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Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

MALDEF Census lawsuit in court

Census lawsuit #2.

In a federal courtroom in Maryland on Tuesday, lawyers representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Senate Hispanic Caucus and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino and Asian residents will set out to convince U.S. District Judge George Hazel that the federal government’s decision to ask about citizenship status as part of the upcoming census is improper, because it will lead to a disproportionate undercount of immigrants and people of color.

The Texas legal battle has run mostly parallel to several other court fights across the country — and might not be decided before the New York case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court — but it’s the only census case that could ultimately determine whether Trump administration officials conspired to deprive people of color of equal protection and representation.

[…]

What we’re referring to as the “Texas case” is actually two consolidated cases filed in Maryland — one of which was filed on behalf of more than a dozen plaintiffs, including Texas’ legislative Latino caucuses; legislative caucuses out of Maryland, Arizona and California; and several community organizations. La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a nonprofit organization based in the Rio Grande Valley, is the lead plaintiff.

Those plaintiffs are challenging the inclusion of the citizenship question on several fronts, alleging 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.

More broadly, they argue the citizenship question will lead to a disproportionate undercount of Hispanic and immigrant households, affecting areas of the country like Texas that are more likely to be home to members of those communities, and that officials’ decision to add the question was unconstitutional because it was based on intentional racial discrimination. They go further than other opponents in also alleging that Trump administration officials conspired to add the question to the 2020 questionnaire based on animus against Hispanics and immigrants, particularly when it comes to counting immigrants for the apportionment of political districts.

The federal government, which has been unsuccessful in its repeated requests to dismiss the case, has argued the question is necessary for “more effective enforcement” of the federal Voting Rights Act and was added at the Justice Department’s request. But evidence that emerged through litigation indicated U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked the Justice Department to make that request after he was in touch with advisers to President Donald Trump.

[…]

In the New York case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman scolded the Trump administration for “egregious” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the federal law the Texas plaintiffs are also citing, and described Ross’ decision to add the question as “arbitrary and capricious.” Furman, however, ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Ross had intentionally acted to discriminate against immigrants and people of color.

The Texas case is moving forward despite the New York ruling because it involves allegations that the courts haven’t addressed. The New York lawsuit — filed on behalf of a coalition of more than 30 states, cities and counties, including El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron — didn’t include some of the legal claims opponents in Texas are leaning on.

See here and here for background on this lawsuit. The New York case was ruled entirely on statutory grounds, with the Constitutional claims put aside in part because there had been no deposition of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. A ruling for the plaintiffs on the Constitutional claims would be a stronger and more expansive ruling, but given the SCOTUS that we have, it seems like a ruling we are less likely to get. You never know till you try, though.

And speaking of that New York case:

The Trump administration asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to bypass its normal procedures and decide quickly whether a question on citizenship can be placed on the 2020 Census.

[…]

Normally, the Justice Department would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. But Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco said that would not leave enough time for a final ruling from the Supreme Court.

“The government must finalize the census questionnaire by the end of June 2019 to enable it to be printed on time,” he told the court. “It is exceedingly unlikely that there is sufficient time for review in both the court of appeals and in this Court by that deadline.”

Citing a Supreme Court rule, Francisco said the “case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.”

As this story notes, SCOTUS had a hearing to address the question of whether Secretary Ross could be deposed – they declined to allow it while the trial was happening – but since the New York court went ahead and made a ruling anyway, they have since canceled that hearing. I don’t know if they will take up the request for an expedited appeal, but it won’t surprise me if they do. (Rick Hasen, an actual expert in these matters, thinks they will.) That ruling was designed to stick to things this SCOTUS likes to uphold and away from things it likes to bat down, so who knows what they’ll do. NPR has more.

Bail lawsuit continues in Galveston County

Good.

A lawsuit alleging that Galveston County’s cash bail system favors wealthier defendants will continue after a recent ruling by a U.S. district court judge.

On Jan. 10, Judge George Hanks Jr. upheld Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison’s denial of the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ACLU of Texas and the Arnold & Porter law firm filed the suit in April 2018 on behalf of Aaron Booth, 37, of Galveston, who was arrested on felony drug possession charges but couldn’t afford to post his $20,000 bail — the minimum permitted under the county’s bail schedule for that charge.

The suit accuses county officials, including local judges and magistrates as well as District Attorney Jack Roady, of operating an arbitrary, two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the constitutional right to counsel, the right to due process and equal protection under the law.

In addition to keeping the suit alive, Hanks agreed that the ACLU sufficiently argued that under the Constitution’s 6th Amendment, Booth and all defendants are guaranteed a right to counsel at any bail hearing.

Hanks also agreed that Roady, who controls the county’s bail schedule, was liable for his role in perpetuating a wealth-based detention system. Magistrate Edison had ruled that magistrate judges “always strictly adhere” to the bail amounts recommended by Roady.

[…]

A preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for Tuesday will give the ACLU the opportunity to present evidence that Galveston County has not done enough to reform its bail system.

“It’s still our burden to show that the facts are what we’ve alleged,” [Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas] said. “So we are presenting evidence that actually shows that an injunction is necessary.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he hoped Tuesday’s hearing would be the “end or beginning of the end” to the lawsuit. Henry said the litigation has hindered the county’s bail reform efforts, and said he was pleased to see individual magistrate judges and district judges dismissed as defendants.

“We’ve been trying to get these things done for years,” Henry said. “Government moves notoriously slow, I think we’ve been about as fast as we can be.”

See here for the background. It should be clear to everyone where this is going, given the rulings in the Harris County case. One presumes it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get there.

Fifth Circuit does it again

Another terrible ruling by a terrible judge on a terrible court.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court has lifted a lower court order that blocked Texas from booting Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid, potentially imperiling the health care provider’s participation in the federal-state health insurance program.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Sam Sparks, the federal district judge who preserved Planned Parenthood’s status in the program in February 2017, had used the wrong standard in his ruling. The appeals court sent the case back to him for further consideration.

The case stems from a long-running flap over a misleading video released in late 2015 by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, which suggested that abortion providers at Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue for profit. The sting video included edited clips of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the use of fetal tissue for research. A string of investigations that followed the video’s release were unable to confirm its claims, but it energized a crusade against the health care provider and sparked outrage from the state’s Republican leadership.

[…]

In February 2017, a federal judge in Austin ruled that Texas clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood could continue to care for patients under the state’s Medicaid program. The state’s arguments, Sparks wrote in a 42-page ruling, were “the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning the interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program.”

But a panel on the conservative-leaning appeals court said Thursday that Sparks had used the wrong standard in his ruling, taking the arguments as a novel, or “de novo,” review and by “giving no deference” to the findings of the state agency that opted to expel Planned Parenthood in the first place. The Office of Inspector General, an arm of the state’s health and human services agency charged with rooting out fraud and abuse, claimed the videos “showed “that Planned Parenthood violated state and federal law.”

“OIG is the agency that the state of Texas has empowered to investigate and penalize Medicaid program violations. The agency is in the business of saying when providers are qualified and when they are not,” Judge Edith Jones wrote. “It is [odd] to claim that federal judges, who have no experience in the regulations and ethics applicable to Medicaid or medical practice, much less in regard to harvesting fetal organs for research, should claim superior expertise.”

See here for the background. Of course Edith Jones would insist that we have to take seriously the lying video of lying liars when it suits her agenda. She’s as predictable as the sunrise. Now we go back to district court and try again to knock down the bullshit. What an utter disgrace.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

Trump administration opposes Section 3 oversight

I mean, duh.

In the latest about-face on voting rights under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice no longer supports efforts to force Texas back under federal oversight of its electoral map drawing.

In legal filings this week, the Justice Department indicated it would side against the voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who want a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio to require Texas to seek pre-approval of its legislative and congressional maps, given previous maps that the federal judges ruled discriminatory.

“The United States no longer believes that [federal supervision] is warranted in this case,” federal attorneys said in their filing to the court.

[…]

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department sided with those challenging the state’s maps as discriminatory. But last year, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler joined state attorneys in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas’ current congressional and state House maps, which were adopted in 2013, were legally sound.

In approving the state’s current maps, the high court in June wiped out a ruling by the San Antonio panel that found the maps 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 first redrew the state’s maps in 2011.

The state’s opponents are now pointing to some of those 2011 violations in asking the San Antonio panel to consider returning Texas to federal guardianship of its maps.

“In a jurisdiction like Texas, which has consistently engaged in intentional discrimination since its inception, and which year after year attempts to sharpen and hone its ability to violate the law in more covert and artful ways, the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the laws requires the imposition” of federal supervision, the opponents said in a November filing.

See here for the background. The only reason the Trumpies hasn’t opposed this before now is because there hadn’t been a filing by the plaintiffs before. They’re consistent when it comes to opposing voting rights, that’s for sure. As you know, I don’t have any faith in SCOTUS to do the right thing, but you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Plaintiffs win in Census citizenship question lawsuit

Very good news.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, with an opinion that found the move by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Furman’s decision, if not overturned by a higher court, is a monumental victory for voting rights activists and immigrant advocates, who feared the question would spook immigrant participation in the census. An undercount of those populations would shift political representation and governmental resources away from those communities, in favor of less diverse, less urban parts of the country. Furthermore, there were strong hints that the citizenship data procured would then be used to exclude non-citizenships from redistricting — a long-sought goal of conservatives that would boost Republicans’ electoral advantages.

In his 277-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said that Ross “failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.”

[…]

The case was a consolidation of two lawsuits — one brought by the ACLU and the other by a multi-state coalition — and is among some half dozen cases across the country challenging the decision, which was announced last March. Furman’s case was he first to go trial and he is the first judge to reach a decision on the merits.

It is also an issue already headed to the Supreme Court, so it is unlikely that Furman’s word will be the last one. After the Trump administration fought tooth and nail Furman’s order that Ross be deposed for the case, the Supreme Court blocked the deposition and scheduled a hearing on whether Ross’ motive for adding the question should play a role in the case for February.

Furman said that his decision Tuesday was based solely on the so-called administrative record — the official record that administration put forward justifying its process of coming to a decision on the question.

By basing his ruling only on the administrative record, Furman segregated his findings from the contentious issue at the heart of dispute the Supreme Court will hear next month.

“Looking beyond the Administrative Record merely confirms the Court’s conclusions and illustrates how egregious the APA violations were,” he said.

While ruling with the challengers on the Administrative Procedures Act claim, the judge did not find a constitutional due process violation, as the challengers alleged.

“In particular, although the Court finds that Secretary Ross’s decision was pretextual, it is unable to find, on the record before it, that the decision was a pretext for impermissible discrimination,” he said. “To be fair to Plaintiffs, it is impossible to know if they could have carried their burden to prove such discriminatory intent had they been allowed to depose Secretary Ross, as the Court had authorized last September.”

His opinion took a not-so-veiled swipe at Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote, when the dispute over deposing Ross was at the Supreme Court at an earlier stage, that there was nothing wrong with a new cabinet secretary “cutting through red tape.”

“[A]lthough some may deride its requirements as ‘red tape,’ the APA exists to
protect core constitutional and democratic values,” Furman wrote. “It ensures that agencies exercise only the authority that Congress has given them, that they exercise that authority reasonably, and that they follow applicable procedures — in short, it ensures that agencies remain accountable to the public they serve.”

See here for the previous update. Though you wouldn’t know it from the slavish devotion our state leaders pay to Donald Trump, this ruling is very good for Texas. There will of course be an appeal and as noted this will surely make its way to SCOTUS, but for now this is a big win. ThinkProgress, Slate, and Mother Jones all have good analyses of the opinion, so go check ’em out.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

Gotta say, I’m less optimistic about this now than I was when it was filed.

State attorneys and lawyers representing reproductive rights groups argued in federal court Monday over whether a sweeping lawsuit challenging more than 60 Texas abortion regulations should move forward.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel told state attorneys that their 73-page argument confused him. He also expressed confusion about what reproductive rights groups were arguing over.

“This needs to be something not that the court understands but the public understands,” Yeakel said. “I find this case difficult to understand with the status of the record.”

[…]

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Lawyering Project and lead attorney for the reproductive rights groups in the case, said during the hearing that “once upon a time, Texas started off with a reasonable regime to regulate the system of abortion.”

“The system has become so burdensome that it’s increasingly difficult for patients and providers to navigate,” Toti said.

Reproductive rights groups also argue that the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” booklet for patients is medically inaccurate. The suit targets a University of Texas System policy barring students from getting credit for internships and field placements at institutions that provide access to abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a news release that the organization is “proud to lead another legal challenge in Texas.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, this lawsuit was filed in June, with the main argument being that the Whole Women’s Health SCOTUS ruling of 2016 made a bunch of previously-passed laws illegal as well. It seemed like a great idea at the time, right up until Anthony Kennedy decided to hang up his robe. Be that as it may, the hope here is to get at least a partial injunction from the district court, and see where we go from there. For that, we’ll have to wait on Judge Yeakel. The Chron has more.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Anti-Obamacare ruling appealed

The big non-Mueller story to follow for 2019.

Best mugshot ever

The Democratic coalition of states battling Texas over the fate of the Affordable Care Act has formally begun the process of challenging a Dec. 14 decision ruling the law unconstitutional in its entirety.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who’s leading the charge, filed a notice of appeal Thursday morning before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The blue states will ask the federal appeals court to overturn last month’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who declared that President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is unconstitutional after Congress in December 2017 gutted one of its major provisions, the individual mandate.

The notice of appeal marks the next stage of what is expected to be a long-running litigation process that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. A Texas-led coalition of 20 states kicked the process off nearly a year ago by suing the federal government to kill the law; after the Justice Department sided partially with Texas, the California-led coalition of states stepped in to defend Obamacare in court.

“The wheels start turning as of now,” Becerra said on a press call Thursday morning.

See here and here for the background. Every legal scholar with a shred of integrity has denounced this ruling as ridiculous, but we all know that what matters is what five members of SCOTUS think is legal. One story I read about this noted that the coalition of states defending Obamacare picked up an ally after the 2018 election, the new Attorney General of Colorado. One can only wonder what might be happening today if we could have added a new Attorney General of Texas to this. Alas, we’ll have to file that under What Might Have Been.

Ridiculous anti-Obamacare ruling remains on hold

It is what it is.

Best mugshot ever

The federal judge in Texas who ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional said today that the law can stand while his judgment is under appeal.

In his order issuing a stay and final partial judgment in the controversial case, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor reiterated that he believes the entire ACA cannot stand without its individual mandate penalty, which Congress zeroed out last year. O’Connor argued that appellate judges will agree with his judgment, but said it should not take effect while the case is being appealed. “[M]any everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty,” he wrote.

The judge’s order means that Obamacare will likely remain the law of the land for at least another year. Depending on how the appeals proceed, it also tees up the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling on the case in 2020, during the presidential campaign.

[…]

In his new filing, O’Connor expanded his reasoning for siding with the conservative states seeking to strike down Obamacare, arguing that they have standing to bring the case. This point has been disputed, because the conservative states have struggled to show how the ACA has harmed them.

O’Connor also stressed that “courts must refrain from resolving policy disputes” created by Congress. His conclusions were widely panned, including by conservative legal scholars who maintain that O’Connor continues to misread the law and is engaging in the same judicial activism that he decries.

“I’ve been very critical of Judge O’Connor’s severability analysis, but the standing analysis in these opinions may be even worse — and that’s saying something,” tweeted Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who was a legal architect of another major ACA challenge. “I will be gobsmacked if O’Connor’s opinion survives review in the Fifth Circuit.”

O’Connor also noted that four other counts remain unresolved — signaling that even if the appeals court overturns his ruling, conservative states could find further paths to weaken the ACA. The remaining issues include challenges under the Administrative Procedures Act and the Fifth and 10th amendments.

See here for the background. Basically everyone has panned this ruling as legally unsound – I’m being kind here – and most people believe that the ruling will be reversed. I have less faith in the Fifth Circuit than that, but we’ll see. In the meantime, we can’t get a Congress and a President who are committed to providing health care for all soon enough.

Paxton prosecutors take their shot at a do-over

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

In a fiery filing that amounts to a legal Hail Mary, the attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implored the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yielded “a patently absurd result.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November that a six-figure payment originally approved for the special prosecutors was outside legal limits — a move that boosted Paxton and threatened to derail the case against him, as the prosecutors had indicated they might withdraw if they could not be paid. A month later, the prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider their decision in a crucial case “where the ‘x’ axis of justice and the ‘y’ axis of politics intersect.”

Rehearing, they argued in a filing last week, is critical for ensuring that the high court’s proceedings “appear fair to all who observe them.” [Read the filing here]

[…]

In the Dec. 21 filing, prosecutor Brian Wice wrote that the prosecutors “would never have accepted the formidable task of prosecuting the Texas Attorney General over the last three-plus years had they been able to look into the future and discern that their pay would come within a coat of paint of minimum wage.”

From the opening sentence, the 18-page filing doesn’t mince words.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, you can lawfully create and endow a defense fund to pay for an armada of top-flight legal talent that most defendants can only dream of to defend yourself against three felony offenses,” Wice wrote.

In the motion for rehearing, which includes references to Atticus Finch, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan and the impending “Sword of Damocles,” the prosecutors implore the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yields “a patently absurd result” that would pay the special prosecutors “unconscionable” rates.

Letting the ruling stand, Wice argued, would allow any local government in Texas “to derail what it sees as an unjust prosecution by de-funding it.” And that type of funding dispute can be influenced by major political players, he suggested.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “While it was the Commissioners who prevailed in this Court, Paxton first recognized that the best, indeed, the only way to derail his prosecution was to de-fund it by challenging [prosecutors’] fees three years ago.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, the prosecutors are 100% right on the merits, and they lay it out with utter clarity. I maintain that the Legislature can and should fix this by making the state pick up the tab for prosecutions like this, but that won’t help here, even if we could be sure that a bill to address this would pass. We need the Court to do the right thing, which they failed to do the first time around. It’s either that or they show that they don’t care about the law when one of their own is on the sharp end of it.

Recapture reinterpretation lawsuit update

This is a bit in the weeds, so bear with me.

Houston ISD likely will keep an additional tens of millions of dollars more in property tax revenues each year following a widely expected Texas appeals court decision Friday.

Judges from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled against two small school districts and a nonprofit that sued the Texas Education Agency over its re-interpretation of statutes related to “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing tax revenues from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. The ruling means that property-wealthy districts, such as HISD, will face lower “recapture” payments back to the state moving forward.

HISD officials projected the ruling would result in the district keeping an additional $51 million in 2018-19. District leaders expected the Texas Education Agency to win the lawsuit, so the already factored the $51 million in revenue into the current budget. As a result, the district will not see a windfall that can be spent on additional costs.

The plaintiffs alleged the Texas Education Agency improperly re-interpreted state law to include optional property tax homestead exemptions into “recapture” calculations for districts with wealthy property tax bases relative to their student enrollment totals.

A district court judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the appellate court found the plaintiffs could not prove they were harmed by the re-interpretation because it did not cause a shortfall in the state’s Foundation School Program, the fund through which state money is distributed to school districts.

See here and here for the background. Back when we were all arguing about HISD making recapture payments to the state, HISD successfully managed to get the TEA to interpret the law over how such payments are calculated to take into account the Local Option Homestead Exemption (LOHE) that some districts like HISD offer. Taking the LOHE into account, which the TEA had not previously done, causes the recapture formula to produce a smaller bill for districts like HISD that use it. That’s where that $51 million figure comes from. A couple of smaller school districts, along with MALDEF, filed suit over this reinterpretation on the grounds that it would cost them money, which was in conflict with the Foundation School Program. The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the smaller districts could not prove that they were harmed, so the TEA rule as now interpreted was upheld, which in turn saves HISD some money. Makes sense? Of course, if the Lege follows through on its latest plan to reform school finance, any or all of this could change in ways we don’t yet know. But for now, this is where we stand.

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.