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Will Ken Paxton ever be prosecuted?

At this point, I’d have to say it’s very unlikely.

Best mugshot ever

After mulling the question for nearly six months, the nine Republican judges on Texas’ highest criminal court will not reconsider their 2018 ruling that threatens to imperil the criminal case against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In November, a fractured Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that a six-figure payment to the special prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial for felony securities fraud fell outside legal limits for what such attorneys may be paid. A month later, the attorneys asked the high court to reconsider that decision in a spirited legal filing that went unanswered until this week.

The court did not provide any reason for rejecting the motion, nor did any judges write dissenting opinions. Few expected that the high court would reconsider its own ruling.

Payments for special prosecutors are based on strict fee schedules, but judges are permitted to approve payments outside those strictures in unusual circumstances, as a North Texas GOP judge did for the prosecutors in the Paxton case. But after Jeff Blackard, a Paxton donor, sued in December 2015, claiming that the fees were exorbitant, the Dallas Court of Appeals voided the prosecutors’ invoice and the payment has been in question. Meanwhile, the trial itself has been derailed again and again.

Wednesday’s ruling threatens the long-delayed prosecution of Texas’ top lawyer, as the prosecutors —unpaid in years — have signaled they may withdraw from the case if they cannot be paid. The prosecutors have also argued that the pay ruling, in limiting how much attorneys may be paid even in cases of extraordinary circumstances, threatens the state’s ability to adequately compensate lawyers representing indigent defendants.

See here, here, and here for the latest updates, and here for even more, if you want to do a deeper dive. We should all have friends as steadfast as Ken Paxton has in Collin County, both on their Commissioners Court and in the person of Jeff Blackard. Friends help you move, real friends help you game the criminal justice system to effectively quash felony indictments.

At this point, either the existing prosecutors decide to stick it out and maybe extract a bit of revenge via jury verdict, or they throw in the towel and the whole thing starts over with new prosecutors. Which in turn would open a whole ‘nother can of worms, thanks to the Lege.

Under Senate Bill 341, which moved quietly and without controversy through the Texas Legislature, only county attorneys, district attorneys and assistant attorneys general would be qualified to serve in the high-stakes, often high-profile affairs that require specially appointed prosecutors. Currently, judges may appoint “any competent attorney,” which some have argued is an insufficient standard.

The author of that bill, Houston Republican Sen. Joan Huffman, has presented it as a cost-saving effort for counties — special prosecutors will now be government attorneys who would not require additional funds — and also as a way to raise the bar of qualifications for special prosecutors.

That would limit the selection pool from the more than 100,000 practicing attorneys in Texas to a much smaller group of several hundred elected prosecutors or attorneys employed by the agency Paxton runs. The replacement for Wice and Schaffer would have to be either a Democratic district attorney, who might be seen as overly aggressive in her prosecution of a Republican statewide official; a Republican district attorney, who could be seen as overly sympathetic to a leader of his own party; or an assistant attorney general, who would be an employee of the defendant.

That law goes into effect September 1. This law does make some sense, and if the Paxton prosecution had been handed off to a DA or County Attorney there would not have been an issue with payment. I for one would argue that this case should absolutely be turned over to a big urban county DA’s office – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, or (oh, the delicious irony) Travis – since an aggressive prosecution is exactly what is needed, and the DAs in those counties will have less to fear from the voters than, say, the Denton or Tarrant or Montgomery County DAs would. I will be very interested to see what the presiding judge decides to do, if it comes to that. In the meantime, we need the voters of Collin County to start voting out members of their Commissioners Court, and the voters of Texas to start electing better jurists to the CCA. You want a lower-level cause to get behind in 2020, there’s two of them for you.

Buzbee billboard lawsuit dismissed

I did say it was a dumb lawsuit.

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

A state district judge has dismissed challenger Tony Buzbee’s lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and advertising company Clear Channel Outdoor over a series of billboards for the city’s AlertHouston campaign.

In the suit, Buzbee claimed Clear Channel and Turner had conspired to support the mayor’s re-election bid by “promoting him as a civic-minded safety conscious leader” on the ad campaign for a system that sends alerts to Houston residents during emergency situations.

The advertisements, which were taken down earlier this month, featured a photo of Turner next to the words “Be Prepared. Be Safe. Be Alert Houston.”

Buzbee, a trial lawyer, said in a statement Tuesday that he plans to appeal the ruling, which was issued last Friday by 281st District Judge Christine Weems.

[…]

Weems did not explain the dismissal in her ruling, writing only that Turner and Clear Channel had 21 days to set a hearing or file a motion to determine how much they would be reimbursed for attorney fees and other costs.

See here for the background. The billboards were taken down, which is what Buzbee wanted, though the Turner campaign says they were going to be coming down around this time anyway. The motion to dismiss was filed by the defendants, so in that sense Buzbee lost, and unless the suit is reinstated he’ll be on the hook for court costs and attorney fees. This has been your irregularly scheduled Dumb Lawsuits Update.

Back to mediation

Give it another sixty days. Maybe it’ll be different this time.

A Texas appeals court Thursday ordered the Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration back to mediation in the hope the two sides will agree to a new pay contract and sidestep the contentious fight over Proposition B.

The order by the 14th Court of Appeals, which requires the parties to hold talks within 60 days, comes a month after a state district judge declared Prop B unconstitutional, marking the latest twist in a years-long battle between the city and firefighters over pay.

The latest order cranks up pressure on Turner and the firefighters to work together to resolve the issues, said Josh Blackman, an associate professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston.

“Maybe they were hoping the court would bail them out, but the courts aren’t going to assist in this negotiation,” he said. “Why would the court want to get involved in this? It’s such a disaster.”

[…]

State District Judge Tanya Garrison’s ruling that Prop B was unconstitutional changes the dynamics of the negotiations, said Wanda McKee Fowler, a former appellate judge who spent more than 13 years on the 14th Court of Appeals.

“Sometimes it takes more than one mediation for a case to settle,” she said. “There’s benefit in having parties that are going to have a continuing relationship resolve it themselves, rather than have the law to resolve it.”

See here for the background, and here for the court’s order. What this means is that the appeal of the question about whether Prop B is unconstitutional is on hold for the next sixty days. If everyone involved can come to some kind of agreement – remember, the Houston Police Officers Union filed the lawsuit alleging Prop B was illegal, so they are a party to all this as well – then the appeal will be dropped and everyone will go on with their lives. If mediation fails again, then the court gets to decide whether the original ruling that Prop B is illegal was correct. You have to read the order to figure that out (or at least, I had to read it to figure that out), but that’s what this all means.

For that reason, I disagree with Josh Blackmon. This fight isn’t about being bailed out, it’s about who’s right and who’s wrong. Remember, it was the HPOU who filed the lawsuit, in the belief that Prop B would harm them. In a sense, Judge Garrison’s ruling did bail everyone out, in that the city’s financial position improved, no firefighters got laid off, and nothing prevented them from going back to the collective bargaining process. The question at issue here is “Is Prop B legal?” The court’s order is a fancy way of saying “Are you sure you want to ask me that question, or would you rather go off on your own and solve your own problems and leave me out of it?” Frankly, it’s not the court bailing anyone out. From the court’s perspective, they want the litigants to bail them out from having to get involved. KUHF has more.

Prop B layoffs rescinded

No Prop B, no need for layoffs. Funny how that works.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Houston City Council on Wednesday formally reversed the 220 firefighter layoffs and hundreds of demotions it approved earlier this year, making official Mayor Sylvester Turner’s pledge not to lay off or demote any firefighters in the aftermath of a judge’s ruling that Proposition B is unconstitutional.

Before a state district judge threw out Prop B, the voter-approved charter amendment granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority. Turner warned that Prop B would require layoffs to offset the cost of the raises, a point hotly disputed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association. City council voted in April to send firefighters 60-day layoff notices, which the panel unanimously rescinded Wednesday.

The council also voted to reverse more than 400 demotions within the Houston Fire Department. The layoff notices had gone to the lowest-ranking firefighters, initially requiring the city to fill in those positions from the top down through demotions.

“This puts everything back the way it existed prior to that vote,” Turner said.

The city also had sent layoff notices to 47 municipal employees, but Turner already had rescinded those unilaterally because those layoffs did not require council approval.

Councilman Dwight Boykins asked Turner if the layoff reversal would impact Fire Chief Sam Peña’s proposed department restructuring, which would move HFD from a four-shift to three-shift model — a move the union opposes. Turner confirmed that Wednesday’s vote has no bearing on the proposed shift change.

Councilwoman Brenda Stardig also asked Turner if the city plans to recoup back pay granted to firefighters before Prop B was ruled unconstitutional. Some department employees received raises the week before the judge’s ruling.

Turner said his administration is “addressing how to deal with that issue,” but in the meantime he sees the raises as a “credit on future negotiations.” The mayor said last month that he did not intend to “claw back” funds from any firefighter.

Obviously, this isn’t the end. We’re about to have an election that will re-litigate this whole thing – though don’t expect anyone to give a plausible answer to how they would have handled this all differently – and that court ruling has been appealed to the 14th Court of Appeals. But in a real sense, this is over. Whatever happens next, it will occur in a context of Prop B not having happened. So maybe now, at least for a little while, we can talk about something else.

It’s not an apology that’s needed

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

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton still holding on to bogus voter purge data

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

It was Abbott all along

Who was behind that botched voter purge that caused now-former Secretary of State David Whitley to not get confirmed by the Senate? Greg Abbott, that’s who.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Two top officials at the Department of Public Safety named Gov. Greg Abbott’s office as a driving force in the state’s program to purge nearly 100,000 suspected non-U.S. citizens from Texas’ voter rolls, emails made public Tuesday show.

Abbott’s office, however, on Tuesday denied it had any contact with the agency before the launch of the effort in late January.

[…]

The emails were made public Tuesday by the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, which represented plaintiffs who sued the state.

In an August 2018 email, John Crawford, a top official of the driver license division at the Texas Department of Public Safety, told employees that DPS had previously turned over records to compare with state voter rolls, and “we have an urgent request from the governor’s office to do it again.”

That same day, the director of the driver license division, Amanda Arriaga, wrote in a separate email that “the Governor is interested in getting this information as soon as possible.”

In a statement, Abbott denied talking to the Department of Public Safety about the issue until March of this year.

“Neither the Governor, nor the Governor’s office gave a directive to initiate this process,” said Abbott spokesman John Wittman. “No one speaks for the Governor’s office, but the Governor’s office.”

Sure is amazing what you can find out when public records are made public, isn’t it? There’s a reason why Ken Paxton is fighting the release of other SOS files so hard. Abbott’s flunky can claim that the DPS spokesperson doesn’t speak for Abbott, but I think we all know she didn’t make that rationale up on her own. Glen Maxey was right: A scheme like this doesn’t come out of nowhere. One way or another, it comes from the boss. We just now have some documentation to back that up. The Statesman and Think Progress have more.

UPDATE: Ross Ramsey weighs in.

Paxton sues San Antonio over Chick-fil-A records

We really do live in strange times.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to rig the Census

This is how you would do it.

The Trump administration’s controversial effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census was drawn up by the Republican Party’s gerrymandering mastermind, who wrote that it “would clearly be a disadvantage to the Democrats” and “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites.” This bombshell news, revealed in newly released legal documents, suggests that the Trump administration added the question not to better enforce the Voting Rights Act, as it claimed, but to benefit Republicans politically when it came to drawing new political districts.

A case challenging the citizenship question is currently before the Supreme Court, and the new evidence significantly undercuts the Trump administration’s position in the case.

Tom Hofeller, who passed away last year, was the longtime redistricting expert for the Republican National Committee. He helped Republicans draw heavily gerrymandered maps in nearly every key swing state after the 2010 election. In some of those places, like North Carolina, the new lines were struck down for discriminating against African Americans.

In 2015, Hofeller was hired by the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, to study the impact of drawing state legislative districts based on citizenship rather than total population, which has been the standard for decades. Hofeller’s analysis of Texas state legislative districts found that drawing districts based on citizenship—a move he conceded would be a “radical departure from the federal ‘one person, one vote’ rule presently used in the United States”—would reduce representation for Hispanics, who tended to vote Democratic, and increase representation for white Republicans. But Hofeller said that a question about citizenship would need to be added to the census, which forms the basis for redistricting, for states like Texas to pursue this new strategy.

Hofeller then urged President Donald Trump’s transition team to add the question about citizenship to the 2020 census. He urged the team to claim that a citizenship question was needed to enforce the Voting Rights Act, even though Hofeller had already concluded that it would harm the racial minority groups that the act was designed to protect. That argument was then used by the Justice Department in a December 2017 letter requesting that the Commerce Department, which oversees the census, include a citizenship question.

Hofeller’s documents were discovered on hard drives found by his estranged daughter and introduced into evidence in a separate trial challenging gerrymandered North Carolina state legislative districts drawn by Hofeller. On Thursday, lawyers challenging the citizenship question cited them in federal court. They suggest that members of Trump’s team may not have been fully forthcoming in their testimony under oath. Neither Trump transition team member Mark Neuman nor John Gore, the former assistant attorney general for civil rights who wrote the Justice Department letter, mentioned Hofeller’s involvement in the letter when they were deposed under oath as part of a lawsuit by New York and 17 other states challenging the citizenship question.

Yeah. And of course, Texas was a key to all this.

The filing includes a 2015 analysis by Hofeller that had been commissioned to demonstrate the effect that using the population of citizens who are of voting age, as opposed to total population, would have on drawing up legislative districts.

Hofeller detailed how the change would clearly be “advantageous to Republicans and Non-Hispanic Whites” by using the Texas House as his case study. He detailed how the Hispanic population would drop in traditionally Democratic districts, which would then have to grow geographically to meet constitutional population requirements in redistricting.

The loss of Democratic-leaning districts would be most severe in areas with mostly Hispanic populations, such as South Texas, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, which would lose 2.6 state House districts, according to Hofeller’s analysis. The change would also cost Dallas County 1.7 districts and another 1.7 districts in Harris County and its suburbs.

If the Supreme Court had required such a change at the time of the study, it would have mandated a “radical redrawing of the state House districts,” Hofeller wrote. He noted that the traditionally Democratic districts in need of more population could pick up pockets of Democratic areas in adjacent Republican-held districts and ultimately shore up the GOP’s control across the state.

But that approach was unrealistic at that point, Hofeller wrote in his study, because the government did not compile the necessary citizenship information. And he admitted it was unlikely that the Supreme Court could be convinced to alter the population standard used to draw legislative districts.

“Without a question on citizenship being included on the 2020 Decennial Census questionnaire, the use of citizen voting age population is functionally unworkable,” Hofeller said.

This is a reference to the Evenwel lawsuit, which established that states had discretion in how they drew legislative districts, but did not opine on whether drawing them based on citizen population rather than plain old population was legal. And so here we are.

The Census lawsuits have been argued before the Supreme Court, where the five Republican Justices seem inclined to let the Trump administration break the law as they see fit. Rick Hasen thinks this should-be-a-blockbuster revelation will just make the SCOTUS Five that much more likely to go with Team Trump. Hey, remember how Jill Stein supporters – and Ralph Nader supporters before her – poo-poohed concerns about the makeup of the Supreme Court if another Republican President got to pick more Justices? Good times, good times. ThinkProgress and Daily Kos have more.

Orlando Sanchez’s water-pourer lawsuit dismissed

Hey, remember when former Treasurer Orlando Sanchez filed a million dollar lawsuit against the doofus who poured a glass of water over his head at the press conference where Sanchez was begging the state to take over HISD? Well, the guy’s lawyer contacted me recently to let me know that the lawsuit had been dismissed, with Sanchez ordered to pay court costs. You can see a couple of the defendant’s motions here and here. The long and short of it is that the civil standard for assault is the same the criminal standard, and since Sanchez suffered no injury there was no assault as defined by the law. In addition, the defendant had a legitimate claim that his water-pouring constituted an expression of free speech, presumably in the Nigel Farage getting milkshaked mode. Add it up and it’s one ex-lawsuit. Looks like Orlando Sanchez is going to have to find another way to get fame and fortune.

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

No arbitration

And we’re on to the next phase of the firefighter pay battle.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association on Tuesday asked Mayor Sylvester Turner to enter arbitration to settle its ongoing labor dispute with the city, a request the mayor shot down as he called instead for a return to collective bargaining.

The union’s request came less than a week after a state district judge ruled Proposition B unconstitutional and void. The charter amendment approved by voters last November granted firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority.

Turner made clear Tuesday that he does not intend to accept the union’s request.

“The city of Houston is willing to return to the table for collective bargaining which would be the regular course of business,” the mayor said in a written statement.

[…]

Fire union President Marty Lancton said the mayor had yet to contact the union about sitting down to negotiate anew. He repeatedly has questioned Turner’s claim that the city could not afford Prop B, and on Tuesday cast doubt on Turner’s willingness to negotiate a “fair raise” for firefighters.

Arbitration, Lancton contended, would resolve the pay dispute before Houston’s 2020 fiscal year starts July 1.

“This is a sensible solution,” Lancton said. “We continue to wait for the call that the mayor says he is willing to make. Let’s resolve this now, mayor.”

Turner spokeswoman Mary Benton said the union “knows how to reach the mayor,” and repeated Turner’s statement that his “door is open and he is ready and willing to meet with the fire union.”

So if I’m interpreting this correctly, the Mayor is offering to go back to the collective bargaining process, while the firefighters are saying instead let’s take our respective offers and present them to an arbitrator and let that person make the call. I’m not quite sure what to make of that. I suppose this is the HPFFA’s way of saying they trust the city to negotiate in good faith. If so, all I can say is that the city could say the same about the firefighters. Whatever the case, we’re now at a standoff about how to go about resolving the larger standoff. The firefighters can claim that they have the will of the voters on their side, but unless they win their appeal of the summary judgment declaring Prop B unconstitutional, that only means so much. In the meantime, I’m going to find my happy place and practice some deep breathing.

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

Prop B ruled unconstitutional

Oh, my.

A state district judge on Wednesday ruled Proposition B, the voter-approved measure that grants Houston firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and seniority, unconstitutional and void.

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought in November by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, which contended that the city charter amendment conflicts with the Texas Constitution.

In her ruling, state District Judge Tanya Garrison found that Chapter 174 of the local government code preempts Prop B. The city, which was named in the police union’s suit, has alleged that the parity measure section conflicts with a provision of Chapter 174 tying compensation for firefighters and police officers to that of comparable private sector employees.

Mayor Sylvester Turner briefly stopped the weekly city council meeting to announce the ruling. The fire union quickly announced it would appeal.

After the council meeting, Turner said the 60-day layoff notices he proposed and council approved sending in recent weeks to 220 firefighters and more than 110 fire cadets and municipal workers to help close a budget deficit exacerbated by Prop. B would be rescinded, along with hundreds of proposed demotions within HFD.

Turner cast the ruling as a “tremendous positive” for the city as a whole, saying he hoped it could spur a “reset” to reduce widespread acrimony over the issue. He also stressed that firefighters deserve a pay raise and looked forward to negotiating one with union leaders.

“They’re deserving of a pay raise that the city can afford and I do look forward to sitting down and talking with them about what would be an acceptable pay raise within the confines of the city’s financial capability,” Turner said. “We’ll do everything we can to move it forward.”

A release with the Mayor’s comments following the ruling, which came down while Council was in session, is here. Judge Garrison had sent the parties to mediation originally, saying she didn’t want to get involved if they could work it out among themselves. They did not, and so here we are. You can see a copy of her ruling here, which is an order granting summary judgment to the plaintiffs, the HPOU. The city is listed as the defendant and their motion was also granted, while the HPFFA’s motion was denied; someone who understands the law way better than I do will hopefully step in to explain how all that worked. Be that as it may, the firefighters will appeal, but that almost certainly means the city is off the hook for this fiscal year, possibly for the foreseeable future.

Federal lawsuit filed over homeless feeding ordinance

I’m kind of surprised that this hadn’t been filed before now.

On a recent evening in April, a few dozen people experiencing homelessness lined up outside Central Library in downtown Houston for a free — and illegal — meal of vegetarian chili, macaroni, rice and fruit salad. Volunteers with Food Not Bombs, an international organization with hundreds of local chapters, often serve free dinner here, violating a local ordinance against publicly feeding groups of people without city permission.

Houston’s so-called charitable-feeding ordinance was enacted in 2012 and allows groups and individuals to feed up to five homeless people, no strings attached. To feed more, though, you must register with the city — or face fines up to $2,000 and a misdemeanor charge for violating the Houston Code of Ordinances. Additionally, would-be do-gooders have to take a food handling training class; provide the proposed schedule, time and location of the ad-hoc soup kitchen; detail the food being served; and fill out an online form to receive permission from the city to give food in public.

On Monday, activists filed a federal lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance on First Amendment grounds. Food Not Bombs and three of its members are plaintiffs in the suit, filed against the City of Houston in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. The lawsuit accuses the city of infringing on freedom of speech and religious liberties of the anti-war, food-sharing activists. It asks Houston to overthrow the ban and seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The ordinance infringes on “freedom of association” and “political organizing” and is “unconstitutionally vague,” the lawsuit argues. It cites at least 19 pro-food-sharing verses from the Bible. Randall Kallinen, who has filed numerous civil rights lawsuits in Houston, is representing the activists. In interviews with the Observer, he described the ordinance as “totally ridiculous” and part of an effort to “get the homeless out of town.”

While the lawsuit adds to pressure against Houston, the effort to overturn the city’s ban is not new. A parallel lawsuit also involving Kallinen has been floundering in state district court since 2017, and over 75,000 people have signed an online petition calling for an end to the “cruel” ordinance.

See here for some more on the state court lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit is embedded in the story, and it’s something else. I like to make I Am Not A Lawyer jokes, but I can read legal briefs and motions and generally understand what they’re getting at. This one is in a way a lot easier to read because there’s almost no legal language in it. I mean, there’s a page quoting from the Food Not Bombs website. There’s more than two pages quoting bible verses, and three pages listing organizations that they say oppose the law. The legal arguments section does cite a couple of court cases, but it never quotes anything from the cited decisions, which leaves one to wonder just how those decisions apply to the case at hand.

Most of the arguments they make themselves have to do with the vagueness of the term “those in need” from the ordinance’s definition of “charitable food service”, which is “providing food without charge, payment or other compensation to benefit those in need at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food.” I mean, I was a math major and I Am Not A Lawyer, but that seems pretty straightforward to me. Their point seems to be that an organization that was handing out food (at an outdoor location not owned, leased or controlled by the individual or organization providing the food) to random passersby would not be in violation of the law. Maybe that could work as a theoretical construct, but I have a hard time imagining it happening in real life.

The writer of this story is clearly sympathetic to the plaintiffs. I get that, but even the lightest critical analysis of the lawsuit shows the problems with it. I’m not sure how the reader is served by that omission. We’ll see what the court makes of this, but color me skeptical.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

Firefighters get Prop B back pay

Good for them.

The city of Houston on Friday issued lump-sum paychecks to more than 3,900 firefighters, a move Mayor Sylvester Turner said reflects the implementation, retroactive to Jan. 1, of Proposition B, the measure granting firefighters the same pay as police of corresponding rank and experience.

Marty Lancton, president of the Houston fire union, said that contrary to the mayor’s “Orwellian claims,” the paychecks did not fully equalize base and incentive pay between fire and police, as laid out in Proposition B. Lancton said the city “badly botched” implementation of the measure.

The back pay, worth $27.4 million, comes a week after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association ended court-ordered mediation without an agreement to phase in the raises over several years.

[…]

For now, the fire department’s biweekly payroll will increase from about $10.2 million to $12.3 million, Turner said. The city has dipped into its reserves to fund raises from Jan. 1 through June 30, which Turner said will cost $31 million. Lancton also has questioned the accuracy of that figure.

Both sides, meanwhile, are awaiting a state district judge’s ruling in a lawsuit brought by the Houston Police Officers’ Union, in which the police union and city have alleged Prop B violates the Texas constitution.

I don’t have anything to add to this, I’m just noting it for the record. I look forward to the day when I will be able to get all of this out of my brain, as I hope to do with Game 6 of Rockets-Warriors.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

Buzbee files another lawsuit

Tony Buzbee does what Tony Buzbee does.

Houston mayoral candidate and attorney Tony Buzbee has filed a lawsuit on behalf of two companies that allege they were fraudulently listed as subcontractors by two companies that later secured millions of dollars for Hurricane Harvey relief work from the city of Houston.

Filed Tuesday in Harris County, the action alleges that Blessed Enterprises and A-Status Construction LLC were unaware that they were listed as minority-owned subcontractors by Burghli Investments and Tegrity Houston LLC, which each received $66 million from the city to help rebuild or rehabilitate homes affected by the storm.

They allege that the companies committed “fraud, misappropriation and implied breach of contract” in order to meet diversity goals and obtain contracts that were approved by City Council. The owners of the companies represented by Buzbee said they learned they were listed on the bids through a website run by the Office of Business of Opportunity, which monitors the program.

[…]

At a Tuesday press conference, Buzbee said he filed the lawsuit out of concern for minority-owned businesses that “routinely are shut out” of the bid process and “never get a piece of the pie.”

The companies he represents are both certified for business with the city, but say they have never received a contract. They say the city’s bid process is unfair, and that the allegedly fraudulent use of their names could damage their reputations and, thus, their ability to get future contracts.

“I worked hard to get where I am,” A-Status Construction owner Raquel Boujourne said “I find it extremely unfair to see these same companies be awarded contract after contract while I am over here working my butt off… Businesses like ours, the little guys, are taken advantage of and the city does not lift a finger to do anything about it. It is a huge problem.”

Buzbee also claimed that Burghli Investments received business with the city because it gave campaign contributions to Turner, despite having been sued multiple times for tax delinquency.

The city’s bidding process, Buzbee said, is “not about who you are, it’s about who you know.”

Turner called the allegations “ludicrous” and “vague.”

“Mayor Turner has received no donation from the owner of Tegrity,” a spokesperson for his re-election campaign said in a statement. “He received one donation from Deanna Burghli of $2,000 in December 2015 before he was elected mayor. In that same month, Mr. Buzbee and his wife both maxed out donations to Mr. Turner of $5,000 each, along with donations from his law firm staff. This again shows Mr. Buzbee will say, do and spend anything to be elected mayor.”

Like I said, this is what he does. I’m starting to think that filing all the lawsuits and conducting crappy robo-polls are the entirity of Buzbee’s campaign strategy. Though honestly, I shouldn’t underestimate his ability to dream up stupid stunts. It’s his money, but boy I wish he’d have picked a less public midlife crisis to pursue.

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

Keep an eye on this.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mediation fails to achieve Prop B agreement

I have three things to say about this.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner on Friday said a court-appointed mediator has declared negotiations between the city and firefighters union over the implementation of Proposition B at impasse, potentially leaving the future of the measure in the hands of a state district judge.

The announcement ends what had appeared to be some progress toward resolving the months-long dispute over how to phase in raises to firefighters required by the pay parity measure voters approved last November. The charter amendment requires the city to pay firefighters the same as police of corresponding rank and experience.

[…]

State district Judge Tanya Garrison had ordered the city, firefighters and the Houston Police Officers Union into non-binding mediation three weeks ago. Garrison’s order came as part of a legal battle between the three sides over the constitutionality of Prop B; she declined to rule on that issue until the three parties reached a settlement on implementation or an impasse was declared by the third-party mediator.

The three groups had met at least three times since.

At issue is how to implement the raises. The fire union has said it would ask its members to consider a three-and-a-half-year phase-in as long as no firefighters are demoted or laid off. Turner had said the city cannot avoid layoffs unless Prop B raises are phased in over five years.

At a Friday morning press conference, however, Turner said the city had agreed to the fire union’s previous offer to phase in the raises over three and a half years, with no firefighters demoted or laid off.

Turner said the union then refused to accept that agreement, as well as another offer that would have given it hundreds of millions of dollars in a block grant-like arrangement that the union could use at its discretion.

He accused the union of repeatedly “moving the goal posts,” and said that agreeing to its full demands would devastate Houston’s finances and credit rating.

“The city cannot go beyond what we have proposed without bankrupting the city,” he said. “As long as I am mayor, we are not going to bankrupt this city. Everyone in the city would pay the price.”

Mediator David Matthiesen did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

In a statement, the fire union said it had agreed to take a four-year phase-in to its members if pay parity was implemented “effective immediately,” the city agreed to no layoffs and if the city disclosed “what each firefighter will earn in salary and incentive pay.”

HPFFA President Marty Lancton also said the city demanded in negotiations that Prop B be rescinded and declared unconstitutional, a request he adamantly opposed.

“Citizens’ rights to petition the local government must be protected,” he said.

1. You really have to admire Marty Lancton’s ability to keep the focus of this debate on one point, which is the pay raise that the voters agreed to give the firefighters. The fight here is not over whether or not to implement Prop B, it’s over how to do it. That’s what the mediation was about, that’s what the layoffs are about. The firefighters don’t like the way the city is implementing Prop B and have been complaining nonstop – and very successfully, at least from a short term political perspective – about it. Their grievance is that some firefighters will be laid off, and some others demoted, in order for the city to pay for Prop B. If the city had decided instead to lay off police officers, solid waste workers, and more municipal employees instead, there’s nothing in the firefighters’ rhetoric to suggest they’d have had a problem with that. Beyond the fact that it was clear from the beginning that the city could not afford Prop B, this right here is why I don’t have much sympathy for the firefighters.

2. That said, part of the litigation that was brought by the police officers’ union was a claim that Prop B is illegal and should be invalidated by the court. The argument here is that the pay parity law conflicts with state law about collective bargaining. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no insight into that question. I had thought originally that the litigation over Prop B would follow the template of previous lawsuits over city referenda and be about ballot language. I was wrong about that, which is why I like to emphasize my not-a-lawyer status in these matters. Be that as it may, it seems like a big stretch to get an election overturned. I will be surprised if Judge Garrison (who, full disclosure, is a friend of mine) rules for the plaintiffs. But again, I Am Not A Lawyer, so place your bets at your own risk.

3. The last couple of paragraphs in this story are about how the people other than Sylvester Turner who are running for Mayor are also critical of his handling of Prop B implementation, without a single word being quoted about what these alternative Mayors think should be done instead. They don’t like what the Mayor is doing, they oppose what the Mayor is doing, but what would they be doing if they were Mayor? You cannot tell from reading this story. Perhaps the reporter chose not to include what they said about that, perhaps the story editor excised it for space, or perhaps none of them had anything useful to say on the topic. You can probably guess which one I think it is.

The Section 3 bail-in hearing

At long last, the final question to answer about Texas and the Voting Rights Act, namely has the state done enough bad stuff to be required to be put under preclearance again?

Back in the federal courthouse where most of an eight year-long case has played out, the fight over forcing Texas back under federal oversight of its mapmaking appeared to hinge on whether the state should be held accountable for political maps that never took effect.

The arguments for a return to the days when Texas needed approval of its political districts diverged significantly during a Thursday court hearing before a panel of three federal judges. The state and the plaintiffs — voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers — each appeared to have a judge on their side. One judge was skeptical of any sort of supervision for state lawmakers, while another judge openly considered why Texas should be allowed to redraw its maps without any sort of guardianship given its recent discrimination against voters of color.

But the high-stakes fight — and ultimately the ruling from the three-judge panel overseeing the case — may very well rest on Chief U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia, who made few remarks during the hearing but summed up the issue in one question.

“Is it actual injury or threatened harm that controls the issue?” Garcia asked.

[…]

“If the bail in statute means anything…it has to apply to Texas redistricting,” said Allison Riggs, a lawyer with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice who is representing some of the plaintiffs. “Texas redistricting is where the state again and again and again at every level of government has shown a resistance to recognizing the political power of minority voters.”

Thursday’s hearing marked the beginning of the final — and perhaps the most significant — stage of the long-running legal fight over the state’s political maps. The case is poised to serve as the latest test of whether the federal Voting Rights Act can still serve as a safeguard for voters of color. If the panel does not invoke bail in, the 2021 redistricting cycle would mark the first time in nearly half a century that Texas could implement new legislative and congressional districts without first proving they don’t undercut the electoral power of voters of color.

While under federal supervision, Texas proved to be a repeat offender. In their briefs to the court ahead of the hearing, the plaintiffs noted that state lawmakers passed one or more redistricting plans that were declared unconstitutional or in violation of the Voting Rights Act in every decade since 1970.

Given the rulings of intentional discrimination against the state, the plaintiffs are asking the court to put the state back under oversight of its mapmaking for up to 10 years to cover the next round of redistricting when the state will again rejigger its political boundaries to account for population growth.

But Judge Jerry Smith of the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals appeared hostile to that proposal, repeatedly alluding to a 2018 Supreme Court ruling in which the court signed off on most of Texas’ current political boundaries and pushed aside claims that state lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color when they replaced the 2011 maps in 2013.

“This has already been going on for eight years, and you want 10 more despite the Supreme Court saying it’s over,” Smith said. “I don’t understand.”

The state’s deputy solicitor general, Matthew Frederick, echoed that sentiment. He argued that Texas shouldn’t be placed back under federal oversight based on findings against maps that were never used, especially after the Supreme Court found no intentional discrimination behind the state’s 2013 effort to replace those maps with those offered up by three-judge panel in 2012 as an interim fix to allow elections to move forward that year.

Bail in “cannot be justified when a state adopts and accepts judicial remedies,” Frederick said.

“So your argument is we messed up and intentionally discriminated at first, but the court fixed it and as a result of the court fixing it we’re OK?” asked federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez.

Frederick responded that those violations weren’t enough to invoke bail in because the state had not engaged in widespread, rampant discrimination. He pointed out that any sort of discrimination found by the court in Texas did not amount to the widespread racism that marked the 1960s, when states kept voters of color from casting votes by continuously replacing barriers —for example , requirements that black voters guess how many bubbles are in a bar of soap — with other impediments, such as literacy tests, as they were deemed unconstitutional.

But Rodriguez continued to question Frederick over whether the state was “engaging in more subtle forms of discrimination” that it then attempted to wash away by replacing discriminatory laws with court fixes and then claiming there was no harm for which it could be held accountable. He pointed to the state’s defense of its strict voter ID law that, like the state maps, was eventually replaced with a court remedy after a judge found it was enacted with discriminatory purpose.

“But for this court’s changes to those 2011 plans, the state would’ve continued to try to continue to implement them,” Rodriguez said. “That’s what the whole [bail in] paradigm is trying to prevent from happening again.”

See here and here for the background. These are the same three judges who had ruled in the earlier redistricting cases, so it is entirely possible that they may once again vote 2-1 in favor of the plaintiffs. I mean, the record speaks quite clearly for itself, and if Texas doesn’t meet the standard for bail-in, it’s hard to know how it could ever be met. Which just means that the Fifth Circuit will need to come up with a reason, which SCOTUS will then endorse, because come on, we’ve seen this movie and we know how it ends. I wish I were less cynical, but how can you not be, given what has happened so far? We’ll see how long it takes for a ruling and we’ll go from there. The DMN and Michael Li have more.

Why would any Dem Senator change their mind on Whitley?

I can’t think of a good answer to that, but the man himself is going to try.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Acting Secretary of State David Whitley, whose confirmation has been stalled in the Texas Senate after a controversial advisory from his office questioned the citizenship of nearly 100,000 voters, has asked to meet with Senate Democrats following a settlement agreement that rescinded and re-worked the advisory on Friday.

Sen. José Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso who leads the chamber’s Democratic caucus, said Whitley asked to meet with the caucus on Tuesday. Rodriguez said he was polling the caucus to see if any member had an objection to Whitley attending the caucus meeting. The caucus meets on a regular basis during the session.

“Obviously, he wants to talk about the settlement agreement,” Rodriguez said. “For me, it doesn’t change anything.”

In a statement, the secretary of state’s office said: “Secretary Whitley welcomes the opportunity to meet with the Texas Senate Democratic Caucus to discuss the settlement agreement and voter registration list maintenance going forward. He looks forward to addressing the concerns of the Caucus and receiving feedback on ways to enhance access to the ballot box in Texas.”

[…]

Advocacy groups are pressuring Senate Democrats to block his confirmation. On Monday, 22 groups including several that participated in the lawsuit against Whitley, sent a letter to the caucus urging them to vote against his confirmation.

“While we are grateful that the legal challenges to Mr. Whitley’s actions have been resolved, the settlement does not let Mr. Whitley off the hook for his decision to target tens of thousands of naturalized Americans for disenfranchisement and wrongful criminal prosecution,” the letter read.

“Texans deserve better than Mr. Whitley. Public service is a privilege, not a right, and there are a number of other qualified people that the Governor can appoint to this position,” the letter read. “We ask you to continue to block Mr. Whitley’s confirmation, so that we as a State can turn the page on the Whitley scandal and continue to have faith in our elections system.”

Several Senators are quoted in the story, all of whom reconfirm their No votes. It would take two Dems to change their minds for Whitley to have a chance, and I just can’t think of any reason for that. Whitley has yet to demonstrate that he understands why people objected so strongly to the purge effort – he has yet to demonstrate that he understands why people called it a “purge” – and on top of that he’s just straight up bad at this job. We’ve seen plenty of SOSes over the years, and none I can think of have been this controversial. Greg Abbott can surely find another crony with less baggage to install for this post.

Also, too:

I’m not opposed to a little horse-trading, but the first horse on offer needs to be one of theirs. The Chron, which quotes some other Senators and suggests that online and/or same day voter registration would be a good horse to swap for Whitley support, has more.

A closer look at how Texas strongly discourages voting

Well, it strongly discourages some people from voting.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Settlement officially reached in lawsuits over bogus SOS advisory

Great news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Injunction granted against Texas anti-Israel boycott law

From the inbox:

A federal court today ruled that a Texas law that requires government contractors to certify that they are not engaged in boycotts of Israel or companies that do business with Israel is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that the law, HB 89, which went into effect in 2017 violates the First Amendment’s protection against government intrusion into political speech and expression.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free speech rights of all Texans,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, who argued the motion to block the law in court. “The right to boycott is deeply ingrained in American tradition, from our nation’s founding to today. The state cannot dictate the views of its own citizens on the Israel/Palestine conflict – or any issue – by preventing them from exercising their First Amendment right to boycott.”

“We applaud this decision, though nothing about it surprises us; in its decision the court has affirmed its understanding that this law was intended to chill the expression of personal opinion,” stated Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “By any name, that’s free speech and free speech is the north star of our democracy. It’s foundational, and this decision underlines that no issue of importance can be addressed if the speech about it is stymied, or worse, silenced.”

The ACLU of Texas filed its lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of four Texans who were forced to choose between signing away their right to boycott or forgoing job opportunities and losing income. Those plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU Speech Privacy & Technology Project, and Kevin Dubose of Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP in Houston.

“I’m very happy that the judge has decided to support our right to hold our own political beliefs and express them as we see fit,” said John Pluecker, a plaintiff in the ACLU of Texas lawsuit. “This ruling goes beyond just the plaintiffs – this law needed to be challenged for everyone. People in Texas need to know that our ability to earn our livelihoods won’t be threatened by the state because of our political positions.”

More information on the case is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/en/press-releases/aclu-texas-files-first-amendment-challenge-anti-boycott-law

A copy of today’s decision is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/4-25-19_bds_order.pdf

The first paragraph in that press release is inaccurate. This was not a final ruling, it was a ruling on a motion for a temporary injunction, as well as a ruling on motions to dismiss by the defendants. The court granted the motion for the injunction and enjoined the state from enforcing HB89, while denying the motions to dismiss. I noted this lawsuit in passing in this post about the Texas-versus-AirBnB matter. This NYT profile of plaintiff Bahia Amawi has some good information if you want more. A law like this just seems unconstitutional on its face – it restricts speech in a clear and direct manner – but as we know by now, the federal courts can be a strange place. Just keep this law in mind the next time you hear Greg Abbott or someone like him prattle on about supposed efforts to curb “free speech” on college campuses. See the Chron and the Trib for more.

Off to mediation we go

Hope for the best, y’all.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Mediation ordered in Prop B lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

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

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

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

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

The mediation is mandatory but not binding.

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

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

Skilling settles longstanding lawsuit

Old business.

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

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

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

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

This was a busy week for dumb lawsuits

Exhibit A:

“Objection Overruled”, by Charles Bragg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exhibit B:

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

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

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

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

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

Congressional Republicans seek to halt SOS voter purge inquiry

I know, I’m as shocked as you are.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

Bail lawsuit settlement outline taking shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for another Texas Central legislative update

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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