” — despite Dallas’ lawsuit also including felony defendants whereas Harris only involves those accused of misdemeanors — and concluded that doing anything other than what the appellate court ruled in Harris would “put the Court in direct conflict with binding precedent.”

“Broadly, those procedures include ‘notice, an opportunity to be heard and submit evidence within 48 hours of arrest, and a reasoned decision by an impartial decision-maker,’ he wrote, quoting the higher court’s ruling.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story on how bail hearings have been done in Dallas. You know where I stand on this, and we both know that Dallas County has Democratic leadership, and thus I hope more than enough incentive to find a settlement. Some long overdue change is coming, and it is in everyone’s best interests to embrace it. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Dallas lawsuit over candidate eligibility officially mooted

From the inbox:

On Thursday, September 20, 2018, the Fifth Court of Appeals issued an Order in Dallas County GOP v. Dallas County Democratic Party, stating that any relief related to the November election is moot, and that the appeal, therefore, is limited to the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a and attorney’s fees. Chad Baruch of Johnston, Tobey Baruch Law Firm, one of the attorneys for the Dallas County Democratic Party (the “Democrats”), explained: “This means, effectively, that only the attorney’s fees issue will be considered by the Appellate Court. The case is over as to the November ballot and the eligibility of the candidates.”

During the 2018 Primary, the Dallas County Republican Party (the “Republicans”) filed suit against the Democrats, asking the trial court to remove over 100 Democratic candidates from the ballot. The Republicans claimed that the candidates’ applications were not valid because they had not been personally signed by the Dallas County Democratic Party Chair. Upon review of the pleadings, and after a hearing on the merits, the trial court found that “the Texas Election Code does not impose a manual signature requirement” as alleged by the Republicans. The Court held that the Republicans claims are “moot,” that their party “lacks standing,” and that such claims should be dismissed as “lacking a basis of law.” The trial court also held that the Democrats were entitled to recover, from the Republicans, attorney’s fees in the amount of $41,275.

Carol Donovan, Chair of Dallas County Democratic Party stated, “During this election season, the Republican Party has been filing frivolous lawsuits against Democrats to try to remove candidates from the ballot. It appears that the Republicans are afraid to let the voters decide what persons they want to represent them. Thankfully, the rulings of the courts support democracy.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t find any news coverage of this, but the case is No. 05-18-00916-CV at the Fifth Court of Appeals, and a link to the court’s order is here. The relevant bits:

Appellants and appellees filed letter briefs as directed. The parties agree that any relief sought regarding the November 6, 2018 general election, including preparation of the ballot and what candidates may or may not appear on the ballot, will be mooted by the election schedule.

Appellants affirmatively state that they “do not request relief related to the general election” and “only seek to appeal relief related to the lower Court’s decision on subject matter jurisdiction; 91(a), and the mandatory attorney’s fees.” Appellants further state that their appeal seeks this Court’s ruling on five issues that are not mooted by the election schedule and relate to the propriety of the lower court’s dismissal under Rule 91a and the award of attorney’s fees.

Appellees concede that appellants may appeal the fees award and that the fees issue is not moot. Appellees did not address, however, whether they dispute appellants’ ability to appeal the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a.

So, even though the late-in-the-day appeal still sought to argue that DCDP Chair Carol Donovan needed to sign the candidate petitions, in the end all that was argued was whether the case was properly dismissed, and how much is owed to the DCDP in attorneys’ fees. This is what you call ending with a whimper. At least it’s one less thing to worry about before voting begins.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

Distributing the VW settlement money

Good for some, less good for others.

Texas cities will soon get millions of dollars to help clean up air quality, but Houston officials say the plan for distributing all that money isn’t fair.

The money is coming from a settlement in the Volkswagen (VW) emissions cheating scandal. Local governments will be able to use the money to reduce emissions from their vehicles and other equipment.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) plans to give the biggest chunk of the money – more than $73 million – to the San Antonio area, mainly because that city is closer than others to getting in line with federal pollution rules it’s currently violating.

Under the state’s plan, the Houston area, which has worse air quality, would get about $27 million.

The City of Houston says about a quarter of the cheating VW cars that were in Texas were driving in the Houston region.

“So we deserve at least a quarter of those funds, because we’re the ones that were harmed,” said Kris Banks, a government relations assistant with Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office.

See here, here, and here for some background. Mayor Turner expressed his disenchantment with the amount allocated to Houston in a press release; you can see all of the city’s documentation on the matter here. The full TCEQ plan for the VW Environmental Mitigation Trust is here, or you can save yourself some time and read the Texas Vox summary of it. The TCEQ is still accepting feedback on the draft plan through October 8, so send them an email at VWsettle@tceq.texas.gov if you have comments. The Rivard Report has more.

Voter ID lawsuit officially ends

That’s all there is, at least until the next atrocity.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge formally dismissed the lawsuit challenging the Texas voter ID law Monday, the final step in a yearslong fight that will allow the state to enforce a weakened version of the 2011 statute.

At the urging of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi issued a two-sentence order dismissing the case in light of April’s decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the law.

Lawyers for the minority voters, Democratic politicians and civil rights groups that challenged the law had argued that Paxton’s request for a dismissal was an unnecessary step because there was nothing left to decide — except for assessing legal fees and costs — after the 5th Circuit Court’s decision.

See here for the background. Like I said, we’re going to need a political solution to this problem. Maybe with a different Supreme Court we could keep pushing this via litigation, but I expect we all understand that’s not the world we currently inhabit. First we have to create that world, and that gets us back to my initial point. There is still an effort to put Texas back under preclearance, but even if that happens (spoiler alert: it almost certainly won’t) it won’t change what has already occurred. It can only affect what may be yet to come. The road forward starts with winning some elections. This November would be an excellent time for that.

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown sued the city of Houston Friday, alleging a discriminatory, baseless and politically motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility.

Southwest Key Programs alleges in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston, that the city is “manipulating” its permitting process, invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits. The suit claims these actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.

The lawsuit asks a court to grant Southwest Key monetary damages and declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.

“The city of Houston has ignored its own regulations, and past practices, and has knowingly misrepresented the facts to the state of Texas to deny Southwest Key a license to open the facility,” Southwest Key said in a statement released Friday. “City officials bent the rules and broke the law for the sole purpose of advancing the mayor’s political agenda.”

[…]

“The city is only interested in the safety, security and well-being of children and will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations designed to accomplish that purpose,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility at 419 Emancipation Street in Houston. They have failed to do so. Hopefully, they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else. We continue to wait for them to respond. In the meantime, we will review the pleading and respond accordingly.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I have no idea if Southwest Key’s claims have any validity, and to be honest I don’t care. Southwest Key can go fuck themselves.

Partisan statewide judicial elections upheld

I’d totally forgotten about this lawsuit.

A federal judge has rejected a race-based challenge to the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi handed the state of Texas a win Wednesday, writing that its current method for electing judges to the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals does not violate federal safeguards for voters of color.

The system does dilute the power of Hispanic voters, Ramos wrote. But it’s not clear that “race rather than partisanship” explains why Hispanic voters’ preferred candidates tend to lose at the polls.

Seven Hispanic voters and a community organization sued the state in 2016, arguing that Texas’ statewide judicial election system violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it weakens Hispanic voters’ political clout and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates. Both high courts have been entirely dominated by Republicans for more than two decades, and both courts remain overwhelmingly white.

[…]

The plaintiffs had proposed that Texas adopt a single-member district approach, carving up the state geographically to allow for Hispanic-majority voting districts. In her Wednesday ruling, Ramos conceded it would be possible to remedy the Hispanic voters’ “electoral disadvantage” by switching to single-member elections. But she declined to order that change because the voters had failed to prove that the obstacles they faced to electing their preferred candidates were “on account of race.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It was an interesting argument, though as commenter Mainstream pointed out in that middle update it would have been a challenge to draw districts to try to remedy the problem if the judge had found for the plaintiffs. At some point – maybe this year! – Democrats are going to break through at the statewide level, and that could easily scramble the arguments that would apply now. I don’t know if the plaintiffs intend to appeal, but it seems to me they’ve already faced the court most likely to be amenable to them. It’s not going to get any easier from here.

The hearing for the lawsuit to kill Obamacare

Here we go again.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

At the hearing Wednesday, Texas aimed to convince U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to block the law across the country as it continues to fight a months- or years-long legal case that could land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citing rising health care premiums, Texas says such an injunction is necessary to preserve state sovereignty and to relieve the burden on residents forced to purchase expensive insurance coverage. California counters that temporarily blocking or ending the law would cause more harm to the millions of people insured under it, particularly the 133 million people the state says enjoy the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions. The U.S. Department of Justice, which has taken up many of Texas’ positions in the case, nonetheless sided with California, arguing that an immediate injunction would throw the health care system into chaos.

[…]

Inside the courtroom, where protesters’ shouts were inaudible, Darren McCarty, an assistant attorney general for Texas, argued that “the policies, the merits of the ACA are not on trial here” — just the legality. In that legal argument, McCarty leaned heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, which upheld the law by construing the “individual mandate,” a penalty for not purchasing insurance, as a tax that Congress has the power to levy. Texas argues that after Congress lowered that fee to $0 in a slate of December 2017 tax cuts, the fee is no longer a tax and thus no longer constitutional. With it must go the rest of the law, the state claims.

“There is no more tax to provide constitutional cover to the individual mandate,” McCarty said. “Once the individual mandate falls, the entire ACA falls.”

California countered that a tax can be a tax even if it doesn’t collect revenue at all times. And, attorneys for the state claim, even if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, the court should let lie “hundreds of perfectly lawful sections,” argued Nimrod Elias, deputy attorney general for California.

The case will likely turn on that question of “severability”— whether one slice of a law, if ruled unconstitutional, must necessarily doom the rest. O’Connor, who nodded along carefully throughout the hearing, lobbed most of his questions at the California attorneys, and many of them focused on whether the various pieces of Obamacare can be unentangled.

Elias said that in the vast majority of cases, the Supreme Court acts with “a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” leaving in place most of a law even if one provision must be struck. The Texas coalition pointed to a more recent case in which the high court struck an entire law based on a narrow challenge.

O’Connor — a George W. Bush-appointee who has ruled against Obamacare several times, albeit on narrower grounds — also honed in on the question of legislative intent. Texas argued that the individual mandate was a critical piece of the law’s original version. But California argued that in 2017, in gutting the individual mandate without touching the rest of the law, lawmakers made it clear they wanted the law to persist without that provision.

“Would the legislature prefer what is left in statute to no statute at all?” Elias questioned. “We know what Congress intended based on what Congress actually did.”

See here and here for some background. Justin Nelson was at the hearing as well, pressing his attack on Paxton for his ideological assault on so many people’s health care. That really deserves more coverage, but the fact that most everyone outside of Paxton’s bubble thinks his legal argument is ridiculous is probably helping to keep the story on a lower priority. (Well, that and the unending Wurlitzer shitshow that is the Trump administration.) I mean, I may not be a fancypants lawyer, but it sure seems to me that eight years of Republicans vowing to repeal Obamacare plus the entire summer of 2017 trying to repeal Obamacare plus the abject failure to repeal Obamacare would suggest that the Republicans did not intend to repeal Obamacare with the bill that they finally did pass. If they could have they would have, but they couldn’t so they didn’t. I don’t know what else there is to say, but we’re going to have to wait till after the November elections – wouldn’t be prudent to do that before people voted, you know – to find out what this hand-picked judge thinks. Ken Janda, the Dallas Observer, and ThinkProgress have more.

The city has its own bail lawsuit

It’s not going well.

Houston city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, wiping crucial data from the computer drives of top police commanders that is potentially relevant to a lawsuit about the detention of suspects beyond the 48-hour deadline for a magistrate hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt’s rare ruling last week means that if the case goes to trial, jurors will receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. The jury must infer as fact that authorities destroyed evidence, knowingly and routinely detained people more than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing, and acted with deliberate indifference to the fact that they were violating defendants’ constitutional rights, the judge ruled.

The judge did not accuse the city of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the action is a blow to any defense the city could mount.

[…]

The 2016 class-action lawsuit challenged the city’s treatment of thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses officials of false imprisonment and alleges that they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the groups that led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

The suit was filed after the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez, who was held 49 hours before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, and James Dossett, who spent 59 hours in custody before facing a hearing officer via videolink on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. After a week in custody, Hernandez pleaded guilty. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Dossett when police failed to prove he had drugs.

The lawsuit also cites arrests in which defendants were held for more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Overcrowding at the county jail creates a bottleneck at the city facility, the suit said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the city had a “broad, longstanding, and consistent policy of refusing to release warrantless arrestees” even when more than 48 hours had passed since their arrests, and that the city failed to provide thousands of records relevant to this policy and practice.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier Chron story (embedded in this one and the basis of that post) on the subject. I’m appalled by what’s in this story, which I don’t think can be adequately explained by simple incompetence on the city’s part. There needs to be a serious investigation of who was responsible for what, and consequences to follow. This is unacceptable at every level. The city needs to throw itself on the mercy of the court and make an extremely generous settlement offer to the defendants.

“Fetal remains” law tossed

Very good.

U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra struck down a Texas law on Wednesday that would have required hospitals and clinics to bury cremate fetal remains, causing another courtroom setback for state leaders and anti-abortion groups.

Under Senate Bill 8, passed in 2017, health care facilities including hospitals and abortion clinics would be required to bury or cremate any fetal remains — whether from abortion, miscarriage, stillbirth, or treatments for ectopic pregnancy regardless of patients’ personal wishes or beliefs. Legislators passed the bill following a ruling that year by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks that struck down a similar rule implemented by the Texas Department of State Health Services. At the time Sparks said it was vague, caused undue burden on women and had high potential for irreparable harm.

Over the course of a nearly 30-minute hearing at a federal court in Austin on Wednesday, Ezra gave a synopsis of the ruling, calling the case “a very emotional topic.” The requirement would have been challenging for health providers, in part because it would be difficult to find medical waste vendors willing to participate. In addition, Ezra expressed wariness about the state having to reach out to private cemeteries to help with fetal remain disposals.

“The implementation of this law, as I have pointed out, would cause and, if allowed to go into effect, would be a violation of a woman’s right to obtain a legal abortion under the law as it stands today,” Ezra said.

[…]

Multiple doctors and health advocates who testified said women often don’t ask what happens to their fetal tissue, since they assume it’ll be treated like medical waste. Providers also said they have experienced challenges trying to find medical waste vendors willing to work with their clinics. A top reason, they said, is that vendors are unwilling to endure backlash and harassment from anti-abortion advocates.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m terribly amused by the fact that the zealotry of the anti-abortion movement was cited as a reason that this law they supported is illegal. If there’s a Greek goddess of irony, she’s pouring herself a glass of wine right now. Of course the state will appeal, and we know that the Fifth Circuit and soon SCOTUS are places where hope goes to be strangled in a back alley. But until then we have this, so let’s celebrate while we still can. The Observer has more.

DACA lives another day

But don’t relax just yet.

A federal district judge on Friday denied the state of Texas’ request that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program be put on hold after Texas and nine other states sued to halt the Obama-era program.

DACA was launched in 2012 and grants recipients a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings for immigrants who were brought to the United States while they were children. U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen said the states could likely prove that DACA causes the states irreparable harm. But Hannen wrote that the states delayed in seeking the relief for years. He added that there was an abundance of evidence to show that ending the program “was in contrary to the best interests of the pubic.”

His decision means that hundreds of thousands of the program’s recipients can continue applying to renew their status — for now.

“Here, the egg has been scrambled. To try to put it back in the shell with only a preliminary injunction record, and perhaps at great risk to many, does not make sense nor serve the best interests of this country,” Hanen wrote.

[…]

The case will now likely proceed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, said Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice-president of litigation, who argued the case earlier this month.

She said she disagreed with Hanen’s assertion that the way DACA was implemented violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act, which governs how federal regulations are made, and said Paxton’s predictions that Texas will succeed are overshadowed by Friday’s decision.

“The question that was presented to the court was decided in our favor. General Paxton can make predictions about what will happen later in this case,” she said. “But General Paxton lost today and DACA recipients won today. We have three federal court injunctions keeping DACA alive right now. Texas was hoping that Judge Hanen wold enter an injunction going in the other direction and Judge Hanen declined to do that.”

See here for the background. The state has 21 days to file an appeal to get the Fifth Circuit to grant the injunction it sought, and the court will proceed with the case after that. You know how I feel about this. I’m not going to guess what may happen from here, but at least nothing has been screwed up yet. The court’s order is here, and Daily Kos has more.

Going for Section 3

I wouldn’t get my hopes up, but Lord knows this is desperately needed.

The voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who have long challenged the validity of Texas’ political maps were dealt a bruising loss earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court signed off on most of the state’s current political boundaries and pushed aside claims that state lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they drew the maps.

But a crucial question remained in the case: Would the state’s opponents ask the courts to force Texas back under federal oversight of its electoral map drawing, given previous maps that federal judges ruled discriminatory?

Their answer came Wednesday in a series of brief court filings in which some of the plaintiffs in the case indicated they wanted to press forward on those high stakes efforts.

[…]

In approving the state’s current maps, the high court in June wiped out a ruling by a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio that found the maps, which were adopted in 2013, were tainted with discrimination that was meant to thwart the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office.

But seemingly left untouched were previous findings of intentional discrimination at the hands of the state lawmakers who in 2011 first embarked on redrawing the state’s maps following the 2010 census.

Though the plaintiffs lost on their challenge to the state’s current maps, groups that challenged the maps pointed to some of those 2011 violations in indicating to the San Antonio panel that the issue of a return to federal oversight was not yet settled in the case.

See here for the background. I want to be clear that I agree with everything the plaintiffs are saying. I just don’t believe that the courts will lift a finger to do anything about it. The lower court might go along with it, since they previously ruled that the Republicans had discriminated in drawing the maps, but there are no circumstances I can imagine where SCOTUS will uphold that. It’s just not going to happen. The only possible recourse would have to come from Congress. That’s what we need to push for and work for in the next two elections.

In the meantime, there is now one item on the to-do list.

Before 45 days pass in the next legislative session, Texas lawmakers must begin fixing discriminatory issues with the way in which North Texas’ House District 90 was drawn.

In a brief order, a three-judge panel based in San Antonio told lawmakers they needed to address racial gerrymandering violations in the district — the only exception the U.S. Supreme Court made when it signed off on the state’s embattled political maps earlier this year. HD-90, which is occupied by Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero, was deemed an impermissible racial gerrymander because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in deciding its boundaries.

Opponents of the state’s maps had previously indicated to the court that they wanted to revert the district to its 2011 version, a suggestion the state said it opposed and that the panel said it disagreed with.

On Thursday, the panel ordered lawmakers to redraw the district — either in a 2018 special legislative session that would need to be called by the governor or at the start of the 2019 legislative session. If a proposal isn’t introduced within the first month and half of the session, the judges said they would undertake the “unwelcome obligation” of fixing the district.

That’s fairly small potatoes, but it needs to be done and I for one would be interested to see what happens if the court winds up having to do the deed itself. As a reminder, the voter ID litigation is over, so this is the only court action left relating to the original 2011 legislative atrocities. The DMN has more.

Nelson attacks Paxton over Obamacare lawsuit

Good.

Justin Nelson

The Democrat challenging Ken Paxton is denouncing the attorney general for suing to wipe out the Affordable Care Act‘s health care protections for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

Justin Nelson, a Houston attorney, plans to hold a rally outside the federal courthouse in Ft. Worth where Paxton’s team will argue its case next week. He’s also launched a webpage urging Texans to share how axing the ACA, also known as Obamacare, will affect their access to health care.

“Paxton is leading the charge to take away pre-existing condition protections not just from all Texans but from all Americans and that is so wrong,” Nelson said in a video message Monday. “We’ve started the hashtag, #MyPreExisting, and on this website you can click on the button below and record your video. Tell us how you are affected in this life and death issue.”

Nelson’s campaign website also includes a list of common pre-existing conditions, like arthritis, sleep apnea and pregnancy. Texans with these conditions and many others could see higher health care costs if the Obamacare protections are rescinded.

[…]

About 27 percent of non-elderly Texans — or around 4.5 million people — have pre-existing conditions that could result in them facing difficulty obtaining insurance if Obamacare is overturned, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation. More than 52 million Americans fall into this category, 20.7 million of whom live in the 20 states suing to end the pre-existing condition protections.

In addition to Texas, officials from Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin are parties to the Obamacare lawsuit.

See here and here for the background. You can feel however you want to feel about Obamacare and Ken Paxton and whatever else, but something that would affect this many people in such a direct fashion ought to be part of the discussion in an election year. Good for Justin Nelson for doing that.

Trump administration seeks to dismiss MALDEF lawsuit over Census citizenship question

It’s hard to keep all these Census lawsuits straight.

As multiple court fights over the addition of a citizenship question to the once-a-decade census heat up, the Trump administration is working to keep several Texas groups representing Latino and Asian residents on the sidelines.

In a late Friday filing, attorneys for the U.S. Department of Justice asked a Maryland-based federal judge to toss a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus and the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus — among other Texas-based organizations — that’s meant to block the controversial question from appearing on the census questionnaire in 2020.

Those groups allege that the addition of the citizenship question is unconstitutional because it will lead to a disproportionate undercount of Latino and Asian residents, non-citizens and their family members. Justice Department lawyers responded by challenging the plaintiffs’ standing to dispute the federal government’s decision to ask about citizenship status, and they argued it was unlikely the plaintiffs would be able to prove that the question would be harmful to them.

“The relief sought in this suit — an order barring the Secretary of Commerce from collecting demographic information through the decennial census — is as extraordinary as it is unprecedented,” the Justice Department attorneys wrote in the filing.

[…]

Throughout the almost 100 pages of legal briefs filed with the court on Friday, attorneys for the Trump administration sought to undermine those undercount concerns, repeatedly describing them as “too attenuated and speculative” to provide those challenging the inclusion of the question with firm legal standing.

A drop in responses and the alleged potential fallout “would be not be fairly traceable to the Secretary’s decision but would be attributable instead to the independent decisions of individuals who disregard their legal duty to respond to the census,” they wrote.

The Trump administration hasn’t had much success in fending of legal challenges to the citizenship question. As of this week, judges have greenlighted five federal lawsuits despite the administration’s objections.

[…]

In its Friday response, the Trump administration put forth several of the same arguments it presented in the Maryland suit [U.S. District Judge George] Hazel already ruled could move forward and even offered a rebuttal to what DOJ lawyers described as the judge’s “misguided” analysis.

See here for more on this lawsuit. In addition to the one in Maryland noted in the story, the lawsuit in New York was allowed to proceed as well. Given that the plaintiffs have discretion over where they file, you’d think that would bode well for this one as well.

Using one civil rights law to negate another

You have to give them credit for evil creativity, I guess.

A majority-black county in rural Georgia announced a plan last week to close seven of its nine polling places ahead of the November election, claiming the polls cannot continue to operate because they are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The move sparked instant opposition from voting rights advocates, who have threatened legal action if Randolph County follows though with the plan. Activists are also scrambling to collect enough signatures to stop the effort before Friday, when the election board will make a final determination.

The racial implications of the closures have generated significant attention. The county is over 61 percent black, and one of the polling locations that would be shuttered serves a precinct where more than 95 percent of voters are African American. Had the U.S. Supreme Court not gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013, the closures would most likely have been blocked by the Department of Justice.

But the method in which the county is justifying the closures has generated less attention. Republican lawmakers and election administrators in Randolph County are not the first to use the federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), intended to protect the nation’s disabled communities, as a pretext to disenfranchise minority voters.

The good news is that the subsequent public outcry eventually caused county officials to cancel this plan. I make note of this for two reasons. One is that under the Obama administration, Harris County was sued for having voting locations that violated the ADA, with election observers being dispatched in 2016 to monitor the situation. The last update on the lawsuit I had was from 2017, and earlier this year the Trump administration announced there would be no observers this year. I have no idea where any of this stands now.

And two is that in a world where people with evil intentions are not running the place, there is a much better, fairer, and more equitable solution to this kind of problem, and that’s to take all reasonable steps to make these voting locations accessible to all. The federal government could allocate funds to facilitate this, or it could fund the whole damn thing if it wanted to. Frankly, given the various atrocities committed by Republicans nationwide in the name of making it harder for some people to vote, something like this should be part of a comprehensive program by Democrats when they regain control over government (please, please), along with an updated Voting Rights Act, an updated National Voter Registration Act, redistricting reform, a serious review and upgrade of the nation’s voting machines and elections security, and so on and so forth. We’re supposed to be a democracy, let’s act like it and make it easier for everyone who is eligible to participate in it.

Dallas County “discrimination against white voters” lawsuit dismissed

It was always a silly idea.

A federal judge Thursday dismissed a landmark lawsuit that accused Dallas County commissioners of discriminating against white voters.

The lawsuit sought to dismantle the boundaries the county uses to elect commissioners, claiming that the lines dilute the voting strength of white residents.

U.S. District Judge Sidney Fitzwater said it’s possible for white voters to successfully claim voting rights discrimination, but he ruled that lawyers for the plaintiffs in Anne Harding vs. Dallas County didn’t prove their case.

He wrote that given the political makeup of Dallas residents of voting age, and the geographical distribution of Anglo Republicans, it isn’t possible to know if a GOP candidate could be elected in a second district.

“In other words, because plaintiffs have failed to produce any evidence at trial that the Commissioners Court could have created two performing districts for Anglo Republicans, the logical result is that [defendants] did not dilute the [Anglo Republican] vote,” Fitzwater wrote.

He continued: “In fact, if anything, the evidence shows that plaintiffs’ voting power has been strengthened, rather than diluted, by the concentration of Anglos in [Precinct 2] where they can reliably elect a Republican candidate. Accordingly, the court finds that plaintiffs have not proved their vote dilution claim.”

[…]

During the trial, the plaintiffs offered alternative boundaries that their experts contended would have resulted in two conservative Republicans on the Commissioners Court.

But Fitzwater was swayed by testimony from Democratic strategist Matt Angle, who drew the 2011 map. Angle said it wasn’t a given that voters in the two “Anglo” districts the plaintiffs sought would elect a Republican to the court.

Fitzwater’s opinion states that under the plaintiffs’ plan, white voters would be split between the existing Republican district and another one, opening the door for Democrats to control every seat on the Commissioners Court.

“There are not a sufficient number of Anglo Republicans to elect a Republican candidate in more then one commissioner district,” Fitzwater wrote.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the decision is embedded in the story. I’m dubious about the assertion that white voters could successfully claim voting rights discrimination – to say the least, I think the bar for that is going to be very, very high – but I’m not going to worry about that right now. The plaintiffs have a month to decide if they’re going to appeal. Good luck with that.

Appeals court allows city to post video of pay parity hearing

Probably doesn’t matter much at this point, but there it is.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A Texas appeals court on Thursday ordered a state district judge to rescind his temporary restraining order requiring the city of Houston to remove video from its website that depicted a public city council committee hearing over a proposal to grant firefighters “pay parity” with police.

District Judge Kyle Carter should not have blocked the city from posting the video of the committee hearing because it is not clear the meeting constituted illegal electioneering, as the Houston firefighters union had alleged, the 14th Court of Appeals justices ruled.

That restraining order had expired last week anyway, said Cris Feldman, an attorney for the firefighters union, adding that the decision does not preclude a court from coming to the same conclusion that Carter did after further hearings in the case.

[…]

The section of state law banning local governments from using public funds to advocate for or against ballot measures was not intended to restrain public discussion of such issues, the justices wrote Thursday.

“It was not unreasonable or unexpected that statements tending to indicate support for, or opposition to, the charter amendment might be voiced at the meeting,” the nine-page opinion states. “Public funds were not being used for political advertising by making the meeting video publicly available, even though an incidental effect of posting the video on the city’s website may be to re-publish statements supporting or opposing the charter amendment.”

See here for the background, here for the Mayor’s statement, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted, the TRO had expired on August 14, and the Chron posted their own copy of the video shortly after Judge Carter handed down his opinion, so this is all mostly academic. It may mean something after the election when the lawsuits over the wording of the referendum gets filed, but until then it’s mostly a warm-up exercise.

Fifth Circuit upholds dismissal of campus carry lawsuit

Not a surprise.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday upheld Texas’ campus carry law, delivering another clear victory to the state in a longshot, long-running lawsuit brought by University of Texas at Austin professors opposed to the law.

In July 2016, three professors claimed that a 2015 state law that allows licensed gun-owners to carry concealed weapons into most public university buildings would have a “chilling effect” on free speech in their classrooms. But a federal district judge threw out their case in July 2017, saying the professors didn’t present any “concrete evidence to substantiate their fears.”

Accepting that logic and advancing it yet further, a three-judge panel on the appeals court this week rebuffed the professors’ free speech claim as well as two other constitutional challenges they had made.

Like the lower court, the 5th Circuit panel found that the professors lacked standing to challenge the law because they had not sufficiently shown how it might harm them.

“[The professors] cannot manufacture standing by self-censoring her speech based on what she alleges to be a reasonable probability that concealed-carry license holders will intimidate professors and students in the classroom,” Judge Leslie Southwick wrote for the unanimous panel.

See here for the background. The plaintiffs’ lawyer is talking about appealing to the Supreme Court, which strikes me as unlikely to succeed, even in the alternate universe of a SCOTUS with Merrick Garland and not-Brent-Kavanaugh. Some problems have to be solved via the ballot box, and this sure seems like one of them.

Woodfill and Hotze take their next shot at same sex employee benefits

Here we go again.

Anti-LGBTQ activists are again asking a Harris County judge to halt benefits for the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees, according to a recently filed motion.

The motion for summary judgment in Pidgeon v. Turner, a five-year-old lawsuit challenging the benefits, states that the city should not subsidize same-sex marriages because gay couples cannot produce offspring, “which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.”

The motion also asks Republican Judge Lisa Millard, of the 310th District Family Court, to order the city to “claw back” taxpayer funds spent on the benefits since November 2013, when former Mayor Annise Parker first extended health and life insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. And the court filing suggests that to comply with both state and federal law, the city should eliminate all spousal benefits, including for opposite-sex couples.

The motion for summary judgment was filed July 2 by Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, two Houston taxpayers who initially brought their lawsuit in December 2013. Woodfill, a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, is president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In his motion for summary judgment, Woodfill asserts that although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, that decision does not require the city to treat same-sex couples equally.

“Obergefell does not require taxpayer subsidies for same-sex marriages — any more than Roe v. Wade requires taxpayers subsidies for abortions,” Woodfill’s motion states.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the city, said it will respond to the motion “in a timely fashion.”

“The City hopes the Judge will be persuaded by the law,” Bernstein said in an email. “The Legal Department defers to the arguments it will make in response.”

See here for previous coverage, and here for the last update. It’s hard to know what will happen here because the basic goal of the lawsuit is so ridiculous and harmful, and the immediate reaction of any decent person who hears about it will be “but marriage is marriage and why would anyone want to do that?” The sad and scary fact is that some people are like that, and that includes some judges. Did I mention that the judge in this case, Lisa Millard, is up for re-election in August? Sonya Heath is her opponent. There’s never been a better time to elect some better judges. Think Progress has more.