Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Ken Paxton

From the “Answering my own rhetorical question” department

Nobody could have seen this coming!

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

One other thing:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Anyone else detecting a pattern here?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

This is not how you secure elections

This is atrocious.

If she had known it was illegal, Crystal Mason said she would have never cast a vote in the 2016 presidential election.

The 43-year-old former tax preparer hadn’t even planned on voting until her mother encouraged her to do it. She had only recently been released from federal prison for a 2012 tax fraud conviction, in which she pleaded guilty to inflating returns for her clients, her attorney, J. Warren St. John, told The Washington Post.

She was still on community supervision at the time of the election — but no one, including her probation officer, St. John said, ever told her that being a felon on supervision meant she couldn’t vote under Texas law.

Now, she’s going back to prison for casting a ballot illegally — for five years.

Mason was indicted on a charge of illegal voting in Tarrant County, Tex., last year and found guilty by State District Judge Ruben Gonzalez on Thursday, despite her protestations that she simply was not aware that she was barred from casting a ballot and never would have done it had she known.

As she told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram at the time she was indicted: “You think I would jeopardize my freedom? You honestly think I would ever want to leave my babies again? That was the hardest thing in my life to deal with. Who would — as a mother, as a provider — leave their kids over voting?”

Both the Trib story and the Star-Telegram story contain tough-guy quotes from Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, beating their chests about fighting vote fraud. It’s ridiculous, but it’s also a travesty. How does putting this woman in jail for FIVE YEARS serve justice in any way? If we treated white-collar crime with this kind of ferocity, no one would ever get scammed again. For that matter, if we took election security this seriously, no one would ever worry about Russians or hackers again. We sure have some screwed-up priorities.

Hey, let’s file another lawsuit to kill Obamacare!

Sure, why not?

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Texas is suing the federal government over President Barack Obama’s landmark health law — again.

In a 20-state lawsuit filed Monday in federal court, Attorney General Ken Paxton argued that after the passage of the GOP’s tax plan last year — which also repealed a provision of the sweeping legislation known as “Obamacare” that required people to have health insurance — the health law is no longer constitutional.

“Texans have known all along that Obamacare is unlawful, and a divided Supreme Court’s approval rested solely on the flimsy support of Congress’ authority to tax. Congress has now kicked that flimsy support from beneath the law,” Paxton said in a statement Monday. “With no remaining legitimate basis for the law, it is time that Americans are finally free from the stranglehold of Obamacare, once and for all.”

Texas has sued the government more than 60 times since 2008, and those efforts haven’t ceased since the Obama administration gave way to that of President Donald Trump last year.

I couldn’t find any other stories about this, so I can’t tell you if any actual legal experts think there’s merit to this. But you know, if Super Legal Genius Ken Paxton thinks it’s a winner, then who am I to argue?

UPDATE: Ian Millhiser calls it “risible” and “‘Gotcha’ litigation”, but notes it was filed in the court of that judge who has issued national injunctions based on Ken Paxton’s flights of fancy before, so who knows.

Paxton and Paxton, Inc

How exactly is this not a conflict of interest?

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Finance reports start coming in

And once again, CD07 is the big story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, part 1:

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

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

[…]

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

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

Elsewhere, part 2:

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere, part 3:

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

[…]

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

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

Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

[…]

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

Dan Patrick wants SAPD Chief arrested

Bring it on.

Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Wednesday asked the state’s attorney general to determine if the chief of the San Antonio Police Department violated the state’s immigration-enforcement law during a human smuggling incident.

Late last month, San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said officers arrested the driver of a tractor-trailer after a passerby saw people being unloaded from the vehicle and flagged down a police unit, the San Antonio Express-News reported.

Officers charged Herbert Nichols, 58, under a state statute that makes knowingly transporting persons in the country illegally a crime, instead of turning the case over to federal agents with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The immigrants were interviewed and released to a Catholic charity.

During a subsequent news conference, McManus said it could have been a state or federal charge but that he chose to go with the state charge because officers were waiting to see how to move forward.

In a letter, Patrick asked Attorney General Ken Paxton to investigate whether the department violated any portion of the state’s Senate Bill 4, a controversial and sweeping immigration enforcement bill passed by the Texas Legislature last year.

“I am very troubled by the recent news reports of the San Antonio police chief releasing suspected illegal immigrants in a case of human trafficking or human smuggling without proper investigation, identification of witnesses, or cooperation with federal authorities,” Patrick wrote. “Such action could be in direct violation of the recently passed Senate Bill 4 and threatens the safety of citizens and law enforcement.”

It’s unclear exactly which provision of the SB 4 Patrick alleges McManus violated. As passed, SB 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation — in the form of jail time and fines.

Chief McManus, backed by San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, strongly disputes Patrick’s allegation. I kind of doubt Danno cares about the details. He’s looking to send a message. Keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

No Paxton trial till prosecutor pay case resolved

It’s not on the court calendar at this time.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s fraud trials have been put on hold as the lawyers pursuing the criminal charges against him fight for years of back pay.

Judge Robert Johnson has taken Paxton’s three criminal cases off his docket for now, the court confirmed to The Dallas Morning News on Friday. While court staff did not have a reason for the removal, the three attorneys prosecuting Paxton have repeatedly asked for the cases to be halted while they fight to have their pay resumed.

The delay will almost certainly push Paxton’s trials into general election season, when he will be seeking another term as the state’s top lawyer. In July, Paxton’s indictments will turn three years old.

[…]

“The (Paxton) case is kind of waiting to go to trial based on [the CCA’s] decision,” said Larry Meyers, a Democrat who lost his seat on the criminal court last year. “About six weeks would probably be a fairly responsible time for them to get an opinion out.”

The Court of Criminal Appeals won’t take up the prosecutors’ case until January 10, so a decision could be issued just before voters go to the polls in the March 6 primary elections. If the court sides with the prosecutors, jury selection in Houston will likely proceed without much further delay. If it doesn’t, the prosecutors have threatened to step down, a move which will temporarily derail the case against Paxton as the county looks for replacement lawyers.

See here for the background. If the CCA rules for the prosecutors, figure on the trial beginning in late spring or early summer. If not, figure on something like the third of never. Let’s hope for the best.

Chron profile of Justin Nelson

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

Justin Nelson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTUS to consider Texas redistricting case in January

Batten down the hatches.

The U.S. Supreme Court will meet Jan. 5 to consider whether to take up a case on how Texas draws its congressional and statehouse maps.

In a 5-4 decision split along ideological lines in September, the justices blocked two rulings by a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio. The panel had ordered lawmakers to redraw Texas’ congressional and statehouse maps, which the judges said discriminated against minorities in violation of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

The Supreme Court’s involvement is the latest twist in a six-year legal battle that could have a major impact on Texas’ political landscape, including the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

[…]

The plaintiffs wanted the districts redrawn in time for the 2018 midterm elections. But Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the decision to the Supreme Court and was granted a stay by Justice Samuel Alito, which torpedoed the plaintiffs’ efforts to expedite new maps.

Since then, both sides have started to prepare for the possibility of a showdown at the Supreme Court. The Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the lead plaintiffs in the statehouse suit, hired voting rights expert Pamela Karlan to present their case. Karlan is the co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School.

See here, here, and here for the background. You know the stakes, and how long this godforsaken case has taken to even approach some kind of resolution. There are several other big redistricting and gerrymandering cases coming to SCOTUS soon as well, so we could be in for a world of changes, or a world where basically nothing changes. As the man once said, hold onto your butts.

CCA to review Paxton prosecutors pay case

Good.

Best mugshot ever

The state’s highest criminal court agreed Wednesday to take a closer look at prosecutors’ long-running fight to get paid for their handling of the securities fraud case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The move by the state’s Court of Criminal Appeals could have a major impact on the separate case against Paxton. The prosecutors have suggested they will bail if they cannot get paid, likely imperiling the more than two-year case against the state’s top lawyer.

“We are gratified but not surprised by the Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision to formally hear this landmark proceeding, one that impacts trial judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys across Texas,” the prosecutors said in a statement Wednesday.

Prosecutors asked the Court of Criminal Appeals in September to reverse a ruling from a lower court that voided a six-figure invoice for work that goes back to January 2016. The prosecutors said the decision by the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals — spurred by a legal challenge to the invoice by Collin County commissioners — was a “clear abuse of discretion.”

Days after the prosecutors appealed to the Court of Criminal Appeals in September, it put the lower-court ruling on hold. But the court waited until Wednesday — nearly two months later — to announce its decision to review the ruling.

See here and here for the background. All of this jousting over paying for the prosecutors has pushed the trial back into 2018, with the next court date awaiting the disposal of this case. You know how I feel about this, so let’s hope for once that the CCA’s infamous pro-prosecutor tendencies will be a force for good for once. The Chron has more.

Early polling on the AG race

It looks sexy, but keep your salt handy.

Justin Nelson

The 2018 election for the job of the state’s top lawyer could be a tight race if voters go to the polls knowing about Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal indictment, according to a Democratic pollster.

GBA Strategies, a Democratic polling operation based in Washington D.C., surveyed 500 likely Texas voters and found Paxton, the Republican incumbent, enjoyed a 7 percentage point lead over Austin attorney Justin Nelson, a Democratic newcomer, the firm reported in a memo Wednesday released by the Nelson campaign.

Once voters were informed of Paxton’s 2015 felony indictment and attacks on Nelson, respondents shifted their support, giving Nelson a 1 point lead, according to the firm. The survey, which was conducted Oct. 9 through Oct. 12, has a 4.4 percentage point margin of error and 95 percent confidence interval.

[…]

The poll also found Texas voters split on whether they approve of President Trump, finding 49 percent approve and 49 percent disapprove.

You can see Nelson’s statement about the poll here and the polling memo here. The key passages:

• Paxton starts with a narrow lead against a largely unknown opponent. Paxton carries 46 percent of the electorate in the initial vote with Justin Nelson garnering 40 percent. After undecided are asked which way they lean, Paxton leads 50 – 43 percent. Given Texas’ Republican leaning and Nelson being unknown, this is a weak starting point for Paxton.

• Paxton’s corrupt behavior is very damaging and moves Justin Nelson into the lead. When voters are informed about Paxton’s indictment, 62 percent say it raises serious doubts about him. After voters hear positive statements about both candidates and learning about Paxton’s indictment, the race moves from a 7-point Paxton advantage to a 5-point Nelson lead (49 – 44 percent). The additional information dramatically shifts Independents to Nelson’s side, while he also makes inroads with Republicans. Even after voters hear attacks against Nelson, he maintains a 1-point lead.

This is an internal poll and there’s no detailed data available, so the skepticism level is high to begin with. A few specific things to note:

– The number of undecided voters in this sample is amazingly low. For a point of comparison, look at the UT/Trib poll from June of 2014. They surveyed all of the statewide races, as the primary runoffs had concluded in May. I quote: “In the race for attorney general, Republican Ken Paxton leads Democrat Sam Houston 40 percent to 27 percent, with 27 percent undecided.” That’s a lot more undecided voters, in a poll conducted six months later into the race. With all due respect to Justin Nelson, not nearly enough people know who he is to get to forty percent in any poll.

Now to be sure, people are way more engaged than they were at this point in the 2014 cycle, and given that Paxton has been a high-profile miscreant since even before he was officially nominated. It may just be that people are expressing a strong level of disapproval of Paxton, which translated into a higher than usual amount of support for a newbie candidate like Nelson. I can’t discount that possibility, but I’ll want to see similar numbers from other polls before I buy it.

– The 49/49 approval numbers for Donald Trump are noteworthy, and as I’ve said before the fact that we’re operating in an environment where Democrats have more intense opinions about the President than Republicans do should have a real effect on 2018. That said, these numbers are actually a little better for Trump than what we’ve seen before – he was at 45/49 in an October UT/Trib poll, and at 42-54 in an April Texas Lyceum poll. I don’t want to read too much into any of this – different polls, different methodologies – but that’s very much a factor to watch.

– Finally, note the “when voters were informed” bit in the polling memo. You know what it takes to inform voters? Money, to fund an effective communications strategy in a big state with more than two dozen media markets. Of course, Ken Paxton goes on trial for a felony charge next year, with more charges in reserve depending on how that trial goes, so there’s a chance that Nelson will get a big, free assist in communicating that information. Or Paxton could beat the rap and turn that liability into a big ol’ rallying cry.

Anyway. I do think Ken Paxton is vulnerable, and I’m glad to see Justin Nelson be aggressive right out of the gate. But I would like to see some other polls before I get too excited about this one.

The statewide lineups

Here’s the statewide lineup for Democrats. I’ll add in some notes afterwards.

U. S. Senator Beto O’Rourke
U. S. Senator Edward Kimbrough
U. S. Senator Sema Hernandez
Governor Adrian Ocegueda
Governor Andrew White
Governor Cedric Davis, Sr.
Governor Demetria Smith
Governor Grady Yarbrough
Governor James Jolly Clark
Governor Jeffrey Payne
Governor Joe Mumbach
Governor Lupe Valdez
Governor Tom Wakely
Lieutenant Governor Michael Cooper
Lieutenant Governor Mike Collier
Attorney General Justin Nelson
Comptroller of Public Accounts Joi Chevalier
Comptroller of Public Accounts Tim Mahoney
Commissioner of the General Land Office Miguel Suazo
Commissioner of the General Land Office Tex Morgan
Commissioner of Agriculture Kim Olson
Railroad Commissioner Chris Spellmon
Railroad Commissioner Roman McAllen
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 2 Steven Kirkland
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 4 R.K. Sandill
Justice, Supreme Court, Place 6 Kathy Cheng
Presiding Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Maria T. (Terri) Jackson
Judge, Court of Criminal Appeals Place 7 Ramona Franklin

Just a few tidbits about some of the later entrants into the races:

Sema Hernandez was on the SOS filing page for a day or two, then disappeared from it until deadline day. I have no idea what was up with that.

Edward Kimbrough is apparently from Houston. I can’t find anything online about him.

There were two late filers in the Governor’s race, because apparently eight was not enough. James Jolly Clark is from Austin and appears to have been involved in some interesting lawsuits. Demetria Smith is a perennial candidate from Houston.

Joi Chevalier is a culinary entrepreneur. At first glance at least, she appears to have an interesting profile. It would have been nice to have heard of her before now.

Tex Morgan is a programmer in San Antonio who serves as a VIA Metropolitan Transit trustee, and has an even more interesting profile.

Chris Spellmon was a candidate for HCDP Chair who ultimately endorsed Eartha Jean Johnson in that race.

Some of these races are perhaps a bit more interesting than I expected them to be. I’ll do a separate post looking at Congressional and legislative candidates later.

There weren’t any late entrants of interest for statewide races on the Republican side. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing is that Baby Bush got multiple challengers but no one opposed Ken Paxton. Given that there is a nonzero chance he could get convicted of a felony next year, that seems like a curious outcome. Hey, their problem, not mine.

The TDP touted its ginormous candidate tally late Monday. I’ll summarize as follows:

All 36 Congressional seats are contested, with 110 total candidates.
14 of 15 State Senate seats are contested, with 24 total candidates.
133 of 150 State House seats are contested, with 189 total candidates.

Someone with a much more in depth knowledge of Texas’ political history will have to say when the last time was that we had a similar set of Democratic primary races. I’ll try to do a similar let-me-Google-that-for-you overview of these folks in the coming days, as time allows.

Finally, one more news item of interest:

Former U.S. Congressman Nick Lampson just filed to run as a Democrat for Jefferson County judge, KFDM/Fox 4 has learned.

The deadline to file was 6 p.m. Lampson will not face an opponent in the primary, but is challenging Republican incumbent Jeff Branick in next November’s general election.

I’m a longtime fan of Nick Lampson’s, so I’m happy to see him stay involved. The incumbent switched from D to R this year, so it would be nice to send him packing. Stace and RG Ratcliffe have more.

Sports betting at SCOTUS

A case you might want to watch.

Internet gambling in the United States has been limited to just three states since it began in 2013, but it could soon get a big boost from an unlikely source: the U.S. Supreme Court.

Some gambling industry officials, regulators and analysts think that a favorable ruling by the high court in New Jersey’s challenge to legalize sports betting could also lead to an expansion of internet gambling.

“If we win sports wagering, online gaming will go to every state that adopts sports betting,” said David Rebuck, director of the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement, who predicts a favorable sports betting ruling could help internet gambling “explode” across the nation. “As soon as sports wagering is legalized, online gambling will follow right behind it.”

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in New Jersey’s case on Dec. 4; a ruling could be weeks or months away. The state is taking aim at a 1992 law that forbids state-authorized sports gambling in all but four states that met a 1991 deadline to legalize it: Delaware, Montana, Nevada and Oregon. Nevada is the only state to allow single-game wagering.

The sports leagues oppose the lawsuit, arguing that legalized sports betting could taint the public’s perception of the integrity of their games.

[…]

Experts think that the sports betting legislative push would likely help expand internet gambling. David Schwartz, who runs the Center for Gaming Research at the University of Las Vegas-Nevada, says that offering online casino games and sports betting would go hand-in-hand online.

“It makes a lot of sense to offer sports betting over the internet,” he said. “Once you have the systems for letting people bet on sports in place, it isn’t a huge step to permit them to bet on casino games or poker as well.”

The law in question is the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA). Texas doesn’t have a direct stake in this, just the same potential to allow online sports gambling if it wanted to if the plaintiffs succeed, but it does have a position, in favor of overturning PASPA.

Texas joined an amicus brief siding with New Jersey in favor of overturning the federal law, arguing that sports betting should be up to the states and not the federal government.

Attorney General Ken Paxton signed on to the brief, not to legalize sports betting, but to keep the federal government out of state decisions.

“PASPA is unconstitutional and tramples on state sovereignty,” Paxton told the American Sports Betting Coalition. “By ending PASPA, states can rightfully decide whether they want regulated sports betting or not.”

That means Paxton is on the opposite side of the debate from the White House. The U.S. solicitor general’s office has sided with the sports leagues and will join them for the court’s oral arguments Dec. 4.

But Paxton hasn’t shown any signs of wanting sports betting to be legal in the Lone Star State. In fact, the attorney general has been at odds with daily fantasy sports sites for years.

In 2016, Paxton issued an opinion that deemed paid fantasy sports sites to be illegal gambling.

If SCOTUS sides with the state of New Jersey and throws out PASPA, it would not change the debate about expanded gambling in Texas, but it would raise the stakes as there would be more things we could expand it to include. I could imagine there being more pressure on the Lege to take it up, but that doesn’t mean it would be any more successful than previous efforts. Like I said, worth keeping an eye on.

Abortion procedure ban struck down

Good news, for now.

A federal district judge handed a victory to abortion rights groups Wednesday when he struck down part of a Texas law curbing access to the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, called dilation and evacuation.

In a decision that will be appealed before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, Judge Lee Yeakel said the provision imposes an “undue burden” on women seeking second-trimester abortions in the state.

It had been slated to go into effect Sept. 1 as part of Senate Bill 8, a law signed by Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year. But the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood filed suit in July on behalf of several women’s health providers in the state. Yeakel issued a temporary restraining order on enforcing the measure in August, a day before the ban’s effective date.

The temporary restraining order was set to expire Wednesday evening.

[…]

“The court concludes that requiring a woman to undergo an unwanted, risky, invasive, and experimental procedure in exchange for exercising her right to choose an abortion, substantially burdens that right,” Yeakel wrote in the opinion.

He added: “The State’s valid interest in promoting respect for the life of the unborn, although legitimate, is not sufficient to justify such a substantial obstacle to the constitutionally protected right of a woman to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability.”

Almost immediately after the ruling was issued, Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a statement saying he’d appealed.

See here for the last update, and here for a copy of the ruling. The Fifth Circuit is a crapshoot with loaded dice, but at least for now doctors and women can do health care without the state butting in. The Austin Chronicle and the Center for Reproductive Rights have more.

Second trimester abortion lawsuit hearings conclude

Now we wait.

In a five-day trial that concluded Wednesday, lawyers for the state defended part of a Texas law that bans the most common second-trimester abortion procedure unless the fetus is deceased.

Abortion rights groups sued the state in July, arguing the provision restricting the dilation and evacuation procedure imposes an undue burden on Texas women seeking second-trimester abortions. Medical professionals deem the procedure the safest way to terminate a second-trimester pregnancy.

But the state argued in court the method is inhumane and that it’s reasonable to require fetal demise before the procedure is performed.

“The state has legitimate interest … in protecting the health of a woman and life of a fetus that may become a child,” said Darren McCarty, a lawyer for the state, in closing arguments. The provision at issue, he said, “regulates the moment of death, the moment of fetal termination, and nothing more. Whether … the lethal act is going to be, for instance, grabbing the leg and pulling it off the fetus, or whether instead the lethal act is going to be a single injection or perhaps just a snip of the umbilical cord.”

The trial centered on part of Senate Bill 8, a state law passed earlier this year that bans dilation and evacuation abortions unless the fetus is deceased. The ban had an effective date of Sept. 1. But Federal District Judge Lee Yeakel blocked its implementation with a temporary restraining order in August – a month after a lawsuit was filed by the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood on behalf of several women’s health providers in the state. Whole Woman’s Health is the lead plaintiff.

During the dilation and evacuation procedure, doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue — a process proponents of the law have called “dismemberment abortion.” Doctors would face criminal charges for violating the ban; the only exception would be in cases of medical emergency.

Yeakel did not say when a ruling would come, but a temporary restraining order on enforcing the ban expires Nov. 22. The decision is likely to be appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, an outcome Yeakel alluded to several times during trial.

See here for the background. We know the drill here, we’ve been down this road too many times already. All I can say is look what happened in this Tuesday’s elections, and think about what could happen here. The Center for Reproductive Rights has more.

SB4 at the Fifth Circuit

Hoping for the best as always, but the Fifth Circuit has a way of stomping on that.

Tuesday’s hearing was on whether U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia’s August decision to block several of the law’s provisions should stand while the case meanders through the court system.

[…]

In late August, Garcia halted several parts of the law, including the provision that requires jail officials to honor all detainers. He also blocked sections that prohibit local entities from pursuing or endorsing “a pattern or practice that ‘materially limits’ the enforcement of immigration laws” and another that prohibits “assisting or cooperating” with federal immigration officers as reasonable or necessary.

But a separate panel in New Orleans ruled the detainer provision could stand until an ultimate determination is made. The panel also determined that law enforcement officers, including campus police, with “authority that may impact immigration” cannot be prevented from assisting federal immigration officers. That ruling is what’s on the books until a decision on Tuesday’s arguments is reached.

Judge Edith Jones, who was appointed to the post by President Ronald Reagan, asked Texas Solicitor General Scott Keller Tuesday about the “endorsement” provision and whether that section of the law was too far-reaching.

“An elected official, like a sheriff or a county judge, certainly have more latitude to speak [against state policies], don’t they?” she asked.

But Keller said the state has modified several times what the definition of “endorse” means and that it applies to actions officials take in a “governmental capacity” to prevent enforcement of immigration laws.

“It has to be a use of government power to sanction or ratify a policy,” he said. “Let’s say an official were to say they disagreed that with the policies underlying SB 4. That would not be sanctioning or ratifying a [government policy].”

Keller also pushed back against the claim that the language of the law was too vague and didn’t provide enough guidance to law enforcement officials. He said the plaintiffs’ own admissions that current practices would be upended should SB 4 go into effect proved they know what the law does and doesn’t do.

“Here plaintiffs have conceded that various policies that they have would in fact be prohibited by SB 4,” he said. “That concession alone means a facial vagueness claim cannot stand.”

But Lee Gelernt, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union representing the city of El Cenizo, a small municipality in Webb County, said the state of Texas keeps changing it’s definition of what constitutes “materially limiting” cooperation, which implies the state knows the language is flawed.

“One of the critical aspects is that Texas has never been able to settle on an interpretation of the law,” he said. “Every time Texas comes to court, they say it’s obvious what it means for a sheriff to materially limit immigration enforcement. But on the other hand, every time we get to a new court, they change their interpretation, so it’s not clear.”

The panel also raised the issue of whether SB 4 was unconstitutional because immigration enforcement is largely under the purview of the federal government. Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which represents several of the plaintiffs, said there is federal guidance on what local law enforcement can do but that SB 4 exceeds that.

See here for the background. The panel is all Republican appointees, with Edith Jones being the worst of the lot, so I can’t say I feel terribly optimistic. But the plaintiffs’ attorneys are as good as they come, and there are previous rulings, including from SCOTUS, to lean on. We’ll know when the Fifth Circuit is damn good and ready to tell us. The Chron has more.

Justin Nelson to run against Paxton

About time we got an official candidate for this race.

Justin Nelson

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is getting his first Democratic opponent for re-election.

Attorney Justin Nelson is entering the race to be the state’s top lawyer with just over a month until the candidate filing deadline for the 2018 primaries.

“Justice is for all. Nobody is above the law,” Nelson said in a news release. “Texans can do better than our indicted Attorney General who is charged with criminal fraud.”

Paxton, who is seeking a second term, has been under indictment for most of his current term, fighting securities fraud charges stemming from allegations before his time as attorney general. Those legal troubles have made him a top target for Democrats in 2018, despite the void of challengers until now.

Nelson, 42, is a partner specializing in major civil litigation at the Houston law firm Susman Godfrey LLP and has been named a Texas Super Lawyer by Thomson Reuters. A graduate of Yale University and Columbia Law School, he clerked for former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and for Harvie Wilkinson, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit.

Nelson lives in Austin, where he is an adjunct professor at the University of Texas School of Law.

Nelson is not entirely new to politics. He is the founder and former president of One Nation One Vote, a group that is pushing to elect the president by popular vote. The issue has been a hot topic in the wake of the 2016 election, when Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the Electoral College but lost to her in the popular vote.

I’ve been waiting for someone to announce a candidacy. You might win the lottery and get to run against a convicted felon. I knew someone would eventually run – I’d heard about a possible candidate who in retrospect probably was Justin Nelson several months ago – it was just a matter of time. Nelson may yet have company in the primary from outgoing Travis County Democratic Party Chair Vincent Harding, and there had been another potential candidate, Lubbock attorney John Gibson, who has decided to endorse Nelson instead. Nelson’s campaign webpage is here – I don’t see a link for a Facebook page yet – though it’s pretty bare bones right now. If nothing else, the broad themes of his campaign are already pretty clear. The Chron has more.

Second trimester abortion lawsuit hearings begin

Deja vu all over again.

Texas abortion providers argued in court Thursday that it is not medically necessary to require women to undergo injections or other procedures in order to comply with a new state law restricting the most common second-trimester abortion procedure.

[…]

Dr. Mark Nichols, an Oregon-based doctor, called the dilation and evacuation procedure the safest method to perform a second-trimester abortion. Nichols argued the three most common procedures used to kill the fetus before performing the abortion are often complicated to perform, require extra training and are not always effective. He also believes they are not medically necessary.

“There is a real failure rate in the procedures we described,” he said.

If a similar law to SB8 existed in Oregon, Nichols said he would hesitate to perform the dilation and evacuation procedure out of fear that the fetus may still be alive, and he would then violate the law.

Under SB8, doctors would face criminal charges for violating the ban, except in a case of a medical emergency. The law was set to go into effect Sept. 1, but Yeakel blocked its implementation with a temporary restraining order which remains in effect.

Nichols said doctors may end up having to experiment on patients “to figure out how not to violate the law.”

According to 2015 data, the latest available, the procedure was used 4,386 times to terminate a pregnancy. In total, 55,287 abortions were performed that year, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for Friday coverage. The Trib had a story from before the hearings began, if you want more background. We all know that this is a multi-year process that will end up before the Supreme Court, and along the way the Fifth Circuit will rubber stamp the state’s law under whatever pretext it feels like using. It’s like the NBA regular season, where the real action is in positioning oneself for the final showdown. All I can say is that I’ve had a few medical procedures in my time, including a few surgeries, and I’m damn glad the state of Texas hasn’t tried to intervene in the treatment. I don’t want them to make medical decisions for my doctors, and I don’t want them making medical decisions for other people’s doctors. Not sure why this is so hard to understand.

TCDLA pulls Paxton prosecutors brief

Get your act together, y’all.

Best mugshot ever

A leading organization of criminal defense lawyers on Tuesday withdrew its legal brief in support of prosecutors who are fighting to get paid for work on the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

The friend-of-the-court brief, which argued that the payment fight could endanger the system for ensuring that indigent defendants are properly represented at trial, was withdrawn because it did not follow proper procedures by the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, the organization said.

David Moore, president of the association, said the brief to the Court of Criminal Appeals was pulled because it had not been approved by the group’s executive committee, which unanimously voted Monday to withdraw the document.

That committee will now examine the issue to determine if the brief should be approved or if the matter should be decided by the full board of directors, said Moore, a lawyer in Longview.

“I fear,” said Brian Wice, one of the prosecutors, “there may be other issues in play driving its decision to withdraw its brief other than a purported ‘failure to follow proper procedures and policies.’”

“The larger question is why Mr. Paxton’s defense team does not want the Court of Criminal Appeals to consider” the brief, Wice said, adding that it raised compelling points about the payment fight’s impact on public policy and proper legal representation for indigent defendants.

Dan Cogdell, one of Paxton’s defense lawyers, said he expected further action to be taken against “the parties responsible for its filing.”

“I will not have any further comment on the matter now except to express my grave disappointment in the impropriety of the filing of such a pleading in a case of this magnitude and am gratified that the proper steps to correct the situation have begun,” Cogdell said.

Austin lawyer David Schulman, one of the brief’s authors, said he and others involved believed they had followed the organization’s bylaws, but he declined to discuss specifics.

“This wasn’t any kind of guerrilla action. We thought we were authorized, but we were wrong,” he said.

See here for the background. It’s clear that the arguments made in the TCDLA brief would be good for the defense bar as a whole, but not good for Team Paxton, as they would greatly benefit from having the courts screw the special prosecutors in their case. As Mr. Spock famously said, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many. I hope there are enough people with a larger view of things at the TCDLA who can override these objections.

In support of the Paxton prosecutors

Good to see.

Best mugshot ever

In an unusual step, six prosecutors and Texas’ criminal defense attorneys association have joined a continuing legal storm over how much the special prosecutors overseeing the criminal case against Attorney General Ken Paxton should get paid.

Preventing the three special prosecutors in Paxton’s case from getting paid would thwart justice, according to Bexar County District Attorney Nicholas “Nico” LaHood, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore, Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., Travis County Attorney David Escamilla, former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Enrico Valdez, a Bexar County assistant district attorney. The group intervened late Friday with the state Court of Criminal Appeals.

[…]

In a separate filing with the appeals court, the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association argues much the same thing, saying that courts have previously ruled that proper compensation for appointed prosecutors is necessary and that the Collin County Commissioner’s Court should honor the payments to the three special prosecutors in the Paxton case.

“We’re gratified that prosecutors and defense attorneys with almost 200 years of collective experience agree how very important this case is, and that we’re entitled to the relief we seek in the Court of Criminal Appeals,” Houston attorney Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors in the case, said in a statement Sunday.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the prosecutors’ brief is here, and the TCDLA brief is here. Friday was the deadline for all to submit documents in support of or opposition to the Fifth Court’s ruling. The Statesman adds details.

The Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, in a brief filed recently with the Court of Criminal Appeals, argued that unless the ruling is reversed, it will place strict limits on legal fees, “effectively preventing the judiciary from being able to appoint qualified lawyers in difficult cases.”

“All of the gains made and all of the advances and improvements accomplished in indigent defense in Texas over the last 20 years will fall to the wayside,” the association argued. “Texas will return to the days of sleeping lawyers and otherwise unemployed insurance lawyers taking court appointments in criminal cases.”

A second brief by six current or former prosecutors — including Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore and County Attorney David Escamilla — also urged the appeals court ruling to be overturned, arguing that it undermines the pursuit of justice in cases, like Paxton’s, where outside prosecutors are appointed after a local district attorney steps aside for a conflict of interest or similar reason.

Judges must have the discretion to set higher fees for unusual or difficult cases, they told the court.

“After all, it is often the unusual cases that require the most skilled and qualified attorneys, and these are the very attorneys who are most likely to decline the representation without adequate compensation,” said the prosecutors, who included former State Prosecuting Attorney Lisa McMinn and Fort Bend County District Attorney John Healey Jr., a Republican.

[…]

“Without the ability to pay a reasonable market rate in these rare circumstances, courts are effectively without power to fulfill their constitutional obligation,” the defense lawyers group told the Court of Criminal Appeals.

According to the brief from the Travis County prosecutors and others, the lower-court ruling also undermines the ability of court-appointed prosecutors to do a complicated and taxing job that often includes seeking warrants, handling grand juries, responding to defense motions, interviewing witnesses, reviewing evidence and preparing for trial.

In addition to discouraging qualified lawyers from serving as prosecutors, the prosecutors’ brief complained that the ruling allows politics to invade criminal justice decisions — such as in Collin County, where commissioners have voiced support for Paxton while seeking to limit payments to those prosecuting him.

“It creates a situation where the local county commissioners can effectively stop a criminal prosecution,” the brief said.

I’ve been saying a lot of these things myself, so I’m glad someone with actual legal credentials is making those arguments formally. Galveston Count and the County Judges and Commissioners Association of Texas filed briefs in support of Collin County, since all they really care about is the financial impact. I’ll say again, the state could solve this very easily by picking up the tab in these cases. It’s a small amount of money in that context, and it would avoid all these problems. Someone needs to file a bill to this effect in 2019.

Paxton officially appeals redistricting ruling to SCOTUS, part 2

The state House version.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse a lower court ruling that ordered nine of Texas’ statehouse districts redrawn after being found discriminatory.

In August, a three-judge panel in a federal district court in San Antonio ruled that parts of Texas’ statehouse maps were discriminatory and ordered nine districts in four counties, including Dallas and Tarrant, redrawn. Paxton appealed that decision to the Supreme Court and had the lower court’s ruling blocked in September.

Now, Paxton is asking the Supreme Court to reverse the lower court’s ruling and settle the six-year legal battle.

[…]

Paxton’s move follows a similar request on Texas’ congressional maps earlier this month. In August, the three-judge panel in San Antonio invalidated two congressional districts, Lloyd Doggett’s in Central Texas and Blake Farenthold’s in Corpus Christi, and ordered them redrawn. But after an appeal from Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked the lower court’s ruling. Paxton has also requested that order be reversed.

See here for the background. Not much more to this – we knew it was coming, and here it is. Some day we’ll get a resolution.

Poker clubs

I wish them luck.

Michael Eakman, a poker aficionado from a very young age, has hosted poker tournaments from around the country, but Texas gambling laws have long shut him out of his own state and his hometown of Houston.

This year, however, he opened the city’s first restricted membership-based poker club, joining several Texas entrepreneurs who believe they have found a way to circumvent those regulations and host everything from friendly poker games to competitive tournaments.

Unlike traditional gambling houses, Mint Poker in southeast Houston does not take a share of any gambled money, referred to as raking the pot. Instead, the club and similar ones across the state charge membership fees for players wanting to play in the club, a business approach that pushes the boundaries of legal gambling.

But so far, Eakman and other entrepreneurs in Austin and north Dallas haven’t drawn any unwanted attention from the Legislature or state regulatory agencies. Their efforts are gaining enough traction that they’re looking to expand. They have formed an association to represent their interest and are hoping to establish more clubs across Texas.

“In our conversations with the city attorney here in our jurisdiction, we made everyone aware of what we were doing before we even signed the lease,” Eakman said. “I certainly don’t want to challenge anyone to bring a court case, but I think at the end of the day we’re handling this by being proactive instead of reactive is the way to do this. … There are no regulations and guidelines other than the narrow scope of a very vague law.” Bingo, horse and dog racetracks, Native American casinos and even the state-run Texas Lottery all provide outlets for Texans trying to test their luck.

[…]

At least three other membership-based poker clubs have opened in addition to the Houston business: Texas Card House with two locations in Austin, and Poker Rooms of Texas in north Dallas. They recently joined forces as the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs, and have begun working with longtime utilities lobbyist Tim VonKennel to represent them within the Texas Legislature, Eakman said.

VonKennel is the father of Texas Card House owner Sam VonKennel, and said he helped organize the Texas Association of Social Card Clubs to increase legislators’ awareness of membership-based poker clubs in Texas.

“The Legislature hasn’t really seen it yet because it hasn’t really existed,” VonKennel said. “As they pop up, I want to make sure the Lege is aware of them. What I would really like to do is get these guys to become licensed with the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, and that way they’re absolutely certain they’re on the right side of the law.”

Sen. Jose Menendez, a Democrat from San Antonio, said he was involved with the creation of membership-based poker in Texas, encouraging Eakman to devise a business model that could clear the hurdles of Texas gambling laws when they met at a poker tournament.

“I think it’s a little hypocritical that we can have a state lottery or horse racing in texas but we can’t let people play poker,” Menendez said.

Basically, as far as I can tell, these things are legal until proven otherwise, which is to say until some law enforcement agency makes an arrest, or until Ken Paxton issues an opinion. The story above appeared a few weeks ago and fell into my drafted-but-never-got-around-to-publishing pile, then I saw this AP story and dug it back up. As noted, while the state has not given an opinion on this sort of thing, local law enforcement has, at least in some places.

On Sept. 7, Dallas police executed a search warrant at CJ’s Card Club on Walnut Hill Lane. Police filed a report alleging the keeping of a gambling place. The case remains under investigation. A department spokeswoman declined to release any further information.

The club has since closed, its website and Facebook page have been shut down, and its operators could not be reached.

Around that same time, Poker Rooms of Texas closed after Plano police questioned the legality of that operation. The club opened late last year in a strip center storefront on Parker Road off Independence Parkway. It reportedly attracted scores of players each night.

Its website states that it “is working with local authorities to resolve operational issues.” Its owners did not return messages.

The website for Lucky’s Card Room in Fort Worth says the club is temporarily closed while it works on a new location. And the site for TopSet Poker Club in Plano stated that its grand opening, formerly set for September, has been delayed while it considers options in light of problems identified at similar businesses.

Big Texas Poker Club opened in late August in a commercial building off Jupiter Road in Plano. Owners Fred and Heather Zimmerman said they did their homework to ensure that they would be legal. Three weeks later, they shut down to avoid arrest.

“This is a legitimate business, and it’s better than illegal poker rooms,” Fred Zimmerman said.

The couple said they were transparent about their club as they sought a city permit to open. Only after they started gaining members did they receive “threatening letters” from police stating that their business model violated the state’s gambling law.

Plano City Attorney Paige Mims said certificates of occupancy are about the fitness of a building and have nothing to do with the activity inside. As for whether a private card room can operate, she said the city does not give legal advice.

Police spokesman David Tilley declined to go into details about his department’s conversations with the poker rooms. “Gambling is illegal in the state of Texas,” he said.

In other words, if you have a favorite spot to play Texas Hold’Em, don’t get too attached to it. I should note that there was an effort in the 2009 legislative session to carve out a legal exception for poker, but it didn’t make it. If there’s been a similar effort since then, I’m not aware of it; that one had a social media/PR push behind it and there’s been no such thing in subsequent sessions. The legislator who filed the pro-poker bill back then was then-Rep., now-Sen. Jose Menendez, who as you can see still supports the idea. Like I said, I wish these guys luck. I’m not a poker player myself, but I see no reason not to let ’em play.

No bribery charges against Paxton

I didn’t expect this to amount to anything, and indeed it hasn’t.

Best mugshot ever

A $100,000 donation to Attorney General Ken Paxton’s legal fund did not constitute bribery, Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Wiley said Friday in announcing her office had closed its investigation into the gift, which came from a CEO whose company was under investigation for fraud.

Wiley’s office originally opened its probe on Oct. 5 after Paxton accepted donations from James Webb, whose diagnostics company was investigated after it allegedly billed the government for Medicaid and Medicare services conducted without proper medical supervision. Webb’s company ultimately paid $3.5 million in a settlement.

[…]

Wiley said in a news release Friday that as Webb and Paxton had previously had a “personal relationship” and “attorney/client relationship,” the donation did not constitute bribery.

See here and here for the background. Like I said, my expectations here were low. Jesus loves me, but he doesn’t love me that much, you know? We’re gonna have to get rid of this guy ourselves.

Ken Paxton is officially running for re-election

In case you missed it.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will seek re-election as he fights three criminal indictments that are expected to go to trial next year.

Paxton, who was expected to run again despite his legal woes, made it official in an email to his supporters Wednesday.

“Without a doubt, it’s been my greatest honor to serve the people of Texas as your Attorney General,” wrote Paxton, a Republican. “Much has been accomplished since I took office three years ago, but there’s much more to be done.”

[…]

About six months into the job as the state’s top lawyer, Paxton was indicted on three counts of violating state securities laws. He’s accused of duping two men, including outgoing Corsicana Republican Rep. Byron Cook, into investing in a failing North Texas technology company and of failing to register with the state while acting as an investment adviser representative.

The more serious of the charges, the two first-degree felonies, carry a maximum sentence of 99 years in prison and tens of thousands in fines.

Paxton denies all the allegations, which he says are politically motivated, and has twice defeated similar charges lobbed against him by the federal governmentHe is scheduled to go on trial for the lesser of the three charges sometime next year.

The Republican primary election will take place in March. Paxton has not drawn a challenger.

Paxton is also being investigated for accepting a $100,000 gift from a man who settled a multi-million dollar Medicaid fraud case with the state. That bribery probe is expected to wrap up soon.

See here and here for more on the bribery investigation, which may turn out to be nothing, or may turn into a raging inferno that consumes him. No one has announced a candidacy on the Democratic side yet, though I know some people have been sniffing around this, and I fully expect someone will step forward. And who knows? Independent of any considerations about the prevailing political atmosphere in 2018, whoever that is may just get lucky.

More on the Paxton bribery investigation

It’s good to have rich friends.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton says the man who shelled out the most money to help him combat securities fraud charges is a “family friend,” but a review of campaign finance records show his main financier is also a major Republican donor for candidates up and down the ticket.

In a little more than a decade, Preferred Imaging CEO James Webb has given nearly $1 million to Republican candidates, including a $100,000 gift to Paxton to help fund his legal defense fund. The year after he gave his gift, the attorney general’s office agreed to a $3.5 million settlement after investigating his company for Medicare fraud.

Now Webb and his gift are at the center of the latest investigation into Paxton’s personal dealings, sparking a probe by the Kaufman County district attorney, confirmed an investigator at the agency.

Mike Holley, who is handling the case, said the DA will announce in the coming weeks whether the office will bring charges that Paxton violated the state’s bribery and corrupt influence laws by taking money from someone whose company was under investigation.

[…]

Webb, of Frisco, is a former law client of Paxton’s, according to Welch. Paxton participated at Webb’s wedding, he added, but declined to provide further details or pictures.

Webb has been a regular campaign contributor of Paxton’s for years. He gave him his first political donation in 2013 when the Republican from McKinney was running for attorney general, according to campaign finance records. He has contributed heavily to other Republican candidates’ political campaigns since then.

In total, he has given $896,800 to Republican candidates’ political coffers since 2006, according to a review of campaign finance records. Webb ponied up the most – $496,000 – for the 2014 election when voters swept Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Paxton into office.

The wealthy CEO has helped fuel all their campaigns, but gave the most to Paxton. Webb contributed $300,000 when Paxton was running for attorney general although he also give tens of thousands of dollars to Dallas area state representatives and hopefuls that election cycle.

[…]

The investigation is focused on whether Paxton violated the state’s bribery and corrupt influence penal code, said Holley, an investigator in the Kaufman County district attorney’s office handling the case. However, the investigation could turn up wrongdoing by other actors, he said.

Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Norville Wiley is expected to announce this fall whether the investigation has warranted new charges, she said.

See here for the background. Again, I don’t really expect anything to come out of the Kaufman County investigation, but if something does, that would be amazing. For one thing, it might be difficult to fit this story into the “Paxton haters are out to get me!” narrative he’s been spinning, but I’m sure his attorneys are up to the task. Of course, those attorneys will still have to be paid, and he’ll have one fewer sugar daddies to tap for that. Life is hard, you know? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Keep some popcorn handy as we wait to see how this plays out.

How about those price gouging complaints?

You can’t rush these things.

Best mugshot ever

Within weeks of Hurricane Harvey making landfall, Texans lodged more than 3,000 complaints against hundreds of gas stations, hotels and grocery stores, accusing them of selling such essentials as gasoline or water at exorbitant prices.

Despite promises from Attorney General Ken Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott to hold price gougers accountable, few of those complaints have resulted in prosecution, or even an initial investigation, records obtained by the Houston Chronicle show.

When a state of disaster is declared, Texas law prohibits businesses from charging highly inflated prices for necessities. The law is designed to protect consumers who may need to stock up on food, gas or water, or those who need a hotel room to escape a natural disaster.

Several consumers contacted by the Houston Chronicle said they filed complaints because they believed the state would go after the businesses aggressively. State officials say they are taking the accusations seriously, but it takes time to determine whether the complaints are legitimate.

“We are not going to frivolously or unadvisedly enter into any legal action with any company or any entity in any case, even in the instance of price gouging,” said Marc Rylander, a spokesman for the attorney general’s office. He said more legal actions, such as lawsuits, could be filed in coming days.

Paxton’s office received more than 3,340 price gouging complaints against more than 1,000 companies from Aug. 25 to Sept. 8, records show. About 790, or 24 percent, of those came from the Houston area.

At the end of September, Paxton’s office had launched investigations into 82 companies and filed three lawsuits.

Paxton’s office said there now are more than 5,000 complaints logged in its system. The increase comes from consumers reporting excessive pricing for repairs or rebuilding of flood-damaged homes.

Rick McElvaney, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center, said there often are not enough lawyers in the attorney general’s office to cull through all the complaints. It also can take many weeks before a lawsuit is filed.

“The attorney general filing three lawsuits within the first two weeks was pretty quick,” McElvaney said. “But I am in a wait-and-see approach to see how many more they will do.”

So it’s a little early to say whether this is A Thing or not. Fair enough. It would be nice to know how things proceeded after Ike and Rita, or how long these things normally take in other states, so we might have a better idea when to check back. I don’t want to cry wolf so I’ll be patient for now, but not for long. Paxton, like Abbott before him, has no trouble being first in line to file a lawsuit against the feds when it suits his purposes, so he deserves no benefit of the doubt on this, a core function of his office. If he doesn’t show some results in a timely fashion, we need to hammer him for it.

Paxton wants voter ID lawsuit to be over

I can think of one way he can make that happen. That’s not what he’s asking for, alas.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The fight over the state’s embattled voter ID laws should be over, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued in a new court document filed late Tuesday.

Paxton, as expected, filed a brief with the U.S. Court of Appeals calling for the judges to end a challenge to the state’s new voter ID law for good. In his 101-page document, the Republican argued that because the state has already added new exceptions to the law to allow people who have a reasonable-impediment to getting an ID to still vote, the case should be officially concluded.

“This case should be over,” Paxton’s brief states.

[…]

[Judge Nelva] Gonzales Ramos ruled that forcing people to sign an affidavit under penalties of perjury could have a chilling effect on a voter. The supposed fix to the voter ID law, she ruled, merely traded one obstacle for another.

While the court battle continues, the courts have already ruled that in November the state’s voter ID requirements can be in effect, but still allow people to vote who can show the reasonable impediment – essentially the same as the revamped voter ID law, which does not go into effect until 2018.

See here, here, and here for the background. Paxton’s press release, with a link to the brief, is here. This is basically the crux of the case here: sure (the state argues), the original law may have had a few teensy problems, but we totally cleaned that up this session, so there’s no need for further action. There’s especially no need to ponder if the Lege had any discriminatory intent when it passed that first bill. All I can say at this point is it won’t be quick before we get a final answer.

Paxton officially appeals redistricting ruling to SCOTUS

Here we go.

Attorney General Ken Paxton asked the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday to take up an appeal of a lower court ruling that invalidated two of Texas’ congressional districts.

“It’s fitting that the Supreme Court hear this case, given that it ordered the district court in San Antonio to draw the congressional maps in 2012 that were adopted by the Legislature in 2013 and used in the last three election cycles in Texas,” Paxton said in a news release. “The lower court’s decision to invalidate parts of the maps it drew and adopted is inexplicable and indefensible. We’re eager for the high court to take up the case.”

[…]

Immediately after the lower court’s August decision, Paxton appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in September sided with Texas and blocked the lower court’s ruling until it could fully consider the case. That ruling allowed the state to keep intact its electoral maps through the 2018 elections, a major defeat for the plaintiffs, who had hoped for a more advantageous political landscape during the midterm elections.

Now Paxton is asking the court to settle the issue once and for all. The lower court ruling also invalidated nine statehouse districts. Paxton said he will ask the Supreme Court to take up that question, too.

See here, here, and here for some background. This was where things were always headed, so now it’s just a matter of time. Not in time for 2018, of course, but it’s something, I suppose. Well, not for everyone.

Juanita Wallace was among many voters of color who sued the state over its redistricting plans in 2011, accusing lawmakers of redrawing its political boundaries in a way that diluted the power of black and Latino Texans.

Six years later, several elections have played out using embattled state House and congressional maps, even though federal judges so far ruled that Texas leaders intentionally discriminated in approving the boundaries. And the maps will probably stay in place for the 2018 elections as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs the state’s latest appeal.

Wallace — a longtime educator, civil rights advocate and former head of the Dallas NAACP — won’t be around to see the result. She died of cancer last year at age 70.

“To me, it gets to this question of how do you fight back against this,” said Allison Riggs, who represented Wallace as the senior voting rights attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. “You want to give this complicated legal analysis a human side, but you’re literally dragging the litigation so long that people are passing away. It’s nuts.”

You know what they say about justice delayed. See the brief filed by the state for more.

Paxton being investigated for bribery

Sounds sexy, but don’t get too excited just yet.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton is being investigated under bribery and corrupt-influence laws for accepting a six-figure gift from a CEO whose company was under investigation by the state for fraud, the district attorney leading the probe confirmed Thursday.

In July 2016, Austin-based medical device company Preferred Imaging LLC agreed to pay a $3.5 million settlement after a multiyear Medicaid and Medicare fraud investigation. The year before, Preferred Imaging CEO James Webb had given $100,000 to help Paxton fight criminal fraud charges the attorney general has been battling since July 2015.

On Thursday, Kaufman County District Attorney Erleigh Wiley confirmed to The Dallas Morning News that she has been investigating whether Paxton broke state laws that put limits on gifts public servants can receive from people “subject to [their] jurisdiction.”

“There is an active investigation looking into that matter,” Wiley told The News. “We are carefully and thoroughly going through every piece of evidence.”

The complaint that led to the investigation was originally made to the Texas Rangers by the attorney of the same whistleblower that launched the probe into Preferred Imaging. Instead of appointing a special prosecutor to investigate, Wiley took it over at the behest of the regional administrative judge.

Wiley, a Republican, added she was close to deciding whether to send the case to a grand jury and said she’s received “great cooperation” from both the Texas Rangers and Paxton’s legal team.

[…]

To help pay for his lawyers, Paxton set up a legal defense fund in 2015. In its first year, he raised $330,000 from friends, family and business associates.

He listed the amounts under the “gifts” section of his annual financial disclosures, and last year, added this note to the end of the form: “All gifts for legal defense were conferred and accepted on account of a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of General Paxton’s official status.”

Webb’s 2015 donation was the largest single gift to Paxton’s legal defense fund. He did not contribute last year.

Texas’ bribery laws prohibit elected officials from taking “any benefit from a person the public servant knows to be subject to regulation, inspection, or investigation by the public servant or his agency.” Excepted are gifts “conferred on account of kinship or a personal, professional, or business relationship independent of the official status of the recipient.”

The Texas Ethics Commission has not signed off on elected officials receiving donations that aren’t campaign-related from out-of-state friends and business associates. In 2016, it punted a request to sign off on such an arrangement made by an anonymous official in Paxton’s agency.

It’s a long story and kid of hard to summarize, so go read it and see what you think. I think this is unlikely to turn into an indictment, but perhaps there’s more to it than it appears. If it does, I’m sure Paxton and his squadron of defense attorneys will find a way to claim it’s another partisan witch hunt, despite Kaufman County being more Republican than Collin. We’ll see how it goes. The Trib and the Chron have more.

Paxton trial delayed again

This will happen some day. I hope.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s trial has been put off for a third time.

The judge in the securities fraud case against Paxton sided Wednesday with prosecutors who had been pushing for another trial delay because of a long-running dispute over their fees. The decision by Harris County District Court Judge Robert Johnson scrapped Paxton’s current Dec. 11 trial date and left the new one to be determined, possibly at a Nov. 2 conference.

Paxton had been set to go to trial on Dec. 11 on the least serious of three charges he faces. The date for that trial had already been pushed back twice because of pretrial disputes, first over the venue and then the judge.

[…]

In a feisty hourlong hearing Wednesday, the prosecutors and Paxton’s lawyers sparred over a familiar subject: whether they should hold off on a trial until the prosecutors could collect a paycheck — an issue currently tied up in a separate legal battle. Earlier this year, when the case was before a different judge, he denied the prosecutors’ first request to delay the trial until they could get paid.

Johnson had a different take Wednesday, granting the prosecutors’ latest motion for continuance. He asked both sides to come up with a new trial date, preferably in late February or early March. After some back and forth — a Paxton lawyer proposed a new trial date on March 6 — they all agreed to continue the discussion at the Nov. 2 pretrial conference.

The prosecutors had been seeking to put off the trial until the state’s highest criminal court, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, could sort out the payment issue. Last week, the Court of Criminal Appeals stepped into the dispute over the prosecutors’ pay, issuing a stay of a lower-court ruling last month that invalidated a six-figure paycheck for them. In its decision, the Court of Criminal Appeals gave all sides 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ contention that the lower court, the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals, overstepped its authority when it voided the payment.

If the Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately rules against the prosecutors — effectively leaving them without pay for the foreseeable future — they will move to withdraw from the case, Wice said.

Paxton’s team had none of it. His lawyers contended the prosecutors were seeking to undermine Paxton’s right to a speedy trial and repeatedly pointed to the prosecutors’ previous failures to get the trial delayed due to the payment issue.

“It’s time,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said. “It’s time to try the case.”

See here for some background. The first I’d heard of this motion was Tuesday when the Trib and the Chron reported on it. You know where I stand on this, and while I agree with Team Paxton that I’d like to get on with this already, I would note that it is well within their power to ask Paxton’s buddies Jeff Blackard and the Collin County Commissioners Court to drop their vendetta against the prosecutors, since that is the main stumbling block at this time. I really don’t see how anyone can object to them wanting to get paid what they were told they would be paid, nor can I see how anyone would expect them to work for free. The solution is simple if they want it to happen. Until then, we await the November 2 hearing at which everyone argues over a new court date.

SCOTUS takes up partisan gerrymandering

So much coverage on this potentially ground-breaking and earth-shaking case. Here’s the Washington Post:

Opponents of political gerrymandering had reason for optimism at the Supreme Court on Tuesday, with Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the likely swing vote, appearing more in sync with liberal colleagues who seemed convinced that a legislative map can be so infected with political bias that it violates the Constitution.

But it’s what Kennedy didn’t say that could determine whether the court, for the first time, strikes down a legislative map because of extreme partisan gerrymandering. While he has previously expressed concerns about the political mapmaking practice, he has yet to endorse a way of determining when gerrymandering is excessive, and Kennedy give no sign at oral arguments Tuesday that he had found one.

In a case from Wisconsin that could reshape the way American elections are conducted, the Supreme Court heard from challengers that it was the “only institution in the United States” that could prevent a coming wave of extreme partisan gerrymandering that would distort the basic structure of democracy.

“Politicians are never going to fix gerrymandering,” said Paul M. Smith, representing Democratic voters who challenged a 2011 redistricting plan drawn by Wisconsin’s ruling Republicans. “They like gerrymandering.”

Even conservative justices skeptical of Smith’s argument seemed to agree that it was unsavory for members of the party in power to draw legislative districts to protect themselves and their own, and make it hard for opponents to ever gain power.

“Gerrymandering is distasteful,” said Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. “But if we are going to impose a standard on the courts, it has to be something that’s manageable.”

Finding a test that courts could use to determine when political favoritism had become too great — the “Rosetta Stone,” Alito called it — has always been the hurdle. Kennedy said as much the last time the court examined the issue, in 2004.

If anything, Kennedy seemed more convinced this time around that the courts have a role in finding that partisan gerrymandering can be so extreme as to be unconstitutional.

He pressed lawyers for the state and its legislative leaders about whether it would be unconstitutional for a state to undertake the redistricting process by forthrightly saying it intended to favor one party over another.

Erin Murphy, representing the legislative leaders, hesitated and said that was not the case in Wisconsin.

Kennedy was undeterred. “I’d like the answer to the question,” he said.

Murphy and the state’s lawyer, Solicitor General Misha Tseytlin, agreed that would be unconstitutional.

See here, here, and here for some background. Basically all the coverage was focused on Justice Kennedy, who is not only our supreme overlord the main swing vote in the chamber but also who had suggested that a partisan gerrymander could be illegal if there were a good, objective standard to determine it. That’s what this case is about, and it seems likely that if this isn’t where he draws a line, there isn’t a line he’ll be willing to draw. This case is about Wisconsin, but if SCOTUS sides with the plaintiffs it would surely have a broad impact, as many other purple or even blue states – Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina – have similarly extreme gerrymanders in them. We’ll know by the spring. SCOTUSBlog, the NYT, Rick Hasen, Ari Berman, Kevin Drum, Mark Joseph Stern, Dahlia Lithwick, and ThinkProgress have more.

Ken Paxton REALLY wants your “sanctuary complaints”

What could possibly go wrong?

Best mugshot ever

Texans who suspect their elected or appointed officials of enforcing policies that protect undocumented immigrants can now file an official complaint with the office of the state’s top prosecutor.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday announced his office is accepting sworn complaints against “sanctuary” jurisdictions that prohibit local police from cooperating with federal immigration authorities. The announcement comes after Monday’s decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals that parts of the state’s immigration enforcement legislation, Senate Bill 4, can go into effect while the case plays out on appeal.

As passed, the law calls for civil penalties of up to $25,000 per day on local jurisdictions that violate its provisions. The officials are also eligible for removal from office.

[…]

Paxton said complaints could also be lodged against officials who adopt policies that prevent officers from assisting, cooperating or exchanging information with federal immigration officials.

The court ruled that officers cannot be prohibited from assisting or cooperating with the federal officials but that the language in the bill that prohibits “materially limiting” cooperation was too vague. That decision also drew mixed reviews.

“Local jurisdictions cannot flatly prohibit their employees from immigration enforcement or questioning,” [Nina Perales, VP of litigation for MALDEF] said. “But local jurisdictions are still allowed to set priorities.”

Yeah, there’s no conceivable way any of this could be used as a political vendetta against someone. I’m sure Ken Paxton will investigate any complaints with wisdom and impartiality. Like I said, what could possibly go wrong?