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lawsuit

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mediation soon will begin in a lawsuit between the Houston police and firefighters unions over Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that gives firefighters equal pay to police officers.

In a Monday morning filing, State District Judge Tanya Garrison ordered the Houston Police Department, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the city to meet Monday or Tuesday.

The parties last week agreed to turn to mediator Dave Matthiesen over Prop B, though representatives from the HPFFA said they would need more time to brief members.

In her filing, Garrison pushed back against HPFFA’s claim, saying it had plenty of time to prepare for mediation. She also ordered the parties to continue meeting until “a settlement is achieved” or “in the sole determination of Mr. Matthieson, they have reached an impasse.”

[…]

At a press conference Monday, some members of City Council joined with municipal employees to reiterate their support for mediation and a five-year phase-in.

Among the first positions cut will be librarians, dental assistants, custodians, a park ranger and an electrician, District I Councilman Robert Gallegos said.

“It’s totally unfair to them,” he said. “I don’t believe this is what Prop B is about and I’m sure that’s not what the voters intended. Firefighters do deserve a pay raise, but not at the expense of innocent municipal employees.”

See here for the background. Matthiesen is an attorney and Democratic supporter who is well known to all parties involved, so at least that was easy enough. I don’t envy him the task, but maybe everyone’s ready for this to be over already. As the story notes, Council will still proceed with voting on layoffs tomorrow, as this is part of the budget work. My guess is that this can be unwound if a suitable agreement is reached, but it’s also a bit of pressure on the firefighters, as this is where it officially gets real. I do wish the story had listed all the Council members at that press conference, if only so we can have a clearer idea of what the whip count looks like right now, but we’ll find out soon enough.

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

A state district judge on Thursday ordered the city, the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association and the Houston Police Officers’ Union to enter into mediation as they seek to resolve lingering differences over the implementation of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Judge Tanya Garrison of the 157th Civil District Court ordered the mediation after hearing arguments in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate the pay parity amendment. During the hearing, Garrison said she would not issue a ruling on the case “any time soon,” concluding it would only set back ongoing negotiations to phase in firefighters’ Prop B-mandated raises.

“If I make a decision on this one way or the other … it will be the equivalent of throwing a bomb in the middle of the attempts to negotiate a resolution,” Garrison said.

The judge gave the parties until noon Monday to agree on a mediator. The court would appoint a mediator if they cannot settle on one.

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

The mediator may suggest ways to resolve the dispute but cannot impose judgment, according to a list of rules attached to Garrison’s court order. If the parties do not voluntarily agree to a settlement, the issue returns to Garrison.

See here, here, and here for the background. As long as the mediator isn’t Tony Buzbee, I’m sure it will be fine. As a reminder, City Council will vote on the layoff plan on Wednesday (the agenda item was tagged last week), so perhaps that will provide some incentive to make things happen. In other news, the city provided financial data that the firefighters’ union had been demanding, though whether that will settle that argument or be the cause of further arguments remains to be seen.

Skilling settles longstanding lawsuit

Old business.

Less than two months after leaving prison, former Enron Chief Executive Officer Jeffrey Skilling settled a 17-year-old lawsuit claiming he helped defraud a Canadian investment firm with the promotion of the defunct energy company’s securities as it headed toward collapse.

SilverCreek Management Inc., a Toronto-based investment firm that bought Enron-issued bonds in October 2001, sued in Manhattan federal court, accusing the company’s accountants, banks, directors, law firms and underwriters of helping facilitate the oil trader’s demise.

SilverCreek had earlier reached settlements with all defendants except Skilling and former Enron Chief Accounting Officer Richard Causey. In a letter last month, it said it had an agreement-in-principle with Causey. And on Friday, SilverCreek and Skilling told U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken that they also reached a settlement-in-principle. The terms weren’t disclosed.

Amazingly, I don’t have any old posts to refer to for background information. There definitely lawsuits in the offing as Skilling was first sent to jail, but this one predates that event by several years, so who knows. I do wonder if the settlement offer includes payment in cryptocurrency. That would just be fitting, don’t you think?

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

Houston mayoral challenger Tony Buzbee followed through his pledge to sue Mayor Sylvester Turner Wednesday, claiming that donated billboards for the city’s AlertHouston! campaign violate campaign finance laws because they feature a photo of Turner.

The lawsuit, filed in the 281st state district court, names Turner and Clear Channel Outdoor Inc., the company that donated the 27 billboards, as defendants.

Buzbee’s petition claims Clear Channel is “blatantly supporting” Turner in the November mayoral race “by plastering his smiling face across this city while promoting him as a civic-minded, safety conscious leader.”

The billboards promote AlertHouston!, a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

I’m not going to waste our time on the details here. Let’s refer to this earlier story for the reasons why this is dumb.

Buck Wood, an Austin-based campaign finance lawyer, equated Buzbee’s allegations to a hypothetical real estate agent who, after announcing a run for public office, would then have to take down any advertisements for their private business.

“I have never seen anything like that,” he said.

Proving the billboards are illegal, Wood said, would require Buzbee to show that the company and Turner struck a deal explicitly aimed at aiding the mayor’s re-election.

“You’d have to have good, strong evidence that they put up these pictures just for the purpose of helping elect him,” Wood said. “…You’d have to prove a conspiracy, and that’s basically impossible to do in this situation.”

Each year around hurricane season, former Harris County Judge Ed Emmett would appear on billboards, in some years directing people to the county’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management website. Emmett said he used campaign funds to pay for the billboards during election years.

I mean, I know Tony Buzbee is supposed to be a super duper lawyer and all, but maybe he might have asked another lawyer about this first? Just a thought.

Exhibit B:

Months after being denied media credentials for the Texas House, the conservative organization Texas Scorecard — a product of Empower Texans, a Tea Party-aligned political advocacy group with one of the state’s best-funded political action committees — has filed a First Amendment lawsuit arguing that its rejection from the lower chamber constitutes “unconstitutional viewpoint discrimination.”

Before the legislative session kicked off in January, two employees of Texas Scorecard, Brandon Waltens and Destin Sensky, applied for media credentials in both chambers of the Legislature. In the Senate, their credentials were granted; in the House, they were denied. The two chambers follow similar rules about who is allowed special journalistic access to the floor, and both prohibit lobbyists. But the chambers’ political atmospheres are different.

House Administration Chair Charlie Geren, a Fort Worth Republican who has sparred with Empower Texans and its PAC in the past, told the group in a January rejection letter that it was ineligible for media credentials because “the organization you are employed by, Texas Scorecard, has a close association with a general-purpose political committee (GPAC) and that the organization’s website prominently displays advocacy on policy matters before the legislature.” As evidence of the group’s affiliation with the PAC, Geren cited the organizations’ shared address — but by the time Geren’s letter was issued, the lawsuit claims, they no longer shared that address.

Empower Texans PAC has backed primary opponents to Geren and has given Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Texas Senate, more than $850,000 in the last five years.

Now, Empower Texans is very likely to get a friendly hearing from the State Supreme Court, so at least from a strategic perspective, this isn’t a dumb lawsuit. It’s very likely to be a successful lawsuit. But come on. If these Empower Texans flunkies count as “journalists”, then that word has no meaning. All of us are made a little more dumb by the existence of this lawsuit.

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.

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

We should have a final version in a couple of weeks.

A proposed settlement in the landmark Harris County bail lawsuit would significantly change how the county treats poor defendants in misdemeanor cases by providing free social and transportation services and relaxing penalties for missed court dates.

The draft deal includes a number of reforms aimed at ensuring poor defendants arrive for court hearings and are not unfairly pressured into guilty pleas. They would, among other changes: require Harris County to provide free child care at courthouses, develop a two-way communication system between courts and defendants, give cell phones to poor defendants and pay for public transit or ride share services for defendants without access to transportation to court.

“I’m not aware of any county, or city the size of Houston… doing those type of innovative things,” said Mary McCord, a former federal prosecutor who filed an amicus brief in the case on behalf of the poor defendants. “Ultimately, the county is going to save so much money by not keeping these people in jail.”

The proffered agreement would require the county to operate at least one night or weekend docket to provide a more convenient opportunity for defendants with family, work and education commitments. Courts would be barred from charging any fees to poor defendants, defined as those earning less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $25,000 for someone with no dependents.

The proposal also would reduce penalties for missed court dates. A defendant could not be deemed to have failed to appear if he arrived in court on the day assigned, even if he was hours late. Defendants would be allowed to reschedule court appearances for any reason at least two times without negative consequences. Judges only could issue bench warrants 30 days after a missed a court appearance, so long as the court already has attempted to contact the defendant with a rescheduled hearing date.

In addition, judges would be required to permit defendants to skip hearings where their presence is unnecessary, such as routine meetings between prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges that do not involve testimony or fact-finding.

At the heart of the 23-page proposed settlement, a copy of which was obtained by the Houston Chronicle, is the codification of a new bail schedule unveiled by the slate of newly elected of criminal judges in January, under which about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors automatically qualify for release on no-cash bonds.

“Our current goal now is to become the model misdemeanor court system in America,” said Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, a bail reform advocate and the only Democrat on the misdemeanor bench when the case began. “I think the proposals in the settlement, as far as the wraparound services for misdemeanor defendants, is a great step in that direction.”

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement late Friday stressing that the proposal is preliminary, and could change.

“We’re working well with the plaintiffs to reach an agreement that will provide a model for bail reform around the country while also being feasible for the county to implement,” she said.

Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said he is eager to negotiate a settlement that balances the needs of defendants against those of victims and county taxpayers. He declined to speak to specific provisions in the proposed settlement, but said he has concerns that some may be too expensive or unrealistic.

“I’ll just say there’s a number of things that immediately hit me like, ‘I’m not sure how we’re going to do that,’” Garcia said.

Precinct 3 Commissioner Steve Radack and Precinct 4’s Jack Cagle panned the proposal, which they said is too broad. The pair of Republicans said it should instead focus on implementing bail rules that ignore a defendant’s ability to pay.

“If my learned colleagues are going to strive for free Uber rides for the accused, I’d strongly advocate we provide the same to victims,” Cagle said.

Just a reminder, for anyone who might be fixating on the Uber rides or childcare aspects of this, the goal here is to get people to show up for their court dates. I would remind you that the alternative to paying for those relatively small things is paying to house, feed, and clothe thousands of people for weeks or months at a time, and that we have been doing exactly that for decades now. And if it’s the Uber thing that’s really sticking in your craw, then I trust you support a robust expansion of our public transit and pedestrian infrastructure so that it’s practical for anyone to take a bus to the courthouse. (Though having said that, if Commissioner Cagle was being sincere and not sarcastic, providing rides to the courthouse for victims who need them seems like a good idea to me.)

Again, just to review. Locking people up who have not been convicted of a crime is (with limited exceptions) wrong. Locking people up who have been arrested on charges that would normally not carry jail time if they were convicted is wrong. Locking people up for technical violations that have nothing to do with the crimes with which they have been charged is wrong. We spend tens of millions of dollars of our tax dollars every year doing these things. This is our chance to spend a whole lot less, and to get better results for it.

Time for another Texas Central legislative update

I keep thinking that Texas Central has reached a point where there’s not much that can be done in the Lege to stop them, and events continue to prove otherwise.

Dallas-Houston bullet train developer Texas Central Partners LLC said its project could be delayed by a provision added to the Texas Senate’s proposed 2020-21 budget Wednesday, even though the company is not planning on using state funds to build the high-speed rail line. The company said language added to the upper chamber’s spending plan would encourage lawsuits and “is not beneficial for good coordination and planning.” Meanwhile, project opponents cheered the provision.

The measure, authored by Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, continues to bar state funds from subsidizing high-speed passenger rail projects but would go further than current law. It would prevent the Texas Department of Transportation from helping coordinate access to rights-of-way on state highways for the high-speed rail project until there is a final, unappealable court ruling on the project’s eminent domain authority. Debate over whether Texas Central has the right to condemn land and buy it from unwilling owners has fueled opposition to the project and led to court battles across the state. The new language was added in what’s called a rider to the proposed budget.

[…]

“Working with TXDOT is critical to the project,” the company said in a statement late Wednesday. “This rider would impose arbitrary and discriminatory restrictions for a single project and sets a bad precedent.”

Texas law allows railroads to use eminent domain to take land for projects, and Texas Central says it is one. But opponents argue that the company doesn’t count as a railroad because it’s not operating any trains — and a Leon County Court upheld that viewpoint in February.

Texas Central disagreed with the ruling, citing a previous Harris County ruling in its favor, and said it plans to appeal the judge’s decision. But as the decision stands, the company can’t condemn land in the counties under the court’s jurisdiction, according to an attorney who represented the landowner in that case.

Patrick McShan, an attorney for the group Texans Against High-Speed Rail and more than 100 landowners along the train’s route, said there may be a lengthy court battle to settle the disagreement over whether the company can use eminent domain. And that, he said, could stall the project.

“At least two years, could be four years. Whatever it is, it’s several years,” he said. “It would be a significant obstacle to the project being constructed. … I do not envision a scenario where they can obtain these necessary approvals and these necessary court rulings to prove to the state that it is justifiable and necessary for the state to expend its resources on this project.”

See here for more on that court case, and here for where things stood at the end of the 2017 session. I fondly remember thinking that if Texas Central survived that session with nothing bad happening they were probably in good shape going forward. Those were the days, I tell you. The Senate budget still has to be approved by the full chamber and then reconciled with the House budget, so there will be opportunities for this rider to get ditched. And then I can make the same foolish prediction at the end of this session and get proven wrong again in 2021. It’s the circle of life, almost.

The Orbit lawsuit

Now here‘s an interesting case.

A Montgomery County woman has filed suit against the Astros, alleging she suffered a broken finger when her left hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from an air-powered cannon wielded by Orbit, the ballclub’s costumed mascot, at an Astros game last July.

Plaintiff Jennifer Harughty seeks damages in excess of $1 million from the Astros in the suit, which was assigned to 157th state District Court Judge Tanya Garrison.

The lawsuit, filed by Houston attorneys Jason Gibson and Casey Gibson, says Harughty has required two operations to repair damage to her left index finger, which was shattered when her hand was struck by a T-shirt fired from the Orbit character’s “bazooka-style” air cannon during the seventh inning of an Astros game July 8, 2018, at Minute Maid Park.

Harughty, 35, of Montgomery, who works as a real estate broker, said her finger remains locked in an extended position with little to no range of motion and that she continues to suffer discomfort from the injury, the lawsuit said.

Jason Gibson said the lawsuit was filed only after the Astros refused to pay Harughty’s medical bills associated with the injury.

“Nothing was going to be done,” the attorney said. “We were directed to the general counsel, and he basically said ‘file your lawsuit.’ He asked for it, and he got it. We were hoping to get this resolved, but that didn’t happen.”

The suit said Harughty was struck on the palm side of her left hand and required treatment at an emergency room after the game. She required surgery four days later to insert two screws into the injured finger and a second operation in October to remove the screws and attempt to restore range of motion to the finger.

Major League Baseball tickets include what has become known as the “baseball rule,” which states that a ticket holder “assumes all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game, and all other activities, promotions or events at the Ballpark before, during and after the baseball game, including, but not limited to, the danger of being injured by baseballs, equipment, objects or persons entering spectator areas.”

That stipulation, which is included on the Astros’ website under season ticket policies, says that by attending a game, the ticket holder releases the Astros and Major League Baseball from liability for “injuries or loss of personal property resulting from all risk and danger incidental to the baseball game and the risks or any incidents associated with crowds of people.”

Gibson said he is acquainted with Astros owner Jim Crane and with members of the Astros’ ownership group and that “everyone loves the Astros.” However, he said he did not believe that the liability waiver covers cases such as Harughty’s.

“That’s not the type of risk you assume going to a baseball game, although they may take that position,” Gibson said. “Ours will be that you don’t assume the risk of having someone fire a cannon at you that creates that much force at that proximity that can cause that kind of damage.”

A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. Let me remind everyone that I Am Not A Lawyer, so what I say is simply the speculation of a layman. I find myself rather sympathetic to the plaintiff’s arguments. T-shirt cannons, as fun as they are, are totally the team’s decision to use, and not an inherent risk of attending the game as they are a recent innovation. I mean, no one was hurling things into the crowd when I was attending Yankees games back in the 70s and 80s. (Things may have occasionally been hurled out from the crowd, but that’s another story.) People understand that a batted ball may be coming their way and they need to pay attention when the game is in progress. But mascots like Orbit do their thing in between innings, when you’d think it’s safe to check your phone. And by the way, teams have been putting up more netting around the lower decks of the stadiums, to better protect people from those increasingly hard-hit balls. If teams are willing to mitigate those risks, it’s not unreasonable to think they might mitigate a non-game risk like a projectile fired at high velocity from a T-shirt cannon. My advice, for all that it’s worth, is to offer to settle the suit for the woman’s medical costs and a bit more, and to take a closer look at how those T-shirt cannons are being operated. Why make a bigger deal out of this than necessary?

Third Census lawsuit ruling against Trump administration

Once, twice, three times an injunction.

A federal judge in Maryland ruled Friday against the government’s addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, The Washington Post reported Friday.

Judge George J. Hazel found that in deciding last year to add the question, the government violated administrative law, according to The Post. The ruling will probably be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, as is expected with two similar cases.

The case has Texas connections. Lawyers representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Senate Hispanic Caucus, and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino and Asian residents have appeared before Hazel to make arguments in the case.

The plaintiffs have challenged the inclusion of the citizenship question on several fronts, alleging that it violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause, the Enumeration Clause and a federal law that governs federal agencies and their decision-making processes.

The Post reported that in his ruling, Hazel wrote, “The unreasonableness of Defendants’ addition of a citizenship question to the Census is underscored by the lack of any genuine need for the citizenship question, the woefully deficient process that led to it, the mysterious and potentially improper political considerations that motivated the decision and the clear pretext offered to the public.”

See here and here for the previous rulings, and here for more on this case. All three rulings focused on statutory issues, with constitutional issues either not being part of the case (as with the first lawsuit) or not getting the same favorable treatment. That may bode well for the forthcoming appeal to SCOTUS, as the questions are much more narrowly defined. Here’s hoping. Daily Kos has more.

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.

LULAC settles its SOS lawsuit

Good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The state of Texas is ending a program to purge voters it claimed were noncitizens in order to settle lawsuits brought by civil rights groups over the plan.

The deal was reached following a meeting Monday in San Antonio between acting Secretary of State David Whitley and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs.

The groups brought three separate lawsuits — filed in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston — alleging the program illegally targeted immigrant voters and resulted in voter intimidation. The suits were consolidated into one in San Antonio with the lead case, which was filed by LULAC and Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

As part of the deal, Whitley and his staff will tell county voter registrars and local election administrators to take no further action on any data files the state had sent them in late January, but may start a new program that won’t demand voters prove their U.S. citizenship.

[…]

As part of the settlement, the state will scrap the data it used for the first program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

The state will also work with LULAC and the other plaintiffs groups on the plan by sharing the methodology and data used.

The process will enable the state to remove voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, while being the least disruptive to those who are U.S. citizens, LULAC said.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As noted, both of the other two lawsuits were joined with this one, so what happens here is going to be the final word. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I was not able to find a copy of the settlement, but this sure looks like a big win for the plaintiffs. Honestly, just the fact that the state is settling and not taking its chances with the Fifth Circuit tells you something. Kudos to the plaintiffs for forcing some accountability into this mess.

UPDATE: It’s not fully done, but it’s close.

A deal was about “99 percent” done Monday, after Secretary of State David Whitley met in San Antonio with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs, said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel.

As part of the tentative agreement discussed Monday, the state would scrap the data it used for the first voter purge program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” Vera said. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

The parties were to return to the table Tuesday to hammer out additional terms before taking the final deal to a judge for review.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the secretary of state, said that while there is no official settlement yet, progress was made Monday.

“We are encouraged by the positive and constructive progress we have made with the plaintiffs, and we remain committed to our goal of maintaining accurate voter rolls while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on eligible Texas voters,” Taylor said.

Stay tuned.

Congress to investigate bogus SOS advisory

Elections do have consequences.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The U.S. House’s main investigative committee has opened an inquiry into the Texas secretary of state’s review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens.

In letters sent to top Texas officials on Thursday, U.S. Reps. Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chair of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, and Jamie Raskin, D-Maryland, requested documents and communications from the secretary of state and the state’s attorney general related to the review through which state officials tagged almost 100,000 registered voters as suspect voters.

Texas officials rolled out the review effort in late January, shipping off lists of flagged voters to county voter registrars in what they described as routine maintenance of the state’s massive voter registration database. But state officials’ efforts have been dogged by errors in the data and litigation in federal court, which ground the entire review to a halt over concerns by a federal judge that it targeted naturalized citizens.

“We are disturbed by reports that your office has taken steps to remove thousands of eligible American voters from the rolls in Texas and that you have referred many of these Americans for possible criminal prosecution for exercising their right to vote,” the congressmen wrote to Secretary of State David Whitley.

[…]

In their letters, Cummings and Raskin — who chairs a subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties — cited their authority to investigate “any matter” at “any time” under the rules of the U.S. House of Representatives. Noting they’ve examined state voting issues in the past, they requested all sorts of communications between state agencies involved in the review, as well as any communications with Trump administration officials.

You can see a copy of the letter here. I look forward to seeing what this turns up, as I’m quite certain that there are things we do not yet know about this fiasco. Whitley should expect some sharper questions, though he will have some supporters as well, as the committee includes Reps. Michael Cloud and Chip Roy, who is a minion of both Ted Cruz and Ken Paxton. The DMN, the Observer, and the Chron have more.

Judge tosses Dave Wilson’s lawsuit against HCC

Sorry, Dave.

Dave Wilson

A judge has dismissed a lawsuit against Houston Community College that had been filed by one of the Board of Trustee’s controversial members.

Dave Wilson claimed in a lawsuit that the college violated his First and 14th Amendment rights. But in a ruling issued Friday, U.S. District Court Judge Kenneth Hoyt said Wilson “failed to demonstrate any injury-in-fact.”

Wilson claimed in the lawsuit that the college’s board violated his free speech and due process rights when they voted to publicly censure him in January 2018. The board’s censure said Wilson’s conduct was “detrimental to Houston Community College Systems and its mission.” The board members also said Wilson violated the college’s bylaws, failed to engage and respect the board’s decision-making process and their differing opinions, and that he did not interact with trustees in a “mutually respectful manner.”

[…]

Wilson, a District II trustee, called Hoyt’s decision a “bad ruling” and said that he was disappointed that the judge didn’t address the fact that he could be censured again.

He and his lawyer are considering an appeal, he said. “We’re still thinking about it, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I didn’t appeal it,” he said.

When he was censured last year, the trustees also decided that Wilson was not eligible for travel-related expense reimbursements and would need board approval when requesting funding for community affairs programs for the 2017-2018 college year. They also determined he could not be elected for a board officer position in 2018, all of which Wilson said violated his rights, according to court documents.

But Hoyt concluded that the board’s resolution did not infringe upon Wilson’s First or 14th Amendment rights because Wilson could freely speak in public and could attend and express his views at board meetings, according to a court document.

See here and here for the background. The facts alleged in the suit seemed awfully thin and un-actionable, but Dave Wilson does what he does, and that’s all there is to it. Which means he’s considering an appeal, because what else does he have to do with his time? Well, there is one thing:

Despite Wilson’s volatile relationship with the HCC board, he has no intention of giving up his position as a board member and said he plans to run for re-election in November. He was elected to the board in 2013.

“I love Houston Community College and what they can do for this community, but I hate the way special interest groups are eating away at it and the students aren’t the main focus,” Wilson said.

“Trump wanted to drain the swamp. I’m going to drain the cesspool at Houston Community College,” Wilson said. “I got on the board to clean this place up, and I’m going to continue to work.”

Yes, he’s running for re-election. At least this time, we can see him coming. And we damn well better send him packing.

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.

Harris County sues ITC over Deer Park fire

Go get ’em.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Meanwhile, on a semi-related note:

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

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

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

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

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

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

World’s worst pastors drop Austin equal rights lawsuit

Good.

A conservative Christian organization has dropped a federal lawsuitthat sought to overturn an Austin anti-discrimination ordinance that offers employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Dave Welch, head of the Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council, said the decision was based on the advice of the group’s lawyer but might not be the last word on the matter.

“Our position has not changed. We’re just going to revisit how we approach the suit, and we’re hoping there’s still a possibility at some point of refiling it,” Welch said.

The council’s lawsuit, filed in October, argued that Austin’s ordinance is unconstitutional and invalid because it does not include a religious exemption for 25 member churches in Austin that refuse to hire gay or transgender people as employees or clergy.

Austin asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman of Austin to dismiss the lawsuit last month, arguing that the city ordinance does not apply to a church’s hiring of clergy and that no church expressed a problem with the city’s employment protections.

In addition, the city argued, the lawsuit failed to list the 25 member churches or show how any of them had been harmed by the anti-discrimination protections.

“There is no allegation the ordinance has been enforced, or is about to be enforced, against any of the unnamed Austin churches, and no allegation that any of them have in fact been restricted in their hiring decisions,” the motion to dismiss stated.

See here for the background. Makes you wonder why their lawyers didn’t give them this advice before they wasted their time and money on the lawsuit, but whatever. Rational explanations don’t mean much to these guys. Dropping this lawsuit doesn’t mean these idiots are giving up, of course. As the story notes, there are various anti-equality bills in the Lege that would accomplish their goals. One is HB1035, which would provide a “freedom of conscious” exemption for religious organizations so they could discriminate in hiring or whatever else as they saw fit. That bill’s author is Rep. Bill Zedler, who by the way is also one of the leading anti-vaxxers in the Lege. Beating him in 2020 – he had a close win in 2018 – would go a long way towards making the Lege a better place.

An overview on bail reform

From Mother Jones, a look at how bail reform is progressing in Harris County. I’m going to focus on the part about the second bail-related lawsuit, which covers felony arrests.

A federal judge in Harris County is currently considering a case that would transform the way bail is set for people charged with felonies, a population that comprises the vast majority of people in jail awaiting trial.

The lawsuit, filed in January by civil rights groups against the county and its sheriff, argues that detaining felony defendants simply because they can’t afford bail discriminates against the poor and often forces them to take guilty pleas just to get out faster. The suit asks the court to stop the practice of jailing people who aren’t a threat to public safety prior to trial only because they can’t pay. According to the suit, in 2017, up to 85 percent of those arrested for felonies were booked into jail because they couldn’t make bail.

[…]

The settlement [in the misdemeanor case lawsuit] was a watershed moment. “I don’t think we can understate the cultural significance,” says Alec Karakatsanis, who was a lawyer with Equal Justice Under Law when the case was settled and is now an attorney with Civil Rights Corps. Although other counties and states have similarly reformed their bail systems—California abolished cash bail last year, and Washington, DC, largely did away with the practice decades ago—Harris County’s size makes the victory particularly significant.

And while the settlement details were being ironed out, the same lawyers from the misdemeanor case filed the felony suit.

“Once we were having very constructive, productive discussions with the new misdemeanor judges about a final settlement, we realized it was time now to move on to the next piece of the problem,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the plaintiffs in both lawsuits.

The felony case, a class action, was filed on behalf of three men who had been charged with nonviolent felony offenses, including driving under the influence and drug possession. The men were assigned bail amounts between $15,000 and $30,000. None of them could pay, and two of them remain detained since being brought into custody in mid-January. (The other made bail after about two weeks in jail.) Like the misdemeanor case, lawyers for the plaintiffs are arguing that such a bail system discriminates against poor inmates who are otherwise low risk.

But if the misdemeanor case was a big deal, the case currently in front of the court will be a game-changer. As of March 2016, misdemeanor defendants comprise only about 8 percent of the county jail’s pretrial population—felony defendants, meanwhile, account for the rest. In fact, 77 percent of the entire county jail population, or approximately 6,000 people, at any given time are felony defendants awaiting trial, most of them for nonviolent offenses. And like people charged with misdemeanors, most of the defendants in jail for felony charges are stuck there because they can’t afford a bond. Although there are no national figures available on how many people are in jail because they can’t pay, data from the Prison Policy Initiative says that every day, 465,000 people are held in jail pretrial, and the organization estimates that hundreds of thousands of these people are there because they can’t afford bail.

If the district court sides with Karakatsanis and his clients, Harris County would be one of the largest in the country to severely limit the use of cash bail. The parties will be negotiating a settlement over the next several weeks, and Manne said he’s optimistic those talks will result in a similar outcome as the misdemeanor suit.

See here and here for some background. The story does not note that there are bills filed in the Legislature that would implement much of the reforms from the Harris County lawsuit statewide. Harris County was a watershed here not just because it’s the biggest county, with the biggest jail population, but also because for the most part, the other big counties have not taken similar action yet. The precedent this lawsuit set will certainly affect any future and current lawsuits in other counties, whether or not the proposed bills pass. There of course remains some resistance to the whole thing, but that is by this point a diminishing position. I look forward to seeing how the negotiations over the felony bail lawsuit turn out.

Of course some voters were removed by that bogus SOS advisory

No one should be surprised by this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Fourteen Texas voters caught up in the secretary of state’s botched review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens had their registrations canceled but have since been reinstated, state officials told a federal judge Friday.

The Texas Attorney General’s Office informed the San Antonio court judge as part of the ongoing litigation over the state’s error-riddled review, through which almost 100,000 individuals were marked as possible noncitizens. Seven counties marked the voting registration of 14 individuals as canceled because the voters had failed to respond to letters that demanded they prove their citizenship.

Counties were canceling voters’ registrations as recently as Wednesday — well after federal District Judge Fred Biery halted the review effort on Feb. 27 and ordered local officials to hold off on removing any voters from the voter rolls without his approval.

The cancellations affected voters in Coke, DeWitt, Matagorda, Montague, Victoria, Willacy and Zavala counties.

In some cases, voters hit the 30-day deadline they were given to provide their local voter registrar with proof that they are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible to vote, according to a review by the secretary of state’s office. Two voters in DeWitt County were canceled on Feb. 4 before the end of that 30-day period because their notices were returned as undeliverable. In Willacy County, officials “mistakenly” removed an individual from the voter rolls on Feb. 20 before the end of that period.

See here for some background. You may say, it’s only fourteen voters and they’ve all been reinstated, so what’s the harm? I say none of this should have happened in the first place, and the fact that it did shows that when all is said and done there will remain a substantial risk of valid registered voters being disenfranchised despite having done nothing wrong. Our state leaders are dedicated to the point of zealotry to their self-appointed mission of ensuring that no illegal votes ever get cast. Should they not be equally concerned about illegal removals from the voter rolls?

I don’t care what Steve McCraw says, the bottom line is this is the Secretary of State’s fault. David Whitley set this ball in motion, and every resulting screwup is on him. All of us deserve a Secretary of State with a much higher level of basic competence than what Whitley has demonstrated.

Still a “no” on Whitley

As it should be.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Senate Democrats still pledge to block the confirmation of embattled Secretary of State David Whitley, even as a top Texas law enforcement official is taking blame for major errors in a list of suspected non-citizen voters.

“I take full responsibility as the leader of the Department of Public Safety,” Steven McCraw told the Senate Criminal Justice Committee this week. Had the department assigned a “senior level person” to the project, he said, it wouldn’t have turned over bad data that included thousands of people who had already proven their citizenship.

“I can tell you throughout the entire project, the secretary was not involved in any of it because he wasn’t there at the time,” McCraw said.

The mea culpa, however, is being met with skepticism from county election officials, who first identified mistakes in the state list, and from Senate Democrats, who still fault Whitley. He had been on the job about six weeks before launching the attempted purge.

“Ultimately he’s responsible, because he is the secretary of state,” state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said Thursday. “I still think he’s a fine gentleman, he just made the wrong decision.”

[…]

Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, said McCraw’s statement this week didn’t change his mind.

“I don’t know that changed anybody’s mind,” Whitmire said. “The harm has been done.”

The Democrats’ resistance is a rare show of force from the minority party this early in the legislative session, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. Abbott’s nominees don’t usually meet much pushback from the upper chamber.

“I can’t remember ever having someone this controversial in my 29 years in the Senate,” Lucio said.

See here and here for some background. All due respect to Sen. Lucio, but I’d argue that the David Bradley and Don McLeroy fiascoes were on par with this one. Be that as it may, the Abbott-McCraw blame-passing pas-de-duex doesn’t pass the smell test.

State Elections Director Keith Ingram acknowledged in federal court that the secretary of state’s office knew ahead of time that issue might pose some problems with the list. Some 50,000 people are naturalized each year in Texas.

“I don’t see why DPS is taking responsibility, other than it’s convenient for the Department of Public Safety to take the fall, rather than the secretary of state,” said Special Assistant Harris County Attorney Douglas Ray, who has said DPS data is notoriously unreliable.

Williamson County Elections Administrator Chris Davis questioned why the secretary of state’s office didn’t spot the errors that were quickly evident to county officials.

“The secretary of state had a duty to vet this information,” said Davis, who is president of the Texas Association of Elections Administrators. “So much of this could have been avoided had they done so.”

“I apologize to all of the voters whose citizenship was called into question by this advisory. In our effort to protect the integrity of our voter registration system, my office acted in haste to verify the rolls, and in doing so created unnecessary problems for county officials and many voters. I take responsibility for this, and I promise to take every step to improve and optimize our processes to achieve our goal of ensuring that elections are protected and all eligible citizens have the opportunity to vote.” See how easy that was? If David Whitley had said something like that at the beginning, we wouldn’t be having this discussion now. He’d have been confirmed, and we’d be obsessing about something else. Why hasn’t Whitley taken responsibility for his actions, and why does Greg Abbott insist on coddling him in this fashion?

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.

Texas versus AirBnB

This is one to watch.

Texas is adding short-term-rental site Airbnb to a list of companies that cannot receive state investments because it disallows Israeli-owned rentals in the disputed West Bank.

Airbnb is the only American-based company on Texas’ anti-Israel boycott list, which includes a Norwegian financial services group, a British wholesale co-op and a Norwegian insurance company.

Texas is making it “very clear that our state stands with Israel and its people against those wishing to undermine Israel’s economy and the wellbeing of its people,” said a statement from state Comptroller Glenn Hegar’s office.

In November, Airbnb said it would remove about 200 listings in Israeli settlements in the West Bank. It cited a variety of factors for its decision, including whether listings inside an occupied territory had a direct connection to a larger regional dispute.

“We unequivocally reject and oppose the BDS movement and are disappointed by the decision,” Airbnb said in a statement. “There are over 20,000 Airbnb hosts in Israel who open their doors and showcase the best of Israeli hospitality to guests from around the world.”

In addition to the West Bank, Airbnb also said it has removed listings in the disputed territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

Airbnb has about 20,000 Israeli hosts who’ve welcomed more than 1 million visitors, including 4,700 Texans in 2018, the company said.

Texas’ move was praised by Christians United For Israel, the public policy arm of the nation’s largest pro-Israel organization. It likened the so-called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which seeks to “end international support for Israel’s suppression of Palestinians,” to “terrorists” and “hostile nations.”

[…]

Democratic critics of laws cracking down on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement are increasingly skeptical of Israel’s policies and see such laws as an infringement on free speech. In January, Florida added Airbnb to a list of companies that it defines as boycotting Israel. The same month, a bill to crack down on the BDS movement was blocked by Democrats in the Senate.

The backlash against Airbnb comes as the company is reportedly preparing for an IPO sometime in 2019.

I don’t want to get too deep into the weeds here, so let me sum up: The Lege passed a law in 2017 that created this policy and led to AirBnB’s blacklisting. The push for this has largely come from the Christian far-right fringe, with radical clerics like John Hagee in San Antonio as the main cheerleaders. The author of that bill, Rep. Phil King, has filed another bill that intends to clarify that the law applies to companies and not individuals. One possible reason for that is that there has already been a lawsuit filed, by a speech pathologist in Pflugerville who lost her job with Pflugerville ISD over her support for BDS. The current law is broad enough that it may well be vulnerable to litigation on free speech grounds. AirBnB has 90 days to respond to the Comptroller’s actions, so if a lawsuit is to come of this, it’ll happen after that. Got it? Good.

Harris County settles ADA voting rights lawsuit

Chalk up another accomplishment for our new county overlords.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Is the anti-sick leave bill also anti-equality?

Could be. Whose word do you take for it?

Sen. Brandon Creighton

What started as seemingly simple state legislation hailed as good for Texas businesses is drawing skepticism from legal experts and outrage from advocates worried it would strike employment protections and benefits for LGBTQ workers.

As originally filed, Senate Bill 15 by state Sen. Brandon Creighton, R-Conroe, would have prohibited cities from requiring that private companies offer paid sick leave and other benefits to their employees. It also created a statewide mandate preventing individual cities and counties from adopting local ordinances related to employment leave and paid days off for holidays. But it made clear that the bill wouldn’t override local regulations that prohibit employers from discriminating against their workers.

Yet, when Creighton presented SB 15 to the Senate State Affairs Committee, he introduced a reworked version — a last-minute move, some lawmakers said, that shocked many in the Capitol.

Among its changes: A provision was added to clarify that while local governments couldn’t force companies to offer certain benefits, business could do so voluntarily. But most notably, gone was the language that explicitly said the potential state law wouldn’t supersede local non-discrimination ordinances.

There’s widespread debate about what the revised language for the bill means. And the new version has left some legal experts and LGBTQ advocates concerned. Axing that language, they say, could undermine the enforceability of local anti-discrimination laws and allow businesses to selectively pick and choose which of its employees are eligible to receive benefits that go beyond monetary compensation.

“You could see an instance where an employer wanted to discriminate against employees who are in same-sex marriages and say, ‘Well, I will offer extra vacation time or sick leave to opposite sex couples, but I won’t offer those benefits if it’s for a same sex couple,” said Anthony Kreis, a visiting assistant professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

A spokesperson for Creighton said SB 15 was filed strictly as a response to local governments — like Austin and San Antonio — imposing “burdensome, costly regulations on Texas private businesses.”

“The bill is limited to sick leave, predictive scheduling and benefit policies,” Erin Daly Wilson, a spokesperson for the senator, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune. “The pro-business climate in Texas is something we have worked hard to promote, and need to protect.”

The anti-sick leave stuff is a bunch of BS to begin with, but it doesn’t address the core question. Does the wording of this bill undermine protection for LGBTQ employees that have been granted via local ordinances? Equality advocates think it may be interpreted that way.

“Millions of people are covered by nondiscrimination protections at the local level (and) stand to have those protections dramatically cut back,” said Cathryn Oakley, the state legislative director and senior counsel at the Human Rights Campaign.

[…]

When touting the legislation at business events, Abbott has focused on the paid sick leave aspect, saying such policies should be discretionary and not mandated by local government.

David Welch, a Houston resident and leader of the Texas Pastor Council, says the bill would create a uniform standard for businesses across the state.

“SB 15 is one step in reversing the continued march toward unequal rights with a hodgepodge of laws throughout hundreds of cities and counties having different laws, language and enforcement,” Welch said in a statement.

The council — which was a backer of the so-called bathroom bill last session — sued the city of Austin over its anti-discrimination ordinance in 2018.

Jessica Shortall, with the business coalition Texas Competes, said the group is still trying to understand the revised bill’s potential effect on cities’ anti-discrimination ordinances. Early analysis of the changes, Shortall said, suggest the “best case scenario is confusion, and worst case is opening a door” to eroding the local ordinances.

Equality Texas has highlighted SB15 as a threat. Who are you going to believe, the people on the sharp end of bills like this, or the people who have made it their life’s work to discriminate against LGBTQ people but are now trying to pretend that this bill they support has nothing to do with their ongoing crusade? If SB15 passes, how long do you think it will take the likes of Welch to file lawsuits to overturn other cities’ non-discrimination ordinances on the grounds that they are in conflict with it? Just look at the never-ending Pidgeon lawsuit for an example. These guys will never quit, and they will take every opening given to them. SB15 sure looks like an opening to me.

One more thing:

Creighton doesn’t intend to add the disclaimer back in at this time. But Rep. Craig Goldman, the Fort Worth Republican who is carrying the House’s companion bill, said he has no intention of stripping the clause reassuring cities their LGBT protections won’t be axed.

Fine by me if this is a point of dispute. Erica Greider has more.

We’re about to find out how much we’ll pay to fix Houston’s sewer system

Be prepared.

Houston would ramp up spending on its sewer system by $2 billion over 15 years under a proposed deal with state and federal regulators that is expected to produce higher water bills as soon as next year.

The Environmental Protection Agency has long been concerned that Houston’s cracked, clogged or flooded sewer pipes spill waste into yards and streets hundreds of times each year, contaminating local streams in violation of the Clean Water Act. Eighty percent of area waterways fall short of water quality standards for fecal bacteria.

Rather than sue the city over these long-running problems, the EPA initiated negotiations six years ago, hoping to produce a “consent decree” specifying projects and procedures Houston would use to reduce spills by upgrading pipes, improving maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging the city’s more than 6,000 miles of sewers.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s staff now are briefing City Council members on the terms of the proposal, which could reach a council vote in April. The mayor said in a brief interview Friday he wanted to speak with all council members before discussing details of the deal publicly, but four people who received the briefings confirmed the deal’s length and projected cost. EPA officials declined to comment.

How much residents’ water bills would rise remains hazy. The city will soon begin a rate study, as it does every five years, that will incorporate the consent decree and other factors and suggest new rates to take effect in July 2020. Turner said rates would stay well within EPA guidelines designed to avoid burdening poor residents, though a 2016 Houston Chronicle analysis showed significant rate hikes would still comply with that framework.

Councilman Greg Travis said he was told the decree would add 4 percent to rates each year of the agreement, resulting in a more than 70 percent increase by the end of the 15-year term. It’s unclear whether that figure included assumptions about inflation and population growth, which drive automatic rate increases each spring. Some other cities under comparable decrees, including San Antonio, will double their rates during their agreements.

Still, the mayor stressed that the projected overall cost of the deal is “substantially less” than the $5 billion to $7 billion the EPA was demanding in the Obama administration’s final year. City officials made an anti-regulation argument to the Trump administration — “You cannot run our city from D.C., and you can’t impose on us costs that the people themselves have to bear” — and it succeeded, Turner told the West Houston Association at a luncheon last week.

“We’ll finally move forward with something that’s in the best interest of the city of Houston, something that will not cost us nearly as much, and something I believe will be the best deal that any city has received anywhere in the country,” Turner told the crowd.

See here and here for the background. This is what happens when maintenance is deferred for too long, though as noted in my earlier link, both Mayors White and Parker took steps to address the problem. Just please keep in mind that this is a problem of very long standing, and it’s one that affects us all, though it most definitely affects some more than others. And if you hear anyone complain about the forthcoming hike in water rates, please feel free to ask them what level of fecal bacteria in their water is acceptable to them, and how much they would pay to mitigate that.

SOS screws up again

Are you kidding me?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The list of missteps in the Texas secretary of state’s review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens grew again Monday, when the office inadvertently added additional people to its already flawed list of voters flagged for citizenship checks.

Blaming a vendor for the mix-up, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office confirmed new names were sent to certain counties for possible investigation because of a technical error. The mistake occurred while state election officials were analyzing new data from the Texas Department of Public Safety.

As with the state’s initial review of previous years’ data, the secretary of state obtained a list of individuals who had visited DPS offices during January and February and indicated they were not U.S. citizens. The goal was to match those names with individuals on the state’s voter rolls and eventually send that list of names to counties for possible investigations.

But the secretary of state’s office was not ready to send out those lists when some counties received them Monday.

“Just like we told the counties and the court last week, this list maintenance process is still on pause,” said the office’s spokesman, Sam Taylor. “The test data that some counties had mistakenly received earlier today was the result of an issue with our vendor, which we immediately addressed with our vendor and the counties.”

[…]

Two counties confirmed to The Texas Tribune they had received the test dataset, which appeared to be riddled with the same errors in the state’s original list. Travis County received 146 names on Monday, but a “substantial number” had proved their citizenship when they registered to vote at DPS, said Bruce Elfant, who oversees the voter rolls in Travis County.

Travis County officials did not finish reviewing the Monday list because they got a call from the secretary of state’s office indicating it was sent by mistake.

“They said they sent the list in error and that we should disregard it,” Elfant said.

Williamson County also received a list Monday, only to be later told that “it was a mistake that shouldn’t have gone out,” said Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator.

Late on Monday, Keith Ingram — the chief of the secretary of state’s elections division — emailed county election officials asking them to “completely disregard the file” they received Monday.

The secretary of state’s mistake comes the same day lawyers with the attorney general’s office indicated in federal court that the secretary of state’s office was still working on the process for sending out the monthly lists.

See here for the whole saga. At least there’s a new villain for David Whitley’s apologists to blame. I don’t even know what else there is to say about this, but I will presume that Whitley’s charm offensive on Senate Democrats is going swell.

A second win for plaintiffs in Census citizenship question lawsuit

It’s all up to SCOTUS now.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross acted in “bad faith,” broke several laws and violated the constitutional underpinning of representative democracy when he added a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In finding a breach of the Constitution’s enumeration clause, which requires a census every 10 years to determine each state’s representation in Congress, the 126-page ruling by U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg in San Francisco went further than a similar decision on Jan. 15 by Judge Jesse Furman in New York.

The Supreme Court has already agreed to review Furman’s narrower decision, with arguments set for April 23, but may now need to expand its inquiry to constitutional dimensions.

[…]

Unable to find any expert in the Census Bureau who approved of his plan to add the citizenship question, Seeborg wrote, Ross engaged in a “cynical search to find some reason, any reason” to justify the decision.

He was fully aware that the question would produce a census undercount, particularly among Latinos, the judge said.

That would have probably reduced the representation in Congress — and thus in the electoral college that decides the presidency — of states with significant immigrant populations, notably California.

Because census data is used to apportion distribution of federal funds, an undercount would also have cheated these same jurisdictions, the judge said.

Seeborg, like Furman, found after a trial that Ross misrepresented both to the public and Congress his reasons for adding the citizenship question last March. Ross claimed he was acting at the request of the Justice Department in the interest of enforcing the Voting Rights Act.

In reality, the “evidence establishes” that the voting rights explanation was just “a pretext” and that Ross “acted in bad faith” when he claimed otherwise.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is embedded in this Mother Jones story. I don’t have much to add to this other than it’s a big honking deal and would have a negative effect on Texas just as it would on states like New York and California that filed the lawsuits against it. You wouldn’t know that from the words and actions of our state leaders, though. USA Today and NPR have more.

Bills to restore Open Meetings Act filed

This is good to see.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Two state legislators are aiming to restore a provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act that was struck down last week by the state’s highest criminal court.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, and Rep. Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, filed identical bills to reverse the court ruling that the “walking quorum” provision of the act is “unconstitutionally vague.” The provision made it a crime for government officials to secretly discuss the public’s business in small groups. Senate Bill 1640 and House Bill 3402 will reword the passage to make it more precise and remove confusion, Watson and Phelan say.

“We simply couldn’t let this ruling go unanswered,” Watson said Wednesday. “Without some kind of walking quorum prohibition, there’s nothing to stop government actors from meeting in smaller groups to avoid the spirit and intent of the Open Meetings Act.”

[…]

The bills already appear to have strong support, as Phelan is the chairman of the House of Representatives State Affairs Committee, which is likely the first stop for the bills before a hearing on the House floor.

Rep. Dade Phelan

“Texans want their elected officials to be transparent and allow honest participation in the process,” Phelan said in the press release. “If we do not act this session to address this ruling, we deny them the open government they deserve.”

Watson and Phelan’s legislation come two days before the bill filing period ends for the session, leaving Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas President Kelley Shannon thankful that the court’s ruling left enough time for legislators to address the issue.

“We’re really glad that several lawmakers are interested in fixing this situation, and we’re fortunate that we still have the bill filing period so they can address it this session,” Shannon said. “It just goes to show how important the Texas Open Meetings Act is for this state and how widely recognized that is.”

The court’s ruling stems from the indictment of Montgomery County Judge Craig Doyal, who met privately with a county commissioner and a political consultant about a road bond when he was a member of the county commissioners court in 2015. A misdemeanor criminal charge against Doyal was thrown out by the ruling.

Doyal argued the law is too vague and violates his free speech rights.

Impacts of the court’s ruling are already being seen in the Houston area, where prosecutors asked a judge to dismiss all charges against six current and former members of the Pasadena Second Century Corp., who were indicted last year for violating the Open Meetings Act. Board members Ernesto Paredes and Emilio Carmona, former board President Roy Mease and ex-board members Brad Hance, Jackie Welch and Jim Harris allegedly met twice on Nov. 28, 2016, with engineering firm Civil Concepts to discuss potential designs for a new civic center.

See here for the background. SB1640 is here, and HB3402 is here. I was skeptical that anything would get done by the Lege about this, at least in this session, but there does seem to be a chance. We’ll keep an eye on this.

Blaming DPS

Meet your new scapegoat for the SOS non-citizen voter advisory fiasco.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Amid the fallout surrounding his administration’s botched review of the voter rolls, Gov. Greg Abbott has picked a side.

Who’s to blame for the state’s mistaken challenge to the voting rights of thousands of Texans? The longtime head of the Department of Public Safety, Steve McCraw.

During a radio interview last week, Abbott slammed McCraw’s department for not “adequately” communicating to the secretary of state that the data at heart of the controversial voter review was “admittedly flawed.” And he specifically passed the blame onto McCraw for “faulty information” that “hamstrung” the state’s review efforts.

Then on Monday, Abbott referred to McCraw’s alleged mistakes as “unacceptable,” describing the review as a mishandled “law enforcement issue.”

It was a striking, two-punch rebuke of a high-ranking state official who has long backed Abbott’s priorities, particularly on security concerns at the Texas-Mexico border. But recent court testimony and documents obtained by The Texas Tribune paint a more complicated picture. In reality, the voter citizenship review was flawed in two major ways.

For one, officials from the Texas secretary of state’s office based their review on data DPS had warned would not be up-to-date. In addition, miscommunication between different state offices led state election officials to misinterpret the citizenship status of 25,000 Texans who had already proved to the state that they were citizens.

But Abbott has downplayed Secretary of State David Whitley’s role in the foul-up as Whitley, a longtime Abbott aide, faces a tough confirmation fight in the Senate that could result in him losing his job. That has left opponents of Whitley’s nomination questioning Abbott’s motivations.

“I think the governor is either misinformed or he’s trying to save his nominee despite what the facts are,” said Chad Dunn, one of the civil rights lawyers suing the state over the constitutionality of the review effort. “I don’t think there’s any evidence to support the governor’s comments.”

You should read on for the details, but this is a pretty good summary. Steve McCraw is a longtime hack and hatchet man, and I’m sure not going to hold anyone back from using him as a punching bag. This is still a remarkable evasion of the facts and defense of a guy who is both clearly beloved by Greg Abbott (warning: you may feel the need to brush your teeth after reading that sticky-sweet profile of Whitley) and in way over his head. At some level, I don’t care whose fault this idiocy was. It’s very clear that the intent was to bulldoze people off of the voter rolls without any concern about accuracy, and it’s equally clear that a similar effort done with more care and deliberation would have been much less controversial. It also would have ended up with a scope of maybe a couple hundred voters, which isn’t going to look nearly as sexy in a Ken Paxton press release. Them’s the breaks.

One more thing:

Texas Secretary of State David Whitley will tell Texas counties they may continue to look into the citizenship statuses of voters on his list of suspected noncitizens, according to an advisory approved by a federal judge Monday.

The advisory, which will be sent to all 254 counties in the state, notifies election offices that they must abide by the Feb. 27 court order that bars them from alerting people on the list that they’re under examination or removing anyone from the rolls without approval from the court and “conclusive” evidence that they’re ineligible.

It also clarifies that the counties may still vet voters on the list as long as they do not directly contact them. If, however, a voter reaches out to a county elections administrator first, the advisory says, then the office may communicate with them.

See here for the background. The effect of this is likely to be a continuing stream of voters being removed from the list of alleged non-citizens. As long as that is all that it is, it’s fine by me.

What can you legally wear when you go to vote?

That’s the subject of a lawsuit involving voters from Houston and Dallas.

A Houston woman who was forced to turn a firefighters T-shirt inside out at the polls and a Dallas-area man who tried to vote in his Trump MAGA cap are suing a long list of public officials in federal court here for violating their free speech rights.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in June invalidating a Minnesota law that banned voters from displaying “issue oriented” apparel at the polls. The case filed in Houston federal court Thursday on behalf of two Texas voters was brought by the Pacific Legal Foundation, a California-based nonprofit advocacy group that won the free speech victory in the Minnesota case.

The conservative foundation wants a Houston judge to overturn the Texas law that restricts what people can wear when they vote. Texas is one of several states that still have clothing restrictions on the books. The concern is not just that voters won’t feel free to express themselves, but also that enforcement by poll workers will be “arbitrary and erratic.”

Douglas Ray, an special assistant overseeing election issues at the Harris County Attorney’s Office. said the county will defend itself but Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — who was also sued — will likely take the lead. County officials last dealt with this issue in 2010, when voters showed up at the polls with Obama-related gear, Ray said. President Barack Obama was not on the ballot, but several measures that reflected his policies were, he said.

“What we tell the election judge is they have the power to adjudicate when they think electioneering is going on and when it’s not,” said Ray. “We tell them to make that determination based on a totality of the circumstances and if it’s consistent with advocacy for somebody or some party that’s on the ballot.”

In the case of the firefighters shirts, Ray acknowledged the county was aware the shirts caused friction at the polls. “We had a lot of trouble with that during the last election because there were people wearing these yellow shirts with red lettering that said ‘Vote for Prop B’ but they were almost identical to a shirt that just said ‘Houston Fire Fighters.’”

He said the shirts had the same colors, logo and lettering but one had “Vote for Prop B” and one didn’t. The county attorney’s office advised election judges that the yellow shirts were problematic if they said something specific about voting.

“But that is just advice,” Ray said. “The election judge in that situation makes the adjudication.”

[…]

The Texas law is more specific than the Minnesota one that the Supreme Court addressed last year, which could help or hurt the case, according to David Coale, a constitutional law expert at Lynn Pinker Cox & Hurst in Dallas. The Minnesota law prohibited voters from wearing political badges, buttons or other political insignia to the polls, while Texas law prohibits inside or within 100 feet of the voting site the wearing of badges, insignia, emblems representing any a candidate, measure or political party appearing on the ballot or to the conduct of the election.

“The Supreme Court said it was a legitimate state interest to have a polling place free of distracting political activity. But by doing so, it still requires the election official to make judgment calls about what ‘relates to’ the election…and also means that the official can get it wrong,” Coale said. “The argument that a ‘MAGA’ hat ‘relates to’ the subject of this election is not a strong one. I think that is why the Pacific Foundation focused on this case as its test case, to get some law made on how far away from the specific subject of an election you can be and still ‘relate to’ it.”

There are always going to be some issues when you are relying on individual election judges to exercise their own judgment in interpreting election law. We see plenty of examples of this every year with the voter ID law and whether or not the name on their ID matches what’s on their voter registration card. Restricting what is allowed at the polling place is much more fraught than that. Wherever a line is drawn for what is acceptable, there will be cases right on that line where reasonable people may disagree. I have a certain amount of sympathy for these plaintiffs, but I don’t know that it adds up to enough weight to warrant throwing out the existing law. I suspect the courts will say that it does, but we’ll see.

Not so open meetings

We’ll have to see how big a deal this is.

In a major blow to the state’s government transparency laws, Texas’ highest criminal court has struck down a significant provision of the Texas Open Meetings Act, calling it “unconstitutionally vague.”

That law, which imposes basic requirements providing for public access to and information about governmental meetings, makes it a crime for public officials to “knowingly [conspire] to circumvent this chapter by meeting in numbers less than a quorum for the purpose of secret deliberations.” That provision aims to keep public officials from convening smaller meetings — without an official quorum present — to discuss public business outside the view of the taxpayers and the media.

Craig Doyal, the Montgomery County judge, was indicted under that statute for allegedly conducting “secret deliberations” — without a quorum of the commissioners court present — about a November 2015 county road bond. Doyal filed to have the charges dismissed, claiming the statute was unconstitutional. The case eventually made it to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, which handed him a victory Wednesday. Two judges on the nine-member, all-Republican court dissented.

“We do not doubt the legislature’s power to prevent government officials from using clever tactics to circumvent the purpose and effect of the Texas Open Meetings Act,” Presiding Judge Sharon Keller wrote for the majority. “But the statute before us wholly lacks any specificity, and any narrowing construction we could impose would be just a guess, an imposition of our own judicial views. This we decline to do.”

Attorneys for Doyal argued months ago that the case should not be interpreted as a broad “take-down of the entire Texas Open Meetings Act.”

“This case is not about discussions of public matters in a quorum,” they wrote in a July 2018 brief. “This case is not about shutting out the public and the press from the political process.”

But open government advocates warned that the ruling, while specific to one slice of the open meetings act, importantly undermines its aims.

“I’m disappointed in the ruling,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Some people will use it as a chance to try to get around the spirit of the law. But the vast majority of people want to follow the law and want the public to understand government and participate in government. The vast majority of public officials know they can’t go around in secret and deliberate.”

See here for a bit of background on the Doyal case. I don’t know about you, but I have always assumed that Sharon Keller imposes her own judicial views on every appeal she hears. Be that as it may, my first thought on reading this story was whether it might have an effect on the accusations against five HISD trustees who are alleged to have formed a “walking quorum” and met illegally to discuss replacing Superintendent Grenita Lathan. That charge, if justified, represents another reason for the TEA to take over HISD. Unless, I presume, it turns out that what they allegedly did wasn’t actually illegal. As of yesterday, that was unclear.

The ruling could impact the Texas Education Agency’s investigation into allegations of Open Meetings Act violations by some members of the Houston ISD Board of Trustees.

TEA officials are investigating whether five trustees illegally coordinated ahead of an October 2018 vote to oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan, who took over the position indefinitely in March 2018. The five trustees each spoke with Lathan’s chosen replacement, Abelardo Saavedra, prior to the vote. Some trustees have said they communicated with one other board member about a potential motion to remove Lathan.

Trustees ultimately voted 5-4 to replace Lathan with Saavedra, but they reversed the decision several days later following intense public backlash and Saavedra’s decision to back out of the job. Saavedra told the Houston Chronicle he quickly discovered HISD’s issues stemmed from the school board, as opposed to Lathan’s administration.

TEA opened a special accreditation investigation in January after receiving “multiple complaints” about violations of the Open Meetings Act. TEA leaders said they are investigating whether trustees were “deliberating district business prior to a regularly scheduled board meeting,” regarding Lathan’s removal.

While the notice alludes to misconduct described in the same statute that was overturned Wednesday, TEA officials did not indicate they are investigating HISD based on that statute. Rather, the TEA notice lists the entire chapter of open meetings laws, leaving it unclear whether the investigation rested entirely on the now-invalidated statute.

TEA officials declined to comment Wednesday “due to the open investigation.”

I Am Not A Lawyer and am thus not qualified to assess that possibility, but as a blogger I’m fully capable of speculating about it. My point is that this ruling may well have some odd and unexpected consequences. Greg Abbott says he wants state agencies to “continue to follow the spirit of the law”, whatever that means. I expect that would eventually lead to more litigation, until or unless the Lege fixes the law to satisfy this ruling. Anything is possible, but I tend to bet the under in these matters. Welcome to the mostly post-Open Meetings Act world that we now live in. The Observer has more.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Of course there are bills to do something with that bogus SOS advisory

What else did you expect?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Among other things,  Senate Bill 960 and Senate Bill 953, filed late last week, would require voter registrars across the state to kick every person off the voter rolls who at one point said they were not a citizen to any government agency.

Beth Stevens, voting rights program director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said the bills could potentially reduce “protections that a voter has to address a claim that they are a noncitizen.” The nonprofit is one of many groups challenging the state’s effort in court.

“It further adds an element of intimidation of voter registrars,” she said.

[…]

If enacted, SB 960 and SB 953 would require registrars to immediately remove flagged voters from voter rolls. The bills wouldn’t require registrars to notify individuals their citizenship was being questioned. SB 960 would also subject any registrar who does not immediately remove those voters to a civil penalty and a possible Class A misdemeanor charge.

SB 960 would also give the Attorney General’s office the power to petition a court to remove a registrar from office if he or she does not kick those voters off the rolls.

“These two bills – and particularly SB 960 – are very much voter suppression on their face,” Stevens said.

SB 960 was filed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, a Republican from Houston. Bettencourt did not respond to a request for comment. He did, however, weigh in on the issue last year and admonished local officials for not pursuing and removing alleged noncitizens from voter rolls.

“This really strikes at the fabric of the integrity of the whole election process,” Bettencourt said in a written statement last June. “The fact is that non-citizens simply cannot vote in our elections.”

SB953 was authored by Sen. Pat Fallon. Of course Bettencourt would have a hand in this. He made his bones as Harris County Tax Assessor finding many creative and legally questionable ways to purge voters he didn’t like. There’s a reason why voter registration numbers in the county were flat for so long. Whether this particular ploy will work or not remains to be seen. These bills can probably pass if the leadership wants them to, but in the absence of a push they may die the usual death by natural causes. I’ll try to keep an eye on them.

Testimony ends in SOS advisory lawsuit

Now we wait for a ruling. We’ve already sort of gotten one, but it’s not all official yet.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

As part of an ongoing flurry of litigation in federal court here over the state’s bungled citizenship review of its voter rolls, a federal judge on Monday told a handful of Texas counties they may not — for now — purge registered voters or send them letters demanding proof of citizenship.

Eight counties named in one of three pending lawsuits over the review effort agreed last week that they will not cancel any voter registrations as lawyers from a host of civil rights groups tangle with the state in court. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery said from the bench Monday that the other counties named in a separate lawsuit should consider themselves restrained in the same way as litigation proceeds.

That doesn’t apply to the other 200-plus counties in the state, but “we expect all the counties are watching these proceedings,” said Nina Perales, vice president of litigation for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, one of the groups suing Texas and several counties.

[…]

Still to come from the judge’s chambers is a decision on civil rights groups’ broader requests to block the state from taking any further action related to the list as the lawsuits proceed. And the judge seemed at least somewhat amenable to that argument during a day of testimony that revealed fresh troubles with the state’s initial rollout of what it has come to characterize as “routine list maintenance activity.” Critics label it as an attempted widespread voter purge.

State officials conceded in federal court here Monday that a quarter of the nearly 100,000 voters flagged for citizenship review are naturalized citizens whose voter registration should never have been questioned in the first place.

And the list is only expected to get smaller, Keith Ingram, elections director for the Texas secretary of state’s office, acknowledged during cross-examination Monday.

The initial number shrank to about 74,000, Ingram explained, after “additional refinement” of data sourced from DPS, where Texans can register to vote while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses.

About half of the 25,000 flagged erroneously were what Ingram called “code 64s” — a bureaucratic tag indicating that the voters registered at DPS while applying for or renewing their driver’s licenses. Since Texans have to present documentation, either as a citizen or as a legal permanent resident, to receive an identification card from the state, voters who registered at DPS would have demonstrated citizenship status.

The other half of the 25,000 “refined” off the flagged list had demonstrated citizenship to DPS but not registered to vote at the same time, Ingram said.

Before the original list was rolled out at the end of January, the state wasn’t aware it could utilize DPS data in order to narrow its target list, elections officials said Monday.

“I wish all of this could’ve been done back as the original effort,” Biery said. “Would you agree that all of this refinement would not have been done but for the sunshine light of the press and litigation?”

“The thing is that it’s the category of Donald Rumsfeld, the ‘unknown unknown’ — the things you don’t know you don’t know,” Ingram responded. “We didn’t know until the counties reported to us.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, sure, mistakes were made and all, but you know what made those mistakes so much worse? Handing the original, unvetted, known to be full of mistakes list to the rabid dogs at the AG’s office and then offer “these things happen” regrets when the Twitter crapstorms get unleashed. David Whitley is bad at his job – frankly, I’m not all that impressed with Keith Ingram, either – and everything he did made this worse. There were many ways in which this could have been handled in a more professional, less messy fashion. Maybe the next Secretary of State will be capable of doing that. The DMN has more.

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.