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Ken Paxton

It’s not an apology that’s needed

This may make for good rhetoric, but it’s not what the goal should be.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Congressmen Joaquin Castro and Lloyd Doggett on Friday demanded Gov. Greg Abbott apologize to Texas voters for attempting to purge as many as 95,000 people from Texas voter rolls and said Congress should sue for state records that could show how the plan unfolded if state officials continue to stonewall.

The Texas Democrats said Congress should use every tool at its disposal to investigate the purge they said would have suppressed Latino voter turnout in hopes it will prevent a repeat before the 2020 elections.

“I want them to really put the screws on the governor’s office that it looks like has coordinated an attack on our democracy,” said Castro of San Antonio. “It’s important that we make sure this doesn’t happen again, because if they feel like they got away or they got away with it, then I think they’ll do it again.”

[…]

Castro said he expects the congressional committee to request documents from Texas state lawmakers who may have received some relevant records and signed non-disclosure agreements. After exhausting those and other options, he said he would urge the committee to take Texas to court for records.

“If they have nothing to hide, why wouldn’t they turn those documents over? If we don’t get it, then we should sue,” Castro said.

Doggett, whose district stretches from San Antonio to Austin, said “no tools will be off the table. We’re going to take whatever steps are necessary.”

[…]

Agencies have largely declined to release internal communications that could show how the attempted voter purge was conceived or how the error-ridden list of suspected non-citizens was vetted before its release. In declining to release its own emails, the governor’s office has cited broad exemptions, including attorney client privilege and deliberative process.

Joe Larsen, a first amendment attorney with Houston-based Gregor Cassidy, PLLC, said the governor’s office should have to provide those answers.

“There’s a vital public interest in the disclosure of this information,” he said.

The state also has not released the list of more than 95,000 registered voters that were flagged as potential non-citizens.

That’s a departure from 2012, when the state made public the records used to create an erroneous list of dead people it tried to purge from the voter rolls. Then, the Houston Chronicle found the state had mistakenly matched living voters with deceased strangers from across the country.

See here for some background. I’m mostly interested in the “urge the committee to take Texas to court for records”, because I think the only way to get these records is going to be via court order. There’s just no way Abbott et al will give them up voluntarily. They don’t think they need to, and they don’t see themselves as being answerable to Democratic politicians. Taking this to the courts, and voting these unaccountable princelings out of office at the next opportunity are the answers.

Paxton still holding on to bogus voter purge data

It’s all about secrecy. He doesn’t want you to know what he’s up to.

Best mugshot ever

More than a month after a legal settlement was reached to scrap the review, Paxton’s office has indicated it is keeping open the criminal investigation file it initiated based on the secretary of state’s referral. That’s even after the list was discredited when state officials realized they had mistakenly included 25,000 people who were naturalized citizens and admitted that many more could have been caught up in the review.

Paxton’s office made that indication in a letter this week denying The Texas Tribune’s request for a copy of the list of flagged voters.

The Tribune originally requested the list soon after Whitley announced the review. But the attorney general — whose office also serves as the arbiter of disputes over public records — decided that the list could remain secret under an exemption to Texas public information law that allows a state agency to withhold records if releasing them “would interfere with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of crime.” The office separately confirmed that it had opened a “law enforcement investigation file.”

Following the settlement in late April — and after the secretary of state’s office rescinded the advisory that launched the review — the Tribune re-upped its request with both the secretary of state and the attorney general’s office. But the secretary of state’s office in late May and the attorney general’s office this week asserted they would still withhold the list based on the law enforcement exemption.

“As the law, facts, and circumstances on which that ruling was based have not changed, we will continue to rely on that ruling and withhold the information at issue,” Lauren Downey, an assistant attorney general, told the Tribune in an email.

[…]

“It’s very troubling that the attorney general would base an investigation on a debunked list that we know contains tens of thousands of naturalized citizens,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation of the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund, which sued the state on behalf of several naturalized citizens. “If the only basis of the investigation is that voters are naturalized U.S. citizens, then that’s discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

See here for the background. Lord only knows what there might be to investigate, since the list in question was based on useless data, but that sort of trivia doesn’t stop Ken Paxton. Is there some kind of legal action people could take to force Paxton to fish or cut bait? If there is, I hope they pursue it. If not, I guess we just have to wait.

Paxton sues San Antonio over Chick-fil-A records

We really do live in strange times.

Best mugshot ever

It’s a red-meat issue, but it feeds on chicken.

San Antonio’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A from its airport continues to resound in political circles. Legislators passed a religious freedom bill that gained steam after it was rebranded as the ‘Save Chick-fil-A bill.’ Gov. Greg Abbott beamed over its success on Twitter.

And Attorney General Ken Paxton, declining to wait for his own department to rule on a public records request, on Monday filed suit against the city to force it to hand over records he wants for his office’s investigation.

[…]

According to the suit filed in Travis County district court on Monday, Paxton’s office requested records on April 11 — including calendars, communications and records of meetings among City Council members, city employees and third parties — related to the city’s decision to remove the restaurant from its airport concessions contract. Paxton’s suit seeks to compel the city to release the records.

“The City of San Antonio claims that it can hide documents because it anticipates being sued,” Paxton said in a statement. “But we’ve simply opened an investigation using the Public Information Act. If a mere investigation is enough to excuse the City of San Antonio from its obligation to be transparent with the people of Texas, then the Public Information Act is a dead letter.”

Nirenberg said in a statement Monday that the city had asked Paxton for clarification on the request but never received a response.

“The fact that he went straight to filing a lawsuit instead of simply answering our questions proves this is all staged political theater,” Nirenberg said.

The deputy city attorney, Edward Guzman, responded to Paxton’s request April 24 saying the city was seeking to withhold some records based on 63 exceptions to the state’s public information act, according to the suit. In a May 2 letter, the city also argued the information is exempt because of litigation that was likely to come from Paxton.

State law exempts the release of information related to “pending or reasonably anticipated” litigation.

San Antonio City Attorney Andy Segovia said in a statement Monday that the city provided nearly 250 pages of documents for review by the Attorney General’s Open Records Division and is still waiting for a decision.

Segovia said the city will comply with any Open Records Division ruling. He also shed doubt on the motivation behind Paxton’s investigation.

“The State Attorney General’s office has not specified the legislative authority they are relying on to investigate the airport contract,” Segovia said. “Furthermore, it is clear from the strident comments in his press release that any ‘investigation’ would be a pretense to justify his own conclusions.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Any resemblance of the arguments in this case to those in the dispute between Paxton’s office and the House Oversight Committee are, I’m sure, totally coincidental. Whatever else happens in this ridiculous case, the Chick-fil-A follies have provided the wingnuts with the grievance they needed to get their “religious liberties” bill through the Lege, so in that sense Paxton et al have already won. The Rivard Report has more.

“Laggards”

You can do something about that, you know.

Best mugshot ever

The Maryland congressman leading an investigation into the error-filled effort to purge suspected noncitizens from Texas voter rolls referred to Texas officials as “laggards” who are taking a “minimalist approach” to satisfying demands on Capitol Hill for emails that could show the origin and motivation for the program.

Jamie Raskin, a Democrat who chairs the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, says his panel will continue to aggressively press Texas for documents despite the resignation last week of Secretary of State David Whitley after scrutiny of the botched effort. Whitley’s five-month tenure in the job ended after state Senate Democrats blocked his appointment.

Raskin said that Georgia, another state under investigation, has sent hundreds of thousands of pages of materials to Washington. But Texas, he said, is cooperating “minimally” and treating the congressional demand as “some kind of unlawful imposition.”

“We’re going to continue to press for meaningful disclosure,” he said. “The sudden departure of the Texas secretary of state only makes us that much more determined to get all the information we sought.”

[…]

A spokesman for the Texas secretary of state’s office said 3,600 pages have been turned over to the panel. In a letter to Raskin and Cummings on May 29, Adam Bitter, the office general counsel, wrote that barring a ruling from Paxton “we do not anticipate producing additional documents in response to your request.”

Raskin observed that his panel has subpoena power, albeit not yet invoked. The back-and-forth suggests an impasse that could wind up in the courts – a likely destination of other disputes simmering at present between Congress and the White House.

See here, here, and here for the background. I mean, this is one of those times where I do believe what Paxton’s office has to say. The only way the committee, and by extension the public, is going to get any more information out of them is by forcing them to cough it up. That starts with a subpoena, and ends with a court order. Seems to me there’s no reason not to get that process started now.

Will the next SOS be any better than David Whitley?

Anything is possible, but don’t count on it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Voting rights advocates are celebrating Whitley’s forced departure, but said they have no illusions that his successor will be any more committed to upholding voting rights for all Texans.

“There is certainly every reason to believe that these types of voter suppression tactics will continue with the next nominee,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, told ThinkProgress.

Glen Maxey, legislative affairs director for the Texas Democratic Party, told ThinkProgress that Whitley had promised Democratic and Republican officials shortly after assuming office in January that he would run a fair election system.

Within weeks, however, Whitley drew up a list of nearly 100,000 people he wrongfully identified as non-citizens, saying they had to be deleted from voter rolls. Most, as it turns out, actually were U.S. citizens, and a federal judge blocked his plan to expunge the names.

Abbott — who himself has a long history of pushing voter suppression efforts — will now get to pick someone to replace Whitley as the state’s chief election official, a critically important position looking ahead to 2020.

Gutierrez said he was not overly optimistic that a change in personnel will lead to the end of Republican voter suppression efforts.

“Texas has a long history of using systemic obstacles to limit participation,” Gutierrez said. “I have no question that we’ll keep seeing a variety of voter suppression tactics until we have a greater number of legislators and statewide elected officials who want to see more Texans voting and participating in our democracy.”

[…]

Maxey said he believes the massive voter purge attempted by Whitley was probably the brainchild of Gov. Abbott or Attorney General Ken Paxton, and suspects that Whitley simply was carrying out orders.

“He did not come up with this plan on his own. He wasn’t even in office long enough to come up with it,” he said. “Either he was boldface lying to us or it was something that happened that was cast with his signature or his name attached.”

I think that’s probably right. At the very least, I think if Whitley had done all this on his own, and screwed it up in such spectacular fashion, he wouldn’t have Abbott and all the rest of the DPS-blaming enablers backing him. Ken Paxton surely had a hand in it as well. The best case scenario here is Abbott appoints someone competent and conscientious who actually does care about the integrity of the data, which leads them to stay away from hair-brained schemes to “cleanse” the voter rolls via noisy data and weak matches. The worst case scenario is that Abbott appoints someone who is competent at carrying out such a scheme. Either way, we can’t afford to ease up on vigilance.

On a related note, the Trib has a deep dive into how things went down in the Senate in the latter days as Abbott tried to get Whitley confirmed.

The pressure on the Democrats intensified as the legislative session pressed on. Some senators had received calls from business associates, clients and donors, who had apparently been nudged by the governor’s office to encourage them to back Whitley, and they were facing veto threats, said Sen. Borris Miles, a Houston Democrat who did not receive such overtures but said he heard from his colleagues about them.

But with the i’s dotted and the t’s soon to be crossed on Abbott’s top legislative priorities, his office made a final, last-minute push to sway Senate Democrats in the final days of the legislative session, multiple sources said.

And some Democrats whom Abbott hoped to turn were brought in individually. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, was called to Abbott’s office on Saturday, where the governor asked her, in a one-on-one meeting, to support his nominee.

“He said he would like for me to vote for David, and I said that I couldn’t — I wished I could, but I couldn’t,” Zaffirini said in an interview this week. “I like David … and he’s a good person. But he made a terrible mistake.”

On Monday, two of her bills were vetoed — one to increase transparency at the State Commission on Judicial Conduct and one to allow for specialized courts for guardianship cases. Both had passed both chambers with near-unanimous support and were championed by Republican sponsors in the House.

“I was surprised to see them vetoed, and I was surprised to see the veto so early,” Zaffirini said, and she “disagreed” with the reasoning Abbott gave.

[…]

Miles, who said he wasn’t facing threats of vetoes, said tit-for-tat menacing would seem out of character for Abbott — a governor the Democrats say is generally professional. But he confirmed that some of his colleagues had clearly been targeted with pressure.

“Yes, there were runs at individual members, and we had to secure them and let them know this was not something we could go on without,” Miles said. “There were some threats of vetoing bills.”

On Sunday evening, the day before the Legislature had to gavel out, [Sen. Jose] Rodríguez said the Senate GOP Caucus Chair, Paul Bettencourt, came by to test the waters.

“At one point, he came over and said, ‘Would y’all be okay with the lieutenant governor calling up Whitley to take an up and down vote? He doesn’t want any questions or speeches. We know you have him blocked, but the governor wants a vote on it,’” Rodríguez recalled.

Rodríguez told Bettencourt that if a vote were called, he and other Democrats were prepared with “pages and pages” of questions, enough to delay for hours — effectively killing the bills still sitting vulnerable on the calendar on the last day the Senate could approve legislation.

Ultimately, no vote was called.

It’s worth reading. I know Abbott really likes Whitley and all, but I continue to be amazed that no one ever thought to advise him to take responsibility, admit his errors, apologize, and promise to do better. Did they not think it was necessary, did they think that some combination of sweet talk and veto threats would be enough, did they have some other strategy in mind? I wish I knew.

One simple thing the Republicans could do to maybe get David Whitley confirmed

This is a long story about how Democratic Senators are being very careful to either be in attendance at all times or get a commitment that there won’t be a vote on Secretary of State David Whitley in the event they have to be absent. This is because it takes a two-thirds vote of the Senators who are present for him to be confirmed. With a 19-12 split in the Senate and all Dems committed to opposing Whitley, one Dem could be missing and preserve the margin, but if two are out then the Republicans could bring it up and push it through. Dems have not given them that opportunity, and want to keep it that way in the waning days.

Which got me to thinking there might be a shananigan-free way to resolve this that doesn’t put Dems like Sen. Menendez (who will miss his son’s fifth-grade graduation to maintain numbers) in a spot. I for one would be willing to let Dems vote for David Whitley if Ken Paxton fully cooperates with the House Oversight Committee, and turns over every document they ask for in a timely fashion. Paxton of course should do this without needing to be coerced, but that’s politics. Anyway, it’s a simple enough deal. We’ll give you Whitley, you give Elijah Cummings and Jamie Raskin the docs they seek. Your move, guys.

(Note: I am in no way authorized to speak for any Democratic Senator, nor do I intend to. Other people may well think this proposal is hot garbage. I’m just saying that we want things and they want things, and this is one possible way for both of us to get those things. Your mileage may vary.)

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed a bill into law that limits the scope of a controversial anti-Israel boycott law, just weeks after a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in an ongoing First Amendment lawsuit.

The 2017 law — which seeks to combat the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, an international protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — prohibits state agencies from investing in and contracting with companies that boycott Israel. It also requires anyone contracting with the state to pledge in writing that it will not boycott Israel.

The changes Abbott signed into law Tuesday make it only applicable to contracts of at least $100,000 with companies with 10 or more full-time employees. Legislators who support the law have said they never intended for it to impact individuals or small businesses.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, did not waste time in filing a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought by several Texas contractors who claimed it violated their right to free speech.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Paxton argued that “this legislative enactment is exactly the kind of development that the Fifth Circuit has recognized will render a case moot.”

ACLU of Texas spokeswoman Imelda Mejia said the agency, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the agency is “analyzing the new law and its possible implications on our case.”

[…]

Federal judges have struck down laws in Arizona and Kansas and upheld one in Arkansas; all are on appeal but the Kansas law.

There, after the Kansas Legislature made nearly identical changes to those signed by Abbott on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, lacking an affected plaintiff, agreed to dismiss its lawsuit.

See here for the background. Given that the lawsuit in question involved an individual who would no longer be affected by the law, it probably is the case that a motion to dismiss would succeed. That said – and here I put on my I Am Not A Lawyer hat – I don’t think the change to the law fixes the underlying constitutional problem. We’ll see if the court agrees.

Paxton again refuses to comply with House Oversight Committee

It’s like he has no interest in oversight, or something.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office this week again denied a request for a records by a U.S. House panel seeking to investigate the state’s botched voter purge program.

[…]

While the Attorney General’s office has refused to release documents, Secretary of State David Whitley’s office said Tuesday it has released more than 1,000 pages of documents in response to the request and plans to produce more by the end of the week now that the federal lawsuit has been settled.

Whitley’s office continues to withhold other documents it says are exempt from disclosure because of attorney-client privilege.

First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer in a letter Monday reiterated his claim that the House committee lacks the authority to force the secretary of state to produce documents.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, has rejected that claim but last month stopped short of threatening a subpoena if the Texas officials don’t hand over the documents requested — including emails with Gov. Greg Abbott and Trump administration officials about the attempted voter purge.

In the letter Monday, Mateer said the ability of Congress to pass laws to protect voter rights does not “override the inherent and reserved power” of the state to maintain its own voter rolls.

“Granting Congress the power to exercise ‘oversight’ over the constitutional officers of a state engaged in the lawful exercise of that state’s core authority would undermine the fabric of our system of dual sovereignty,” Mateer wrote. “In this case, that risk would be made particularly acute by the committee’s attempt to force the constitutionally-designated attorney for the State of Texas to divulge privileged and confidential communications with a client concerning the client’s enforcement of Texas law.”

Mateer added that the committee lacked a “valid legislative purpose” for the investigation, which the committee has disputed.

See here and here for the background. Note the similarity in the responses by Jeff Mateer and Donald Trump’s attorneys. It’s not an accident or a coincidence. I say it’s time to break out the subpoenas, and to go to court as needed to enforce them. If this is how they want to play this, then let’s quit fooling around and cut to the chase.

Undead “religious liberty” bill passes Senate

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Scott Braddock:

Here’s the story.

Over the fierce opposition of Democrats, the Texas Senate on Wednesday advanced a significantly watered-down version of a religious liberty bill whose original form some LGBTQ advocates labeled the most discriminatory piece of legislation filed this session.

The bill requires one more vote from the Senate before it can return to the Texas House, whose LGBTQ Caucus killed a nearly-identical proposal on a procedural motion last week. But the House is likely to advance the measure if given a second pass, at least according to the lower chamber’s leadership.

As filed, Sen. Bryan Hughes’ Senate Bill 1978 contained sweeping religious refusals language that brought LGBTQ rights advocates out against it in force. Proponents, for their part, have labeled the Mineola Republican’s proposal the “Save Chick-fil-A Bill,” in reference to a provision that would empower the Texas attorney general to sue San Antonio for excluding the Christian-owned chicken franchise from its airport.

Senate Democrats used every means they had — long lines of questioning, a slew of proposed amendments and a procedural point of order — to fight the bill, or at least tweak it as it was debated. But ultimately, after three hours of discussion, the measure passed on a 19-12 vote, with Brownsville Democrat Eddie Lucio Jr. voting for it and Amarillo Republican Kel Seliger voting against it.

Still, the messy floor fight many advocates feared would load up the bill with discriminatory amendments did not materialize.

The original version of Hughes’ proposal prevented government retaliation against an individual based on that “person’s belief or action in accordance with the person’s sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction, including beliefs or convictions regarding marriage” — language advocates feared would embolden businesses to discriminate against gay Texans. The revision, which Hughes made on the floor, outlaws government retaliation against someone based on their association with or support of a religious organization. That revised language is largely duplicative of existing protections for freedom of religion and freedom of association.

But advocates — pointing to the bill’s origins, and to its roots as model legislation from anti-gay efforts across the nation — adamantly opposed the bill, lobbying lawmakers to do so as well. Samantha Smoot, interim director of the advocacy group Equality Texas, said this week the measure is “part of an insidious, coordinated strategy to advance anti-LGBTQ messages and discriminatory public policies.”

[…]

As senators slogged through the debate, one recurring theme from Democratic opposition was: Why spend time on a controversial measure when there are so many other priorities to complete? And, some added, if the bill is largely just a codification of existing protections, why bring it forward at all?

“Can you identify the shortcomings of the Constitution in protecting religious freedom?” asked Sen. Carol Alvarado, D-Houston.

“This is covered under the First Amendment, so I’m not sure what your angle is,” she added, after reading from it.

Responding to such questions, Hughes called the measure an important “vehicle for protecting those First Amendment rights.”

That vehicle could come in the form of a lawsuit from the Texas attorney general, who under Hughes’ legislation would be empowered to sue governmental entities accused of discriminating based on religious affiliations. One likely candidate for such a lawsuit is the fast food franchise Chick-fil-A, which was recently blocked from opening a restaurant in the San Antonio Airport after a member of the city council said he could not support a company with “a legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

See here for the background. Lord knows, if there’s one thing we need, it’s an excuse for Ken Paxton to launch another religion-fueled legal crusade. The main thing to keep an eye on here is the clock, as time is running down for this to be approved by the House. Call your State Rep and urge them to oppose SB1978. Every little bit will help.

(Also, too: How long has it been since I’ve wondered when the hell we’ll finally rid ourselves of Sen. Eddie Lucio? Because holy cow, he sucks.)

The SOS voter purge may be over, but Ken Paxton is unaccounted for

Keep an eye on this.

Best mugshot ever

After the judge approved the settlement, the original list of voters was scrapped. Under the agreement, Texas officials now will only flag names of people who have said they’re not citizens after they have registered to vote.

[Joaquin Gonzalez, a voting rights attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project,] said the settlement requires that he and the other plaintiffs be able to oversee how the state carries out this more limited voter investigation.

“We get numbers of people that have been matched, so that we can tell if there is something that appears to be going wrong in the process,” he said.

[…]

But there’s one issue that wasn’t dealt with: Attorney General Ken Paxton’s plans.

When the original voter removal effort was announced, Paxton – the state’s top prosecutor – said he would “spare no effort in assisting” with those cases.

Because of that, plaintiffs named him in their lawsuits. A federal judge removed him, however, because he doesn’t have the power to actually cancel voter registrations.

Perales said it’s unclear what Paxton will do following the settlement.

“Ken Paxton has said contradictory things about this voter purge that came out of the Texas Secretary of State’s office,” she said.

For example, when lawmakers raised questions about the state’s effort earlier this year, Paxton said he didn’t have the time or resources to go through the list and investigate people.

“At the same time, Ken Paxton’s office has claimed that they are still investigating – or doing some kind of investigation – of registered voters who may be non-U.S. citizens,” Perales said.

Paxton’s Office also has been shielding documents related to the voter-removal effort from public view.

In a letter to media organizations and others, the open records division of his office has said, “the information at issue relates to an open criminal investigation conducted by the [Office of the Attorney General’s] Election Fraud Section of the Criminal Prosecutions Division. Further, the OAG states release of the information at issue would interfere with the pending investigation.”

See here for the background. I was wondering about this myself when the settlement terms were announced. It goes without saying that Ken Paxton cannot be trusted. If he has the opportunity to press forward with any of these cases, on whatever grounds, he will. I strongly suspect that all of the attorneys for the plaintiffs will need to keep their evidence files close at hand, ready to whip out for a new motion when and if Paxton strikes. Do not let him try to make wine from the fruit of the poisoned tree.

On a side note, this story also addresses the question of why the state settled instead of appealing, as they usually do:

Gonzalez said he thinks state officials did that partly because the legal challenge was looming over Whitley’s confirmation as secretary of state. He had only recently been appointed when he announced the voter list. Gonzalez said state officials backed off when Senate Democrats vowed to block his confirmation.

“Their opposition to the nomination, we believe, is [part of what] provided the leverage for the state to be willing to settle this in the first case, because the state doesn’t settle voting rights cases like this,” he said.

Maybe. Doesn’t seem to have helped, but I can see the logic. I still feel like there was more to it than this, but I can believe this was a factor.

House passes bill to legalize fantasy sports

Hey, what do you know?

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Wednesday to a bill that would classify fantasy sports as games of skill, not of chance, that are therefore legal.

House Bill 2303 by state Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, passed the chamber on a 116-27 vote. It still needs another vote from the House before it can be sent to the Senate for consideration. (Update, May 2: The House voted to give the measure final approval.)

Fantasy sports allows fans to draft real players from various sporting leagues to create a fictional team. The players’ real-time statistics are then compiled, and the team with the highest overall ranking wins. Fans can track their teams through websites or apps.

While critics say fantasy sports sites are hubs for illegal online gambling, others contend the games are based on skill and are therefore legitimate. Lawmakers have filed similar measures in the past, but to no avail.

Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a nonbinding opinion in January 2016 equating fantasy sports sites to online gambling, which is illegal.

“House Bill 2303 simply seeks to clarify state law and confirm that skill-based fantasy sports are legal and therefore not an act of gambling,” Moody said. “It’s very similar to what 19 other states in the country have done in recent years, and the United States Congress made this change in 2006.”

See here for the background. I hadn’t heard anything about this effort before this story was published, so it kind of came out of nowhere for me. Tiem is running down for bills to be heard in the Senate, and I have no idea where this is on the priority list. The odds always favor bills not getting passed. I’ll keep an eye on it.

A closer look at how Texas strongly discourages voting

Well, it strongly discourages some people from voting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Julieta Garibay, a native of Mexico City, was brought to Texas by her mother when she was 12. For 26 years, she was told to assimilate and stay quiet so people wouldn’t hear her accent. Last April, she became a citizen and registered to vote.

In January the state flagged her as one of the 95,000 suspected non-citizens registered to vote, on a list that the state’s chief law enforcement officer, Republican Ken Paxton, trumpeted on social media in all caps as a “VOTER FRAUD ALERT.” It took less than a day for local election officials to find glaring errors on the list, noting many people, including Garibay, were naturalized U.S. citizens and were wrongfully included on it.

“They were trying to say a bunch of U.S. citizens had actually committed fraud,” said Garibay, Texas director and co-founder of United We Dream, an Austin-based immigrant rights group. She is also the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund against the state over the list she says illegally targeted herself and other citizens who are foreign born.

“That’s one of the new tactics that they’re using. How do you put fear into people to believe that there is voter fraud happening in Texas and in many other states? How do you make sure you keep them quiet?” she said.

Garibay was one of the speakers at The Summit on Race in America, a three-day symposium hosted by the LBJ Foundation in Austin featuring civil rights icons, leaders, activists, musicians and comedians examining the progress and failures of the past half-century. Among the biggest challenges discussed were state-led efforts to chip away at the Voting Rights Act of 1965 signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

The Texas Legislature now is considering a bill that would punish those who vote illegally with up to two years in jail. Even if the illegal vote was a mistake — for example, a felon who didn’t know he was ineligible to vote until his probation ended — the penalty would be the same as for felony charges such as driving drunk with a child in the car or stealing up to $20,000. It wouldn’t matter if the ballot was never counted.

“We don’t really understand the argument about the chilling effect that would have,” said Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, who is sponsoring the bill. “We’re trying to thread the needle to make sure folks aren’t cheating while we try to protect the right of every eligible voter.”

The main intention of that bogus SOS advisory was to kick people off the voter rolls, without any real concern about accuracy. That much is clear from everything we have learned about how it proceeded. But that wasn’t the only goal. Threatening prosecutions of people who voted in good faith is all about sending a message to low-propensity voters, the kind that Democrats worked very hard to turn out in 2018 and hope to turn out in greater numbers in 2020. If even a few people who weren’t on that list look at the news and conclude that voting, or registering to vote, is too risky, then mission accomplished. Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton can understand the numbers when they’re explained to them as well. A smaller electorate benefits them. Why wouldn’t they exercise their power to keep it that way? If you think I’m being overly harsh or cynical, please tell me what in the recent history of Texas politics would motivate you to giving them any benefit of the doubt? They’ve been quite clear about their intentions all along. It’s on us to believe them and take them seriously. The Statesman has more.

Settlement officially reached in lawsuits over bogus SOS advisory

Great news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Three months after first questioning the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, the Texas secretary of state has agreed to end a review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens that was flawed from the start.

The deal was announced Friday as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges brought by more than a dozen naturalized citizens and voting rights groups against the state. The groups alleged that the voter citizenship review, which was launched in late January, was unconstitutional and violated federal protections for voters of color.

Secretary of State David Whitley — who has yet to be confirmed by the Texas Senate amid the fallout over the review — agreed to scrap the lists of registered voters his office had sent to county voter registrars for examination. Whitley’s office will instruct local officials to take no further action on the names of people it had classified as “possible non-U.S citizens,” and county officials will be charged with notifying voters who received letters demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

The state is also on the hook for $450,000 in costs and attorney fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The agreement must still be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, and the state will have five days after the judge dismisses the plaintiffs’ legal claims to officially rescind the list. But the settlement amounts to a profound defeat for the state leaders who had defended the review even though it had jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens.

“Today’s agreement accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens,” Whitley said in a statement Friday. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders in the election community to ensure this process is conducted in a manner that holds my office accountable and protects the voting rights of eligible Texans.”

See here for the background. I thought at the time that this was a resounding defeat for the state of Texas, and I very much still think that. Honestly, I’m stunned that the state gave up like this instead of taking their chances with the ever-pliable Fifth Circuit. Did they think their case was such a loser that even the Fifth Circuit wouldn’t bail them out? It’s mind-boggling. Anyway, here are the statements from the various plaintiffs in the suit, courtesy of the ACLU’s press release:

“After months of litigation, the state has finally agreed to do what we’ve demanded from the start — a complete withdrawal of the flawed and discriminatory voter purge list, bringing this failed experiment in voter suppression to an end,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “The right to vote is sacrosanct, and no eligible voter should have to worry about losing that right. We are glad that the state has agreed to give up this misguided effort to eliminate people from the voter rolls, and we will continue to monitor any future voter purge attempt by the state to ensure that no eligible Texan loses their voice in our democracy.”

“Three months after the state released a discriminatory and flawed voter purge list, they have finally agreed to completely withdraw the advisory that risked throwing tens of thousands of potentially eligible voters off the rolls,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “State officials have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and struck fear and confusion into thousands of voters in order to pursue their voter suppression agenda. We are glad that this particular effort was stopped in its tracks and we will remain vigilant to ensure that not one single voter loses their right to vote due to the actions of state officials.”

“While we are glad to see this program scrapped, it’s important to remember that the state not only began to disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters, but also threatened them with criminal prosecution,” said Brendan Downes, associate counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project. “Naturalized citizens are, by definition, Americans. It’s time for the state to start treating them that way.”

“Secretary Whitley’s agreement to scrap what the court called a ‘ham-handed’ process and implement these common sense changes will go a long way to protecting eligible naturalized citizens from being improperly purged from the rolls,” said Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We will continue to monitor the secretary and counties to protect eligible Texas voters from discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.”

“This settlement acknowledges that naturalized Americans have full and equal voting rights — they cannot be singled out and purged from the rolls due to their status,” said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos. “The settlement is a victory for our clients and all in Texas who were wrongfully deemed ineligible to vote. The secretary’s actions were reckless and misguided, and we hope that other states will take note and avoid similar unlawful actions.”

“The League regrets that it took a lawsuit to remind our state officials that naturalized citizens have a right to vote and to fully participate in our democracy,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. “We are hopeful that new procedures will prevent naturalized citizens from being treated as second class citizens. We will continue to work with the secretary of state, as the chief election officer for Texas, to protect all citizens’ right to vote.”

“When the secretary of state tried to discriminate against eligible voters in a dangerous voter purge, we stood up to challenge this egregious act of voter suppression. Today, we won,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas Civic Fund. “Young naturalized citizens no longer have to worry about this reckless voter purge impacting their constitutional right to vote. We will continue to fight for all young voters across the state.”

The whole thing is also visible at the Texas Civil Rights Project webpage. The Secretary of State – who by the way still needs to be someone other than the deeply incompetent David Whitley – will still conduct reviews of voter rolls to look for non-citizens, it will just need to be done under this new framework. The one remaining question is what will happen with the voters whose names were referred to AG Ken Paxton for possible criminal investigation. We’ll just have to see what Paxton does – I can’t imagine him turning down an opportunity to grandstand, but he may be just smart enough to decline to pursue cases that will be tough to win given the questionableness of the evidence. With him, it could go either way. The Chron, the Dallas Observer, and Slate have more.

Chick-fil-A follies, part 2

Noted for the record.

Best mugshot ever

The city of San Antonio voted 6-4 in late March to exclude Chick-fil-A from its renovation of the airport food court offerings due to the company’s “legacy of anti-LGBTQ behavior.”

Shortly after the city’s decision, public outcry in Buffalo, N.Y., led to a concessions company nixing the brand from its plans for the nearby Buffalo Niagara International Airport.

Chick-fil-A told Buffalo news station KBKW recent coverage of the company drives an inaccurate narrative about their brand. “More than 145,000 people from different backgrounds and beliefs represent the Chick-fil-A brand. We embrace all people, regardless of religion, race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity,” the statement said.

Earlier this week, the city of San Jose, Calif., voted unanimously to settle the debate in an entirely different way — by flying rainbow and pride flags in front of Chick-fil-A locations both inside and outside of the airport.

On Thursday, the San Antonio city council will reconsider its previous vote. Councilman Greg Brockhouse said the city’s decision to exclude Chick-fil-A “embarrassed” the city, KTSA reported.

“Every day the Chick-fil-A removal decision is allowed to stand hurts our reputation nationwide as a welcoming and inclusive city. It sends a message we are anti-faith and we cannot stand by without speaking the truth and standing up for our principles,” he said.

See here for the background. I don’t know what the city of San Antonio is going to do at this point. There’s certainly a practical argument to be made that they have more to lose than to gain by picking this fight. But like Pete Buttigieg, I think there’s a lot of value in highlighting the moral bankruptcy of anti-gay animus, especially from Christian conservatives. Let the Chick-fil-As and their enablers explain why they choose to discriminate. Also, Greg Brockhouse can go jump into a vat of dipping sauce. Anyway, we’ll see what happens.

Congressional Republicans seek to halt SOS voter purge inquiry

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Republicans are challenging the authority of a U.S. House panel to investigate the Texas effort to purge thousands of suspected non-citizens from voter rolls, contending in letters Monday that a recent request for documents has no “valid legislative purpose.”

Rep. Chip Roy, R-Dripping Springs, and three other Republican members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee asked the committee to halt its investigations in Texas and related efforts in Georgia and Kansas.

“Your letters rely in large part on unverified media articles to suggest misfeasance or malfeasance in administering various state election laws and elections held in each of the three states,” the letter reads.

In separate letters to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, the Republican congressmen suggest that Texas doesn’t need to comply with a request for documents because the “inquiry does not appear to have a valid legislative purpose and instead seeks confidential communications among state officials.”

[…]

[Committee member Rep. Jamie] Raskin, a law professor before he ran for Congress, asserted that Congress has the power and obligation to enforce voting rights under five separate constitutional amendments.

He said “indignant” Republicans might want to review letters written by the GOP-led Oversight Committee to states investigating the Affordable Care Act.

“It would be best if our GOP colleagues joined us in protecting voting rights, but at the very least they should stop trying to prevent us from doing our constitutionally mandated work,” he said in a statement. “Far from raising the ‘federalism concerns’ of Reps. Jordan, Hice, Cloud and Roy, this is serious federalism in action. Our colleagues should get used to it.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I say cry havoc and let slip the dogs of, um, subpoena power. The Republicans are gonna do what the Republicans are gonna do, so let’s just skip to the part where the courts sort it out.

Paxton gives the middle finger to House Oversight Committee

I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am.

Best mugshot ever

Facing an investigation over the state’s botched efforts to screen its voter rolls for noncitizens, the Texas Attorney General’s Office is declining congressional leaders’ request for information about the review.

In a Thursday letter to top officials with the House’s main investigative committee, Jeffrey Mateer, the state’s first assistant attorney general, indicated the state was brushing off a request for documents and communications from the Texas secretary of state and attorney general because the committee lacks “oversight jurisdiction.”

Instead, Mateer wrote, the state will treat the congressional inquiry as a public information request under state law, which grants the Texas attorney general’s office broad control over what information can be withheld from the public.

“We do not interpret your letter to be a subpoena issued under applicable House Rules. Nor do we consider it a request for information under any applicable federal law,” Mateer said. “For the foregoing reasons, and because the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and its subcomittees lack oversight jurisdiction over constitutional officers of the State of Texas, we must interpret your request under Texas state law.”

[…]

A spokesperson for the committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment regarding the AG’s letter. But in announcing the Texas investigation — part of a broader probe of voting irregularities in multiple states — Cummings and Raskin cited their authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. The committee has the authority to issue subpoenas. Raskin chairs a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties.

See here and here for the background. I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but it’s about as surprising as a humid morning in July. What happens next is probably a subpoena, but after that it’s anyone’s guess.

The committee said in response to Paxton’s letter that it still expects to receive the documents.

“The right to vote is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and Congress is charged with protecting and defending the Constitution,” the committee said in a statement.

“Congress has an independent responsibility to investigate violations even when there may be separate litigation involving the same or similar matters. We expect full compliance with the Committee’s request.”

A committee spokesperson would not address a question about the use of a subpoena to obtain the emails and other documents.

[…]

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer and board member of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, said even if the House does file a subpoena, the Attorney General could decline to cooperate.

The larger legal question of whether the committee has jurisdiction in a state matter may ultimately have to be solved by a court, Larsen said.

Normally, congressional oversight is for the executive branch, which does not include states, he said.

“It’s the idea that the federal government cannot be micromanaging what’s going on in the states unless that power is directly given to them by the Congress,” Larsen said.

But the committee could make the argument that it has the right under the “necessary and proper clause” of the Constitution to ensure that federal laws such as the Voting Rights Act aren’t being violated.

“That’s going to be a fight,” Larsen said. “It’s a fair argument on both sides.”

Better hope the courts are sympathetic to that line of reasoning. Our next chance to hold these amoral assholes accountable isn’t until 2022, and we can’t afford to wait that long.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failing upward

Must be nice.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The day after David Whitley took office as Texas secretary of state on Dec. 17, he received a 49 percent pay raise thanks to his friend and political patron, Gov. Greg Abbott.

In a Dec. 18 letter to the Legislative Budget Board, the governor’s chief of staff said Abbott was using his authority to immediately raise Whitley’s annual salary to $197,415.

That’s almost $64,500 more than the $132,924 paid to Rolando Pablos, the Abbott appointee who was secretary of state before Whitley.

The raise, revealed in a footnote in a Legislative Budget Board document as part of the current budget process, meant Whitley still took a pay cut from his $205,000 salary as the governor’s deputy chief of staff — although the footnote said the letter was sent Dec. 8 instead of Dec. 18.

Whitley began working for Abbott in 2004 and spent almost four years as the then-attorney general’s travel aide, driving Abbott across Texas and helping him move from automobile to wheelchair. Abbott and his wife, Cecilia, grew to consider Whitley as almost part of their family, according to a recent Dallas Morning News profile of the secretary of state.

A priori, I don’t have an issue with bumping up the SOS salary so as to not give a guy a big pay cut. The problem is with the sheer incompetence. I mean, in a way I’m glad Whitley has been so bad at his job, because that has prevented him from doing any real damage so far. But the SOS has responsibilities beyond voter registrations, and I don’t see any reason to believe David Whitley will be good at any of them, either.

I’ll say this for Whitley, he’s staying positive in the face of all that pushback.

In his first public comments on the matter, acting Texas Secretary of State David Whitley last week pledged to cooperate with Congress, which has opened an investigation into his error-laden voter roll review that has Democrats howling voter suppression and has threatened his confirmation as the state’s top election officer. Whitley, on a visit to a school in the Rio Grande Valley, also expressed his confidence that he will ultimately be confirmed by the Texas Senate despite opposition by every Democrat in the chamber.

“I’m not worried about that. Those senators are my friends,” Whitley told reporters after speaking to several hundred students at Edinburg North High School about the importance of voting. Whitley added that he has worked with each state senator over the last four years during his previous job overseeing the governor’s appointments across the state. But now, “all I can do is do the best job I can as secretary of state.”

While fulfilling his duties as the state’s top elections official, Whitley said he will also “fully comply” with the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee investigation that was announced a day earlier. “We will fully comply. We have absolutely nothing to hide,” Whitley said. “We’ll read it thoroughly and make sure we turn everything over as required by law. Absolutely.”

See here for the background. I have no idea why Whitley thinks Senate Dems will change their minds about him, but hey, keep hope alive. In the meantime, those Congressional Dems have set a date for those documents they want.

“We want to get to the bottom of what happened in Texas,” Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., chairman of the Oversight Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, said in an interview.

The powerful committee, under Democratic control for the first time since 2011, gave acting Secretary of State David Whitley until April 11 to produce a host of documents related to his assertion in January that nearly 100,000 registered voters in Texas may not be citizens.

[…]

Raskin stopped short of threatening a subpoena if the many documents requested – including emails with Gov. Greg Abbott and Trump administration officials – aren’t turned over.

“We have the authority to order these documents to be produced and we have subpoena power if we need to use it. We’re very serious about this,” he said.

I have a hard time believing that Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton will just blithely hand over all their files to a bunch of Democrats. It’s just not consistent with everything we know about them. I think they will hand over as little as they think they can get away with, and will feel free to redact and claim executive privilege as it suits them. If this all goes off without subpoenas or a court fight, I will be surprised. We’ll know soon enough.

Chick-fil-A follies

I have three things to say about this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is investigating the city of San Antonio for potential First Amendment violations after the City Council voted to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The Constitution’s protection of religious liberty is somehow even better than Chick-fil-A’s chicken,” Paxton, a Republican, wrote in a Thursday letter to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the rest of the council. “Unfortunately, I have serious concerns that both are under assault at the San Antonio airport.”

In a 6-4 vote, the council voted last week to keep the franchise from opening at the San Antonio International Airport. The decision quickly drew national headlines and condemnations from conservatives across the country.

Chick-Fil-A, a national franchise with locations throughout Texas, is known for its leaders’ staunch Christian views and close ties to groups that worked to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage. Its corporate purpose is “to glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come into contact with Chick-fil-A.” It is, famously, “closed on Sundays.”

Paxton, a Christian conservative who has long billed himself as a crusader for religious liberty, has also asked U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to open an investigation into the city’s actions. Paxton said in a news release Thursday that federal regulations governing grant money that flows to the San Antonio airport prohibit discrimination.

1. If we must accept that corporations can have “religious beliefs” – I don’t, but SCOTUS has imposed it on us, so here we are – then we ought to be able to criticize those beliefs. Governments make policy decisions all the time based on who they do and don’t want to do business with (see, for example, the state of Texas picking a side in the Israel/West Bank conflict), for reasons one may or may not approve of. Often, these decisions are made in response to feedback from constituents. It’s a tool that activists have in their toolbox for holding corporations accountable for their actions. It’s messy and often contradictory, but it’s long been a part of the democratic process. I don’t think letting corporate “religious beliefs” serve as a get-out-of-consequences-free card is a good idea.

2. All that aside, isn’t the fact that Chick-fil-A closes on Sunday a factor here? Surely the city of San Antonio would like to have a full range of dining options for those who pass through its airport, as they can’t just go somewhere else if their needs aren’t being met. If the choice is between a restaurant that’s open seven days a week, and a restaurant that’s open six days a week, you’d think the former would be preferred.

3. San Antonio isn’t the only city cordially dis-inviting Chick-fil-A from its airport. However you feel about this issue, it’s not going away.

Explode, rinse, repeat

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Let’s talk about that history, shall we?

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trump goes all in against health care

Game on.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Trump administration wants the federal courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, an escalation of its legal assault against the health care law.

The Justice Department said in a brief filed on Monday that the administration supports a recent district court decision that invalidated all of Obamacare. So it is now the official position of President Trump’s administration that all of the ACA — the private insurance markets that cover 15 million Americans, the Medicaid expansion that covers another 15 million, and the protections for people with preexisting conditions and other regulations — should be nullified.

When combined with Trump’s endorsement of the various Republican legislative plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and other regulatory actions pursued by his subordinates, the Trump administration’s clear, consistent, and unequivocal position is that millions of people should lose their health insurance and that people should not be protected from discrimination based on their medical history.

The Justice Department had previously said that only the ACA’s prohibition on health insurers denying people coverage or charging people higher premiums based on their medical history should fall in the lawsuit being brought by 20 Republican-led states. But their latest brief removed that subtlety, saying that the entire law should go.

Legal experts dismiss the states’ argument as “absurd,” yet they have worried it could find a receptive audience among conservative jurists, given the prior success of anti-Obamacare lawsuits thought to be spurious that still found their way to the Supreme Court.

The argument has already won in the US district court in northern Texas, after all, though that decision is on hold pending appeal.

See here and here for some background. Did we mention this ridiculous lawsuit got its start in Texas? Bad lawsuits seem to be our main export these days. There’s not much we can do about what the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS will do, but in the meantime, health care is once again a huge issue for the next election. We won once on that, we need to do it again.

State sues over Deer Park fire

Too big to ignore.

Late Friday, the state of Texas sued Intercontinental Terminals — the Houston-based company whose petrochemical storage facility in the suburb of Deer Park caught fire last weekend and burned for days, sending a dramatic plume of black smoke over the nation’s fourth-largest city.

The lawsuit, filed in state district court on behalf of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, alleges that air pollution released during the fire is a violation of the Texas Clean Air Act.

It seeks a permanent injunction and civil penalties that “could exceed $100,000.”

“The state of Texas works hard to maintain good air quality and will hold ITC accountable for the damage it has done to our environment,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a statement. “ITC has a history of environmental violations, and this latest incident is especially disturbing and frightening. No company can be allowed to disrupt lives and put public health and safety at risk.”

Were you able to read that statement with a straight face? Then read this.

The TCEQ, the agency responsible for protecting the state’s environment and public health, has been criticized for letting large corporate polluters off with a slap on the wrist. An analysis of its enforcement record by an environmental nonprofit found that the agency imposed penalties on violators in just 3 percent of cases. ITC appears to have benefitted from the lax enforcement. In 2016, for instance, the company released more than 1,500 pounds of benzene — a carcinogenic chemical — for over five days and failed to notify the state agency within the mandated 24-hour deadline. The fine: roughly $4,000.

I’m just saying. Maybe some day when there aren’t new fires breaking out every time an old fire gets put out, we can get to the bottom of what happened here. And then sue these assholes out of existence. More broadly, maybe we can demand that our state take enforcement of environmental regulations seriously. If they had done so before, maybe we wouldn’t be in this position now. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

The family that grifts together

I am utterly flabbergasted.

Sen. Angela Paxton

In what state Sen. Angela Paxton describes as an effort to safely expand Texas’ burgeoning financial tech industry, the freshman Republican from McKinney has filed a bill that would empower the office of her husband, Attorney General Ken Paxton, to exempt entrepreneurs from certain state regulations so they can market “innovative financial products or services.”

One of those exemptions would be working as an “investment adviser” without registering with the state board. Currently, doing so is a felony in Texas — one for which Ken Paxton was issued a civil penalty in 2014 and criminally charged in 2015.

Senate Bill 860, filed Friday, would create within the attorney general’s office an entirely new program — what the bill calls a “regulatory sandbox” — that would allow approved individuals “limited access to the market … without obtaining a license, registration, or other regulatory authorization.” The bill, based on a 2018 Arizona law hailed as the first of its kind, aims to cut red tape for the growing financial tech sector, allowing businesses to market new products for up to two years and to as many as 10,000 customers with scant regulation.

In doing so, the bill would grant broad powers to the attorney general’s consumer protection division, allowing it to accept or reject entrepreneurial applicants who seek to hawk innovative products outside of the state’s current standards and regulations.

Angela Paxton said the bill is geared toward strengthening consumer protections in the underregulated, ever-changing financial tech industry — a sector that in Texas is largely centered in Richardson, part of her North Texas district. Constituents from that district first brought the issue to her attention, her office said.

“SB 860 allows for the growth and economic benefit of the emerging Financial Technology industry while the state provides the necessary regulatory framework and consumer protection in the marketplace,” she said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The state agencies that have regulatory oversight of financial institutions and consumer protection laws will provide appropriate regulatory support within the sandbox to ensure that consumers are protected.”

But skeptics pointed to the bill’s optics problem: Ken Paxton, a statewide official accused of violating state securities law, would be empowered to decide who can skirt state securities law. And he’d get that power from a bill authored by his wife. Currently, Texas law requires investment advisers to register with the state — failing to do so is a third-degree felony punishable by a sentence of two to 10 years.

[…]

If SB 860 moved through both chambers of the Legislature and eventually became law, it would take effect Sept. 1. The proposal does not appear to offer any retroactive legal cover for past violations and it’s not clear whether it would directly impact Ken Paxton’s pending criminal case, though a change in statute could prove persuasive to a jury.

Still, ethics experts were slack-jawed that such a proposal would come from the wife of the state’s attorney general — even if he weren’t under criminal indictment for a charge so closely related to the legislation.

Randall “Buck” Wood, a longtime ethics lawyer in Austin, said it would be “a real concern” for Angela Paxton to introduce any legislation related to the agency her husband leads. But a proposal that relates so closely to his personal criminal indictment is “beyond the pale,” he said.

“It sounds like one of the more blatantly unethical acts I’ve seen recently. That’s just ridiculous,” Wood said. “This particular situation, it seems to me, is definitely personal to her and probably to very few other people.”

The measure would “almost certainly” influence Paxton’s criminal trial, added Wood, who has worked as a trial lawyer for decades.

Sometimes I think about the crazy things we have seen in our politics over the past couple of years, and of the players who have been responsible for them, and I realize that if any of this had been the plot and characters of a fictionalized drama, no one would buy any of it. It would be too ridiculous, too over-the-top, too unbelievable. And yet here we are, soaking in it in real life. How exactly did we get here? I don’t really have a point to make here. I just know that if I had suggested before last year’s election that Angela Paxton would file a bill to make what her husband had been arrested for doing legal, a large number of sober-minded people would have accused me of being somewhere between melodramatic and paranoid. I hope someday to live in a world where those accusations would have had merit.

Paxton double-talks on that SOS advisory

Ken Paxton really can’t be trusted. Not exactly earth-shattering, I know, but always good to remember.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton assured lawmakers on Friday that his office hadn’t launched criminal investigations into nearly 100,000 voters flagged by the secretary of state’s office for citizenship review.

But email correspondence obtained by The Texas Tribune between an assistant county attorney and a Paxton deputy who cites “pending criminal investigations related to these issues” appears to contradict the attorney general’s claim.

The two opposing statements were put into writing within a week. Paxton made his assurance in a letter received by the Senate Nominations Committee, which had grilled Secretary of State David Whitley a day earlier over his decision to hand over to the attorney general’s office the list of voters whose citizenship he was questioning. Whitley’s confirmation is in doubt, in part because of questions from Democrats about whether he knew there were naturalized citizens on the list but referred the names to the state’s top prosecutor anyway.

Paxton wrote that it would “not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of [secretary of state] matters” before local voter registrars had reviewed the lists they received from the state.

“We plan to begin our investigations only once some counties have completed their list maintenance,” Paxton said.

But the Friday before, Assistant Attorney General Lauren Downey wrote the opposite in an email to Guadalupe County’s assistant county attorney: “The Office of the Attorney General has pending criminal investigations related to these issues.”

See here for the background. Never trust a word Ken Paxton says. I don’t have anything to add to this, so let me turn the microphone over to Julieta Garibay:

Finally, 26 years after I had migrated to the United States and made Austin my home. After all the trials and tribulations as an undocumented immigrant. After being a survivor of domestic violence and getting my green card because of the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). Justice had prevailed — I would be a U.S. citizen.

In April 2018, my family and friends joined me as I took my citizenship oath. I couldn’t help but cry in joy and excitement as I waved my American flag. A month later, I proudly cast my first vote in the United States — one of the new rights I was most excited about. At the polls, I thought of all the people in the immigrant community who were counting on my vote to ensure we are treated with dignity and respect.

But a couple weeks ago, when I saw Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaim “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” my heart sank. It was clear to me that the Secretary of State’s office hadn’t thoroughly investigated the data it had released on 95,000 potential non-citizen voters. Frightened, I emailed the Travis County Voter Registrar to ask if I was on the list. A couple of days later, I received a call that confirmed my fear — my right to vote was being questioned.

She goes on to call for Secretary of State David Whitley to resign. Failing that, not confirming him would be adequate. I’m with her on this.

Paxton manages to restrain himself from prosecuting anyone on the SOS list – yet

Mighty decent of you there, Kenny boy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton told lawmakers Friday that his office has yet to take action on a deeply flawed list of nearly 100,000 Texas voters flagged last month for citizenship review.

Paxton wrote a letter to the Senate Nominations Committee the day after a hearing in which David Whitley, the governor’s nominee to be the state’s top election official, conceded that he was aware of potential problems with the list before he referred it to the state’s top prosecutors.

[…]

Paxton assured senators in the Friday letter that his agency would undertake such probes “only once some counties have completed their list maintenance.”

“To us, justice means charging and prosecuting only if the facts show the person committed the offense and had the required criminal state of mind,” Paxton wrote in the letter, which was first reported by the Austin American-Statesman and obtained by The Texas Tribune. “Charging a defendant without that evidence is injustice.”

But Paxton’s letter also made clear that the delay in initiating prosecutions is largely due to a lack of resources.

“Our undersized Election Fraud Unit was experiencing a backlog of over 80 complex cases even before the SOS notification,” Paxton wrote. “Simply put, even utilizing every resource we have, it would not be possible to investigate tens of thousands of SOS matters before the voter registrars should be able to complete their list maintenance activity.”

Paxton’s agency has asked the Legislature for $2 million and 10 full-time staff members to investigate and prosecute election fraud cases, saying it has too many investigations and too few resources already.

See here for more on Whitley’s super fun day of admitting to the committee that he doesn’t know his rear end from his elbow. I’m sure this all must be grinding Paxton’s gears, poor baby. It has to be just a wee bit harder to justify all that money for his political vendettas when the numbers are so obviously wrong even he can’t act on them. As the story notes, he may never get any actual names from county election administrators, at least not any time soon. The lesson here is that it’s so much better to be right slowly than to be wrong quickly. And like many important lessons in life, it needed to be learned the hard way.

Paxton asks for summary judgement to end DACA

Not much coverage of this, and I’m not sure what that means.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Monday asked a federal judge to strike down Obama-era deportation protections for immigrants whose parents brought them to the United States illegally as children.

In a motion filed in Brownsville federal court, Paxton asked U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen to follow through on his ruling in August, when Hanen determined that the Obama administration did not have the authority to implement the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

At the time, however, Hanen declined to issue an injunction blocking enforcement of DACA.

In Monday’s motion for summary judgment joined by seven other states, Paxton asked the judge to end the program and block the federal government from issuing or renewing any more DACA permits to young immigrants.

Congress, not the president, has the authority to determine federal immigration law, he said.

“Whatever its policy merits, DACA is clearly unlawful, as this court has already held,” Paxton’s motion said. “Underlying the program is a limitless notion of executive power which, if left unchecked, could allow future presidents to dismantle other duly enacted laws. The court must not allow that to occur.”

[…]

If Hanen agrees to issue an order ending DACA, he would be in conflict with federal judges in California and New York who have blocked the Trump administration’s effort to end the program in 2017. DACA remains in force while appeals in both cases proceed.

See here and here for the background. The Statesman was the only news outlet with a story on this, which may mean there’s little chance it will go anywhere or it may mean we’re all so distracted by the eleventy jillion other news stories out there that no one is paying much attention to Paxton’s latest stunt. SCOTUS just declined to take up the Trump administration’s appeal of lower court rulings keeping DACA in place, which you’d think might give pause to even a Paxton-friendly judge. I’m never quite that optimistic. Anyway, I’m noting this for the record so when something happens I’ll be able to refer to this at that time.

(And a day later, he’s petitioning to have abortion and transgender health protections “wiped permanently” from Obamacare. I think he feels emboldened after having survived re-election. But don’t worry, I’m sure he’d use those new powers he wants responsibly.)

Paxton wants power to pursue political prosecutions

That’s the only rational interpretation of this.

Best mugshot ever

As he begins his second term, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is looking to expand the prosecutorial power of his office, asking the Legislature for more resources and expanded jurisdiction to go after crimes related to abortion and voter fraud.

The Republican attorney general’s office has asked lawmakers for millions more in funding to prosecute election fraud and human trafficking crimes. The agency has also requested expanded jurisdiction over abortion-related crimes, which are currently the purview of local officials.

Paxton’s office, which didn’t return multiple requests for comment for this story, says additional resources — and the additional grants of authority — are necessary to ensure laws are uniformly, and firmly, enforced across the state. But in Texas, most criminal enforcement falls to local prosecutors unless they seek the state’s help. And many of those prosecutors say there’s no need for the state to take over work they’re already handling.

Critics also point to the contested areas where two of Paxton’s major requests focus — abortion and election fraud — as evidence that he’s motivated by politics, not law.

There’s a lot more in the story, and you should read it all, but what you need to know is right there. It all started with Paxton’s minions making false statements to a Senate committee about local prosecutors. Never mind that there’s essentially no such thing as “abortion-related crime” – the story never even defined what that might be, and the anti-abortion advocate quoted in the story couldn’t supply an example of it. If Ken Paxton has the power to prosecute it, whatever it is, you can bet your bottom dollar he’ll find some to prosecute. Same for “election fraud” – I guarantee you, you give him millions of dollars to spend on it, he’ll spend them all. You’ll almost forget that the original role of the Attorney General is for civil cases.

Second lawsuit filed over bogus SOS advisory

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of Latino voters is suing top state officials who they allege unlawfully conspired to violate their constitutional rights by singling them out for investigation and removal from the voter rolls because they are foreign-born.

Filed in a Corpus Christi-based federal court on Friday night, the suit alleges that the decision by state officials to advise counties to review the citizenship status of tens of thousands of registered voters it flagged using flawed data runs contrary to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act because it imposes additional requirements to register to vote on naturalized citizens.

Joined in the suit by several organizations that advocate for Latinos in Texas, the seven voters suing the state all obtained their driver’s license before they became naturalized citizens and subsequently registered to vote.

Their lawsuit — which names Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas secretary of state David Whitley, attorney general Ken Paxton and one local official as defendants — asks the court to halt the state’s review and block officials from taking any action against them based on their national origin. It also asks Whitley to refrain from targeting new citizens for voter purges and to withdraw his current list “unless and until it acquires information that the voters are currently ineligible to vote.”

[…]

One of the plaintiffs — Julieta Garibay — has confirmed with Travis County election officials that she is on the list they received from the state. Five others believe they were included on the state’s list. Another plaintiff — Elena Keane — received a notice from Galveston County stating “there is reason to believe you may not be a United States citizen” and asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days to remain on the voter rolls.

Two days later, Keane received a second letter stating she had received the first letter in error.

Here’s the latest on that first lawsuit. This one was filed by MALDEF on behalf of the voters. The ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project have threatened to sue if the SOS doesn’t rescind the advisory, so we may get a third filing before all is said and done. Keep at it and don’t let up, I say. The Chron has more.

SOS walks its advisory back even more

Just rescind the whole damn list and let’s pretend this never happened.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A week after it flagged tens of thousands of voters for citizenship checks, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now advising counties on how to check their lists for naturalized citizens — an indirect acknowledgment that legitimate voters could have been on the list from the beginning.

Those voters are in addition to the more than 20,000 others who should have been removed from the list earlier this week after state officials found they had been mistakenly included.

In a mass email sent to local election officials on Friday, the secretary of state’s director of elections, Keith Ingram, offered up additional guidance to counties looking to clear voters from their lists without sending notices demanding proof of citizenship. Among the advice he offered to those election officials “after speaking to a number of counties” was to review registration application files collected at ceremonies in which immigrants become citizens.

“Some county voter registrars or [volunteer deputy registrars] participate in naturalization ceremonies and maintain lists of naturalized citizens or can identify which applications were completed at a naturalization ceremony,” Ingram wrote in the email, which was obtained by The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“Like many other election and voter registration activities, we are working together on this,” Ingram wrote in the email. “We thank you for your feedback and continue to welcome any further feedback so that we can work together to ensure an effective and efficient process of maintaining an accurate list of registered voters going forward.”

The additional guidance to counties comes as civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers continue to call on the state to rescind its original advisory to local election officials regarding the voters flagged for citizenship checks, pointing to the errors that have already been discovered in the state’s data.

“We told the SOS what was going to happen, and this week we all saw that what we cautioned against has become true,” Andre Segura, legal director of the ACLU of Texas, said on a press call on Friday. “The list is entirely flawed.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Seems like the SOS is doing everything it can to disavow its original advisory without publicly admitting their initial advisory was trash. They also haven’t said whether they’ve given a less-bogus list of names to the AG’s office. They couldn’t have been more incompetent and buffoonish if they’d tried.

And it’s quite clear, they tried.

State Rep. Rafael Anchia had been alarmed by the actions of the Texas secretary of state’s office for days by the time the agency’s chief, David Whitley, walked into the Dallas Democrat’s Capitol office on Monday.

The Friday before, Whitley’s staff had issued a press release calling into question the citizenship of 95,000 registered voters in Texas. In the days since, advocacy groups and Democratic lawmakers were raising serious questions about whether the majority of people on that list would soon be proven to be eligible voters.

But before those doubts emerged, Whitley, the top election officer in the state, had handed over information about those registered voters to the Texas attorney general, which has the jurisdiction to prosecute them for felony crimes.

So as he sat at the end of his green, glass-topped conference table, Anchia — the chair of the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus — wanted to know: Did Whitley know for sure that any of the names on his list had committed crimes by voting as noncitizens?

“No,” Whitley answered, according to Anchia.

“And I said, ‘Well, isn’t it the protocol that you investigate and, if you find facts, you turn it over to the AG?”

“I do not have an answer for that,” Whitley responded, according to Anchia’s recollection of the Monday meeting.

[…]

The citizenship check effort went public this week, but the seeds for it were planted in 2013. That year, Texas lawmakers quietly passed a law granting the secretary of state’s office access to personal information maintained by the Department of Public Safety.

During legislative hearings at the time, Keith Ingram, director of elections for the secretary of state’s office, told lawmakers that the information would help his office verify the voter rolls. The state had had a recent misstep when it tried remove dead people from the rolls and ended up sending “potential deceased” notices to Texans who were still alive.

One of the DPS records that the 2013 law granted the secretary of state’s office access to was a list of people who had turned in documentation indicating they weren’t citizens — such as a green card or a work visa — when they obtained a driver’s license or an ID in Texas.

But it appears that the secretary of state’s office held off for years before comparing that list with its list of registered voters. Former Secretary of State Carlos Cascos, a self-proclaimed skeptic of Republican claims of rampant voter fraud, said he had no memory of even considering using the DPS data when he served from 2015 to 2017.

“I don’t recall it ever coming to my desk,” Cascos said. “I don’t even recall having any informal discussions of that.”

And there was reason to be careful with the “lawful presence list.” Driver’s licenses don’t have to be renewed for several years. In between renewals, Texans aren’t required to notify DPS about a change in citizenship status. That means many of the people on the list could have become citizens and registered to vote without DPS knowing.

Other states learned the hard way that basing similar checks on driver’s license data was risky.

In Florida, officials in 2012 first drew up a list of about 180,000 possible noncitizens. It was later culled to about 2,600 names, but even then that data was found to include errors. Ultimately, only about 85 voters were nixed from the rolls.

Around the same time, officials in Colorado started with a list of 11,805 individuals on the voter rolls who they said were noncitizens when they got their driver’s licenses. In the end, state officials said they had found about 141 noncitizens on the rolls — 35 of whom had a voting history — but those still needed to be verified by local election officials.

But it was under the helm of former Secretary of State Rolando Pablos, who took over in 2017, that the state began processing the DPS list. That happened even though at least some people in the office knew the risk. Officials in the secretary of state’s office early last year acknowledged to reporters for The Texas Tribune that similar checks in other states using driver’s license data had run into issues with naturalized citizens. Pablos didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Still, on Dec. 5, Betsy Schonhoff, voter registration manager for the secretary of state’s office, told local officials that her office had been working with DPS “this past year” to “evaluate information regarding individuals identified by DPS to not be citizens.” In a mass email sent to Texas counties — and obtained by the Tribune — Schonhoff informed them that the secretary of state’s office would be obtaining additional information from DPS in monthly files and sending out lists of matches starting in mid-January.

The next day, Pablos announced he would resign after two years in office. In his place, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott appointed Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide who at the time served as the governor’s deputy chief of staff.

Makes you wonder if he saw this coming and hopped off the train while he still could. Texas is in the process of learning the same lesson that Florida and Colorado did. I just have no faith that it will stick, at least as long as the current crew is in charge.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Civil rights groups push back on bogus SOS letter

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lawyers with 13 organizations — including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — are demanding that the state rescind an advisory sent to local election officials regarding the individuals whose citizenship status the state says the counties should consider checking. In a letter sent Monday, the groups requested a response by Jan. 30, claiming that the state’s data was flawed and demanding more information about the methodology it used.

Some of the groups are considering litigation against the state, said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The letter comes three days after the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who had provided the Texas Department of Safety some form of documentation, such as a green card or a work visa, that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or an ID cards.

“Using such a data set to review the current citizenship status of anyone is inherently flawed because it fails to account for individuals who became naturalized citizens and registered to vote at any point after having obtained their driver license or personal identification card,” the lawyers wrote.

In their letter, the groups point to efforts in Florida that used similar methodology to create a list of approximately 180,000 registered voters that officials claimed were noncitizens based on records used when they obtained driver’s licenses. That fight ended up in federal court after more than 2,600 were mistakenly removed from the rolls after being classified as noncitizens. About 85 voters “ultimately proved actionable,” the lawyers wrote.

See here for the background. The letter to the SOS is here, and the letter they sent to all 254 county election administrators is here. The latter is both a public information request for “all records relating to the Advisory, including but not limited to the list of all individuals identified by the Secretary of State or Department of Public Safety as potential non-citizens, the Voter Unique Identifier for each of those individuals, and all communications and correspondence with the Secretary of State concerning the Advisory”, and a plea to not take any action “unless and until the Secretary of State has provided greater transparency on its procedures and ensured there are adequate safeguards for not identifying lawfully registered naturalized citizens.” The letter to the SOS lays out their demands for more information, and drops a little math on them:

Given that Texas Driver Licenses and ID Cards do not expire for a full six years after they are issued, the odds are quite high that this list of purported non-citizens includes tens of thousands of people who are now US citizens entitled to vote. Indeed, each year, between 52,000-63,000 Texans become naturalized citizens (roughly the same number of potential non-citizens you claim have voted in Texas elections over a 22-year period).1 Given that newly naturalized citizens have voter registration rates around 50%,2 it is reasonable to conclude that at least 25,000 newly naturalized Texans are lawfully registering to vote each year. Even if one assumes that not all naturalized citizens previously obtained driver licenses, and not all registered naturalized citizens registered immediately, it is easy to see how this would result in your office obtaining over 90,000 incorrectly identified matches.

Read them both. Given that Ken Paxton was sending out email earlier the same day screaming about thousands of illegal voters, I think the odds are very high this will wind up in court.

It’s “Let’s lie about vote fraud” season again

The Trib wrote about this in the best possible way, but the shrieking ghouls are out there in force doing what they can to whip up fear.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas secretary of state’s office announced Friday it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who the state says counties should consider checking to see whether they are U.S. citizens and, therefore, legally eligible to vote.

In an advisory released Friday afternoon, the office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not a citizen when they were obtaining a driver’s license or an ID card. Among the individuals flagged, about 58,000 individuals cast a ballot in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018, the secretary of state’s office said.

It’s unclear exactly how many of those individuals are not actually U.S. citizens and whether that number will be available in the future. In its notice to counties, the secretary of state’s office said the names should be considered “WEAK” matches, using all capital letters for emphasis.

That means counties may now choose to investigate the eligibility of the individuals who were flagged, which would require them to send a notice asking for proof of citizenship within 30 days, or take no action. By law, the counties aren’t allowed to automatically revoke a voter’s registration without sending out such a notice.

It’s possible that individuals flagged by the state — who provided DPS with documentation that indicated they were authorized to be in the country — could have become naturalized citizens since they obtained their driver’s license or ID card. A spokesman for the secretary of state said officials are “very confident” that the data received from DPS is “current.”

In announcing the review of the rolls, Secretary of State David Whitley — who was appointed to the post last month after serving as deputy chief of staff to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott — immediately handed the data over to the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who said his office will “spare no effort in assisting with these troubling cases.”

But without additional verification, you can’t say these individuals all engaged in illegal voting, said Chris Davis, the head of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators.

“People get naturalized,” Davis said. “It’s entirely too early to say that.”

You should also read the Trib’s Twitter thread about this story, which sums it all up nicely.

First things first: This came out on Friday afternoon, which is usually the dumping ground for news that people want to bury. Do you think that if the Texas Secretary of State, a man appointed by Greg Abbott, had credible evidence of thousands of people voting illegally, this is how and when he would have announced it? Yeah, me neither.

Second, note the sentence that contains “about 58,000 individuals cast a ballot in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018”. That’s 23 years’ worth of elections. This doesn’t say 58,000 people last year – which, even if it did, would be about 0.7% of all votes cast. The average number per year is about 2,500, and that’s before we consider the possibility of false postives.

Why might there be false positives? See that line about “WEAK” matches. There’s likely to be a bunch of false positives based on the match criteria, which is mostly going to be name and county. Lots of people have the same name. Right here in Houston is another woman with the same name as my wife. We know all about her because we’ve gotten phone calls for years from creditors trying to track her down. That’s why the call from the SOS is for counties to look into the possibility that there may be non-citizens among the names, not for them to be removed immediately.

And finally, there’s the fact that despite DPS’ claims about this data being current, there’s no process to change one’s citizenship status with DPS if and when one gets naturalized at a later date. Some people have already spoken up on Twitter to say they voted after becoming citizens and thus might be on that DPS list.

Bottom line, this is a big old nothingburger. The Republicans are screaming about it – I’ve gotten multiple press releases over the weekend from the Republican Party of Texas about this – but they know full well there’s diddly squat to this. I’ll put it to you this way: Six months or a year from now, how many prosecutions for illegal voting as a result of this advisory do you think Ken Paxton will announce? The over/under on that is maybe ten, and I’m being generous. Mother Jones has more.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

Gotta say, I’m less optimistic about this now than I was when it was filed.

State attorneys and lawyers representing reproductive rights groups argued in federal court Monday over whether a sweeping lawsuit challenging more than 60 Texas abortion regulations should move forward.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel told state attorneys that their 73-page argument confused him. He also expressed confusion about what reproductive rights groups were arguing over.

“This needs to be something not that the court understands but the public understands,” Yeakel said. “I find this case difficult to understand with the status of the record.”

[…]

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Lawyering Project and lead attorney for the reproductive rights groups in the case, said during the hearing that “once upon a time, Texas started off with a reasonable regime to regulate the system of abortion.”

“The system has become so burdensome that it’s increasingly difficult for patients and providers to navigate,” Toti said.

Reproductive rights groups also argue that the state’s “A Woman’s Right to Know” booklet for patients is medically inaccurate. The suit targets a University of Texas System policy barring students from getting credit for internships and field placements at institutions that provide access to abortions.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a news release that the organization is “proud to lead another legal challenge in Texas.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, this lawsuit was filed in June, with the main argument being that the Whole Women’s Health SCOTUS ruling of 2016 made a bunch of previously-passed laws illegal as well. It seemed like a great idea at the time, right up until Anthony Kennedy decided to hang up his robe. Be that as it may, the hope here is to get at least a partial injunction from the district court, and see where we go from there. For that, we’ll have to wait on Judge Yeakel. The Chron has more.