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From the “Needlessly overstated answers to simple questions” department

I have three things to say about this:

Tony Buzbee, a Houston lawyer who recently announced his plan to run for mayor next year, has offered to “mediate” a long-running pay dispute between the city and firefighters, one week after a judge blocked implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment that would grant firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

In a joint statement Friday with the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, Buzbee said he believes it is time “we equally value our police and fire first responders in Houston,” seeming to indicate that he supports the push for “pay parity.”

A spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner declined comment, referring to the mayor’s previous comments that a judge should first decide whether a collective bargaining agreement can supersede a voter-approved charter amendment.

1. No.

2. Whether or not the city has any ability to negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is an open question right now. (So is the pay parity referendum itself, but let’s set that aside right now.) Asking the city to come to the table and negotiate the terms of the pay parity referendum is basically equivalent to telling the city to agree that the firefighters are right about the big picture and to abandon its current course. Which the city may eventually wind up doing, depending on what the lawyers and the courts say, but now is not the time for that.

3. Even if we were to accept the premise of point #2, maybe find a mediator who’s more, you know, impartial? Like, maybe someone who hasn’t announced their candidacy against Mayor Turner? It’s a big city. We have lots of certified mediators. I’m sure someone else might have time in their schedule for this.

4. Again, no.

Oh, right, I said three things, not four. Better call in Tony Buzbee to mediate the difference between what I said and what I did.

Spec’s sues TABC

Another lawsuit to watch.

The state’s largest liquor chain — Spec’s Wine, Spirits and Finer Foods — is suing the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission for “abusive regulatory overreach” over an enforcement action that dragged on for almost two years before falling apart in administrative proceedings last year, court documents show.

The federal lawsuit, filed in Houston in late August but only recently unsealed, alleges that the TABC “wrongfully and maliciously” attempted to “extort” money from Spec’s by threatening to effectively shut the company down or by making the family-owned business fork over more than $700 million in civil penalties.

The TABC, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment.

In a stinging rebuke of the TABC last year, a pair of administrative law judges said the agency failed to prove dozens of allegations and chastised the agency for failing to disclose evidence to their own witness (and the court). The judges also called out the agency for “stacking” charges, a tactic commonly used to pressure defendants into a settlement. In the end, the judges recommended no fines be assessed against the liquor chain.

Now Spec’s is seeking an unspecified amount of money for damages that include lost profits, more than $1 million in attorneys fees and harm to its reputation. The lawsuit includes a request to impose exemplary, or punitive, damages — which are three times the amount of actual damages.

“Acting under color of law, [the TABC] threatened and pursued groundless allegations and enforcement actions,” the lawsuit says. “[The TABC] intentionally trumped up false claims in knowing violation of the law.”

The lawsuit also alleges the agency provided false testimony during the spring proceedings, which were the administrative equivalent of a trial.

The whole story is fascinating, and more than a little gross and enraging on the part of the TABC. Follow the links in the Trib story to see how all that went down last year. They’ve done a lot to clean up their operations, but stains like that don’t come out on their own. The TABC is in for a spanking from the legal system, and it’s one they have coming. The only question is how big the number will be.

How Dems took Hays County

Three cheers for Texas State University.

As the dust settles after last week’s election, the political identity of Hays County hangs in the balance: Is it red or blue?

The rapidly growing Central Texas suburban county — Texas’ 22nd-largest by registered voters – hadn’t voted for a Democrat at the top of the ticket since 1992. In this year’s general election, however, it gave U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, a 15-point edge over Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz. It was the first time in 13 general elections that the county flipped, even though it has become increasingly blue in recent elections.

What exactly fueled the flip is still unknown – and it’s most likely due to a slate of factors – but University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus said the “off-the-charts-big” student turnout at Texas State University played a big role.

Turnout was so large during early voting that students reported waiting in lines for more than an hour. After the Texas Civil Rights Project threatened to sue the county amid allegations that it was suppressing the college student vote, Hays County commissioners extended early voting on the Texas State campus and created an additional Election Day voting site.

Hays County election data indicates that Texas State students took advantage of the extended voting opportunities. The 334th precinct, which includes the on-campus LBJ Student Center voting location, saw the largest increase in voters from 2014 to 2018 of any precinct in Hays County. A total of 1,942 voters cast their ballots this election. That’s more than five times the 373 voters who cast their ballots in the 334th precinct in 2014, and significantly higher than the 1,406 voters who cast their ballots in that precinct in 2016, a presidential election year.

[…]

But in a county where more than 80,000 voters cast ballots this past election, experts say there are factors other than a robust young voter turnout that contributed to the flip.

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said that Hays County was not as red as other parts of the state heading into the election, but he said it turned blue “much more abruptly than other counties.”

He chalks up the the switch, in part, to poor performances by statewide Republican candidates.

“Statewide Republicans were down across the board due to the unpopularity of Donald Trump and the popularity of Beto O’Rourke,” Jones said.

Republican incumbents like Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller faced strong challenges from their Democratic opponents as votes from across the state poured in on election night, even as Hays County handed double-digit advantages to their Democratic challengers.

Jones also said that Hays County may have flipped this election because of the “Austin creep.”

“Metro Austin” — known for its liberal politics — “is increasingly moving north into Williamson County and south into Hays County because home prices in Austin are rising,” Jones said. “You’re getting more people who look, act, think and feel like Austin residents who move across the Hays County line.”

See here for some background. While it’s clear that Texas State students turned out in force, the magnitude of the Dems’ win in Hays County leads me more towards the “Austin creep” theory. It’s basically the same thing as what we’ve seen in Fort Bend and Collin/Denton, as voters from the nearby large urban county have been part of the population growth there. What I’d really like to see is a comparison of Hays County, which borders Travis to the southwest on I-35, and Bastrop County, which borders Travis to the southeast where US290 and SH71 go and where Ted Cruz increased his margin from 2012 to 2018 by a bit. Bastrop is clearly more rural than Hays and I’m sure that has a lot to do with it, but there’s also a lot of new development near the border with Travis, and it seems to me there’s a fair amount of “spillover” population as well. Does that part of Bastrop vote more like Travis, or is there a clear demarcation? The geography may also make a difference – the southwest part of Harris County that abuts Fort Bend is Democratic, but the south/southeast part of Harris that borders Galveston County is not, and I believe that has contributed to Galveston County getting redder. Maybe there’s a similar effect for Hays and Bastrop? I’m just speculating. Anyway, that’s another question I’d like to see explored. In the meantime, kudos to everyone who worked to make Hays County blue this year.

Lawsuit filed over Driver Responsibility Program

This ought to be interesting.

A national civil rights organization on Wednesday sued Gov. Greg Abbott and four top officials at the Texas Department of Public Safety, arguing that the state’s Driver Responsibility Program traps many of Texas’ most vulnerable people in a cycle of debt and hardship.

“This unfair license suspension scheme particularly targets Texas’ most impoverished residents, who are often unaware additional charges are owed under the DRP,” says Phil Telfeyan, lead attorney in the case and executive director of Equal Justice Under Law, the organization behind the lawsuit. “Individuals who cannot pay will often lose their job and their home — becoming homeless — for a minor ticket that wealthier drivers simply pay and forget.”

The 66-page suit is filed against Abbott, DPS Director Steven McCraw, as well as DPS Chairman Steven Mach; Skylor Hearn, DPS’ deputy director of Administration and Services; and Amanda Arriaga, division director of the driver license division. The suit argues the Driver Responsibility Program violates the rights of the its plaintiffs to due process, unfairly impacts the state’s poorest residents, and violates their rights to equal protection under the law.

It is brought on behalf of four plaintiffs, ranging from a 75-year-old San Antonio resident, two U.S. Navy veterans and a man experiencing homelessness after he was unable to find adequate work without a license.

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the article. Equal Justice Under Law is of course one of the groups that has led the litigation against Harris County’s bail practices, so the state is going to have a real fight on its hands. They have filed similar suits in other states, and you can read their statement about this action here. The original intent of the DRP was to generate revenue for hospital trauma centers, and hospital groups have opposed killing this program on the very rational grounds that the Lege would simply not make up the funding to them if this were cut out. I sympathize with their plight, but there really is no justification for this, and it’s ridiculous that a state like Texas, with good financial resources, can’t help out the trauma centers without imposing an unfair and unequal burden on low income residents. It’s time for the DRP to go, and if the Lege won’t do it, the courts will need to. KUT, which notes that there are bills filed, by Democrats and Republicans, to do away with the DRP, has more.

Paxton prosecutors want another shot

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

The attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton indicated in a court filing this week that they aren’t giving up a long-running fight to take the state’s top lawyer to court — at least not yet.

The filing follows a Nov. 21 ruling from the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals that six-figure payments to the special prosecutors were outside legal limits. The prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016, had in the past suggested that if they did not get paid, they might leave the case, which has dragged on for more than three years.

Brian Wice, one of those prosecutors, on Monday filed a document with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals seeking more time to ask the court to rehear the case. If the court grants his request, prosecutors would have until Dec. 21 to try and convince the high court to reconsider their case. Wice declined to comment on Tuesday.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, the fractured court handed down a total of six opinions, including three dissents. The all-Republican court will welcome one new member, Michelle Slaughter, in the new year.

See here for the background. I know asking for a re-hearing is a normal thing, though I have no idea how often it works. Maybe with a new judge coming on board there’s a chance of a different outcome, I don’t know. Maybe because the opinions were all over the place the justices themselves might be open to reconsidering. It can’t hurt. I just don’t expect much to change. The DMN has more.

Moving forward on Section 3

There’s still redistricting litigation action happening.

Late Friday afternoon, the coalition of voting rights groups that have fought the state for fairer legislative districts since the last round of redistricting in 2010 filed a pair of new briefs with the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. They seek to have the state forced back into federal preclearance under the Voting Rights Act.

States subject to the VRA’s preclearance provision must seek and receive federal approval for any changes they make to any law that applies to voting. Texas has been free from the requirement since 2013, when the Supreme Court cleared the list of states subject to preclearance, but could be placed back on the naughty list if federal courts determine that the state is intentionally discriminatory in its voting laws.

The groups argue that returning Texas to preclearance status for at least the next five years is the only thing that will stop state legislators from drawing unconstitutional district boundaries during the state’s next round of redistricting following the 2020 elections.

“[T]his vital, but time-limited remedy — this Court’s imposition of a preclearance requirement and retention of jurisdiction — is the most statutorily appropriate and equitable action that can ensure the State’s next redistricting plans do not discriminate against minority voters, particularly in light of this Court’s identification of the recent intentional discrimination employed by the State in redistricting and the persistent pattern of discriminatory governmental action in Texas directed at minority voters for generations,” the plaintiffs write.

[..]

“The Supreme Court held that the discriminatory intent of the 2011 legislature was erroneously imputed to the 2013 legislature, it left the findings of intentional discrimination as to the 2011 plans untouched, ‘express[ing] no view on the correctness of this holding,’” the plaintiffs, including the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches, write. “This Court’s findings of intentional discrimination in the 2011 Congressional and State House plans remain in place, and these findings — coupled with Texas’s persistent history of continued intentional discrimination — amply justify Plaintiffs’ request for relief under Section 3(c) [of the Voting Rights Act].”

See here and here for the background. The joint plaintiffs and Quesada plaintiffs’ petition for relief under Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act is here, the Task Force plaintiffs’ request is here, and every legal document associated with the case is here; scroll all the way to the bottom to see the most recent stuff. I haven’t seen any other news about these filings, so I guess this subject isn’t as sexy as it once was. Understandable, given the SCOTUS vandalism to the Voting Right Act, not to mention the likelihood of success, but this is still important. The state has till January 15 to respond. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Paxton sues San Antonio over “sanctuary cities” law

This is gonna be ugly.

Best mugshot ever

Texas is suing the city of San Antonio for an alleged violation of the state’s new anti-“sanctuary cities” law, in the state’s first enforcement action against a city under the controversial statue.

The lawsuit, filed Friday in Travis County District Court, centers on a December 2017 incident when San Antonio police discovered a trailer carrying 12 individuals from Guatemala who were suspected of being undocumented. The city’s police department charged the driver with smuggling of persons, but released the migrants without involving federal immigration authorities, as the new law requires, according to the state’s lawsuit.

The 2017 “sanctuary cities” law, known as Senate Bill 4, says police departments can’t bar their officers from questioning the immigration status of people they detain or arrest. It also punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation

San Antonio’s police department policy states that officers will not refer individuals to Immigration and Customs and Enforcement unless they have a federal deportation warrant. That policy, the Texas lawsuit claims, “prohibits and materially limits the enforcement of immigration laws.”

The lawsuit seeks hefty civil fees from the city, including a $25,500 penalty for nearly every day that the city’s immigration procedures violated state law. The law went into effect Sept. 1, 2017 — meaning those fees could amount to some $11.6 million.

[…]

Paxton’s office has asked the court to issue an injunction requiring the city to comply with the new law, as well as assess major civil penalties against the city, police department and McManus.

Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, slammed the lawsuit, claiming it had “three obvious purposes: to intimidate and frighten immigrants in the state of Texas, to pressure Texas localities to violate constitutional rights, and to attract public attention for Paxton from the nativist fringe.”

I don’t know why Paxton is filing a suit now over something that happened nearly a year ago. I mean, Republicans have been braying about this particular incident all along. Maybe he didn’t want to take action before the election, but you’d think this is the sort of thing the likes of Paxton would see as an asset. Bear in mind, there is also the lawsuit against the “sanctuary cities” law, which is still to be heard in court. There’s a lot of ways this could wind up going.

HPOU files first Prop B lawsuit

And away we go.

Courthouse officials were scrambling to find a judge Friday afternoon to hear a lawsuit by the Houston Police Officers Union against the city of Houston and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, that seeks an immediate halt to implementation of a voter-approved ballot initiative that would give Houston firefighters “pay parity” to police officers of similar status.

The lawsuit, filed midday Friday in the 234th state district civil court, seeks to block “Proposition B,” arguing it amounts to an unconstitutional amendment to Houston’s charter, and was void from the start. After hearing initial argument by the police union lawyer to put on the brakes, State District Judge Wesley Ward indicated to lawyers he planned to recuse himself and needed to find another judge in the building who could take over.

Ward, a Republican who was voted out last month on the same ballot with Proposition B, reportedly told attorneys in chambers he had a conflict of interest because he planned to join a law firm where one of the attorneys on the case works.

[…]

The 25-page suit argues that the pay-parity charter amendment is unconstitutional because it “is preempted by and directly conflicts” with state law requiring that firefighters be paid to comparable private sector employment, as well as posing an “irreconcilable conflict” with state law because it ties firefighter compensation to those of other public sector employees, and further conflicts with state law because the two professions do not require “the same or similar skills, ability, and training.”

The measure “undermines and interferes with HPOU’s right to collectively bargain, because both HPOU and the City are forced to consider the economic effect of a third-party’s interjecting interests,” according to the lawsuit. The plaintiff’s attorneys also argued that the requirements of Prop B put the HPOU in the position of representing firefighters who had not chosen the union to represent them and who do not have the same responsibilities as police.

The suit also argues that Prop B runs contrary to local government code mandates that say police and fire departments are “separate collective bargaining units unless they voluntarily join together” for collective bargaining with a public employer.

Well, I don’t know what the city’s lawyers will tell them, but clearly HPOU’s attorneys are not hesitating. The ordinance that Council passed to accommodate Prop B is set to take effect on January 1, so I presume the cops are seeking to get a judge to put it on hold pending the litigation. That’s usually the way these things work. We’ll see now if the city joins this lawsuit or files their own; I presume the latter, though most likely in the end the two will be combined. December is already shaping up to be quite the month.

UPDATE: That was quick:

A state district judge Friday evening granted a temporary restraining order blocking the implementation of a voter-approved charter amendment requiring the city of Houston to grant its firefighters “pay parity” with police officers of similar rank and experience.

State District Judge Kristen Brauchle Hawkins granted the TRO Friday night at the request of the Houston Police Officers Union, which filed a lawsuit earlier in the day against the city and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. The judge set a hearing for Dec. 14.

The fire union opposed the TRO request, but lawyers for the city did not.

Buckle up, y’all.

The legal option for Prop B

Here we go.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask Houston city council Wednesday to hire a law firm to advise the city on possible litigation related to the firefighter pay parity measure, setting in motion a potential court challenge to the item approved by voters earlier this month.

While the firefighters union has urged the city to return to the negotiating table, Turner has questioned whether the city could preempt the ballot measure approved by voters, suggesting a judge should settle the question first.

Firefighters and labor attorneys contend the mayor does not need to seek a judge’s opinion, saying Texas’ collective bargaining laws preempt the city charter.

The city still has not sought a legal opinion on the matter.

[…]

The mayor, who instructed each city department in September to submit plans for reducing their respective budgets by 3.4 to 5.2 percent, has remained tight-lipped about how he plans to make the cuts he has warned are needed to square the city’s budget.

The Chronicle submitted a public information request seeking copies of the departments’ budget-cutting memos, but the city has sought an opinion from the Texas Attorney General on whether the documents can be exempted from disclosure.

Several city departments — including the Administration of Regulatory Affairs, the Solid Waste Department, and Public Works and Engineering — declined to say how Prop B-related cuts would impact their services and referred all questions to the mayor’s office. Alan Bernstein, a mayoral spokesman, referred the Chronicle to the months-old memo asking departments to submit “reduction scenarios.”

We knew this was coming. I’ve been expecting there to be litigation over this from the beginning, regardless of who won. Now we get to see what form this takes.

Houston city council on Wednesday approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s request to hire an outside law firm to provide the city with legal advice related to the firefighter pay parity measure approved by voters earlier this month, but not before cutting the contract’s potential cost in half.

Following a testy discussion that lasted nearly 80 minutes, council gave the green light on a 9-7 vote for a contract worth up to $500,000 with Norton Rose Fulbright, a global firm with ties to the political action committee that backed the campaign to oppose Proposition B.

The ballot item, approved by voters on Nov. 6, grants Houston firefighters equal pay to police officers of corresponding status.

The firm is likely to help Turner’s administration address what has become a core question in the post-election debate over Prop B: whether state law in the form of a collective bargaining contract preempts the city charter. Council on Wednesday also adopted the pay parity item as a charter amendment, a procedural formality.

[…]

Turner told reporters after the meeting that he would have legally challenged Proposition B before the election, but found legal precedent that said such a move had to wait until voters approved the measure.

“There’s only one issue right here: whether or not it was preempted by state law,” Turner said. “If a judge should come back and say to the City of Houston it wasn’t preempted by state law, then we’ll have to move very quickly to implement it.”

Basically, as I see it there are three possible outcomes:

1. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does not conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, thus paving the way for Mayor Turner and the firefighters to sit down and hash out an agreement on how to implement Prop B in a way that doesn’t kneecap the city financially. This is the firefighters’ preferred resolution.

2. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely win a lawsuit because of that, or because of some other reason. You know what happens next in this case.

3. The lawyers tell the city that Prop B does conflict with the state law on collective bargaining, and that the city would likely lose a lawsuit. This way leads to budget cuts, layoffs, quite possibly litigation from one or more of several other groups – the firefighters, the police who are threatening their own legal action anyway, some other aggrieved citizens – and an unknown amount of chaos going into the 2019 election. At least it won’t be boring.

CCA may have killed the Paxton prosecution

Ugh. Just, ugh.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals on Wednesday potentially imperiled the long-delayed criminal prosecution of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, ruling that payments to special prosecutors were outside legal limits.

If they cannot get paid, the prosecutors have suggested they could withdraw from the case against Paxton, a three-year-long legal saga that has dragged on in fits and starts amid side fights like the dispute over legal fees.

In its opinion Wednesday, the state’s highest criminal court said a lower trial court was wrong last year to approve a six-figure payment to the three special prosecutors handling the Paxton case. The prosecutors’ invoice was rejected by commissioners in Collin County — Paxton’s home county — touching off the legal fight that made its way to the Court of Criminal Appeals.

“Here, the trial court exceeded its authority by issuing an order for payment of frees that is not in accordance with an approved fee schedule containing reasonable fixed rates or minimum and maximum rates,” the opinion said.

The Court of Criminal Appeals invalidated the payment and ordered the lower court to re-issue it in accordance with the fee schedule.

“While we are disappointed with the majority’s ruling and are exploring all legal options available to us, it does not alter the fact that Ken Paxton remains charged with three serious felony offenses,” the prosecutors said in a statement responding to the ruling.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea what happens next. A copy of the opinion is here, and the Observer has some thoughts. Maybe the prosecutors stick it out – maybe now Collin County will agree to pay them something reasonable, now that they can dictate the terms more. Maybe they step down and some other prosecutors step in. Maybe it all goes up in flames. The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a scandal that needs to be addressed by the Lege. The possibility that Paxton may end up skating because the system as designed was not capable of finding a prosecutor for the charges against him is too gruesome to contemplate, so I’m not going to think about it any more today. Have some turkey or turkey-alternative, watch some football, and quit griping about how it’s Christmas season already. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon settle

Our long animal mascot-based intellectual property litigation nightmare is finally over.

Popular Texas convenience store chain Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon, a competing store that was found by a federal jury to infringe Buc-ee’s beaver logo, agreed Thursday to dismiss the lawsuit, meaning the damages portion of the trial won’t take place.

The damages portion of the trial was slated to begin in May 2019, but according to court records the parties attended mediation on Oct. 9 and entered a settlement agreement resolving all outstanding claims. On May 22, jurors found in favor of Buc-ee’s on all claims after hearing four days of testimony, agreeing Choke Canyon’s logo of a cartoon alligator wearing a cowboy hat was too similar to Buc-ee’s logo of a cartoon beaver wearing a baseball cap.

Charles Hanor, who represents Choke Canyon, told Law360 on Thursday the terms of the settlement are confidential and declined to comment further. Buc-ee’s general counsel, Jeff Nadalo, issued a statement to Law360 that the settlement meant Choke Canyon “surrendered its federal trademark registration of the offending logo, removed all offending logos and products and has paid substantial damages to Buc-ee’s.”

In the joint stipulated dismissal filed by the parties in federal court in Houston on Thursday, the stores told the court they had agreed to dismiss with prejudice all remaining claims.

“The permanent injunction the court entered on Aug. 3, 2018 will remain in full effect,” the brief filing reads. “Buc-ee’s and Choke Canyon each shall bear their own costs, expenses and attorneys’ fees.”

That injunction, issued by U.S. District Judge Keith P. Ellison, bars Choke Canyon from using its cartoon alligator logo on store-branded products, in advertising, or in any other capacity — including color and black-and-white versions of the logo, and versions of the logo with and without Choke Canyon text surrounding the mascot.

Hanor had told Law360 at the time it would cost Choke Canyon more than $100,000 to comply with the judge’s order. Choke Canyon has already put to use a new logo, this one featuring a cartoon cowboy who is winking and wearing a cowboy hat.

See here, here, and here for some background. For you law nerds, the case is Buc-ee’s Ltd. v. Panjwani et al., case number 4:15-cv-03704, in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas. Choke Canyon had been planning to appeal, based on some evidence the judge didn’t allow and other factors, but in the end decided this was the better way to go. I wish them the best of luck in their non-animal-logo future.

The Innocence Project and the prosecutor

Fascinating case.

Attorneys with the group that helped exonerate Texan Michael Morton two decades after he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife were back at the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday. But this time, instead of uncovering prosecutorial misconduct, they were sticking up for a former prosecuting attorney who they say should be a model for how to do the job.

Eric Hillman was an assistant district attorney in Nueces County who was fired in 2014 after refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to hide evidence that was favorable to a defendant in a felony intoxication assault case.

The New York-based Innocence Project took on Hillman’s case in March after lower courts dismissed his wrongful termination lawsuit, citing Texas sovereign immunity laws that protect government agencies from lawsuits in the interest of saving taxpayers money.

Hillman’s attorneys, Chris Gale and Philip Durst, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, argued that his firing goes against a state law designed to prevent wrongful convictions. They also asked the court to amend a 1985 ruling to give prosecutors and district attorneys additional protection if they are fired for refusing to break the law.

“The state has had more exonerations than any other, and has taken remarkable steps to prevent wrongful convictions by passing a series of laws to correct the system’s flaws,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, in a statement. “But these new laws can only work if the prosecutors who enforce them are also protected.”

The Innocence Project helped argue the case before the Supreme Court, the first time in the organization’s 27-year history that its lawyers appeared in court on behalf of a prosecutor. The nonprofit legal group is best known for helping exonerate 350 wrongfully convicted individuals.

So consider this another reminder that taking the time and making the effort to achieve justice rather than rack up results means fewer innocent people in jail, more guilty people being arrested, and far less resources being used on the back end trying to fix the godawful mess that sloppy, indifferent, and often racist prosecutions create. Sure seems to me like the better way to go.

Can we negotiate our way to a Prop B agreement?

It’s complicated.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration is moving forward with plans for hundreds of layoffs following last week’s voter approval of Prop B despite questions about whether jobs could be saved through renewed negotiations with the city’s firefighters union.

[…]

“Collective bargaining agreements under (Texas Local Government Code Chapter) 174 do supersede any contrary provisions of local legislation,” San Antonio labor attorney David Van Os said. “The Legislature made itself very, very clear on that.”

Craig Deats, who works with police and fire labor groups and has worked for the Houston fire union in the past, said unions routinely use collective bargaining to supersede local rules, most commonly in the areas of hiring and promotional provisions.

“We do that all the time,” Deats said. “The hiring provisions under the civil service act — when cities are bound by that, as Houston is — are something the parties typically bargain to change so as to make them more modern.”

Turner said he agrees a collective bargaining agreement can supersede the city charter, but has said he cannot sit down with fire union leaders without first challenging Prop. B in court, saying “you cannot negotiate the people’s vote.”

“You cannot use the public as a negotiating tool, which is what they’re attempting to do now,” Turner said. “Now, if they want to follow me to the courthouse and agree collective bargaining preempted Prop. B and throw it out, that’s a different thing. But short of that, I have been given a $100 million bill.”

[…]

“Regardless of fiscal realities, the meaning of the charter amendment is clear. Collective bargaining up to that is technically a violation of the charter amendment, even if the city and firefighters agree on it,” said Matthew J. Festa, a professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston. “It doesn’t make it OK to violate the charter just because everybody agrees to violate the charter.”

James M. Douglas, a professor at Texas Southern University’s Thurgood Marshall School of Law, said he believes it would be difficult for the mayor and firefighters to implement the proposition’s mandate through a collective bargaining contract because of the intent of the proposition.

“The ordinance was clear. It didn’t say over a period of time,” Douglas said. “And that was not the purpose of the ordinance to start with. The purpose of the ordinance was to have it done immediately.”

Some city leaders said they were frustrated by conflicting legal advice they had received from the city attorney’s office, and a lack of clarity over what the law allows or what Turner and firefighters would entertain if they returned to the negotiating table.

Well, that would be one reason why some of us voted against Prop B. See here and here for some background. This is just going to have to be settled in the courts, and the city will take steps in that direction after Thanksgiving. You can feel however you want to feel about this, but we all saw it coming from the beginning.

There better be a bail lawsuit settlement

I mean, duh.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Initial reactions: Harris County

Let’s start with the obvious.

Judge Ed Emmett

Harris County Democrats rode a surge in voter turnout to a decisive victory on Tuesday, unseating several countywide Republican officials, including longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, and sweeping all 59 judicial races.

Emmett, who courted Democratic ticket-splitters and leaned on his reputation as a steady hand during hurricanes, conceded at 11 p.m. to 27-year-old challenger Lina Hidalgo, who was running in her first race for public office.

After defeating the Republican sheriff and district attorney two years ago, Harris County Democrats now will control all of the countywide elected posts. In addition, former sheriff Adrian Garcia defeated incumbent Republican Jack Morman in the Precinct 2 commissioner’s race, giving Democrats control of Commissioners Court.

[…]

University of Houston political science professor Brandon Rottinghaus attributed the Democrats’ success to changing demographics in the largest Texas county and a superb get-out-the-vote effort by Democratic groups.

“Democrats have harnessed the blue wave, at least locally,” Rottinghaus said. “Harris County is going to be trending more purple, which is going to spell difficulty for Republicans in countywide races in the future.”

The upset fulfilled the nightmare scenario Republicans feared: Democratic straight-ticket voters who have a positive opinion of Emmett failed to venture far enough down the ballot to vote for him, handing the win to Hidalgo.

Hidalgo will be the first Latina county judge, and youngest since a 23-year-old Roy Hofheinz was elected in 1936. She has lived in Harris County sporadically as an adult and has never attended a meeting of Commissioners Court.

Hidalgo was an energetic campaigner who implored voters not to settle for the status quo. She criticized Emmett for failing to push harder for flood protection measures in the decade before Hurricane Harvey, when parts of the county were flooded by several storms. Emmett had campaigned on his record, contrasting his 11 years as the county’s chief executive with Hidalgo’s lack of formal work experience.

At Emmett’s watch party at the Hotel ZaZa, his supporters stared in disbelief at monitors displaying the results. Emmett spoke briefly and compared this election to the 1974 midterms following the Watergate scandal, when a wave of incumbents were defeated.

“If this happens the way it appears, I won’t take it personally,” Emmett said. “It is a bitter pill to swallow, but Harris County will move on. I will be fine.”

Supporter Xavier Stokes chalked up the county judge race result to straight-ticket voting, rather than a referendum on Emmett himself.

“He’s done such a good job, and yet here we are,” Stokes said. “It just shows you how this type of voting distorts the outcome.”

I’m not surprised to see straight ticket voting get the blame here. Lisa Falkenberg and Judge Emmett himself are both pushing that narrative, though to Falkenberg’s credit she also recognized that some awful Republicans in Harris County had been the beneficiary of straight ticket voting in the past. Judge Emmett is a good person and he has been a very competent County Judge, but his problem wasn’t so much the straight ticket option as it was that so many more Democrats than Republicans voted. Beto O’Rourke carried Harris County by almost 200,000 votes. All of the statewides except Lupe Valdez (+66K), Joi Chevalier (+97K), and Roman McAllen (+100K) carried Harris by more than the Democratic margin in straight ticket votes. Emmett pitched his campaign at Democrats because he had no choice. He knew he was swimming in very deep waters. To assume that the straight ticket voters cost him the election is to assume that without that option, the Democratic straight ticket voters would have significantly either undervoted in the County Judge race or gone on to vote for Emmett as the (likely) only Republican they chose – which, remember, they still could have done anyway – and also that a significant number of Republican straight ticket voters would have remembered to vote all the way down the ballot as well. Maybe straight ticket voters cost Emmett this race and maybe they didn’t, but when you start out with a deficit that large you need everything to go right to have a chance at overcoming it. Not enough went right for Ed Emmett.

Two other points to note here. One is that I don’t remember anywhere near this level of mourning when straight ticket Republicans in 2010 ousted then-State Rep. Ellen Cohen and then-County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia, the latter in favor of a little-known young first time candidate. Two, it was within the power of the formerly-Republican-dominated Commissioners Court to take measures to mitigate against the seemingly pernicious effects of straight ticket voting. They could have engaged in efforts to better educate everyone in Harris County about how its voting machines worked instead of leaving that mostly to the political parties. They could have invested in newer voting machines that provided voters with more information about their range of options in the booth. They did not do these things. Which, to be fair, may not have made any difference in the era of Donald Trump and a rising demographic tide that is increasingly hostile to Republicans. It’s just that when men of great power and influence claim to have been undermined by forces entirely beyond their control, I tend to be a bit skeptical.

Anyway. I understand the concerns that some people have about Lina Hidalgo. I think she’ll be fine, I think she’ll figure it out, and I think Harris County will be fine. I also think that the professional news-gathering organizations could send a reporter or two to Dallas and ask about their experience after the 2006 election when an even lesser-known and much less qualified Democrat ousted the respected longtime Republican County Judge in that year’s blue wave. That fellow – Jim Foster was his name – had a turbulent tenure and was ousted in the 2010 Democratic primary by current County Judge Clay Jenkins. I’m sure we could all benefit from a review of that bit of history.

Beyond that, the main immediate effect of the Hidalgo and Garcia wins will be (I hope) the swift conclusion of the ongoing bail practices litigation. With the defeat of all the Republican misdemeanor court judges, there’s no one outside of Steve Radack and Jack Cagle left in county government who supports continuing this thing, and they’re now outvoted. Longer term, the next round of redistricting for Commissioners Court should be more considerate of the Latino voters in the county, as Campos notes. I also have high hopes for some sweeping improvements to voting access and technology now that we have finally #FiredStanStanart. Long story short, a review and update of early voting hours and locations, an investment in new and better voting machines, and official support of online voter registration are all things I look forward to.

One more point of interest, in the race for HCDE Trustee Position 4, Precinct 3. Democrat Andrea Duhon nearly won this one, finishing with 49.58% of the vote. Precinct 3 is where County Commissioner Steve Radack hangs his hat, and it was basically 50-50 in 2018. Radack is up for election in 2020. Someone with the right blend of ambition and fundraising ability needs to be thinking about that starting now.

We’ll have to wait a little longer for the inevitable Prop B lawsuit

It’s still coming, just not, like, today.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner on Wednesday said he would delay a City Council vote to hire a law firm to represent the city in possible litigation over Proposition B, the ballot item passed by voters to grant Houston firefighters pay parity with police.

City Council had been set to consider a contract with Norton Rose Fulbright for $1.3 million. The contract would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects, with the rest set aside for a court fight over the parity measure approved Tuesday.

Meanwhile, Turner said he will look to Fire Chief Samuel Peña to restructure the fire department to absorb the measure’s additional cost, which both Turner and City Controller Chris Brown say will total more than $100 million in its first full year.

Turner said Wednesday he does not know “how we’re going to pay for it,” but he made clear initial layoffs would come from the fire department. For months, Turner has warned that the city would need to make cuts if voters approved Proposition B. It passed with 59 percent of the vote.

The measure would tie firefighters’ pay to that of police of corresponding rank and seniority. City Council, which is not meeting Thanksgiving week, agreed to bring the item up at its Nov. 28 meeting.

“I don’t know the answers,” Turner said. “I don’t know how we’re going to balance the books when we have been given an added bill of $100 million each year.”

He added: “The tough decisions start now. They start right now.”

The mayor said the fire department “restructuring” would include a reduction from four shifts to three, as well as other methods of reducing costs.

See here (at the bottom) for the background. I suppose one possible path to brokering a peace treaty might include an agreement to get everyone possible on board for a push to repeal – not amend, repeal – the stupid revenue cap, which would at least prevent the city from losing revenue for no good reason. There can’t be a vote on that before May of 2021, however, so that may be too long-term for any benefit, but one way or another this needs to be tackled, and it’s in both sides’ best interests for it to go away. I’m just spitballing here. The smart money is still on a lawsuit being filed, and after that who knows.

Second trimester lawsuit appeal heard at the Fifth Circuit

Elections or no elections, the world keeps spinning.

The federal Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Monday morning about whether Texas should be able to ban doctors from performing the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, called dilation and evacuation.

In a nearly hourlong hearing, attorneys for Texas and lawyers for the Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood argued in front of a panel of three judges.

At issue was Senate Bill 8, a law signed by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott in 2017 but blocked by a federal judge that would ban abortions in which a doctor uses surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue. The law would only allow the procedure to be done if the fetus is deceased.

[…]

Janet Crepps, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, argued that the state’s proposed law was “invasive, medically unnecessary and poses a dangerous risk” to women. She said injections with potassium chloride using a three-to-four-inch spinal needle puts women at risks for infection and hospitalization.

“Just the idea the state thinks that’s what’s within its power is contrary to the whole idea that women have a right to autonomy, dignity,” Crepps said after the hearing.

The appeals case comes nearly a year after Judge Lee Yeakel said the provision imposed an “undue burden” on women seeking second-trimester abortions in Texas. The Center for Reproductive Rights and Planned Parenthood filed suit last summer on behalf of several women’s health providers in the state. Yeakel issued a temporary restraining order on enforcing the measure in August, a day before the ban’s effective date.

Throughout the hearing the three judges asked questions around how to best interpret a Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that blocked Alabama’s dilation and evacuation ban from going into effect; how the injections work; and who are the women likely to need these services.

Medical professionals deem the dilation and evacuation method the safest way to perform an abortion, and reproductive rights groups have said this ban would subject women to an unnecessary medical procedure.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any faith in the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court interpreting “undue burden” in a meaningful fashion, but I’ll be happy to be surprised. Whatever the outcome of this case, if we don’t have a federal law protecting access to abortion on our near-term goals, we’re doing it wrong.

Lawsuit filed over late start times at several precincts

This crap should not happen.

After several polling locations in Harris County failed to open on time this morning, the Texas Civil Rights Project and the Texas Organizing Project are suing the county in hopes of extending Election Day voting hours until 8 p.m. at nine polling locations.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday afternoon, the two groups alleged that the county was violating the Texas Election Code because polling locations that opened after 7 a.m. would not remain open to voters for 12 hours on Election Day as required by state law.

Polling locations across the state’s biggest county “not only failed to open at 7 a.m., but remained closed until well after 7 a.m.,” the plaintiffs wrote. Voting was further delayed at some polling locations because of equipment issues, including sign-in and voting machines that weren’t working.

The two groups put forth affidavits from several Harris County voters who faced delays Tuesday morning and, in some cases, were kept from casting ballots before needing to head to work.

[…]

When they started letting voters in to vote, the sign-in machines were not working. She watched poll workers troubleshoot the machines until leaving at 7:45 a.m.

“Harris County has been a major flashpoint, if you will,” Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, said earlier in the day.

At least 18 polling locations in Harris County either did not open on time or were only partially open on time, with some locations at first operating with one or two machines when they were supposed to have eight or even 16, Stevens said.

Those sorts of issues are “typical of start-up issues on Election Day,” said Hector de Leon, director of communications and voter outreach for the Harris County Clerk’s Office. He said the county has technicians stationed across the county so they can get to voting locations within 10 minutes of a technical distress call and get machines up and running.

“There’s nothing atypical about this morning,” de Leon said. “It’s just the nature of Election Day morning.”

I’ve no doubt that a big, sprawling county like ours with hundreds of voting locations is going to present logistical problems, but maybe be a bit less blase about it? At the very least, this suggests the county didn’t have much of a contingency plan in place, nor does it suggest that the county sees it as a problem that some people may have had to leave and go to work without having voted, and may or may not have the chance to try again later in the day. I don’t know as I post this what will happen, but surely keeping the polls open till 8 at the affected locations is a reasonable thing to do. That and electing a County Clerk who will plan for this kind of thing before it happens.

UPDATE: The League of Women Voters Houston posts that the nine locations shown in the linked photo will be open till 8.

Today is election day

It’s what we’ve been waiting for, for what seems like forever. From the inbox:

Tuesday, November 6, 2018 is Election Day. Voting locations will be open from 7 am to 7 pm. Voters may visit www.HarrisVotes.com, the County Clerk’s election page, for more information.

“There are four important steps voters should take before heading to the polls,” advised Harris County Clerk Stan Stanart, the chief election officer of the County. “Go to HarrisVotes.com and look yourself up, study your personal ballot, see where your poll is located, and make sure you have one of the seven acceptable forms of Photo ID.”

At www.HarrisVotes.com, voters can find the answers to their voting questions. The website now provides voters an interactive Google map with directions to their Election Day polling location from the “Find Your Poll and Ballot” page.

“Please study your personal ballot,” urged Stanart. Voters may bring their marked up ballot into the voting booth to expedite the voting process and are strongly encouraged to review their selections before pressing the “cast ballot” button. Be sure you see the waving American Flag before exiting your voting booth. “If you have a question while voting, notify the election official in charge at the poll.”

There is still time to vote.” concluded Harris County Clerk Stanart. “Remember, on Election Day, a voter must vote at the polling location where their precinct is assigned to vote.”

The Election Day polling locations, a list of acceptable forms of identification to vote at the poll and information about “curbside voting” can be found at www.HarrisVotes.com. For more information, voters may also call the Harris County Clerk’s election information line at 713.755.6965.

Check the elections page for your own county if you’re not in Harris and you need to know where to go. Remember that if you’re in line by 7PM, you still get to vote. I will be at KTRK doing my thing and probably appearing on camera for thirty seconds at some random time. As for what happens today, well, your guess is as valid as anyone else’s. I’ll leave you with two thoughts. First, from Derek Ryan:


In case you’re wondering, turnout in 2008 was 8,077,795, in 2012 was 7,993,851, and in 2016 was 8,969,226. So, you know.

And also, because I didn’t see this in time to post it earlier:

Mayor Sylvester Turner will ask the city council next week to approve a $1.3 million contract with a law firm to represent the city in anticipation of possible litigation over Proposition B, a measure that would grant firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

The contract with Norton Rose Fulbright — which could be approved the day after Tuesday’s general election — would set aside $250,000 for the firm to handle litigation over real estate purchases in connection with infrastructure projects; the rest would be set aside for a court fight over pay “parity.”

[…]

The mayor’s office cast the decision as a simple act of preparing for the election.

“The city is seeking outside counsel to review and assess all options in case Proposition B should pass,” mayoral spokesman Alan Bernstein said. “It is a prudent course of action.”

I have believed all along that there would be litigation regardless of the outcome, so they may well need to assess their options in the seemingly unlikely event that Prop B fails. Something to look forward to after the election.

A step forward in Waller County

Some progress.

Two days after students at Prairie View A&M University sued Waller County over allegations that the county is suppressing the voting rights of black residents, the rural county said it is expanding early voting opportunities for students at the historically black university.

The county will now open a Sunday polling place at Prairie View City Hall and expand voting hours at the university’s campus center on Monday through Wednesday of next week to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., instead of the original 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., according to the NAACP. Students can continue to early vote at the Waller County Community Center in Prairie View on Thursday and Friday of next week.

According to Waller County’s website, there is still no location on campus or in the city of Prairie View available to the students during the first week of early voting, which is what originally prompted five students to sue the county, accusing it of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and U.S. Constitution by denying them “an equal opportunity to vote” compared to the county’s non-black voters.

[…]

In a statement released Thursday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund called the expanded early voting plan “an improvement over the original plan, but still not equal to what other Waller County residents were offered.”

See here for the background. This is better than it was before, and that’s always something. But seriously, why is this so hard? Why isn’t Prairie View being treated like other voting locations? There’s no acceptable answer to that question.

UPDATE: State Sen. Borris Miles is not impressed with the latest announcement.

Prairie View students sue over lack of on campus EV site

The fight continues.

Five students at Prairie View A&M University are suing Waller County, which is home to the historically black university, over allegations that the county is suppressing the voting rights of its black residents.

In a lawsuit filed Monday, the students accused the county of violating the federal Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution by not providing any early voting location on campus or in the city of Prairie View during the first week of early voting. The suit says the county’s decision “imposes a substantial and unwarranted burden” on student voters and denies them “an equal opportunity to vote” compared to the county’s non-black voters.

“There is no legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for defendants to deny opportunities for early voting during the first week to plaintiffs and black voters in Prairie View on an equal basis with other non-black voters of the Waller County,” the lawsuit reads.

Alleging that the county was treating black voters as second-class citizens, the students — represented by the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund — asked a federal judge to force the county to set up an early voting site on campus that offers weekend hours.

In the lawsuit, the students noted that the county failed to set up any polling locations on campus or in the city of Prairie View, which has a majority black population, during the first week of early voting. The plaintiffs noted that the county is planning to provide five days of early voting in Prairie View during the second week, but early voting during two of those days will be held at an off-campus location that is not easily accessible to students that lack transportation. Neither site would offer weekend hours.

Meanwhile, voters in the city of Waller — which has a majority white population and half of the eligible voting-age population of Prairie View — will have access to two early voting sites during the first week of early voting. Both of those sites will also be open on Saturday. A polling site will also be open in the city of Waller during the second week of early voting.

I mean, come on. You could at least have a location in the city, with the same hours as the other sites, for the duration. The inequality here is right out in the open. There’s no good reason not to do this, and no, cost is not a good reason in this case.

Endorsement watch: Incumbency is no advantage, part 2

The Chron lays down a marker on the county criminal courts.

Each election cycle we determine our judicial endorsements by interviewing the candidates, researching their backgrounds, consulting with experts and coming to a conclusion about who best would be able to run a courtroom and see that justice is done. This year, however, one piece of evidence outweighed every other consideration for the Harris County criminal courts at law: Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal’s 193-page memorandum declaring the bail system in our misdemeanor courts in violation of the Constitution’s guarantee of due process and equal protection.

[…]

While some of Judge Rosenthal’s remedies have been altered by the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the underlying facts remain undisturbed. Those facts are shocking to the conscience, and should be enough to convince our misdemeanor court judges to work with the plaintiffs suing the county over its unconstitutional practices and reach a settlement. That hasn’t happened. Instead, all the judges except two — one Democrat and one Republican — have spent millions in taxpayer funds fighting the case in court.

In meeting with these judges we heard plenty of reasons why they’re continuing to fight. Some said they believe the plaintiffs’ demands go too far. Others said they want to make sure judges don’t lose discretion in individual cases. A few were worried about the effect on public safety of letting people accused of misdemeanors out of jail without a cash bond. Overall they pointed to the courts’ slow but steady progress and work with the Arnold Foundation in crafting a risk-assessment tool to improve the bail system.

These excuses are not enough to justify the perpetuation of a criminal justice system that Rosenthal says has resulted in “thousands of constitutional violations” of both equal protection and due process.

That is why we recommend that every incumbent judge continuing to fight the bail lawsuit be removed from his or her seat.

We do not make this recommendation lightly. There will be unfortunate consequences that weaken our misdemeanor courts in the short term. Harris County will lose experienced judges. Diversion courts will need new leadership if they are to continue. It’s possible that over the next four years we’ll face different sorts of challenges and scandals in pursuit of a new kind of judiciary. Our star ratings may seem off as we endorse challengers against incumbents with higher scores. But this is about something bigger than individual judges. This is about a criminal justice system in dire need of reform.

The public needs to send a message that we will not tolerate the status quo, one that the judges have been content to live with for too long. The only way to chart a path forward is to remove the current judges — root, branch and all.

A-frickin’-men. There was literally no other moral way for the Chron to handle this, and they did not get it wrong. Good for them. Note that this line in the sand still allowed for them to endorse a decent number of Republicans, as there were multiple incumbent judges who did not run for re-election. Of the 15 misdemeanor races, the Chron picked seven Dems and six Republicans, with one dual endorsement and one non-endorsement. (Yes, even though “the Houston Chronicle editorial board’s policy is to avoid co-endorsements or non-endorsements”. I’ll let it slide this time, but I won’t let it go unmentioned.) You should click over and read the recommendations, but the main thing to know is, don’t vote for anyone who supports the unconstitutional bail system. We have the power to fix this. Let’s not screw that up.

World’s worst pastors file suit against Austin’s equal rights ordinance

Exactly what you’d expect from these jerks.

A Houston-based religious nonprofit behind the so-called bathroom bill is suing the City of Austin over its anti-discrimination hiring ordinance. The U.S. Pastor Council filed suit in a federal district court late last week, alleging the city rule’s lack of exemptions for churches or other religiously affiliated groups violates state and federal law.

The suit asks the court to block the enforcement of the ordinance on behalf of its 25 member churches in the Austin area “because these member churches rely on the Bible rather than modern-day cultural fads for religious and moral guidance, they will not hire practicing homosexuals or transgendered people as clergy.”

In a June letter to the Austin City Council, Executive Director David Welch reasoned that the ordinance didn’t provide wide enough berth for religious exemption – and that Catholic churches refusing to hire women as priests or “homosexuals as clergy” would be violating the city law.

“These are the stingiest religious exemptions we have ever seen in an anti-discrimination law,” Welch wrote. “It is inexcusable that you would purport to subject a church’s hiring decisions to your city’s antidiscrimination ordinance.”

In a written statement today, the city defended its anti-discrimination ordinance.

“The ordinance reflects our values and culture respecting the dignity and rights of every individual,” said city spokesperson David Green. “We are prepared to vigorously defend the City against this challenge to the City’s civil rights protections.”

There’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. This is all transparent bullshit, but that’s par for the course with these clowns. The good news is that the good guys aren’t worried about this, or the accompanying state lawsuit that was also filed.

Texas Values, another conservative Christian organization, filed a separate, broader lawsuit in state district court, also on Saturday, seeking to invalidate the ordinance as it applies to both employment and housing decisions.

[…]

Texas Values’ lawsuit also invokes the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which says that, in general, governments cannot “substantially burden a person’s free exercise of religion.”

“The city of Austin’s so-called anti-discrimination laws violate the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act by punishing individuals, private businesses and religious nonprofits, including churches, for their religious beliefs on sexuality and marriage,” Jonathan Saenz, the president of Texas Values, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune.

[…]

“These lawsuits certainly highlight a coordinated effort among people who want to target LGBTQ people in court,” said Paul Castillo, a senior attorney at Lambda Legal, an advocacy firm for LGBTQ rights.

Castillo said he has not examined Texas Values’ suit but that the city of Austin “is on solid legal ground” in the U.S. Pastor Council lawsuit.

“In order to walk into court, you have to demonstrate some sort of injury,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t appear that the city of Austin is enforcing or has enforced its anti-discrimination laws in a way that would infringe upon these religions.”

He added that the timing of the lawsuits is “certainly suspect” as groups attempt to politicize LGBTQ issues ahead of the upcoming legislative session.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment lawyer, said he expects both lawsuits to “go nowhere.” He points to former Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion in Masterpiece Cakeshop, Ltd. v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, which Smith said made it clear that religious beliefs do not justify discrimination.

Still, he said people should be “worried by the repeated attempts to limit the Supreme Court’s announcement that the Constitution protects gays and lesbians.”

There is currently no statewide law that protects LGBTQ employees from discrimination, but San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth have nondiscrimination ordinances similar to Austin’s. Smith said the other cities will be watching how the lawsuits in Austin unfold and that some cities may even file briefs to make the court aware of their positions.

Good to know, but as always it all comes down to what the judges make of it. I guess I have more faith in the federal courts at this point than our state courts, at least at the higher levels, but we’ll see. ThinkProgress has more.

The AG race and the lawsuit to kill Obamacare

I feel like this is a better issue for Justin Nelson than it is for Ken Paxton. Of course, on the down side, for it to really be salient millions of people will have lost health insurance. Not that Ken Paxton cares, of course.

Justin Nelson

Can a Texas-led lawsuit to kill Obamacare boost Democrats even in deep-red Texas?

Justin Nelson sure hopes so. The well-credentialed Austin lawyer is challenging the architect of that case, incumbent Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, in this fall’s general election, betting that the controversial case can help him overcome the partisan disadvantage that’s proved insurmountable for statewide Democratic candidates for the past two decades.

In February, Paxton — who was indicted in 2015 for securities fraud and has not yet gone to trial — launched a 20-state challenge to the landmark health care law, arguing that after Congress gutted the individual mandate, the rest of the law is unconstitutional and must fall. Critics have cast doubt on the case, from its motivations — many argue it’s rooted partisan politics, not genuine constitutional concerns — to its legal arguments.

As the lawsuit comes into play in races across the country, Nelson’s campaign has seized on it as perhaps its best bet at victory. Focusing on protections for pre-existing conditions — one of the most popular provisions of Obama’s landmark health law — Nelson has framed the lawsuit as his opponent’s attempt to wrench health care away from Texas’ most vulnerable residents. The Democrat brings the issue up almost as often as he cites the criminal charges against his opponent.

Republicans have been running against Obamacare practically since before it passed. But now, as they butt up against a midterm election season widely considered friendly to the Democrats, the issue may be becoming an advantage on the other side. Polling from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that 75 percent of Americans consider protections for pre-existing conditions “very important.”

[…]

Brendan Steinhauser, a Republican strategist, said the Texas-led lawsuit is “creating a microscope” on a statewide race that tends to fly under the radar.

“To some extent, sure, yes, it keeps the name in the news in a positive way among [Paxton’s] base,” Steinhauser said. But it’s also “giving the Democrats something to use,” he added.

Nelson has pledged to withdraw from the lawsuit on his first day in office. Earlier this month, his camp hosted a protest in a park across the street from the Fort Worth courtroom where Paxton’s staff was asking a federal judge to block Obamacare nationwide. Dozens of protesters wielded signs with messages like “Why Oh Why Are You Killing Me?” and one protester dressed as the grim reaper.

The issue is clearly speaking to voters, Nelson said.

“People come up to me at events and hug me for what I’m doing, speaking out on protections for pre-existing conditions,” Nelson said.

His campaign claims the numbers bear that out. In internal polls, just over half of likely voters had either “serious doubts” or “very serious doubts” about Paxton’s efforts to roll back Obamacare’s protections, a spokeswoman said. Once voters are briefed on Paxton’s background, including on the indictment, she added, Nelson pulls ahead by a small margin.

A Paxton campaign spokesman said the incumbent carries a consistent 10-point lead in his campaign’s polling.

See here, here, and here for the background. I can believe that both candidates’ polling is accurate, or at least plausible. Nelson’s depends on people being aware of the Paxton-led lawsuit and its effect. An injunction from the judge would accomplish that, though I think the judge will heed the request to hold off till after the election. Wouldn’t want to get the rabble all roused up, after all. As the story notes, this lawsuit has been an issue in elections in other states. Breaking through here is harder – dozens of media markets, lots of oxygen being consumed by other races, not that much money in this race, etc – but a little media coverage can’t hurt. The more, the better.

Dallas County gets the Harris County treatment in its bail lawsuit

We have a precedent, even if everything is still a work in progress.

Taking a cue from the rulings on Harris County’s bail-setting practices, a U.S. district judge in Dallas issued a temporary order Thursday evening saying the county’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The judge gave the county 30 days to change its ways.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas said that the county has to stop the practice of imposing pre-set bail bond amounts, which often keep poor defendants locked up for days or weeks while letting wealthier ones go free, without individual consideration if arrestees claim they can’t afford it. He sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the county uses “wealth-based detention.”

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” Godbey wrote. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

[…]

Godbey relied heavily on Harris County rulings from the federal district court and the appellate court. He said the cases had the “same roots” — despite Dallas’ lawsuit also including felony defendants whereas Harris only involves those accused of misdemeanors — and concluded that doing anything other than what the appellate court ruled in Harris would “put the Court in direct conflict with binding precedent.”

“Broadly, those procedures include ‘notice, an opportunity to be heard and submit evidence within 48 hours of arrest, and a reasoned decision by an impartial decision-maker,’ he wrote, quoting the higher court’s ruling.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story on how bail hearings have been done in Dallas. You know where I stand on this, and we both know that Dallas County has Democratic leadership, and thus I hope more than enough incentive to find a settlement. Some long overdue change is coming, and it is in everyone’s best interests to embrace it. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Dallas lawsuit over candidate eligibility officially mooted

From the inbox:

On Thursday, September 20, 2018, the Fifth Court of Appeals issued an Order in Dallas County GOP v. Dallas County Democratic Party, stating that any relief related to the November election is moot, and that the appeal, therefore, is limited to the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a and attorney’s fees. Chad Baruch of Johnston, Tobey Baruch Law Firm, one of the attorneys for the Dallas County Democratic Party (the “Democrats”), explained: “This means, effectively, that only the attorney’s fees issue will be considered by the Appellate Court. The case is over as to the November ballot and the eligibility of the candidates.”

During the 2018 Primary, the Dallas County Republican Party (the “Republicans”) filed suit against the Democrats, asking the trial court to remove over 100 Democratic candidates from the ballot. The Republicans claimed that the candidates’ applications were not valid because they had not been personally signed by the Dallas County Democratic Party Chair. Upon review of the pleadings, and after a hearing on the merits, the trial court found that “the Texas Election Code does not impose a manual signature requirement” as alleged by the Republicans. The Court held that the Republicans claims are “moot,” that their party “lacks standing,” and that such claims should be dismissed as “lacking a basis of law.” The trial court also held that the Democrats were entitled to recover, from the Republicans, attorney’s fees in the amount of $41,275.

Carol Donovan, Chair of Dallas County Democratic Party stated, “During this election season, the Republican Party has been filing frivolous lawsuits against Democrats to try to remove candidates from the ballot. It appears that the Republicans are afraid to let the voters decide what persons they want to represent them. Thankfully, the rulings of the courts support democracy.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I didn’t find any news coverage of this, but the case is No. 05-18-00916-CV at the Fifth Court of Appeals, and a link to the court’s order is here. The relevant bits:

Appellants and appellees filed letter briefs as directed. The parties agree that any relief sought regarding the November 6, 2018 general election, including preparation of the ballot and what candidates may or may not appear on the ballot, will be mooted by the election schedule.

Appellants affirmatively state that they “do not request relief related to the general election” and “only seek to appeal relief related to the lower Court’s decision on subject matter jurisdiction; 91(a), and the mandatory attorney’s fees.” Appellants further state that their appeal seeks this Court’s ruling on five issues that are not mooted by the election schedule and relate to the propriety of the lower court’s dismissal under Rule 91a and the award of attorney’s fees.

Appellees concede that appellants may appeal the fees award and that the fees issue is not moot. Appellees did not address, however, whether they dispute appellants’ ability to appeal the propriety of dismissal under Rule 91a.

So, even though the late-in-the-day appeal still sought to argue that DCDP Chair Carol Donovan needed to sign the candidate petitions, in the end all that was argued was whether the case was properly dismissed, and how much is owed to the DCDP in attorneys’ fees. This is what you call ending with a whimper. At least it’s one less thing to worry about before voting begins.

Now how much would you pay to fix Houston’s sewer system?

We may be about to find out.

Federal and state authorities sued the city of Houston over its long-running struggle to limit sewage spills on Friday, marking the beginning of the end of a years-long negotiation that could force the city to invest billions to upgrade its sprawling treatment system.

Houston’s “failure to properly operate and maintain” its 6,700 miles of sewer pipes, nearly 400 lift stations and 40 treatment plants caused thousands of “unpermitted and illegal discharges of pollutants” due to broken or blocked pipes dating back to 2005, the suit states. The city also recorded numerous incidents when its sewer plants released water with higher than allowable concentrations of waste into area waterways, the filing states.

The lawsuit by the Department of Justice on behalf of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality wants a judge to force Houston to comply with the Clean Water Act and Texas Water Code — typical orders include upgrading pipes, ramping up maintenance and educating the public on how to avoid clogging city pipes — and to assess civil penalties that could reach $53,000 per day, depending on when each violation occurred.

[…]

The filing was spurred by the intervention of a local nonprofit, Bayou City Waterkeeper, which announced in July that it planned to sue the city over the same violations and which filed its own lawsuit on Friday mirroring the EPA’s claims. It states that the city has reported more than 9,300 sewer spills in the last five years alone.

“The city’s unauthorized discharges have had a detrimental effect on, and pose an ongoing threat to, water quality and public health in the Houston area and have caused significant damage to the waters that Waterkeeper’s members use and enjoy,” the nonprofit’s filing states.

Waterkeeper’s July announcement was required by the Clean Water Act, which mandates that citizens or citizen groups planning to sue under the law give 60 days’ notice, in part to allow the EPA or its state counterparts to take their own actions.

See here for the background. This has been going on for a long time, and the city has been in negotiation for a resolution to this. How much it will all cost remains the big question. The one thing I can say for certain is that no one is going to like it. As a reminder, consider this:

Upon taking office in 2004, former mayor Bill White locked utility revenues into a dedicated fund, raised water rates 10 percent, tied future rates to inflation, and refinanced the debt. That was not enough to prevent the debt mountain from risking a utility credit downgrade by 2010, when former mayor Annise Parker took office, so she passed a 28 percent rate hike.

Remember how much some people bitched and moaned about that rate hike? Get ready to experience it all again.

Voter ID lawsuit officially ends

That’s all there is, at least until the next atrocity.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge formally dismissed the lawsuit challenging the Texas voter ID law Monday, the final step in a yearslong fight that will allow the state to enforce a weakened version of the 2011 statute.

At the urging of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi issued a two-sentence order dismissing the case in light of April’s decision by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld the law.

Lawyers for the minority voters, Democratic politicians and civil rights groups that challenged the law had argued that Paxton’s request for a dismissal was an unnecessary step because there was nothing left to decide — except for assessing legal fees and costs — after the 5th Circuit Court’s decision.

See here for the background. Like I said, we’re going to need a political solution to this problem. Maybe with a different Supreme Court we could keep pushing this via litigation, but I expect we all understand that’s not the world we currently inhabit. First we have to create that world, and that gets us back to my initial point. There is still an effort to put Texas back under preclearance, but even if that happens (spoiler alert: it almost certainly won’t) it won’t change what has already occurred. It can only affect what may be yet to come. The road forward starts with winning some elections. This November would be an excellent time for that.

Southwest Key sues city over permit for child detention warehouse

Screw them.

The Austin-based nonprofit trying to open a shelter to house migrant children east of downtown sued the city of Houston Friday, alleging a discriminatory, baseless and politically motivated campaign to prevent it from opening the facility.

Southwest Key Programs alleges in the lawsuit, filed in federal court in Houston, that the city is “manipulating” its permitting process, invalidating previously issued permits without due process and refusing to conduct inspections or issue new permits. The suit claims these actions are discriminatory based on some combination of the city’s opposition to federal immigration policies, interest in “political gain” or the race, color, national origin, ancestry, alienage or immigration status of the unaccompanied minors who would be housed there.

The lawsuit asks a court to grant Southwest Key monetary damages and declare that it can proceed with its plans to open the facility.

“The city of Houston has ignored its own regulations, and past practices, and has knowingly misrepresented the facts to the state of Texas to deny Southwest Key a license to open the facility,” Southwest Key said in a statement released Friday. “City officials bent the rules and broke the law for the sole purpose of advancing the mayor’s political agenda.”

[…]

“The city is only interested in the safety, security and well-being of children and will continue to enforce all building codes and regulations designed to accomplish that purpose,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement. “Southwest Key has repeatedly been asked to provide plans that meet existing building codes for the intended use of the facility at 419 Emancipation Street in Houston. They have failed to do so. Hopefully, they will realize that they are not exempt and must follow the rules like everyone else. We continue to wait for them to respond. In the meantime, we will review the pleading and respond accordingly.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. I have no idea if Southwest Key’s claims have any validity, and to be honest I don’t care. Southwest Key can go fuck themselves.

Another Lopez brother gets banned from taekwondo

Steven Lopez this time.

Two-time Olympic taekwondo gold medalist Steven Lopez has been banned permanently from competition by the U.S. Center for SafeSport, based on the results of the agency’s investigation into Lopez’s sexual relationship with an underage female in 2000.

The relationship, according to a report compiled by SafeSport, involved a 14-year-old neighbor whose family was a friend of the Lopez family, and occurred at a time when the complainant was a taekwondo athlete and Lopez was establishing himself as one of the sport’s dominant figures, eventually winning five world titles along with the two Olympic gold medals.

Investigators said the relationship progressed over a four-year period, beginning when the complainant was 10, from what was described as grooming to sexual contact to oral sex, the latter occurring at a time when the complainant was 14 and Lopez 22.

The sexual relationship, SafeSport concluded, took place “in violation of the SafeSport Code, the criminal laws of the State of Texas and the standards expected of USA Taekwondo members.”

Lopez, who with his older brother and coach, Jean Lopez, has been named as a defendant in a federal court lawsuit filed in Colorado, declined to be interviewed by SafeSport regarding the allegations.

See here and here for some background on Jean Lopez. Steven Lopez had been suspended in May by SafeSport, and both he and his brother, along with SafeSport and USA Taekwondo and the US Olympic Committee, are defendants in a lawsuit over this whole sorry and deeply disturbing mess. All that matters at this point is finding some justice for the victims, and doing everything we can to make sure that this shit never, ever happens again. Deadspin has more.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

Partisan statewide judicial elections upheld

I’d totally forgotten about this lawsuit.

A federal judge has rejected a race-based challenge to the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi handed the state of Texas a win Wednesday, writing that its current method for electing judges to the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals does not violate federal safeguards for voters of color.

The system does dilute the power of Hispanic voters, Ramos wrote. But it’s not clear that “race rather than partisanship” explains why Hispanic voters’ preferred candidates tend to lose at the polls.

Seven Hispanic voters and a community organization sued the state in 2016, arguing that Texas’ statewide judicial election system violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it weakens Hispanic voters’ political clout and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates. Both high courts have been entirely dominated by Republicans for more than two decades, and both courts remain overwhelmingly white.

[…]

The plaintiffs had proposed that Texas adopt a single-member district approach, carving up the state geographically to allow for Hispanic-majority voting districts. In her Wednesday ruling, Ramos conceded it would be possible to remedy the Hispanic voters’ “electoral disadvantage” by switching to single-member elections. But she declined to order that change because the voters had failed to prove that the obstacles they faced to electing their preferred candidates were “on account of race.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It was an interesting argument, though as commenter Mainstream pointed out in that middle update it would have been a challenge to draw districts to try to remedy the problem if the judge had found for the plaintiffs. At some point – maybe this year! – Democrats are going to break through at the statewide level, and that could easily scramble the arguments that would apply now. I don’t know if the plaintiffs intend to appeal, but it seems to me they’ve already faced the court most likely to be amenable to them. It’s not going to get any easier from here.

The hearing for the lawsuit to kill Obamacare

Here we go again.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

At the hearing Wednesday, Texas aimed to convince U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor to block the law across the country as it continues to fight a months- or years-long legal case that could land before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Citing rising health care premiums, Texas says such an injunction is necessary to preserve state sovereignty and to relieve the burden on residents forced to purchase expensive insurance coverage. California counters that temporarily blocking or ending the law would cause more harm to the millions of people insured under it, particularly the 133 million people the state says enjoy the law’s protections for pre-existing conditions. The U.S. Department of Justice, which has taken up many of Texas’ positions in the case, nonetheless sided with California, arguing that an immediate injunction would throw the health care system into chaos.

[…]

Inside the courtroom, where protesters’ shouts were inaudible, Darren McCarty, an assistant attorney general for Texas, argued that “the policies, the merits of the ACA are not on trial here” — just the legality. In that legal argument, McCarty leaned heavily on a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Obamacare, which upheld the law by construing the “individual mandate,” a penalty for not purchasing insurance, as a tax that Congress has the power to levy. Texas argues that after Congress lowered that fee to $0 in a slate of December 2017 tax cuts, the fee is no longer a tax and thus no longer constitutional. With it must go the rest of the law, the state claims.

“There is no more tax to provide constitutional cover to the individual mandate,” McCarty said. “Once the individual mandate falls, the entire ACA falls.”

California countered that a tax can be a tax even if it doesn’t collect revenue at all times. And, attorneys for the state claim, even if the individual mandate is unconstitutional, the court should let lie “hundreds of perfectly lawful sections,” argued Nimrod Elias, deputy attorney general for California.

The case will likely turn on that question of “severability”— whether one slice of a law, if ruled unconstitutional, must necessarily doom the rest. O’Connor, who nodded along carefully throughout the hearing, lobbed most of his questions at the California attorneys, and many of them focused on whether the various pieces of Obamacare can be unentangled.

Elias said that in the vast majority of cases, the Supreme Court acts with “a scalpel, not a sledgehammer,” leaving in place most of a law even if one provision must be struck. The Texas coalition pointed to a more recent case in which the high court struck an entire law based on a narrow challenge.

O’Connor — a George W. Bush-appointee who has ruled against Obamacare several times, albeit on narrower grounds — also honed in on the question of legislative intent. Texas argued that the individual mandate was a critical piece of the law’s original version. But California argued that in 2017, in gutting the individual mandate without touching the rest of the law, lawmakers made it clear they wanted the law to persist without that provision.

“Would the legislature prefer what is left in statute to no statute at all?” Elias questioned. “We know what Congress intended based on what Congress actually did.”

See here and here for some background. Justin Nelson was at the hearing as well, pressing his attack on Paxton for his ideological assault on so many people’s health care. That really deserves more coverage, but the fact that most everyone outside of Paxton’s bubble thinks his legal argument is ridiculous is probably helping to keep the story on a lower priority. (Well, that and the unending Wurlitzer shitshow that is the Trump administration.) I mean, I may not be a fancypants lawyer, but it sure seems to me that eight years of Republicans vowing to repeal Obamacare plus the entire summer of 2017 trying to repeal Obamacare plus the abject failure to repeal Obamacare would suggest that the Republicans did not intend to repeal Obamacare with the bill that they finally did pass. If they could have they would have, but they couldn’t so they didn’t. I don’t know what else there is to say, but we’re going to have to wait till after the November elections – wouldn’t be prudent to do that before people voted, you know – to find out what this hand-picked judge thinks. Ken Janda, the Dallas Observer, and ThinkProgress have more.

The city has its own bail lawsuit

It’s not going well.

Houston city officials intentionally destroyed evidence, wiping crucial data from the computer drives of top police commanders that is potentially relevant to a lawsuit about the detention of suspects beyond the 48-hour deadline for a magistrate hearing, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt’s rare ruling last week means that if the case goes to trial, jurors will receive an “adverse instruction” about the records destruction. The jury must infer as fact that authorities destroyed evidence, knowingly and routinely detained people more than 48 hours without a probable cause hearing, and acted with deliberate indifference to the fact that they were violating defendants’ constitutional rights, the judge ruled.

The judge did not accuse the city of destroying evidence specifically to help it gain an advantage in the lawsuit, but the action is a blow to any defense the city could mount.

[…]

The 2016 class-action lawsuit challenged the city’s treatment of thousands of people jailed for days after warrantless arrests between January 2014 and December 2016. The complaint accuses officials of false imprisonment and alleges that they violated defendants’ constitutional rights to equal protection and a determination of probable cause by a judge. The case was brought by Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project — the groups that led the landmark suit challenging Harris County’s bail practices — and lawyers from the Houston firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

The suit was filed after the January 2016 arrests of Juan Hernandez, who was held 49 hours before seeing a magistrate on an assault charge, and James Dossett, who spent 59 hours in custody before facing a hearing officer via videolink on a charge of possession of a controlled substance. After a week in custody, Hernandez pleaded guilty. Authorities ultimately dropped the charges against Dossett when police failed to prove he had drugs.

The lawsuit also cites arrests in which defendants were held for more than 10 days before receiving a probable cause hearing. Overcrowding at the county jail creates a bottleneck at the city facility, the suit said.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the city had a “broad, longstanding, and consistent policy of refusing to release warrantless arrestees” even when more than 48 hours had passed since their arrests, and that the city failed to provide thousands of records relevant to this policy and practice.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier Chron story (embedded in this one and the basis of that post) on the subject. I’m appalled by what’s in this story, which I don’t think can be adequately explained by simple incompetence on the city’s part. There needs to be a serious investigation of who was responsible for what, and consequences to follow. This is unacceptable at every level. The city needs to throw itself on the mercy of the court and make an extremely generous settlement offer to the defendants.