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February 20th, 2014:

On Abbott and empathy

On Sunday, the DMN had this long piece about Greg Abbott’s longstanding hostility to claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, even though he himself had benefited from it.

Still not Greg Abbott

Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has said he supports the Americans with Disabilities Act, has tenaciously battled to block the courthouse door to disabled Texans who sue the state.

In a series of legal cases in his three terms, Abbott’s office has fought a blind pharmacy professor in Amarillo who wanted reflective tape on the stairs to her office; two deaf defendants in Laredo who asked for a qualified sign language interpreter in their courtroom; and a woman with an amputated leg. In that case, the state argued she was not disabled because she had a prosthetic limb.

Abbott, who has used a wheelchair since a tree fell on him while he was jogging and crushed his spine almost 30 years ago, applauds the 1990 federal law. It has helped provide the ramps, wide doors and access that allow him to give speeches and meet with constituents.

While Abbott, the leading Republican contender for governor, benefits from the ADA mandates that guide businesses, builders and cities, he believes it is unconstitutional to force the state to comply. He has argued that his duty is to protect the state’s autonomy and its taxpayers by using all legal tools available to him — including the argument that the state is immune from disability lawsuits brought under the ADA.

“It’s the attorney general’s duty to zealously represent the interests of the state of Texas, and in these cases that meant raising all applicable legal arguments in litigation where Texas was sued in court,” said Abbott spokesman Jerry Strickland.

Abbott’s office has been aggressive on the issue. The state has frequently lost, even before conservative courts such as the Texas Supreme Court. And yet when there has been a trial, it has won several of the cases, with arguments that beat back the charges of discrimination.

Advocates for the disabled say Abbott’s office has worked to deny ADA protections by repeatedly and falsely claiming that impaired Texans don’t have the right to sue the state for discrimination. Abbott declined several requests from The Dallas Morning News to discuss the matter.


Deputy Solicitor General Andy Oldham said there are good reasons why the state tries to block lawsuits from going to court, even when it has a strong case. Good lawyers use all the tools at their disposal, he said.

“If a litigant had two valid reasons — sovereign immunity and the meritlessness of the suit — she would always assert both,” Oldham said. “Suggesting that the lawyer should waive the first argument and use only the second is akin to asking a boxer to fight with one hand tied behind his back.”

While those bringing the lawsuits might believe they are only asking for “a reasonable accommodation,” there is usually disagreement on what that entails, he said.

“It’s wrong to suggest that the state is unwilling to make any accommodation just because it refused to do everything that the plaintiff wanted,” Oldham said.

Dennis Borel, executive director of the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities, said that advocates’ frustration stems from Abbott’s office consistently seeking immunity for Texas agencies, regardless of the claim.

“When you invoke the sovereign immunity defense, you’re not responding to the merits of the case,” he said. “You’re simply saying the state is immune for its violations of the ADA and therefore there’s not even a point of having a day in court.”

Brian East, senior attorney for Texas Disability Rights, said the repeated efforts to raise sovereign immunity against the disabled cuts off the chance to fix problems.

“I wouldn’t say they were hostile,” East said of the attorney general’s legal team. “They are hostile to the notion that individual citizens might have redress against the state, in general. They are not targeting people with disabilities specifically, but doing what they can to limit the rights of individuals to use the courts in civil rights cases against the state.”

Noah and Perry have offered their takes on this. To me, it’s a combination of a serious lack of empathy – he got what he needed, what does he care about anyone else? – and an elevation of the abstract rights of states over the rights of individuals. Via BOR, I think State Rep. Eliott Naishtat nailed it:

What is perplexing is that the attorney general is not challenging the part of the ADA that bars discrimination by private interests. In other words, Abbott agrees that private entities should continue to be required by law to provide access to individuals with disabilities, but public entities, including state and local governments, should not. Since when are civil rights protections important in relation to the private sector, but not the public sector? Abbott’s response: The office of the attorney general is trying to protect the state’s interests, namely, its limited financial resources. Once again, the issue is state money, or the lack thereof.

And yet, Abbott benefited from the accommodations made by the Supreme Court, which needless to say were paid for with state money. By his own logic and history, if the Supreme Court had not so willingly met his needs, he would have argued that the court was immune from being sued to force them to do the right thing. What’s good for him is not good for anyone else.

That same lack of empathy for anyone who isn’t Greg Abbott has been on the national stage this week with L’Affaire Nugent. Tod Robberson of the DMN captures this with an epic rant.

And when Greg Abbott claims to defend the Constitution, which part does he defend? Is it the part of the Constitution that requires all men and women to be treated equally and without discrimination under the law? Or maybe it’s the part that says a state has sovereign immunity, and if the state behaves in a discriminatory manner toward certain individuals, such as disabled people, that’s OK. Because what’s most important to Greg Abbott isn’t equal treatment and equal access for disabled people. What’s important is Texas’s sovereign immunity. And the gun rights that Ted Nugent stands for.

Wow. This guy’s a real piece of work. Abbott wants to restrict women’s access to abortion. He invites into his campaign a personality who refers to women as fat bitches and dirty whores. He invites into his campaign a man who thinks of sex with underage girls as “beautiful.”

And when challenged on the extremely bad judgment Greg Abbott is exercising, Abbott doesn’t apologize and rethink things. He defends the decision.

Texans who don’t happen to be white have every reason to question a gubernatorial candidate who invites into his campaign someone who makes racist remarks about an African American politician.

Texans with disabilities must not confuse wheelchair-bound Greg Abbott as someone who will defend their rights. He will not.

Texas women must not confuse Greg Abbott as someone who will defend their rights. He will not. Instead, he will campaign with someone who sees no problem denigrating women whenever he feels like it.

I’m not even sure that Greg Abbott will defend family values, if Ted Nugent is the type of person he will defend.

Robberson expanded on his writing on Wolf Blitzer’s show on CNN – see the video here. Wayne Slater was there as well and noted that the Abbott campaign was shocked, shocked to hear about some of these things their buddy The Nuge had been saying. Abbott had claimed ignorance of of Nugent’s dark side, which is too ludicrous to be believed. Seriously, if there was no one on his staff who knew and who had the ability to tell him, he’s surrounded himself with amateurs and suckups.

From the beginning, I’ve suggested that Abbott’s greatest weakness in a competitive general election is the fact that he’s never had to engage with non-Republican primary voters. He only knows how to talk to a small, non-representative slice of the electorate. Admittedly, he’s not the only Republican candidate with this problem, but he is the only one among them not in a competitive primary. It seems clear that the two are closely connected. I feel confident we will see more of this after the primaries are over. Burka and the Observer have more.

All about Lloyd

Emily dePrang talks to Lloyd Oliver about his candidacy for District Attorney and confirms what we already knew about him.

Lloyd Oliver Tree

Oliver admits he runs for office to drum up business for his law practice. He credits his 2012 win to name recognition and “dumb luck,” though some political observers thought it may have been because voters assumed, from his name, that Oliver was black. This theory was undermined by broad support from non-minority districts. Why ever Oliver won, it wasn’t because of good press. The media spilled lots of ink on Oliver’s checkered past and unorthodox style. In his long career, Oliver has been suspended twice and indicted twice for barratry and once for bribery, though he’s never been convicted.

Oliver’s most written-about scandals are linguistic. In a 2012 interview with the Houston Press, he used terms like “queers” and “rag heads” and called the local Democratic leadership “frustrated homosexuals” for trying to kick him off the ballot. (After he won the nomination, party leaders decided they would rather run nobody. Oliver sued to get back his spot.)

Among his least popular public statements was that maybe victims of domestic violence should “learn how to box a little better” and that battery can be a “prelude to lovemaking.” This went over poorly, especially when he reiterated these thoughts at a debate hosted by the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

But I didn’t meet with Oliver to talk about domestic violence. I wanted to know why he’s running for district attorney and what he’d do if he got the job. For all his press, I had no sense of his platform.

Within 10 minutes of our meeting, though, I learn that domestic violence is his platform. “That’s my issue, right there,” Oliver says. “An inordinate amount of time [is] spent on that when we could get more criminals out of Harris County by doing what I suggest, I guarantee.”

Oliver suggests trying more cases instead of accepting pleas and trying them much faster. “The district attorney will have a trial going at every court at every hour every day when I’m elected,” he says. “Justice delayed is just no damn justice at all. And that’s what I see. You see those damn filthy baby-rapers—they get tried, what, nine months later? A year later? Why not two months later? How long does it take to prepare a case?”

Oliver uses the term “baby-rapers” six times during our 70-minute interview. Eventually, he seems to notice this and throws in “aggravated sexual assault of a child.” It’s a move I imagine is effective with juries trying domestic violence cases. Oliver estimates that a quarter of the people he defends are charged with family violence, and as we sit together he delivers a series of vigorous, well-rehearsed arguments for why spousal abuse is taken too seriously.

What does this have to do with speedy trials? As district attorney, Oliver would divert resources away from family violence to try other cases, particularly when the abuse victim doesn’t want to press charges. “You don’t want to pursue it,” he says. “I don’t want to pursue it. The children are crying, ‘Please don’t take my dad to jail.’ And we’re pursuing things like that? That’s where we’re wasting our money? Oh, and our time? Why don’t we go after those baby-rapers instead?” He pounds on the table with each word of this apparent closing argument. “Let’s. Put. Those. People. In. Jail.”

Oliver says he would prosecute assault, but that most family violence cases aren’t really assault. “To me, an assault is not something where, in a relationship—it’s not a pushing, shoving match…” he says. “Assault should be enforced. But me touching you, pushing, shoving, some kind of mutual combat, not even combat [but] a mutual scuffle,” shouldn’t.

Oliver feels only “one in ten cases” of family violence warrants jail time or prison. “Because not every shoving, every touching, even though it’s unpermitted, is an assault, and that’s the way things are handled now. An unpermitted touching becomes an assault.”

Is your jaw hanging open yet? Either way, go read the whole thing. And let me remind you again, you need to vote for Kim Ogg to be the Democratic nominee for District Attorney. We don’t want Lloyd Oliver on the ballot again, do we? Let’s make sure we do our part to keep him off.

Endorsement watch: Belatedly for Whitmire

The Chronicle makes its recommendations for the State Senate.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

Senate District 15 (D)

In 1973, a 23-year-old college dropout named John Whitmire hopped aboard a wave of voter disgust with ethically challenged incumbents and won a seat in the Texas House.

More than four decades later, that same Houston lawmaker is still in the Legislature, as his young opponent pointedly noted when the two men met with the Chronicle editorial board.

Houston attorney Damian LaCroix, 39, insists that four decades is enough, that Whitmire has lost touch with his constituents and that it’s time for a change. In theory, we favor frequent turnover, as well, but not this time. Whitmire, 64, still has much to contribute to residents of Senate District 15 and to Texas as a whole.

Serving as chair of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee, Whitmire is an expert on criminal justice issues and has played a key role in bringing about reform to both the adult and juvenile justice systems.

LaCroix, a graduate of Texas A&M University and SMU Law School, is a fresh face on the local political scene. We hope he chooses to stay involved, but at this point he lacks both the knowledge and the experience to replace “the dean of the Senate.” We wholeheartedly recommend Whitmire’s renomination as the Democratic candidate in District 15, comprised of north Houston and parts of Harris County.

The Chron had included Sen. Whitmire – along with Paul Bettencourt and Sen. Joan Huffman, their choices in SDs 07 and 17, respectively – in their comprehensive list of endorsements that was published Tuesday, leading me and Campos to wonder when they’d actually made those endorsements. Now we know, I guess. Even weirder is that this isn’t included on their Recommendations page. I happened to see that link above, called simply “The Texas Senate”, on the homepage under the Local header, and clicked it out of curiosity. Lo and behold, there were the missing endorsements. The Chron works in mysterious ways, y’all. Anyway, I agree with what they say here. I like Damian LaCroix and think he’d be a good candidate for something, but not for SD15 at this time. My interview with Sen. Whitmire, easily the most listened-to and downloaded interview I did this cycle according to Soundcloud, is here, and my interview with Damian LaCroix, the runnerup in those categories, is here.

Texas blog roundup for the week of February 17

The Texas Progressive Alliance is always ready for voting to begin as it brings you this week’s roundup.