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STEAR-ing help to those who need it

Did you even know there was a state registry to help people with mobility challenges in the event of a natural disaster?

Texas has a system in place to identify people with disabilities who will need extra help during a natural disaster. But it’s unclear whether any of the people described in the emails signed up for or even knew about it. It’s also unclear how many people actually received help through the State of Texas Emergency Assistance Registry, or STEAR, during Harvey.

But as the recovery continues a year after Harvey’s Aug. 25, 2017, landfall, there’s tension and confusion in the disabled community about whether the registry will actually work when they really need it. As of November, 75,733 Texans were registered with STEAR, according to the Texas Department of Public Safety. The registry allows people with disabilities and special medical needs to sign up to receive priority status for evacuations, shelters, wellness checks, power and water shutdowns and information on support services.

More than half of STEAR registrants have physical, sensory, mental health, cognitive, or intellectual needs that affect their ability to function independently. Many don’t have a vehicle and have no way to evacuate without assistance.

In a disaster, disabled people are more at risk: wheelchairs or walkers may be left behind during an evacuation, a shelter may not be able to fully accommodate needs like accessible showers for people with mobility impairment, quiet areas for people with autism or space for someone who weighs 350 pounds or more. Some cannot afford multiple nights in a hotel.

While the Texas Department of Public Safety’s Division of Emergency Management administers the registry, the agency does not provide direct services to STEAR registrants during emergencies. The agency’s webpage notes that there are no guarantees for help.

“Your information will be provided to participating local governments for their use in developing emergency management plans and to assist them in preparedness and response activities,” according to the website.

While local officials can use the registry to dispatch emergency personnel and plan ahead for who may need special assistance during an evacuation, there’s no requirement that they use the registry — and no protocols for how to use it.

Lex Frieden, a professor of biomedical informatics at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and one of the authors of the American Disabilities Act, said “it’s just maddening, frankly” that the database was not used to its fullest potential during Harvey, which caused more than 90 deaths.

“It was a tacit contract that promised people who felt they might need help at some point and volunteered the information, they would be rescued if needed and checked upon after the disaster,” Frieden said.

Rick Flanagan, emergency manager for the City of Houston, said his office and emergency responders were fielding thousands and thousands of calls during the historic storm. Typically, the office uses STEAR five days or more in advance to tell registrants where to go and help them get out of the city. But with the magnitude of Harvey, Flanagan said they wound up not using the system. “We got really tied up with the different locations and multiple locations of events and the high call volumes,” Flanagan said. “We did not use the STEAR structure as it could’ve been used.”Asked if they hoped to use STEAR for future disasters he said: “Oh my god, do we want to use it? Yes we do.”

The STEAR website is here. Having a system like STEAR in place makes all kinds of sense. The city of Houston and the Houston Fire Department have something like this for high-rise office buildings so firefighters know going in who on a given floor might need help evacuating. We periodically remind people about it where I work, and it includes people with permanent disabilities as well as those whose mobility is temporarily compromised. But any system is only as good as its implementation, and if it’s not useful when it’s really needed, then it needs an overhaul. All I can say is that I hope the state and the local governments that use STEAR learned something from Harvey to make whatever improvements it requires.

Who watches the anonymous tipsters?

Am I the only one who sees the potential for problems with this?

Want a safe way to anonymously report suspicious activity at your neighborhood school to prevent a potential school shooting? There’s an app for that.

In light of last month’s school shooting at Santa Fe High School, the Texas Department of Public Safety on Friday announced the launch of its “iWatch Texas” app giving students, teachers and parents a new tool to anonymously report incidents, suspicious activity or odd behavior to a network of federal, state, regional and local law enforcement authorities.

The app’s launch is part of Gov. Greg Abbott’s 40-part plan to ensure schools are safer in light of a school shooting at Santa Fe High School where a 17-year-old student opened fire on students there, killing 10 people and injuring 13. His other recommendations include beefing up security and hiring more school counselor.

The iWatch initiative is part of the DPS Intelligence and Counterterrorism Division, which operates as an information clearinghouse in Texas. The iWatch system feeds information to the Texas Fusion Center’s watch center 24 hours a day to coordinate with local law enforcement. Other states have created similar apps.

I should note that the IWatchTX.org website has been in existence since at least 2013. What’s new is the app, which you can find in the usual places. You can put in your contact information, but you don’t have to, and that’s my concern about this. What’s to stop people from anonymously filing false reports? It’s well known that when law enforcement advertises a tip line for help with particular cases, they are inundated with useless information, from delusions and nonsense to people reporting loved ones and rivals out of spite or revenge. The odds that people with bad motives will use this app for nefarious, even sinister purposes are very high.

Now, it says on the IWatchTX website that each report “will be reviewed by an analyst to determine if similar reporting exists and to ensure the appropriate referrals are made”, so clear-cut BS will likely be filtered out. That’s still going to mean DPS resources are being used on filtering it out, and innocent people may still get caught up in it. I get what DPS is trying to do, and I agree there may be value in it, but I say DPS will need to be transparent about the reports they get via this app. What percentage of them turn out to be viable, and what percentage is straight-up baloney? What percentage of the people targeted by false reports are minorities? The public needs to know these things to feel secure that law enforcement efforts are being used wisely. If there’s not already a provision in the law to make that happen, someone needs to push a bill in the next Legislature to make one.

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.

Will the AG get involved in the Karolyi case?

The gymnasts who were victimized by Larry Nasser at the Karolyi Ranch would like to see a higher level of action.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office should take the steps of the Michigan attorney general in aggressively pursuing charges against the men and women who enabled Larry Nassar — the former doctor for the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team — to sexually assault more than 200 young female athletes, a group of survivors and their lawyers said at a press conference Thursday morning.

Standing in the sunshine and wind outside the office of Texas’ top attorney, five women who say they suffered abuse at the hands of Nassar asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to take action against the couple they say allowed that abuse to continue — action Paxton’s office has said it does not have the power to take.

The women and their lawyers claim that Martha and Bela Karolyi, owners of the famed Texas Karolyi Ranch north of Houston, knew about the abuse at the longtime official training site of the team but took no steps to prevent it from continuing. They point to a May 2017 deposition in which Martha Karolyi answers “yes” after being asked whether she was aware of molestation accusations against Nassar.

The Karolyis have said through their lawyer that “Martha misunderstood the question and misspoke.”

[…]

The Texas Rangers, in consort with the Walker County Sheriff’s Office, have been investigating Karolyi Ranch since January at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott. That investigation is ongoing, the Texas Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

Lawyers for the women called that investigation insufficient, saying there have been no search warrants or charges yet issued. And there’s no indication that that probe is “seriously looking into the Karolyis,” said California attorney John Manly, who’s representing more than 100 survivors in the Nassar case.

Michelle Tuegel, a Waco attorney representing many of the Texas survivors, said a case of this scope requires action from the state’s top attorney — and, perhaps more importantly, the resources his office brings with it.

But in a statement shortly after the press conference, a spokesman for the Texas Attorney General’s Office said the investigation is “outside of our jurisdiction” but that the office would “gladly and immediately assist with this investigation and prosecution” if asked by local law enforcement.

See here and here for some background. The Texas Rangers have been working on this and I’d say it’s probably a little early to say that it’s taken too long for anything to happen. That said, Martha Karolyi’s “misstatement” deserves closer scrutiny, as does the entire history of the Karolyi Ranch, to be honest. It’s certainly fair to say that if either Karolyi didn’t know what was going on with Larry Nasser, they should have, and any professed ignorance on their part doesn’t excuse their culpability. Whether that translates into legal liability or not I don’t know, but the moral case is clear. The Chron has more.

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.

More medical marijuana requested

This was a pre-Harvey story.

Medical cannabis companies and investors are calling on Gov. Greg Abbott’s office and the Department of Public Safety to approve more dispensary licenses beyond the three given provisional approval in May.

In a pair of letters this week, the coalition argues that having just three dispensaries, two in Austin and one in Schulenburg, cannot ensure that patients with intractable epilepsy have easy access to the low THC-chemical strain of the cannabis plant.

The Texas Cannabis Industry Association requested in its letter that a second round of applications be taken for the 40 companies that initially applied for but failed to obtain provisional licenses. The group specifically asks for at least nine additional licenses.

The requested number stems from a recommendation made by DPS’ chief financial officer, who noted in September 2015 that at least 12 dispensaries would need to be licensed to meet the needs of some 150,000 patients with intractable epilepsy in the state.

[…]

In October 2016, DPS officials reduced their recommended number of dispensaries to three.

A DPS memo sent to at least one cannabis company last November stated that the governor’s office had requested the reduction, along with other regulatory changes to the state’s fledgling medical-cannabis program.

The companies and investors who signed the Texas Cannabis Industry letter note that both DPS and the governor’s office “failed to provide a reasoned justification for this arbitrary choice limiting the number of licensees.”

You can see the letter here and some supporting information for it here. This bill was passed in 2015, and we were supposed to have all these dispensaries set up by September 1 of this year. Obviously, there are more important issues to worry about right now, but for those who may have benefited from the passing of this law, this is where it stands now.

The DPS two-step

First, there was this.

Despite a two-year budget of $2.4 billion, the Texas Department of Public Safety, with little notice, has reduced office hours at 11 of the state’s busiest driver’s license offices and plans to lay off more than 100 full-time employees to deal with a $21 million funding crunch.

The statewide police agency’s primary function is to patrol state highways and issue driver’s licenses, but in recent years has spent hundreds of millions on security operations along the 1,200-mile border with Mexico.

The effects of the reduced driver’s license office hours were apparent on Monday morning, where nearly 200 customers formed a long, snaking line outside the large DPS facility at 12220 South Gessner. On June 5, the DPS abruptly scaled back operating hours from 7:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the large centers. The offices are still open after 5 p.m. on Tuesdays.

[…]

DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said Monday the department is not allowed to use funds set aside for border security to offset shortfalls in other areas of operation, like the driver’s license division. The cuts were necessary after DPS was instructed by state legislators to reduce 2018-2019 funding for the division by 4 percent.

DPS management of the driver license operation has not only angered customers, it is being criticized by elected officials.

State Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said DPS did not notify lawmakers of the reductions in driver’s license operations until after the Legislature adjourned late last month.

“We’re stuck now with a severe reduction in service hours and employees at multiple centers around the state, including two here in Houston in my district, that we know are already overcrowded,” Whitmire said.

“It’s pretty alarming – we leave after sine die (adjournment), and leave (DPS) a budget of $800 million for border security, which involves essentially two border counties, and we leave $11 billion in the rainy day fund, and we have to tell people they’re going to have to stand in longer lines to get a driver license.”

But Sen. Whitmire, just think of all those speeding tickets being handed out in South Texas as a result of our sacrifice. Would that not make it all worthwhile? Perhaps someone realized how bad this all looked, and also considered the voter ID implications, as people who lacked drivers licenses had to get approved state election IDs from DPS offices. If the state of Texas was hoping that its slightly modified voter ID law would be enough to counter a motion to pitch the whole discriminatory thing, then maybe DPS needed to reconsider. And indeed, they did.

The Texas Department of Public Safety has reversed a controversial cutback in staffing hours at 11 of the state’s largest driver’s license offices including those in Houston, Dallas, and El Paso, according to a veteran Houston lawmaker who protested the reductions.

St. Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said he spoke early Tuesday with the chief of staff for Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and at the end of the conversation he was told the schedule reductions were reversed.

Whitmire added that he received an e-mail from Col. Steven McCraw, the DPS director, who confirmed the office hour reductions which were instituted June 5 would be restored.

[…]

“I talked to the Governor’s chief of staff, who totally agreed it was unacceptable. At the end of the conversation, it was reversed,” Whitmire said. “And then I heard from McCraw that it had been reversed, and he looked forward to visiting me with any further changes.”

Funny how these thing work. It all worked out in the end, but only because someone noticed. Had that not been the case, this could have gone on indefinitely. Always pay attention to the details.

The state’s voter ID failure is much bigger than you think

You really have to read this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The confusion started in the first hour of the first day of early voting in San Antonio last October.

Signs in polling places about the state’s controversial voter ID law contained outdated rules. Poll workers gave voters incorrect information. Lines were long — full of people who were full of uncertainty.

The presidential election of 2016 was off to a sputtering start in Texas, where years of angry claims about illegal voting had led to a toughening of identification requirements for those going to the polls.

On that day last October, Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, was met with a line out the door when she arrived at her San Antonio polling place.

“A poll worker stood in front of me where I was and said, ‘You are at the one-and-a-half-hour mark,'” Perales said. “And she insisted your ID needed to be out when you got to the front of the line.”

But that, in fact, wasn’t the law. A compromise a federal court had settled on months before allowed those without photo IDs to fill out an affidavit and show alternate ID.

“So, we filed suit against the county,” Perales said.

Days later, Bexar County, home to San Antonio, agreed to try and remedy its mistakes — poll workers would be retrained, signs would be corrected and voicemail instructions for voters would be updated.

But a ProPublica review of the 2016 vote in Texas shows that Bexar County’s problems were hardly isolated — and, in many cases, were beyond fixing.

Indeed, the state’s efforts to enact and enforce the strictest voter ID law in the nation were so plagued by delays, revisions, court interventions and inadequate education that the casting of ballots was inevitably troubled. Among the problems that surfaced:

  • The promised statewide effort to inform Texans about voter identification requirements failed terribly. ProPublica contacted hundreds of community organizations and local county party officials to see if they’d received a voting instruction manual the state said it had sent but could not find one who had used it. The largest voter education groups — League of Women Voters Texas, the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, MALDEF and several disability rights groups — said they didn’t get copies at all.
  • The fiscal note attached to the 2011 bill indicated voter education would cost the state $2 million. That’s one-fifth what a similar bill in Missouri — a state with 21 million fewer people than Texas — allocated. While the Texas secretary of state’s office spent the majority of its voter education budget in 2016 to educate voters about the law, the money appears to have been wasted on an ineffective campaign.
  • The Texas Department of Public Safety, a law enforcement agency tasked with issuing free IDs for voting purposes, initially required those who applied for the ID to be fingerprinted, a decision many say scared off potential voters. DPS also didn’t have Spanish translators in all of its offices and didn’t initially provide applications or information about the free IDs in any language other than English.
  • Remarkably, the very aim of the legislation — to thwart people from voting illegally — was not fully addressed by the law, which allowed three versions of identification obtainable by non-citizens.

Jacquelyn Callanen, the election administrator for Bexar County, said she is still furious about the state’s performance in handling last November’s vote.

“I’ve been doing this for 22 years,” she said. “This was the most complicated and emotionally charged election I have ever seen.”

There’s a ton more, and you need to read the whole thing. It will piss you off, and it should. We know that the state’s so-called voter ID education effort last year was a boondoggle and a failure, but you can’t fully appreciate how big a failure it was without this. Among other things, the story recounts the history of voter ID legislation in Texas, how the Elections department at the Secretary of State’s office became politicized and denuded of competence, and more. As noted by the Brennan Center, there will be a status call on June 7 to sort out the issues in determining a remedy in the wake of the ruling last month that the voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent. I say any such remedy needs to begin with a complete scrapping of the existing law and an eight-figure campaign to do real voter (and elections administrator) education, done by multiple firms that don’t make BS claims about “proprietary” information. Then maybe, just maybe, we can claim to have set things right. Read the story and see what I mean.

Some Texas voting rights lawsuit updates

This has been a busy week for litigation related to voting rights issues in Texas. Here are updates to some cases, all of which happened this past week.

From Texas Redistricting:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has set a status conference for April 27, at 9:30 a.m. in San Antonio to discuss a trial schedule for the remaining claims in the case as well as the redistricting plaintiffs’ request to block the state’s use of its current congressional plan (Plan C235) on the grounds that defects found by the court in the 2011 plan continue to exist in the current plan. The court directed lawyers for the state to be prepared to discuss at the status conference “whether the Legislature intends to take up redistricting during this legislative session to remedy any violations that persist in the 2013 plans.”

The court also asked the parties to be ready to discuss the timing for its consideration of requests that Texas be bailed back into preclearance coverage under section 3© of the Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the court’s order setting a status conference can be found here.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs want a new map in place by July 1.

A couple of days after that happened, the plaintiffs responded.

On Friday, plaintiffs in the Texas redistricting responded in a court filing to the State of Texas’ position that it was premature to consider the plaintiff’s request to block and require a redraw of the state’s congressional map (Plan C235).

In the filing, the plaintiffs told the court that while there was sufficient time to remedy constitutional defects in the map if the process began now, “delaying all relief until the Court schedules and holds another trial and issues another merits determination would raise a serious risk that Plaintiffs will be forced to vote in yet another election under unconstitutional districts.” The plaintiffs noting that filing for the 2018 Texas primary will open on November 11 and that a number of steps would have to occur to finalize any map changes, including redrawing precinct boundaries.

Circle April 27 on your calendar. We won’t have final answers to these questions then, but we should have some idea of what answers to expect.

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

[On April 3], Chief Judge Orlando Garcia of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied the state’s motion to dismiss Stringer v. Pablos, TCRP’s “motor voter” case.

This decision provides critical validation of the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs — disenfranchised Texas voters — who challenge voter registration processes at the Department of Public Safety under the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, and the U.S. Constitution.

One by one, Judge Garcia considered the state’s arguments for dismissal and rejected them. Judge Garcia found the state’s current procedures “inconsistent with the plain language of the NVRA,” refusing to adopt “circular and self-defeating” interpretations of the NVRA offered by the defendants. Instead, the Judge expressly found that the NVRA applies to the thousands of online transactions Texans initiated through DPS.gov every day. This ruling means that the Secretary of State should be registering and updating voter registrations for all of these individuals as a matter of course unless they opt out. Moreover, any alleged interest in avoiding the upfront expense in creating a modern system cannot justify “the burden imposed on voters” under the Equal Protection Clause.

From the beginning, TCRP has argued that “motor voter” failures have excluded countless eligible voters from the Texas electorate. The judge acknowledged the systemic nature of the state’s actions, noting that the plaintiffs had “produced evidence that thousands of Texans submitted complaints to the state that related in some way to DPS’s processing of voter registration information through its website.”

Judge Garcia’s decision comes on the heels of sanctions imposed against Texas on February 17th for causing undue delay and for repeatedly, and without justification, ignoring court orders to provide the necessary documents to move forward with the case. TCRP represents the plaintiffs with co-counsel at Waters Kraus LLP.

Mimi Marziani, Executive Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said:

“Today’s opinion is a resounding victory for the countless Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s failure to adhere with federal law. With this decision, we are hopeful that we can resolve the case before the 2018 election so that every eligible voter can cast a ballot that counts.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Link via Rick Hasen.

From the Express News:

A federal judge has denied the state of Texas’ attempt to quash a lawsuit that challenges the way the state elects judges to the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Seven Hispanic voters (six from Nueces County and one from El Paso) and a civic organization, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero Inc., allege in the suit that Latino candidates almost always lose statewide elections for judges to the two highest courts in Texas.

In an opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos ruled that all the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit under the Voting Rights Act.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that the plaintiffs had failed to state a cause of action under Section 2 of the law, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that Section 2 applies to judicial elections.

The ruling clears the way for a trial, according to a news release from two law firms and an organization representing the plaintiffs.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. It’s not clear to me what a remedy for this looks like if the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, but in the meantime it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Rick Hasen has one of the press releases mentioned in the story; I couldn’t find any others googling around.

And finally, also from the Express-News:

Proposed legislative changes to Texas’ voter ID law won’t affect a lawsuit’s claim that the law is discriminatory, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, based in Corpus Christi, made the declaration in an opinion that also allowed the Justice Department to withdraw from the case.

The opinion follows a hearing in February in which — as directed by a federal appeals court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit — she heard more arguments about whether the law, SB 14, was passed with discriminatory intent.

The state argued that lawmakers planned fixes to be made in Austin with a measure called Senate Bill 5.

“The court holds that the Fifth Circuit did not direct this Court to withhold a decision on the discriminatory purpose claim and that the claim is not, and will not be, moot as a result of pending or future legislation,” Gonzales Ramos wrote.

The civil rights groups that brought the suit say the proposed changes, if passed in the newly introduced legislation, are irrelevant and that the GOP-controlled Legislature designed and passed the 2011 voter i.d. law with discriminatory purpose.

See here and here for some background. Judge Ramos did let the Justice Department officially withdraw from the case, so only the private plaintiffs will continue on. Her order can be seen here, in which she sets a status call on June 7 to discuss whether an evidentiary hearing on remedies is required, how long that might take, and what the deadlines for briefs and whatnot should be. This too came via Rick Hasen.

So the TL;dr summary of all this is:

1. The judges in the redistricting case will discuss wrapping up the other items and figuring out what to do with the Congressional map on April 27 with the litigants. This isn’t a hearing, just a discussion of what they all will be doing and when they will be doing it.

2. Similarly, the judge in the litigation to determine (again, under the standards set by the Fifth Circuit) whether the 2011 voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent will discuss the schedule and logistics with the attorneys on June 7.

3. Two previously filed lawsuits, one that alleges the state of Texas does not comply with federal Motor Voter laws and one that argues that the statewide election of judges violates the Voting Rights Act, survived motions to dismiss.

Whew!

AG’s office sanctioned in voter registration lawsuit

They were warned.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge has ordered sanctions against the state of Texas for blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents in a lawsuit challenging its voter registration practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office’s “months-long delay” in producing the documents “has been disruptive, time consuming, cost consuming” and has burdened plaintiffs in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio wrote in an order signed Thursday. Garcia ordered the state to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, including those tied to the sanctions request.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The group, hoping for quick action during the 2018 election cycle, argued in a motion for sanctions last month that foot-dragging from Paxton’s office was hampering its case. State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 requested pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas asked for several extensions.

Texas argued that the Secretary of State’s office was busy dealing with the 2016 general election and that its legal team — with only one attorney assigned to the case — lacked the manpower to respond to the information request.

Garcia rejected those and other arguments. He wrote that Texas had never asked for a deadline extension because of the election, and he suggested that Paxton’s office had plenty of resources.

“It is critical that these issues be resolved well before the 2018 election,” Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement Friday. “Today’s order is a strong sign the Court also recognizes the important issues at stake.”

See here, here, and here for the background. At this point, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the state is deliberately dragging its feet to prevent a ruling from being in place for the 2018 elections. If these sanctions aren’t enough to compel some action from Ken Paxton, then I think the next step needs to be to grant summary judgment for the plaintiffs. I mean, if the state doesn’t want to contest the allegations, maybe it’s because it can’t. A statement from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and the Statesman has more.

State fails to respond to voter registration lawsuit

Here’s an update on a different voting rights lawsuit from last year.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Civil rights lawyers suing Texas over its voter registration practices are asking a federal judge to sanction the state for allegedly blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents related to the case.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The plaintiffs say they were hoping for quick action as the 2018 election cycle looms, but claim the state is dragging its feet.

State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas requested multiple extensions, according to a filing this week in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

“It’s hampering our ability to prepare for the case,” said Cassie Champion, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The timing is so important.”

The filing asked Judge Orlando Garcia to hold Texas in contempt and order its lawyers to immediately produce the documents and pay any fees “resulting from their failure to comply” with his previous order. Champion said she wasn’t sure what such fees would total.

[…]

No one disputes that Department of Public Safety follows the law when Texans handle that business in person, but it’s a different story for folks who update their license information online, the lawsuit argues.

The DPS website eventually directs Texans who check “yes” to the statement “I want to register to vote” to the Secretary of State’s website. There, they can find a registration form that they must print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” the process has spurred “widespread confusion” among Texans who erroneously thought the state had automatically updated their registrations, the lawsuit alleges.

Over a 20-month stretch ending in May 2015, the state fielded more than 1,800 complaints from Texans who erroneously thought their voter registration records were up-to-date after they dealt with their driver’s licenses online, according to court filings.

The lawsuit argues the Motor Voter law applies to all voters — regardless of how they deal with their driver’s licenses — and Texas violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating them differently.

See here and here for the background. I know, it’s hard to believe that Ken Paxton’s office would be uncooperative on something like this. Maybe this motion will shame them into action, and maybe it will require a slap on the wrist from the judge. Either way, I agree that it would be nice to get something accomplished before the 2018 cycle gets underway. KUT has more.

The coming legislative border battle

Here we go again.

House Republicans on Wednesday said they aren’t backing away from recent efforts to secure the southern border despite an incoming president who made beefed-up immigration enforcement a hallmark of his campaign.

And as a final admonishment of President Obama, they said they intended to bill the federal government more than $2.8 billion for state spending on border security since January 2013. The amount includes a combination of expenses incurred by the Department of Public Safety ($1.4 billion), Texas Parks and Wildlife ($20.2 million), Texas Military Forces ($62.9 million), Texas Health and Human Services ($416.8 million), the Texas Education Agency ($181.1 million) and the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission ($671,000), according to House Republicans. Another $723.8 million has been spent by local and state governments related to incarceration, they said.

“We understand the principles of federalism, and while we surely don’t want the federal government meddling in our schools and deciding our environmental policies or setting our health care policies, we sure as heck want them doing their limited duties, which are: enforcing the border, standing up for a strong military and delivering the mail,” said state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton.

Two years ago, Bonnen was the author of House Bill 11, an omnibus border security measure that increased by 250 the number of Texas Department of Public Safety officers on the border. The legislation was part of the record $800 million lawmakers appropriated for border security during that legislative session.

Lawmakers learned earlier this week they will have billions of dollars less in state revenue to work with this year as they craft the next biennial budget, even as the Department of Public Safety has said it would ask lawmakers for an additional $1 billion for border security. Bonnen said he hadn’t yet reviewed the request.

Although they said they had high hopes that President-elect Trump would fulfill his promise to secure the border and let Texas off the hook, House Republicans reiterated that lawmakers will need to wait and see what the incoming administration does and how soon it acts on border security before making a decision on future expenditures.

“We’ll have to see, [but] I think the Trump administration has made clear that they intend from day one, starting next Friday, to get to work on this issue,” Bonnen said, citing the day of Trump’s scheduled inauguration.

State Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, the chairman of the House Republican Caucus, left the door open to Texas lawmakers approving more funding for state-based border security efforts if necessary.

“Republicans in the Texas House are absolutely committed to continuous border security — be it from the state of Texas and what we’ve been doing all these years or from our federal government,” he said.

Part of Trump’s proposed solution includes building a wall along parts of the southern border. When asked what he would tell a Texas landowner whose property could be seized by the federal government for that effort, Bonnen said: “My response would be whatever we need to do to make our border secure and controlled by the federal government.”

If you’re going to pass the buck, as it were, why not skip the middleman and send the invoice straight to Mexico? It’s what Trump (says he) would do, and it has about the same odds of getting paid. It’s a stunt, so make it as stunt-y as you can. As for the claims that Dear Leader Trump will spend more money on “border security”, thus enabling the state to spend less, who knows? It’s a bad idea in general to believe a word the guy says, but there is certainly enthusiasm in Congress to spend money on it, so I won’t be surprised if it happens. Note that whether or not it does happen, legislative Republicans plan to spend more on it as well, which highlights again the sham nature of their “invoice” for what they (quite happily) spent in the last session. As Rep. Cesar Blanco says in the story, they all have primaries to win. Look for even more speeding tickets to get written in the area.

The Observer highlights the resistance.

Legislators and advocates on Wednesday announced Texas Together — a new effort that aims to resist anti-immigrant proposals in the Texas Legislature, including those that would revoke funding from so-called sanctuary cities and repeal in-state tuition for undocumented students. The campaign is an initiative of the Reform Immigration for Texas Alliance, a coalition of immigrant advocates and activists from across the state.

“We are here to stand against the attempt to put anti-immigrant rhetoric into bills,” said state Senator Jose Rodriguez, D-El Paso, at a Capitol press conference Wednesday. “We oppose these politics that have become poisoned with misinformation about immigrants and border life.”

[…]

Captain Shelly Knight of the Dallas Sheriff’s Office said Wednesday that SB 4 would strain law enforcement budgets and damage trust between communities and officers.

“All of that [trust] we’ve built up will be gone,” Knight said. “So therefore they won’t come and report violent crimes, such as family violence.”

Stand and fight, y’all. The Republicans are going to pass whatever they’re going to pass. Don’t give them any help on this.

Fifth Circuit hears immigrant harboring lawsuit appeal

This time it’s the state that’s appealing a lower court ruling.

A federal appeals court in New Orleans heard oral arguments Wednesday about whether a key portion of Texas’ omnibus border security bill is legal.

Lawyers for the state of Texas argued that two landlords, and an immigrant services agency, who sued the state over House Bill 11 had no legal standing to do so. But the plaintiffs say they have every right to sue, and that federal law pre-empts what the state wants to do with the passage of House Bill 11.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans did not say when its three-judge panel might rule. The judges on the panel were E. Grady Jolly, Jerry E. Smith, and Edward C. Prado — all Republican appointees, court records show.

Under a provision of HB 11, which went into effect in September 2015, a person commits a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

In January 2016, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed a lawsuit in San Antonio against Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and the Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees the DPS. The lawsuit alleges the state violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility.

[…]

“I thought the argument went well today,” Nina Perales√, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation, said by email after presenting oral argument for the landlords. She said the judges listened carefully to both sides and asked thoughtful questions.

“Because the statute’s wording is very broad, and doesn’t contain exceptions for landlords and humanitarian workers, we argued to the court that landlords and humanitarian workers can be arrested under this law,” Perales said

See here and here for the background, and this Trib story for a pre-hearing overview. This is familiar ground we’re fighting over, and I expect this one will eventually make its way to SCOTUS. Unlike some other issues that have been fought and re-fought, this is one where the state may not care to push this beyond the current fight, in the belief that Donald Trump will build a glorious wall and make Mexico pay for it spend more federal money on border security. That assumes that they lose this fight, and that Trump is true to his word, both of which remain to be seen. In the meantime, we wait for the Fifth to do what it’s going to do.

Chron overview of Harris County Tax Assessor race

It’s deja vu all over again.

Mike Sullivan

Mike Sullivan

Republican Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Mike Sullivan once again faces a challenge from Democrat Ann Harris Bennett, a rematch from four years ago for an office that oversees billions of dollars in property tax collections, maintains voter rolls and registers more vehicles than any other county in the state.

Bennett lost to Sullivan in the 2012 election by about two-tenths of a percent, or less than 2,400 votes.

Now, she is back, with a mission to unseat Sullivan and end the succession of Republican tax assessor-collectors, including Don Sumners and now-state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, that she said represents the establishment.

“They have used (the office) in ways that I don’t think the taxpayers of Harris County would be pleased with,” the former court coordinator said.

[…]

Ann Harris Bennett

Ann Harris Bennett

Sullivan has made “customer service” his motto. He was a former city council member before becoming the county taxman, and was on the Humble ISD school board before that.

In almost four years in office, he has launched initiatives that he said touches virtually every resident of Harris County.

Among them, he said, were workshops to help people challenge their property appraisals and training sessions for high school principals in Houston ISD on how to register students as voters.

He pointed to his work with the county budget office to upgrade the office’s computers and software, and touted his creation of a military help desk to aid soldiers and their families navigate what can be complex tax rules. He said he also instituted an employee recognition program to improve morale.

He also points to decisions to allow people to pay for registration renewals or other transactions with credit cards and put televisions in the lobbies of all of his offices.

“For me, it’s all about serving the public,” Sullivan said.

For Bennett, a big part of what separates her from Sullivan centers on how and when to use the office’s soapbox to advocate for issues beyond its immediate control.

Last year, Sullivan was part of a delegation of county officials whose lobbying in Austin helped torpedo a bill that would have allowed Texas voters to register online.

Sullivan said that the process already is fraught with irregularities, adding that his office regularly has to deal with discrepancies between Department of Public Safety records and information on the voter rolls, discrepancies he said would only grow with online voter registration.

Sullivan pointed to a record number of registered voters in the county this fall – close to 2.2 million – as evidence that current methods are working.

There’s two ways of looking at this race. One is that Sullivan has unquestionably been an upgrade over the two clowns that preceded him, Don Sumners and Leo Vasquez. He’s also been less political than Paul Bettencourt was. The big strike against him, which led to the Chron endorsing Bennett, is his opposition to online voter registration. He has his stated reasons, and it is true that registrations are at a record high for the county. It’s also true that this is contrary to his generally modern approach to technology in other aspects of his office, that he could have pledged to work with the DPS to fix the problems he says they have with their data, and that even if people have been able to overcome the existing obstacles to getting registered, they shouldn’t have had to overcome them when a much easier solution was available. Like the other countywide races, the partisan tide will be the biggest factor in who wins and who loses. I think Sullivan has the best chance of the three Republican incumbents to survive if the Democrats have the overall advantage. Whether he does or he doesn’t, the issue of online voter registration is not going to go away.

Miller avoids charges for his questionable trips

Can’t catch ’em all.

Sid Miller

Travis County prosecutors will not press criminal charges against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller for tapping taxpayer funds for two trips that involved personal activities — including an appearance in a Mississippi rodeo and the receipt of a medical injection in Oklahoma called the “Jesus Shot.”

“We have decided to close our file and not pursue criminal charges against Commissioner Miller on these allegations,” Assistant District Attorney Susan Oswalt wrote in a memo to the Texas Department of Public Safety dated Sept. 8 first reported by The Houston Chronicle. “Our office has determined that criminal intent would be difficult to prove in this case.”

Travis County was reviewing an investigation that the Texas Rangers launched after the liberal advocacy group Progress Texas filed complaints about the Stephenville Republican’s February 2015 trips.

Those complaints followed media reports indicating that Miller personally benefitted from the state-funded trips.

A statement posted Tuesday to Miller’s Facebook account said the commissioner was “pleased this process is now complete and that he has been cleared of any wrongdoing.” The statement also thanked the Travis County District Attorney’s office and the Texas Rangers for their “professionalism.”

[…]

In her memo, Oswalt wrote “it is clear that Commissioner Miller used campaign and state funds to pay for the two trips,” but noted that he had fully repaid the state.

“Additionally, the total amount spent on the trips was relatively small, the state has been refunded all the money it expended on these trips, and the facts have been made known publicly so that Commissioner Miller is likely to be more careful in the future,” the memo said.

See here for the background. Let’s be clear, this isn’t a vindication of any kind, and Miller clearly wasn’t innocent. ADA Oswalt basically says as much in the memo – he did it, we all know it, but the amount involved was small, he paid it back, proving “intent” will be nigh impossible, so it just isn’t worth our time and limited resources to pursue. Miller will claim vindication anyway, and because the story ends here and we all have short memories, he’ll mostly get it. But we know what happened. The Chron and the Current have more.

More on the Sandra Bland settlement

State Rep. Garnet Coleman is working to implement the reforms mandated by the Sandra Bland lawsuit settlement.

Sandra Bland

House Democrats sparred with state law enforcement officials over questions of racial profiling Tuesday at a sometimes contentious hearing. It was the latest in a series of House County Affairs Committee hearings on policing in advance of the 2017 legislative session. Committee chair Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat and veteran lawmaker, has announced he plans to file the Sandra Bland Act, named for the Prairie View A&M University alum who died in the Waller County Jail after a traffic stop in 2015.

“There are solutions to the criminal justice issues that have come up because of Sandra Bland,” Coleman told the Observer, “and they should be on the front burner of the Legislature this coming session.”

Lawmakers heard testimony from the co-author of a 2015 University of North Carolina study on traffic stops that found that black drivers in Texas are 59 percent more likely than white drivers to be searched during Texas Department of Public Safety traffic stops. When state Representative Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, asked if researcher Frank Baumgartner was accusing DPS of racial profiling, Baumgartner responded cautiously.

“There is a robust disparity between the likelihood that a white driver and a black driver will be searched even when you control for variables other than race,” he said.

Lawmakers themselves were also reluctant to use the term “racial profiling” during the hearing, due in part to a Texas statute that offers a narrow legal definition of the term.

“The statute needs to be changed,” said Coleman, “because there are disparities that we can’t currently call ‘racial profiling’ that maybe we should be able to.”

DPS director Steve McCraw denied that his agency engages in profiling of any kind, and attributed the racial disparities in Baumgartner’s report to security concerns at the border. The allocation of so many officers to the border to combat “transnational gangs and cartels,” McCraw said, led the statistics to show excessive stops and searches of “minorities.”

Coleman countered that McCraw’s point was irrelevant to Baumgartner’s report, which had focused on the disparity of outcomes between black and white drivers. “Now come on, man,” he chided McCraw, “I know you went to school. I know you understand statistics.”

[…]

[Last] Thursday, the Bland family’s lawyer announced that the family had settled a civil suit against Waller County for $1.9 million. The settlement also mandates a number of procedural reforms — an agreement Reed-Veal called “a victory for moms across the country.” The settlement, which hasn’t been finalized, would require that the Waller County Jail keep a medical professional on staff at all times and use electronic sensors to monitor jailers’ check-ins.

The Sandra Bland Act, Coleman told the Observer, will expand the settlement’s reforms statewide and mandate additional changes, banning pretextual traffic stops (stops for minor infractions in order to investigate unrelated criminal activity), mandating access to health professionals in all jails, incentivizing the use of de-escalation tactics, and expanding access to personal recognizance bonds.

Coleman explained he also has a personal stake in the bill. “I got stopped 11 times in the first year I had my driver’s license,” he told the Observer. “So I understand the issues the bill addresses from being in the affected community.”

See here for the background. McCraw is a longtime partisan hack who should not be trusted, but does need to be overcome. The good news here is that Waller County has approved the settlement. The bad news is that DPS appears to be playing dumb about the whole thing.

A lawyer for the Bland family and DPS officials on Tuesday appeared to be at odds as to whether the settlement in that lawsuit — brought against Waller County, some county employees and former DPS trooper Brian Encinia — includes an agreement to institute additional statewide de-escalation training for all incoming troopers and those already on the roster.

Testifying before the Texas House Committee in County Affairs, Tom Rhodes, the Bland family’s Texas-based attorney, told lawmakers that the settlement includes a $1.9 million payout, including $100,000 from DPS. While the department was not a party in the lawsuit, it agreed to pay that amount to indemnify Encinia, who arrested Bland in a July 10, 2015 traffic stop that quickly escalated to an arrest. As part of the settlement, DPS also agreed to set up the training, Rhodes said.

But earlier in the day, DPS director Steve McCraw indicated the department already requires 76 hours of de-escalation training that’s embedded in its school for recruits.

“I was told just the opposite which is one of the reasons we required that as part of the settlement,” Rhodes told lawmakers.

Asked for clarification about McCraw’s comment, a DPS spokesman said DPS “has not settled litigation regarding Sandra Bland” and is not party to any agreements between her family and the Waller County defendants.

“The department is looking at a number of options regarding the issues discussed today,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said, pointing out that the department earlier this year began requiring troopers to complete an eight-hour de-escalation course.

Citing confidentiality restrictions, Rhodes said he couldn’t provide many details about the settlement discussions but he indicated he had reached a deal on the de-escalation training with DPS’ general counsel.

“All I can say is today was the first time I heard they had that training, and it seems like to me when we insisted on that as part of the settlement if they had it they would’ve said it,” Rhodes said in an interview after the hearing. “If it’s already there I’m glad it’s there. Obviously it’s not that effective — whatever they’re doing — because it certainly didn’t help in Sandy’s case, but that’s not the agreement we reached.”

Like I said, McCraw cannot be trusted. Someone at DPS with more integrity than him needs to get this worked out one and for all with the Bland family.

Family of Sandra Bland settles its lawsuit

I hope this brings them some peace, but more importantly I hope it leads to fewer inmate deaths, in Waller County and elsewhere.

Sandra Bland

The family of Sandra Bland — who died last year in a Waller County Jail cell — has reached a settlement with Texas officials in a wrongful death lawsuit, a lawyer for the family said Thursday.

Waller County and the Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family a total of $1.9 million and the county has agreed to policy changes, according to attorney Cannon Lambert. The terms were finalized Wednesday, Lambert said.

[…]

Terms of the settlement:

  • Waller County will pay the family $1.8 million. The Texas Department of Public Safety will pay the family $100,000.
  • “To prevent future document falsifications, Waller County jail will use automated electronic sensors to ensure accurate and timely cell checks.”
  • “From here forward, Waller County jail will now provide an on-duty nurse or EMT for all shifts.”
  • “The Waller County Judge pledges to actively seek passage of state legislation providing for more funding for jail intake, booking, screening training and other jail support like telemedicine access for Texas county jails AND HE SUPPORTS HAVING ANY RESULTING LEGISLATION NAMED IN SANDRA BLAND’S HONOR!”
  • “The Waller County Sheriff’s Office shall provide additional jailer training (including ongoing continuing education) on booking and intake screening.”

“The case is settled in its entirety,” Lambert said, but “this is the beginning, not the end.”

Lambert said Bland’s mother is pleased with the settlement “particularly because of the non-economic components.”

See here for all prior bogging on this. I too hope this is a beginning and not an end. “No more inmate deaths” is a goal we should have as a society, and while we’ll never get there, we should do all we can to get as close as we can. Grits for Breakfast, which goes into detail on the terms of the settlement, ThinkProgress, the Current, and the Press have more.

Sandra Bland, one year later

The timing of this is tragically appropriate.

Sandra Bland

With confident, and sometimes vulnerable, lyrics, a group of poets and singers Sunday afternoon commemorated the life of [Sandra] Bland, who had been found dead in her Waller County Jail cell three days after her arrest. Authorities ruled the 28-year-old’s death a suicide. More than 75 people assembled over two hours to honor the young woman whose name in the year since had become familiar in households across Texas and the nation, repeated by those in the Black Lives Matter movement as another example of an individual they believed needlessly died following an encounter with law enforcement.

Bland’s name was joined last week by two more, Alton Sterling, who was shot to death by police last Tuesday in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile, who was shot by an officer during a traffic stop in Minnesota on Wednesday.

Then, too, a lone sniper attacked in Dallas, fatally shooting five police officers, and injuring seven others.

Speakers remembering Bland sought to digest all of that.

Hannah Bonner, a United Methodist clergy member who helped lead the event, asked everyone to turn and face the nearby brick gates of Prairie View A&M, representations of safety, education and progress, she said.

They were also the gates Bland – who had recently returned to the city and her alma mater to take a job – had driven through when a state trooper “came up fast behind her,” Bonner said.

“And she got over to get out of his way,” Bonner continued. “And he ended up pulling her over right here in this spot. She asserted her rights and he did not respect them, and this week we are seeing through the death of Alton Sterling, through the death of Philando, through the death of these officers in Dallas, and the citizens … we are seeing that the lack of police accountability in this nation is a danger to black lives, but it’s also becoming a danger to other officers. Because when officers are not held accountable for their actions it puts everybody – including other officers – at risk.”

[…]

The Bland case sparked calls for bail reform and brought issues of jail suicide and indigent defense into the headlines.

Waller County Sheriff Glenn Smith, who is sitting for re-election in November, issued a citizen’s review of his office, as well.

Released in April, the report recommended a new jail, body cameras for officers, medical and mental health screening for all inmates, stress management training for deputies and a ban on demeaning language directed at inmates.

See here for more on the review report, and here for prior blogging on Sandra Bland. To the extent that reforms have been carried out in Waller County, it’s all to the good, but we need more of that everywhere in the state. No one should be in jail simply because they cannot afford to post bond, and no one should be hauled off to jail for being mouthy at a traffic stop. We know what we can do to make things better. We just have to do them. The Lege has a chance to do that in 2017. I can’t say I have much faith, but they’ll be the only game in town. Be prepared to let your legislators know what you want them to do to achieve justice for all.

Rangers investigating Rep. Dawnna Dukes

Busy days for them.

Rep. Dawnna Dukes

The Texas Rangers have joined a Travis County District Attorney office criminal probe into state Rep. Dawnna Dukes’ use of staff, the Texas Department of Public Safety confirmed.

“At the request of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office, the Texas Rangers are assisting in an investigation into alleged criminal misconduct of Dawnna Dukes,” DPS spokesman Tom Vinger said in a statement released Tuesday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the State Auditor’s Office had launched an investigation after Dukes’ then chief of staff, Mike French, asked whether it was legal for the Austin Democrat to ask staff to work on the annual African-American Heritage Festival. The festival is an event Dukes helped create 17 years ago to raise money for scholarships to Huston-Tillotson University.

The auditor’s office referred the case to Travis County prosecutors on April 15, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

See here for some background. I’m sure if Rep. Dukes winds up getting indicted for something, Ken Paxton and Rick Perry will stand with her in solidarity over these overly politicized investigations. Until then, we’ll see what happens. The Austin Chronicle has more.

Weekend scandal news roundup

If anything comes from the Texas Rangers investigation into his questionable expenditures, Ag Commissioner Sid Miller would be prosecuted in Travis County.

Sid Miller

If embattled Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller is prosecuted for misusing government funds, his trial would be in Travis County, officials said Friday, despite a new law that sends some corruption cases against state officials and employees to their home counties.

Before December, the public integrity unit in the Travis County district attorney’s office investigated and prosecuted alleged corruption by state officials and employees. House Bill 1690 changed that, moving investigation of accusations such as bribery, gifts to public servants, perjury and tampering with government records to the Texas Rangers, a division of the Texas Department of Public Safety. Under the new law, charges can be brought in the official or employee’s home county.

The Rangers are investigating Miller for two February 2015 trips he reportedly took on the state’s dime. Liberal advocacy group Progress Texas requested an investigation into Miller’s state-paid trips, following reports that he participated in a rodeo and received an injection called the “Jesus Shot” while he was supposed to be on the job.

But if Miller’s case leads to a prosecution, it wouldn’t be heard in his home county of Erath because the events in question occurred before the new law took effect in December, officials from DPS and the Travis County district attorney’s office told the Tribune.

See here for an apparently inoperative discussion of the issue. I’m sure Miller would prefer it that way, since it will be much easier for him to complain about political motivations if it’s the Travis County DA and not the Erath County DA prosecuting him.

In the meantime, the Travis County DA already has an investigation going on.

The Texas state auditor’s office has referred its investigation into possible misuse of state workers by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes to Travis County prosecutors, the Austin American-Statesman reported late Friday.

The Texas Tribune reported in February that the auditor’s office was investigating Dukes’ use of state workers for her personal project, the African American Heritage Festival, a nonprofit event Dukes has overseen for 17 years.

The auditor’s investigation was prompted by complaints from Dukes’ former chief of staff, Michael French, who approached House officials in January with concerns about the legality of the staff’s work on the festival.

Dukes acknowledged her staff worked on the festival but said their role was minimal. A Jan. 12 email obtained by the Tribune shows Dukes directing her staff to make the festival a priority.

“Festival is all hands on priority,” Dukes wrote in the email. “I don’t want any delays or fall throughs.”

Two members of Dukes’ staff also expressed concerns over personal errands the lawmakers asked them to run, a list that included smoothie runs, vet visits and babysitting. One staffer moved in with Dukes for three months last summer in exchange for helping the Austin Democrat care for her daughter.

Something to keep in mind amid all the calls for Ken Paxton and Sid Miller to resign. Want another reason to be wary of such an outcome? Here you go.

Texas doesn’t have a cabinet form of government, but in Gov. Greg Abbott’s case, it might soon have the next best thing.

Two of the state’s relatively new elected officials — Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller — are in deep political trouble at the moment. If worst comes to worst for either or both of those fine gentlemen, Abbott would appoint their replacements.

That’s a lot more say than he had when they won the positions in 2014.

Yeah, I don’t want that. From a purely partisan perspective, it’s much better for Paxton and Miller to stay where they are and be embarrassments to the rest of the GOP than to let Greg Abbott swoop in and clean up the mess.

And finally, let’s get back to Ken Paxton for a minute.

The state is paying thousands of dollars in salaries and benefits to at least two former high-level staffers in Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who haven’t worked there for over a month.

Charles “Chip” Roy resigned as first assistant attorney general March 9 but remains on the state’s payroll. He received his full month’s salary of $16,220.62 on April 1, according to the state comptroller, and remains on the payroll as an employee of the state even while working a new job for a national political committee.

Roy declined to comment about the payment arrangement, which the agency confirmed Wednesday after The Dallas Morning News raised questions. Despite its earlier public statement that Roy resigned, an agency spokeswoman said Thursday that he’s also on “emergency leave.”

“Roy resigned on March 9th. He is currently on emergency leave through June 10th,” spokeswoman Cynthia Meyer said late Thursday.

If Roy’s arrangement continues until then, he will make $48,660 for the three months of emergency leave.

The agency at first offered no further explanation of the reason for the leave. When asked to clarify the emergency, Meyer said: “I’m not sure the answer.”

Texas’ “emergency leave” law says a state employee who has experienced a death in the family can take time off without seeing his or her pay cut. Agency heads also can approve other reasons for emergency leave if the employee “shows good case to take emergency leave.”

Employment law prohibits state workers from pulling down full-time salaries if they don’t work at least 40 hours a week for a public entity. There is no severance for workers who leave state employment, and the law that gives agency heads discretion in granting administrative leave also caps such time at 32 hours per year.

Austin-based campaign finance and ethics attorney Buck Wood questioned the arrangement.

“So, the emergency wasn’t so great that this person can’t work, or has any problems working? They just want to give her or him the money,” said Wood, who was not told the name of the individual or the agency in question. “This person obviously didn’t provide ‘good cause’ because they’re working. They’re just feeding you a line.”

So what was the emergency? Chip Roy needed health insurance.

Former First Assistant Attorney General Chip Roy on Friday defended receiving thousands of dollars in salary and benefits after leaving the attorney general’s office to join a pro-Ted Cruz super PAC.

[…]

Roy’s statement indicates that he will receive much less than that because he took the leave option partly for medical reasons that were resolved Thursday.

“The terms of my resignation included from the OAG [office of the attorney general] an option for leave beyond my earned vacation and holiday time,” Roy said in the statement. “The primary benefit to me would have been healthcare coverage in light of being in the five-year window after Stage 3 Hodgkins Lymphoma. My plan has been to go off payroll at OAG using only my earned vacation and holiday time unless it were absolutely necessary to stay on pending the uncertainty of medical tests and subsequent employment. Yesterday I was blessed to receive an all-clear from my Oncologist and my complete departure from the OAG is effective at the time of the expiration of only earned vacation and holiday time.”

So a former top lieutenant of the Texas Attorney General’s office is worried about not having health insurance. Let that sink in for a minute. Then go read what Lize Burr has to say.

Let me put it this way:

Chip Roy was given the option to keep his state-paid health insurance past the normal point of his compensation because he was facing health uncertainty.

Now we come to the genuinely important news this week from the Center for Public Policy Priorities. It’s very simple and completely awful: 1.7 million Texas children live in poverty. 1.7 million children. That means 1.7 million children being raised by adults living in poverty. Mothers, fathers, grandparents, guardians. All in poverty.

And what is one of the greatest threats facing Texas families living in poverty? The cost of health care. Not just the kids’ health care–the parents’ health care. Texas has both the highest number and rate of adults with no medical insurance. These Texans live with an uncertainty that borders on a form of terror. And that is fear is shared by everyone in the home.

Chip Roy probably understands that fear. It’s probably the reason his employer was willing to place him on a special type of leave that continued his state-paid insurance while he was facing health unknowns. That was a humane act that I can understand. However, for a Republican office holder who is committed to the overturning the ACA and is against Medicaid expansion for low income Texas–the rejection of which costs the state of Texas $6 billion in uncompensated care a year–making that gesture isn’t a sign of compassion. It’s hypocrisy of the highest order.

I can’t say it any better than that.

Immigrant harboring law blocked

Good.

A federal judge has blocked part of the state’s omnibus border security bill that makes harboring undocumented immigrants a state crime.

Under a provision of House Bill 11, which went into effect in September, a person commits a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

[…]

In an order signed on Thursday, federal District Judge David Alan Ezra said the plaintiffs would likely succeed on the Supremacy Clause claim, and ruled that state and local officials had no authority to enforce the harboring provision until a final decision on the case is made.

“In this case, Plaintiffs risk subjection to criminal penalties under laws that might be pre-empted by federal law and the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution,” he wrote. “Thus, the Court finds that Plaintiffs are likely to suffer irreparable harm.”

[…]

Although MALDEF was victorious on one front, the judge rejected the group’s claim that the bill violates the plaintiffs right to due process and equal protection. Perales said the equal protection argument was made because the bill did not have a “rational purpose” and was arbitrary.

But in his order, Ezra said that although HB 11 might be pre-empted, the harboring provision fits in with the state’s intended goal of securing its borders.

“HB 11’s harboring provisions are rationally related to their stated purpose of ‘strengthen[ing] the state’s border security measures and help[ing to] stem the rising tide of human smuggling and human trafficking in Texas,’” he wrote.

See here for the background. The concern over this bill was that churches who work with immigrants, immigrants’ rights groups, and landlords who rent to immigrants may be criminalized by it. The plaintiffs in this case were in fact two landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency. The AG’s office didn’t say what they would do, but given their usual track record, it’s hard to imagine them not appealing the injunction. In either case, this will take awhile to resolve. Trail Blazers has more.

Second complaint filed against Miller

You do the crime

Sid Miller

A liberal advocacy group has filed another complaint against Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller, who found himself in hot water recently over possible misuse of state and campaign funds.

The complaint, filed Wednesday by Progress Texas,asks the Texas Rangers to investigate Miller for using campaign funds to pay for a flight to Mississippi, where he won money in a rodeo competition. Miller, who said he met with donors while in Mississippi, has said he has done nothing wrong.

The group also has filed a complaint with the Texas Ethics Commission.

Miller’s trip was revealed by a Houston Chroniclestory last week. Earlier this year, the Chronicle also reported that Miller may have used state funds to take a trip to Oklahoma for a controversial medical treatment. Miller reimbursed the state for that trip.

“This isn’t Sid Miller’s first rodeo,” said Lucy Stein, advocacy director of Progress Texas. “Miller has yet again demonstrated a pattern of abusing his office by misusing taxpayer and campaign funds.”

See here for the background. As with the previous complaint, the Texas Rangers would do the up front investigation before handing anything off to a District Attorney. The Rangers have now agreed to do their part, and Miller is totes sad that everybody is picking on him.

Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller on Wednesday called complaints filed against him over questions surrounding two taxpayer-funded out-of-state trips “harassment.”

The complaints were “filed by a very liberal left-wing organization, Progress Texas. They are just harassing me,” the Stephenville Republican said in a phone interview. “There’s nothing absolutely illegal or wrong with either of those trips … There is absolutely no validity to the complaint.”

[…]

One of the trips Miller took was to Oklahoma, where he received a controversial injection known as “the Jesus Shot” that is supposed to cure all pain for life.

When asked by the Houston Chronicle about the trip, Miller said he made it so he could tour the Oklahoma National Stockyards and meet with Oklahoma officials. But when those officials were contacted by the Chronicle, they said they had no plans to meet him in their state that day. Internal emails from the Agriculture Department later indicated that Miller had planned the trip around receiving the shot. After details about the trip became public, Miller said he would repay the state for the trip out of an “abundance of caution.”

Miller also traveled to Mississippi in February on the state’s dime. While there, Miller, who is a calf roper, participated in the National Dixie Rodeo. When asked about the trip, the Agriculture Department gave contradictory reports to media outlets.

I mean, come on, y’all. Why do there have to be all these rules and things taking all the joy out of life? Why can’t Sid Miller just be the Ag Commissioner he was always meant to be, without these professional busybodies poking their noses into his business? It’s just not fair, I tell you. The Trib and the Chron, which quotes a DPS spokesperson saying that the Travis County DA’s office will get this hot potato if there’s anything to it, have more.

More on the TCRP voter registration lawsuit

Here’s the first news story I’ve seen about that voter registration lawsuit that was filed two weeks ago.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The lead plaintiff is Jarrod Stringer of San Antonio, who relocated from Arlington in 2014. When he updated his driver license address online, Stringer believed that his voter registration records would be updated as well, the lawsuit said. That November, when he attempted to vote in Bexar County, Stringer was told he wasn’t registered here and was issued a limited ballot with only statewide candidates, the lawsuit stated.

The same thing happened to Benjamin Hernandez in 2014, when he moved from Odessa to Dallas, the lawsuit said. He, too, was issued a provisional ballot, “but later received notice that his vote was not counted.”

The four named plaintiffs each complained that they didn’t realize until it was time to vote that their voter registration wasn’t updated, as they believed.

“Even though the state does not use information from online change-of-address transactions to properly register a voter at his or her new address, these transmissions may be used to cancel a voter’s prior registration record,” the petition added.

[…]

Last year, the state rejected the plaintiffs’ proposals for dealing with transactions where the patron answers both yes and no to the prompt about registering to vote. The plaintiffs recommended automatically using the affirmative response, but the state said that could lead to registration of ineligible noncitizens.

The attorney general’s office also told the plaintiffs that “no state agency is in a position to provide online voter registration absent a legislative directive and appropriation for that purpose — nor does any applicable law so require.”

But plaintiffs’ attorney Mimi Marziani of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin said no legislation is required to remedy the problems.

“Texas is violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution by failing to take common-sense steps to register eligible voters who update their information online,” Marziani said Friday.

“Voters are supposed to be allowed to register to vote at their motor vehicle office at the same time they get a driver license or update their driver license. Under the law, that opportunity to register to vote has to be simultaneous … to the driver license process,” she said.

When applicants respond affirmatively to the statement “I want to register to vote,” Marziani said “nothing happens. You are not actually put on the rolls.”

The plaintiffs “are looking for an injunction that requires the state to simply transfer the information it’s already collecting online (at DPS) to state election officials,” Marziani said.

See here for the background. The plaintiffs aren’t exactly asking for a lot here, and it’s hardly unreasonable to think that when one answers Yes to an “I want to register to vote” prompt that one will in fact be registered. As the story notes, the vast majority of these problems could be avoided with a bit of double-checking. The state just needs to follow the law.

Former Trooper Encinia pleads not guilty in Sandra Bland perjury case

As expected.

Sandra Bland

A former Texas trooper pleaded not guilty to charges he lied about his actions last July while arresting Sandra Bland, whose death in Waller County’s jail three days later sparked a national outcry from civil rights activists.

Dressed in a gray suit and tie and flanked by his attorneys, former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian T. Encinia said little Tuesday afternoon during a minutes-long arraignment hearing before State District Judge Albert M. McCaig Jr.

[…]

In an arrest affidavit, Encinia said he had ordered Bland out of the car to safely continue the investigation.

A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia in January of misdemeanor perjury based on that statement, according to a special prosecutor in the case. If convicted, Encinia could spend up to a year in jail and have to pay a $4,000 fine.

Earlier this month, DPS Director Steve McCraw formally fired Encinia, saying he violated the department’s courtesy policy and procedures. Encinia is appealing the termination to the Texas Public Safety Commission. Separately, the trooper is named in a wide-ranging civil lawsuit filed by Bland’s family that alleges negligence and wrongful death. Attorneys representing Encinia in that case have asked – unsuccessfully – that it be delayed while his criminal trial plays out. The civil trial is set to begin next January.

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and older sister, Shante Needham, both appeared at the arraignment, along with their lawyer, Cannon Lambert.

“To come all this way, I needed to do it,” said Bland’s mother after the hearing, as she embraced those who’d gathered in support of her and her family.

“I’m hopeful things go in the direction that [Encinia] eventually gets detained and he can remain there for the maximum amount of time that perjury carries,” Needham said. “At the end of the day, my sister, my mother’s daughter, is no longer here anymore. He needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

See here and here for the background. The Trib quotes Encinia’s defense attorney blaming his indictment on a “runaway” grand jury. I dunno, I thought that video of the traffic stop made it quite clear that at the very least, Encinia was unprofessional and antagonistic. We can argue if his behavior qualifies as perjury, but let’s see what happens in the courtroom first. And let’s not overlook the fact, as Grits notes, a law enforcement officer being called to account at all like this is quite unusual. A conviction, if it comes to that, would be even more so. The Press has more.

Lawsuit filed over voter registration problems

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a lawsuit filed this morning in a San Antonio federal court, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) challenged voter registration procedures at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). As the Complaint explains, Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal law by refusing to register eligible voters who submit changes through the DPS website. TCRP and its co-counsel Waters & Kraus, LLP represent several Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s unlawful practices.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, eligible voters have a right to register to vote every time they update or renew their driver’s license with DPS. The Plaintiffs, all eligible voters, attempted to update their driver’s licenses and voter registration records through DPS’ website but the state disregarded their registration request. When the Plaintiffs tried to vote, they were not allowed to cast a regular ballot.

“I felt that my voice was taken away from me when my vote wasn’t counted,” said Totysa Watkins, an Irving health insurance representative and mother of two. “Voting has always been something I value and is a right I have instilled in my children. Texas should not be able to take that away.”

Between September 2013 and May 2015, the state recorded complaints from nearly 2,000 voters who completed an online transaction with DPS and mistakenly believed that their registration records were updated too. These voters represent a mere fraction of the total number of Texas voters injured as a result of the state’s policies. Indeed, TCRP received numerous reports of additional voters who were disenfranchised in Texas’ primary election due to voter registration problems at DPS. Until Texas reforms its registration practices, countless voters will be excluded from the democratic process every election.

“The NVRA is very clear: The state must update registration records every time a voter updates his or her driver’s license files,” stated Peter Kraus, founding partner of Waters & Kraus, LLP. “We are asking Texas to take simple, commonsense steps to modernize its voter registration procedures and comply with longstanding federal law.”

“TCRP is a champion for equality and justice. We will fight to ensure that historically disenfranchised Texans are no longer shut out of the democratic process.” Mimi Marziani, Executive Director of TCRP, added: “Our clients updated their information with DPS and should have been placed on the rolls. Texas cannot ignore voting rights because it deems them inconvenient.”

For twenty-five years, TCRP has used impact litigation and advocacy to fight for equality and justice in Texas. Since its founding, TCRP has brought over 2,300 cases, challenging institutional discrimination, reforming systems of criminal justice, ensuring equal access to government services and vindicating the civil rights of countless marginalized Texans. Today — with offices in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and in the Rio Grande Valley; dozens of high-caliber attorneys and other professionals on staff; and an extensive network of pro bono counsel and community allies — TCRP has become the largest and most influential civil rights organization in the Lone Star State.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Apparently, getting an updated voter registration card is as hard to do as getting an election identification certificate. It’s wholly appropriate that this was announced the same day – within an hour or so, really – of Greg Abbott’s blithe dismissal of President Obama’s apt criticism that people like Greg Abbott are perfectly happy with Texas’ pathetic rate of voter participation. Maybe another loss in court will help drive the point home. The Current has more.

Shots fired at Sen. Whitmire’s office

Jesus.

Sen. John Whitmire

Sen. John Whitmire

State Sen. John Whitmire said Thursday afternoon he believes the gun used in the predawn shooting of his Houston-area office was likely an AR-15 assault rifle.

The Houston Democrat’s office was fired on at about 12:30 a.m. Thursday. No one was injured in the shooting, which was first reported by KHOU.

“[The bullets] were .223” he said, referring to the caliber of the slugs found. A somber-sounding Whitmire said the situation is “serious” as investigators are still determining whether his office was the sole target.

“We’ll take precautions. But it’s part of the job, unfortunately, in this day and time,” he said. “They are checking in this general area to see if anyone else received any gunfire. We don’t know yet. I don’t know yet.”

[…]

Whitmire said that as a lawmaker he gets his fair share of threats, but no single person or group immediately came to mind as a possible suspect in the shooting.

He said his position as chairman of the Senate Criminal Justice Committee opens him up to criticism.

“I deal with some controversial issues,” he said. “[People] have expectations that I can’t meet or don’t want to meet. But it’d be total speculation to say where it came from.”

More from the Chron.

The Houston Police Department and the Texas Rangers are investigating the incident.

“No one was injured and the building was unoccupied,” HPD Spokesman Kese Smith said.

Police are trying to determine whether any surveillance cameras recorded the incident, Smith said, adding that 9-1-1 call logs show a neighbor reported hearing a “loud banging sound or possible gun shots” at around 12:30 a.m.

Throughout the day, small clusters of curious neighbors gathered outside the office, a two-story house with white wood siding, watching watch police and Texas Rangers comb the scene.

One bullet had torn through a transom supporting the structure’s wrap-around porch, ricocheting into the front of the structure. Bullets had also smashed through a window above the front door, a shutter, and through the side wall of the house.

Thankfully, no one was in the office, which is a really nice historic two-story house, at the time. I sure hope this was something random and not targeted, but we’ll see what the investigation says. And while these shots were fired at an office, which one might reasonably expect to be unoccupied late at night, it’s in a residential area. A stray bullet could have easily gone into a neighboring yard or house. Let’s hope they find the asshole who did this.

If you don’t have ID, you probably can’t get it

Just another reminder that our voter ID law sucks.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

At the time, civil rights groups and Democrats pointed out that hundreds of thousands of Texans lacked a driver license or other government-sanctioned forms of photo ID, and that cost and access could be a barrier to acquiring them. In one of the few concessions to opponents, Republicans agreed to create a new form of ID, the election identification certificate (EIC). The EIC is free to any qualifying voter as long as you can produce some combination of an array of underlying documentation, such as a birth certificate, Social Security card and proof of residence.

But years into the voter ID experiment, the EIC has been all but forgotten — by voters and by elections administrators alike.

In the three years since Texas began issuing EICs, the Department of Public Safety (DPS) has issued only 653 EICs across the state — only one ID for every 1,200 Texans who lack voter ID.

In a survey of 46 counties that issue their own EICs, the Observer found that many elections administrators had little to no familiarity with the ID, and some expressed surprise that anyone would inquire about it.

Most of Texas’ 254 counties have a DPS driver license bureau equipped to issue EICs. But at least 68 counties in rural, sparsely-populated parts of the state lack a DPS office. Of those, DPS deploys a mobile unit to 22. The remaining 46 counties issue EICs through their county offices. We were able to speak with elections personnel in 32 of those counties.

Employees at three of the counties we called — Kinney, LaSalle and Lynn counties – said they had never heard of EICs, and couldn’t direct us to place to learn more. (DPS has information on its website.) LaSalle County has issued three EICs since 2013, according to DPS data.

“About what?” said an employee at Lynn County Tax Assessor-Collector’s office, when the Observer called to ask about obtaining an EIC. “I have no idea. We do vehicle registration here — I’ve never heard of that.”

Nobody could have seen this coming, blah blah blah. The federal lawsuit against Texas’ voter ID law is awaiting an en banc ruling from the Fifth Circuit, and from there of course it will go to SCOTUS, which may or may not have a ninth member by then. There’s also a lawsuit in state court, which is still in the starting gates. Barring anything unusual, the law will be in effect this November. If you don’t have a drivers license and aren’t eligible to vote by mail, the odds are pretty good you won’t be able to vote.

MALDEF sues over provision of border bill

Worth watching.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, filed suit Sunday against Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw and the Texas Public Safety Commission, which oversees the DPS. The group alleges that the state has violated the U.S. Constitution’s Supremacy Clause because immigration enforcement is only a federal responsibility. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of two San Antonio landlords and the director of an immigrant services agency, also says the new provision violates the plaintiffs’ guarantee to due process.

The provision in question is part of House Bill 11, a sweeping border security measure that went into effect in September.

Under that provision, people commit a crime if they “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.”

MALDEF said the law was “enacted on dubious advice” because lawmakers were warned that the harboring provision would not withstand a constitutional challenge.

“The U.S. Supreme Court, as well as federal courts in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina have all struck down, as unconstitutional, state-enacted immigrant harboring laws like the one in HB 11,” Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice president of litigation and the plaintiffs’ lead counsel, said in a statement. “Texas already has enough laws to protect us from human smuggling without targeting religious and nonprofit organizations that care for immigrants.”

[…]

Perales said recent testimony by McCraw at the state Capitol made filing the litigation more urgent.

“We do know from public statements that were made by Director McCaw that they are moving forward to implement the harboring law so now was the time to challenge it,” she said.

The lawsuit specifically cites McCraw’s testimony from last week where he told lawmakers about the agency’s preparations to further implement HB 11.

“Yes, we’ve educated [and] we’ve trained,” the filing quotes McCraw as telling the committee.

TrailBlazers has a copy of the lawsuit and some further detail.

Lawmakers said their goal was to target those engaged in the criminal business of smuggling. But codifying that intent proved difficult, as many raised concerns that pastors, immigration-rights groups and others could be roped in with felony charges.

“The bill that was filed … didn’t account for a lot situations that could put family members or people innocently going about their day in the sights of prosecution,” said Rep. Poncho Nevarez, D-Eagle Pass.

So Republicans and Democrats – along with a spate of attorneys – teamed up to allay those concerns.

They ended up focusing on those who “encourage or induce a person to enter or remain in this country in violation of federal law by concealing, harboring, or shielding that person from detection.” The person would have to have the intent of obtaining financial gain.

That work helped the bill receive significant Democratic support. But it didn’t erase all worries.

“We needed to rifle shot that thing a little bit more,” said Nevarez, who worked on the language and still voted for the bill. “We tried, and it may be that this lawsuit is a good way of showing us how we need to tailor the statute a little bit better.”

[…]

The MALDEF suit focuses on two landlords – one in Farmers Branch – who don’t ask their tenants to prove their immigration status before renting, along with an aid group that provides shelter and legal services to those who are in the country illegally.

Rep. Joe Moody, an El Paso Democrat who also worked on the bill , said a prosecutor would be “ill-advised” to pursue those cases. He added: “The goal was to be precise in targeting people that were part of smuggling networks, part of a criminal element.”

That’s certainly a reasonable goal, but it sounds like it may not have been met. We know that immigration issues will be on the front burner for the 2017 Legislature, though much of that is about pandering and fearmongering. If we can get past that, perhaps this issue can be addressed constructively, whether or not the court has ruled on it by then. I hope so, anyway. The Current has more.

Trooper Encinia turns himself in

As expected.

Sandra Bland

Six months after arresting Sandra Bland during a now-infamous traffic stop, state trooper Brian Encinia on Thursday returned to the Waller County jail where Bland died – this time to surrender to authorities on perjury charges.

Encinia, 30, surrendered to Texas Rangers after a Waller County judge signed his arrest warrant, Sheriff R. Glenn Smith said. The Rangers took the trooper to the jail, where he arrived in a gray pickup at 3:26 p.m.

Encinia was fingerprinted, photographed and released on a $2,500 bond.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, one of five special prosecutors, said the grand jury’s indictment stemmed from Encinia’s statement, in an affidavit he filed in Bland’s arrest, that he pulled her out of her Hyundai Azera to “further conduct a safe traffic investigation.”

“They just didn’t believe it,” Jordan said, referring to the grand jurors.

Bland’s family and activists who have followed the case said the perjury charge was insufficient. Geneva Reed-Veal, Bland’s mother, compared the indictment to a “slap on the wrist.”

Cannon Lambert, who is representing the family in a civil lawsuit, questioned why the grand jury had not agreed on harsher charges, such as battery or false arrest. Encinia’s lawyer, Larkin Eakin, said Thursday the trooper planned to plead not guilty. The grand jury, Eakin said, misinterpreted Encinia’s statement.

“He is obviously upset but feels very much that he’s not guilty, that that particular phrase he used (in his affidavit) was proper,” he said.

See here for the background. He will be pleading not guilty, while also appealing his termination from DPS. I don’t want to make too big a deal about it because the respectful way that Trooper Encinia was treated during his arrest and arraignment should be the default and not the exception, but the contrast between how he was treated and how Sandra Bland was treated couldn’t be more stark. As for the matter of whether the charge against Encinia represents some kind of justice or not, I’ll simply note that such a question is predicate on whether or not he gets convicted. As commenter Steve Houston notes, there is considerable doubt about that. Texas Monthly has more.

Grand jury indicts trooper in Sandra Bland case

Wow.

Sandra Bland

Waller County grand jurors indicted Department of Public Safety trooper Brian Encinia on a single charge of perjury Wednesday because they did not believe he was telling the truth about his actions during the arrest of Sandra Bland, special prosecutor Darrell Jordan confirmed.

The charge against Encinia stems from the trooper’s statement at the time of her arrest on July 10 about why he felt he needed to pull her out of her own vehicle, Jordan told The Texas Tribune.

“The statement in the probable cause statement is that Officer Encinia pulled her out of her car to further the traffic stop investigation,” Jordan said.

As a result of the indictment – the only one issued by the grand jury in the Bland case – a warrant will be issued for Encinia’s arrest. It was not immediately known whether Encinia will turn himself into authorities. If convicted of the charge, Encinia could face up to a year in the Waller County Jail and a $4,000 fine.

“This grand jury is done,” Jordan said. “We just came to do our job to present the evidence and they came back with an indictment and we’ll go forward to seek justice on behalf of Waller County.”

The grand jury had previously declined to indict anyone, including county jail employees, in the death of Sandra Bland, then reconvened on Wednesday to continue considering charges. I have no idea what the evidence looks like right now, but it’s not too hard to imagine the possibility of the trooper fudging his facts. We will have to wait to see what the prosecution’s case looks like, and to see how Officer Encinia responds. The Chron, the Press, which has a copy of Officer Encinia’s sworn statement, Newsdesk, ThinkProgress, and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: More from Grits for Breakfast.

State strikes out again on Syrian refugees

0 for 2 and counting.

A judge on Wednesday denied a renewed attempt by Texas officials to block nine Syrian refugees from entering the state, describing the state’s safety concerns as “largely speculative hearsay.”

“The (state) has failed to show by competent evidence that any terrorists actually have infiltrated the refugee program, much less that these particular refugees are terrorists intent on causing harm,” U.S. District Judge David Godbey wrote in the two-page ruling.

The ruling came just hours after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a request for an emergency order blocking the nine refugees — a couple and their six children as well as a woman seeking to be reunited with her mother — who are scheduled to come to Houston.

The request was another stunning about-face for Paxton, who last week withdrew a similar request just two days after filing it.

In a court filing, the Republican said he filed the new motion after hearing two public speeches by U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, the chairman of the U.S. House Homeland Security Committee and receiving a sworn statement from Texas Department of Public Safety Deputy Director Robert Bodisch.

“Evidence came to light after (a hearing earlier this week) that terrorist organizations have infiltrated the very refugee program that is central to the dispute,” Paxton wrote.

It was unclear if Paxton was only seeking more information about the refugees, as his office said would be his priority going forward, or if he had completely changed his mind and decided to try blocking refugees altogether due to pressure from colleagues such as Gov. Greg Abbott.

See here for the previous update. Lord only knows what was going through Paxton’s head, but it might be interesting if someone asked Mike McCaul, who has been reasonably pragmatic of late, what he thinks of Paxton’s filing. Be that as it may, let’s hope this is the end of it till January. You can see Paxton’s TRO request here, and Judge Godbey’s denial here. The Trib and Trail Blazers have more.

DNA mixtures

Grits reports on the latest developments in forensics at a hearing of the Texas Forensic Science Commission, and what it means to the legal system in Texas and elsewhere.

First, a bit of background. DNA testing looks at two metrics on X and Y axes: Whether alleles are present at various loci, and the quantity of DNA available for testing at that spot. (The latter is complicated by allele drop-in, drop-out, and stacking, terms I’m only beginning to understand.) When examining the peak height of DNA quantity on the test results, DPS’ old method did not impose a “stochastic” threshold, which as near as I can tell is akin to the mathematical sin of interpreting a poll without ensuring a random sample. (The word “stochastic” was tossed around blithely as though everyone knew what it meant.) Basically, DPS did not discard data which did not appear in sufficient quantity; their new threshold is more than triple the old one.

That new methodology could change probability ratios for quite a few other cases, the panel predicted. One expert showed slides demonstrating how four different calculation methods could generate wildly different results, to my mind calling into question how accurate any of them are if they’re all considered valid. Applying the stochastic threshold in one real-world case which he included as an example reduced the probability of a match from one in 1.40 x 109 to one in 38.6. You can see where a jury might view those numbers differently.

Not every calculation will change that much and some will change in the other direction. The application of an improper statistical method generates all types of error, not just those which benefit defendants. There may be folks who were excluded that become undetermined, or undetermined samples may become suspects when they’re recalculated. The panel seemed to doubt there were examples where a positive association would flip all the way to excluded, but acknowledged it was mathematically possible.

DPS has identified nearly 25,000 cases where they’ve analyzed DNA mixtures. Since they typically represent about half the state’s caseload, it was estimated, the total statewide may be double that when it’s all said and done. Not all of those are problematic and in some cases the evidence wasn’t used in court. But somebody has to check. Ch. 64 of the Code of Criminal Procedure grants a right to counsel for purposes of seeking a DNA test, including when, “although previously subjected to DNA testing, [the evidence] can be subjected to testing with newer testing techniques that provide a reasonable likelihood of results that are more accurate and probative than the results of the previous test.” So there’s a certain inevitability about the need to recalculate those numbers.

See here for the Texas Tribune story that Grits references – WFAA also covered the hearing – and be sure to read the whole post. There’s a lot of scientific info out there if you google “DNA Mixtures”, but I’m not informed enough to point you to something useful. As noted, DNA is still very exact when comparing known samples, or in isolating a suspect from a rape kit. It’s when there are multiple unknown DNA donors that things get complicated, and there isn’t a single standard for that now. What we do know is that the method that had been used to provide match/elimination probabilities were not accurate, and some number of convictions in Texas and elsewhere will need to be reviewed in light of reinterpreted DNA evidence. Ultimately, questions about what the standards are and how the evidence should be analyzed will be settled by the courts, from the CCA to SCOTUS. This will be a long and occasionally messy process, and we’re at the very beginning of it. On the plus side, this should provide all kinds of fodder for mystery writers and TV showrunners. So at least there’s that.