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Woodfill and Hotze take their next shot at same sex employee benefits

Here we go again.

Anti-LGBTQ activists are again asking a Harris County judge to halt benefits for the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees, according to a recently filed motion.

The motion for summary judgment in Pidgeon v. Turner, a five-year-old lawsuit challenging the benefits, states that the city should not subsidize same-sex marriages because gay couples cannot produce offspring, “which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.”

The motion also asks Republican Judge Lisa Millard, of the 310th District Family Court, to order the city to “claw back” taxpayer funds spent on the benefits since November 2013, when former Mayor Annise Parker first extended health and life insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. And the court filing suggests that to comply with both state and federal law, the city should eliminate all spousal benefits, including for opposite-sex couples.

The motion for summary judgment was filed July 2 by Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, two Houston taxpayers who initially brought their lawsuit in December 2013. Woodfill, a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, is president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In his motion for summary judgment, Woodfill asserts that although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, that decision does not require the city to treat same-sex couples equally.

“Obergefell does not require taxpayer subsidies for same-sex marriages — any more than Roe v. Wade requires taxpayers subsidies for abortions,” Woodfill’s motion states.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the city, said it will respond to the motion “in a timely fashion.”

“The City hopes the Judge will be persuaded by the law,” Bernstein said in an email. “The Legal Department defers to the arguments it will make in response.”

See here for previous coverage, and here for the last update. It’s hard to know what will happen here because the basic goal of the lawsuit is so ridiculous and harmful, and the immediate reaction of any decent person who hears about it will be “but marriage is marriage and why would anyone want to do that?” The sad and scary fact is that some people are like that, and that includes some judges. Did I mention that the judge in this case, Lisa Millard, is up for re-election in August? Sonya Heath is her opponent. There’s never been a better time to elect some better judges. Think Progress has more.

Partial halt to bail lawsuit order

Here comes the Fifth Circuit again.

A majority opinion by Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith halted part of an order by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal which compelled certain defendants to be released immediately on no-cost bail in cases where a person with the money, arrested on the same charge, would be immediately released. Defendants must have an individualized bail determination made by a judge within 48 hours, the ruling says. The newest member of the appeals court, a Trump appointee, Judge Kyle Duncan, concurred with his holding.

They said that despite Rosenthal’s “well-intentioned effort to comply,” the instruction allowing immediate release to qualified poor defendants “easily violates the mandate, which explicitly found that individualized hearings would remedy the identified procedural violations.”

In a dissenting opinion, Circuit Judge James E. Graves Jr. wrote that Rosenthal’s order corrects an inequity that is protected by the constitution.

“However thorough and fair it may be, an individualized hearing 48 hours after arrest cannot ‘fix’ the deprivation of liberty and equal protection suffered by an indigent misdemeanor arrestee who is automatically detained prior to that hearing ‘solely because [she is] too poor to pay’ a preset amount of secured money bail,” Graves wrote.

The majority wrote that Rosenthal’s orders were too expansive, straying from their earlier instructions to “narrowly tailor” her 2017 injunction to address certain deficiencies that were placing pressure on judges to move too quickly. Judges that the 14 judges who questioned this portion of Rosenthal’s ruling were likely to win on the merits, the ruling says.

See here for the background. I disagree with the Fifth Circuit’s ruling here, but again this is about the injunction, not the merits of the case. This is about how these courts will operate until a ruling on the merits is made or a settlement is reached. Or, you know, until we elect some better judges in November. Never forget that part. KUHF has more.

ReBuild re-vote approved

Add another item to the ballot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to put the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston before voters again in November, but not before tweaking the ballot language in hopes of avoiding future court challenges.

The Turner administration should find out quickly if they were successful.

The lawyer who represented the conservative plaintiffs who got the Texas Supreme Court to throw out the original 2010 charter amendment already has asked a judge to force the city to include ballot language specifically stating that drainage fees will be imposed on and paid for by property owners.

[…]

Turner, however, has said approval of the charter amendment would be limited, calling it an an affirmation of “what already is,” and saying it simply would solidify a dedicated source of funding to continue the ReBuild Houston program as it is being run today. The drainage fee, which is a key part of the program, is not at risk in the November referendum because it was created via city ordinance, not by the 2010 charter amendment.

“I think we all support a dedicated source (of funding),” Turner said Wednesday. “I think we all support the emphasis being placed on drainage, flooding and streets … We’re all passionate about it, but I think there is more agreement than disagreement around this table.”

See here for the background. I confess, it’s not clear to me what the stakes are in this vote, just as it’s not clear to me what the neverending litigation is about. As the story notes, Council voted to approve an ordinance that instituted the fee. Even with the obscure stakes, I doubt there’s any ballot language short of language written by Andy Taylor himself that would satisfy Andy Taylor and his flood-loving plaintiffs. I’d put something on like “ReBuild is what we say it is, mofos”, but then that’s probably why I’m a blogger and not a public official. Be that as it may, a-voting we will go this fall. KUHF has more.

Dallas County Republicans still trying to knock all the Dems off the ballot

Here comes the appeal.

Dallas County Republicans will appeal a ruling that blocked efforts to remove scores of Democrats from the November election ballot.

A formal intent to appeal was filed Monday on behalf of Missy Shorey, the chairwoman of the Dallas County Republican Party, with the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas.

Shorey argues that Dallas County Democratic Party Chairwoman Carol Donovan did not properly certify candidate petitions and forward them to the Texas Secretary of State’s office. The lawsuit, originally filed in January, showed that Donovan did not sign 127 candidate petitions.

“The case was inappropriately dismissed,” local GOP lawyer Elizabeth Alvarez Bingham said in an email Tuesday night.

But Donovan said nothing had changed with the Dallas County Republican Party’s lawsuit.

“The trial court found the Republican Party’s lawsuit to be frivolous, and their appeal is frivolous as well,” Donovan said in a text message.

[…]

It’s unclear if the appeals court, which is majority Republican, will hear the case before the November general election.

“The case never had any merit,” said Buck Wood, a lawyer for about a dozen Democratic candidates that would be affected if the suit is successful. “It’s way too late to be doing anything. I don’t know why they filed an appeal.”

See here for the previous update. I can understand appealing the dismissal – as noted in the story, the judge did not elaborate on his reason for dismissing the case – but I don’t get waiting four months to file it. The lawsuit has always seemed to be tenuous at best, relying on a very strict reading of election law that nobody seems to adhere to at that level, with the penalty being quite extreme and falling on candidates who themselves did nothing wrong. I would also note that we are fast approaching a deadline for when absentee and overseas ballots have to be printed and mailed, so the court would have to act very quickly if it were going to take action (another reason why the delay in appealing puzzles me). I suspect nothing will come of this, but as always with courts you never can be sure.

SD19 runoff date set

Mark your calendars.

Pete Gallego

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has picked Sept. 18 as the date of the special election runoff to replace convicted former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

Early voting will run Sept. 10-14.

The runoff pits Republican Pete Flores against Democrat Pete Gallego. They were the top two finishers in the first round of the special election, which was held July 31 and included six other candidates.

The runoff date was first revealed Monday by lawyers appearing in Travis County court for a case challenging the eligibility of Gallego, the former congressman and longtime state lawmaker from West Texas. Abbott issued a proclamation officially setting the date of the runoff shortly after the hearing was over.

The hearing was in response to a Republican Party motion for a Temporary Restraining Order against the Texas Secretary of State from certifying candidates for the runoff, part of their effort to sue Gallego off the ballot for violating our non-existent residency laws. The motion was denied, so go figure. Anyway, the battle is now joined. Go throw Pete Gallego a few bucks if you want to keep Dan Patrick from increasing his grip on the Senate.

The end of the voter ID fight

I guess that’s it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

After seven long years of litigation, opponents of Texas’ voter ID law say the case is over.

In a court filing on Wednesday, opponents of the law requiring Texas voters to present photo identification to vote told a federal district judge that the case was settled and that they would not pursue any other remedies or changes to the law they first challenged in 2011 as discriminatory against voters of color.

Because neither party in the case asked for rehearing or attempted to kick it up to U.S. Supreme Court, “the substantive merits and remedy phases of this long-standing case are over,” they wrote.

The filing follows the state’s June request to U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi to reconsider previous findings that the state’s voter ID law was enacted to purposefully discriminate against Hispanic and black voters. That request came two days after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas lawmakers did not intentionally discriminate when they signed off on congressional and state House maps in 2013 — a decision that Texas argued “cast irremovable doubt” on previous decisions against the voter ID law.

[…]

In Wednesday’s filing, opponents of the law asked the court to dismiss the state’s request because there was nothing left to pursue in the case given the 5th Circuit’s ruling that the changes made to law in SB 5 were “an effective remedy” to the original 2011 law that was deemed legally defective.

They also described Texas’s arguments that “new Supreme Court precedent has somehow changed the standard for discriminatory intent that this Court applied in prior holdings” as “frivolous.” The only remaining issues in the case are fees and costs related to the litigation, according to the plaintiffs.

See here and here for the background. We may still be sparring over legal fees when the 2021 Lege convenes with the task of drawing the next decade’s districts, but that’s not going to affect what anyone has to do to vote. As we’ve seen quite a bit lately, this is going to require a political solution. At the federal level, with a new Congress and a new President, a new Voting Rights Act can be passed. At the state level, the voter ID law can be repealed, though at what point the conditions would apply that would allow for that is unclear, to say the least. But this is where we are and where we’ll need to go.

State GOP sues to toss Gallego off SD19 runoff ballot

Oh, good grief.

Pete Gallego

The Republican Party of Texas filed a lawsuit Friday aiming to kick Democrat Pete Gallego off the ballot in the special election runoff to replace convicted former state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio.

Gallego is heading to a runoff election against Republican Pete Flores. However, the state party claims in the lawsuit that Gallego lives in Austin, not in Senate District 19, which includes parts of San Antonio and West Texas.

“Pete Gallego has established a longtime pattern of misleading the voters of Texas regarding his place of residency. It’s common knowledge Gallego does not live in Senate District 19,” Texas GOP Chairman James Dickey said in a statement. “He has for years lived with his family in Austin, where his wife has a homestead exemption; this well-known and well-documented.”

[…]

Under state law, a candidate has to reside in the district he or she hopes to represent for a year before election day. Residency claims are notoriously hard to prove, however, because that doesn’t always mean that a candidate actually lives in the district.

Yeah, good luck with that. Let me add two words here: Brian Birdwell. I honestly can’t remember the last time one of these lawsuits succeeded, for the reason cited above. This is one part Hail Mary pass and one part (successful) gambit to get a bit of publicity for a campaign issue. I wouldn’t give it any more thought than that.

Rape kit lawsuit dismissal will be appealed

To be expected.

Two women who on Friday lost a lawsuit against the City of Houston and a variety of officials over a rape kit backlog will file an appeal, an attorney for the women announced in a news release on Tuesday.

[…]

[Attorney Randall] Kallinen has argued in court that the backlog was “a violation of the due process, equal protection and unreasonable search and seizure clauses of the Texas and United States Constitutions.”

In a news release last Friday, the City of Houston pushed back against those claims, saying that “the plaintiffs did not allege any violations of rights guaranteed by the Constitution, nor did they raise any other legal grounds to hold Houston and its current and former officials responsible.”

The city also argued that there was no longer a rape kit backlog, rendering the women’s legal claims “six years too late.” Two private laboratories eliminated that backlog in 2013 and 2014, the Chronicle previously reported.

In an interview, Kallinen pushed back against this argument, arguing that the women were not aware their rape kits had any problems until police contacted them and that “the statute of limitations should be delayed” as a result, citing what he called “the discovery rule.”

See here for the background. I have no expertise on the legal questions being raised here. My primary interest is in ensuring that we never have another rape kit backlog like this again. It’s shameful enough that it has happened before (twice, in fact). There’s no excuse for it ever happening again.

The DACA hearing

I don’t know about this.

The state of Texas will continue to incur irreparable financial harm if an Obama-era immigration program isn’t halted immediately, attorneys for the state argued in Houston on Wednesday.

But lawyers representing nearly two dozen recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program countered by saying Texas sat back for six years and did nothing, and its attorneys have yet to prove the harm the state claims it has faced since the program was implemented in 2012.

Those were just two of the arguments presented to U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen on Wednesday after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the Trump Administration in May to end the 2012 program, which protects immigrants brought into the U.S. as children from deportation and allows them to obtain a two-year work permit.

[…]

MALDEF and New Jersey said Texas could have filed suit in 2012 or amended its 2014 complaint aimed at DAPA to also include DACA, but instead waited six years to take action. They also argued that while DAPA would have benefitted more than 4 million people, DACA has a much smaller pool of potential applicants. Nina Perales, MALDEF’s vice-president of litigation, said there are only about 702,000 DACA beneficiaries in the country today.

The state of Texas defended its timing by arguing it was waiting for the DAPA outcome to come down and was subsequently encouraged by President Trump’s announcement in September 2017 that DACA was going to be phased out.

Perales also argued against Texas’ assertion that the coalition of states suing to end the program have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to provide DACA recipients with education, health care and law enforcement services. She said the plaintiffs also cite in their evidence the cost of unaccompanied minors who came to the country after 2014, while DACA applies only to people who were in the country from 2007 or before.

She made a similar counter argument to Texas’ claim that it has spent vast sums of money providing healthcare to only DACA recipients.

“What Texas does is it estimates the cost of serving undocumented individuals statewide and applies it to DACA,” she said. “Undocumented immigrants are eligible for a few state funded programs but they are eligible for those regardless of DACA or not.”

She added after the hearing that the evidence actually shows that Texas benefits from DACA recipients working and participating in society.

Throughout Wednesday’s proceedings, Hanen peppered both sides with questions, often interrupting the attorneys and pressing them for more evidence to justify their claims. He also asked the attorneys to submit by Monday a brief on whether DACA violated the federal Administrative Procedures Act if applicants are subject to individual discretion. Hanen ruled in 2015 that DAPA violated the APA, which governs how federal regulations are made

Perales said after the hearing that she was pleased by the judge’s desire for more details.

“The judge was very patient, he allowed each side to get up and make its arguments,” she said. “I was encouraged by the judge’s curiosity and interest in additional questions.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I think we can take it on faith that Paxton’s arguments are more pretext than anything else, but there’s a reason he picked this court and this judge for this lawsuit. We just had a ruling from another federal court that ordered DACA to be restarted, so if Paxton wins here we’re on a direct course to the Supreme Court, and who knows what from there. ThinkProgress, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos have more.

Bail practices lawsuit hearing

We so need to be done with this.

More than a dozen Harris County misdemeanor judges contend that public safety would be imperiled if they followed an “untenable” new pretrial release order by a Houston federal judge who has found the current county bail system unconstitutional.

An appellate lawyer representing 14 county court-at-law judges, all who are Republicans, argued before an appeals court in Houston Tuesday that Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s revised instructions overstepped the narrow directions she was given in June by the federal appeals court to fine tune elements of her initial order. The revision afforded liberties that the appeals court did not mandate, allowing people arrested on certain offenses be released as promptly as those who are able to secure money bail, the judges’ lawyer argued.

“Since the Magna Carta money bail has been seen as sufficient surety and wealth is an inevitable factor…when that surety is money bail,” said Charles Cooper, a Washington D.C. lawyer representing the judges.

Many of the judges won’t be on the bench much longer to oversee the new bail policies, since seven are not seeking re-election this fall.

An attorney for the indigent defendants argued that Rosenthal’s order did not stray from the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals instructions, nor does it create “irreparable harm” for the courts and the public. The courts can impose “unaffordable bail” if they can justify it, he said.

“A period of ‘wealth based detention’ is OK, but you have to show that you’re serving some interest,” said Alec Karakatsanis, who represents the indigent defendants in the class action suit.

See here for the most recent update. Just a reminder, this is all about the initial injunction. The case itself has not been heard, just the request for a restraining order, which is what is being appealed. Also as a reminder, we can ensure that there are no future plaintiffs for this lawsuit in November. You know, in case you needed another reason to vote. A three-judge panel will rule on this request, and we’ll see where we go from there.

One federal court orders DACA restored

But hold on, because there’s another ruling to come.

A federal judge on Friday upheld his previous order to revive an Obama-era program that shields some 700,000 young immigrants from deportation, saying that the Trump administration had failed to justify eliminating it.

Judge John Bates of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia gave the government 20 days to appeal his decision. But his ruling could conflict with another decision on the program that a federal judge in Texas is expected to issue as early as [this] week.

[…]

Bates ruled in late April that the administration must restore the DACA program and accept new applications. He had stayed his decision for 90 days to give the Department of Homeland Security, which runs the program, the opportunity to lay out its reasons for ending it.

Kirstjen Nielsen, the homeland security secretary, responded last month, arguing that DACA likely would be found unconstitutional in the Texas case and therefore must end. She relied heavily on the memorandum that her predecessor, Elaine Duke, had issued to rescind the program and said the department had the discretion to end the program, just as the department under Obama had exercised discretion to create it.

Bates, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, did not agree. He called the shutdown of the program “arbitrary and capricious” and said Nielsen’s response “fails to elaborate meaningfully on the agency’s primary rationale for its decision.”

That’s the good news. The bad news is that federal judge Andrew Hanen will have a hearing in Houston on Wednesday the 8th on the Paxton lawsuit that seeks to put an end to DACA, and everyone seems to think that Hanen will (as has been his custom) give Paxton what he’s asking for. Which will force the matter to SCOTUS, and Lord only knows what happens next. I have more on the Texas case here and here, and see Mother Jones and ThinkProgress for more on the DC court’s ruling.

Rape kit backlog lawsuit dismissed

Interesting.

A federal judge has dismissed a 2017 lawsuit two rape victims filed against Houston’s current mayor and police chief and five sets of predecessors, among others, for allowing a backlog of rape kits to accumulate over decades without being tested, arguing that failure ensured the plaintiffs’ attackers were on the street when they otherwise could have been behind bars.

Both women were raped by serial offenders whose DNA had long been in police databases, but who went unidentified until Houston paid two private laboratories to erase its backlog of more than 6,000 untested kits in 2013 and 2014.

The plaintiffs sought damages, saying city officials violated their rights to due process and equal protection, and that officials illegally took her property and violated her personal privacy and dignity under the Fourth Amendment.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore dismissed the case, saying the suit had not been filed quickly enough and that the plaintiffs’ claims did not cover rights guaranteed by the Constitution.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s press release. Not clear at this time if the plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling, but that’s always a possibility. The city is working to eliminate another backlog, and I very much hope that includes a more long-range plan to prevent backlogs from occurring in the future. The city – and the county, and the state, and Congress – should not need to be coerced into doing this properly.

ReBuild re-vote

Sort of. It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Eight years after voters narrowly backed the idea, the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston is expected to appear again on the November ballot in the form of an amendment to the city charter.

The immediate outcome of the election, however, may be unusually muted: Mayor Sylvester Turner said he will implement the program as it is being run today even if voters repeal the legal language that would force him to do so. The drainage fee at the heart of the program also is not at risk in the election.

“We are simply saying in November to the voters: Go and reaffirm the dedicated purpose for which this fee is intended, put a lockbox around it,” Turner said. “Voters are not being asked to increase the fee or create another fee, just to reaffirm what already is.”

[…]

Responding to a directive from Turner ahead of the fall referendum, [Houston Public Works Director Carol] Haddock said Public Works leaders are re-evaluating how ReBuild money is allocated, with the intention of placing greater weight on the drainage needs associated with a project.

“What the mayor is saying is, back in 2010, this was sold on flooding and drainage. What he’s told me is that 50 percent of the money needs to go into projects that were identified for the purposes of solving flooding and drainage,” Haddock said. “Within the confines of what’s written on the ballot language, we can shift those percentages and we can go to what was promised to the public and we can reformulate this program, reaffirm it, in what they originally bought into.”

Turner said there is much about the program he does not intend to change, noting he sees benefits to pay-as-you-go financing.

He also said that in the context of Harris County’s $2.5 billion flood bond election on Aug. 25 and incoming federal funds tied to Hurricane Harvey, it is not necessary for the city to take on more debt to try to fix the region’s inadequate infrastructure by itself.

“We don’t necessarily have to take a look at another approach,” Turner said. “We just have to tie in with things that are already taking place or in progress.”

See here for my last update regarding ReBuild Houston and the ongoing litigation over it, for which the last court action was in 2015. There was an effort to force something on the ballot last year, but it didn’t happen. We’ll need to see the language for this referendum to get an idea of what it’s about, to be followed of course by the usual threats of more litigation from the usual sources. All of this is starting to make my head hurt, so stay tuned for the August 8 Council meeting, at which some of this I hope will be made more clear.

Firefighters file suit over handling of pay parity proposal

I figured we’d have to wait till after the eventual vote on the firefighters’ pay parity proposal for there to be litigation over it, but no.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The union representing Houston firefighters sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and a City Council member on Monday, alleging the officials are improperly using public resources to oppose a “pay parity” ballot initiative.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association accuses Mayor Turner and Council Member Dave Martin, who represents Kingwood, of campaigning against the ballot initiative, which would tie firefighter pay to that of Houston police officers of comparable rank and seniority.

The union argues it is a violation of the Texas Election Code and is asking for an injunction that would prohibit the officials from “continuing to post such political advertising on the City of Houston website.”

The mayor’s declined to comment Monday evening.

See here for the background. On Tuesday, they got a result.

Judge Kyle Carter agreed with the Houston fire union’s argument that the city council’s July 26 budget committee meeting constituted an act of illegal electioneering against the proposal and that public resources, essentially, had been used to present and post a political advertisement. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sued Mayor Sylvester Turner and Councilman Dave Martin, who chairs the budget committee, over the issue on Monday.

“There is a fair way to go about voicing your opposition and creating a campaign against a certain resolution and then there’s an unfair way,” Carter said in delivering his Tuesday morning decision. “Much of the hearing, I thought, was informative and served its purpose. However, there was a good portion of the hearing that … went beyond the pale.”

He did not elaborate on what comments he thought went too far.

Carter ordered attorneys for the city and the fire union to discuss what portions of the tape could be returned to the city website after the offending portions were redacted. The order, as issued, is valid through Aug. 14.

[…]

Buck Wood, an Austin-based public law attorney who helped pass Texas’ first open meetings and open records laws in 1973, said he had never heard of such a ruling in his 50 years of practice.

“Making your position known in a public forum is the essence of what the open meetings law is all about. Not only that, assuming it gets filmed by the city, it’s an open record and you can go get it under the public information act. That’s the whole idea,” Wood said. “The fact that they don’t like what the mayor and the council are saying doesn’t make any difference. That’s content censorship. I never heard of such a thing.”

Joe Larsen, a Houston lawyer with 25 years of experience in open meetings and open records law, agreed. Larsen said he can see such a committee discussion being problematic if its agenda was not posted properly or if the issue being discussed was irrelevant to the committee’s focus, but he said he cannot otherwise envision a way in which such a hearing could constitute electioneering.

“I don’t see how it could be,” he said. “What’s wrong about people taking a public position? How do you restrict your public officials on what they’re going to discuss? That can’t be the right result.”

“That is the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford,” Turner said. “The public has a right to listen to the public hearing and we will vigorously challenge the judge’s ruling.”

Not really sure what the practical effect of this ruling is. I mean, how much traffic do those committee hearing videos get? There was an earlier version of this story in which the Mayor referred to the proposal as “the equivalent of a 25 percent pay raise for firefighters which the city cannot afford”, a quote he repeated later on KUHF. The firefighters may have gotten this ruling – which the Mayor says he will appeal – but Turner get the opportunity to keep making his case against the firefighters in the news. Not sure that’s a great tradeoff for the firefighters.

Census lawsuit proceeds

Good.

A federal judge in New York on Thursday allowed a lawsuit challenging the addition of a citizenship question to the Census to move forward. U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman’s decision rejected the Trump administration’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, which was brought by numerous states and localities.

The judge said that the court has jurisdiction to review Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s decision to add the question, rejecting the administration’s arguments that Ross could be insulated from judicial review.

Furman said that while Ross indeed had the authority under the Constitution to add the question, the judge concluded that the exercise of that authority in this particular case may have violated the challengers’ constitutional rights.

At this stage of the proceedings, Furman is required to assume the challengers’ allegations are true, and he must draw any inference from those allegations in the challengers’ favor. In doing so on Thursday, Furman said that the challengers “plausibly allege that Secretary Ross’s decision to reinstate the citizenship question on the 2020 census was motivated by discriminatory animus and that its application will result in a discriminatory effect. ”

See here, here, and here for the background. Nothing really new here, just another chance for me to say that this absolutely was motivated by discrimination and that it would be very nice to have it halted by the time the counting actually begins. Daily Kos and NPR have more.

“Fetal remains” trial ends

Now we wait for a ruling.

State and reproductive rights attorneys wrapped up a five-day trial in federal court on Friday that will determine whether a Texas law requiring health providers to cremate or bury fetal remains can go into effect.

U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra told attorneys on Friday that he has “not made up my mind on how I’m going to rule on this case” and is awaiting written closing arguments due on Aug. 3.

He’s expected to rule around the end of August.

The law at the center of the case is Senate Bill 8, passed in 2017, which requires the burial or cremation of fetal remains. Legislators passed the bill following a ruling that year by U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks that struck down a similar rule implemented by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Sparks said that rule was vague, caused undue burden on women and had high potential for irreparable harm.

Throughout the five-day trial, a wave of patients, health providers, state agency officials, bioethicists, cemetery directors and religious leaders flowed through the witness stand.

Before dismissing attorneys Friday morning, Ezra rattled off a list of questions and concerns he wanted both sides to answer in his closing arguments, including: What authority does Texas have to pass laws around giving dignity to the unborn? What would happen to women’s access to care — for abortions and miscarriages — if health providers did not have a facility to handle fetal remains? And how many facilities — secular or otherwise — have committed to helping with burials and cremation?

Ezra noted that the case is unique because state attorneys waived the argument that SB 8 protects the health or safety of patients and plaintiff’s attorneys waived arguments about costs to patients and providers.

The dynamics involved “makes this case extremely unique in many ways and makes finding precedent all the more difficult because those issues are generally not only present in these kind of abortion-related cases — they’re often paramount in those cases,” Ezra said.

See here for the background. The judge’s questions, which the Observer examined in more detail, are the key to the case. During the trial, there was testimony by Blake Howard Norton, the daughter of State Rep. Donna Howard, about how she felt coerced by the Catholic hospital where she was going through a miscarriage into making a decision about disposing of the fetus, and there was more useless testimony from paid state witnesses who lacked any expertise in the subject matter and the law. I feel like the judge is skeptical of the law, but we’ll see what he has to say about it. The Chron has more.

Another homeless feeding lawsuit dismissed

Not the end of the story, though.

A state district judge this week dismissed a lawsuit a local activist filed last year against Houston’s ordinance regulating the charitable feeding of the city’s homeless, but the case is proceeding on with a new plaintiff.

Phillip Paul Bryant’s original lawsuit had said the 2012 law infringed on his ability to live his Christian faith by limiting how he could care for the poor, but city attorneys argued Bryant lacked the legal standing to challenge the law, as he had not been cited under it.

The ordinance requires advocates to obtain permission from property owners – public or private – before giving away food to more than five people in one setting.

A new plaintiff, Shere Dore, was added to the case last week, and the updated court filings describe a Christmas Eve 2016 incident in which the city allegedly confiscated food Dore was trying to give to the homeless.

I did not blog about this at the time the lawsuit was filed, but here’s a Chron story about it. You may think that finding a plaintiff who had actually been harmed by the law would be a pretty basic thing, but if you read all the way through either of these stories and note who the plaintiff’s attorney was, you can understand why this piece of jurisprudence may have gotten overlooked. I might also argue that if the first relevant violation of the law didn’t occur until over four years after it had been passed, then maybe it’s not really that onerous. But we’ll see about that when the suit gets re-filed.

New frontiers in strip club tax collections

A new-ish development in a decade-long battle.

Glenn Hegar

Dozens of “bikini bars” from Houston to San Antonio are suing the state after the Texas Comptroller accused them of skirting the so-called pole tax on nude entertainment and slapped them with seven-figure fees, according to the lawsuits.

The fight focuses on the state definition of nude, which includes any part of the buttocks or a woman’s breast below the top of the areola.

And in federal court, the clubs are questioning why they are taxed for bikini-clad performers, but not concert halls or sports venues that host cheerleaders and musicians wearing thongs or cleavage-baring tops.

“If they aren’t doing it to them, they shouldn’t be able to do it to a topless club or a bikini bar,” said attorney Casey Wallace, who is representing the Texas Entertainment Association, which brought the federal lawsuit in 2017.

The Comptroller’s office said it follows the law and determines which clubs should be taxed by looking at their social media posts and marketing. The office also sends inspectors inside to see what dancers are wearing.

“The agency is just trying to apply this in a common sense way,” said Ray Langenberg, Special Counsel for Tax Litigation for the Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. “If they are called topless clubs, the claim they are not wears a little thin.”

The fees are being contested in a state appeals process by 34 clubs across Texas, including a dozen in the Houston area. At least 27 more clubs have filed lawsuits, including 14 clubs based in Houston, according to the Comptroller’s Office.

The lawsuits referenced in this story were filed last year; I’m not really sure why this is a story now, though perhaps there’s a court date about to happen. Be that as it may, it was back in 2014 that the State Supreme Court upheld the $5-per-customer fee, for which the original bill was passed in 2007. I’m not qualified to parse the legalities of what constitutes “nudity” in this context, but I do think that trying to apply it retroactively for a decade’s worth of collections is excessive. I mean, when the state reached a deal with Amazon in 2012 to start collecting sales taxes, part of the deal was that the state would quit trying to collect back taxes. Why does Amazon deserve a better deal than bikini bars? Assuming that the Comptroller is properly interpreting the law in the first place, which is not a sure thing, surely there would be room for a compromise.

“Fetal remains” lawsuit trial underway

Here we go.

State and reproductive rights attorneys are going head to head again in federal court on Monday to argue whether Texas should require health providers to cremate or bury fetal remains.

“It’s a tough case for everybody,” U.S. District Judge David Alan Ezra said Friday during a pretrial hearing. In January, he had granted an injunction blocking a state fetal remains burial rule, but he said last week that the previous decision is no indication of how he would rule in the trial.

“It’s a very emotional case, and so I would ask counsel to do the best job they can to try and tamp down some of the more zealous individuals in your respective camps so that we don’t get a lot of extraneous stuff going on,” Ezra said to attorneys for the state and the Center for Reproductive Rights, who are representing the plaintiffs.

Arguments in the trial are expected to run all week.

[…]

Ezra listened as both sets of attorneys spent nearly two hours going over logistics of the trial and other issues including whether certain witnesses would be allowed to testify about the emotional trauma of abortions and fetal remain burials and keeping information about vendors confidential for safety reasons.

Throughout Friday’s pretrial hearing, Ezra laid out for attorneys what was on the court’s mind about the case, including: if women may face an undue burden if there aren’t enough providers or facilities statewide; the logistics of how doctors and clinics would deal with the law if it went into effect; and if Texas has enough facilities available statewide to help dispose of the fetal remains.

“I have to deal with this as a law in Texas that will affect every woman in the state of Texas,” Ezra said.

Another point of contention during the hearing was what to do about a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decision on whether the Texas Catholic Conference of Bishops would have to turn over confidential internal documents to the Center for Reproductive Rights and Whole Woman’s Health for the fetal remains trial. Ezra had previously ruled it would, but in the middle of the pretrial hearing the 5th Circuit informed him it had reversed his decision.

See here for the previous update. I have no idea how this one may go, but I’ll be keeping an eye on it. There’s certainly a chance that none of this will matter given the likely future composition of SCOTUS, but we have to go through the process anyway. The Chron has more.

Checking in on Pasadena

How’s it going over there?

A year into his four-year term, [Pasadena Mayor Jeff] Wagner says he is focused on unifying a city whose ethnic and socioeconomic inequities were displayed before a national audience during the 2016 trial over a redistricting lawsuit. Current and former city officials say Wagner’s more conciliatory style serves him well in achieving this goal, but they differ on how much progress he’s made.

Pasadena, like Houston, has a strong-mayor system of government. Isbell, who led the city off-and-on from 1981 to 2017, came to symbolize its reputation for intolerance and inequity as witnesses in the redistricting trial testified that the city had systematically neglected the needs of its mostly Latino northside neighborhoods.

In January 2017, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal found that a revised council district system, initiated by Isbell, intentionally diluted the influence of Latino voters. The city, under Isbell, promptly appealed.

Last September, in what was arguably the most consequential decision of his first year in office, Wagner dropped the appeal. The city agreed to continue electing all eight council members from districts, and to pay a $1 million settlement to the Latino plaintiffs.

Isbell, who left office because of term limits, criticized Wagner’s decision, saying he believed the city would have prevailed on appeal. In an interview last week, however, Wagner said ending the case was an essential step in bringing the city together.

“I didn’t feel that we (the city) had done anything wrong,” said Wagner, 54, a retired Houston police officer. “But I felt we had to get out of it as quickly as we did.”

[…]

Former Councilwoman Pat Van Houte, who continues to keep a close eye on city affairs, offered a mixed assessment of Wagner’s first year leading the city.

“This mayor started with certain promises and he has fulfilled some,” she said, among those dropping the redistricting lawsuit. “He has shown some leadership skills.”

Van Houte said she had been disappointed, however, with some of the administration’s priorities, including the golf course improvements rejected by the council last week.

“The city has been spending quite a bit of money on buildings, and not much in neighborhoods getting the streets and sidewalks done,” she said.

Cody Ray Wheeler, one of three Latinos now on the City Council, was one of Isbell’s harshest critics. On the day of Wagner’s inauguration, Wheeler expressed optimism that Wagner would be more attentive to the needs of northside residents.

It hasn’t worked out that way, Wheeler said last week.

“I went in optimistic, but it feels after a year that it’s the same old thing with a new, smiling face in front of it,” Wheeler said.

As an example of continued inequities, Wheeler offered data about the city’s neighborhood network program, which provides grants to community organizations for neighborhood improvements. During the trial of the redistricting case, witnesses testified that Isbell’s administration had used the program as a political tool, steering grants to groups that were then encouraged to help get out votes for initiatives the mayor favored.

Wheeler did not allege that the practice has continued under Wagner. He said, however, that wealthy, mostly Anglo neighborhoods south of Spencer Highway had received more than $65,000 in grants, while areas north of Spencer had received about $3,000.

“This is a huge disparity in the way the city is handing out grant funds,” Wheeler said during Tuesday’s council meeting.

Settling that redistricting lawsuit was a big deal, and Mayor Wagner deserves credit for that. Sounds like there’s still a lot of room for things to get better. Fulfilling the promise made about bringing transit to Pasadena would be a big step in that direction, but it’s not the only one that could be taken. Maybe Mayor Wagner will make some progress on that on his own, and maybe he’ll need a push from the voters next May.

Campus carry at the Fifth Circuit

We’ll see if this gets a better reception than it got at the lower court.

Two years ago, three University of Texas at Austin professors — Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter — filed a lawsuit against state Attorney General Ken Paxton and several leaders of the UT System over a 2015 law that allows concealed handguns on college campuses. The professors argued the law infringed their First Amendment right to academic freedom, saying a “chilling effect” pervades their classes when students can bring guns into the room. The law went into effect in August 2016 and was immediately met with stiff backlash on campuses, particularly at UT-Austin.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court, sought to block the law and allow the professors to prohibit firearms in their classrooms. A federal judge turned down the request and dismissed the case last year, saying the professors failed to provide evidence that guns infringe on the professors’ free speech or that they have the authority to nullify state law in their classrooms.

Shortly after the decision, Paxton wrote that the “fact that a small group of professors dislike a law and speculate about a ‘chilling effect’ is hardly a valid basis to set the law aside.”

The suit then went to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which [heard] arguments at Wednesday’s session.

[…]

Moore, who teaches English literature, said she’s optimistic about Wednesday’s appeal. Recent news of gun violence in the country, such as the shooting at Santa Fe High School south of Houston in May, shows the need for more sensible gun reform, she said. She and the other two professors, who all teach in the College of Liberal Arts at UT-Austin, want their students “to see us standing up for them,” Moore said.

“I hope we don’t have to have more deaths and school shootings to convince people that guns don’t belong in the classroom,” Moore said.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve never been optimistic about this lawsuit – I support the goal, but the arguments have not struck me as persuasive. For what it’s worth, if there was ever a time to make a First Amendment argument, this is clearly it. But this is one of those times where I think the only way forward is going to be at the ballot box. We want better gun laws, we’re going to have to win some elections, because I don’t expect the courts to be on our side. We’ll see if I’m wrong in this particular case. The DMN has more.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

Still waiting on families to be reunited

Horrible story remains horrible.

The clock is ticking on a court-ordered Tuesday deadline for the federal government to reunite migrant parents with kids under 5 who were taken from them at the border. With a mere four days left, government attorneys have asked for more time — and some migrant parents say they have been given no information about how these court-ordered reunifications will take place.

At a status conference in San Diego Friday, government attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw to grant them reprieve from what they characterized as an over-ambitious deadline to bring together about 100 toddlers with parents who may be scattered across the country or the world — either held in immigration detention centers, released into the interior United States or, in some cases, already deported to their home countries.

Sarah Fabian, a lawyer for the Department of Justice, told the judge that the government has been able to match up 83 of those toddlers to parents, but has not yet found parental ties for 19 of them. Of the parents the government has identified so far, 46 remain in immigration detention centers. Those reunifications should be completed before the Tuesday deadline, Fabian said.

But the process is likely to take longer for the dozens of parents who are not in government custody. Nineteen parents of the youngest group of children have already been deported, 19 have been released from immigration custody into the United States, and two have been found to be unfit based on past criminal history. Fabian cautioned that those numbers were approximate and could be “in flux” over the coming days.

The judge — who had in a previous order criticized the government because “migrant children [were] not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property” — did not immediately lay out a longer time frame for reunifications in those more logistically challenging cases. Sabraw instead directed the government to provide more information over the weekend and set a Monday morning hearing to reconsider the deadlines.

“It may well be that once the plaintiffs know what the reason is and what groups [of parents] it applies to, they’ll agree that a more relaxed date can apply to a certain group,” Sabraw said at the conclusion of a lengthy conference. “But no one can make any informed decision, including the court, without additional information.”

While the judge did not revise the Tuesday deadline, it remains unlikely that all “tender age” children will be reunited with their parents by that original date. The odds are particularly steep in cases where those parents have already been deported, as the government argued Thursday. Lee Gelernt, the American Civil Liberties Union lawyer arguing the case on behalf of separated parents, said countless private lawyers and other organizations have offered up their services to help speed the reunification process.

You would think that reuniting children with their parents would be the top priority. That would require people who are not evil being in charge of that.

The Trump administration is making some remarkable arguments in the on-going child/family separation cases, making it seem like they actually want to slow roll their way into making the separations permanent. As Alice Ollstein explains, the government says it needs more time to determine whether the “putative parents” (i.e., people saying they want their kids back) are in fact real parents (people with a true custodial relationship to the children in question) and further whether are fit parents. In other words, having used the criminal law to meet the very high standard required to separate children from their parents, the government is now arguing that it needs to apply a very high standard to give them back. The government is further arguing that it should not be compelled to reunify families in which parents have already been deported because of the difficulty of doing so.

This is the singular moral issue of our time. We cannot lose focus on it. And we must vote out everyone responsible for putting us here, at the very least.

Pension bond lawsuit dismissed

This hit my inbox late in the day on July 3.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The City of Houston is pleased that a court challenge to the 2017 election on the City’s pension bonds has been decided in its favor.

Today, State District Judge Mark Morefield dismissed the case styled James Noteware, Contestant vs. Sylvester Turner, Mayor of the City of Houston, Texas, and City of Houston, Texas, Contestees, Cause no 2017-83,251.

In December 2017, a voter sued the City to set aside the results of the Nov. 7, 2017 election after Houstonians overwhelmingly approved the pension bonds.

Tuesday’s ruling is important to the City’s pension reform plan.

“These pension bonds are a critical part of our pension reform statute and plan, and I am very pleased with the judge’s ruling,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said.

See here for the background. So far the only news coverage I’ve seen is this Chron story, which is not on the main houstonchronicle.com site and which mostly recapitulates the press release. It does indicate that the plaintiff plans to appeal, because of course he does. I’m hoping there will be more information once the Chron has had the chance to do some reporting on this, but for now this is what we have. Given that the bonds have been sold I’m honestly not sure what there is to adjudicate, but then I Am Not A Lawyer, so there you have it.

Census lawsuit may proceed

Good.

A federal judge said Tuesday that there was a “strong showing of bad faith” by the Trump administration in adding a controversial question about US citizenship to the 2020 census. The judge hinted that he would allow the case to move forward over objections from the administration, and senior administration officials will be subjected to questioning under oath about why the question was added.

Judge Jesse Furman of the Southern District of New York, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, said the administration “deviated from standard operating procedure” by adding the question with no testing. Furman ruled that the plaintiffs challenging the question—including the state of New York and the American Civil Liberties Union—can depose senior officials from the Commerce Department and Justice Department as the case moves forward.

The census has not asked respondents about their citizenship status since 1950. Civil rights groups say the citizenship question will depress response rates from immigrants, imperil the accuracy of the census, and shift political power to areas with fewer immigrants. The census determines how $675 billion in federal funding is allocated, how much representation states receive, and how political districts are drawn.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who oversees the Census Bureau, approved the citizenship question in March, saying it was needed for “more effective enforcement” of the Voting Rights Act. Ross said at the time and in subsequent testimony before Congress that he approved the question after the Justice Department requested in December 2017 that it be added.

However, Ross stated in a memo he filed to the court on June 21 that he first considered adding a citizenship question to the census after he was confirmed as commerce secretary in February 2017, months before the Justice Department requested the question. He wrote that he had approached the Justice Department about the question, not the other way around, after consulting with “other senior Administration officials” who had “previously raised” the citizenship question.

Furman cited Ross’s memo to question his truthfulness and the administration’s motives in adding the question. “It now appears these statements were potentially untrue,” Furman said of Ross’ claims that the question was added at the Justice Department’s request. “It now appears that the idea of adding a citizenship question originated with Secretary Ross and not the Department of Justice.”

See here and here for some background. The judge did subsequently allow the lawsuit to go forward, while also granting the motion for discovery. I for one can’t wait to see what bits of treasure that digs up. Time is of the essence here, so I hope there’s a speedy schedule to get us towards a resolution.

No indefinite detention of asylum seekers

That title is one of those things I can’t believe I have to write.

A federal district judge has ruled President Donald Trump’s administration’s practice of indefinitely detaining some asylum seekers can’t proceed, dealing a major blow to what immigration attorneys have said is one of the administration’s tools to deter people from seeking safe haven in this country.

The lawsuit was filed in March by the American Civil Liberties Union and named as a defendant the El Paso Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office. Other field offices named in the lawsuit include Detroit, Los Angeles, Newark and Philadelphia. The El Paso office covers West Texas and New Mexico.

The ACLU alleged in the lawsuit that the plaintiffs passed their initial “credible fear” exams – the first step in the asylum process to determine if an applicant has a legitimate case. But despite having sponsors willing to provide housing in the United States, the federal government has continued to hold them instead of granting them parole.

[…]

In his Monday ruling, U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg granted a preliminary injunction preventing the federal government from denying parole to any provisional class members that are a party to the lawsuit. The lawsuit defines them as “asylum seekers who traveled to the United States, were found to have a credible fear of persecution, and were referred for immigration proceedings to decide their asylum claims.” The exception applies to people who pose a flight risk or a danger to the community.

A statement from the ACLU is here, and the preliminary injunction orders are here and here. Just as a reminder, these are people who came to official ports of entry to seek asylum, which they have the legal right to do. And while you ponder that, keep in mind that the Trump administration has no clue and no plan for reuniting the children they stole from their parents. Happy Independence Day!

Revised final bail order

We go from here.

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Lawrence decision, 15 years later

Time flies, but society moves slowly.

Theirs was an unlikely case.

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner weren’t in love, they weren’t a committed couple and it’s not clear that they were even having sex one September 1998 evening in Lawrence’s Houston apartment when a police officer burst in and arrested them for violating a Texas law that prohibited “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” That law was rarely enforced, especially in homes — how often, after all, do police appear in private bedrooms? In the Lawrence case, officers entered in response to a false report of a weapons disturbance.

The factual details of that night are often called into question; Lawrence told one interviewer that he and Garner were seated some 15 feet apart when police arrived. But the two pleaded “no contest” to the sodomy charge, allowing them — and their team of advocate lawyers — to challenge the law itself.

Ultimately, they won, and it was their unlikely case that sparked a sweeping ruling from the nation’s highest court, one that overturned not just Texas’ ban on sodomy but 13 similar laws across the country.

That Supreme Court decision was June 26, 2003 — 15 years ago Tuesday. One law professor at the time said it “removed the reflexive assumption of gay people’s inferiority,” laying the legal groundwork for same-sex marriage. Without the immediate, presumptive criminal charge against LGBT people, new doors were opened — new jobs, new opportunities, new freedom in their skin.

The ruling “gave lesbian, bisexual and gay people back their dignity,” said Camilla Taylor, a Lambda Legal attorney who started with the legal advocacy group in 2003, just in time to watch her colleague, Paul Smith — a gay man himself — argue Lawrence before the Supreme Court.

“Everyone knew this case had the power to change the world. The court gave us everything we asked for and more — and went big, just as we demanded,” Taylor said.

Ten years later, June 26 became an even more important milestone for gay rights when the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. And then, in 2015, the date again gained new significance with the ruling known as Obergefell that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

But this year, as the date rolls around, LGBT Texans are still reckoning with the legal and political landscape in a state where they have few protections against discrimination and their rights as couples are again being questioned in court.

Fifteen years later, some wonder, how much progress have same-sex couples in Texas really made?

You want to know how long I’ve been doing this blog thing? Long enough to have blogged about the Lawrence decision. As this story notes, the next big test of where we stand as a society with regard to the rights and dignity of same-sex couples comes in January, right here in Houston, when the anti-same sex employee benefits lawsuit gets heard in a Harris County district court. It’s a bullshit case from top to bottom, but as we’ve seen lately from both the state and federal Supreme Courts, being bullshit is not a hindrance when there’s an agenda at play. Just remember you’ll have at least one and probably two opportunities to have your own influence on our Supreme Court, with the first one being this November. Please do make the most of it.

Don’t expect a Ken Paxton trial to happen this year

Delays, delays, nothing but delays.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton was indicted for fraud nearly three years ago but is unlikely to go on trial before Election Day.

Paxton’s trials are on hold while the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals decides whether the prosecutors on the case are being overpaid. The court went on summer recess Wednesday, and won’t hear any cases or issue any major opinions before the fall.

This means they won’t announce a decision in the pay case until September, at the earliest, which experts said will delay Paxton’s trial dates until after the Nov. 6 election — and probably into next year.

“I just don’t see there’s any way it gets tried before the election,” said Rusty Hardin, a Houston attorney who has represented everyone from Enron employees to athletes and TV stars. “I would have doubted that the trial would have happened before the election even if the Court of Criminal Appeals would have decided today.”

There’s more, so read the rest. Just for a sense of the timeline here, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas halted the special prosecutors’ pay last February, then ruled they had to give a bunch of it back to Collin County in August. The CCA then stayed that ruling pending any action it would take in September, and after giving everyone 30 days to respond to the prosecutors’ appeal of the 5th Court’s ruling, they agreed in December to formally review that ruling. At that time, it delayed the actual Paxton trial, which was originally set to start on December 11, to this year. More than six months later, the CCA has not scheduled oral arguments for that appeal, and so here we are. There are other factors at play here – the damage done to the Harris County courthouse by Harvey greatly complicates things, for example – but either until this lawsuit gets resolved, nothing else will happen. And just any ruling won’t get us back on track, because if the CCA lets the 5th Court’s ruling stand, the special prosecutors will resign, and we’ll have to start more or less from scratch. Ken Paxton could well be collecting his state pension by the time this sucker gets to a courthouse.

You’ve heard the expression that “justice delayed is justice denied”. Usually, that applies to the defendant, who is entitled by the Constitution to a fair and prompt trial. In this case, as Democratic nominee for AG Justin Nelson says in a statement, Ken Paxton is benefiting from the unending delays, with the assistance of his legislative cronies. You’d think a guy who loudly proclaims his innocence would want to get this over with, but not Ken Paxton. It would seem he’s just fine with putting this off, at least until after the election. Feel free to speculate as to why that might be.

The fruit of the poisoned tree

If the discriminatory intent of the Texas redistricting was no biggie, then surely the discriminatory intent of the voter ID law is no biggie too. Right?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Texas attorney general’s office asked U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi to reconsider her findings that the state’s voter ID law was enacted to purposefully discriminate against voters of color. An appellate court has already upheld the law, but — in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling — the state is now trying to convince the judge to reverse her findings of discrimination in the voter ID case in order to eliminate the possibility of a return to federal oversight of its election laws.

In the filing, the state argued that the 2011 voter ID law that opponents first challenged as discriminatory has now “changed significantly” and pointed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeal’s findings that the Legislature “succeeded in its goal” of addressing discriminatory flaws in the voter ID law in 2017.

It cited the Supreme Court’s verdict on the congressional and state House maps as findings that “cast irremovable doubt” on previous decisions that the voter ID law was also crafted with a discriminatory intent.

The state contends that, like in the redistricting case, lawmakers should be extended the “presumption of legislative good faith” for working to replace a law that Ramos ruled disproportionately — and intentionally — burdened voters of color who are less likely to have one of the seven forms of identification that the state required them to show at the polls.

See here for some background. Ken Paxton is a third-class legal mind, but given the turd that SCOTUS laid on us in the redistricting case, he’s got a compelling argument. Unless someone can find a recording of Troy Fraser rubbing his hands together and cackling “This bill is SUPER RACIST, y’all” while the floor debate was going on, I’m not sure there’s any defense. The only solution is going to be a political one. There’s no other choice.

Texans cheerleader lawsuit update

Couple points of interest here.

A former Texans cheerleader who says cheer director Alto Gary derided her as “skinny fat” and applied duct tape to her stomach before a 2017 game added her name Friday to one of two lawsuits filed against the team over payment and workplace issues.

Angelina Rosa, a two-year member of the cheerleading squad who said she also was a dancer for the Chicago Bulls and a member of the Astros’ Shooting Stars group, is the 10th cheerleader to join one of two suits filed against the team in Houston federal court.

Rosa is the sixth former cheerleader to sign on as a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by women’s rights attorney Gloria Allred and Houston attorney Kimberly Spurlock. Four have joined a suit filed by Houston attorney Bruse Loyd seeking class action status.

While descriptions of the duct-taping incident were included in both lawsuits, Friday was the first time that Rosa was identified as the affected cheerleader.

[…]

Both lawsuits accuse the Texans of failing to pay minimum wage and overtime for hours spent on the job, and both allege other workplace violations.

The Texans have denied the allegations and have filed motions seeking their dismissal. If the cases are not dismissed, the Texans want them delayed while allegations are submitted to arbitration before NFL commissioner Roger Goodell.

Since the lawsuits were filed, several former cheerleaders have told local news outlets, including the Chronicle, that they were not subjected to the abuses described by their fellow former cheerleaders.

I had noted before that the Texans had filed for dismissal of one of the lawsuits, and I had wondered about the other one. Now I know. As far as the denial by some other cheerleaders about the allegations made in these lawsuits, that’s of interest and would surely be a key pillar of the defense if this ever makes it to a courtroom, but the presence of some cheerleaders – even many cheerleaders – who say they were not abused or harassed does not have any bearing on the testimony of those who say they were. One can be both credibly accused of bad behavior, and also credibly defended by others who say “that never happened to me”. The defense against harassment by some other members of the Texans’ cheerleading squad also doesn’t address the claims of wage theft. We are still a very long way from a resolution here.

SCOTUS upholds Texas redistricting

Screw this.

Extinguishing the possibility that Texas could be placed back under federal electoral supervision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday pushed aside claims that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they enacted the state’s congressional and state House maps.

In a 5-4 vote, the high court threw out a lower court ruling that had found that lawmakers intentionally undercut the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office. The Supreme Court found that the evidence was “plainly insufficient” to prove that the 2013 Legislature acted in “bad faith.”

The Supreme Court also ruled that all but one of the 11 congressional and state House districts that had been flagged as problematic could remain intact. The one exception was Fort Worth-based House District 90, which is occupied by Democratic state Rep. Ramon Romero and was deemed an impermissible racial gerrymander because lawmakers illegally used race as the predominant factor in deciding its boundaries.

The Supreme Court’s ruling, which keeps all but one of the state’s districts in place through the end of the decade, is a major blow to the maps’ challengers — civil rights groups, voters of color and Democratic lawmakers — who since 2011 have been fighting the Republican-controlled Legislature’s post-2010 Census adjustment of district boundaries.

[…]

Joined by the court’s three other liberal justices, Justice Sonia Sotomayor denounced the majority’s opinion as a “disregard of both precedent and fact” in light of the “undeniable proof of intentional discrimination” against voters of color.

“Those voters must return to the polls in 2018 and 2020 with the knowledge that their ability to exercise meaningfully their right to vote has been burdened by the manipulation of district lines specifically designed to target their communities and minimize their political will,” Sotomayor wrote. “The fundamental right to vote is too precious to be disregarded in this manner.”

In siding with the state, the Supreme Court tossed out claims of intentional vote dilution in state House districts in Nueces County and Bell County as well as claims that Hispanic voters were “packed” into Dallas County districts to minimize their influence in surrounding districts. The high court also rejected challenges to Congressional District 27 — where the lower court said lawmakers diluted the votes of Hispanics in Nueces County — and Congressional District 35, which the lower court flagged as an impermissible racial gerrymander.

But perhaps most significant on the voting rights front was the Supreme Court’s ruling that the state could be not be held liable for intentional discrimination of Hispanic and black voters.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here if you have the stomach for it. You sure can accomplish a lot if you close your eyes and wave away evidence. I don’t know what else there is for me to say, so I’ll just refer you to Pema Levy, Ian Millhiser, Martin Longman, and Mark Joseph Stern. What Rick Hasen wrote five years ago sure looks prescient now.

Supreme Court affirms trashing Laredo’s plastic bag ban

Not really a surprise.

The Texas Supreme Court handed a loss to local government on Friday, striking down a Laredo ban on plastic bags. The decision imperils about a dozen other cities’ bans across the state.

In a decision viewed as one of the court’s most highly politicized of the term, justices ruled unanimously that a state law on solid waste disposal pre-empted the local ordinance. That decision drew immediate responses from both sides of the aisle, with high praise from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who had weighed in against the bans, and condemnation from environmental groups, which had argued the ban kept at bay the harsh environmental damage brought by plastics.

The court’s ruling resolves a long-standing question over whether local governments may impose such bans, as cities including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas have in recent years. Friday’s unanimous holding makes those bans unenforceable as well, and likely tosses the issue over to the Texas Legislature for debate.

The court said in a unanimous holding that its intent was not to wade into the “roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs” but simply to resolve the legal question at hand.

“Both sides of the debate … assert public-policy arguments raising economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the court. “We must take statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”

[…]

While arguments have seemed to center on semantics, the court’s decision is likely to have major implications for local control issues across the state. It’s a loss for local governments, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

“Plastic bags are the perfect case for why different geographies need different sets of rules,” Sandlin said. “This is a sad day.”

A long list of lawmakers have weighed in on the case, including by filing friend of the court briefs. Twenty Republican state lawmakers filed a brief against the ban in an earlier appeal of the case. And state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, told the Texas Supreme Court she supports the city’s ban.

In 2017, state Sen. Bob Hall filed a bill that would have prevented Texas cities from enforcing bag bans.

Now that the court has ruled, the issue is likely to become one for legislators to take up. Justice Eva Guzman urged lawmakers to do just that in a concurring opinion Friday.

“The legislative branch, not the judiciary, bears the unenviable task of making complicated policy decisions that balance the benefits of uniform regulation and the myriad burdens (financial or otherwise) that may be imposed on taxpayers, businesses, and the environment,” Guzman wrote.

She added, “I urge the Legislature to take direct ameliorative action. … Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning—it will invite one.”

See here and here for the background. Yes, the Legislature could remediate this – the case hinged on the definition of a “container”, which I think we can all agree is not something that was handed down by God to the Founding Fathers. But we all know that’s not what this Legislature is going to do. Quite the reverse, in fact. So while I appreciate Justice Guzman’s concern about the “ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem”, I would encourage her to venture out of the ivory tower once in awhile to observe what is actually happening around her. In the meantime, we can all do our part to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic bags. The Observer and the Current have more.

SCOTUS and sales taxes

This ruling will be good for Texas.

Texas stands to gain hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue after the U.S. Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that states may force online retailers to collect sales tax even when they have no physical presence in the state.

Every year, Texas loses $1.1 billion in uncollected sales tax, according to the Texas comptroller’s office — well over the $800 million the state will spend securing its southern border this year and next. That’s the result of the high court’s 1992 decision, now reversed, that retailers are responsible for collecting sales tax only in states where they had “nexus.” That decision — which predated the astronomical rise of the internet and the subsequent boom in online shopping — was outdated, argued lawyers for the state of South Dakota, who won the case this week.

That lost tax revenue is particularly meaningful in Texas, one of just a handful of states without a personal income tax. This May, for example, the state’s sales tax revenue totaled $2.76 billion.

[…]

Customers themselves owe sales tax on their purchases, but it’s sellers who are required to collect that money and send it to the government. States have little mechanism — and little incentive — to chase down sales tax on small-ticket purchases from average consumers when the retailers don’t do it themselves. Some of Texas’ largest online retailers — Amazon, for example — already remit sales tax to the state. Amazon has almost a dozen distribution centers in the state.

Texas is highly unlikely to gain back all of the $1.1 billion it’s currently losing, experts said, and any money the state gets back won’t come overnight. While the Texas comptroller has a great deal of taxing authority, some changes to the state’s tax structure might have to be carried out by the Legislature when it reconvenes in 2019, said Dale Craymer, the president of the Texas Taxpayers and Research Association. The Comptroller’s office is looking into that, a spokesman said.

“We welcome the court’s ruling in this case and are currently assessing any potential revenue impacts,” said Kevin Lyons, a spokesman for the agency.

I have long believed that the sales tax exemption for online purchases outlived its purpose years ago. This is not just for states like Texas but also for local governments that rely on sales tax revenue, and for traditional retailers who are no longer at an automatic disadvantage. Sales tax rates vary by locality, and not all items are subject to sales taxes, so this will be a challenge to set up, but that’s not our problem. Online retailers will figure it out, and life will go on. This was the right decision.