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March 2nd, 2017:

Once more with feeling on voter ID

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern says that Tuesday’s arguments about whether Texas’ voter ID law was enacted with discriminatory intent or not went well for the plaintiffs, and not for the state or its new buddies in the Justice Department.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Tuesday’s hearing was supposed to be all about the question of intent. But the DOJ’s last-minute move to side with Texas rather than the coalition challenging the law threw it for a loop, necessitating a discussion of the agency’s new position. John Gore, the deputy assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, spoke briefly, urging the court to dismiss the discriminatory intent claim. (The agency’s acting head of the Civil Rights Division, Thomas Wheeler, recused himself because he advised Texas legislators as they wrote the bill. Small world!) Gore pointed out that Texas is considering an amendment that will allegedly address the legal problems with the bill, SB14.

“If it follows through,” he said, “and we are hopeful it will, that resolves this case.”

But does it? Judge Ramos wasn’t so sure.

“How,” she asked, “does a new bill affect a ruling on discriminatory purpose on SB14?” After all, an amendment can’t alter the legislature’s intent in passing the original bill. (The Trump administration may face a similar problem in its efforts to scrub Islamophobia from its next travel ban.)

“It creates a new legislative mosaic,” Gore said, with lots of feeling, if not much logic. “It paints a new picture of Texas’ intent with regard to voter ID.”

Chad Dunn, a member of the legal team representing the plaintiffs in the case, tried his best not to look aghast and very nearly succeeded.

“The Voting Rights Act does not deal around the edges,” he said in rebuttal to Gore. “It requires courts to strike down a discriminatory law and all of its tentacles. Texas may change the staging or the dress of SB14, but the underlying architecture remains.”

To Dunn, the key problem with SB14 is the limitations it places on the forms of ID voters may use at the polls. A handgun license, for instance, is sufficient to cast a ballot; a student ID is not. Minorities are significantly less likely to have the required IDs than whites. Dunn argues that SB14 was crafted with the aim to create “a disparate impact on Latinos.” Even if Texas remedies this problem, its original bill may still have been enacted with discriminatory intent, meriting federal oversight of future voting-related laws.

In her previous ruling, Ramos laid out a comprehensive case demonstrating why the legislature had intentionally endeavored to restrict the suffrage of minority voters. On Tuesday, attorneys for the plaintiffs took turns reciting her reasoning back to her. The argument here is not rocket science. In support of SB14, the Texas legislature professed fears about voter impersonation that were unsupported by evidence. It also approved IDs that minorities are much less likely to have and rejected amendments designed to lessen the bill’s impact on minorities. Gov. Rick Perry declared the bill an “emergency item,” allowing the legislature to rush it through committee to an up-or-down floor vote, altering or suspending multiple procedural rules along the way. And it did all this in the face of dramatic demographic changes that could give minorities unprecedented influence over state representation.

In short—as Ezra Rosenberg, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said on Tuesday—“your honor, and the United States, got this right the first time around.” The court, Rosenberg said, “may infer from these shifting and tenuous rationales that there is pretext at work.” There is, he alleged, “a mountain of evidence” that Texas acted with racist intent, even if it is all circumstantial. Janai Nelson, a lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, hit the same themes. “An overwhelming majority of factual findings unassailably supports your previous opinion,” she told Ramos. “The legislature designed SB14 with surgical precision to discriminate against minority voters. Republicans chose IDs that that Anglos were more likely to possess and excluded IDs minorities are more likely to possess. Impersonation fraud is largely mythical.” And “this aggressive fixation on an illusory problem” is evidence of unlawfully discriminatory intent.

Up until this point, Ramos remained mostly quiet, though she took extensive notes. When Angela Colmenero stood up to argue on behalf of Texas, the dynamics shifted dramatically. Colmenero, aided by a nifty PowerPoint presentation, explained that in passing SB14, the legislature was acting upon extensive evidence that voter impersonation was a serious problem in Texas. Ramos suddenly leaned forward, looking genuinely confused.

“Why was this not introduced at trial?” she asked, referring to the lengthy bench trial she held in 2014 during which Texas could not prove that voter fraud was real. “Texas,” she continued, “did not present any evidence about any of these things.”

Colmenero admitted that the purported evidence was really just testimony in House and Senate committee hearings, testimony that was not supported by any proof.

“But that’s all hearsay,” Ramos observed. “People saying X, Y, Z—that’s not evidence for a trial court. ‘So-and-so’s [deceased] grandfather voted’—that’s not court evidence.”

See here for the background. I Am Not A Lawyer, but having the judge lecture you about standards of evidence seems like an indication that your case is not going well. Nonetheless, as the Express News notes, Judge Ramos has asked for briefs on how the voter ID 2.0 bill will affect the case, with a March 21 deadline. We’ll see what happens then. The Brennan Center, the NYT, and the Chron have more.

Supreme Court hears ridiculous same-sex marriage appeal

Was this trip really necessary?

Same-sex couples are entitled to the same treatment as opposite-sex couples, a lawyer for the city of Houston argued before the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday in a case challenging the city’s benefits policy for married same-sex couples.

As part of Texas Republicans’ ongoing fight against same-sex marriage, justices of the state’s highest civil court heard arguments in a case centered on whether Houston and other governmental entities are required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to same-spouses of government employees.

In Obergefell, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that bans on marriages between couples of the same sex are unconstitutional and that states must recognize same-sex marriage as legal. Following that ruling, public employers in the state quickly extended benefits for same-sex spouses of public employees.

Arguing that interpretation is too broad, opponents of same-sex marriage have taken up a challenge against Houston’s policy, hoping the Texas court will issue an opinion that narrows the scope of the ruling because they believe marriage benefits are not a fundamental right.

But Douglas Alexander, the lawyer that defended Houston’s benefits policy, told the court on Wednesday that arguments against benefits to same-sex couples are moot under Obergefell’s guarantee that all marriages be equally regarded.

“What we’re saying is that if you extend spousal benefits to opposite sex couples then under Obergefell you also have to extend it to same sex,” Alexander told the court. “Not because there’s a fundamental right to employment benefits or spousal benefits but because there’s a fundamental right that both of those marriages be treated equally.”

See here for the background. I’m not an attorney, but Martin Siegel is. I’m going to hand the microphone to him for a minute:

The Republican officials’ argument depends on minimizing Justice Anthony Kennedy’s landmark opinion in Obergefell, but that opinion rules out their position. The opinion cites the many privileges afforded married couples – favorable tax treatment, property and inheritance rights, hospital access, health insurance, and so on – and expressly condemns the “material burden” that occurs when same-sex couples “are denied the constellation of benefits that the States have linked to marriage.” In fact, one of the specific state laws struck down by the decision concerned one of these benefits: a Michigan law that prevented plaintiffs April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse from adopting and raising special-needs children as married parents in the same family, rather than as separate individuals with no legal relationship.

As any lawyer knows, the opinions of the Supreme Court and the language the justices use in them matter greatly. Day in and day out, lower courts and lawyers apply both to new disputes that, while different factually, are nonetheless covered by the text and clear meaning of earlier opinions. The claim that Obergefell doesn’t resolve whether marriage-related benefits must be provided equally would puzzle any second-year law student.

A second argument advanced specifically by Republican state senators and representatives is that, because the Constitution doesn’t require local governments to give employment benefits to anyone, straight or gay, Texas can give them to one but not the other. Otherwise, Texas would be “subsidizing” gay marriage.

This willfully misses the point. It’s not that gay employees have a constitutional right to employment benefits or subsidies; it’s that they have a constitutional right to equal treatment. Public education is analogous. The U.S. Constitution doesn’t require states to provide public education, but if a state chooses to do so, it can’t segregate students by race. In Obergefell, the Court specifically applied the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause to strike down laws outlawing gay marriage because, under those laws, “same-sex couples (were) denied all the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples.”

Education provides a useful comparison, too, because the Republican officials’ miserly approach to Obergefell recalls southern resistance to Brown v. Board of Education in the 1950s and ’60s. Through creative evasions and court battles, officials fought for years to preserve Jim Crow despite the Supreme Court’s mandate to integrate with “all deliberate speed.” In some places, they closed schools and other public accommodations rather than open them to everyone – just as the Republican legislators now justify denying employment benefits to gay spouses by suggesting they could constitutionally deny them to everyone.

Mark Joseph Stern, who is apparently on a tour of Texas this week, thinks the Supreme Court will ultimately dismiss this on procedural grounds. Whatever happens here, the plaintiffs in this case and their Republican enablers are on the losing side of the argument. There is no justification for what they are trying to do. The Supreme Court should have stood by their original decision to not hear this case, but failing that the least they can do is follow the law and give these plaintiffs the stinging defeat they so richly deserve. Texas Monthly has more.

No decision yet in the Temple case

Give it two more months.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg said Monday it will be at least another 60 days before a decision is made on whether to re-try the murder case against former Katy football star and Alief coach David Temple.

Temple’s conviction was tossed out last year after the state’s highest court ruled that prosecutors withheld evidence in his 2007 murder trial. He was sentenced to life in prison for the grisly shooting of his pregnant wife, Belinda Lucas Temple, in 1999.

On Monday, Ogg said she needed more time to review the massive file before deciding whether David Temple would face trial again. She also said she had not ruled out giving the case to a special prosecutor.

“There’s been a number of requests, from the victim’s family and their supporters, for us to recuse ourselves,” she said. “It’s all under consideration.”

She said she was looking at whether the office has a conflict of interest, or the appearance of a conflict. And if the decision is made for a retrial, she said she is weighing whether a special prosecutor should do that.

“It’s an important case to me,” said Ogg, who took office Jan. 1. “It’s an important case in terms of how prosecutors behaved under the past administrations and how that affects future prosecutions. That’s why I’m handling it personally.”

See here for the background. One of the things this story discusses is a recent fundraiser for Ogg to which some of David Temple’s attorneys contributed, as this may present a conflict of interest for her. The Press, which has been foursquare in the “David Temple is a murderer who needs to be locked up” camp, is all over this. Ogg has not ruled out bringing in a special prosecutor to review the case and make the decision to proceed or not with it. Given how tainted this case is, that may be the wiser course of action for her. We’ll know more in sixty days or so.

Texas blog roundup for the week of Feburary 27

The Texas Progressive Alliance is always happy to celebrate the start of spring training as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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