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TPJ files suit against Abbott over Hecht ethics case

Here we go again.

An Austin legal watchdog group filed suit Wednesday to force action on a $29,000 ethics fine, levied against Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in 2008, that has languished on appeal for 5½ years.

The motion from Texans for Public Justice seeks to remove Attorney General Greg Abbott from the case, saying Abbott has violated his legal duties by failing to pursue the case on behalf of the Texas Ethics Commission, which levied the fine.

“(Abbott) has helped his friend, former colleague and political ally by allowing the case to be inactive and dormant,” the motion said.

[...]

In Wednesday’s motion to intervene in Hecht’s appeal, Texans for Public Justice asked the court to disqualify Abbott, Republican candidate for governor, as the lawyer representing the ethics commission.

“By permitting, aiding and abetting, and acquiescing in almost six years of delay, Attorney General Abbott has violated his fundamental constitutional and statutory duties to ‘defend the laws’ of Texas and ‘represent the state in litigation’ … and he has failed to collect the fine that should have been collected years ago for the benefit of Texas taxpayers,” the motion said.

See here for a bit of background. The TPJ press release fills in the details.

Hecht’s troubles date to the short-lived 2005 nomination of his ex-flame Harriet Miers to the U.S. Supreme Court. Hecht’s promotion of Miers to conservative groups and the media drew a Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct rebuke for violating state prohibitions on political activism by jurists. Arguing that the First Amendment trumps judicial canons, Hecht attorney Chip Babcock overturned the admonishment in 2006.

Hecht’s victory spawned new ethical issues. The Texas Ethics Commission ruled that Babcock’s discounted legal fees amounted to an in-kind contribution to Hecht worth $100,000. Hecht failed to report this contribution, which exceeded judicial campaign limits. Following a rare formal public hearing, commissioners ordered Hecht to pay a $29,000 fine on December 11, 2008. Justice Hecht appealed to a Travis County court on January 27, 2009 and the Attorney General quickly filed a response on behalf of the Ethics Commission. Since those filings in early 2009, the case has languished. Setting a record for the longest appeal of a state ethics fine, the case runs the risk of being dismissed for lack of prosecution.

“Abbott has a duty to prosecute this cold case and collect from Justice Hecht,” said TPJ Director Craig McDonald. “Instead, he has sat on his hands for six years to protect a friend and political crony. Texas law recognizes no crony exception. It’s time for Abbott to act—or to find someone who will.”

TPJ’s motion asks the district court to remove Abbott from the case if necessary and to impose appropriate sanctions for “his extraordinary and egregious pattern of inaction and neglect in apparent deference and favoritism toward his friend and former colleague.”

TPJ’s filing argues that Abbott’s inaction violates provisions of the Texas Rules of Judicial Administration, Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct, Texas Lawyers Creed and statutory and constitutional obligations of the Attorney General to promote the timely administration of justice. Abbott’s office, which has absolute discretion to aggressively pursue such matters, claimed in 2014 that plaintiff Hecht alone is responsible for advancing the case. Were this true, any defendant could beat any Ethics Commission rap simply by filing an appeal and then ignoring it.

I noted the five-year anniversary of the case last December. I get that TPJ could have timed the filing of their complaint differently, but come on. Abbott has time to file a zillion lawsuits against the federal government while simultaneously defending losers like the same sex marriage ruling, the school finance ruling, and the voter ID ruling, but he can’t assign a junior attorney or two to push some paper on this? His priorities as AG have always been the interests of the Republican Party first, and everything else second. There’s really no excuse for this. You can see the complaint TPJ filed here, the Ethics Commission order against Hecht from 2008 here, and their timeline of events here.

Posted in: Legal matters.

#GiveToWendy

wendy-button-final-fb-cover

A year ago at about this time, a group of progressive blogs joined forces to raise money for the Wendy Davis campaign, which at that point was only a month old and all of the usual “early money” maxims applied. The only “early” now is early voting, which begins in three days, but late money still helps, too. I’m joining in this push to ask you today to make a contribution to the Davis campaign to help her make that final push to get everyone possible out to the polls.

I know, everyone’s asking for money. Believe me, I get all those desperate begging emails, too. If you want to skip this post and move on to the rest of today’s content, I don’t blame you. But if you’re still here, let me make my case, as briefly and hyperventilation-freely as I can.

Like so many people, I was inspired by Wendy Davis’ courageous actions on the Senate floor last summer, and outraged by the underhanded and small-minded tactics that were used to try to shut her up. I was thrilled when she announced her candidacy for Governor. And like many people, there have been times when I wished her campaign had made other choices. But I’ve never wavered in my belief that the state of Texas will be infinitely better off with Governor Wendy Davis that it would be with Governor Greg Abbott. If you’re reading this blog, I trust that you don’t need me to enumerate the reasons for that. But that’s what it comes down to. And that means we all want to be in a position to wake up on November 5 and say to ourselves, “I did what I could”.

If you’re already doing other things – calling, knocking on doors, talking to family and friends, whatever – then bless you. You’re making a difference. If you’ve already given to your limit, then thank you. It really means something. If you’ve got some capacity left, we still need you. Just click the link or the picture up top, and you’re good to go.

I don’t have a cutesy finish, and I won’t end this with a PS. Please give if you can – any amount will help – and thank you if you do. If you’re inspired to make further contributions to the other fine candidates on the ballot with Wendy – Leticia Van de Putte, Sam Houston, Mike Collier, John Cook, Steve Brown – or if you’d just rather give to one or more of them instead, that’s awesome, too. Every little bit helps, and everyone’s help is needed. Thank you very much.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Judicial Q&A: Randy Roll

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Randy Roll

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am former District Judge Randy Roll.

I am the Democratic candidate for the 180th Criminal District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

4 types of felonies. 1st degree felony punishable from 5 to 99 yrs in TDC, 2nd degree felony punishable from 2 to 20 years in TDC, 3rd degree felony punishable from 2 to 10 years in TDC & State Jail felony punishable from 6 months to 24 months in the State Jail Facility.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I want to give everyone who comes before this bench an equal chance. Undocumented aliens who have permanent contacts with this county and are deserving of probation should not be denied that opportunity. I will try to stop the cronyism between judges and appointed defense attorneys.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

As a former judge, I inherited the worst and highest docket of the 22 different courts. 4 years later I left that court with the 4th best docket. I reduced the wait for a trial from years to 3 months. As an attorney and judge I have handled more than 10,000 felony cases and 100 jury trials. I speak Spanish, Russian, French and German. In 4 years on the bench, I took only 8 days vacation. I was the 1st judge to require experience & competence for attorneys appointed in DNA cases for indigent defendants, which I proposed to the other 21 judges and they adopted my proposal. No trial in my court (179th) was ever reversed by the Appellate Courts.

5. Why is this race important?

Presently, 19 of the 22 felony judges are Republican. We need more diversity on the bench.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have a track record of innovation, hard work and competence. I will work diligently and wisely and I ask for your support.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Subpoenaing sermons

Not sure about this.

PetitionsInvalid

Houston’s embattled equal rights ordinance took another legal turn this week when it surfaced that city attorneys, in an unusual step, subpoenaed sermons given by local pastors who oppose the law and are tied to the conservative Christian activists who have sued the city.

Opponents of the equal rights ordinance are hoping to force a repeal referendum when they get their day in court in January, claiming City Attorney David Feldman wrongly determined they had not gathered enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot.

City attorneys issued subpoenas last month as part of the case’s discovery phase, seeking, among other communications, “all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.”

The subpoenas were issued to pastors and religious leaders who have been vocal in opposing the ordinance: Dave Welch, Hernan Castano, Magda Hermida, Khanh Huynh and Steve Riggle. The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian legal organization known for its role in defending same-sex marriage bans, filed a motion Monday on behalf of the pastors seeking to quash the subpoenas, and in a press announcement called it a “witch hunt.”

The city’s lawyers will face a high bar for proving the information in the sermons is essential to their case, said Charles Rhodes, a South Texas College of Law professor. The pastors are not named parties in the suit, and the “Church Autonomy Doctrine” offers fairly broad protections for internal church deliberations, he said.

Calling it an “unusual but not unprecedented” subpoena request, Rhodes said the city would stand a better chance of getting the sermons if it were a criminal case in which the message or directive in the sermons prompted a specific criminal action.

Still, he said, the city likely will get a boost because many of the sermons are broadcast or recorded and are intended to be shared with the public.

“This is unusual to see it come up in a pure political controversy,” Rhodes said. “The city is going to have to prove there is something very particular in the sermons that does not come up anywhere else.”

Don’t get me wrong, I have zero sympathy for the pastoral haters, whose affinity for lying about the HERO ought to make your average sinner blush. I look forward to them getting crushed in court, or if necessary at the ballot box. I think anything that has been recorded in some form for the purpose of being distributed is fair game here. I guess it’s not clear to me what the city is hoping to find by subpoenaing this stuff. Emails, other written correspondence, phone records, transcripts – these things I understand. I don’t quite see what the city’s goal is.

The other concern is that the HERO haters will do an effective job at portraying themselves as victims. It is the one thing they are really good at, after all. It looks like they succeeded, unfortunately.

Amid outrage from religious groups, Mayor Annise Parker and City Attorney David Feldman on Wednesday appeared to back off a subpoena request for the sermons of certain ministers opposed to the city’s equal rights ordinance, with Parker calling it overly broad.

[...]

“There’s no question the wording was overly broad,” she said. “But I also think there was some misinterpretation on the other side.”

The subpoenas drew national attention this week, prompting Christian conservative groups to condemn the request as governmental overreach. U.S. Sen Ted Cruz issued a statement Wednesday, saying Parker “should be ashamed.”

“Let me just say that one word in a very long legal document which I know nothing about and would never have read and I’m vilified coast to coast,” Parker said. “It’s a normal day at the office for me.”

The intent, Feldman said, was simply to get all communications between pastors about the signature gathering instructions, a key part of a lawsuit opponents have brought against the city. Critics filed suit after Feldman announced they had failed to gather enough valid signatures to force a repeal referendum, claiming the city attorney illegally inserted himself in the signature verification process.

Feldman said the city would clarify what it is looking for in its response to the pastors’ motion.

Glad to hear that, but I think we know what happens from here. I mean, once the website Snopes has to get involved, truth and nuance lose all meaning. Let’s just hope this is a short-term story. If the motion to quash succeeds, or if the city is allowed to go on this document hunt and comes up empty, all bets will be off on that. Campos and Texpatriate have more.

Posted in: Local politics.

Comptroller candidates will debate

It’s a trend!

Mike Collier

Mike Collier

Candidates in the race for state comptroller have agreed to one televised debate, though watching the debate requires a Time Warner Cable subscription fo North Texas viewers.

Mike Collier, a Democrat from Houston, and Sen. Glenn Hegar, a Katy Republican, will face off 7 p.m., Oct. 29 in Austin. The 30-minute debate is sponsored by Time Warner Cable News. It will be broadcast to the Austin, San Antonio and Hill Country media markets.

The debate will be viewable statewide through the TWC’s On Demand service, as well as online here: http://sanantonio.twcnews.com/content/politics/.

As chief financial officer, the comptroller’s office collects all taxes owed to the state and estimates the state’s tax revenue for the biennium, among other duties. Lawmakers use the revenue estimate to set the two-year budget.

“Senator Hegar looks forward to discussing the important issues facing our state,” said David White, a spokesman for the campaign.

“Texans deserve to hear from the person who will be accountable for their tax dollars. I’m honored to receive this opportunity to show Texans how I will be their financial watchdog in the Comptroller’s office, not just another career politician,” Collier said.

If you can get past the fact that it happens with two days left in early voting and it’s easily available to only a fraction of the state, this is a good thing. The fact that there’s a debate at all, and that the Dems have a candidate that’s worth having in a debate, makes it worthwhile. Yes, it would be better to have something more widely visible, but given that the baseline for comparison is “nothing”, it’s an improvement. The Trib has more.

By the way, Collier continues to dominate the newspaper endorsements, picking up nods from the Express News and Star-Telegram this week. I thought Collier would do well in the editorial board interviews, but as a first-time candidate going against an experienced legislator who wasn’t weighed down by sixteen tons of ethical baggage, it was hardly a slam dunk that he’d get a string of endorsements. That he’s one paper away from a Sam Houston-style clean sweep says a lot about his qualities as a candidate and as a person. He’s also been sharp in how he has presented himself, as his latest campaign ad attests. I’m hard pressed to think of any way in which Collier could have run a better campaign. I hope the actual viewership of that debate far exceeds my meager expectations.

On a related note, there’s also this.

The only debate scheduled between Republican U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and his Democratic opponent, David Alameel, could end up only being broadcast in Spanish.

Cornyn and Alameel are scheduled to participate in a one-hour debate in Dallas hosted by Univision on Oct. 24. The debate will be conducted in English. Univision will broadcast the debate the next day with the candidates’ remarks dubbed in Spanish at 10 p.m. in eight markets around the state, according to Felicitas Cadena, community affairs manager for Univision Communications.

“The debate will not air in English in any market,” Cadena said in an email.

[...]

Cadena said the channel is open to talking with other media outlets about broadcasting the debate in English on television or online.

“We’re just looking at technical possibilities,” Cadena said. “We’d be more than glad to have that discussion.”

Putting the video online somewhere, pre-dubbed and post-dubbed, should not be too much to ask. I guess we’ll see.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Texas blog roundup for the week of October 13

The Texas Progressive Alliance celebrates the advance of marriage equality and looks forward to the day when it comes to our state as we bring you this week’s roundup.

Continue reading →

Posted in: Blog stuff.

Voter ID plaintiffs turn to SCOTUS

Last train, y’all.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas plaintiffs on Wednesday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state’s voter photo ID law in November’s election.

“The facts of this case, including record evidence, show that significantly more voter confusion will result from granting the stay (and thus enforcing Texas’s Senate Bill 14) than would result from reinstating the injunction (and thus going forward under the prior law),” they wrote. “Therefore, a proper application of this Court’s precedents calls for vacating the stay.”

[...]

In their brief to the Supreme Court, the plaintiffs in the case — including the League of United Latin American Citizens — argue that it would be more disruptive to conduct the election with the ID law in place than to do without it, and would disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of Texas voters. They argue that the district court’s finding that the law discriminates against minorities outweighs the argument that the election is too close for a change.

See here for the background, and see here for a copy of the appeals brief. I certainly think one can make a cogent case that not implementing voter ID would be at most minimally disruptive, and would have the bonus of not putting a law that has been ruled unconstitutional by two federal courts and discriminatory by one into effect. SCOTUS has been a bit hard to read lately, so who knows what they’ll do. The one thing I am sure of is that with early voting set to start in 11 days, they’ll rule quickly, possibly today. Stay tuned.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Judicial Q&A: Scot Dollinger

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Scot Dollinger

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Scot Dollinger. I am running for judge of Harris County Civil Court at Law No. 2. (Civil Court No. 2.) (There are four civil county courts at law in Harris County numbered 1, 2, 3 & 4.)

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil Court No. 2 hears the following kinds of cases:

- 60% debt collection/breach of contract

- 17% injuries

- 15% evictions

- 4% occupational licenses

- 3% eminent domain (The government is taking your private property.)

- 1% tax and tow.

Except for eviction and eminent domain cases, this court has a jurisdictional limit of $200,000 which means if the amount in dispute is over $200,000 then the court cannot hear the case. This court will have anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 cases filed every year.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for Civil Court No. 2 because I do not think the court is being properly run. To be properly run, the civil county courts at law need judges like me with extensive trial and administrative experience. I want to use my 25 plus years of administrative and trial experience to improve Civil Court No. 2 so that the court is properly run for the benefit of all: equality of law for all. Every person in Harris County regardless of income, gender, race, religion or sexual orientation deserves to have fair access to a fair forum – because justice matters to everyone.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am qualified to be judge of this court because my 25 plus years of administrative and trial experience give me the unique skills necessary to properly run this court. Everybody needs to know when they come to court they will be treated fairly by an experienced knowledgeable judge.

Administrative Experience. I have worked for an insurance company where I managed its in-house state-wide litigation department. There I setup computer databases to manage large caseloads and implemented systems for efficiently processing the Texas-wide docket. I also have run my own law office as a solo practitioner for over 12 years which required me to efficiently manage large caseloads and create and implement computerized management programs.

Trial and Appellate Experience. I have tried over 40 trials and worked on over 10 appeals. I have filed briefs and argued before the First and Fourteenth Court of Appeals and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. I have filed petitions for review with the Supreme Court of Texas and a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States. I have handled administrative hearings in the workers’ compensation system and matters in our justice of the peace courts. Thus, I have actually worked in virtually every kind of court or tribunal a lawyer can do work in Texas. In doing this work, I have done both plaintiff and defense work and clerked for a judge. I also was divorced years ago. So, I understand the cases from every perspective.

Education. I graduated from Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois with a B.S. in Speech in 1984 and Emory University School of Law, Atlanta, Georgia with a Juris Doctor in 1987.

Licenses. I am licensed to practice law in all Texas state courts, all Texas federal courts, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit and the Supreme Court of the United States.

Awards and Honors. Martindale-Hubbell® Peer Review Rating of AV® PreeminentTM, Board Certified Personal Injury Trial Law – Texas Board of Legal Specialization, Law Clerk to the Honorable Howell Cobb, U.S. District Judge, Eastern District of Texas, Order of Barristers, Moot Court Society – intra and inter-state teams, Gavel of Honor, Distinguished Service in Moot Court Society, writing instructor, graduated in top 1/3 of law school class. Chief of the Fox Tribe, YMCA Indian Princess Program.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because when a court is not properly run it puts at risk the value of equal justice for all, one of our most sacred values as a community.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

We need an unbiased judge with my administrative and trial background. I have been representing individuals of all incomes, races, genders, religions and sexual orientations in civil matters my entire 25 plus year career. In the last ten years, I have donated over 1,000 hours in free legal services to individuals. My opponent has not had this diverse experience. Instead, she has worked for Harris County or the City of Houston (institutions) her entire legal career giving her a certain level of bias in favor of establishment institutions. This bias is manifested in Judge Chang’s improper practice of allowing legal entities to represent themselves in county court without a lawyer and not following the law when it comes to fairly setting appeal bonds in eviction cases. For example, in Cause No. 1050447 Williams Apartments v. Tiffany Franklin the judge improperly allowed the Plaintiff (a legal entity) to be represented without an attorney which is improper. This practice is ongoing in other cases. By so acting, the court is demonstrating a landlord bias against tenants. No judge should be biased. If the court is biased here, one wonders in what other ways the court is biased.

Civil Court No. 2 handles eminent domain cases involving Harris County and the City of Houston. I do not think this court should have a judge that used to work for Harris County or the City of Houston and was appointed by the Harris County Commissioners’ Court.

Currently, the four civil courts at law work independently of each other in the sense of having different procedures in each court. If elected, I would work with all the other judges to strive to have uniform procedures in all four courts to bring uniformity of procedure to all four courts and to increase predictability of outcomes.

Currently, the civil courts at law are not under the JIMS computer system that manages access to county documents. All the district courts are under JIMS. The civil county courts at law and probate courts have their own computer system for viewing documents. This method is duplication of effort. It should be noted that the criminal county courts at law are under the JIMS system. So, there is no reason not to move the rest of the county courts at law over to JIMS. As well, the civil county court database is not being properly used to establish a set of metrics to study the caseload of these courts. One sets metrics or gathers data in the database to measure levels of productivity. The current computer system either needs to be properly used at the encouragement of the judges or the civil county courts at law need to fall under the JIMS system and authority of the District Clerk in terms of case management. There is no reason for the civil county courts at law to be separately managed unless they are being managed in a much better way which they are not. The judges play a role in helping to cast the vision for management of these courts. Currently, the judges’ vision is lacking in my view.

Finally, the sitting judge tells lawyers via her procedures that she generally gives them 15 to 20 minutes to conduct voir dire (pick a jury). http://www.ccl.hctx.net/civil/2/procedures.htm#motions. Any experienced trial lawyer will tell you that 15 to 20 minutes is not enough time to properly pick a jury to determine if they are biased or prejudiced against the case. It is illegal for lawyers to strike jurors based on race. Lawyers need the time to properly test for this problem under the Batson case law. An experienced trial lawyer like me is more sensitive to Batson violations (illegally striking jurors based on race) and the need to properly question a panel and spend the time necessary to properly pick a jury.

Posted in: Election 2014.

The courts giveth, and the courts taketh away

As expected, the Fifth Circuit lifts the stay on the district court’s voter ID ruling, paving the way (for now) for it to be enforced in November.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas should require photo voter identification in this year’s general election, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday, overturning an earlier ruling by a federal district judge in Texas.

“This is not a run-of-the-mill case; instead, it is a voting case decided on the eve of the election,” the appeals court judges wrote. “The judgment below substantially disturbs the election process of the State of Texas just nine days before early voting begins. Thus, the value of preserving the status quo here is much higher than in most other contexts.”

The plaintiffs — including the Campaign Legal Center and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — plan to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Tuesday’s ruling.

[...]

“On Saturday, October 11 — just nine days before early voting begins and just 24 days before Election Day — the district court entered a final order striking down Texas’s voter identification laws,” the appeals court said in its order. “By this order, the district court enjoined the implementation of Texas Senate Bill 14 of the 2011 Regular Session, which requires that voters present certain photographic identification at the polls. The district court also ordered that the State of Texas instead implement the laws that were in force before SB 14’s enactment in May of 2011. Based primarily on the extremely fast-approaching election date, we STAY the district court’s judgment pending appeal.”

[...]

One of the three judges who ordered the stay — Gregg Costa — did so only because of recent decisions that favor order in elections over the laws in question.

“The district court issued a thorough order finding that the Texas voter ID law is discriminatory,” he wrote. “We should be extremely reluctant to have an election take place under a law that a district court has found, and that our court may find, is discriminatory… I agree with Judge [Edith Brown] Clement that the only constant principle that can be discerned from the Supreme Court’s recent decisions in this area is that its concern about confusion resulting from court changes to election laws close in time to the election should carry the day in the stay analysis.”

The plaintiffs will go to the U.S. Supreme Court to attempt to block the use of the state’s voter ID law.

A copy of the ruling is here. It’s important to note that this isn’t a ruling on the merits of the district court decision. It’s merely a continuation of the current status quo, which is what the Supreme Court has held to be the main standard in near-election rulings. One can certainly argue that going back to the previous status quo, which is what the vast majority of voters in this election are accustomed to, would be less disruptive, and I’m sure the plaintiffs will make that case to the Supreme Court. Rick Hasen, who correctly predicted the Fifth Circuit’s ruling, thinks an appeal to SCOTUS on those grounds might have a chance. Be prepared to bring your ID, but don’t give up hope quite yet. Newsdesk, SCOTUSBlog, PDiddie, BOR, the Brennan Center, and the Texas Election Law Blog have more.

Meanwhile, as totally not expected, SCOTUS put HB2 back on ice pending appeals, thus reversing the Fifth Circuit’s atrocious ruling from earlier this month.

A provision of the Texas abortion law that closed all but eight abortion facilities in the state almost two weeks ago was temporarily put on hold Tuesday by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The decision comes a week after attorneys representing a coalition of abortion providers in the state asked the Supreme Court to reinstate a U.S. district court ruling that had blocked a key provision that requires abortion facilities to meet the same hospital-like standards as ambulatory surgical centers. Those include minimum sizes for rooms and doorways and having pipelines for anesthesia.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals had overturned that ruling and allowed the provision to go into effect as the appeals process continues, shutting down most of the state’s facilities. The 5th Circuit is still weighing the constitutionality of the law.

In Tuesday’s ruling, the Supreme Court also overturned the provision of the abortion law, which is known as House Bill 2, that requires doctors who perform abortions to obtain admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles for two facilities: Whole Woman’s Health in McAllen and Reproductive Services in El Paso.

Representatives for the abortion providers were quick to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision as they await the appeals court’s ruling on the law.

“The U.S. Supreme Court gave Texas women a tremendous victory today,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the abortion providers in the case. “Tomorrow, thirteen clinics across the state will be allowed to reopen and provide women with safe and legal abortion care in their own communities.

Here’s that ruling. Gotta admit, I did not expect this outcome. Again, this is not a decision on the merits of the appeal, so caution is merited. The Fifth Circuit still gets to decide that, and we all know how badly they suck. But as SCOTUSBlog suggests, perhaps the Fifth Circuit misread the Supreme Court’s tea leaves on this. Keep hope alive. Hair Balls, Newsdesk, the Current, Texpatriate, Wonkblog, and Kos have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Perry has a court date

Happy Halloween, Rick.

Corndogs make bad news go down easier

Mmm…pumpkin spice corndogs

Visiting Judge Bert Richardson of San Antonio on Monday set the appearance for Oct. 31. Richardson also gave special prosecutor Michael McCrum until Nov. 7 to respond to two motions to quash the case.

Richardson had excused Perry from appearing in court Monday. The governor is traveling overseas this week, leading an economic development delegation to England, Germany, Poland and Ukraine.

Anthony Buzbee, one of Perry’s lawyers, confirmed the governor will be present for the next court date, when Richardson will address two issues: whether McCrum was sworn in properly and whether he should be ordered to produce a transcript of grand jury testimony. The governor’s lawyers have brought up both matters as they aggressively seek to convince Richardson to throw out the case.

Speaking to reporters after a hearing Monday, McCrum said he has “every confidence that we’re going to move forward” once the court deals with the procedural issues.

Asked whether he thought Perry’s lawyers were throwing the “legal kitchen sink” at him, McCrum said, “There’s been a couple of dishes thrown into the sink, and so we’re having to go through them one by one, but I’m confident everything’s going to proceed in a good fashion.

See here and here for the background. The Trib addresses those motions a bit more.

During Monday’s hearing, Richardson — who had originally appointed McCrum as special prosecutor — insisted that McCrum was sworn in properly. He added that any missing paperwork regarding McCrum’s oath of office would be reconciled.

“Clearly some of the documents were available, but they were in the wrong file,” Richardson said.

After the hearing, Buzbee said he believed the issue was very much alive.

“I’ve seen some paperwork. I’m not sure it resolves the issue, but we’ll take it up on the 31st,” Buzbee said, adding that if McCrum were not properly sworn in, the entire indictment against the governor should be dismissed.

McCrum told reporters he had no doubt the he was properly sworn in.

“Everything was done appropriately,” McCrum said. “I have every confidence that we’re going to move forward.”

McCrum said the defense request regarding the grand jury testimony is the first such request he’s seen in his career. “It’s quite unusual,” he said.

Without a transcript of the witness testimony, “this court will be unable to ascertain whether a pervasive violation” of Perry’s right to carry out legislative activity with immunity from prosecution, as protected by the Texas and U.S. Constitutions, has occurred, the governor’s lawyers wrote in the filing.

The Perry legal team has also filed a request to dismiss the indictment because Perry was acting in his official capacity as governor. That motion will be the subject of a Nov. 7 hearing.

No word as to whether Perry will have to be in court for that hearing. By that time, Judge Richardson will know if he’s headed to the Court of Criminal Appeals or not. Assuming he doesn’t wind up tossing the indictments, he could be handing off quite the hot potato to some other judge after that. Juanita has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Making open data better

Some positive news.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston leaders in the last year or so have cheered the promise of “civic hacking,” pushing to make the mountains of data the city collects accessible to tech enthusiasts capable of building programs to help citizens better understand and interact with their government.

Two “hackathons” and a few dozen “app” ideas later, however, the city still requires formal public information requests to release many popular records and has no set processes to decide which data can be freely released or how to keep it up-to-date.

Officials and local programmers alike hope a new “Open Data Policy,” enacted as an administrative procedure by Mayor Annise Parker late last month, will change that. The policy mandates citywide cooperation with a task force that will decide what to release and how to keep it up-to-date. The procedures also require all future city technology contracts to allow for the free release of records in a useful format, such as a spreadsheet rather than a PDF.

“Right now we have a coalition of the willing,” said city Finance Director Kelly Dowe. “We’re trying to create broad participation. It’s encouraging now that every department in the city had representation on the creation of this. What you see here is a level of commitment, by signing off on this, to work with the administration and put this data forward.”

It would be inexact, perhaps, to highlight this “coalition of the willing” or reveal the departments being territorial with their records; some collect more information than others, and some have more antiquated records systems than others.

Jeff Reichman, a principal at consulting firm January Advisors, said the quality and relevance of the datasets are what matter, not the volume. Still, gaps are noticeable: The city’s existing Open Data Portal, launched for the hackathons, shows the planning department boasts 48 datasets and the regulatory department 21, while the municipal courts and the city’s airport system each has posted one. The portal holds information on everything from code enforcement violations and taxis to alcohol permits and radioactive waste sites.

The new policy calls for an advisory board to be formed within 30 days and to have open data standards drafted within 90 days, guiding all city departments in complying with the directive. The task force, Dowe said, will start by identifying the information citizens are most interested in and how best to unleash it.

I’ve written about Hackathons before. There’s a lot of value in making city data available to app developers in a format they can use. For one example of the possibilities, consider this from San Antonio.

The City has paired up with a mobile application company to help drivers find and pay for downtown parking spots in San Antonio. On Oct. 23, Pango will release an app for San Antonio that enables drivers to find available parking before they reach their destination. Pango is considering the introduction a mobile payment option in the future.*

The city is sharing the data it collects from parking meters for use on the app, which updates every five minutes. That means every spot with a parking meter will be mapped out as available or not on the phone, potentially eliminating the sometimes fruitless, frenzied scramble to find a parking spot, clogging up streets.

Would you like to have something like that in Houston? With this Open Data policy, it could happen.

Posted in: Technology, science, and math.

Judicial Q&A: Josefina Rendon

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Josefina Rendon

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Judge Josefina Rendon. I’m running for Harris County’s probate Court #2. I’m a transplanted Texas having come to Houston as a teenager many years ago. I’ve been a lawyer & judge for over 30 yrs and a mediator, peacemaker & student-teacher of conflict resolution for over 20 yrs.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

A probate Court hears cases involving death with or without a will and inheritance issues. Probate Courts also hear case involving guardianships for adults who have become incapacitated.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I gained interest in probate matters when I was 13 years old and my father asked me to “help” him with his will. He said he wanted me to “add up” the numbers. He also explained why he had made the choices he made in his will. I didn’t know at the time that he was dying. This was his indirect way of helping me understand his forthcoming passing. He died within the year. Since then I developed an empathy for those facing death & its consequences. I have also developed an empathy for those who are incapacitated and need good guardians to take care of them.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been a judge for many years. I was a State Civil District Judge for 4 years and a City of Houston Municipal Court Judge for 27 of the last 31 years. As an experienced trial judge I’ve had to make reasoned decisions that have affected people’s lives and livelihood. No less important, many years ago I discovered that, when encouraged and guided, the parties themselves often have the wisdom to resolve their own disputes without the judge imposing his or her decision. I also discovered that people tend to honor their agreements more often than they obey judicial orders. Because of that, for over 20 years I have also been a mediator, helping people resolve cases on their own rather than imposing, or having another judge impose, a decision.

5. Why is this race important?

Because justice matters – or should matter – to all of us in life or death. All of our courts need judges who are not only aware of the law but who has a sense of balance, justice and compassion in dealing with parties from all walks of life.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

I have been not only a judge but a practicing lawyer and, even more important, a mediator and peacemaker. As a mediator – derived from the word “middle” – I have learned to truly be in the middle and not take sides while trying to get the parties to reach peace and resolution between them. As a judge I carefully and respectfully listen to all points of view and rule according to, not only the law, but according to what is just, fair and equitable. I also have worked hard all my life, with a sense of purpose, always trying to excel expectations and do the best job possible.

Posted in: Election 2014.

HISD Board approves one cent tax rate increase

Still a low tax rate, just slightly higher now.

As architects prepare designs for dozens of new campuses, the Houston school board on Thursday approved a 1-cent tax rate increase to help pay down debt from the largest school district construction bond in Texas history.

The board voted 7-1 to raise the tax rate, the second increase in two years tied to the district’s $1.9 billion bond issue approved by voters two years ago. The 3-cent rate hike last year went toward day-to-day operational expenses as well as building debt.

The owners of an average-priced home whose property values rose significantly could see their bills grow by $250 over last year, while the increase will be closer to $15 for those with stagnant values.

Leaders of the Houston Independent School District had told voters in 2012 to expect a rate increase of 4.85 cents, phased in over several years, to fund the construction debt. HISD’s chief financial officer, Ken Huewitt, now says the full rate hike may not be necessary thanks to fast-rising property values, but district officials will have to review the data annually.

“Obviously, we’re ahead of the game right now,” Huewitt said. “I have to think we’ll stay ahead of the game.”

HISD’s new tax rate for 2014 is $1.1967 per $100 of taxable value, keeping the rate the lowest of all school districts in Harris County.

No surprise here, this has been on the table since the 2012 bond referendum was announced. Far as I’m concerned, as long as they do a better job of managing and completing those construction projects than they did with the 2007 referendum, it’s all good. K-12 Zone and Hair Balls have more.

Posted in: School days.

Appeals court rules against KSP

From last week, from the inbox via the Texas Democratic Party:

(Yesterday), the Texas Democratic Party prevailed in King Street Patriots v. Texas Democratic Party, when the Texas Court of Appeals for the Third District confirmed a lower court decision to uphold provisions of Texas campaign finance law. [Campaign Legal Center, 10/8/2014]

The Texas Democratic Party’s suit alleged that the King Street Patriots had made in-kind contributions to the Republican Party of Texas. These donations would have been a violation of the restrictions on corporate political contributions. They also failed to register as a “political committee” and comply with Texas Disclosure Law. In response, the King Street Patriots filed a counterclaim that challenged the constitutionality of parts of Texas’ campaign finance laws. [Houston Chronicle, 3/28/2012]

PDiddie was on this a couple of days ago. I was waiting to see if any mainstream news outlets would pick up on it, but so far it’s just the Quorum Report. The Chron story from 2012 in the TDP press release has a decent summary of the suit, and you can find a bit more on what led to it here and in Hair Balls. I’m sure this will go to the state Supreme Court, and who knows, maybe to the federal courts if they lose there, but for now, this is a nice little bit of good news, almost as good on a smaller scale as the voter ID ruling.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Abbott’s appellate response brief is the same old junk

Pathetic.

RedEquality

Attorney General Greg Abbott says Texas’ same-sex marriage ban should remain in place because legalizing it would do little or nothing to encourage heterosexual couples to get married and have children.

Writing in a brief filed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, Abbott said the state was not obligated to prove why gay marriage might be detrimental to the economic or social well-being of Texans. It was only required to show how opposite-sex marriage would be more beneficial for its citizens.

“The State is not required to show that recognizing same-sex marriage will undermine heterosexual marriage,” the brief read. “It is enough if one could rationally speculate that opposite-sex marriages will advance some state interest to a greater extent than same-sex marriages will.”

The new filing largely reiterated the same “responsible procreation” argument Abbott made in July, when the state first appealed a February district court’s ruling overturning the Texas gay marriage ban. In it, Abbott argued marriage among heterosexual partners is more beneficial to society because it encourages married couples to have children and provides an example for other couples to do the same.

See here, here, and here for the background. Texas Politics has a copy of Abbott’s brief here if you want a laugh. I guess when you really, truly have nothing to say, you say the same things you’ve already said and hope they sound better on repeat. As one of the commenters on the Chron story says, I’d love to see Abbott make these arguments to Judge Richard Posner. I know the Fifth Circuit sucks, but can they possibly be so intellectually and morally bankrupt to find merit in this idiocy? The case is on track to be hear in November or December, byt the same panel that will hear the Louisiana case appeal. Hopefully we’ll know something by the end of the year.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Interview with John Cook

John Cook

John Cook

The office of Land Commissioner is often overlooked, but it has a role to play in a whole lot of aspects of state government. From state parks to beaches to mineral rights, from the Alamo to veterans issues to the Permanent School Fund, there’s a whole lot the Land Commissioner does. Outgoing Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson was and is generally well regarded for his stewardship of the office. Aiming to succeed him is former El Paso Mayor John Cook. Cook, like Patterson a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, had a long career as a Manager of Network Operations with Southwestern Bell Telephone Company followed by time as a school teacher before being elected to El Paso’s City Council. As Mayor of El Paso, he helped pass a domestic partner benefits law, and survived a subsequent recall effort over it. He’s also an accomplished musician, officially making him the most well-rounded candidate on the ballot this year. Here’s what we talked about:

Barring anything unforeseen, this is my last candidate interview (though not my last interview; there will be one more next Monday) for the 2014 cycle. As noted before, the judicial Q&As will continue through the end of the week and possibly beyond, depending on whether I get more responses or not.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Chartering

There will be more than just the Mayor’s race going on in 2015.

Mayor Annise Parker

Mayor Annise Parker

Houston is guaranteed a frantic 2015 political season with an open mayor’s race on the ballot, but it could get busier still with growing talk of placing the city charter before voters for possible changes to term limits, the city revenue cap and other reforms.

Whether any of the proposed amendments goes to a vote next May or alongside the mayoral contest next November, the state constitution requires a two-year gap between charter changes, so all reforms would need to be voted on at once.

The question, given a difference of opinion between term-limited Mayor Annise Parker and some City Council members, is what will make the ballot.

Parker has warned of widespread layoffs with next summer’s budget unless the decade-old, voter-imposed revenue cap is altered or scrapped, but she may prefer a November vote to avoid the measure being torpedoed by the hard-core right in a low-turnout May election. Even at that, she has not guaranteed a vote on the issue.

The mayor also has pledged to let voters consider a change in term limits – likely from three two-year terms to two four-year terms – but support evaporated on City Council when that idea last was discussed in 2012.

Some council members, meanwhile, are pushing for broader reforms, including a proposal to let six members team up to place items on the council agenda for a vote; only the mayor can do so today, though three council members can call a special meeting.

Councilman C.O. Bradford, who long has argued for charter reform, is pushing that idea, which he says will enable council to better address small, neighborhood issues.

All that is in addition to the possibility of a referendum to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance, depending on how things go in court. All forty-seven Mayoral candidates (or is it fifty-eight, I’ve lost count) will need to deal with these issues whether they want to or not.

I know, I’m still not ready to start talking about 2015 yet, so let me keep this brief.

1. I support any and all efforts to repeal the stupid revenue cap. I will not vote for any Mayoral candidate that is not on board with repealing the revenue cap.

2. My preference for term limits is to abolish them. Given that that isn’t going to happen, I would greatly prefer extending them to allow more two-year terms – six seems like a reasonable number to me – over any proposal that includes changing the length of the term in office to four years. To me, the ability to quickly correct a mistake like Helena Brown outweighs any purported downside of making people begin campaigning for re-election so soon. If the real complaint here is that nobody likes having to raise money for their campaigns – a complaint with which I sympathize – then let me propose a system of public financing for campaigns, which not only would alleviate the dialing-for-dollars drudgery, it would also address the original justification for term limits. I call that a win-win.

3. I currently have no opinion about CM Bradford’s proposal. I will be interested to hear what the seventy-three Mayoral candidates have to say about it.

Posted in: Election 2015.

Voter ID plaintiffs ask for no stay

They’ve filed their response to the Fifth Circuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Attorneys challenging Texas’ voter ID law — which was struck down by a federal judge on Thursday — asked a federal appeals court on Sunday not to allow the state to enforce the law.

In a brief filed with the U.S. 5th Circuit of Appeals, lawyers for plaintiffs including the League of United Latin American Citizens argued that the law was unconstitutional. Attorney Chad Dunn wrote that the law should not take effect, in order to “allow the 2014 elections to go forward under the principles of true democracy.”

The brief came as a response to an emergency motion filed by Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, who is defending the law. Abbott, who is also the Republican gubernatorial candidate, asked the appellate court’s mostly conservative judges on Friday to stay the lower court’s ruling and keep the voter ID law in effect for the November election.

The Chron story, which suggests we could get a ruling as soon as today, is more detailed.

The U.S. Department of Justice argued that relaxing the state’s identification law will not make any voters ineligible to cast a ballot.

“Registered voters who show up at the polls with only a form of S.B. 14 photo ID can, consistent with prior practice, cast a regular ballot,” the government wrote in its filing.

But Abbott, who is favored to defeat Democrat Wendy Davis in next month’s gubernatorial election, said in the filing that the law’s reversal creates sudden uncertainty.

“The district court’s opinion injects doubt where for 15 months, and three statewide elections, there had been certainty: Texas voters have understood that they are required to show up the polls with photo IDs, and Texas poll workers have understood the requirement to check for them,” wrote the state.

The decision to let the voter ID law stand this November will be made by three judges on the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, generally considered a conservative court. The losing party could then either appeal that ruling to the full circuit bench, to the Supreme Court, or choose to do both. Either way, the ruling would eventually likely trickle up to the Supreme Court, who would quickly decide whether voters must present this identification.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California in Irvine, predicted that the 5th Circuit would rule in favor of Texas and issue a stay. Hasen said the relevant legal precedent, set in Purcell v. Gonzalez, shows that the courts have frowned upon changing election law right before voting begins.

“There’s a pretty good chance the court’s going to reverse the judge’s order and say: Regardless of whether you’re right or wrong on the legality of the voter ID law, for purposes of this election it’s going to stay in place,” Hasen explained.

See here and here for the background. I realize this would likely not be considered relevant by the Fifth Circuit, but it should be noted that the DC federal court also strongly rejected the voter ID law, though they didn’t get into the question of discriminatory intent since the burden in that case was on the state to prove the law wasn’t retrogressive. To use a technical legal term, two different courts found that this law stinks. Seems to me that’s a pretty compelling argument for not allowing said law to go into effect while the appeals process plays out. We’ll see what persuades the Fifth Circuit.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Complaint against McCrum dropped

Good.

Mike McCrum

Travis County Attorney David Escamilla said Wednesday he has looked into recent allegations by a Houston attorney against the special prosecutor in the case against Gov. Rick Perry and will not investigate further.

Escamilla said he found no evidence prosecutor Michael McCrum violated state laws or county policies regarding theft, abuse of authority or honorariums in the hourly rate McCrum is receiving from Travis County for his work in the case.

Houston defense lawyer David Rushing, former chairman of Young Conservatives of Texas, had alleged McCrum was illegally receiving more than he should by billing the county $300 an hour — a rate McCrum recently voluntarily reduced to $250 per hour after hiring a second prosecutor. That reduction came prior to Rushing’s complaint.

McCrum’s fees are higher than what court-appointed defense lawyers generally earn, but county rules permit larger hourly rates in unusual cases.

In a letter to Rushing, Escamilla said McCrum’s rates were approved by a judge in the case.

See here for the background. This felt like a nothingburger, especially given Rushing’s history of hackery, but it’s good to have some official confirmation. I’m not saying this couldn’t have been a point of contention, but honestly, you’d think someone might have brought it up before now. Given all the paperwork Rick Perry’s lawyers have generated so far, surely they would have jumped on this if they’d thought it would go somewhere. The next status hearing, the one Perry doesn’t have to attend, is today, where Judge Richardson will get to deal with yet another motion by Perry’s defense team. Looks like we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming on this now. Houston Politics has more.

Posted in: Scandalized!.

Weekend link dump for October 12

News flash: “Reality” TV is heavily scripted and directed. Film at 11.

A look at the extremely warped world of marriage counseling and advice columns of the pre-feminist era.

“The prohibition against clause-final prepositions is considered a superstition even by the language mavens, and it persists only among know-it-alls who have never opened a dictionary or style manual to check.”

It’s okay if support for transit exceeds its ridership. In fact, it’s necessary.

What do the bottom of our oceans look like?

Ebola is the new Africanized honeybee.

Restaurants that ban tipping in favor of paying their workers better is an idea whose time has come.

Feel the pro-life love, y’all.

The viral epidemic of foreign origin we should actually freak out about is measles.

Some towel tips that may help you do a little less laundry.

“That’s right: cutting spending in a slump might actually make debt problems worse.” Germany is the poster child for this insanity.

If you liked “Gone Girl” you’ll probably like this, too.

What the Nobel Prize for blue LEDs is all about.

“People often say that same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 60s. But in terms of public opinion, same-sex marriage now is like interracial marriage in the 90s, when it had already been legal nationwide for 30 years.”

“Our cultural bridge was built on a shared love of profanity“.

“Poor Toby: you get the feeling this isn’t the first time she got a finger wagged in her face because of something unforgiveable that somebody else did.”

“[Rep. Michael Burgess (R, TX-26)], who voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act more than 30 times, called on the federal government on Monday to use a fund embedded in the law to help prevent a national outbreak of Ebola.”

RIP, Vic Braden, famous tennis coach.

RIP, Geoffrey Holder, actor, artist, Tony Award-winning director of The Wiz, and more.

“Structurally, the issue is the same for Amazon’s warehouse workers as it was for the coal miners. Amazon’s warehouse empire is even a plausible analogue for the coal mines of a bygone age.”

How they created the conjoined twins for American Horror Story: Freak Show.

Voter ID laws are very successful at achieving their main objectives.

Have you recently come in contact with the bodily fluids of someone who has Ebola? No? Then relax, you don’t have Ebola. Please don’t rush to the emergency room unless you have some other reason for it.

Newt Scamander only meant to stay in New York for a few hours.”

RIP, District Judge Harley Clark, popularizer of the “Hook ‘em Horns” hand signal and the first judge to declare Texas’ school finance system to be unconstitutional. Either one would have made for quite the accomplished life on its own.

RIP, Jan Hooks, comedian and “SNL” alumna.

Ain’t no brawl like a Palin Brawl, ’cause a Palin Brawl don’t quit.

Doing anti-harassment policy right.

Posted in: Blog stuff.

More on the voter ID ruling

As always with big court cases, the first question is who benefits politically from the decision?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

With a federal judge having declared Texas’ voter ID unconstitutional, Democrats and political experts on Friday predicted the surprise decision potentially could help Wendy Davis in the upcoming Nov. 4 general election.

Republicans blasted the decision but said they think it could help turn out even more GOP voters to help them win next month.

It could little matter: Republican State Attorney General Greg Abbott signaled he would ask an appeals court to keep the Voter ID law in effect for the election.

“The fact is, that the Republicans have made it harder for many people to vote … and this could motivate them to turn out,” said Joaquin Guerra, political director of the Texas Organizing Project that is helping encourage turnout for Democrats.

Even if it does, he and others said, the number of voters without ID who could turn out might be just a few thousand – a fraction of the estimate of just over 600,000 that critics had argued were affected by the Texas law. Advocates and political observers said that is because a large percentage of those people do not vote.

“It’s probably like attendance at an Astros game, pretty small, a few thousand,” said Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who follows voter turnout and the voter ID fight.

“The argument that this might help Republicans somehow doesn’t really hold water,” Jones said. “First, it means more Texans who don’t have ID will be able to vote – and those people are likely to vote Democratic, if they turn out. Second, this decision provides support for the Democrats’ argument that this law unfairly targeted Hispanics and African-Americans. It certainly doesn’t help Abbott with Hispanic voters.”

No question that this can and will fire people up on both sides, but the effect on the people that were always going to vote isn’t important. What matters is if this helps motivate the marginal voters to get to the polls. To the extent that Democrats have more marginal voters to reach out to, it’s good for them. To the extent that Republicans don’t need many of their marginal voters to participate to put things out of reach, it’s good for them. With everyone now talking about Davis’ latest TV ad, the one in which she accuses Greg Abbott of hypocrisy on matters of access to the courthouse and enforcing the Americans with Disabilities Act, it’s hard to say how much people will even be thinking about the voter ID ruling. There’s so much going on right now, who knows what might have an effect, and who could tell if it did?

Of course, what Judge Ramos had to say is far from the last word. So the next question is, will her ruling stand, for this election and after?

“It gets very tricky now that we’re so close to the election,” said Joseph Fishkin, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law.

[...]

Abbott is likely not only to file an appeal of Ramos’ ruling but also to request a stay to prevent her decision from being applied to this election until the appeals court has a chance to consider it.

What’s unclear is whether the New Orleans appeals court or the U.S. Supreme Court will get involved in the dispute before the election.

The Supreme Court has “said they don’t like to change the rules right before an election,” Fishkin said.

Chad Dunn, one of the lawyers for the groups suing the state in the voter ID case, said on Friday he believes it’s unlikely the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court will overturn Ramos’ ruling.

“It’s going to be striking if the 5th Circuit or the Supreme Court, so close to the election, says, ‘We’re going to allow this law to be in effect, even though a trial court has heard all this evidence,’” said Dunn, who represents the League of United Latin American Citizens and U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Dallas.

In her ruling, Ramos also indicated that she would issue an injunction preventing the photo ID requirement from being enforced during the upcoming election.

But Chris Gober, a political law attorney in Austin, said it’s likely the 5th Circuit will lift Ramos’ injunction once she files it, meaning voters would need to show the photo ID in November.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the 5th Circuit lifted the injunction due to the close proximity of the election,” Gober said.

Here’s the rest of what Chad Dunn had to say. Judge Ramos has made her injunction against voter ID official, so it’s on to the next steps from here. You know my opinion of the Fifth Circuit, but I have no idea how this might play out. The political effect may be bigger than any practical effect, but who knows? I’m going to celebrate the justice of Judge Ramos’ words and let the rest take care of itself. PDiddie has more.

Posted in: Election 2014.

YouGov: Abbott 54, Davis 40

Sen. Wendy Davis

Sen. Wendy Davis

As Ed Kilgore noted on Friday evening, YouGov dropped a load of gubernatorial race polls, including another Texas result. You may look at the topline number and feel dejected, but let me point out two things. One is that YouGov has consistently been the most pessimistic pollster for Davis. This is the third result they’ve published, and it’s the closest they’ve shown the race yet. Last month, they had Abbott up by 18, 56-38, so you could say that Davis is closing the gap. That may seem like cold comfort with such a margin, but YouGov isn’t the only game in town, and other polls have shown some movement as well in the same direction. The Davis campaign, the yang to YouGov’s ying, says its polling shows a six point race, down from nine a couple of weeks ago. Whatever the margin, the general consensus is that the race is tightening. YouGov, in its idiosyncratic way, supports that.

The other point is that YouGov had Davis up by five among women, 46-41. That appears to be the driver of the difference between this poll and the last one, in which they had Abbott up by a point, 43-42. Abbott made a big deal about his two-point lead among women in the Lyceum poll, though that lead depended on their likely voter screen. If Davis is gaining among women, that’s definitely a good sign.

Anyway. YouGov also had a Senate result, showing Big John Cornyn up by 20 over David Alameel. That result is identical to their previous poll, and it shows Cornyn leading Alameel among women by five points. Those numbers are additional evidence that something is happening in the Governor’s race. There’s still a lot of ground to make up whether you buy YouGov’s model or not, but the wind does seem to be blowing in a favorable direction.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Reminder: Uber and Lyft aren’t legal yet in Houston

Drive for ‘em at your own risk for the next month or so.

Uber

New entrants into Houston’s paid-ride market can’t be licensed to operate for another month, but the transition is proving problematic as the companies and drivers rack up citations and the city impounds vehicles.

Since Aug. 6, when the City Council approved changes to the city’s for-hire transportation rules, Uber and Lyft have received 1,046 citations – more than the 861 issued in the six months between the companies’ February launch and the council vote. The companies connect riders and drivers via smartphone apps.

“We are still enforcing all aspects of our ordinance daily,” said Tina Paez, director of the city’s regulatory affairs department. “We started impounding last Thursday.”

Inspectors pose as passengers and issue citations once the fare is charged.

As of Friday, four vehicles – one rogue cab, two vehicles affiliated with Uber and one with Lyft – have been seized by police. The authority to impound violators’ vehicles came with the rule changes in August, in part because many council members felt the city lacked leverage to keep Uber and Lyft in check.

[...]

Lyft

As taxi and limo companies urged the city to crack down on the companies, the new entrants pushed for regulatory changes the city already was considering. Ultimately, many of the changes sought by Uber and Lyft were adopted by the City Council, along with a procedure for permitting and regulating the companies and their drivers, who operate as independent contractors.

Council members provided a 60-day window to get the permitting process settled, meaning the city can start issuing permits on Nov. 4. On Monday, the city and companies can start working on details such as drug screenings, which can take place within 30 days of seeking the permit.

Based on what Uber has told city officials to expect, Paez said, thousands of permits could be issued in the first few weeks.

“We expect it to be greater than 5,000, and that’s just Uber,” Paez said.

See here for the story about Uber and Lyft being approved by Council, and note the bit about waiting 90 days to sign up for a permit. Go through the process, y’all – that’s what it’s there for, and that’s what all the shouting and wrangling was about. I have long said that I expect there to be demand for these services from people that don’t currently use cabs, and I fully expect the overall vehicle-for-hire market to grow, but I don’t know if it will be big enough to handle 5,000 or more new drivers, even if they’re mostly part-timers. Not at first, anyway. I hope someone is planning to do a study on the effect of the entrance of Uber and Lyft on existing cab companies and other services. I’d really like to have a better idea of how this worked out in a year’s time or so. The Highwayman has more.

Posted in: Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Endorsement watch: Sweep for Sam Houston

The Houston Chronicle endorses Sam Houston, completing a sweep of the big papers for the Democratic candidate for Attorney General.

Sam Houston

Sam Houston

Democratic candidate Sam Houston is the best choice on the ballot. A graduate of Baylor Law School and candidate for Texas Supreme Court in 2008, Houston is more than just a famous name (though it certainly doesn’t hurt). Houston, 51, is board certified in civil trial advocacy and has 26 years experience as a Houston-based litigator, practicing civil law at the state and federal level. With executive experience managing his law firm, Houston will bring the attitude of an attorney over that of a politician.

Meeting with the Houston Chronicle editorial board, Houston said that he would rely more on mediation than politically charged proactive lawsuits. That strategy may not make headlines, but it stands to save taxpayer dollars while getting good results for Texas.

This balanced, professional attitude should help win over some traditionally Republican voters, who find themselves with a troubling candidate.

State Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney, puts forth the persona of a Sunday school teacher but has a history of lawbreaking and questionable business practices that should disqualify him in the minds of Texans.

They go on to make as thorough an accounting of Paxton’s sins as you’ll see. I expected Houston to sweep the endorsements from the beginning, on the grounds that editorial boards tend to not like lawbreakers, but it’s still good to see it happen. I’ll be interested to see how the smaller papers, especially those in deep red areas like Lubbock or Midland, handle this. They tend to endorse later, since they have fewer candidates to consider. Ideology is the only argument Ken Paxton has. We’ll see how far it gets him in places that would otherwise be his breadbasket.

Speaking of ideology and candidates that deserve all of the endorsements, the Statesman gave their nod to Leticia Van de Putte for Lite Gov.

In the contest for lieutenant governor between Democratic state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte of San Antonio and Republican state Sen. Dan Patrick of Houston, the question voters should ask is whether they want a Texas Senate capable of governing, or a Senate that risks devolving into Washington-style gridlock. We favor a functional Senate and urge voters to support Van de Putte.

Elected to the Texas House in 1990 and the Texas Senate in 1999, Van de Putte, 59, a pharmacist by training, possesses a deep knowledge of state government and owns a successful legislative record. Throughout her political career, she has fought for public and higher education, women’s health care, equal pay for women and programs to help veterans and military families. She’s widely respected and liked by her colleagues.

As a candidate for lieutenant governor, she has called for funding all-day pre-kindergarten and reducing standardized testing. She supports the expansion of Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. And as the daughter of a Latino family that has been in Texas for generations, Van de Putte has a perspective on immigration and border security that is grounded in reality and possibility, not divisive rhetoric like Patrick’s.

Granted, Van de Putte, if elected, will be called on to lead a conservative Texas Senate disinclined to follow a Democrat, but her career has been distinguished by an ability to work with senators on all sides of a debate. We’re confident she can forge coalitions and find common paths forward to meet the state’s education, health care, infrastructure and other priorities and needs.

Where Van de Putte knows how to reach across the aisle, the confrontational Patrick, 64, shows more interest in using his conservative majority to dominate, bully and ram through legislation than in seeking bipartisan consensus.

That would be the choice, all right. Patrick doesn’t have Paxton’s ethical issues, but he has enough other baggage to weigh down a 747. Editorial boards don’t like crooks, and they also generally don’t like obnoxious ideologues, especially when there’s a viable alternative. That isn’t quite as reliable an indicator – see the Chronicle’s regrettable endorsement of Ted Cruz in 2012 on the laughable grounds that he couldn’t possibly have meant all those crazy things he’d been saying on the campaign trail – but it’s still a pretty good bet. The Chron seems to have absorbed that lesson since they endorsed Van de Putte earlier, and it’s my expectation that the other papers will follow. We’ll see.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Saturday video break: Danny Boy

I have no idea who might have done this originally, so I nominate the King’s Singers for the canonical version:

The main problem with this song is that it’s so easy to do an over the top schmaltzy version of it. If there’s one person who can put the feels into it without the schmaltz, it’s got to be Johnny Cash:

Another way to avoid schmaltz is to do it in a non-traditional way, as Black 47 did. Don’t be fooled by the mellow intro, wait for it and you’ll see.

What’s your favorite version of this classic?

Posted in: Music.

Court strikes down Texas voter ID law

Boom.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Less than two weeks before the start of early voting, a federal judge ruled the state’s photo voter ID law unconstitutional late Thursday and ordered state officials to drop the new requirements.

“The Court holds that SB 14 creates an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote, has an impermissible discriminatory effect against Hispanics and African-Americans, and was imposed with an unconstitutional discriminatory purpose,” U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi wrote in a 147-page opinion. “The Court further holds that SB 14 constitutes an unconstitutional poll tax.”

A spokeswoman for Attorney General Greg Abbott said the state would immediately file an appeal to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The State of Texas will immediately appeal and will urge the Fifth Circuit to resolve this matter quickly to avoid voter confusion in the upcoming election,” Lauren Bean said in an emailed statement. “The U.S. Supreme Court has already ruled that voter ID laws are constitutional so we are confident the Texas law will be upheld on appeal.”

[...]

The judge heard three weeks of evidence in September and issued her opinion on the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court stopped immediate implementation of a similar law in Wisconsin.

It was not immediately clear what will happen to this year’s general election. The judge said she would schedule a conference with the lawyers to discuss it, and a successful appeal by Abbott, who is also the Republican nominee for governor, could put the law back into effect for this election while the courts sort out a full appeal.

Here’s more on the Wisconsin voter ID ruling. There are two things to emphasize here. One is that in addition to striking down the law, Judge Ramos found intentional discrimination on the part of the state in passing the law. That potentially allows for Texas to be bailed back in to preclearance under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act, which is something the Justice Department specifically sought. The other is that there’s a good chance that Judge Ramos’ ruling could be stayed, allowing voter ID to be implemented for this election while the appeals go forward. Rick Hasen explains.

In Ohio, the court changed the law close to the election, but more importantly, it imposed an order reestablishing 5 weeks of early voting when the state was still willing to give four. There was no significant burden on plaintiffs and so the lower courts were wrong to order this emergency relief. In North Carolina, North Carolina’s law, which I’ve dubbed the strict set of voting restrictions we’ve seen enacted as a package since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, should be found unconstitutional. But even so, under the Purcell v. Gonzalez principle, it was wrong for the 4th Circuit to make this change in the rules so close to the election (particularly where plaintiffs waited a while to seek a preliminary injunction [this has been corrected]).

That same Purcell principle applies even more strongly to Wisconsin. That is, even if the Supreme Court ultimately would say that Wisconsin’s law is constitutional and does not violate the Voting Rights Act, this is a very strong case under Purcell. (As I explained, the key question is whether Wisconsin has a strong enough state interest in its sovereignty over elections to implement a voter id law very quickly before the election, when there has been no preparation and when the undisputed evidence shows that, by the state’s own account, up to 10 percent of the state’s voters could be disenfranchised (a position the 7th Circuit en banc dissenters called shocking).

Finally, what happens now with Texas, with the huge win for challengers to Texas’s voter id law which Justin wrote about earlier? It is 4 am where I am and I may have missed it, but in all of the court’s findings—the Texas law violates the Equal Protection clause, is a poll tax, violates the Voting Rights Act, and engaged in enough intentional discrimination to be put back under preclearance–there is no discussion of whether the actual order will apply to this election and the injunction will stop its use in this election.

This order too creates a huge Purcell problem, as I’ve blogged, changing the rules so close to the election. If the district court orders an immediate stop to Texas’s id law, I expect the 5th Circuit (if not the Supreme Court) to reverse that on Purcell grounds.

He’s the expert, but I would argue that the default for the vast majority of voters has been not needing to show ID, and that it would be less disruptive to enjoin the law pending appeals. The Texas Election Law Blog, going by an earlier Justin Levitt post, thinks Judge Ramos’ decision was written to address the Purcell issue. I hope they’re right, but as always with matters involving the Fifth Circuit, I have no faith in their jurisprudence. A press release from the Brennan Center is here, the Chron story is here, and BOR, Burka, Newsdesk, and PDiddie have more.

Posted in: Legal matters.

Smoking ban extended to pedestrian plazas

I’m okay with this.

Main Street Square is now a smoke-free zone following the City Council’s decision Wednesday to expand Houston’s smoking ban to pedestrian plazas, marking the latest effort from the Parker administration to curb lighting up in public places.

The changes to the smoking ordinance are twofold: it expands the ban to Houston’s three so-called “public pedestrian plazas” – streets permanently closed to car traffic but open to pedestrians; it also adds “combustible” and “plant materials” to products included in the smoking ban. City Attorney Dave Feldman introduced those changes last month alongside a proposed ban on synthetic marijuana, that will go to the council next week.

Feldman said complaints from business owners at Main Street Square about smoking and litter prompted the move to expand the ordinance.

In researching how to ban smoking at Main Street Square, the legal department realized there were two other areas in the city that qualify as public pedestrian walkways: a small area on Dunlavy north of Allen Parkway near Beth Yeshurun Cemetery and a block-long portion of the Columbia Tap Rail Trail along Walker Street between Dowling and St. Charles.

Previously, the city’s smoking ordinance contemplated only tobacco, outlawing smoking within 25 feet of a public facility, places of employment, bars and restaurants, outdoor sports arenas and stadiums, city libraries and parks.

The prohibition on smoking in parks and outside libraries is a recent development. I see this as an extension of that. There’s an argument to be made, as some Council members did, that this is an infringement on smokers’ freedom. I get that but I don’t buy it. It’s one block – keep walking, and in another 30 seconds you can light up again. As for the synthetic marijuana stuff, see Texpatriate for a primer. This is probably the last tweak to the no-smoking ordinances for the foreseeable future, at least until we know more about the health effects of e-cigarettes.

Posted in: Local politics.

Sameena Karmally

Meet Sameena Karmally, whose race against Jodie Laubenbeg is important not for if she wins or loses but for what she represents.

Sameena Karmally

If Democrats are going to turn Texas purple, they need to do a lot of work at the local level. Long-hidden voters need to be identified, and organizational abilities need to be strengthened. To do that, Democrats need good candidates to run in local elections. Even if they don’t win, they’ll do their bit to put calcium back in the Democratic Party’s old bones. They might run in red districts with little chance of victory, but they’ll pave the way for future contenders.

But standing for election is hell—it’s costly, and it exacts an enormous personal and professional toll. Most people won’t do it if they don’t have a decent chance of success—and there aren’t many places in Texas these days where a Democrat has that chance. So big pockets of the state don’t have any Democrats of significance running locally, which further alienates ordinary people from Democratic politics. It’s a tenacious feedback loop that’s going to be difficult to break.

Some Democrats, though, are doing their part. Take Sameena Karmally, who’s been waging a long-shot effort in heavily Republican House District 89, which covers an area north and east of Plano. In a different context, Karmally would make a star candidate. She’s a lawyer and mother of two who grew up in the Metroplex. She’s smart and thoughtful, and has a compelling personal story: She’s the daughter of Indian Muslim immigrants, and worked her tail off to get to UT School of Law. This is one of those races that seems to embody the clash of the old Texas and new Texas, particularly because she’s running against state Rep. Jodie Laubenberg (R-Parker).

If you know Laubenberg for one thing, it’s that she became the public face of the coalition backing last summer’s abortion restrictions. Laubenberg sponsored House Bill 2, the legislation that Wendy Davis filibustered. During debate on the bill, Laubenberg famously said that a rape exception for abortion restrictions was unnecessary because hospitals “have what’s called rape kits,” so “the woman can get cleaned out.”

That remark earned her international notoriety, but at home, Laubenberg cruises from re-election to re-election. She hasn’t had a primary opponent since 2002, and hasn’t had to run against a Democrat since 2006. She has perfect scores of 100 from Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum and Michael Quinn Sullivan’s Texans for Fiscal Responsibility, wins awards from groups like the Young Conservatives of Texas, and is lauded by the NRA and pro-life groups. She’s the state chair of the influential American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which writes bills for conservative state legislators.

When Laubenberg first won her seat, it was a predominantly rural district. But the Metroplex has experienced explosive growth, and the nature of her district has changed. The last bout of redistricting cut off Laubenberg from the most rural areas, and now HD 89 is heavily suburban, with a growing immigrant population. Many of the district’s residents work for tech companies. The district is less Republican than it used to be, but on paper, it’s still looks prohibitive for Democrats. In 2004, every member of the Republican slate won more than 75 percent of the vote—in 2012, Mitt Romney won just under two-thirds.

The Texas Observer met Karmally in Plano to talk about her race.

Go read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. The point Karmally makes more than once is that the district is very different than it used to be – where it was once mostly rural, it’s now mostly suburban, with a lot of new residents – and that the biggest hurdle she or any Democrat in the district faces is that no one really knows who the Democratic voters out there are, or how many of them there are. They all have that “I thought I was the only Democrat here” reaction typical to such places when they meet Karmally or get invited to a Dem event. That’s what organizing is all about, and places like this, in Collin County – around here it would be places like Montgomery and Brazoria Counties, plus the fast-growing parts of western and northwestern Harris County; think HDs 126, 130, 132, and 135 – and it’s job one for Battleground Texas.

To put some numbers to this, since that’s what I’m all about, here are the last three off-year Railroad Commissioner results from HD89:

Year R candidate R votes R Pct D Candidate D votes D Pct =============================================================== 2002 Williams 17,281 75.0 Broyles 5,767 25.0 2006 Jones 19,498 69.1 Henry 8,706 30.9 2010 Porter 23,923 69.5 Weems 9,014 26.2

There were third party candidates in the RRC race in 2010 but not in 2002 or 2006, so that’s why the 2010 totals don’t add up to 100%. Note that the increase in Dem voters from 2002 to 2006 was greater than the increase in R voters in that period, but the increase in R voters in the tsunami year of 2010 was more than ten times as much as the increase in D voters that year. Needless to say, that pattern can’t continue. I don’t know what a realistic goal is for this district, but if you assume a modest bump in R voters to 25,000 total, then Dems need a boost of 6,000 voters – more than the total number of votes they got in 2002 – just to get to 40%. I say that not to rain on Sameena Karmally’s parade – she’s a terrific candidate, endorsed by the DMN, doing great work in a place where it’s desperately needed – but to add some perspective for when we see the final numbers. Adding six thousand votes here would be a super accomplishment. Dems will need to duplicate that kind of result all over the state to make a difference. It’s about the big picture as much as it is about any one race.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Endorsement watch: State Reps and Sam Houston

The Chron made its State House endorsements in two parts. The highlight from Part One was a couple of key races.

Susan Criss

Susan Criss

District 23: Susan Criss

In one of the few competitive contests, Democrat Susan Criss and Republican Wayne Faircloth are battling to replace retiring Democratic state Rep. Craig Eiland in a district that includes all of Galveston County and part of Chambers County. Criss, a former judge and prosecutor, is supported by trial lawyers, while Faircloth, an insurance agent, is backed by insurance companies, who are not much loved in a region that had problems with them following Hurricane Ike in 2008. Faircloth’s campaign comes right out of the Republican textbook – less regulation and secure the border. Criss, 53, wants to restore all education funding cut in 2011′s budget crunch so that public school students are not short-changed. She says big corporations must pay their fair share of taxes so average people don’t have to pay more. She wants the proposed “Ike Dike” to protect against future storms so people won’t lose their homes again. And she wants insurance companies to treat people fairly. We agree, so we endorse Susan Criss for District 23.

District 149: Hubert Vo

Another of the rare competitive races pits longtime state Rep. Hubert Vo against Republican Al Hoang, 38, in a battle between two Vietnamese immigrants who share a culture but not political philosophies. Vo, 58, is a moderate Democrat who concentrates on bread-and-butter issues while Hoang, a former Houston city councilman, tends to echo conservative bromides. Hoang says he reflects the true values of the Vietnamese community, which makes up about 20 percent of the district that stretches from Alief to the Energy Corridor on Interstate 10. The low-key Vo has a list of modest accomplishments, including creation of the International Management District and sponsoring legislation that helped bring private space company SpaceX to Texas. He is a strong supporter of public education and wants the state to accept the Medicaid expansion offered under the Affordable Care Act. Buried in Hoang’s rhetoric about abortion, the death penalty and other red meat issues are a few good ideas. But the Legislature has enough members who think pushing hot political buttons is good policy, so we endorse Hubert Vo for a sixth term.

Wise choices if you ask me, obviously. Susan Criss also picked up an endorsement from Texas Parent PAC, which ought to help. The main thing that will help here is elevated turnout, to overcome the red lean of the district. My interview with Susan Criss is here in case you missed it. By the way, it was interesting to see the Chron venture outside Harris County, making recommendations in Galveston, Fort Bend, and Montgomery. I couldn’t swear to this, but my recollection is that this has not been their usual habit. Am I wrong about that?

Round Two was mostly about races featuring incumbents, all here in Harris and all but two getting the Chron’s nod. Those two races, plus one of the open seat races of interest:

District 132: Mike Schofield

Republican lawyer Mike Schofield, 50, handled legislative matters for Rick Perry for six sessions, which gives him an understanding of the lawmaking process that Democrat Luis Lopez does not have. Lopez, 25, has a compelling story: He came from Mexico as a child and has gone on to become a citizen, accountant and business owner. But Schofield can more immediately help the far west Houston district that includes Katy and the Cy-Fair area deal with the explosive growth expected there, so we endorse him.

District 135: No endorsement

As Republican incumbent Gary Elkins tells it, his biggest accomplishment during 20 years in the Legislature was the elimination of slower speed limits at night. His other unfortunate claim to fame was in 2011 when he disgraced the House by defending the payday lending business against state regulation in a massive conflict of interest – he himself owns payday lender businesses.

Elkins, 59, told us he will fight against overregulation, but couldn’t give any specifics. He couldn’t remember how many bills he filed last session or the details of a key constitutional amendment on the Nov. 4 ballot. Yet, this hapless spouter of Republican clichés keeps getting re-elected in the northwest suburban district that includes Jersey Village and the Cy-Fair area. His opponent, Democrat Moiz Abbas, 60, is a good guy and smart, but we haven’t seen much of a campaign, so we’ll make no endorsement.

District 150: Amy Perez

Incumbent Debbie Riddle, 65, is seeking a seventh term in the House where she is a dependable conservative vote with a bad habit of sticking her foot in her mouth. She is best known for her absurd – and telling – rant that free education “comes from Moscow, from Russia. It comes straight out of the pit of hell.” She also flamed out on CNN claiming “terror babies” were being born in the U.S. In contrast, Democrat Amy Perez is a history teacher in a local district and dedicated to public education and fully knows its problems. Once, she won teacher of the year in a local district, then got laid off because funds for social studies ran out. Perez, 29, has no political experience, but is super smart and might teach the Legislature something about education. In the district that goes from the Woodlands south to FM 1960 and includes Spring, it’s time for a change. We endorse Amy Perez.

Endorsing opponents to The Riddler is old hat for the Chron by now. She is the worst, after all. Here’s a brief Q&A from a neighborhood paper with Perez and Riddle if you want to know more. Elkins is right up there – or down there, I suppose – with Riddle, and he’s in a district that has a chance of being competitive before the next round of redistricting. Not really sure what their hangup was with Moiz Abbas, but whatever. As for HD132, another district that is trending the right way, I’d say that assuming Mike Scofield will use that experience he has to actually help his district may be assuming facts not in evidence.

Moving elsewhere, Sam Houston gets two more endorsements. Here’s the DMN:

Serious legal issues dogging Republican state Sen. Ken Paxton should rule him out for consideration to be the next attorney general of Texas. It’s fortunate for voters that there’s a solid alternative in a Houston attorney whose name isn’t easy to forget.

Career litigator Sam Houston, a Democrat, is making his second run for office, having been on the ballot in 2008 in an unsuccessful run for the Supreme Court of Texas.

This newspaper recommended Houston for office then and recommends him now, on the strength of his legal experience and ideas for the office.

Paxton’s impaired candidacy stems from his written admission that he broke state law by failing to register with the State Securities Board even though he solicited paying clients for a financial services firm that paid him a 30 percent cut. It wasn’t a one-time slipup on Paxton’s part. The Securities Board’s civil complaint against him cites solicitations from 2004, 2005 and 2012.

As if to make the situation vanish, Paxton, 51, a veteran lawmaker from McKinney, declined to contest the disciplinary order and paid a $1,000 fine in May. But the matter lives on. A complaint has been filed with the Travis County district attorney’s office, which has postponed any decision on taking the matter to a grand jury until after the election. That raises the possibility of felony charges against a sitting attorney general, the state’s chief law enforcement officer. Voters should not invite that kind of embarrassment for Texas.

And here’s the Express News:

We strongly urge Texans to elect Democrat Sam Houston, a native of Colorado City who has practiced law in Houston for 26 years.

Houston faces Republican state Sen. Ken Paxton, a McKinney lawyer. The Express-News reported that Paxton “admitted in May to referring clients to a North Texas investment firm without registering with state authorities as required by law. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded Paxton and fined him $1,000, concluding that he violated state securities law in 2004, 2005 and 2012.”

The episode was a dominant theme for Paxton’s GOP primary runoff opponent and is being emphasized by Democrats this fall. A watchdog group filed a complaint with the Travis County district attorney’s office. Travis County prosecutors wisely will not consider the complaint prior to the Nov. 4 election.

Whether the issue results in a criminal investigation or not, the case raises disturbing ethical questions about Paxton. We believe voters should take this blemish on Paxton’s record seriously as they consider who should be the state’s top lawyer.

At this point we’re just waiting for the Chron to make it a clean sweep. They should have a pretty good idea of what the arguments are by now.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Friday random six: U too?

Sorry, six songs by U-named bands is all I got:

1. The Electric Co. – U2
2. Still…You Turn Me On – Uncle Seth
3. I’m In Heaven – Universal Funk
4. Ffuny Ffriends – Unknown Mortal Orchestra
5. Stay With Me – The Urges
6. Easy Livin’ – Uriah Heep

I have lots of U2, but they only count for one here. As with the Q-named musicians, I’m not sure who else is out there. I know there’s Uncle Tupelo and Urge Overkill, and after that I draw a blank. What other U-named bands or singers can you think of?

Posted in: Music.

Judicial Q&A: Kay Morgan

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates on the November ballot. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Kay Morgan

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Kay Morgan and I thrilled and proud to be the Democratic candidate for judge for the 55th civil district court in Harris County.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Civil district courts in Harris County are the primary trial courts and hear matters with a minimum amount of $200 in damages and no maximum amount limit. Civil district courts hear a variety of civil cases involving property, contracts, personal injury, wrongful death, negligence, labor disputes, and products liability to name a few. In essence, civil district courts hear everything but family, probate, and criminal matters.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I picked this particular bench – the 55th – because it was the very first court in which I appeared as a young lawyer. The experience just stuck with me and I have ever since favored that court. Judge Reagan Cartwright was the judge at that time back in the early 1980’s and the young lawyer on the other side was Priscilla Owen who is now a Supreme Court Justice. After Judge Cartwright, Judge Kathleen Stone was elected to the 55th and I appeared in her courtroom several times. She was an excellent judge and I immediately admired her and looked up to her and liked the way she ran her court. Back in the mid-1980’s there were not that many women on the bench and she has always been an inspiration to me. The 55th civil district court needs another woman on that bench.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I am very well qualified for this position. I have practiced law for 33 years in Harris County. Prior to law school I attended Baylor University earning a BA in history and political science and a minor in education. After Baylor, I was awarded a scholarship to SMU and earned a Masters in history with a specialty in the American Old West. My first profession was teaching. I taught 12th grade government and Texas History at a public high school in Spring Branch for 5 years. My teaching experience increased my skills in communication and listening which are important aspects of a judgeship. After law school, I was the very first St. Mary’s law student to be awarded a federal Fifth Circuit clerkship with the Honorable John R. Brown. During my legal career I have practiced in a multitude of areas including commercial business disputes, oil and gas, contracts, general negligence, consumer disputes, medical malpractice, products liability, personal injury, wrongful death, and at present, insurance law. All of these types of legal areas will be heard in a civil district court. My diverse experience will serve me well on the bench. I also have a good judicial temperament in that I am patient and slow to anger, and I am compassionate; have humility and a respect for all people regardless of their socio-economic background or ethnicity. I believe the strongest and most important judicial virtues are impartiality and fairness and with my commitment to these virtues, I will provide a level, non-bias playing field for all who enter my courtroom.

5. Why is this race important?

The position of district judge is one of the most important positions in county government but unfortunately, judicial campaigns get little attention. On my campaign journey, I have discovered two truths: first, a lot of faith, trust and confidence in our judicial system has been lost by the community. For example, when the sole person or individual is pitted against the corporate world in general, the public believes the scales of justice tip in favor of big business and that the little individual has no chance of winning. Second, the general public seems to know little about how the judicial system works or anything about the candidates that are running for this important position. Judges make some of the most important and critical everyday decisions in the lives of everyday people. The average individual is more likely to be affected on a personal level by a district court judge than they are by a state legislator in Austin. So the type of person on the bench making these personal and important decisions is critical. A judge should know the law, be patient, objective, and apply the law without prejudice or favoritism. Most important, a judge should treat everyone in the courtroom with respect, equality and dignity. A judge should also be compassionate, have humility and integrity.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Harris County should vote for me because I am well qualified and have the demeanor and dignity that a judge should possess. Elections of course, are about choices. I am a good choice. I have both the life and legal experiences that are needed in a judge. I will always be prepared, listen patiently and impartially, rule promptly, and provide a level playing field. I will bring to the bench compassion, knowledge of the law and respect for everyone who enters my courtroom. All bias and prejudices will be checked at the door. Most importantly, I will be fair and impartial. Impartiality is at the core of due process and is the most supreme virtue of a judge. United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy said it this way: “The law makes a promise-neutrality. If that promise gets broken the law as we know it will cease to exist.” The people of Harris County should vote for me because I will make sure that the promise of neutrality does not get broken in the 55th civil district court.

Posted in: Election 2014.

Mail ballots

Campos:

AbsenteeBallots

I put out this yesterday and it got some buzz:

In 2010, here in Harris County, 54,625 folks voted by mail. 24,231 went straight GOP and 11,448 went straight Dem. 31,101 voted for Governor Perry and 22,875 for Bill White.

In 2012, 75,177 voted by mail with 28,608 going straight GOP and 19,557 going Dem. 43,270 voted for Mitt Romney and 31,414 voting for the President.

As of yesterday here in Harris County, 80,641 mail ballot applications have been submitted. 36,910 of the applications have been generated by the Democratic Party or Democratic candidate campaigns and 34,381 by the GOP and GOP candidate campaigns.

Here are the new numbers:

As of yesterday (Oct. 8) here in Harris County, 82,129 mail ballot applications have been submitted. 37,250 of the applications have been generated by the Democratic Party or Democratic candidate campaigns and 35,230 by the GOP and GOP candidate campaigns.

Now what I didn’t say because I didn’t know until I checked was in 2012, the Harris County Clerk mailed out a little over 92,000 mail ballots and 76,000 were returned. That means 16,000 or so never made it back and didn’t get counted. I am figuring the Dems know this and are following up if you know what I mean. Dems are not going to let the mail ballots sit at home. Regardless, this looks like a pretty impressive effort. Just to approach the 2012 figure is A-Okay. Nice work! Keep following up!

I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago. I had some questions at the time about how these voters were being targeted, which have been addressed. This looks like it will be very effective. As of yesterday, about 12,000 of these ballots had already been returned. According to Kyle Johnston’s analysis of the roster, about 54% of the ballots were returned by people that could be classified as Democrats, 37% by Republicans, and the rest undetermined. That’s not a bad start, and there are still two weeks in which one can request a mail ballot.

Well, assuming those ballots make it in to be counted.

Hundreds of mail-in ballots that are being mistakenly held for days at a downtown post office will now be delivered to the Harris County Clerks Office.

The downtown post office was holding the ballots for insufficient postage, something they are not supposed to do.

“We found a glitch. And we’re going to expose this,” said Harris County Democratic Chairman Lane Lewis.

Lewis found out about the ballots and offered to pay for the postage shortage. Almost all the ballots were short on postage by just pennies.

“These votes whether Republican or Democrat, I don’t know, but they need to be counted,” said Lewis.

A postal worker told Eyewitness News the shortage was about $57.

[...]

Eyewitness News learned Stanart made his own mistake. The return ballot states the postage is 69 cents. But it should have been 70 cents. Some ballots were being held for just a penny. Stanart said he didn’t know about the change in postage.

“I personally didn’t. I would have to talk to my office if they do know that,” said Stanart.

That’s your Houston Chronicle-endorsed County Clerk Stan Stanart right there, ladies and gentlemen. Isn’t he something?

Anyway. This is a Harris County program, and Lane Lewis and the HCDP get the credit for it. There are other mail programs going on around the state, though I doubt any will be as big as the HCDP’s will. While I know a decent number of the people targeted by Lewis and the HCDP are Presidential year voters, surely a fair number of these ballots are coming from people that would have turned out anyway. This isn’t a silver bullet, because there aren’t any, it’s just one of a lot of small, medium, and large things that need to be done to try to close the gap. It’s in addition to the voter registration numbers, for which there’s more good news and a bit of national attention. You have to feel good about it.

Again, it’s still too early to draw any conclusions, and even if everything is going exactly according to plan there’s still a ginormous gap that needs to be closed. Like I keep saying, even a really big step forward can fall well short. But what this election feels like to me is a dogfight. We’ve got Abbott and Patrick running attack ads even as the narrative was that frontrunners don’t do that. We’ve got the voter ID ruling, which came down late yesterday and for which I’ll have more tomorrow. It’s game on. Get out there and make something happen.

Posted in: Election 2014.

More suspects arrested from the rape kit backlog

More good news.

Houston’s effort to test a nearly three-decade backlog of sexual assault kits has resulted in new charges filed against 19 people, city officials said Monday, including 10 suspects identified and arrested for the first time.

One of the new suspects has been charged in connection with two assaults; another remains at large, Houston Police Department spokesman John Cannon said. The other eight suspects, he said, already are in jail on other charges and now face sexual assault charges.

City Council in 2013 paid $4.4 million to two private labs to test DNA samples from 9,750 cases, including a backlog of 6,600 rape kits dating to 1987. The labs’ work is nearly done, and staff from HPD and the city’s forensics lab now are entering all eligible genetic information into the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, a national law enforcement database.

So far, DNA from 1,031 of those cases has produced “hits,” meaning a suspect’s DNA already was in the database in connection with an earlier crime. In the vast majority of cases reviewed to date, officials said the suspects are known to police, having been arrested, convicted or detained at some point.

HPD Assistant Chief Matt Slinkard said the reviews have confirmed police arrested the right person in 58 sexual assault cases, but officials did not release details Monday about these cases or the 19 suspects hit with new charges. The Houston Chronicle reported in April the testing had identified at least one serial rapist already in jail on other charges.

The police officials gathered Monday at City Hall with Mayor Annise Parker and U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to celebrate the renewal of a federal law that frees up millions of dollars to help cities test sexual assault kits. Parker and Cornyn also lauded the city task force – headed by three lieutenants, eight sergeants and 33 investigators – charged with clearing the backlog by updating criminal cases and making arrests as suspects are identified.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me also recommend that you read Emily DePrang’s in depth story in the Observer about how we got here, and how HPD is now leading the way nationally when it comes to dealing with untested rape kits. A few bits to whet your interest:

The trouble is, demand for DNA testing in many places continued to outstrip growth in crime-lab capacity. Backlogs, once cleared, would quickly form again. In 2009, a CBS News investigation found that rape kits in Alabama and Illinois took, on average, six months to process. In Missouri, the wait was almost a year.

These kits—the ones submitted by law enforcement to crime labs for analysis but not returned for more than 30 days—are what the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the Department of Justice, considers “backlogged.”

But that’s not what happened in Texas.

Rather, most of the 19,000 kits reported (so far) never saw the inside of a lab because a sexual assault investigator made the decision not to have them tested. Victims who endure DNA collection may understandably assume it will be analyzed as part of the investigative process, but until recently, law enforcement officers could choose whether to test a kit. Often, they chose not to.

This was by no means limited to Texas. A 2011 survey by the National Institute of Justice found that, on average, nearly one in five recent unsolved rape cases nationally contain forensic evidence for which police never requested analysis.

The language used to talk about untested kits can obscure this deliberateness. If only for brevity, law enforcement and victims’ rights advocates alike have embraced the term “backlog” to describe all untested kits, but this can wrongly suggest that testing was attempted or intended. The term “backlog” implies the problem was simply a lack of resources instead of a conscious decision by police not to test. Similarly, untested kits are usually described as having been “discovered,” often “discovered in a warehouse,” as if evidence for thousands of sexual assault cases had been misplaced. That’s misleading, too.

“I think on some level jurisdictions love to use the word ‘discovered,’” says Sarah Tofte, vice president of policy and advocacy for the national Joyful Heart Foundation, “because that makes them feel, in a way, a little bit better, and maybe look a little less culpable.” The Joyful Heart Foundation runs the website EndtheBacklog.org, a clearinghouse for information on the quest to test all kits. Tofte says, “I think when people hear, ‘Oh, they discovered a backlog,’ they imagine there was some abandoned meat locker somewhere in a field, and they opened it and said, ‘Oh my gosh! There are all these untested rape kits! We had no idea.’ But yes, jurisdictions know. They know because it’s their policy. If their policy is, ‘Don’t send everything to the lab,’ there shouldn’t be a surprise when there’s a backlog.”

[...]

In 2010—before [Sen. Wendy] Davis’ bill—HPD, on its own initiative, had already implemented a test-all-kits policy. Then it successfully applied for a competitive grant from the National Institute of Justice. The grant, awarded just to Houston and Detroit, provided funds for the city not only to inventory its kits, but to study why so many went untested for so long, and to institute reforms. This wasn’t a secretive internal probe, either. Since early 2011, guided by the grant, HPD has hosted regular meetings of a diverse team of researchers, victims’ advocates, health care workers, forensic scientists, prosecutors and police brass, all dedicated to improving their response to sexual-assault survivors in Houston. When the grant ends in October, the group plans to continue its work independently.

Before sitting down together as part of the straightforwardly named Sexual Assault Kit Action-Research Task Force, many of these parties hadn’t previously communicated, let alone collaborated. Others, like victims’ rights advocates and some HPD investigators, were downright adversarial. As part of the group’s research, social scientists surveyed the attitudes of people in the justice system toward victims’ rights advocates and found that investigators in HPD’s Adult Sex Crimes Unit were particularly averse to outside meddling. One investigator told the group’s researchers, “…[Advocates] lead the woman to believe things that aren’t true.” Another complained, “[Advocates] have an agenda and take the woman’s side immediately.”

Undeterred, HPD moved forward with a plan to add a “justice advocate” to the Adult Sex Crimes Unit: a master’s-level social worker charged with improving investigators’ interactions with victims. The advocate, Emily Burton-Blank, was installed within earshot of investigators—a major breach of traditional police insularity—and investigators were required to involve her when contacting victims prone to dropping out of the process, such as people who are homeless or suffering from mental illness.

“Where we saw a large issue was the fact that a lot of people were dropping out of the system shortly after reporting [their rapes],” says HPD Assistant Chief Lentschke. “So we looked at that. How can we keep them in longer? Emily [the advocate] is a living, breathing idea. She’s done magnificent. And the investigators who were so anti-advocate … now they absolutely love her. That’s a huge turnaround.”

Sonia Corrales, chief program officer for the Houston Area Women’s Center, agrees. “Whenever we send a survivor [to HPD],” she says, “we know that when they talk to Emily, they’re getting really great service.”

The justice advocate position was originally slated to last less than a year and be funded only through the grant, but HPD officials quickly found the results so impressive that they made the position permanent and committed to hiring more advocates in the future.

It’s one of several steps HPD has taken to improve its treatment of sexual-assault survivors. New policies now require investigators to go into the field to investigate assaults rather than closing cases if victims fail to return phone calls or respond to a letter. The adult unit recently set aside a private room in which to take victims’ statements rather than interviewing them in the open, surrounded by other staff and ringing phones. And investigators have gotten new training, including education on the neurobiology of trauma so they can better recognize and respond to it.

But most important, HPD leadership has committed to ending the culture of victim blaming.

It’s a great story, so go read the whole thing. And did you notice the reference in there to Wendy Davis? A bill she authored in 2011 provided funding for rape kit testing, requiring every law enforcement agency to tally and report its untested sexual assault kits, and mandating that law enforcement agencies submit kits to a crime lab within 30 days. HPD as noted had gotten started before then, but the rest of the state wouldn’t be where it is now without that bill. Every one of these arrests is a reason to celebrate, as is the revelation – which I admit comes as a bit of a surprise – that no wrongly convicted offenders have been identified. With the winding down of this important project, the city’s new Forensic Science Center should be in good position going forward to ensure that there is never again this kind of backlog. Kudos to all for getting this done, and to Mayor Parker for making it a priority of her administration. Grits has more.

Posted in: Crime and Punishment.

Empower Texans could have some tax problems

Schadenfreude alert:

BagOfMoney

Empower Texans, an organization at the center of the state’s far-right conservative movement, reported no political expenses on its 2012 tax returns to the Internal Revenue Service, despite showing $350,000 in campaign expenditures to state authorities, documents show.

The group, which claims to support fiscal responsibility and greater transparency in government, is best known for funding challengers going after Republicans it believes are too moderate, such as House Speaker Rep. Joe Straus, a San Antonio Republican.

“That is a very serious discrepancy, because it tends to suggest – it’s not, obviously, definitive – but it tends to suggest that the (tax return) was completed in a way that is knowingly incorrect,” said Marcus Owens, who was the director of the division of the IRS that oversees tax-exempt organizations from 1990 through 2000. “Absent some cogent and persuasive explanation of those two, that strikes me as potentially a criminal problem and certainly a civil problem.”

Another attorney well-versed in the IRS’ rules and procedures for nonprofits was equally critical.

“To the degree they are filing reports with the state ethics commission showing political spending, and they’re not showing them on their (tax returns), I find that questionable,” said John Pomeranz, a Washington D.C.-based attorney, who specializes in the law governing lobbying and political activity by nonprofits. “I’m trying to think of a way that could be justified, but I don’t really think it can be.”

[...]

Empower Texans’ nonprofit status makes its tax returns public record. Information from the tax returns reviewed from 2008 until 2012 also raises questions about whether the group has used an affiliated nonprofit, the Empower Texans Foundation, to improperly subsidize its political activity.

According to those records, Sullivan’s salary at Empower Texans fell greatly after the Empower Texans Foundation was created. However, the pay he received from the foundation more than made up the difference. In 2009, the year before the foundation was established, Sullivan made $99,600 in 2009, working 60 hours a week, serving as the president of Empower Texans.

However, in 2011, he made only $38,842 (about $19 an hour), as Empower Texans’ president. But he made $81,600 (roughly $78 an hour) serving as a director on the foundation’s board, tax returns show.

The pattern repeated itself in 2012: Sullivan, again listed as Empower Texans’ president, made $45,633 there, while earning another $81,600 from the foundation.

“That definitely suggests the (foundation) is subsidizing (Empower Texans), and the IRS doesn’t like that,” Pomeranz said.

While the IRS allows affiliated nonprofits to share staff and other costs, it requires that each organization carry its own weight, Owens said. He added that failure to do that could endanger the foundation’s tax-exempt status.

The tax returns, known as 990s, have come into the spotlight as the Ethics Commission considers adopting rules that would require nonprofits, like Empower Texans, to report their donors if at least 25 percent of their expenditures are “politically motivated.”

I know, it’s hard to believe that anyone as honest and forthright as Michael Quinn Sullivan could be playing fast and loose with the rules. Clearly, we need a nice, long, thorough investigation to get to the bottom of this.

Posted in: Show Business for Ugly People.