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Attorney General

The meta-campaign for Senate

Let’s talk about what we talk about when we talk about the Senate campaign.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

It’s the most backhanded of compliments.

U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s campaign for U.S. Senate has caught so much fire throughout the state that the new favorite betting game in Texas politics is “How close can he get to Ted Cruz in November?”

The implication in the question’s phrasing is that O’Rourke’s loss remains a given.

Despite the high enthusiasm the El Paso congressman’s campaign has drawn among Democrats, Texas has not elected a Democrat statewide in over 20 years. An informal round of interviews with well over a dozen political players involved in Texas and national politics suggests that Cruz is expected to extend that streak with a re-election victory in the high single digits.

While such a margin would amount to significant progress for Democrats from past statewide performances, a loss is a loss, and Cruz’s win would likely ensure GOP control of the U.S. Senate for another two years.

Even so, O’Rourke’s 18-month statewide tour could still help significantly rebuild a flagging state party apparatus. The term being thrown around quietly among Democrats is “losing forward.”

In that sense, the stakes are much higher for both parties than a single race.

How this very strange match up of Cruz, a former GOP presidential runner-up, against O’Rourke, a rank-and-file congressman turned political sensation, shakes out could set the trajectory of the next decade in Texas politics.

[…]

More than one operative from both parties brushed off the O’Rourke excitement with a pervasive phrase — “This is still Texas” — a nod to the state’s recent history as the most populous conservative powerhouse in the union.

The enthusiasm for O’Rourke — his bonanza event attendance and record-breaking fundraising, in particular — is something the state has not seen in modern memory. But there remain open questions over whether the three-term congressman can take a punch when the widely expected fall advertising blitz against him begins, whether he can activate the Hispanic vote and whether he can effectively build his name identification in a such a sprawling and populated state.

“We’ve never been in a situation where November matters at a statewide level,” said Jason Stanford, a former Democratic consultant, about the uncertainty of the fall.

So what would a moral victory be, if O’Rourke is unable to close the deal outright? Operatives from both parties suggest a 5- to 6-point spread — or smaller — could send a shockwave through Texas politics.

Such a margin could compel national Democrats to start making serious investments in the state and force local Republicans to re-examine how their own party practices politics going forward.

But that kind of O’Rourke performance could also bear more immediate consequences, potentially scrambling the outcomes of races for other offices this fall.

Only a handful of statewide surveys on the race are floating around the Texas political ether. But one increasing point of alarm for Republicans is what campaign strategists are seeing when they test down-ballot races.

Often campaigns for the U.S. House or the Texas Legislature will include statewide matchups in polling they conduct within a district. Sources from both parties say some of those polls show Cruz underperforming in some state legislative and congressional races — particularly in urban areas.

In effect, O’Rourke could come up short but turn out enough voters in the right communities to push Democrats over the line in races for the Legislature and U.S. House.

I know I discussed this before back in 2014 when we were all high on Battleground Texas, but let’s do this again. What are the consolation prize goals for Texas Democrats in 2018?

– To discuss the consolation prizes, we have to first agree on what the main goals are. Clearly, electing Beto O’Rourke is one of the brass rings, but what about the other statewide campaigns? My guess is that based primarily on visibility and the implications for control of the Senate, the O’Rourke-Cruz race is in a class by itself, so everything after that falls in the “consolation prize” bucket. Thus, I’d posit that winning one or more downballot statewide race would be in the first level of lower-tier goals, with Lt. Governor, Attorney General, Ag Commissioner, and any Supreme Court/CCA bench being the ones that are most in focus.

– Very close behind would be the Congressional races, for which three (CDs 07, 23, and 32) are rated as tossups, a couple more (CDs 21 and 31) are on the radar, and more than we can count are on the fringes. You have to feel like CD23 is winnable in any decent year, so for this to count as a prize we’d need at least one more seat in addition to flip. Very good would be all three tossups, and great would be another seat in addition.

– In the Lege, picking up even one Senate seat would be nice, but picking up two or three means Dems have enough members to block things via the three-fifths (formerly two-thirds) rule. I don’t know how many House seats I’d consider prize-level-worthy, but knocking off a couple of the worst offenders that are in winnable seats, like Matt Rinaldi in HD115, Gary Elkins in HD135, and Tony Dale in HD136, would be sweet.

– Sweeping Harris County, breaking through in Fort Bend County, picking up any kind of victory in places like Collin, Denton, Williamson, Brazoria, you get the idea. And don’t forget the appellate courts, which will require doing well in non-urban counties.

It’s easy enough to say what counts as lower-level goals, it’s harder to put numbers on it. It’s not my place to say what we “should” win in order to feel good about it. Frankly, given recent off-year elections, it’s a bit presumptuous to say that any number of victories in places we haven’t won this decade might be somehow inadequate. I think everyone will have their own perception of how it went once the election is over, and unless there’s a clear rout one way or the other there will be some level of disagreement over how successful Democrats were.

It’s been three years since Ken Paxton was indicted

Surely that’s worth noting.

Best mugshot ever

It’s been three years since Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for securities fraud, and his Democratic challenger marked the date — with cake.

Justin Nelson, a Houston attorney vying to strip the Republican incumbent of his title, released a YouTube video campaign ad on Thursday wishing Paxton, “Happy birthday to your criminal charges.” The short video, which was recorded to appear like a baking tutorial, also criticizes Paxton for campaign contributions and n incident where he took — then returned — a local lawyer’s $1,000 Montblanc pen.

“On August 3rd, 2015, Indicted Ken Paxton was arrested, booked, and had his mugshot taken,” the video’s description says. “Since Paxton’s criminal charges just turned three, here’s a delicious way to celebrate their birthday!”

[…]

Without a large campaign fund for traditional media, Nelson has turned to YouTube to get his message out, releasing four videos in the last month.

You can see those videos here; they haven’t gotten much traffic yet, but it only takes one to go viral. And, um, Happy Indictment Day.

Lyceum: Cruz 41, O’Rourke 39

Good result, though the others with it could be better.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

A new poll released Wednesday suggests that U.S. Sen Ted Cruz and U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, are in a dead heat.

The poll from Texas Lyceum shows Cruz holding a slim margin over his Democratic challenger in the U.S. Senate race. Among likely voters, Cruz carries 41 percent of the vote compared to O’Rourke’s 39 percent. Nineteen percent of voters said they were undecided.

That lead falls within the polls 4.67 percent margin of error.

“O’Rourke continues to nip at Cruz’s heels, but it’s a long way to go until Election Day,” Josh Blank, Lyceum Poll Research Director, said in a news release. “If this race looks different than the rest, that’s probably because it is because a strong Democratic challenger raising prolific sums of money and tons of earned media.”

All the information about the 2018 Lyceum poll is here. Here’s the press release, the executive summary, the toplines, and the crosstabs. Here also are the results for the four races they polled:

Registered voters:

Senate – Cruz 36, O’Rourke 34
Governor – Abbott 44, Valdez 25
Lt. Governor – Patrick 32, Collier 23
Attorney General – Paxton 32, Nelson 20

Likely voters:

Senate – Cruz 41, O’Rourke 39
Governor – Abbott 47, Valdez 31
Lt. Governor – Patrick 39, Collier 29
Attorney General – Paxton 35, Nelson 25

I’ve generally gone with RV totals in these polls, but you can make your own choice here. I’m including the LV totals in the polling average for Senate, which now stands at 46.2 for Cruz and 39.9 for O’Rourke. The Lyceum did its 2014 polling in October, which is a bit annoying as that makes it less directly comparable. At the time, their numbers in the Abbott-Davis race looked not too bad, but that was the last time one could make that assertion. What makes me want to pull my hair out is that they did generic ballot polling for Congress and the Lege in 2014, giving Republicans a 46-35 lead in the former and a 38-31 lead in the latter, but apparently didn’t ask that same question this time around. Argh! That sure would have been a nice little data point to have.

I’ve spent a lot of my time on this blog nitpicking polls and questioning assumptions and samples and whatnot, oftentimes for reasons that in retrospect don’t look that great. So it is with a certain measure of grim satisfaction that I read this:

The newest poll is sure to draw skepticism from Cruz supporters. Even before it was released, Cruz’s pollster Chris Wilson published an article on Medium questioning whether it would be accurate.

“Dating back to 2008 the Texas Lyceum has generously given Democrats a massive house effect boost of seven (7!!!) points,” he wrote, add that the poll has historically overestimated the share of the Hispanic vote.

I feel your pain, buddy. But just for the record, here are some previous Lyceum results:

2016 – Trump 39, Clinton 32 (LVs)
2014 – Abbott 49, Davis 40 (LVs)
2012: Romney 58, Obama 39 (LVs)

They definitely underestimated Abbott in 2014 (though they did show a wider lead 47-33 lead for Dan Patrick over Letitia Van de Putte), but the total for Davis was spot on. They were pretty close on the other two. Take your “house effect” complaint to the nerds at 538 (which doesn’t have the Texas Lyceum poll in its pollster ratings). Texas Monthly has more.

The Trib looks at the AG race

There’s case that this is the second-most interesting statewide race on the ballot.

Justin Nelson

Three years ago almost to the day, a Collin County grand jury indicted Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for securities fraud. As the state’s top lawyer turned himself into a jail in his hometown of McKinney and smiled for his mug shot, Democrats couldn’t help but feel optimistic. The last time Texas elected a Democrat for attorney general was over two decades ago. Paxton’s legal troubles could potentially serve, they hoped, as the springboard to breaking that streak.

What perhaps no one could have foreseen back in 2015 was the dizzying array of twists and turns the legal case against Paxton would undergo. Three summers later, there is still no trial date in sight and one is unlikely to emerge before Election Day.

Yet despite avoiding a challenge from within his own party this year – arguably the biggest political threat for a statewide official in deep-red Texas – the political fallout from Paxton’s indictment remains to be seen. In November, he’ll face his first actual test of it at the ballot box: a challenge from Democrat Justin Nelson. The well-credentialed Austin lawyer is framing the race as a crystal-clear referendum on the charges that have dogged Paxton for the vast majority of his first term.

“The question that voters will have is who voters want to hire as a lawyer for Texas, for all Texans,” Nelson said in a recent interview. “Voters will be able to choose me, someone who has clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, who has taught at the University of Texas law school, Texas Super Lawyer, a partner at a successful law firm, versus my opponent, who it’s embarrassing that he’s indicted for fraud in one of the most heavily Republican counties in Texas.

“And I think that when voters see that contrast, it will be integrity versus indictment.”

[…]

In Nelson, Democrats have ample reason to be optimistic. He brings an impressive resume to the race as a clerk for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and current partner at Houston-based litigation powerhouse Susman Godfrey. That network that comes with that — as well as Nelson’s own wealth — has allowed him to build a bigger war chest than any other Democratic statewide candidate beside U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, who is running a far more high-profile race to unseat U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. Still, Paxton maintains a wide cash-on-hand advantage.

In addition to Nelson’s fundraising, Democrats have been buoyed by a pair of public polls that suggested the race may be close. A recent University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll found Paxton leading Nelson among registered voters by just 1 percentage point, but 26 percent of voters had yet to pick a candidate.

“I feel really good about his race,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, ranking Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller as ripe targets for Democratic upsets in November. “[Nelson’s race] is particularly compelling because … I’ve seen people react when you talk about an indictment and an attorney general — I mean, this is our lawyer, and they can’t get their head around the idea that our own lawyer is under indictment. They’ll easily concede, ‘Yeah, he’s innocent until proven guilty’, but it’s the whole image — it’s the whole cloud over the work — it just doesn’t sit easy when you hear about that.”

To be sure, Nelson is not building his challenge entirely around the incumbent’s legal troubles. Nelson also is campaigning on issues like ending gerrymandering, which was the topic of a pub crawl he led last month in Austin that touched three congressional districts in a five-block radius. During an interview at the last stop — at Easy Tiger in downtown Austin — Nelson said he would use his platform as attorney general to fight partisan gerrymandering in particular through written opinions, through the litigation process and at the Legislative Redistricting Board, where the attorney general has a seat. Nelson and Paxton were already on opposite sides of the issue before their race began, having signed on to dueling amicus briefs in the Wisconsin gerrymandering case that the U.S. Supreme Court declined to decide on last month.

Nelson has raised (and loaned himself) a few bucks, he’s got the national Democratic Attorney General Association in his corner, and there’s that one-point poll result; another poll from the Texas Lyceum that includes the AG race will be out next week. And then there’s the wild card of the Paxton trial, and how much the publicity for that has eroded Paxton’s natural advantage as a Republican. Going in on redistricting as an issue is a good idea as well. The main questions as always are how much does the average voter already know about this stuff, how much do they care, and how effectively can Nelson get his message out? Justin Nelson is a very appealing candidate, but he has to overcome the tide. That’s what this boils down to.

Who wants to protect our voting systems from hackers?

You would hope the answer to that question would be “everyone”, but that’s not the world we currently live in.

A bipartisan group of 21 state attorneys general are demanding Congress’ assistance in protecting the 2018 election. Writing to Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and Sen. Roy Blunt, Senate Rules and Administration Committee Chairman, the AGs ask for “assistance in shoring up our systems so that we may protect our elections from foreign attacks and interference.”

“As the latest investigations and indictments make clear,” they write “during the 2016 election, hackers within Russia’s military intelligence service not only targeted state and local election boards, but also successfully invaded a state election website to steal the sensitive information of approximately 500,000 American voters and infiltrated a company that supplies voting software across the United States.” Combatting that incursion and giving the electorate “confidence in our democratic voting process” is “imperative,” they write. “The integrity of the nation’s voting infrastructure is a bipartisan issue, and one that affects not only the national political landscape, but elections at the state, county, municipal, and local levels.”

Their direct demands: “Prioritizing and acting on election-security legislation” in the form of the Secure Elections Act (S.2261), a bipartisan bill that would provide additional grants and assistance to states to shore up systems; “Increasing funding for the Election Assistance Commission to support election security improvements at the state level and to protect the personal data of the voters of our states”; and, “Supporting the development of cybersecurity standards for voting systems to prevent potential future foreign attacks.”

You can see the very reasonable letter here. Seems simple and straightforward, no? You can also see that none of those AGs are Ken Paxton. Maybe that’s why he doesn’t want to debate – he doesn’t want to get asked pesky questions about that sort of thing.

Paxton joins the wimp brigade

Seems fitting.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a TV interview that he would be “happy to debate anybody on the issues” as he seeks re-election this fall, but he is now backing off that offer by refusing to debate Democrat Justin Nelson as voters decide who to hire as the state’s top lawyer.

Paxton instead “will communicate directly with the voters,” his campaign spokesman, Matt Welch, wrote in an emailed statement Thursday in rejecting Nelson’s invitation to debate.

Welch did not respond when asked if Paxton’s previous offer to debate was sincere.

“I’m happy to debate anybody on the issues and I look forward to it,” Paxton said on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program in November.

See here and here for the background. No one should be surprised by this. All bark no bite, all hat no cattle, all hawk no spit – pick your cliche to to describe these yellow bellies. I doubt Paxton, along with Dan Patrick and Sid Miller and George P. Bush, can feel shame, but they can probably feel ridicule, and they deserve all the Bronx cheers they get. If they refuse to debate because they don’t want to give publicity to their opponents, then let’s make their refusal to debate a story. They should not be allowed to run away and hide.

Don’t expect any other debates

Cowardice + lack of incentive = avoiding engagement.

Land Commissioner George P. Bush (son of Jeb and nephew to George W.) has no plans to go one-on-one with his challenger, Miguel Suazo — at least, not as of Tuesday, July 24.

“At this point, we’re not planning to do a debate, but we always assess things as we go forward,” Bush campaign spokesman Lee Spieckerman told The Dallas Morning News. And why not? “Voters are very aware of Commissioner Bush’s record, which is the main thing. … His performance speaks for itself.”

But perhaps it’s the spokesman for Sid Miller, the perpetually be-Stetson-ed commissioner of agriculture, who said it best. Miller’s got 719,000 followers on Facebook, after all, where he’s shared his thoughts on refugee “rattlers,” drag queens and Whoopi Goldberg. Why give his challenger a slice of that “free publicity?”

“It’ll be a cold day in Texas before we give our opponent the opportunity to have free name recognition by having a debate,” Todd M. Smith told The News on Tuesday. “As the lieutenant governor said, there’s not anybody in Texas who doesn’t know where Sid Miller stands on the issues.”

[…]

Kim Olson, who is seen as both forceful and folksy, accused Miller of running scared.

“Candidates should earn their votes, and the only way to do that is to present yourself,” Olson, a retired Air Force colonel, told The News. “It is suspect when an incumbent will not defend his record or present a vision of the future.”

Collier accused Patrick of ensconcing himself away “in his bunker, sending out audio snippets to the few supporters that remain, that are chock full of spin and nonsense,” to which Blakemore shot back with a long list of Patrick’s campaign events over the last two days, including a meeting with the Dallas Police Association, folks from UT Southwestern and a group of conservative women in Tomball.

And Suazo, the energy lawyer who wants to run the Alamo and manage the state’s mineral rights as land commissioner, said Bush should live up to his name: “Every other candidate named George Bush has debated, except this one. That’s because his record is indefensible and he knows that I’ll beat him.”

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s spokesman did not return calls and emails requesting comment. In a November television appearance, Paxton (who was indicted in July 2015 and is awaiting trial on fraud charges) said he would “be happy to debate anybody on the issues and look forward to it.

It was unclear if he meant an election opponent. Paxton refused to meet his challenger in 2014. His opponent this time around is Justin Nelson, a Houston attorney. On Wednesday, the Nelson campaign released a video featuring a clip of Paxton’s November appearance where he says he’d be “happy to debate anybody.”

“Sounds good, Ken,” the ad says. “Ready when you are.”

See here for the background, and here for the comparison to Ted Cruz. I love how Patrick sends his spokesperson out to fight his verbal battles for him. The Warner Brothers cartoon image of a small yappy dog hiding behind his bulldog friend while barking at a cat really comes to mind. And while one has to give Sid Miller some props for being honest about why he doesn’t want to debate anyone, especially not an icky girl like Kim Olson who surely has cooties, it’s hilarious and entirely in character that he cites Dan Patrick’s reasoning, as he lacks the originality to come up with his own. If it’s not a Facebook meme, it’s too complicated for Miller. Again, I get the rationale for not wanting to give publicity to an underfunded opponent, but the lack of confidence in their own abilities is startling. What a bunch of chickens.

Business groups file brief opposing Paxton’s anti-DACA lawsuit

This is good.

A federal lawsuit by Texas officials earlier this year seeking to order the end of the federal immigration program called the Deferred Act for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, will have “immediate, irreparable injury” to Texas businesses and cost the state’s economy billions of dollars, according to a coalition of pro-business organizations.

Seven Texas-based chambers of commerce, two pro-business consortiums and four prominent companies – including Southwest Airlines – filed an unprecedented court brief late Saturday asking a federal judge in Houston to reject Attorney General Ken Paxton’s argument that the DACA program be ended and dismantled.

Lawyers for Vinson & Elkins, which represents the business coalition that includes the Texas Association of Business, argue that Paxton’s case – if successful – would significantly damage their operations, deprive them of much needed work expertise and cost the state of Texas tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues.

[…]

The business organizations point out that DACA was initiated by the Obama Administration in 2012, but the fact that Texas and the six other states suing waited until 2018 to challenge the program is a major legal argument in favor of keeping the status quo.

“The States waited almost six years after the announcement of the DACA guidelines before challenging them in Court, despite challenging similar initiatives implemented after DACA in 2015,” V&E lawyers argue. “Since an injunction is an equitable remedy, it may be denied on the basis of laches if an unreasonable delay by the party seeking injunctive relief works to the disadvantage or prejudice of another party.

“The States’ delay has substantially impacted businesses in Texas, who have, as described above, come to rely upon Dreamers as valued employees, customers, and fellow members of the business community and now stand to incur significant costs if DACA is enjoined,” the brief states. “The States’ delay also undercuts any claim they have to immediate, irreparable injury, since they have been living with the status quo for six years.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ll be honest, when I first saw the story headline, I assumed this was another one of those meaningless tut-tut gestures from the Texas Association of Business towards their vassals in the state GOP. They were the masters of the mild statement of disapproval that was never accompanied by any tangible action but always got them some cheap publicity long before Jeff Flake ever complained about Donald Trump on Twitter. This at least has the chance to do something tangible, so kudos to them for that. Having said that, let’s be clear that this is very much a political problem as well as a legal one. If you’re not working towards a Democratic Congress and the election of Justin Nelson as Texas AG, you’re not really trying to solve it. Anyway, there will be a hearing in Houston on August 8, so we’ll see if this has any effect. The Chron has more.

“Fetal remains” trial ends

Now we wait for a ruling.

State and reproductive rights attorneys wrapped up a five-day trial in federal court on Friday that will determine whether a Texas law requiring health providers to cremate or bury fetal remains can go into effect.

U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra told attorneys on Friday that he has “not made up my mind on how I’m going to rule on this case” and is awaiting written closing arguments due on Aug. 3.

He’s expected to rule around the end of August.

The law at the center of the case is Senate Bill 8, passed in 2017, which requires the burial or cremation of fetal remains. Legislators passed the bill following a ruling that year by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks that struck down a similar rule implemented by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Sparks said that rule was vague, caused undue burden on women and had high potential for irreparable harm.

Throughout the five-day trial, a wave of patients, health providers, state agency officials, bioethicists, cemetery directors and religious leaders flowed through the witness stand.

Before dismissing attorneys Friday morning, Ezra rattled off a list of questions and concerns he wanted both sides to answer in his closing arguments, including: What authority does Texas have to pass laws around giving dignity to the unborn? What would happen to women’s access to care — for abortions and miscarriages — if health providers did not have a facility to handle fetal remains? And how many facilities — secular or otherwise — have committed to helping with burials and cremation?

Ezra noted that the case is unique because state attorneys waived the argument that SB 8 protects the health or safety of patients and plaintiff’s attorneys waived arguments about costs to patients and providers.

The dynamics involved “makes this case extremely unique in many ways and makes finding precedent all the more difficult because those issues are generally not only present in these kind of abortion-related cases — they’re often paramount in those cases,” Ezra said.

See here for the background. The judge’s questions, which the Observer examined in more detail, are the key to the case. During the trial, there was testimony by Blake Howard Norton, the daughter of State Rep. Donna Howard, about how she felt coerced by the Catholic hospital where she was going through a miscarriage into making a decision about disposing of the fetus, and there was more useless testimony from paid state witnesses who lacked any expertise in the subject matter and the law. I feel like the judge is skeptical of the law, but we’ll see what he has to say about it. The Chron has more.

“Fetal remains” lawsuit trial underway

Here we go.

State and reproductive rights attorneys are going head to head again in federal court on Monday to argue whether Texas should require health providers to cremate or bury fetal remains.

“It’s a tough case for everybody,” U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra said Friday during a pretrial hearing. In January, he had granted an injunction blocking a state fetal remains burial rule, but he said last week that the previous decision is no indication of how he would rule in the trial.

“It’s a very emotional case, and so I would ask counsel to do the best job they can to try and tamp down some of the more zealous individuals in your respective camps so that we don’t get a lot of extraneous stuff going on,” Ezra said to attorneys for the state and the Center for Reproductive Rights, who are representing the plaintiffs.

Arguments in the trial are expected to run all week.

[…]

Ezra listened as both sets of attorneys spent nearly two hours going over logistics of the trial and other issues including whether certain witnesses would be allowed to testify about the emotional trauma of abortions and fetal remain burials and keeping information about vendors confidential for safety reasons.

Throughout Friday’s pretrial hearing, Ezra laid out for attorneys what was on the court’s mind about the case, including: if women may face an undue burden if there aren’t enough providers or facilities statewide; the logistics of how doctors and clinics would deal with the law if it went into effect; and if Texas has enough facilities available statewide to help dispose of the fetal remains.

“I have to deal with this as a law in Texas that will affect every woman in the state of Texas,” Ezra said.

Another point of contention during the hearing was what to do about a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on whether the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops would have to turn over confidential internal documents to the Center for Reproductive Rights and Whole Woman’s Health for the fetal remains trial. Ezra had previously ruled it would, but in the middle of the pretrial hearing the 5th Circuit informed him it had reversed his decision.

See here for the previous update. I have no idea how this one may go, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it. There’s certainly a chance that none of this will matter given the likely future composition of SCOTUS, but we have to go through the process anyway. The Chron has more.

Gravis: Cruz 51, O’Rourke 42

Here’s a new poll of four statewide races in Texas, for which there may or may not be any news coverage. The executive summary:

Gravis Marketing, a nonpartisan research firm, conducted a random survey of 602 likely voters across Texas. The poll was conducted from July 3rd through July 7th and has a margin of error of ±4.0%. The totals may not round to 100% because of rounding. The survey was conducted using an online panel of cell phone users and interactive voice responses. The results are weighted by voting demographics. The poll was paid for by Gravis Marketing.

Rep. Beto O’Rourke

As there is no news story to excerpt, I’ll just go straight to the results:

US Senate: Ted Cruz 51, Beto O’Rourke 42

Governor: Greg Abbott 51, Lupe Valdez 41

Lt. Governor: Dan Patrick 46, Mike Collier 44

Attorney General: Ken Paxton 45, Justin Nelson 41

There are a bunch of approval and issue questions in the polling memo, so feel free to browse through it. I will note two things. One is that Gravis is rated as a C+ pollster by FiveThirtyEight, better than some but worse than many others. Like Quinnipiac, they have no record in Texas prior to this year that I’m aware of. Two, while I haven’t spent any time critiquing subsamples in the polls we’ve seen so far, I have to say that the subsamples in this poll are nuts. Somehow, Gravis found the most ridiculously and unbelievably Republican group of 18-29 year olds and Hispanics I’ve ever seen, as well as the least hostile-to-Democrats Anglos. I have no explanation for this, and to some extent it doesn’t really matter. It is what it is, and what it is is another data point. And that data point brings the Senate poll average to 46.9 for Cruz, and 40.0 for O’Rourke.

I heard about this poll via a campaign email from Mike Collier, who for obvious reasons wanted to tout this result. (The TDP subsequently posted about it.) The low “don’t know/no answer” rate for the Lite Guv and AG questions is suspicious, but maybe that’s a function of their “likely voter” screen. Collier trails Patrick 50.4 to 42.8 among white voters, which is why he is so close in the race despite trailing 43.8 to 36.4 among Hispanics and leading by a mere 57.9 to 34.9 among blacks. Did I make my incredulity about this polls’ subsamples clear enough? You see some wacky stuff sometimes when the subgroups are small, but good Lord. As I’ve said, it’s a data point. Don’t make any more of it than that.

Back to the barbecue battle

Once again, Sid Miller makes us pay attention to something we shouldn’t have to.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

Texas’ barbecue culture is sacred. But some pitmasters are catching heat from a former rodeo cowboy overseeing the state Department of Agriculture.

Commissioner Sid Miller is slapping fines on their small businesses despite a warning from the attorney general that his reasoning may be illegal. The department issued at least 13 citations to barbecue joints for failing to register their meat scales since September, despite a 2017 state law requiring the commissioner to leave such establishments alone. In a case of unlikely bedfellows, Miller’s commission issued nine scale-related fines to yogurt shops, too.

The department has no plans to stop.

The citations are part of a running feud between restaurant owners and Miller, a white-cowboy-hat-wearing commissioner who made it his mission to ensure the state register all scales that weigh food for customers. But the state’s restaurant association is warning the food fight could land the commissioner in court.

[…]

When you order a quarter-pound of brisket, Miller insists the meat-slinger should set it on a state-registered scale where you can read the weight. Restaurants must also pay a yearly $35 fee for each of their scales. But strictly enforcing the law could force some of Texas’ most storied smokehouses to completely change the layout of their kitchens, incurring huge remodeling costs.

It’s “patently absurd,” said Kenneth Besserman, general counsel for the Texas Restaurant Association. Some pitmasters scrambled to rewrite their menus to serve less specific amounts of meat but found that created confusion for customers, he said.

Besserman and the restaurant lobby quickly convinced the Legislature to rewrite the law, nicknaming their effort the “Barbecue Bill.” Lawmakers in 2017 almost unanimously agreed to exempt scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” largely pertaining to barbecue restaurants, yogurt shops and certain salad bars. The governor was sold.

Nevertheless, Miller persisted. Once the bill became law, Miller used his authority to add three additional words: “on the premises.” That meant any establishment selling food to-go — as the vast majority of barbecue restaurants do — had to follow the scale laws and regulations, essentially undoing the new law.

See here and here for the background. AG Paxton has opined that Miller’s interpretation is out of bounds, and the TRA is threatening to sue. I have expressed my reluctant agreement with Miller on the merits of the 2017 law, but it is the law and a public official’s role is to obey and uphold the law, outside of situations where the law is obviously immoral or unjust. This doesn’t meet that standard, in which case Miller should be lobbying for the law to be changed, or to work to un-elect the legislators who passed it. It’s also fair to point out, as Miller’s Democratic opponent Kim Olson does in the story, that the AG ought to have other priorities than this, as there have been almost no complaints made in recent years about inaccurate barbecue scales. Of course, given the sorts of things Miller tends to do when he has a bit of free time, this is at least not horribly embarrassing. Silver linings, I suppose.

Don’t expect a Ken Paxton trial to happen this year

Delays, delays, nothing but delays.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

“I just don’t see there’s any way it gets tried before the election,” said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who has represented everyone from Enron employees to athletes and TV stars. “I would have doubted that the trial would have happened before the election even if the Court of Criminal Appeals would have decided today.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Just for a sense of the timeline here, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas halted the special prosecutors’ pay last February, then ruled they had to give a bunch of it back to Collin County in August. The CCA then stayed that ruling pending any action it would take in September, and after giving everyone 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Court’s ruling, they agreed in December to formally review that ruling. At that time, it delayed the actual Paxton trial, which was originally set to start on December 11, to this year. More than six months later, the CCA has not scheduled oral arguments for that appeal, and so here we are. There are other factors at play here – the damage done to the Harris County courthouse by Harvey greatly complicates things, for example – but either until this lawsuit gets resolved, nothing else will happen. And just any ruling won’t get us back on track, because if the CCA lets the 5th Court’s ruling stand, the special prosecutors will resign, and we’ll have to start more or less from scratch. Ken Paxton could well be collecting his state pension by the time this sucker gets to a courthouse.

You’ve heard the expression that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Usually, that applies to the defendant, who is entitled by the Constitution to a fair and prompt trial. In this case, as Democratic nominee for AG Justin Nelson says in a statement, Ken Paxton is benefiting from the unending delays, with the assistance of his legislative cronies. You’d think a guy who loudly proclaims his innocence would want to get this over with, but not Ken Paxton. It would seem he’s just fine with putting this off, at least until after the election. Feel free to speculate as to why that might be.

UT/Trib: Cruz 41, O’Rourke 36, part 2

We pick up where we left off.

Republican Ted Cruz leads Democrat Beto O’Rourke 41 percent to 36 percent in the general election race for a Texas seat in the U.S. Senate, according to the latest University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll.

Neal Dikeman, the Libertarian Party nominee for U.S. Senate, garnered 2 percent, according to the survey. And 20 percent of registered voters said either that they would vote for someone else in an election held today (3 percent) or that they haven’t thought enough about the contest to have a preference (17 percent).

In the governor’s race, Republican incumbent Greg Abbott holds a comfortable 12-percentage-point lead over Democratic challenger Lupe Valdez — the exact same advantage he held over Democrat Wendy Davis in an early-summer poll in 2014. Abbott went on to win that race by 20 percentage points. In this survey, Abbott had the support of 44 percent to Valdez’s 32 percent. Libertarian Mark Tippetts had the support of 4 percent of registered voters, while 20 percent chose “someone else” or said they haven’t made a choice yet.

[…]

The June UT/TT Poll, conducted from June 8 to June 17, is an early look at the 2018 general election, a survey of registered voters — not of the “likely voters” whose intentions will become clearer in the weeks immediately preceding the election. If recent history is the guide, most registered voters won’t vote in November; according to the Texas Secretary of State, only 34 percent of registered voters turned out in 2014, the last gubernatorial election year.

The numbers also reflect, perhaps, the faint rumble of excitement from Democrats and wariness from Republicans who together are wondering what kind of midterm election President Donald Trump might inspire. The last gubernatorial election year in Texas, 2014, came at Barack Obama’s second midterm, and like his first midterm — the Tea Party explosion of 2010 — it was a rough year for Democrats in Texas and elsewhere. As the late social philosopher Yogi Berra once said, this year could be “Déjà vu all over again.”

Accordingly, voter uncertainty rises in down-ballot races where even previously elected officials are less well known. Republican incumbent Dan Patrick leads Democrat Mike Collier in the contest for lieutenant governor, 37 percent to 31 percent. Kerry McKennon, the Libertarian in that race, had the support of 4 percent of the registered voters surveyed, while the rest said they were undecided (23 percent) or would vote for someone other than the three named candidates (5 percent).

“As you move down to races that are just less well known, you see the numbers drop,” said Daron Shaw, a government professor at the University of Texas at Austin and co-director of the poll. “They drop more for the Republicans. Part of that reflects the visibility of those races, and of those candidates.”

Henson said Patrick and other down-ballot incumbents work in the shadow of the governor, especially when the Legislature is not in in session. “That said, he’s still solid with the Republican base, though he lags behind Abbott and Cruz in both prominence and popularity,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about that.”

And indecision marks the race for Texas attorney general, where Republican incumbent Ken Paxton has 32 percent to Democrat Justin Nelson’s 31 percent and 6 percent for Libertarian Michael Ray Harris. Four percent of registered voters said they plan to vote for someone else in that race and a fourth — 26 percent — said they haven’t chosen a favorite.

Nelson and Harris are unknown to statewide general election voters. Paxton, first elected in 2014, is fighting felony indictments for securities fraud — allegations that arose from his work as a private attorney before he was AG. He has steadily maintained his innocence, but political adversaries are hoping his legal problems prompt the state’s persistently conservative electorate to consider turning out an incumbent Republican officeholder.

“If you’ve heard anything about Ken Paxton in the last four years, more than likely you’ve heard about his legal troubles,” said Josh Blank, manager of polling and research at UT’s Texas Politics Project. Henson added a note of caution to that: There’s also no erosion in Ken Paxton support by the Republican base. This reflects some stirrings amongst the Democrats and Paxton’s troubles. But it would premature to draw drastic conclusions for November based upon these numbers from June.”

Shaw noted that the support for the Democrats in the three state races is uniform: Each has 31 percent or 32 percent of the vote. “All the variability is on the Republican side, it seems to me,” he said. When those voters move away from the Republican side, Shaw said, “they move not to the Democrats but to the Libertarian or to undecided.”

Trump is still getting very strong job ratings from Republican voters — strong enough to make his overall numbers look balanced, according to the poll. Among all registered voters, 47 percent approve of the job the president is doing, while 44 percent disapprove. Only 8 percent had no opinion.

See here for yesterday’s discussion. Before we go any further, let me provide a bit of context here, since I seem to be the only person to have noticed that that Trib poll from June 2014 also inquired about other races. Here for your perusal is a comparison of then and now:


Year    Office  Republican  Democrat  R Pct  D Pct
==================================================
2014    Senate      Cornyn   Alameel     36     25
2018    Senate        Cruz  O'Rourke     41     36

2014  Governor      Abbott     Davis     44     32
2018  Governor      Abbott    Valdez     44     32

2014  Lite Guv     Patrick       VdP     41     26
2018  Lite Guv     Patrick   Collier     37     31

2014  Atty Gen      Paxton   Houston     40     27
2018  Atty Gen      Paxton    Nelson     32     31

So four years ago, Wendy Davis topped Dems with 32%, with the others ranging from 25 to 27. All Dems trailed by double digits (there were some closer races further down the ballot, but that was entirely due to lower scores for the Republicans in those mostly obscure contests). Republicans other than the oddly-underperforming John Cornyn were all at 40% or higher. The Governor’s race was the marquee event, with the largest share of respondents offering an opinion.

This year, Beto O’Rourke leads the way for Dems at 36%, with others at 31 or 32. Abbott and Ted Cruz top 40%, but Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are both lower than they were in 2014, with Paxton barely ahead of Justin Nelson. Only Abbott has a double-digit lead, with the other three in front by six, five, and one (!) points.

And yet the one quote we get about the numbers suggests that 2018 could be like 2010 or 2014? I must be missing something. Hey, how about we add in some 2010 numbers from the May 2010 UT/Trib poll?


Year    Office  Republican  Democrat  R Pct  D Pct
==================================================
2014    Senate      Cornyn   Alameel     36     25
2018    Senate        Cruz  O'Rourke     41     36

2010  Governor       Perry     White     44     35
2014  Governor      Abbott     Davis     44     32
2018  Governor      Abbott    Valdez     44     32

2010  Lite Guv    Dewhurst       LCT     44     30
2014  Lite Guv     Patrick       VdP     41     26
2018  Lite Guv     Patrick   Collier     37     31

2010  Atty Gen      Abbott Radnofsky     47     28
2014  Atty Gen      Paxton   Houston     40     27
2018  Atty Gen      Paxton    Nelson     32     31

There was no Senate race in 2010. I dunno, maybe the fact that Republicans outside the Governor’s race are doing worse this year than they did in the last two cycles is worth noting? Especially since two of them were first-time statewide candidates in 2014 and are running for re-election this year? Or am I the only one who’s able to remember that we had polls back then?

Since this cycle began and everyone started talking about Democratic energy going into the midterms, I’ve been looking for evidence of said energy here in Texas. There are objective signs of it, from the vast number of candidates running, to the strong fundraising numbers at the Congressional level, to the higher primary turnout, and so on. I haven’t as yet seen much in the poll numbers to show a Democratic boost, though. As we’ve observed before, Beto O’Rourke’s numbers aren’t that different than Bill White or Wendy Davis’ were. A bit higher than Davis overall, but still mostly in that 35-42 range. However, I did find something in the poll data, which was not in the story, that does suggest more Dem enthusiasm. Again, a comparison to 2010 and 2014 is instructive. In each of these three polls, there’s at least one “generic ballot” question, relating to the US House and the Texas Legislature. Let’s take a look at them.

If the 2010 election for [Congress/Lege] in your district were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought enough about it to have an opinion?

2010 Congress – GOP 46, Dem 34
2010 Lege – GOP 44, Dem 33

If the 2014 election for the Texas Legislature in your district were held today, would you vote for the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought about it enough to have an opinion?

2014 Lege – GOP 46, Dem 38

If the 2018 election for [Congress/Lege] in your district were held today, would you vote for [RANDOMIZE “the Democratic candidate” and “the Republican candidate”] the Democratic candidate, the Republican candidate, or haven’t you thought about it enough to have an opinion?

2018 Congress – GOP 43, Dem 41
2018 Lege – GOP 43, Dem 42

Annoyingly, in 2014 they only asked that question about the Lege, and not about Congress. Be that as it may, Dems are up in this measure as well. True, they were up in 2014 compared to 2010, and in the end that meant nothing. This may mean nothing too, but why not at least note it in passing? How is it that I often seem to know these poll numbers better than Jim Henson and Daron Shaw themselves do?

Now maybe the pollsters have changed their methodology since then. It’s been eight years, I’m sure there have been a few tweaks, and as such we may not be doing a true comparison across these years. Even if that were the case, I’d still find this particular number worthy of mention. Moe than two thirds of Texas’ Congressional delegation is Republican. Even accounting for unopposed incumbents, the Republican share of the Congressional vote ought to be well above fifty percent in a given year, yet this poll suggests a neck and neck comparison. If you can think of a better explanation for this than a higher level of engagement among Dems than we’re used to seeing, I’m open to hearing it. And if I hadn’t noticed that, I don’t know who else might have.

Paxton wants magistrates’ lawsuit tossed

We all want things, Kenny.

Best mugshot ever

The state attorney general Monday asked a judge to dismiss a lawsuit by three Harris County hearing officers who are fighting sanctions by Texas’ judicial ethics commission earlier this year over unfair bail practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton also asked that the case brought by three admonished magistrates be transferred from Harris County, where the judges sit, to Travis County, where the State Commission on Judicial Conduct is based. Paxton also asserts that the state watchdog agency has “sovereign immunity” from being sued.

The lawsuit, filed in May by three local magistrates, challenges the commission’s finding that they violated the state code of conduct for judges during probable cause hearings for newly arrested defendants. The hearing officers, Eric Hagstette, Jill Wallace and Joseph Licata III, initially challenged the commission’s findings through a more straightforward appeal to the state’s Special Court of Review. However, they later withdrew that appeal and sued the commission to have their records be cleared of the findings of misconduct.

Mike Stafford, who is representing the magistrates free of charge in this lawsuit, said the sanctions should be eliminated because the watchdog commission surpassed its authority in telling magistrates they can’t refer bond matters to the judges assigned to the cases.

“This case presents an important and rare opportunity to affirm that the Commission may not interpret Texas law and to ensure that the Commission is not allowed to exceed its mandate,” Stafford argued in district court filings.

See here for the background. I presume the reason to ask for a transfer as well as a dismissal is that if you don’t get the one you might at least get the other. Beyond that, I have no particular insights so I’ll just note this for the record and move on.

Justice Department won’t defend DACA, either

Even less of a surprise.

Agreeing with a lawsuit filed by the state of Texas against the Trump administration to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, the U.S. Justice Department told the courts late Friday the program should be terminated.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the administration May 1, alleging the Obama-era program was unconstitutional.

[…]

The Department of Justice said in its filing Friday that DACA is unlawful because it violates the U.S. Constitution in the same way the ill-fated 2014 Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, did. That program that was never implemented after Texas and a coalition of states successfully challenged it in court.

“In sum, as the [U.S.] Attorney General correctly advised DHS, DACA is unlawful because it is an open-ended circumvention of immigration laws that shares the same legal defects that DAPA (and expanded DACA) did,” the filing states.

The DOJ asks that if Texas’ request to halt the program is granted, that the court delay its ruling for two weeks to seek immediate relief from the other court rulings that have mandated the federal government keep the DACA program.

“The DACA litigation brings into sharp focus the problems with nationwide injunctions, and the United States continues to maintain that injunctions that are broader than necessary to redress the plaintiffs’ own injuries are improper,” the DOJ attorneys wrote.

See here for the background. The complaint about nationwide injunctions is kind of precious, since that’s what Paxton is seeking here and has sought in other litigation, which is why he picked this particular court for his filing. This is now the second major Paxton-filed lawsuit that the Justice Department has washed it hands of. MALDEF was allowed to intervene in this lawsuit on behalf of a group of DREAMers in May, so DACA will be defended, no doubt more vigorously than the Justice Department would have done anyway. It’s still a crappy and dangerous thing to do, to pick and choose what laws are worth defending.

On a side note:

In total, the seven states that are part of the lawsuit would lose an estimated $6.9 billion in annual gross domestic product loss by kicking DACA recipients out of the labor force in the respective states. The bulk of these losses would be concentrated in Texas, which stands to lose $6 billion from its annual GDP.

[…]

The seven states suing the Trump administration stand to lose an estimated $369 million annually in state and local tax revenue they currently receive. Texas would lose the most at $313 million in revenue annually.

You know, just in case you needed another reason to think that killing DACA is a really bad idea. Link via Daily Kos.

Justice Department drops out of latest Obamacare lawsuit

Which of course was filed in Texas by our felonious Attorney General.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Trump administration said Thursday night that it will not defend the Affordable Care Act against the latest legal challenge to its constitutionality — a dramatic break from the executive branch’s tradition of arguing to uphold existing statutes and a land mine for health insurance changes the ACA brought about.

In a brief filed in a Texas federal court and an accompanying letter to the House and Senate leaders of both parties, the Justice Department agrees in large part with the 20 Republican-led states that brought the suit. They contend that the ACA provision requiring most Americans to carry health insurance soon will no longer be constitutional and that, as a result, consumer insurance protections under the law will not be valid, either.

The three-page letter from Attorney General Jeff Sessions begins by saying that Justice adopted its position “with the approval of the President of the United States.” The letter acknowledges that the decision not to defend an existing law deviates from history but contends that it is not unprecedented.

The bold swipe at the ACA, a Republican whipping post since its 2010 passage, does not immediately affect any of its provisions. But it puts the law on far more wobbly legal footing in the case, which is being heard by a GOP-appointed judge who has in other recent cases ruled against more minor aspects.

The administration does not go as far as the Texas attorney general and his counterparts. In their suit, lodged in February in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, they argue that the entire law is now invalid.

By contrast, the Justice brief and letter say many other aspects of the law can survive because they can be considered legally distinct from the insurance mandate and such consumer protections as a ban on charging more or refusing coverage to people with preexisting medical conditions.

[…]

In an unusual filing just before 6 p.m. Thursday, when the brief was due, the three career Justice attorneys involved in the case — Joel McElvain, Eric Beckenhauer and Rebecca Kopplin — withdrew.

The department’s argument, if adopted by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, “would be breathtaking in its effect,’ said Timothy Jost, a retired Washington and Lee law professor who follows such litigation closely. “Of all of the actions the Trump administration has taken to undermine individual insurance markets, this may be the most destabilizing. . . . [If] I’m an insurer, I don’t know what I am supposed to do or not.”

Jost, an ACA supporter, noted that the administration’s decision not to defend the law comes during the season when participating insurers must file their rates for next year with state regulators. It raises new questions about whether insurers still will be required to charge the same prices to all customers, healthy or sick.

And Topher Spiro, vice president of health policy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said the administration’s legal argument contradicts promises by Trump that he would not tamper with the ACA’s protections for people with preexisting medical conditions.

University of Michigan law professor Nicholas Bagley, another ACA defender, went even further in a blog post. “If the Justice Department can just throw in the towel whenever a law is challenged in court, it can effectively pick and choose which laws should remain on the books,” he wrote. “That’s not a rule of law I recognize. That’s a rule by whim. And it scares me.”

See here for the background. The fact that three Justice Department attorneys withdrew from the case rather than be party to this decision is what really stands out to me. Those are the people who believe the most strongly in the Justice Department’s mission. That’s about as loud a statement as they could make.

There’s a coalition of states that was granted standing to the litigation, and they filed a brief in response, so it’s not like the ACA is on its own in the courtroom. But if you’re someone with a pre-existing condition, which is one of the things that is at stake here, or you know someone who has one – and there are some 130 million people who fall into that bucket – then this is what this action means to you. If you need health insurance, the Trump administration and its enablers like Ken Paxton are working to take it away from you. I don’t know about you, but I want to hear a lot more about this between now and Election Day. Washington Monthly, Daily Kos, ThinkProgress, Mother Jones, the Observer, and the Trib have more.

The status of Confederate monument removal

We still have a long way to go.

Texas has removed the most Confederate symbols and statues in the country since 2015, according to a new Southern Poverty Law Center study. But the trend does not extend to the state Capitol, where lawmakers have been reluctant to take down monuments and plaques.

Texas cities removed 31 symbols, which include statues and renaming of schools and streets, according to the report. Austin led the way, with the removal of 10 symbols, the majority of them on the UT campus. Houston renamed seven schools and one street.

Cities in Texas and across the country have removed hundreds of symbols following the mass shooting at a black church in Charleston in 2015, which prompted lawmakers in South Carolina to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse.

“As a consequence of the national reflection that began in Charleston, the myths and revisionist history surrounding the Confederacy may be losing their grip in the South,” the SPLC argues in its report. “Yet, for the most part, the symbols remain.”

Houston ISD spent $1.2 million to change the names of eight schools that once honored figures of the Confederacy. Reagan High became Heights High; Davis High was changed to Northside High; Lee High took the name of longtime educator Margaret Long Wisdom; Johnston Middle was changed to Meyerland Performing and Visual Arts Middle School; Jackson Middle became the Yolanda Black Navarro Middle School of Excellence; Dowling Middle was renamed after Audrey Lawson; and Lanier Middle changed its first name to honor former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier instead of Confederate poet Sidney Lanier.

Dowling Street, named after Houston businessman Dick Dowling who served as a lieutenant in the Confederacy, was renamed Emancipation Avenue by the City of Houston in January 2017.

Two controversial monuments remain in city parks.

The Spirit of the Confederacy statue has stood in Downtown’s Sam Houston Park for 110 years. A monument commemorating Dick Dowling was erected in Market Square Park in 1905 before moving to its current location in Herman Park.

You can read the SPLC report here. There’s a sidebar story in there about the history and origin of Stone Mountain in Georgia, which, yeah. Go read that if you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about. I don’t know if they counted this sort of thing, but in addition to the schools that got renamed, HISD also recently got rid of a Confederate-themed school mascot. So yes, progress.

One place where a lot more progress could and should be made in short order is in the state Capitol. State Rep. Eric Johnson, who has been leading the charge to get a particular historically false plaque removed, just submitted a brief to the AG’s office regarding the authority of the State Preservation Board, which includes Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick, to remove that “Children of the Confederacy Creed” plaque. He subsequently got support from outgoing Speaker Joe Straus.

The Republican speaker of the Texas House says a Confederate plaque hanging in the state Capitol can — and should — be removed immediately.

In a letter to Attorney General Ken Paxton, Speaker Joe Straus called the plaque offensive and misleading. And he agreed with Rep. Eric Johnson, the Dallas Democrat pushing for its removal, that the Texas Preservation Board has the power to remove the plaque immediately.

“Every year, thousands of visitors to the Capitol are exposed to this inaccurate plaque,” the San Antonio Republican’s staff wrote on the Speaker’s behalf. “Maintaining it in its present location is a disservice to them and to history. The plaque should either be removed or relocated to a place where appropriate historical context can be provided.”

[…]

Johnson said he was disappointed he hasn’t heard from Abbott in the seven months since the two men sat down to discuss the plaque. He wants the governor to call a meeting of the board and vote on his request to remove this plaque. If the agency fails to act quickly on his request, he wrote, a court of law could compel it to do so.

“The Curator similarly cannot let a request languish,” Johnson wrote. “Should the Curator fail to act on a change request within a reasonable period of time, mandamus can issue to require the Curator to act.”

One may be disappointed in Abbott, but one shouldn’t be surprised. Straus has previously backed removing the monument, so if Abbott and Patrick would get off their butts and take action, we could get this done tomorrow. What are you waiting for, guys?

Fifth Circuit does its thing in the motor voter case

The sky is blue, water is wet, and the Fifth Circuit does what the state of Texas asks it to do.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas will not be required to meet a 45-day deadline to implement online voter registration for drivers — for now.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday temporarily blocked a lower court ruling that mandated a voter registration system that would allow drivers to register to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses online. The requirement was part of U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s ruling that Texas was violating a federal voter registration law — also known as the “Motor Voter Act” — that’s meant to ease the voter registration process.

Pointing to registration deadlines for the November election, Garcia ordered the state to create the online system — the first mechanism for online voter registration in the state — in order to comply with the Motor Voter Act, which requires states to allow people to register to vote while getting their driver’s licenses.

Last week, the state appealed to the New Orleans-based 5th Circuit, which put Garcia’s ruling on hold during the appeals process. That appeal could drag out for months, leaving uncertain whether the online system will be in place ahead of this fall’s elections.

See here for the background. Seems optimistic to me to think there might be a chance of a resolution in time for this election, but I suppose anything is possible. I have to ask, when was the last time the state was denied an injunction for a ruling that went against them? I can’t off the top of my head think of a recent example of the Fifth Circuit not giving them excellent customer service. I can’t even think of a reason why this might surprise me. The Chron has more.

State asks for emergency stay of “motor voter” ruling

Also as expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday asked a federal appeals court to block a San Antonio judge’s order that gave state officials 45 days to correct an online voter registration system that was found to violate federal law.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia on Monday ordered officials to create a process that lets Texans simultaneously register to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license on the Department of Public Safety website. The current system violates the National Voter Registration Act’s motor-voter provision by adding several hurdles to the registration process, the judge ruled.

Paxton quickly informed the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he intends to challenge Garcia’s order.

[…]

Paxton’s filing argued that Garcia added requirements that are not included in federal law, such as ordering state officials to create a public-education campaign to explain the new voter-registration process.

In addition, Paxton argued that the three voters who sued lacked standing because they were already registered to vote when their lawsuit was filed in 2016.

He also complained that Garcia gave state officials only 45 days to make the changes, saying the state’s current online vendor could not complete changes before its contract expires Sept. 1, and the new vendor would need 90 days to create a process.

See here for the background. The next scene in this movie that we’ve all seen before is the Fifth Circuit giving Paxton what he wants, and then we wait for the appeals process to play out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Opioid lawsuits

From last week:

Attorney General Ken Paxton is leading Texas into a lawsuit against Purdue Pharma for exacerbating the opioid crisis among Texans.

In an announcement Tuesday afternoon, Paxton, a Republican, flanked by several assistant attorney generals, said the state is taking the drug maker to court for misrepresenting the risks of opioid addiction.

“We must make those who have caused the opioid crisis feel the pain that they have inflicted on our community,” Paxton said.

Other states, including Tennessee, Florida, North Carolina, North Dakota and Nevada, are also pursuing lawsuits against Purdue.

While the state is planning to sue, Paxton said the main issue now is getting injunctive relief from the courts so that Purdue will have to stop misrepresenting their drugs.

The lawsuit comes as more states, cities and counties across the United States are turning to the courts as they grapple with how to hold drug makers and distributors accountable amid a harrowing — and growing — epidemic that led to more than 42,000 opioid overdoses in 2016. Main culprits in the public health crisis include prescription painkillers, such as Hydrocodone, OxyContin and the synthetic drug fentanyl, and heroin.

[…]

Paxton’s office wrote in a May 10 letter to the Texas Supreme Court that it planned to file a lawsuit under the state’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act. The consumer protection statute forbids companies from misrepresenting themselves or their products to Texans. Examples of misrepresentation include false or misleading advertising, exaggerating or misrepresenting the benefits or endorsements of a product or service, making false statements about the manufacture or origin of a product, passing off used products as new ones and price gouging.

Paxton said he’s leading Texas to sue Purdue for several reasons including for lying to doctors and patients about the possibility of increasing opioid dosages without risk, falsely representing that common signs of addiction are signs the patient needs higher opioid dosages and misrepresenting the risk of becoming addicted to the company’s abuse-deterrent formulation OxyContin.

Later in the week, Bexar County followed suit.

Bexar County on Thursday filed a lawsuit against opioid manufacturers and distributors that it says are responsible for the “tremendous expense” and devastating local impact endured as a result of the addiction epidemic.

“As of today we know that in San Antonio 100 residents have died annually from overdosing on opioids,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said at a press conference at the County courthouse.

Filed in state district court, the lawsuit follows commissioners’ resolution in October to pursue litigation against more than 50 companies, including Johnson and Johnson, Teva Pharmaceutical, and Purdue Pharma, the maker of the synthetic opioid OxyContin.

“These manufacturers and distributors did not only put opioids into the market,” Martin Phipps, a lawyer with Phipps Anderson Deacon, said at a press conference Wednesday. They also advertised opioids directly to the military and specific populations and misled prescribers regarding potential for addiction and other long-term health complications, including brain and liver damage, he explained.

The firm is working with local law firm Watts Guerra to bring the lawsuit forward on the County’s behalf.

The city of San Antonio may join in later in the year. Dallas County was ahead of the curve.

Dallas County sued a slew of drug companies and doctors this week over their alleged roles in the deadly opioid epidemic, joining dozens of other governments nationwide that have launched court battles.

The 59-page claim filed Monday in Dallas County court accuses at least 11 pharmaceutical companies — including Purdue Pharma, which makes the bestselling painkiller OxyContin — and three local doctors of knowingly pushing addictive drugs on patients while claiming they were safe. The three doctors have all been convicted of illegal “pill mill” over-prescription practices.

“While using opioids has taken an enormous toll on Dallas County and its residents, defendants have realized blockbuster profits,” the lawsuit said. “In 2014 alone, opioids generated $11 billion in revenue for drug companies like defendants.”

[…]

County Judge Clay Jenkins said the goal of the lawsuit is to recoup some of the money that the county has had to pay for medical care and substance abuse treatment at Parkland Memorial Hospital, as well as responses by law enforcement and the jail. The suit is seeking actual and punitive damages, without specifying a number.

“When a large swath of your population becomes addicted to drugs, it’s not just them — it’s a loss of productivity, an increase in criminal activity, the jail cost associated with this — it just hits you across the board,” Jenkins said. “Taxpayers feel all of that.”

I have to assume that Harris County and the city of Houston are looking into this as well. Perhaps a reporter ought to inquire about that. Other states and localities around the country blazed the trail last year. This may all seem far-fetched, but one need only look back at the litigation filed against tobacco companies in the 90s to see the possibilities. At some level, this is what tort law and the civil courts are all about. And when you read about the family that has been raking in millions of dollars from all this, you might think it’s about time someone did something about it.

State appeals “motor voter” ruling

No surprise.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The legal fight over whether Texas is disenfranchising thousands of voters by violating a federal voter registration law is on its way to federal appeals court.

Just after a federal judge gave Texas less than two months to implement a limited version of online voter registration, the state on Monday formally notified U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia that it was appealing his finding that Texas was violating the law — also known as the “Motor Voter Act” — by failing to allow drivers to register to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses online.

Pointing to registration deadlines for the November election, Garcia created a 45-day deadline for the state to create the online system for drivers in order to comply with the federal law that requires states to allow people to register to vote while getting their drivers licenses.

[…]

The AG’s office tried to defend the state’s practice of directing drivers to the secretary of state’s website. But Garcia ruled that practice “is not enough” and violates the Motor Voter Act and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

The state had also argued that there are technological difficulties associated with online voter registration even in this narrow form, particularly because state law requires a signature when an individual registers to vote. But Garcia also dismissed that argument because the state already keeps an electronic signature on file.

The state’s “excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia said in his ruling.

See here and here for the background. I figure the first order of business will be for the state to try to get the Fifth Circuit to put this on hold pending the appeal. Given that court’s track record of granting such injunctions whenever the state comes knocking, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that online system to come about. The Chron has more.

State offers no fixes for “motor voter” law non-compliance

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Told it was breaking the law, and asked to propose a fix, Texas seems to have mostly declined.

Following a ruling last month that Texas was violating a federal law designed to ease the voter registration process, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia orderedboth the state and the voting rights advocacy group that sued Texas to submit detailed plans for fixing the violation. The Texas Civil Rights Project submitted its plan Thursday afternoon. About three hours later, Texas responded with a document criticizing that group’s proposal as overly broad and once again disputing the judge’s ruling. It did not present a clear, specific solution of its own.

[…]

Attorneys for the state argued this week — again — that the state was not violating the law, and that the voters who sued them had no standing to do so in the first place. They also objected strenuously to the advocacy group’s fix, which proposed giving the state 45 days to begin allowing Texas drivers to register online while updating their license information and forcing Texas to create a “broad-based public education plan” to advertise the new avenue for voter registration.

“It is one thing to issue a ‘simple injunction’ ordering a state official to comply with the [the Motor Voter Act], it is another to micromanage the details of that compliance,” attorneys for the state wrote. “[The law] does not give federal courts carte blanche to order the State to do anything they think may be beneficial.”

Texas emphasized that it doesn’t believe the court should order any remedy. But attorneys for the state did offer some guidelines as to how that fix should be ordered. Any solution, the state said, “must be narrowly tailored,” to the problem at hand and show what other courts have described as “adequate sensitivity to the principles of federalism.”

See here for the background. It’s a bit like Willie Sutton arguing that he was just making withdrawals, and that maybe the bank should look into shorter teller lines or something. Judge Garcia, who I’m sure appreciated the pointers, will make his ruling, at which point the state will file its appeal and we’ll get to see if that ruling is ever allowed to take effect. Stay tuned.

State ordered to come up with fix for voter registration problems

The clock is ticking.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas has less than a week to tell a federal judge in San Antonio how it will begin complying with the National Voter Registration Act, a decades-old federal law aimed at making it easier for people to register to vote by forcing states to allow registration while drivers apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled more than a month ago that Texas was violating the law, sometimes called the Motor Voter Act, by not allowing Texas drivers to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online. But it wasn’t clear until this week what exactly state officials would have to do to address that — and by when they’d have to do it.

Now, Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project — which sued the state over the issue in 2016, saying Texas’ current system disenfranchised thousands of voters and violated the U.S. Constitution — have until Thursday to propose a detailed fix for the system. After that, Garcia will weigh the proposals and order a remedy.

“Defendants are violating [several sections] of the NVRA and their excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia ruled in a strongly-worded 61-page opinion.

Texas Civil Rights Project President Mimi Marziani said her group will fight to get a fix in place in time for voters to register for this fall’s midterm elections. The deadline for Texas’ closest election — May 22 primary runoff races — has already passed.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has offered to work with the state to submit a remedy both sides can support. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said Friday it was “reviewing the order and weighing our options.” But a spokesman already pledged last month to appeal Garcia’s ruling.

“We are not surprised by the order … by this particular judge,” spokesman Marc Rylander said at the time. “The Fifth Circuit will not give merit to such judicial activism because Texas voter registration is consistent with federal voter laws.”

But, Marziani said, the state will not have the opportunity to appeal until after Garcia weighs in on the remedies each side proposes.

See here for the background. You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward thing to fix, for the two sides to figure out an acceptable way forward. But this is Texas, and Ken Paxton, and “solutions” and “compromise” are not their thing. So this is just another step in the process until we get to the next appeal. Round and round we go. The Chron has more.

Paxton versus Miller on barbecue

Just embrace the fact that this is the world we live in.

Sid Miller

Sid Miller

A nonbinding opinion issued Monday by Attorney General Ken Paxton continues a battle between lawmakers, restaurants and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller over regulation of scales used to measure food.

Under state law, roughly 17,725 retailers, including grocery store chains, airlines, coffee houses, laundries and brisket purveyors, are required to use scales to measure what they sell to the public. Those scales are also supposed to be registered with the state so inspectors can ensure that they’re not tipped in the seller’s favor.

A law passed during last year’s legislative session, however, carved out exemptions for scales “exclusively used to weigh food sold for immediate consumption,” meaning places such as yogurt shops and barbecue joints won’t have to get their scales registered.

Miller called the law “horse hockey.”

[…]

Miller’s agency, which was charged with verifying the accuracy of the retailers’ scales, decided that businesses would only be exempt from regulation if they weighed foods to be eaten “on the premises.” But the barbecue bill’s authors argued that in determining how to implement the law, Miller’s agency misinterpreted its intent. So Miller asked Paxton for a written opinion.

Paxton sided with the barbecue joints in his opinion Monday, saying Miller’s agency went too far.

See here for the background. As I said before and as I may never say again, I think Miller had the better argument, but at least we know Ken Paxton remains consistent about siding with the moneyed interests whenever the opportunity presents itself. But who cares about any of that? This calls for a song:

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear some brisket calling my name.

Special election set in CD27

Here we go.

Blake Farenthold

Gov. Greg Abbott has called a June 30 special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi.

The candidate filing deadline is Friday, and early voting will run from June 13-26, according to the governor’s proclamation.

[…]

Democratic and Republican runoffs are currently underway in the race to represent the district for a full term starting in January 2019. Raul “Roy” Barrera and Eric Holguin are running for the Democratic nomination, while Bech Bruun and Michael Cloud are competing for the Republican nod. The runoffs are May 22.

See here for the background, and here for the governor’s press release. Yes, that really is this Friday, as in two days from today, for the filing deadline. My guess is that the four candidates currently in the primary runoffs will file for this, with maybe a stray or two joining in. I would also guess that unless the loser of the Democratic primary runoff subsequently drops out, there won’t be much national attention paid to this race, not because it’s less winnable than the other special elections but because there won’t be a single candidate to focus on.

Anyway. Prior to this, Abbott had gotten an okey dokey from Ken Paxton to issue this proclamation in the first place.

Gov. Greg Abbott got the go-ahead Monday from Attorney General Ken Paxton to suspend state law so the governor can call a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, as soon as possible.

Responding to a request from Abbott submitted Thursday, Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion saying a court would agree Abbott could set aside the election rules under a part of Texas law that lets the governor suspend certain statutes if they interfere with disaster recovery. Abbott said last week he wanted Farenthold’s former constituents to have new representation “as quickly as possible” because the Coastal Bend-area’s Congressional District 27 is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey.

“If the Governor determines the situation in Congressional District 27 constitutes an emergency warranting a special election before November 6, 2018, a court would likely conclude that section 41.0011 of the Election Code authorizes calling an expedited special election to fill the vacancy in that district,” Paxton wrote.

Paxton’s nonbinding opinion paves the way for Abbott to work around state and federal laws that he said are in conflict and make it “practically impossible to hold an emergency special election … before the end of September.” The governor’s office did not immediately say what he planned to do in light of Paxton’s opinion.

I was going to post that yesterday, but there were too many other things, and I figured I’d be okay waiting another day. Life comes at you fast, obviously. I suppose someone could file a lawsuit if they objected to this – maybe an overseas voter who might not have enough time to participate? I dunno – but speaking as a non-lawyer, this seems like the right call. The public interest is served by having the election sooner rather than later. The Chron has more.

Abbott does want a special election in CD27

Well all righty then.

Blake Farenthold

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to hold a special election to replace former U.S. Rep. Blake Farenthold, R-Corpus Christi, as soon as possible.That’s according to a letter he sent Thursday to Attorney General Ken Paxton, seeking guidance on whether the governor can suspend certain laws he believes are standing in the way of a timely special election.

The letter amounts to Abbott’s first public comments on the subject since Farenthold suddenly resigned earlier this month, leaving the governor to ponder how long the Coastal Bend-area district could go without representation given that it is still reeling from Hurricane Harvey. Abbott made clear Thursday he believes there is no time to waste.

“It is imperative to restore representation for the people of that district as quickly as possible,” Abbott told Paxton in the letter. “I am acutely concerned about this issue because many of the district’s residents are still recovering from the ravages of Hurricane Harvey.”

The problem, according to the governor, is that state and federal law are in conflict, making it “practically impossible to hold an emergency special election and to replace Representative Farenthold before the end of September.” Therefore, Abbott asked Paxton if he could use his executive authority to “suspend relevant state election laws and order an emergency special election.”

In posing the question, Abbott cited a part of the Texas Government Code that allows the governor to temporarily set aside certain statutes if they hinder “necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

See here for the background. I’d been wondering about this, because it sure seemed like an obvious thing to call an election. The crux of Abbott’s legal question is as follows:

“It is impossible to order an election, allow candidates to file, print ballots, mail them in accordance with federal law, and hold an emergency election within the statutorily prescribed 50-day window. Complicating the issue is that if an emergency election for District 27 results in a runoff election, the date for the runoff election cannot be sooner than the 70th day after the final canvas of the emergency election.”

I’ll leave it to the lawyers to hash out the details. I’m wondering how long it will take Paxton to get back with an answer – the question may wind up being moot if he isn’t sufficiently snappy about it. In the meantime, the answer to my original question is yes, there will be a special election in CD27. It’s just a matter of when.

From the “Answering my own rhetorical question” department

Nobody could have seen this coming!

Best mugshot ever

Ever since Texas’s “sanctuary cities” ban was first proposed in late 2016, the measure’s Republican backers have painted it as a public safety measure targeting criminals — without racist or anti-immigrant intent. But records obtained by the Observer reveal that some of the Texas citizens most supportive of the law apparently never got the memo.

Senate Bill 4, among other things, threatens local law enforcement officials who impede cooperation with federal immigration agents with fines, jail time and removal from office. To prosecute wayward officials, the law requires citizens to report violations of SB 4 to the Texas Attorney General’s Office. Attorney General Ken Paxton formally began accepting complaints in September, but the records include a stream of phone calls and emails beginning last February. Of 43 total formal and informal complaints so far, most veered wildly from SB 4’s supposed intent, expressing instead resentment of immigrants and even threatening violence.

“These comments are disturbing to read,” said state Senator José Rodríguez, an El Paso Democrat and staunch SB 4 opponent. Rodríguez called them part of a general shift toward viewing immigrants in a “national security framework” rather than a human rights one, adding that “during the SB 4 debate, we warned that the attorney general would receive frivolous, anti-immigrant complaints such as these.”

See here for the background, and click over for the entirely predictable stream of garbage that ensued. In a world where Ken Paxton felt shame he would no doubt be red-faced over this, but we do not live in that world. I don’t know what else there is to say.

One other thing:

Out of the dozens who communicated with Paxton’s office, only five followed the guidelines laid out in SB 4 by swearing their complaints before a notary or submitting an “unsworn declaration.” Four of the five centered on a high-profile incident involving San Antonio Police Chief William McManus — currently the focus of the only investigation of a potential SB 4 violation.

In late December, an SAPD officer encountered what appeared to be 12 immigrants being smuggled into the country in an 18-wheeler. When McManus arrived on the scene, he made the unusual decision to charge the truck’s driver using a state smuggling statute rather than turn him over to the feds. After questioning, McManus released the immigrants to a local nonprofit, effectively shielding them from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

That set off a firestorm: The head of the local police union called for McManus to be put on administrative leave; Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick urged Paxton to investigate whether McManus violated SB 4; and Paxton informed city officials on January 10 that he had received “several” complaints and was launching an investigation.

But will anything come of this taxpayer-funded investigation? SB 4 — which is still being fought over in the courts — forbids any local policy that bans or “materially limits” cooperation between law enforcement and federal immigration authorities, and forces jailers to extend detention of undocumented immigrants at the request of ICE.

McManus says his choice was an isolated decision that didn’t represent a new policy and that an ICE agent had every opportunity to intervene and take the individuals into custody. An ICE spokesperson has contradicted that, telling the San Antonio Express-News that the agency offered assistance and was rebuffed.

Vera, the LULAC attorney, said that the chief’s decision wouldn’t violate SB 4 because it didn’t represent a policy of non-cooperation. “[Paxton] doesn’t have a case,” he told the Observer. “If he had a case, he would’ve filed it already.”

See here for the background. Sometimes it’s just better to think of this all as a third-rate costume drama, available for streaming at CBS All Access or some such. Just let go and lean into the absurdity.

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Anyone else detecting a pattern here?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Handing the state another voting rights loss, a federal judge has sided with a civil rights group that claimed Texas violated federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their drivers’ license information online.

In a court order made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio ruled that Texas was in violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act. A portion of that law requires states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Garcia will direct the state to comply with the law; Garcia indicated he will provide more details in the next two weeks. But the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents several Texas voters in the case, said the state would “soon be forced” to change its voter registration policies — and possibly introduce its first mechanism for online voter registration.

[…]

The voter registration lawsuit was filed in 2016 against the Texas secretary of state and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Alleging that Texas was disenfranchising thousands of voters, the plaintiffs also claimed that Texas was violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

DPS followed the law for in-person voter registration, but residents trying to register online ran into convoluted and misleading language, the plaintiffs claimed.

Plaintiffs objected to what they called a misleading process on the agency’s website. When users checked “yes” to a prompt that said “I want to register to vote,” they were directed to a registration form that they had to print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” that language has caused “widespread confusion” among Texans who incorrectly thought their voting registration had been updated, the plaintiffs claimed.

See here and here for the background, and here for the TCRP’s statement. As noted in the Trib story, this is the lawsuit in which the judge sanctioned the AG’s office for dragging their feet on meeting deadlines. We’ll know more about what this means when the opinion is published. If there is an online registration part to it, it will apply only to business related to drivers license applications or renewals. Whatever the case, you can be sure this will be appealed, and given the crapshow that is the Fifth Circuit, don’t be surprised if the ruling is put on hold pending appeals. I hate to say it, but we’ve seen that movie before and we know how it ends. Celebrate the ruling, but stay on task.

Paxton and Paxton, Inc

How exactly is this not a conflict of interest?

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s political campaign guaranteed a $2 million loan to help his wife fuel her bid for a state Senate seat in North Texas.

The Bank of the Ozarks loaned the money to Angela Paxton, a Collin County Republican, with the help of Ken Paxton’s campaign operating as a guarantor, according to the attorney general’s campaign spokesman. That means if Paxton’s wife’s campaign cannot pay the loan back, Ken Paxton’s campaign is responsible for paying off the debt.

“Attorney General Paxton is confident she is going to win and her campaign will be able to pay back the loan with interest,” said Matt Welch, a spokesman for the attorney general’s campaign.

Angela, a former guidance counselor, is running for Senate District 8, which sits north of Dallas. In the March 6 Republican primary election, she is running against Phillip Huffines, a former Dallas County GOP chairman and twin brother of Sen. Don Huffines, R-Dallas.

[…]

Justin Nelson, an Austin lawyer and Democrat, is running against him in the general election. Nelson’s campaign scoffed at the attorney general’s move to back the loan as “shocking but not surprising.

“This loan emphasizes the corruption of the political class. It’s not normal for the attorney general’s campaign to lend his wife’s campaign $2 million. It’s wrong,” said Nate Walker, Nelson’s campaign manager.

I mean, a bank loaning a couple million dollars to the chief law enforcement officer of the state to help with his wife’s campaign couldn’t possibly cause any ethical concerns, right? And while I’m sure the Paxton’s believe that God will provide for their lifestyle forever, what do you think might happen if Ken Paxton loses in November, or if he gets convicted before then? It may be a tad bit hard to raise that money to pay the bank back, especially if busking for his legal defense fund becomes a top priority. I might be a little peeved about this if I were a depositor at that bank. Oh, and as the Huffines campaign pointed out, if you had previously donated to Ken Paxton and you support Phillip Huffines in SD08, congratulations – your donation just help subsidize his opponent. Not like my heart is breaking for Phillip Huffines or any of his backers – you knew, or should have known, that Ken Paxton has the moral compass of a lesser Borgia family member – but this stuff does actually matter. And willingly or not, we’re all now soaking in it.

“Fetal remains” law blocked in court

It’s deja vu all over again.

Texas’ second attempt to require health providers to bury or cremate fetal remains has been temporarily thwarted by a federal judge and another court battle is imminent.

In his Monday afternoon ruling, U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra said the Texas Department of State Health Services’ arguments “lack merit.”

“For those eager for a result in this case, it is tempting to read the Court’s decision as a signal on who will win at trial or as a determination of the validity of Plaintiffs’ claims,” Ezra said. “Such guesswork would be premature. The Court only concludes Plaintiffs establish injunctive relief is warranted to preserve the status quo.”

The current fight is over Senate Bill 8, a law passed during the 2017 legislative session that has a provision forcing health care facilities to bury or cremate any fetal remains from abortions, miscarriage or treatment for ectopic pregnancy, regardless of their patients’ personal wishes or beliefs. That provision was supposed to go into effect Feb. 1.

In his temporary ruling, Ezra said attorneys for the Center for Reproductive Rights, who are representing the plaintiffs, showed evidence that the new rule would infringe on women’s right to an abortion and that medical providers would have a difficult time following through with the rule, causing them to be fined.

Ezra’s ruling echoes a case from 2016 where reproductive rights groups sued to stop the Health and Human Services Commission from implementing a similar fetal burial rule. During the multi-day court hearing at the time, state attorneys said the rule was designed to provide aborted or miscarried fetuses a better resting place than a landfill. They also argued that there would be no cost for patients to worry about and only miniscule costs for providers. The state also said that there were multiple groups willing to help with costs.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks struck that rule down in 2017, saying it was vague, caused undue burden on women and had high potential for irreparable harm.

See here for some background on the legislation. This is just an injunction hearing, to decide whether to allow the law to take effect while the litigation is ongoing. The hearings and rulings on the merits come afterward. As noted, the rule that preceded this law was struck down almost exactly a year ago; the state is of course appealing that ruling. From the zealots’ perspective, it almost doesn’t matter if they win or lose. It’s time consuming and expensive for the clinics to fight – and let’s not forget, even as the omnibus HB2 was struck down awhile back, many clinics closed for good in the meantime – and it keeps the rubes whipped up. What’s not to like for them? A statement from the Center for Reproductive Rights is here, and the Current has more.

Darian Ward resigns

Adios.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s press secretary resigned Friday afternoon, three weeks after news broke that she had been suspended for routinely conducting personal business on city time and failing to release public records.

Ward sent or received roughly 5,000 pages of emails about personal business from her government account over the last four years, many of which dealt with reality shows she was pitching to television networks or a charity for which she serves as an advisor.

Ward, who earned $93,712 annually, was suspended for 10 days without pay in late December.

Her resignation came hours before new emails showed Ward again had tried to block the release of a portion of the personal business documents she sent on city time. The Houston Chronicle and other news outlets sought the emails under the Texas Public Information Act.

“I believe many of the documents which include show concepts, treatments, etc. are protected through the Writers Guild Association’s registration. Legal needs to be advised,” Ward wrote to colleagues two weeks ago.

Assistant City Attorney Danielle Folsom replied last week, saying the city attorney’s office “does not believe that registration with the Writer’s Guild of America makes information confidential under the TPIA.”

Ward still wanted to seek an opinion from the Texas attorney general’s office, emails show. Pamela Ellis, founder of a charity Ward was promoting on city time, also asked the city to withhold documents.

As a result, the city released roughly 2,500 pages of Ward’s emails on Jan. 19.
With the release of that first batch, Ward expressed confusion that her attempt to intervene had not fully halted the city’s records release.

“How were emails released when I’m waiting to write the AG’s office?” she wrote to coworkers that evening.

The city distributed nearly 1,200 additional pages Thursday, accompanied by a letter to the attorney general’s office.

“The city takes no position with respect to the public availability of the requested information and will not raise any arguments on behalf of any third party,” Folsom wrote in requesting a ruling from the attorney general’s office.

See here for some background. As I said at the time, if that original story was all there was – if we knew all there was to know when that first story came out – then we’d all forget about it soon enough. That wasn’t the case, and so here we are. We’ve had email in the workplace for some 20 years now, and you’d think people would be clear on what “appropriate use” is by now. I honestly don’t know what Ward was thinking, but at least she’ll have more time to work on that show she’s trying to develop now. Her successor is Mary Benton, like Ward a former TV news reporter, who had worked for Gene Locke during his time as County Commissioner. I know Mary from the local politics scene, and I wish her well in the new gig.

Finance reports start coming in

And once again, CD07 is the big story.

The winner in the money chase so far is nonprofit executive Alex Triantaphyllis, who raised over $255,000 in the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing his total raised for the election to over $925,000. After expenses, that leaves him over $630,000 cash on hand heading into the final stretch of the March 6 primary.

Culberson, 17-year incumbent who trailed Triantaphyllis in fundraising at the end of September, responded in the last three months by raising more than $345,000, bringing his year-end total to over $949,000.

But Culberson’s campaign also has been burning through money more quickly than Triantaphyllis, leaving him with about $595,000 in the bank — a slightly smaller war chest than the Democrat’s.

Culberson ended the third quarter of 2017 – the end of September – with more than $645,000 in receipts, trailing Triantaphyllis’ $668,000. Culberson’s war chest of nearly $390,000 at the time also was dwarfed by the $535,000 Triantaphyllis had at his disposal, raising alarms in GOP circles.

While Culberson, a top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, had narrowed the gap, he has not shown the usual outsized incumbent advantage in campaign fundraising. However unlike all the Democrats in the race, he does not face a well-funded primary opponent.

Three other Democrats have shown their fundraising chops ahead of the January 31 Federal Election Commission deadline.

Laura Moser, a writer and national anti-Trump activist, said she raised about $215,000 in the fourth quarter of 2017, bringing her total to about $616,340.

Another top fundraiser in the Democratic primary is Houston attorney Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, who had raised more than $550,000 by the end of September, trailing only Triantaphyllis and Culberson. She has since raised some $200,000 more, bringing her total to more than $750,000, leaving about $400,000 in cash on hand.

Houston physician Jason Westin, a researcher MD Anderson Cancer Center, reported $123,369 in fourth-quarter fundraising, bringing him up to a total of $421,303 for the election so far. He goes into the final primary stretch with $218,773.

Here’s where things stood in October. I recall reading somewhere that the totals so far were nice and all, but surely by now the candidates had tapped out their inner circles, and that from here on it was going to get tougher. Looks like the challenge was met. Links to various Congressional finance reports will be on my 2018 Congressional page; the pro tip is that the URL for each candidate stays the same.

Elsewhere, part 1:

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew White raised over $200,000 during the first three weeks of his campaign, while one of his better-known primary opponents, Lupe Valdez, took in a quarter of that over roughly the same period.

White’s campaign told The Texas Tribune on Monday that he raised $219,277 from 200-plus donors through the end of the fundraising period on Dec. 31. The total haul includes $40,000 from White, a Houston businessman and the son of late Gov. Mark White. Andrew White announced his bid on Dec. 7.

[…]

Valdez, the former Dallas County sheriff who announced for governor the day before White did in early December, took in $46,498 through the end of that month, according to a filing Sunday with the Texas Ethics Commission. She has $40,346.62 cash on hand.

Nobody got started till December so the lower totals are understandable. But we’re in the big leagues now, so it’s time to step it up.

Elsewhere, part 2:

Mike Collier, a retired Kingwood accounttant running as a Democrat for lieutenant governor, on Friday said he will report raising about $500,000 in his bid to unsert Repubnlican incumbent Dan Patrick.

Collier said his campaign-finance report due Monday will show he has about $143,000 in cash on hand.

Patrick, who had about $17 million in his campaign war chest last July, has not yet reported his fundraising totals for the last six months of 2017. He raised about $4 million during the first part of 2017.

Not too bad. At this point in 2014, Collier had raised about $213K, and had loaned himself $400K. For comparison purposes, then-Sen. Leticia Van de Putte raised about $430K total between her account and her PAC.

Elsewhere, part 3:

Justin Nelson, a lawyer from Houston, raised $911,000 through the end of 2017, his campaign said Thursday. More than half of that amount — $500,000 — came out of the candidate’s own pocket.

[…]

Paxton has not yet released his most current fundraising numbers, but he reported more than $5 million in the bank in June.

As the story notes, neither Nelson nor Paxton have primary opponents. They will also be in the news a lot, mostly due to Paxton’s eventual trial. One suspects that could go a long way towards boosting Nelson’s name ID, depending on how it goes. I’ll have more on the reports from all the races later.

Chron profile of Justin Nelson

Hope he earns a lot of coverage in 2018, it sure would help.

Justin Nelson

Justin Nelson stood with his wife around the island in their kitchen and had one final gut check about campaigning to become Texas’ next attorney general: Were they really ready to give up a year of their lives so he could run as an underdog for the state’s third-highest political office?

Democrats have lost every race for statewide office for more than 20 years. Political analysts say even if a so called “blue wave” of Democratic voters flood polling places in next year’s election out of frustration with the Trump administration, Democrats like Nelson are still unlikely to break into statewide office.

But Nelson, an Austin-based trial lawyer counting on support from generous Democratic donors, contends 2018 can be different in a race running against Ken Paxton.

“I don’t think most people know (Paxton) is under indictment,” Nelson said recently from a table at Julio’s, his favorite Austin neighborhood restaurant. “I really believe to my core we need actual choices to run for office and I see an indicted, corrupted, extreme attorney general that looks like he’s going to get a pass from his own party, and I feel that we can do better.”

Nelson is political newcomer who specializes in high-stakes civil litigation including fraud, patents and constitutional issues for Susman Godfrey LLP, which is active in Democratic political circles, and his accolades include being named as among the “World’s Leading Patent Practitioners” by Intellectual Asset Management magazine and chaired the Economics of the Profession Committee in the American Bar Association’s Intellectual Property Division. He has also practiced and taught constitutional law and is an adjunct professor at The University of Texas School of Law.

He said he wants to sell voters on his qualifications and remind them that their state’s top lawyer has his own legal troubles.

Nelson’s polling in the race suggests people are not universally aware of Ken Paxton’s legal problems, and I have no reason to doubt that. I suspect that may change once the trial begins, as that ought to be big news, quite likely national news. We need to admit to ourselves that there’s risk in this strategy, because there is a non-zero chance Paxton gets acquitted, and if that happens he’s going to have one hell of a persecution/redemption story to tell. Beyond that, Nelson needs to raise enough money to get hs message about himself out, and of course it would be nice if turnout patterns we’ve seen this past year repeat themselves in Texas. Nelson’s a rare statewide Dem with no primary opponent, but he may get more attention than anyone outside the Governor’s race if things go his way.