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April 24th, 2018:

Today is Texas redistricting day at SCOTUS

The Chron sets the table.

The nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will take their seats Tuesday morning to hear a case that could remake the political map of Texas.

Hidden in the legalese of “interlocutory injunctions” and “statutory defects” is this simple question for the justices to dissect: Did the Republican-led state Legislature purposely draw its last legislative and congressional boundaries to subvert the voting power of Latino and African-American voters?

The answer, expected by June, could influence the racial and partisan makeup of the state’s political districts, culminating a long, high-stakes legal battle that has the potential to turn Texas a little more blue.

A possible finding of voting rights violations also could force the Lone Star State back under federal supervision for future election disputes, a civil rights remedy associated with the state’s segregationist past. Texas only got removed from federal preclearance requirements in 2013. Restrictions requiring strict federal scrutiny of all elections had been in place since the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

“The Texas case thus could be in a position to break new ground and will be closely watched for that reason,” said legal court analyst Michael Li, writing for the New York University Law School Brennan School of Justice.

See here for the last update. While the Chron story mostly covers familiar ground, it does note that thanks to other cases currently being considered by SCOTUS, the state is probably not going to use the “it was just a partisan matter” defense. Michael Li discusses that in this Q&A he did with the Observer:

What should we know about the other two redistricting cases before the Supreme Court?

In Texas, the claims are about racial fairness, but in the other two cases — in Wisconsin and Maryland — the claims are about partisan gerrymanders.

The Supreme Court has never put partisan gerrymandering out of bounds in the way it has racial gerrymandering, which has left a really big loophole for states to claim they’re only discriminating based on partisanship. It’s become this sort of strange defense you see playing out in states like Texas, where lawmakers essentially argue they’re discriminating against Democrats and not African Americans. That’s because it’s perfectly OK to discriminate against Democrats when you draw the lines. But if [the court] limits partisan gerrymandering, it could shut down the excuse that a lot of places in the South, including Texas, have used.

The two cases being argued on Tuesday are not the Texas maps’ first trip to the Supreme Court. They were also before the Court in 2012, which triggered a bit of a judicial fire drill at the time.

What the state will probably argue is that the current map, which was adopted in 2013, is legal and needs no changes made. Ian Millhiser of ThinkProgress breaks that down.

Texas initially drew its gerrymandered maps in 2011, before the Supreme Court struck down much of the Voting Rights Act. Under the fully armed and operational Act, any new Texas voting law had to be submitted to federal officials in Washington, DC for “preclearance” before it could take effect, and a federal court in DC ultimately concluded that the state’s maps were not legal.

Meanwhile, the 2012 election was drawing closer and closer, and Texas still did not have any valid maps it could use to conduct that election.

With this deadline drawing nigh, a federal district court drew its own maps that Texas could use for 2012, but the Supreme Court vacated those maps. In an ominous statement that plays a starring role in Texas’ Perez brief, the Supreme Court explained that “redistricting is ‘primarily the duty and responsibility of the State.’” The district court’s maps, at least according to the justices, needed to be reconsidered because they may not have shown sufficient deference to state lawmakers.

“A district court,” the Supreme Court concluded, “should take guidance from the State’s recently enacted plan in drafting an interim plan.” Thus, even when state lawmakers draw legally dubious maps for the very purpose of giving some voters more power than others, courts should be reluctant to make sweeping changes to those maps.

In fairness, this was not an especially novel holding. The Court proclaimed in 1975that “reapportionment is primarily the duty and responsibility of the State.” But such a holding takes on chilling implications when a state legislature is actively trying to rig elections. Should courts really defer to lawmakers who are a straight up trying to undercut democracy?

It’s likely that a majority of the Supreme Court’s answer to this question in Perezwill be an emphatic “yes!” and that the Court will effectively allow much of Texas’ gerrymander to endure without any meaningful judicial review at all.

After the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision striking down the district court’s maps, the case went back down to the district court with instructions to try again. By this point, it was late January. Texas still had no valid maps, and a primary election was looming. Candidates had no idea where to campaign. Incumbents did not know who their constituents would be.

The result was a rushed, March 2012 order which laid out interim maps that closely resembled the maps drawn by the state legislature. “This interim map is not a final ruling on the merits of any claims asserted by the Plaintiffs in this case or any of the other cases consolidated with this case,” the court warned when it handed down the hastily drawn maps. Nevertheless, the court understood “the need to have the primaries as soon as possible, and the resulting need for the Court to produce an interim map with sufficient time to allow officials to implement the map.”

With few good options, the district court allowed several of Texas’ districts to remain unchanged, even though there were serious concerns that those districts were racial gerrymanders.

Flash forward to 2018, and the Perez cases involve several of these unchanged districts that the district court later held to be illegally gerrymandered. But there’s a catch! The Texas legislature, seeing a potential opportunity to shut down this litigation altogether, took the district court’s inadequately scrutinized, rush-job maps, and wrote them into state law in 2013. They now claim that these maps are immune from judicial review because they were drawn by a court.

“There are few things a legislature can do to avoid protracted litigation over its redistricting legislation,” Texas claims in its brief. “But if the nearly inevitable litigation comes to pass, one would have thought there was one reasonably safe course available to bring it to an end—namely, enacting the three-judge court’s remedial redistricting plan as the legislature’s own.”

It’s a stunning, arrogant claim. The only reason why the district court blessed its interim maps is because it felt it had no choice — a deadline was looming, and the Supreme Court left it with little time to act and an order to defer to the state legislature’s maps whenever possible. The districts at issue in Tuesday’s oral argument never received meaningful judicial scrutiny before they were whisked into action as a matter of necessity.

And yet, it is highly likely that a majority of the Court will agree with Texas’ claim that its maps are immune from review. Though the district court struck down portions of the Texas maps (again), the Supreme Court voted along party lines to reinstate those maps for the 2018 election last September.

One way or the other, we ought to have a clearer idea of what is and is not allowed when maps are drawn. State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez and Travis County Tax Assessor Bruce Elfant, in this Statesman op-ed, explain their motivation for pursuing this litigation, and the Trib has more.

Lawsuit against Dallas County Democratic candidates dismissed

Good.

A judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit that would have removed more than 80 Democrats from the November general election ballot, putting to rest a controversy that threatened to toss Dallas County elections into chaos.

State District Judge Eric Moyé issued an order tossing out Dallas County Republican Party Chairwoman Missy Shorey’s lawsuit against Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Donovan and 127 Democrats originally listed on the March 6 primary election ballot. After the primary, the names of the candidates that were in jeopardy dwindled to 82.

The lawsuit contended that Donovan did not sign the candidate applications of 127 Democrats before they were forwarded to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. That signature, according the lawsuit, was needed in order to certify the candidates for the election.

But Moyé on Monday sided with the defense and dismissed the claims. In a hearing Friday a team of lawyers, led by Randy Johnston, argued that Shorey did not have standing to bring the suit. They also said Donovan isn’t required by law to sign candidate petitions and that the matter is moot because the election is already underway.

[…]

Now Moyé will determine if the GOP will be on the hook for legal fees. About 16 Democrats plus the local party retained lawyers.

“The Republican Party must now pay the attorney’s fees incurred by the Dallas County Democratic Party for having to defend a lawsuit that has no basis in law or fact,” according to a news release from Dallas County Democrats.

See here, here, and here for the background. This lawsuit always seemed spurious, but you never can tell. It’s possible there could be an appeal – the lawyer for the Dallas County GOP said they were reviewing the decision and deciding on their next step – but that seems like an even longer longshot. Hopefully, this is the end of it, and hopefully the matter of “signing” the affidavit can be clarified in the next Legislature so as to avoid this kind of silliness going forward. The Trib has more.

HISD considers charter partnership

They’ve got to do something to keep the TEA at bay.

Energized For STEM Academy Inc., an organization run by NAACP Houston Branch President James Douglas and former Houston ISD trustee Paula Harris, has been selected as the potential partner to run 10 long-struggling HISD schools at risk of triggering major state sanctions this year.

HISD trustees are scheduled to vote Tuesday on negotiating and executing a contract with Energized For STEM Academy, which already runs seven in-district charter schools in HISD, to take over operations of the 10 schools ahead of the 2018-19 school year, according to a public meeting notice posted Friday. District officials haven’t released terms of a contract, but it’s expected Energized For STEM Academy would be responsible for hiring, governance and operations at each school.

District officials have recommended temporarily surrendering control over the 10 schools as part of an effort to stave off sanctions due to chronically low academic performance. In exchange for relinquishing control, HISD would get a two-year reprieve from a potential state takeover of the district’s locally elected school board or forced campus closures.

[…]

Douglas, who has previously served as president of Texas Southern University and helped form Energized For STEM Academy’s governing board in 2008, said he’s been in discussion with HISD leaders about the arrangement for three weeks. A contract hasn’t been drawn up, and many details will be worked out in the coming days ahead of an April 30 deadline to submit partnership plans to the Texas Education Agency, Douglas said.

“We know we have to do in a few days what normally would take months to do,” Douglas said. “But that’s what has been handed to us, and that’s what we have to deal with. We can’t waste time worrying about what we need.”

There’s not a lot to go on here, but then it’s not like there are a ton of other great options out there. Reaction is mixed, as you might expect.

A long-awaited proposal from Houston ISD to temporarily surrender control over 10 of its lowest-performing schools is facing mixed reviews ahead of a crucial vote Tuesday.

Case in point: the president of Houston’s largest teachers union, Zeph Capo, blasted the proposal to allow Energized For STEM Academy to run all 10 schools as ill-conceived and hastily arranged, saying he has “no confidence that this is in the best interest of children.” Meanwhile, Board of Trustees President Rhonda Skillern-Jones defended the arrangement as “the best choice of all the bad choices” available to HISD, which faces forced campus closures or a state takeover of its locally elected school board without a partnership.

[…]

Energized For STEM Academy currently operates middle and high schools with roughly 1,000 students combined. The campuses are overseen by Lois Bullock, who has operated in-district HISD charters since 1998. Its two high schools had graduation rates, state standardized test scores and SAT scores that were well above HISD averages in 2016-17. However, one of its middle schools was rated “improvement required” by the state in 2014 and 2016.

Douglas and Bullock oversee three additional in-district HISD charter schools with a similar name, Energized For Excellence Academy, but those campuses have a different governing board.

Capo, who heads the Houston Federation of Teachers, said he has deep concerns about Energized For STEM Academy’s ability to improve academic performance after conducting initial research. He questioned how an organization educating about 1,000 students can oversee an additional 6,000-plus students.

“What evidence do we have that says they can actually do the job?” Capo said.

Capo added that residents and local education advocates, including his union, haven’t had enough time to vet Energized For STEM Academy for possible improper ties to for-profit entities or other conflicts of interest. The organization has filed annual 990 tax forms, which detail many spending patterns, but they don’t post annual financial audits or governing board meeting minutes on their website.

“(Trustees) need to grow a backbone and pay deep, close attention to what’s happening before they vote,” Capo said. “There are far too many questions left unanswered before they vote on Tuesday.”

Skillern-Jones said she supports forming partnerships if it means keeping local control and avoiding campus closures, which she called “devastating” to neighborhoods that are predominately black and Hispanic. She said her constituents, who make up six of the 10 schools, wanted a partner with local ties. The only other organization under consideration for a partnership, Generation Schools Network, is based in New York.

“I’m still looking through all the information, but I know they have a good track record in the district for 20 years, which says to me that we’ve kept them around for a reason,” Skillern-Jones said.

See here for the last update. I get Zeph Capo’s concerns – this is all happening very fast, with not much public input, and while Energized For STEM seems to have a decent track record this is asking a lot from them with no guarantee that their methods will translate or scale to a larger group of students. On the other hand, the remaining options are to find a different charter operator, to close the affected schools and reconstitute them as smaller institutions (which is really unpopular with the affected communities), and hope for the best with this year’s STAAR results. Some activists are calling for HISD to sue the TEA; I’m not qualified to assess the merits of such a strategy, but if it works it would at least buy some time. Energized For STEM may well be the best of a bad lot, but that’s not the same as being good.

CD07 candidate forum

Happening tomorrow, at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center, 1414 Wirt Road, Houston, Texas 77055, from 6:15 to 8:45. My guess, as this is the way these things tend to go, is that there will be some mix-and-mingle time with the candidates up front, with the main event to follow. I’m just guessing, you might want to post something on the Facebook event page if you need to know. The event moderator is an old friend and college classmate of mine, Patrick Pringle. Should be a good event, so if you voted for one of the other candidates in March and need to figure out who deserves your vote in May, this is a good chance to do that.