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May 4th, 2019:

The Section 3 bail-in hearing

At long last, the final question to answer about Texas and the Voting Rights Act, namely has the state done enough bad stuff to be required to be put under preclearance again?

Back in the federal courthouse where most of an eight year-long case has played out, the fight over forcing Texas back under federal oversight of its mapmaking appeared to hinge on whether the state should be held accountable for political maps that never took effect.

The arguments for a return to the days when Texas needed approval of its political districts diverged significantly during a Thursday court hearing before a panel of three federal judges. The state and the plaintiffs — voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers — each appeared to have a judge on their side. One judge was skeptical of any sort of supervision for state lawmakers, while another judge openly considered why Texas should be allowed to redraw its maps without any sort of guardianship given its recent discrimination against voters of color.

But the high-stakes fight — and ultimately the ruling from the three-judge panel overseeing the case — may very well rest on Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who made few remarks during the hearing but summed up the issue in one question.

“Is it actual injury or threatened harm that controls the issue?” Garcia asked.

[…]

“If the bail in statute means anything…it has to apply to Texas redistricting,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing some of the plaintiffs. “Texas redistricting is where the state again and again and again at every level of government has shown a resistance to recognizing the political power of minority voters.”

Thursday’s hearing marked the beginning of the final — and perhaps the most significant — stage of the long-running legal fight over the state’s political maps. The case is poised to serve as the latest test of whether the federal Voting Rights Act can still serve as a safeguard for voters of color. If the panel does not invoke bail in, the 2021 redistricting cycle would mark the first time in nearly half a century that Texas could implement new legislative and congressional districts without first proving they don’t undercut the electoral power of voters of color.

While under federal supervision, Texas proved to be a repeat offender. In their briefs to the court ahead of the hearing, the plaintiffs noted that state lawmakers passed one or more redistricting plans that were declared unconstitutional or in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every decade since 1970.

Given the rulings of intentional discrimination against the state, the plaintiffs are asking the court to put the state back under oversight of its mapmaking for up to 10 years to cover the next round of redistricting when the state will again rejigger its political boundaries to account for population growth.

But Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appeared hostile to that proposal, repeatedly alluding to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in which the court signed off on most of Texas’ current political boundaries and pushed aside claims that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they replaced the 2011 maps in 2013.

“This has already been going on for eight years, and you want 10 more despite the Supreme Court saying it’s over,” Smith said. “I don’t understand.”

The state’s deputy solicitor general, Matthew Frederick, echoed that sentiment. He argued that Texas shouldn’t be placed back under federal oversight based on findings against maps that were never used, especially after the Supreme Court found no intentional discrimination behind the state’s 2013 effort to replace those maps with those offered up by three-judge panel in 2012 as an interim fix to allow elections to move forward that year.

Bail in “cannot be justified when a state adopts and accepts judicial remedies,” Frederick said.

“So your argument is we messed up and intentionally discriminated at first, but the court fixed it and as a result of the court fixing it we’re OK?” asked federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

Frederick responded that those violations weren’t enough to invoke bail in because the state had not engaged in widespread, rampant discrimination. He pointed out that any sort of discrimination found by the court in Texas did not amount to the widespread racism that marked the 1960s, when states kept voters of color from casting votes by continuously replacing barriers —for example , requirements that black voters guess how many bubbles are in a bar of soap — with other impediments, such as literacy tests, as they were deemed unconstitutional.

But Rodriguez continued to question Frederick over whether the state was “engaging in more subtle forms of discrimination” that it then attempted to wash away by replacing discriminatory laws with court fixes and then claiming there was no harm for which it could be held accountable. He pointed to the state’s defense of its strict voter ID law that, like the state maps, was eventually replaced with a court remedy after a judge found it was enacted with discriminatory purpose.

“But for this court’s changes to those 2011 plans, the state would’ve continued to try to continue to implement them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what the whole [bail in] paradigm is trying to prevent from happening again.”

See here and here for the background. These are the same three judges who had ruled in the earlier redistricting cases, so it is entirely possible that they may once again vote 2-1 in favor of the plaintiffs. I mean, the record speaks quite clearly for itself, and if Texas doesn’t meet the standard for bail-in, it’s hard to know how it could ever be met. Which just means that the Fifth Circuit will need to come up with a reason, which SCOTUS will then endorse, because come on, we’ve seen this movie and we know how it ends. I wish I were less cynical, but how can you not be, given what has happened so far? We’ll see how long it takes for a ruling and we’ll go from there. The DMN and Michael Li have more.

Another view of pollution enforcement

The state has its role, but it’s not all on them.

Almost two months before a massive chemical fire erupted in Deer Park, sending a dark plume of smoke over much of Harris County, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia asked the head of the county’s Pollution Control Services Department what additional resources he needed.

County officials were nearing the end of a third day of annual budget hearings and Garcia was concerned the department lacked the manpower and equipment to properly monitor air quality in his eastern precinct, let alone the entire county.

So, he asked Director Bob Allen for a wish list.

“Nobody’s ever asked me that before,” Allen replied at the Jan. 11 hearing in the Commissioners Court chambers. He said the department could use additional air monitors — especially mobile ones — and noted Pollution Control had fewer employees than in the 1990s.

Garcia last week said he was struck by Allen’s “deer-in-the-headlights look.” He wondered why previous Commissioners Courts had not pressed Allen for more details, and why he appeared unprepared to outline an ambitious vision for Pollution Control.

In the end, the court in February approved a 28 percent budget increase for the small department, giving Allen an additional $1.2 million. The department inspects facilities and enforces state and local air, water, solid waste and storm water regulations.

The investment made little difference four weeks later when a storage tank farm at Intercontinental Terminals Co. ignited on March 17, burned for more than 60 hours and sent Harris County emergency responders scrambling to monitor pollution and keep the public informed of dangers.

The ITC fire, followed by a fatal explosion and blaze at the KMCO plant in Crosby two weeks later, tested the capabilities of several county departments and spurred the longest activation of the emergency operations center since Hurricane Harvey.

County leaders said Pollution Control, however, was uniquely unprepared for the fires. Department staff were unable to quickly test air quality and report results to the public, forcing the county to hire outside consultants and design a website from scratch. Garcia said he lost faith in Allen’s leadership.

Unlike the city of Houston and federal Environmental Protection Agency, Harris County had no mobile air monitoring vehicle especially useful in emergencies. Five of the county’s 12 ozone monitors were broken, and Pollution Control’s fast-response team consisted of four members.

“We do not have the staff to sustain a response to the scale of ITC,” said Craig Hill, field manager for Pollution Control. He estimated the conflagration — which required the assistance of Louisiana firefighters to extinguish — was the largest the department had ever encountered.

The ITC fire was the first major emergency for Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who said the incident exposed significant gaps in the county’s capabilities. Hidalgo said residents shared concerns about daily air pollution, let alone from chemical fires, at a February town hall in Pasadena. She said county government in the past has taken a too-lax approach to potential disasters at industrial sites along the Houston Ship Channel.

“We’re not just going to hope that this doesn’t happen again,” she said. “We’re going to do a thorough analysis and share the results, and do that quickly.”

There’s a lot more, so go read the rest. Here’s that website that the county got set up to track air quality results, in case you’re curious. It’s amazing, and in many ways quite telling, that none of this capability had existed before. We’re pretty good on disaster preparedness when the disaster is a weather event, which we can usually see coming. The man-made kind of disaster, which let’s be honest should be at least as predictable given what we do in this county and the lax enforcement around it, we’re caught flat-footed. I for one am very glad to see that’s no longer the case.

Senate passes scooter safety bill

Cool.

Sen. Royce West

Texans could soon be banned from riding electric scooters along sidewalks in the cities where the divisive devices have recently popped up. The Texas Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would add that prohibition and require that scooter users be at least 16 years old.

Citing safety concerns, some local governments have imposed restrictions on electric scooters, like creating restricted areas where they can’t be used — but Texas legislators wanted to impose minimum statewide guidelines.

“It’s like the wild, wild west out there with no rules,” said state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen.

Senate Bill 549, authored by Dallas Democrat state Sen. Royce West, would also prohibit more than two people from riding a scooter at once. Plus, the bill adds new guidelines for parking, so a rider can’t obstruct a road or sidewalk when they finish their ride.

[…]

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, decried the prohibition from riding on sidewalks, saying that there are some situations where it’s safer for a rider be on the sidewalk than on the street. But Houston Republican state Sen. Joan Huffman, who says she’s been nearly hit three times by a scooter, said the sidewalk ban is key for safety.

“What about my personal liberty, my personal safety, when I’m walking on a sidewalk?” she said. “Not a side scooter-way, a side runway, or a side speedway — but a sidewalk.”

See here for the background. I don’t know what Sen. Hughes’ experience is, but we ban bicycles on sidewalks, too, and for the same reason. I’ll be rooting for this one in the House.

Today is May Election Day

From the inbox:

Harris County Kicks Off First Election With Countywide Polling Place Program

Houston, TX– Saturday, May 4, 2019, is Election Day for approximately 708,000 eligible voters in Harris County.  This election is the first since being approved for a Countywide Polling Place Program, which means voters will be able to cast a ballot at any of the 113 Election Day Polling Locations.  All polling locations will be open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.

The Harris County Clerk’s office will conduct elections for 23 local jurisdictions across the county. Voters residing in these jurisdictions can find their individual sample ballots, Election Day polling locations, and utilize the new wait time feature at www.HarrisVotes.com.

“Since voters can choose to cast a ballot anywhere in the county, harrisvotes.com will help them find their specific sample ballot, the nearest 5 polling locations and let them know what the anticipated wait time is at each location,” explained Harris County Clerk Dr. Diane Trautman.

At the end of the Early Voting period, only 18,216 votes had been cast in the election or about 2.7%. An approximate additional 30 local jurisdictions in Harris County will also conduct elections on the same day.

For more information about the May 4 Joint Election and the Countywide Polling Place Program, voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com or call the Harris County Clerk’s office at 713.755.6965.

See here for more on the races of interest. If you live in Sugar Land or Pasadena, I hope you had a chance to listen to my interviews with Nabila Mansoor and Steve Halvorson. I’ll round up the results tomorrow. If you live someplace with an election happening, get out there and vote.