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Harris County Attorney

What can the county do about ethics?

Maybe something. Maybe not. Who can tell?

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis has proposed two ethics reforms he says are needed to improve transparency in county government, though Texas counties’ limited rule-making power may scuttle his plan.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously backed Ellis’ request to study how the county can establish mandatory registration of lobbyists and a blackout period for campaign contributions to elected officials from firms who seek or receive county contracts.

“We’re living in a time when public trust in government is shaken and everyday people are concerned about the undue influence of special interests,” Ellis said in a statement afterward. “We have an opportunity and obligation to strengthen public trust by reducing any appearance of or actual preferential treatment when it comes to how public dollars are spent.”

[…]

Ellis said the county needs an ethics commission to enforce any new rules. His vision, however, may be hamstrung by the limited ability Texas counties have to enact such policies. Unlike municipalities, which can establish their own rules and ordinances, counties only can follow the lead of the Legislature, Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said.

That limitation tied the hands of County Judge Ed Emmett, who established a task force that recommended a series of ethics reforms in 2009. Among them: creating an ethics committee, posting officials’ personal and financial disclosure forms online and ethics training for county employees.

The county attorney at the time concluded Commissioners Court lacked the authority to act on many of the proposals. The ethics committee only met twice before the county attorney said state law prevented the body from meeting confidentially, granting protection to whistleblowers or having the authority to supervise elected officials or their departments.

Some county ethics rules remain in place. Elected officials still must complete the disclosure forms, and any county employee involved in negotiating contracts with vendors must declare conflicts of interest. Commissioners Court members often disclose during meetings why they are abstaining from a vote, though written conflict of interest forms are not filed with the district clerk until afterward.

Soard said the Legislature has not given counties any new powers to establish ethics rules in the decade since Emmett tried, though El Paso and Montgomery counties sought and received special permission from state lawmakers to set up their own ethics commissions. Harris County could try a similar approach, Soard suggested, though the Legislature will not return to Austin for a regular session until 2021.

“We’re certainly working with the commissioners to see what the county can do,” Soard said.

I’m sure I’ve been salty on this blog about past attempts to improve ethics in Harris County. In retrospect, the lack of authority as granted by the state seems obvious. Maybe we’ll have better luck this time, but I agree that getting a bill passed in the Lege would help. There’s always 2021.

Some county race updates

2020 is going to be a very different election year in Harris County, because for the first time in anyone’s memory all of the non-HCDE countywide offices are held by Democrats. If you’re a Democrat in Harris County and you want to run for judge or an executive countywide position, you either need someone to step down or you need to challenge an incumbent Democrat. This month, we’re seeing some activity on that score, as two Democratic hopefuls have filed designation of treasurer reports for the purpose of running for County Attorney against three-term incumbent Vince Ryan. They are Ben Rose, who ran for HD134 in 2016, and Christian Menefee, past president of the Houston Black American Democrats (HBAD). That makes this one of the main local primaries to watch for 2020.

I have expected that someone, possibly more than one someone, would challenge Ryan, assuming he doesn’t decide to retire. We can agree that while Vince Ryan has generally been a fine County Attorney – his office has been sufficiently aggressive in enforcing environmental law that the Lege has taken steps to clip his wings, and he quickly put an end to then-Clerk Stan Stanart’s equivocating nonsense following the Obergefell ruling, among other things – a lot of people did not care for how he handled the bail lawsuit. If Ryan does run for a fourth term, I’m sure we’ll relitigate that with vigor. Regardless of whether Ryan is on the ballot or not, I hope we also have a spirited argument about what the role of the Harris County Attorney should be in a blue county with a Democratic majority on Commissioners Court. Is there room to take a more activist role in fighting against the actions by the state and federal government that directly harm Harris County? Maybe the answer to that question is No, and maybe the answer to that question is “Yes, but it comes with significant risk”, but I think it’s a question worth exploring. Let’s talk about what a Harris County Attorney should be doing, not just what that office and the person in charge of it have been doing.

I mentioned that the two At Large HCDE seats that remain in Republican hands are the last countywide seats held by a member of the GOP. They are At Large positions 5 and 7, now held by the execrable Michael Wolfe and the dinosaur Don Sumners. Both of them now have declared challengers, as Andrea Duhon and David Brown have filed treasurer reports against them. Duhon, who ran for and narrowly lost the HCDE Precinct 3 race last year, is up against Wolfe, while Brown will oppose Sumners. I won’t be surprised if they have company in their primaries, but for now they’re the ones.

Finally, I haven’t seen a treasurer filing, but Diana Alexander has announced her intention to challenge County Commissioner Steve Radack in Precinct 3. Alexander manages the Indivisible Houston, Pantsuit Republic, and Pantsuit Republic Houston Facebook groups; I don’t know anything else about her at this time. I can say for certain that others will be entering this race, as this is the top local prize for Democrats to pursue. Some names I have heard mentioned in connection with this include term-limited Council Member Mike Laster, former State Rep. Kristi Thibaut, and Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen, who would not be able to say anything about this without triggering resign to run. If you’ve heard other names being bandied about for this, please leave a comment and let us know.

Wolfe censured by HCDE

A new episode of the Michael Wolfe reality show.

Harris County Department of Education’s board voted to censure Trustee Michael Wolfe over sexual harassment allegations hours after a state district judge denied his request for a temporary restraining order.

Trustees on Wednesday voted 4-2, with Trustee Don Sumners abstaining, to issue the formal reprimand. Trustee George Moore broke with others in the board’s new majority, of which Wolfe is a part, to vote in favor of the punishment. Moore would not comment about his vote.

At the board meeting, Wolfe said the allegations were politically motivated and he had not had a proper chance to defend himself against such controversial allegations.

“If any of you were in my shoes, you would want your due process in court before being branded a sexual harasser,” Wolfe said. “I’m shocked these allegations have gotten this far, especially in America.”

Wolfe had tried to stop the censure vote Tuesday evening by having his attorney file a petition for a temporary restraining order and arguing for the order Wednesday afternoon.

A state district judge denied Wolfe’s request. Civil Court Judge Steven Kirkland said he was reluctant to get involved in a “political squabble” or to interfere with an elected board’s right to formally punish its own members.

He asked Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Wolfe, whether the censure would result in Wolfe losing his elected position, prevent him from voting on future items or would force him to register as a sex offender. Woodfill said no, but pointed out the official punishment would brand his client as a sexual harasser and could make it more difficult for him to gain future employment.

“There’s no statutory authority for me to interfere with another governmental body and no clear basis for me to jump in and do this,” Kirkland said. “It is not under an authority of the court to interfere with what is, essentially, a political question.”

See here and here for some background. As is usually the case with anything involving Michael Wolfe, you need to read the whole thing, then wash your hands afterwards. Have I mentioned that he’s up for election in 2020? Having him provide opportunities for Jared Woodfill to lose in court is a point in his favor, I’ll admit, but voting him out will still be sweet.

Commissioners Court replaces Judge McLeod

Unfortunate, but understandable.

Judge William McLeod

A divided Harris County Commissioners Court declined to give County Court At Law Judge Bill McLeod a reprieve Tuesday after he inadvertently resigned last week, opting instead to appoint a replacement.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said letting McLeod remain as a holdover judge until a special election for the seat in 2020 was too risky, since he almost would certainly have to recuse himself from cases to which the county was a party, as Commissioners Court would have the power to remove him at any time.

Instead, the court voted 3 to 2 to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to hold the seat through next year, on the recommendation of Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia.

“I think voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent, as he was elected to be,” Hidalgo said. “This would put us in the untenable position that he would no longer be an unbiased person, because he would be beholden to Commissioners Court.”

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle voted against the appointment. Cagle told Briones he could not support her since the nomination was made just minutes earlier and he did not have a chance to review her qualifications.

Briones, a Yale Law School graduate and general counsel to the Laura and John Arnold Foundation until December, accepted the appointment on the spot.

“I have deep respect for the law and I respect that you made a hard decision, and I respect the consternation in this room,” Briones said. “But know that I will work extremely hard for everyone.”

See here and here for the background. There were some good legal arguments in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, while Judge Hidalgo’s point is worth taking seriously as well. In the end, I didn’t have a strong opinion one way or the other; I think either decision was defensible. JUst a couple of thoughts to keep in mind as we go forward:

– McLeod’s point that the state constitution is incredibly long and arcane is unquestionably true. It’s also kind of disingenuous coming from a judge. More to the point, this is why potential candidates should talk to a political professional or two before making any public statements about running for office, because there are various weird rules related to candidacy that are easy to stumble over if you don’t know what you’re doing. I can think of a dozen people off the top of my head who could have pointed this out to McLeod before he filed his designation of treasurer. You gotta do your due diligence.

– Not to belabor the point, but there’s a reason why basically nobody had been felled by this problem before. As I said in my first post, nearly every story about then-Sheriff Adrian Garcia’s rumored candidacy for Mayor was accompanied by a discussion of how he couldn’t say anything without triggering the resign-to-run provision. Sheriff isn’t judge, but in this case they’re both county positions. One might well wonder if that provision applied to one job, would it apply to another?

– All that said, let’s not get too high and mighty at Bill McLeod’s expense. Yes, this was a dumb and avoidable mistake, but it’s not like this particular cul-de-sac of our word salad that is the state constitution was a cornerstone of our inviolable values as a state. County court judges have to resign to run for another office, but district court judges and appeals court judges don’t. All five Democrats who ran for statewide judicial positions last year were sitting on a bench while running for something else, and last I checked our state didn’t collapse. The fact that Bill McLeod had to resign is a quirk and not a principle, and it’s at least as dumb as McLeod’s unfortunate action. I’m sorry this happened to him. I’m sure we’ll all take the lesson to check and doublecheck whether “resign to run” applies to whatever office one holds before stating an intention to seek another, but maybe we should also take the lesson that these same rules are arbitrary and ought to be reviewed to see if they still make sense. Campos has more.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

A massive explosion at a chemical plant in northeast Harris County on Tuesday killed one person and sent two others to the hospital in critical condition, sparking a blaze that sent yet another plume of dark smoke into the sky and forcing residents to temporarily shelter in place.

The fire, ignited by a flammable gas called isobutylene at the KMCO chemical processing plant in Crosby, marked the third time in 17 days that a smoggy cloud of smoke emanated from a Houston-area chemical facility.

It is the first chemical fatality at a Houston-area plant since 2016, when a worker died in an incident at PeroxyChem in Pasadena. In 2014, four workers died at a DuPont plant in La Porte.

Responders extinguished the KMCO fire late Tuesday afternoon, while on-scene investigators with the Harris County Fire Marshal’s Office began conducting interviews to determine where the fire started and what caused the gas to ignite.

“There’s a lot of hot metal in there,” said Rachel Moreno, a fire marshal spokeswoman. “Until it’s safe for our guys to go in, they’ll continue doing interviews of everybody that was at work.”

The response will stretch Harris County’s resources, Moreno said, as the fire marshal’s office begins its second major investigation in less than three weeks. The site of an even larger conflagration at Intercontinental Terminals Co. in Deer Park less than 15 miles away on March 17 remains too unsafe for investigators to visit.

[…]

KMCO, a subsidiary of an Austin private investment firm, produces coolant and brake fluid products for the automotive industry, as well as chemicals for the oil field industry. Its facility, which has a history of environmental and workplace safety issues, sits about 13 miles away from the ITC plant, where Harris County officials continued to detect carcinogenic benzene this week.

The KMCO plant is less than three miles from the Arkema facility where a series of explosions spewed chemicals and sickened residents after Hurricane Harvey in 2017.

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

“As long as I’ve been doing environmental work for Harris County, I’ve been involved in case with this company, either with the previous owner or the current owner,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section. “And I’ve been doing this for close to 30 years. This company has been around forever causing trouble.”

[…]

On Christmas Eve 2010, a runaway reaction sent three employees at the plant to the hospital. Workers there couldn’t lower the pressure in a reactor and, as they tried to fix a clogged line, they accidentally mixed a caustic solution with maleic anhydride, a normally stable chemical. The result was an explosion and fire. An explosion in 2011 sent two more workers to a hospital.

[…]

Since 2009, KMCO has paid out more than $4 million in fines or criminal penalties to local and federal regulators.

In 2017, the company pleaded guilty to criminal violations of the Clean Air Act filed by the Environmental Protection Agency and was ordered to pay $3.5 million. The violations were in connection to an explosion at its Port Arthur facility and air emissions at the Crosby plant.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued dozens of violations to KMCO since 2010 and fined the company about $250,000.

The facility is currently not compliant with the federal Clean Water Act. KMCO was in violation of the act for seven of the last 12 quarters, records show. It violated the Clean Air Act three times in the last 12 quarters. EPA data shows the facility also violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act in February 2018. That law regulates how facilities handle hazardous and non-hazardous solid waste.

[…]

Harris County first sued KMCO in 1987. The company was ordered to pay $49,750 for violations of the Texas Water Code.

The county sued the KMCO plant in 2008 for spills and fumes that gave neighbors headaches. The lawsuit ended in 2009 with a permanent injunction requiring KMCO to pay $100,000 in civil penalties and to give investigators easy access to the facility and prompt notification of releases.

The county sued again in 2013; that case is still ongoing. Owens said the county attorney’s office is still deciding whether to add Tuesday’s incident to the existing case or bring a separate case against the company.

“While there’s been actions before, it hasn’t been sufficient,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental advocacy group. “We should, in the 21st century, be able to prevent these kinds of things from happening.”

A Houston Chronicle report from 2016 found that there’s a major chemical incident every six weeks in the greater Houston area.

You’d really like to think that we could prevent this kind of thing from happening, wouldn’t you?

Sunday, this editorial board demanded that state officials hold polluters accountable — and not just after a disaster.

We didn’t expect to be repeating ourselves so soon.

But this is what happens in a state where environmental regulators are toothless tigers. Where the TCEQ trusts polluters to police themselves — in part out of necessity, since lawmakers don’t adequately fund the agency. Where violators avoid sanctions and routinely endanger Texans’ health without our knowledge. Where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton talk tough, maybe even file a lawsuit after an incident makes headlines, but look the other way when the smoke clears.

At this rate, the smoke will never really clear. There will be another fire. And another.

Another round of parents fearing for their children’s safety. Another community fearing the effects of chemicals and pollutants they can’t pronounce. Another black eye to Houston’s already bad reputation as a place where one shouldn’t breathe too deeply, a place where profits outweigh concern for public health.

As we’ve pointed out, Texas facilities in 2017 reported releasing more than 63 million pounds of unauthorized air pollution — including chemicals linked to cancer, heart attacks and respiratory problems, according to a report by Environment Texas. But, in the past seven years, TCEQ issued fines in less than 3 percent of such events.

“These repeated, disastrous fires and explosions can no longer be called isolated incidents,” Luke Metzger, director of Environment Texas, told the editorial board Tuesday. “The Texas petrochemical industry has a serious, chronic problem, and Texas workers and citizens are paying the price. How many people have to die, get hurt, get cancer or suffer respiratory failure before the state takes this seriously and overhauls our broken system of oversight?”

Texans, these are questions for Abbott and our other state leaders. It’s up to us to demand the answers.

The only way to get the answers you need is to vote for those who will give them to you, and against those who won’t. If the choices aren’t clear by now, I don’t know what to tell you.

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Please delete April Fools Day from your calendar

I just can’t.

Judge William McLeod

An April Fools’ Day resignation prank? One Texas civil court judge wishes it were so.

A newly elected judge in Houston accidentally resigned on Monday, according to local media and a county official, after he shared plans online to run for the state supreme court, apparently unaware that the Texas constitution considers such an announcement an automatic resignation.

The Harris County Civil Court judge, Bill McLeod, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday. Local TV station KHOU 11 News on Monday reported that McLeod declined to comment on the move.

Article 16, Section 65, of the state’s constitution says that a judge’s announcement of candidacy for another office “shall constitute an automatic resignation of the office then held.”

The county attorney’s office will present the matter to county commissioners next Tuesday, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said in a phone interview on Tuesday. County commissioners, who can appoint replacements, may decide to keep McLeod in office until there is a special election, KHOU 11 reported.

The judge’s supporters have organized on social media using the hashtag #IStandWithMcLeod. They plan to attend the commissioners’ Tuesday meeting and express their wish that the judge retain his office despite his blunder.

Here’s Judge McLeod’s Facebook page, where I assume this accidental resignation happened. I tried looking for that post, but there were too many posts in support of him to scroll past, so I gave up. Judge McLeod was one of the more energetic campaigners, both in real life and on social media, in 2018 and I’m not at all surprised that people are rallying to his defense. Commissioners Court has the discretion of allowing him to stay in place until the next election, essentially serving as his own appointed interim successor. If he’s lucky, he’ll just have to run again in 2020 – he should have no trouble winning if that happens – and then can run for re-election as usual in 2022. This KHOU story doesn’t mention the April Fool angle, so I’m not really sure if this was a joke that didn’t land or just a foolishly early announcement with unexpected consequences. Either way, it wasn’t the best idea anyone ever had.

(Just so we’re all clear, the Constitutional provision cited in the story applies to the following offices: District Clerks; County Clerks; County Judges; Judges of the County Courts at Law, County Criminal Courts, County Probate Courts and County Domestic Relations Courts; County Treasurers; Criminal District Attorneys; County Surveyors; County Commissioners; Justices of the Peace; Sheriffs; Assessors and Collectors of Taxes; District Attorneys; County Attorneys; Public Weighers; and Constables. That means that among other things, it does not apply to District Court judges or appeals court judges, which is why the Democratic candidates for Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2018, all of whom were sitting District Court judges in Harris County, did not have to resign. Remember how long there was speculation about Adrian Garcia running for Mayor in 2015 before he ever said anything? That was because he had to resign as soon as he did say it. Let’s all be aware of these things going forward, OK? Thanks.)

UPDATE: Here’s a legal defense of Judge McLeod’s actions. It’s more complicated than it first appears.

County Attorney investigating Wolfe

Good.

The Harris County Attorney is investigating a report alleging that a Harris County Department of Education Trustee Michael Wolfe sexually harassed a job applicant and retaliated against her when she refused to date him.

In a letter dated March 5, Vince Ryan asked Harris County Department of Education Superintendent James Colbert Jr. and Board President Josh Flynn to preserve documents related to the allegations and subsequent third-party investigation against Wolfe. Ryan wrote that the review would be completed “within a few weeks.”

Robert Soard, first assistant attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said Thursday that two senior attorneys are handling the inquiry, which could take several more weeks. He said their work includes reviewing an already published third-party investigation into the allegations, double-checking some points in that report and taking action they deem appropriate. If warranted, Soard said, they could have the authority to remove Wolfe from office.

“I can’t say this would qualify,” Soard said. “But certainly the report… raises questions that need to be reviewed.”

Meanwhile, an attorney representing Wolfe sent a letter to HCDE trustees and Colbert on Wednesday informing them Wolfe would sue if they moved forward with a vote to censure the longtime Republican operative.

Attorney Jared Woodfill said Thursday that attempting to brand Wolfe as a sexual harasser without sworn affidavits or depositions, and only relying on a 15-page third-party investigation that lacked official documentation, would unfairly damage his client’s reputation.

“It’s outrageous to me they would make these types of allegations and not do more to dive into what the truth is before brand someone with this label,” Woodfill said.

See here for the background. Hey, if you’re worried about unfounded accusations against Michael Wolfe, then surely you’re happy to have an official investigation into those allegations. I’m perfectly willing to reserve judgment until the County Attorney presents a report. Not that this should affect how you vote in the HCDE races next year – Michael Wolfe has now twice demonstrated that he is completely unfit for this, or any, office. But one way or the other, we’ll get some clarity on what may have happened in this case.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

Harris County has sued Intercontinental Terminals Co. for failing to prevent a massive chemical fire that burned for more than 60 hours last week and spewed an unknown volume of hazardous chemicals into the air and nearby waterways.

The county is seeking a temporary injunction and restraining order against the company, alleging that it violated the Texas Clean Air Act and the Texas Solid Waste Disposal Act, among other rules.

The lawsuit accuses ITC of violating the state’s water code, health and safety code and administrative code on multiple days, by “causing suffering or allowing the discharge of at least one air contaminant without a permit and in such concentration and or such duration as to be injurious to human health, welfare or property, or as to interfere with the normal use and enjoyment of property.”

[…]

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said his office will hire an in-house auditor to review ITC’s actions during and after the fire.

Soard also said Harris County will demand ITC cover the cost of the government’s response, which included frequent air and water monitoring, mobile clinics sponsored by the health department and an ongoing activation of the county’s Office of Emergency Management.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here in the updated version of the story. I hope the county collects on every last penny. These guys need to be held accountable for their failures. Yes, I know, there is a state lawsuit as well, but this is about reimbursing Harris County, in the same way that your insurance company collects from the other guy’s insurance company when the other driver is found to be at fault in your fender-bender. If ITC doesn’t like it, they can do a better job of fire prevention in the future.

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo has been holding continuous press conferences on the Intercontinental Terminals Co. fire in Deer Park, delivering updates in both English and Spanish.

Despite the effort to communicate with Hispanic viewers, one area commissioner publicly criticized her use of Spanish during a recent press conference.

“She is a joke,” Chambers County Precinct 2 Commissioner Mark Tice said in a comment under a live feed of a press conference Monday afternoon. “English this is not Mexico.”

Tice admitted to making the comment Tuesday afternoon during a phone interview with Chron.com. He also doubled down on the message.

You know the old bit about how every New Yorker cartoon could be captioned “Christ, what an asshole!”? Well, as of today, anything Mark Tice says can be responded to by saying “Christ, what an asshole!” as well.

UPDATE: Tice has apologized following some blowback. My assessment of him has not changed.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor Harris County elections, at county expense, for up to four years under the settlement of a federal lawsuit over inadequate access to polling places for voters with disabilities.

Commissioners Court approved the 15-page settlement during at its regularly scheduled meeting Tuesday. The item originally was designated for a closed-door executive session, but court members simply agreed to First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard’s recommendation they sign off on the deal.

Under the agreement, Harris County will have to make minor accessibility improvements to as many as 300 of its 750 regular voting sites, hire two outside election experts to supervise balloting and designate an in-house Americans with Disabilities Act compliance officer. The county does not have to concede it has violated the ADA in past elections.

“It’s a fair settlement,” Soard said. “It’s a reasonable way to conclude this litigation.”

Toby Cole, a quadriplegic attorney who almost exclusively represents wheelchair users, said the settlement and extended federal supervision are essential because disabled voters often are reluctant to complain about problems they encounter.

“They don’t want to make a huge fuss,” Cole said. “So, you don’t vote the first time, then the second time. We cut things out of our lives already, and voting is one more thing to say is too difficult.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said after the meeting she is confident the county will be able to show the federal government much sooner than four years it is capable of running an election in which each polling place meets ADA guidelines.

“We’ve got a court, and a county clerk, and a county attorney that are committed to equitable access to elections,” Hidalgo said. “We’re all working to make sure we adhere to that settlement.”

[…]

Monica Flores-Richart, whom County Clerk Diane Trautman hired in January as the county’s ADA compliance officer, said the office will re-examine each polling place. In most cases, she said problems can be identified and addressed quickly.

“We’re not talking about permanent improvements,” Flores-Richart said. “If there’s a gap of a certain size in the sidewalk, you need to put a mat down. Those are the kind of things we’re talking about.”

The settlement requires the county to submit a new ADA compliance plan to the Justice Department within 120 days. The county also must hire at least 20 contractors, or use county employees, to monitor each countywide election.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve expressed a modicum of sympathy for the County Clerk in the past regarding this litigation, which was filed in August of 2016 following a letter of finding in 2014, but if this is all it took to settle the case, I have to wonder why it took so long. Well, okay, I know the answer to that, and it has to do with whose picture you see when you load up the harrisvotes.com website. But seriously, this should have been wrapped up long before now. Be that as it may, kudos to all for getting it done. I share Judge Hidalgo’s confidence that Harris County can complete the terms of the settlement in less than the time allotted. The Trib has more.

January 2019 campaign finance reports: Harris County

One last set of finance reports I want to look at, from Harris County officials. I’m dividing them into a few groups:

Lina Hidalgo, County Judge
Diane Trautman, County Clerk
Dylan Osborne, County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, District Clerk

Kim Ogg, District Attorney
Ed Gonzalez, Sheriff
Vince Ryan, County Attorney
Ann Harris Bennett

Rodney Ellis, Precinct 1
Adrian Garcia, Precinct 2
Steve Radack, Precinct 3
Jack Cagle PAC, Precinct 4

George Moore, HCDE Position 1, Precinct 2
Eric Dick, HCDE Position 2, Precinct 4
Richard Cantu, HCDE Position 3, At Large
Josh Flynn, HCDE Position 4, Precinct 3
Michael Wolfe, HCDE Position 5, At Large
Danny Norris, HCDE Position 6, Precinct 1
Don Sumners, HCDE Position 7, At Large


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Hidalgo      239,834   161,503    1,400      51,836
Trautman       4,613       501        0      17,044
Osborne        1,225     2,242        0         122
Burgess        6,647     5,816        0       6,683

Ogg              600    13,936   68,489     212,875
Gonzalez      88,755    26,205        0     114,976
Ryan           6,500    14,656        0      58,464
Bennett        5,250     5,799        0      29,411

Ellis        223,000   310,395        0   2,916,307
Garcia       739,508   310,945        0     531,887
Radack       801,500   331,900        0   1,742,357
Cagle         68,045   113,143        0     171,242

Moore              0         0        0         243
Dick
Cantu          1,070       786        0       1,325
Flynn              0        10        0       1,600
Wolfe              0         0        0           0
Norris
Sumners

Remember that for those who were on the November 2018 ballot, this filing period runs from the 8 day report, which was October 27, through the end of the year. Basically, the last two months, including the last week of the campaign. For everyone else, it’s the usual six month period. HCDE candidates generally raise and spend negligible amounts, so it’s not that odd for some of them to have no activity to report.

$99K of the amount Lina Hidalgo raised was in kind, $95K of which came from the Texas Organizing Project for field work. It’s common for newly-elected candidates to get a surge in financial support right after their election – these are called “late train” donations – but in Hidalgo’s case a fair amount of the contributions reported here were before Election Day. Given her pledge to refrain from taking money from those who do business with the county, it will be interesting to see what her future reports will look like. The Commissioners have not taken a similar pledge, and they tend to be the bigger fundraisers anyway. Keep an eye on Steve Radack going forward – he’s either going to gear up for a tough election, or he’s going to decide to step down and let someone else engage in that battle. If Ed Emmett had been re-elected, it wouldn’t have shocked me if Radack ran again and then resigned after winning, in the grand tradition of Republican county officials, to let Emmett pick his successor. I feel confident saying that Steve Radack will not give Lina Hidalgo the opportunity to replace him.

With the strong Democratic trend in Harris County and the greater level of Democratic engagement – not to mention the possibility of the DNC being here and Texas being contested at the Presidential level – I don’t expect the countywide officeholders to work too hard to raise money for next November. They won’t slack, exactly, but they know they’ve got a lot of support behind them. That said, with Kim Ogg already getting a potential primary opponent, and given my belief that Vince Ryan will also draw one, they may step it up to make next March easier for them. The incentives, and the strategy, are different now in a blue county.

I am going to do one more report, on the Congressional candidates from 2018, two of whom are now incumbents and several others who will be back this cycle. As always, I hope this has been useful for you.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

The Democratic sweep of Harris County leadership posts in the midterm election could prompt a settlement in the protracted legal dispute over how judges handle bail for poor people arrested for petty offenses, according to statements made in federal court Tuesday.

The shift in attitudes became evident during an early morning hearing in Houston before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who has presided over the civil rights action since 2016 and ruled in 2017 that the county’s bail practices discriminated against poor people. Lawyers for both sides acknowledged the proverbial elephant in the room: that all 14 county judges who oppose the bail lawsuit are Republicans who will be replaced in the new year by Democrats who have pushed for deeper bail reform.

Rosenthal congratulated the attorneys’ willingness to “accommodate any changes that have recently occurred in a reasonable way” and set a hearing for Feb. 1 where the lawyers may begin discussing plans for a possible settlement that would avert a costly trial.

[…]

Standing with [plaintiffs’ attorney Neal] Manne and others in the courthouse hallway after the hearing was Franklin Bynum, a 36-year-old Democratic Socialist in the mold of Bernie Sanders, who was elected last week to the misdemeanor bench for County Criminal Court No. 8. Bynum said he’d read documents and sat through hearings in the historic bail case from the beginning.

“It was this lawsuit that originally inspired me to run for judge,” Bynum said.

He said he and his fellow Democratic candidates all promised residents on the campaign trail they intended to settle the bail lawsuit quickly.

“Certainly, we’re going to behave differently than the current judges did, like being obstinate …and defending the indefensible,” he said.

In April 2017, Rosenthal ruled that the county’s bail policy violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the U.S. Constitution. She wrote that misdemeanor judges’ bail determinations amounted to wealth-based detention for poor defendants who could otherwise qualify for pretrial release, whereas similar defendants with money could resume their lives at home on bond.

The topic of a settlement surfaced again an hour later at the start of the first Commissioners Court meeting following the election.

A lawyer for County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench and the only judge to retain his seat in last week’s election, implored county leaders to “stop the hemorrhaging of money” and end their appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Basically, at this point there’s no one in power that wants to see this continue. County Judge-elect Hidalgo, County Commissioner-elect Garcia, and all of the incoming misdemeanor court judges ran on ending the lawsuit and implementing bail reform. We just need to do it, and we have every right to expect results after the new officials and judges are sworn in.

Seeking a solution for the translators

Glad to see it.

Three days after election workers barred translators from asking Korean-American voters if they needed assistance inside a Spring Branch polling place, Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart met with a group of Korean-Americans to find a way to avoid a similar outcome on Election Day.

At the end of the hour-long meeting, which was brokered by Houston Councilwoman Brenda Stardig, the two sides were unable to agree on a solution that would allow volunteer translators to efficiently help Korean speakers cast ballots while following Harris County’s interpretation of the Texas Election Code. Stanart and the Korean-Americans agreed to work together on a fix, and each proposed a set of rules for translators.

“I want them to be successful,” Stanart said of the voters, who are largely elderly naturalized U.S. citizens. “But I want it to be within the law.”

[…]

On Wednesday afternoon, the Korean-Americans and their supporters sat around a table in the Korean Community Center in Spring Branch with Stanart, Stardig, and members of their staffs. Stardig invited each side to share ideas on how to improve the voting experience for Korean speakers.

Stanart said groups like the Korean American Voters League should inform the county when they plan to take voters to the polls so election workers can be prepared. He suggested the translators could set up a stand outside the 100-foot buffer zone and solicit voters there.

Some of the Korean-Americans said that would be impractical, since polling places are often crowded and non-English speakers are unsure where to go. They said making translators shuffle in line for an hour or more in some cases, instead of being available on an ad-hoc basis when voters reach the booths, is inefficient.

Others objected to being called loiterers by the county, noting that label is not applied to journalists and exit pollsters, who are free to work inside the 100-foot zone. They said Harris County is unfairly applying the Texas Election Code, which is silent on what a loiterer is and does not explicitly state where translators may or may not stand.

“It’s really not that clear,” said Sang Shin, Houston branch president of the Asian American Bar Association. “There are different opinions to that, legally.”

See here for the background. I feel like this is an area of the law that has not been greatly tested in the past, and as such no one is quite sure what to do now. As I said in my earlier post, it would be a good idea to revisit this law and take a stab at clarifying and updating it to better serve modern voters. We have nothing to lose here but our current state of confusion.

Translators

I wish there were a better way to handle this.

The Harris County Clerk’s office on Monday defended a decision by election workers to bar translators offering assistance to Korean-American voters from a Spring Branch polling site the day before.

The county said translators are free to approach voters outside the 100-foot protected zone at each polling place, but Dona Kim Murphey of the Korean-American Association of Houston said Harris County is too strict in its interpretation of the Texas Election Code.

“Nowhere does it say we can’t offer that translation at the entrance of the facility,” Murphey said. “That is unacceptable.”

Local Korean-language outlets urged voters to cast ballots at the Trini Mendenhall Community Center on Sunday because translators, including Murphey, would be there to provide assistance. She said poll workers barred the group of translators from asking Korean speakers in line if they needed help.

The translators were permitted to approach voters in the parking lot, but Murphey estimated they were only able to help 40 to 50 Korean speakers instead of the hundreds they had planned. Several thousand Korean-Americans reside in Spring Branch, and more than 30,000 live in the Houston area.

Douglas Ray, a deputy in the Harris County Attorney’s Office, said the translators were considered loiterers under the Texas Election Code when they were inside the polling place, because they lacked a “legitimate business purpose” for being there. The code bars loitering and electioneering — advocating for a particular cause or candidate — within the 100-foot protection zone.

[…]

Voters are permitted to bring translators for assistance, so long as they swear an oath to translate accurately. Ray said the problem arose Sunday because the translators were asking voters if they needed help, instead of the other way around. Though journalists and exit pollsters are permitted to speak to voters waiting in line, with the permission of poll workers, Ray said translators offering help are prohibited.

Ray said translators are free to offer their services to voters at any point before they enter the 100-foot zone.

“We just don’t want them to solicit inside the polling place,” he said.

Sam Taylor, spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the election code supports Harris County’s rationale because a translator who has yet to be requested by a voter does not meet the description of an authorized person who is permitted at a polling place.

See here for an earlier story. I suspect the county’s interpretation of the law is accurate, though perhaps there’s room for a little slack. More likely, I’d say this law was built on some less-than-progressive assumptions and could use a revamp by the Legislature. Wouldn’t be the first time this was the case. I’d like to see someone give this a thorough review and put forth a bill that makes it easier for well-meaning volunteers like the folks from the Korean American Association of Houston to help the people who need it at the polls.

Harris County makes its robot brothel ban official

We can all sleep more soundly now.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday unanimously adopted new rules to prevent so-called “robot brothels” from opening and more strictly regulate sexually oriented businesses in unincorporated areas.

The county already had been revising its sexually oriented business rules, first adopted in 1996, but decided to specifically address lifelike sex dolls for rent after Toronto-based company KinkySdollsS considered opening a Houston branch where patrons could try out human-like “adult love dolls” in private rooms at the shop.

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Celena Vinson said the county largely adopted language Houston’s legal department had written.

“We wanted to address the sex robot shop that was allegedly going to open in the city, and wanted to ensure our regulations were consistent with what the city of Houston was doing,” Vinson said.

The changes now clearly define sex dolls like the ones advertised by the Toronto firm as “anthropomorphic devices” and prohibit companies from renting them out to customers. Residents of the city and county remain free to purchase such devices for use in their own homes.

See here, here, and here for the background. Despite my best efforts, I still don’t have anything useful to say about this. I just can’t resist blogging about it, and Lord knows we can use the occasional respite from the real news. You’re welcome.

Harris County to follow suit on robot brothels

If it’s good for Houston, or not good for Houston, I suppose…

Harris County commissioners are prepared to ban so-called robot brothels, just as Houston did last week.

Harris County already bans live sex acts at any place of business. Robert Soard, First Assistant County Attorney, said that, in his reading, that includes sex with “anthropomorphic devices.”

“Now, that being said, because of changing technology, it might be a good idea to amend the current sexually oriented business regulations,” Soard said.

[…]

Assistant Chief Tim Navarre said they’ll be ready to present it to Commissioners Court within two weeks. “The dialogue is…almost identical to the city’s, so, we’re way ahead of the curve,” Navarre said.

See here and here for the background. Harris County’s sexually-oriented business ordinance has generally been a mirror of Houston’s, so this is not surprising and mostly a formality. Nonetheless, if you ever had an inclination to attend a Commissioner’s Court meeting, here’s a bit of incentive for you to finally do so. Swamplot has more.

“Viva Texas! Viva Beto!”

It’s been too long since the last time I posted a video.

It all came from a love of the law and a shared dislike of Ted Cruz.

It was a few bigwig local prosecutors, a capital defense attorney, a seasoned member of the Harris County Attorney’s Office and others who got together over the summer, hoping to unseat the junior senator from Texas – with their music. It was, they promised, not as outlandish as it seemed.

“Before John F. Kennedy the only person to ever defeat Lyndon Johnson for public office was Pappy Lee O’Daniel,” said Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke.

“Pappy Lee beat Johnson by having a band and they went around to all these courthouses in Texas playing this song – ‘Pass the Biscuits Pappy’ – and Lyndon Johnson lost that election.”

Seeking to replicate that success, the legally-minded balladeers recorded three songs in support of Democratic candidate Beto O’Rourke, including ditties like “Viva Texas! Viva Beto!” – released on YouTube Saturday.

“We are part of the resistance, we’re it’s tonal dimension,” said David Mitcham, the Harris County District Attorney’s Office trial bureau chief and lead singer of what’s become the de facto in-house band for the DA’s office, Death by Injection.

But the new political rock gathering calls itself The Yellow Dog Howlers.

Here’s the video, in all its glory:

Well, it’s not The Altuve Polka or It’s A Ming Thing, but I give them an A for enthusiasm. And look, it’s not like anyone is gonna write a song about Ted Cruz.

And since they mentioned it, here’s Pass The Biscuits Pappy:

For sure, they don’t write ’em like that any more.

County Attorney declares registration challenges invalid

That’s one word for it.

The Harris County Attorney’s office said Tuesday that the 4,000 voter registrations challenged by a county Republican Party official were invalid, and the voter registrar should not have sent suspension notices to more than 1,700 county voters.

“The voter challenge they received was not in compliance with the law,” Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said. “If somebody doesn’t respond to that notice, we advise (the registrar) not to place voters on the suspension list.”

[…]

Ray explained to Commissioners Court at its Tuesday meeting that to challenge a voter’s registration under state law, the challenger must have personal knowledge that the registration is inaccurate. Ray concluded that Alan Vera, the chairman of the Harris County Republican Party’s Ballot Security Committee who brought the challenges in July, could not possibly know each of the 4,037 voters on his list. Therefore, the challenges cannot be considered, he said.

Vera said Tuesday afternoon he disagrees with that interpretation and will “take follow-up actions.”

He previously said he and volunteers had combed through the rolls looking for voters who had listed the locations of post offices, parcel stories or places of business as their address.

State law requires voters to register at the address where they live.

See here and here for the background. The actual standard for voter registration is not where you actually live but where you intend to live, as Karl Rove and a long list of elected officials going back to the first days of the Republic could tell you. If we really want to enforce this standard, there’s going to be an awful lot of politicians hiring moving vans.

There’s another class of voter that this invalid challenge went after as well.

A detailed look at the list of challenges to the voter registration rolls filed by Harris County Republican Party Ballot Security Committee Chairman Alan Vera reveals that individuals using facilities dedicated to the homeless as residency addresses were among the 4,000 people targeted.

[…]

In addition, the challenge list had a startling number of facilities used by homeless people in the Houston area. The Beacon at 1212 Prairie had 15 such challenges. When contacted, The Beacon said that they partner with COMPASS, a group dedicated to helping the disadvantaged through employment and other means, to allow people staying at the shelter to receive their mail, including government documents such as voter registration paperwork. The Beacon is also where many of the people temporarily staying with the Salvation Army on North Main Street are referred to. The Salvation Army was listed in 23 challenges, despite the fact that the organization does not allow people to use it as a mail service.

Star of Hope Mission, Healthcare for the Homeless and The Hope Center were also among the challenged addresses. Aable Bail Bonds had 18 challenges, likely because they formerly ran a bunkhouse for homeless clients on the second floor.

Patients listing substance abuse and mental health care center addresses were included as well. The Houston Recovery Center, which attempts to divert individuals caught intoxicated in public away from incarceration, had 12 challenges on Vera’s list. Patients may reside at the facility for 18 months according to their media relations department.

As the story notes, just last year VoteTexas.gov was assuring people who had been displaced by Harvey that they could register to vote at a shelter if that’s where they were staying. How things change in a year, eh? It’s unfortunate that the Tax Assessor’s office took action on these registrations, even if was the result of a software glitch, before consulting with the County Attorney. But at least it has all come to light. If we use this as a catalyst to improve our voter registration process, so much the better.

Vote suspension update

The situation gets more complicated.

Harris County mistakenly placed more than 1,700 voters on its suspension list in response to a local Republican official’s challenge of nearly 4,000 voter registrations, county Tax Assessor-Collector Ann Harris Bennett said Wednesday.

The situation quickly spun into a partisan spat with the Harris County Democrats accusing the GOP of targeting Democratic voters, and the Harris County Republican Party blasting Bennett, who also is the county’s voter registrar, for the suspensions and for confusing voters.

“Democrat Voter Registrar Ann Harris Bennett should not have jumped the gun by suspending those voters’ registrations,” Harris County Republican Party Chairman Paul Simpson said in a statement. “We urge Democrat Ann Harris Bennett to follow the law and quit violating voters’ rights.”

The suspensions came to light after Bennett’s office mailed letters to the voters whose registrations were challenged, asking them to confirm their addresses.

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said counties are required to give voters 30 days to respond to those requests before placing them on a suspension list, but Bennett’s office took that action prematurely in some cases.

“They were following procedure they believed was the correct procedure, but after they consulted with us, they realized that the correct procedure was to wait 30 days,” Ray said.

Bennett blamed the mistake on a software glitch. She said her office discovered the error after three or four days, and immediately fixed the 1,735 suspended registrations.

The suspension list is poorly named, Ray said, because voters whose registrations are placed on suspension remain eligible to cast ballots. Voters are purged from the rolls, he said, only if they are placed on the suspension list, fail to respond to letters from the county and fail to vote in two consecutive federal elections.

See here for the background. It’s good that the suspensions were undone, but it’s annoying that Bennett’s office got the law wrong in the first place. It’s also annoying that the law allows people to make such challenges based on flimsy evidence, which as we saw in this case caused problems for real people who done nothing to warrant it. Even if their registrations being put into suspense was premature and incorrect, the fact that they were sent a letter they had to respond to in order to avoid any future issues was needlessly intrusive. Thus, I still believe that law needs to be revised, and we all need to be on guard for shenanigans like this, since the increase in voter registration in Harris County is a big threat to the Republicans. For now at least we can dial down that alarm a bit. That goes for me, too. The Press has more.

Revised final bail order

We go from here.

The federal judge in a landmark bail lawsuit against Harris County set new ground rules for law enforcement and judges about pretrial release for thousands of low-income people arrested on low-level offenses in a revised injunction issued Friday.

The order prohibits the county from detaining a poor person in instances in which a person with money would be allowed to pay and get out of jail. Specifically, qualified poor people charged with certain offenses, such as drunken driving or writing bad checks, will be permitted to leave jail immediately and return for future appearances. However, the finding also gives judges two days to make a bail determination for people arrested on more serious offenses or who face holds or detainers that would prevent them from being released.

[…]

The county will have another chance to argue the full case when the 2016 lawsuit goes to trial on the merits on Dec. 3, however, county officials could opt to settle the case, something both sides have indicated they would like to do. In two years litigating the case, the county has hired dozens of lawyers at a cost of $6.7 million.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a long-time criminal justice reformer who has backed the lawsuit, said Friday’s decision affirmed the courts’ finding that there are “no legal or moral grounds” for the “unconscionable and futile defense of a two-tiered system of injustice that favors the wealthy and punishes the poor.”

“The county’s indefensible money bond system routinely violates the constitutional rights of poor defendants and forces people to languish behind bars simply because they cannot afford bail — there is no disputing this basic fact,” Ellis said. “Countless families have been torn apart and lives have been ruined by an unfair bail system that denies pretrial liberty and basic constitutional protections to poor defendants.”

The lawyers defending the county called Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s order “an excellent beginning for a settlement.”

“The county remains committed to a settlement that maximizes the number of misdemeanor detainees who are eligible for prompt release from jail without secured bail, that provides due regard for the rights of victims and protection of the community and preserves the independence of the judiciary,” said Robert Soard, first assistant to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan.

See here and here for the background. It’s hard to remember because this has gone on for so long, but the entire fight so far has been about the preliminary injunction, which is what is being finalized here. This is the order to define what the county can and can’t do while the lawsuit proceeds. Litigating the case on the merits could take years more, and cost many more millions. So if the county really does see this order as a good foundation for a settlement, we should all be glad to hear it. Of course, that is mostly up to the misdemeanor court judges, who are the defendants and who have refused to budge throughout. Perhaps Commissioners Court can put some pressure on them, though outside of Commissioner Ellis they’ve been part of the problem, too. If you truly want to see this come to a just and cost-effective end, the answer is to vote those judges out in November. Ultimately, we get to decide. Grits has more.

Once more with the bail order for Harris County

Getting close to the end.

The federal judge presiding over the landmark bail lawsuit against Harris County said she planned to issue revised instructions within two weeks for how pretrial release should operate for thousands of poor people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal fielded input Thursday from attorneys on both sides of the contentious two-year dispute about which defendants should be held in custody and which ones released during the first two days following an arrest.

Rosenthal’s instructions from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals were to figure out details, but she said she hoped the county, which has spent more than $6.1 million battling the lawsuit, was on board with the appeals court’s overall findings about the unfairness of “wealth based detention.”

[…]

The attorneys for the indigent defendants asked Rosenthal to consider ordering the immediate release of poor people arrested on certain offenses like drunk driving or writing bad checks if people with the means to pay bond were being released immediately on the same charges.

Lawyers for Harris County, and the hearing officers and county court at law judges who oppose the lawsuit, requested that Rosenthal follow the appeals court instructions to allow up to 48 hours for indigent defendants to appear before a judge who can make an appropriate determination about bail.

Judge Rosenthal had issued final instructions earlier in June, so I presume this is a modification of that. It’s my hope that the next development in this case will a ruling that satisfies the plaintiffs and that the defense accepts. We really do need to end this litigation, and there’s not much of an argument left for the county to make. Regardless, it’s still a good idea to vote out the judges that made us go through all this in November. A political resolution on top of a legal one would really make the difference.

Final instructions in bail practices lawsuit

We may finally be nearing a conclusion in this matter.

A year after a landmark ruling that upended Harris County’s bail system, a federal appeals court Friday issued final instructions for a Houston judge to craft a revised plan for releasing poor people who qualify after arrests for low-level offenses.

Lawyers on both sides of the contentious two-year lawsuit hailed the ruling Friday as a victory, and the county said it offered a solid template for a final settlement.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, who issued an injunction last year halting longstanding bail practices, set a new hearing June 14 for both sides to begin hammering out a detailed plan.

A New Orleans appeals court Friday rejected the county’s requests to halt or alter portions of the historic 2017 ruling in which Rosenthal found the county’s bail process violated constitutional rights to equal protection and due process, subjecting poor people to what termed “wealth-based detention.” The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals handed the case back to Rosenthal to begin implementing adjustments to her order addressing the release of misdemeanor defendants who don’t have holds or detainers.

“Harris County has been working diligently to improve the criminal justice system,” said Robert Soard, first assistant to Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “The county remains committed to a settlement that maximizes the number of misdemeanor detainees who are eligible for prompt release from jail without secured bail, that provides due regard for the rights of victims and protection of the community, and preserves the independence of the judiciary.”

But the court denied several requests from the county for immediate changes to Rosenthal’s order. Neal Manne, one of the attorneys for the indigent defendants, said he was delighted the court amended its ruling the way his legal team requested.

“We went 3-for-3 today, which is usually done only by Jose Altuve,” he said.

See here for the background. All I can say is that if everyone feels like they won in this ruling, then everyone should feel like they’re in a good position to negotiate a final agreement, and that maybe there aren’t that many points of disagreement left to dicker over. Perhaps we’ll find out on June 14. It is long past time for this matter to be resolved, and for a better and more just system to be implemented.

Harris County sued by “voter fraud” trolls

Let’s get this kicked to the curb ASAP.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A conservative non-profit group sued Harris County in federal court Thursday to force the county to make available records on how it stops non-U.S. citizens from voting.

The Public Interest Legal Foundation said in its lawsuit that it had requested in December to inspect records from the county including “documents regarding all registrants who were identified as potentially not satisfying the citizenship requirements for registration” and communication received “requesting a removal or cancellation from the voter roll for any reason related to non-U.S. citizenship/ineligibility.”

[…]

The foundation has filed similar lawsuits in other places like Pennsylvania and has targeted other areas like New Jersey and Bexar County.

The group has faced criticism over the numbers it uses in claims of corrupted voter rolls. Some opponents have said they are targeting Democratic-leaning, low-income areas with the lawsuits.

See here for more about these clowns. See also this story about a failed attempt by a similar group with the same guy in charge, which may have implications for efforts like this. All I can say is that Harris County had better put as much time and effort into beating back this lawsuit as it has done with the bail practices lawsuit.

No observers for ADA violations

This is interesting.

Only days before a crucial state primary, the Justice Department has halted its effort to send observers during the election to assess whether Harris County polling sites are accessible to disabled voters.

The observer request was made as part of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice lawsuit spearheaded by the civil rights and disability rights division in Washington, D.C., alleging Harris County’s voting sites are in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among the concerns Justice department identified in its claim are the lack of appropriate parking, proper ramps, navigable sidewalks, passageways and voting space, and other mandatory accommodations.

U.S. District Judge Alfred Bennett in Houston told the county at a hearing in April that the scope of accessibility violations at polling places could be so vast that a special master might be needed to sort them out.

As the final days of the early voting were underway, the Justice Department withdrew its earlier request to inspect voting sites during the March primaries, and canceled two related court hearings scheduled for earlier this week.

Devin O’Malley, a spokesperson for the Justice Department, declined to comment about why the attorneys canceled two scheduled hearings this week in Houston.

But Douglas Ray, managing attorney for the public law practice group at the Harris County Attorney’s Office, which represents the county election office, said it’s possible that the lawyers in Washington determined they couldn’t prevail in their motion requesting to send observers to the polls.

See here, here, and here for the background. Another possible explanation is that the original lawsuit was filed by the Obama administration – there were observers in place for the 2016 general election – and the Trump Justice Department is not terribly interested in pursuing any of the actions they initiated. I’m not sure what to make of this, but I’ll say again, I do believe the county could fix an awful lot of these problems if it wanted to without to much fuss. Surely that would be less problematic than fighting the litigation.

Fifth Circuit largely upholds bail practices ruling

Good.

The 26-page opinion by Judge Edith Brown Clement affirms the majority of Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s landmark ruling, including her finding that the county’s bail policies violated the due process and equal protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution.

However, Clement and fellow judges Edward C. Prado and Catarina Haynes disagreed with Rosenthal’s analysis on three matters and sent the case back for her to reconsider those elements.

They concluded Rosenthal was overly broad in her analysis of the due process violation and in extending no-cash bail to all indigent defendants. They found her demand that qualified defendants be released within 24 hours was “too onerous,” opting instead for a 48-hour window.

They also ordered Rosenthal to fine tune how officials assess a defendant’s ability to pay bond.

County Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a supporter of the lawsuit who traveled to New Orleans to hear the oral arguments in the case, called it “a significant victory for justice.”

“With this decision, the conservative 5th Circuit is telling Harris County that it’s unconstitutional to have two justice systems: one for the rich and one for the poor,” Ellis said. “Yet Harris County has already spent more than $5 million defending a morally and legally indefensible bail system that violates the Constitution and punishes people simply because they are poor.”

[…]

Attorney Neal Manne, whose firm, Susman Godfrey, joined in filing the lawsuit, praised the decision.

“I am absolutely thrilled by the ruling, which is a huge and historic victory for our clients,” he said.

The appeals judges found that the county had acted mechanically in reviewing bond decisions, failing to take the time to consider economic factors. The ruling summarized Rosenthal’s equal protection findings by imagining the outcomes for two hypothetical misdemeanor defendants, identical in every way — facing the same charge, from the same criminal backgrounds, living in the same circumstances — except that one was wealthy and the other indigent.

While the wealthy arrestee was less likely to plead guilty and get a shorter sentence or be acquitted, and less likely to pay the social costs of incarceration, it found, the poor arrestee, “must bear the brunt of all of these, simply because he has less money than his wealthy counterpart,” they wrote.

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. This was basically how I read it based on the coverage of the arguments. I agree with attorney Manne and Commissioner Ellis that this is a great ruling, and that it’s way past time to settle this effing thing.

The Trib adds on:

But the ruling wasn’t a total win for the plaintiffs. The appellate court still said Rosenthal’s ruling was “overbroad” and asked her to narrow some of the orders against the county.

Perhaps of most significance, the appellate court pushed back on Rosenthal’s order for the sheriff to release at no cost all misdemeanor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bond within 24 hours of arrest, regardless of whether they’ve had their bail reviewed or set at a higher cost. The appellate judges appeared suspicious about Rosenthal’s time limit in their hearing and said Wednesday that it was too strict.

In sending the case back to Rosenthal for a modified ruling, the higher court suggested an injunction that demands that poor defendants who claim they can’t afford their bail be entitled to a hearing within 48 hours of arrest where they can argue for a lower or no-cost bond.

If a judicial officer declines to lower the bond at this hearing, he or she would have to put the reason for their decision in writing, and the arrestee would then get a formal bail review hearing before a judge. If, after those 48 hours, there are no records showing an individualized bail review process took place, the sheriff could release the defendant at no cost.

‘The 48-hour requirement is intended to address the endemic problem of misdemeanor arrestees being detained until case disposition and pleading guilty to secure faster release from pretrial detention,” Clement wrote.

I’m fine with that, and I expect the plaintiffs will be as well. Mark Bennett sums it up.

It’s time for the fourteen criminal court at law judges to declare victory and go home. ((Just between you and me, this opinion is a rout for the judges. The changes are small, and the current injunction remains in place until Judge Rosenthal modifies it.))

Indeed. I really hope this time they listen.

Harris County sues Arkema

Good.

Vince Ryan

Harris County filed suit Thursday against Arkema over chemical fires at its Crosby plant in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, saying the company violated a long list of environmental, safety and building regulations and put first responders at risk.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court, seeks up to $1 million in penalties and asks that Arkema be ordered to upgrade its emergency response plans, build stronger storage areas and set up a notification system for alerting nearby residents of future incidents.

About 300 homes were evacuated and more than 30 people hospitalized — including law enforcement — when a volatile chemical erupted into flames after the plant lost power and generators in Harvey floodwaters.

“This was a very dangerous situation,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement Thursday. “Arkema must take responsibility for its inability to ensure the safety of the people of the Crosby community and those who protect them.”

[…]

The company self-reported multiple emissions from the plant to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality TCEQ during the disaster. Before the company lost control of its organic peroxides, floodwaters overwhelmed its wastewater treatment plant, resulting in industrial wastewater leaking into county waterways. Each separate fire resulted in air emissions from the facility.

Multiple new details were revealed in the county’s lawsuit. The county’s suit claims that Harris County Pollution Control Department detected air pollution outside of the mandated evacuation zone during the crisis.

It also says parts of the Arkema facility is located below base flood elevation, requiring permits the company did not have.

See here for more on the first lawsuit filed against Arkema. Commissioners Court authorized filing this lawsuit in late September. As I said before, I think Arkema needs to be held accountable for the things that it did and did not do that led to the many harmful environmental problems that resulted. Harvey was an unprecedented event and there likely wasn’t much they or anyone could have done to prevent consequences from it, but that doesn’t take them off the hook for their failure to be prepared. The Press has more.

Fifth Circuit hears bail lawsuit arguments

Big day in court.

Amid a stream of pointed questions from the bench, lawyers for Harris County Tuesday asked panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to toss a lower court ruling that the county’s criminal justice system violated the constitution by holding poor defendants on low level offenses simply because they could not afford bail.

The arguments challenge an April ruling by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal in Houston that the county’s bail system violated due process and equal protection by discriminating against poor misdemeanor defendants, when people with the money to could await trial at home.

A trio of appellate judges heard 30 minutes of oral arguments from the county, which has spent $4.2 million combating the lawsuit, and another 30 minutes from lawyers for a group of indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford to post bail.

[…]

[Judge Catharina] Haynes commanded the questioning throughout the morning, including when Chuck Cooper, a seasoned appellate lawyer who heads the Washington, D.C. law firm Cooper & Kirk, argued for the county that the bail hearings were not perfunctory.

Haynes interrupted Cooper mid-sentence, with a rhetorical question, “Now they know they’re under scrutiny so they add an extra sentence to their rubber stamp?”

To Alec Karakatsanis, director of the Civil Rights Corps in D.C, who represents the indigent defendants who sued the county, Haynes repeatedly asked about why the defendants needed to be released from jail by the 24-hour mark.

“I’m asking a very specific question you’re not answering,” she said. “Where in the U.S. Constitution does it say you’re required to release… within 24 hours.”

“It doesn’t,” Karakatsanis said.

Haynes also asked what’s the value of the affidavit inmates sign to swear they can’t afford bail.

“What if they’re lying on this affidavit–I don’t know, if they’re a millionaire or something?” she queried.

Karakatsanis said they could face further prosecution for contempt if they misrepresented their means.

See here and here for some background, and here for a Chron preview; I’ve been following this for awhile so if you’re a regular reader this should mostly be familiar. The Trib adds some details.

The judges repeatedly peppered Cooper with questions about the county’s probable cause hearings, in which judicial officials called hearing officers hear the charges against a defendant, evaluate reports from pretrial interviews and occasionally alter bail. The plaintiffs have argued that defendants are not allowed to speak at these hearings, which Haynes and Prado jumped on.

“They’re called hearing officers. Is there a hearing or do they just look at the form and make a decision?” [Judge Edward] Prado asked.

When Cooper contended that they did, Haynes cut him off: “But they can’t speak. What is a hearing if you’re not going to listen?”

[…]

In his argument, Cooper cited multiple county reform efforts that have taken place since the court order took effect in June. In July, the county began using a new risk assessment tool to better recommend to judicial officers setting bail when low-risk offenders should be released on personal bonds. He said, though no data has been recorded in the court, that release on personal bonds has increased.

Haynes questioned whether it was worth sending the case back to the lower court to find new facts since the reforms have taken place. Karakatsanis argued the new facts are unknown, and that there is nothing in the court record to corroborate Cooper’s statements.

County Judge Darrell Jordan, the only Harris County judge who rejected money bail for indigent defendants before the ruling, was at the arguments and said afterward that he wished there was an opportunity to talk about the system under the changes. Overall, he said, the process hasn’t changed.

“If it is sent back to the lower court, then the numbers will show what is going on,” he said. “People are still being placed in jail, and they can’t afford to get out.”

It is unknown when the judges will make a decision whether to uphold Rosenthal’s ruling, overturn it or send it back to the lower court. But after the ruling, Karakatsanis said he was optimistic the court will stand by Rosenthal’s injunction.

“The order that they’re appealing from is based on very solid evidence, and they’re asking for it to be overturned,” he said. “You can’t just come in front of higher courts and say, ‘Well, facts are totally different from what happened…’ without any citation.”

All three judges were Bush appointees, by the way, one by 41 (as was trial judge Rosenthal) and two by 43. My layman’s reading of this is that the judges were far more skeptical of the county than of the plaintiffs, but they clearly found the 24-hour requirement to have a hearing or release a defendant questionable. If they want to modify that it’s probably not a big deal, but beyond that I hope they uphold the ruling. They’ll issue their opinion when they’re damn good and ready.

Harris County files lawsuit against Arkema

More trouble for that nasty and troublesome chemical plant.

Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday authorized the county attorney to file a lawsuit against Arkema over its struggles to manage stores of hazardous chemicals during Hurricane Harvey.

The county’s Pollution Control Services Department found serious violations of the Texas Clean Air Act by Arkema, County attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. The county will try to recover the costs from responding to the crisis at the company’s Crosby plant. It will ask the court to review Arkema’s emergency preparedness plan and its environmental practices. The commissioners made the decision to approve the suit as part of its agenda wide unanimous vote.

“We’ve shown if you’re a bad actor, we’ll hold you accountable,” said Precinct 2 Commissioner Jack Morman.

[…]

Arkema lost control of its Crosby facility after floodwaters cut the power and wiped out its back up generators. With the power out and cooling systems failing, volatile organic peroxides exploded multiple times over a week, producing towering pillars of fire and thick plumes of black smoke.

A 1.5 mile evacuation zone was set up when government officials got access to the company’s chemical inventories. About 300 homes were evacuated during the crisis.

“During the height of this storm event, we had to have literally dozens of first responders tied up at this facility when they could have been in other areas of the county,” said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the county attorney’s environmental group.

Arkema’s claims that there was no way to anticipate six feet of water inundating the Crosby plant isn’t believable, Owens said. “We all knew for a week that we might get up to 50 inches of rain,” he said. ,” Owens said. “That’s not true. We all knew it was coming.”

See here for some background. Basically, the allegations in this lawsuit and the one filed by first responders are that this plant was woefully inadequate on safety measures, and they covered up their inadequacies as much as they could, which put residents and those first responders in needless danger. I would very much like to see them held responsible for this.

Fifth Circuit sets bail hearing

Mark your calendars.

Harris County will have another chance to defend its embattled cash bail system this fall in a lawsuit brought by indigent defendants who languished in jail for days because they couldn’t afford money bail.

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals announced Tuesday it has set oral arguments for the week of Oct. 2 in New Orleans. Each side will have a half hour to argue before a panel of three judges, officials said. The panel of judges will likely then take its decision under advisement, according to lawyers familiar with typical proceedings.

[…]

The county appealed the April 28 injunction issued by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal of the Southern District of Texas, in which she found that Harris County’s cash bail system discriminated against poor misdemeanor defendants.

“Cases get overturned,” said First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard of the oral argument. “We’ll be given another opportunity to point out to the fifth circuit where we disagree with Judge Rosenthal.”

[…]

Harris County has spent $4 million on outside counsel to defend the case, according to latest county estimates, with a high-powered D.C. lawyer firm now on retainer.

You know where I stand on this. I just wonder how much more fight the county will have if they lose at this level, or even if they just fail to get an injunction against the current order. Do they plan to take this to the Supreme Court if necessary? How much influence is the Attorney General’s office exerting on this? There are a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Harris County Attorney files amicus brief in SB4 lawsuit

Good.

Last week, Harris County Commissioners Court opted not to join a lawsuit challenging the state’s controversial “sanctuary cities” law as unconstitutional.

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, however, has filed a brief asking a federal court to halt its implementation on Sept. 1.

“S.B. 4 will do irreparable damage to this State’s child welfare process, place county attorneys charged with representing DFPS in an irreconcilable conflict, and do further trauma to children who have been placed in the State’s care. Further, there is no legitimate state purpose in treating children who have an unauthorized immigrant parent or other potential care giver differently in child welfare cases,” states Ryan’s brief, which was filed this month in federal court.

[…]

Special Assistant County Attorney Terry O’Rourke said that come Sept 1., with no injunction stopping SB4’s implementation, the county attorney’s office does not know how it will handle certain child welfare cases.

“That’s an ethical hell that we do not want to experience, and that’s why Vince Ryan has asked the federal court for guidance,” O’ Rourke said.

You can see the specific objections in the story. This is not as good as if Commissioners Court had voted to join the litigation, but it’s something. In the meantime, Cameron County and the city of Laredo have joined the plaintiffs, and there are a couple of bills to repeal SB4 that have been filed for the special session, though of course neither of them will get anywhere. It’s still important to make the stand, and in the better-late-than-never department, business interests are weighing in as well. It’s hard to overstate how much damage the Republicans in charge have done to Texas’ reputation this year, and there’s still more to come. Stace has more.