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March 16th, 2017:

So what does that redistricting ruling really mean?

The Trib has a good explainer.

So will the Legislature redraw the congressional map? And if so, when?

Here’s where it gets tricky. Friday’s order made it clear that the 2011 map cannot stand, but it did not order anyone to immediately redraw it. That might be because that map wasn’t actually in effect.

Amid the legal wrangling, Texas has conducted elections with a court-approved interim map. [Michael] Li, the redistricting expert [with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School], said the court must still rule on that map, drawn in 2013. It’s not clear when that will happen. Striking down the 2013 map is something of a formality, Li said, because the boundaries of two of its districts — Farenthold’s 27th and Doggett’s 35th — are identical to those drawn in 2011.

It’s anybody’s guess when Texas will get new maps — or even who will draw them. Generally, courts will give lawmakers another crack at drawing a map that’s been struck down. But plaintiffs could argue that Texas can’t be trusted to try again, pushing instead for an alternative fix.

Can Texas appeal Friday’s ruling?

Sure. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton could ask the U.S Supreme Court to weigh in on the case. But it’s not clear when or whether the Republican will do that — largely because of how open-ended the ruling is.

“Since this is an interim order that does not propose any relief, the State is evaluating its options, which may be impacted by any future court rulings,” Kayleigh Lovvorn, a Paxton spokeswoman, told the Texas Tribune on Monday.

What about Texas’ state House and Senate maps?

The courts have settled squabbles over the state Senate map, but a challenge to the House boundaries is still pending. It’s not clear when the judges will rule.

What are the larger implications of Friday’s ruling?

Experts call it huge that the judges found “intentional” discrimination in the congressional map — a condition that could ultimately put Texas back on the list of states that need permission to change their election laws.

A 2013 Supreme Court ruling — Shelby County v. Holder — sprung Texas and other states with a history of discrimination from that list. But Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act includes a “bail-in” provision allowing courts to put a state back under supervision (a process called “preclearance”) if it is found to have knowingly discriminated in changing its election laws.

“This is a big test of whether the Voting Rights Act still has some teeth,” Li said.

Before the Shelby County ruling, Texas needed the U.S. Department of Justice’s signoff to change its election laws. If courts again ordered such supervision, Texas could find a sympathetic ear from the current U.S. attorney general, Jeff Sessions, who applauded the Shelby County decision in 2013.

But if the judges give Texas a supervisor, they could choose someone other than the Justice Department — another court, for instance.

“The court has broad discretion in defining how preclearance will work,” Li said. “Section 3 [of the Voting Rights Act] is very untested, and this case will help define what a court can and cannot do.”

See here for the background. If you want even more from Michael Li on this, see what he has to say at Rick Hasen‘s place. I didn’t know that about Section 3. I had been skeptical about bail-in to preclearance having much effect since the Sessions Justice Department is a cruel joke, but if Texas has to get pre-approval on any changes from a federal court, that changes things. And with this ruling, there may be two cases that require preclearance again. Maybe this time, crime really didn’t pay. In any event, at this point we need 1) a remedy for the Voting Rights Act violations, which begins with a new map; 2) some process for drawing that new map – it could be the court, if the plaintiffs can argue that the Lege cannot be trusted; 3) a ruling on the State House map, and a remedy for it if it too is ruled to be illegal; and 4) a ruling on Section 3 bail-in. Time is officially of the essence, so let’s hope we start getting answers to these questions soon.

County will use public defenders at bail hearings

Good.

Harris County commissioners on Tuesday approved a pilot program to make public defenders available at bail hearings, a step aimed at retooling a criminal justice system that has increasingly drawn criticism for jailing thousands of poor, low-risk offenders.

Within months, county officials anticipate that two public defenders will be present at bail hearings for those accused of misdemeanors and felonies. The vast majority of the roughly 80,000 defendants at these hearings each year does not now have legal representation, and the change means that defendants of limited means charged with a Class B misdemeanor or above will be able to have access to a lawyer when a judge sets bail.

The pilot represents a major change in the way Harris County processes those accused of crimes. The move also makes it the first county in Texas to create such a program, though one official noted that the county lags behind other major metro areas – New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago – in making attorneys available at bail hearings.

“I think it’s a huge step forward that will assure that people’s rights are protected at these hearings,” said Alexander Bunin, Harris County’s chief public defender, whose office developed the pilot program.

The attorneys would provide information on the defendants’ financial situations to hearing officers who set bail, with the goal of releasing those who cannot make bail, pose a low risk to society and have not been convicted of a crime.

[…]

Several top Harris County officials – including County Judge Ed Emmett, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and District Attorney Kim Ogg – have also said recently that the bail system should be restructured so that it doesn’t differentiate between rich and poor defendants.

“This is a positive step forward on the long road to fixing a broken criminal justice system,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a former state senator who has sharply criticized the county’s bail bond system.

Emmett, a Republican, also praised the pilot program’s creation Tuesday.

“It’s going in the right direction,” he said. “This is one of those things we needed to do.”

See here for the background. This makes sense on so many levels. It will be cost-controlled, as he public defender’s office budget is approved by Commissioners Court. The defenders assigned to bail hearings will always be there. There will be no concerns about quality or conflict of interest with public defenders, which as we know from long and painful history is not always the case with court-appointed attorneys. It will help prevent defendants from incriminating themselves out of ignorance and lack of representation. And not to put too fine a point on it but it greatly reduces the problem of people getting thrown in jail for no reason other than not being able to pay bail. It’s not a complete solution, in that there are still issues to be resolved in the bail practices lawsuit, but it’s a big positive step. Kudos all around.

A really dumb “Trump and the train” article

Ugh.

Texas is closer than ever to building the first high-speed train in the United States, thanks to President Donald Trump’s fascination with these transportation projects and a well-timed pitch to his administration.

Now developers nationwide are looking to the privately owned Texas Central Railway as a test case of what can get done with Trump in the White House.

Former Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane Jr., a member of the company’s board of directors, met recently with Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao in Washington. He wasn’t seeking any of the taxpayer-funded grants sought by high-speed rail projects in California and the Northeast.

What the $10 billion Texas Central Railway really needs is a green light from the agency Chao oversees.

“It was an opportunity to make a first impression,” said Tim Keith, president of Texas Central Railway.

The meeting clearly stuck. Soon after, Chao mentioned the Texas Central Railway at the National Governors Association winter conference as an example of the kind of “very impressive” project the administration is interested in.

The question now is whether private investment — coupled with regulatory relief — is a model the Trump administration could use to finance and expedite his promised $1 trillion infrastructure push, and not just in Texas.

[…]

California is building a 220-mph high-speed rail system, but that project has been delayed by political opposition. Its trains also have to meet more rigorous federal standards for crash protection because they will share tracks with commuter trains, Amtrak and some freight.

By building a self-contained system where trains will not intersect with street traffic or encounter slower trains, the Texas project can employ off-the-shelf technology in use in Japan for more than 50 years.

“It’s going to be a lot easier than the California project,” said Peter LeCody, president of Texas Rail Advocates and chairman of the National Association of Railroad Passengers, both advocacy groups that support the Texas project. “They’ll have a little harder way to go in California than in Texas.”

[…]

High-speed rail has been a topic in Texas for 30 years, but Keith thinks its moment has come.

“What’s happening in Texas is private entrepreneurs are saying, look there’s demand, there’s pent-up demand,” he said. “We can meet the demand.”

The biggest obstacles for the railway could be back home in Texas. Some landowners along the route want to derail the project, and they have help from allies in the state Legislature.

“You’re talking about property rights. In Texas, we love our land,” said LeCody with Texas Rail Advocates.

LeCody said Texas was changing and needed a transportation system that addressed road congestion and population growth.

“We’re such a growing state,” he said. “We’ve got to learn how to move people from point A to point B without highways.”

See here for previous Trump-and-the-train coverage. Where to begin with this article?

1. The article makes it sound like interest in high speed rail is something unique to Dear Leader Trump. In fact, President Obama had national high speed rail ambitions, which included plans for Texas that unfortunately didn’t pan out due to our own lack of initiative. To be sure, that was government funding for high speed rail, while Texas Central is all about private funding. I’m just saying that the idea of high speed rail here did not originate with Trump.

2. The opposition to Texas Central is barely acknowledged in this story, much less analyzed. There’s a full court press in the Legislature, which Texas Central itself acknowledges as an existential threat. I’ve always been somewhat skeptical of the likelihood of success for the Texas Central opponents, mostly because they don’t appear to have grown their base beyond the mostly rural counties in East and Central Texas, but they are working hard at this and they have some powerful and influential Senators on their side. Not talking to a Brandon Creighton or Lois Kolkhorst about Texas Central is at the least a disservice to the readers. For crying out loud, the story uses a Texas Central booster to discuss the opposition. Even as a Texas Central supporter myself, I say that’s just lousy journalism.

3. Outside the Legislature, there is a fervent grassroots opposition to Texas Central as well, with a lot of that coming from county and municipal governments in the affected areas as well as from private citizens. There’s already been litigation over access to the land needed for the TCR right of way, and there will surely be more for as long as this project is in its planning and construction phase. One might also note that this opposition comes from places in the state that voted heavily for Trump. Maybe this isn’t the sort of thing that might get a voter to change their mind about a President, but again, not at least acknowledging this leaves the reader with a false impression.

4. Finally, the opposition to TCR includes two powerful Republican Congressmen from Texas, one of whom chairs the House Ways and Means Committee. If you don’t think it’s possible that Rep. Kevin Brady could slip a rider into the budget that guts Texas Central, much like Rep. John Culberson did to Metro and the Universities line, you’ve got an insufficiently active imagination.

Other than that, it was a fine article.

And as if to prove my point, we have this.

The Texas Senate’s chief budget writers Wednesday added a provision to its proposed state budget aimed at limiting state assistance in a private firm’s efforts to build a Dallas-Houston bullet train.

The budget rider approved by the Senate Finance Committee would prohibit the Texas Department of Transportation from spending funds to help plan, build or operate a high-speed train.

The company developing a 205-mph bullet train between Dallas and Houston called the language a “job killer.” Texas Central Partners has vowed it won’t take any state funds to develop the 240-mile line between Texas’ two largest metropolitan areas. But, the company said, it still needs to work with state transportation officials.

“Texas Central engineers and employees need to be able to coordinate with TxDOT on the planning, engineering and construction of the high-speed train to accommodate the state’s growth,” said in a statement released by the company Wednesday.

State Sen. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, denied that the budget rider he wrote was meant to kill the project.

“If we are being told that this is never going to take any bailouts, they need to put their money where their mouth is,” he said.

A similar amendment nearly killed the project two years ago, but was eventually omitted from the state’s final budget.

See here and here for the background. Note that it was Sen. Schwertner who tried this trick in 2015 as well. We’ll see what happens with it. I trust you see my point about why this article sucked.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance was fake before but is very real now as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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