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SOS Whitley still has to be confirmed by the Senate

His committee hearing is today.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Secretary of State David Whitley, who sent a flawed data analysis to every elections official in Texas warning that nearly 100,000 non-U.S. citizens may have illegally registered to vote, is due Thursday to meet with state senators who will decide whether he should keep his job.

Democratic lawmakers say they want answers from Whitley, appointed in December by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, whose list of possible illegal voters has spurred a flurry of civil rights lawsuits, denunciations from county elections officials — and applause from the Texas GOP as well as President Donald Trump condemning voter fraud.

Whitley will “need to be able to answer that there is not an effort to infringe people’s right to vote,” said Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, vice chairman of the nominations committee that will hear testimony on Thursday. “This is, in my view, a very important step in the process and a unique opportunity to start getting on the record answers about why we’re in this situation.”

There are four Republicans and three Democrats on the committee.

[…]

The hearing Thursday will be the first with Whitley speaking publicly about the voter rolls. Whitely declined an invitation to discuss the matter with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus, said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, although Whitley’s staff says the secretary has met privately with some legislators.

The issue is at best a “scandal of incompetence and at worse, it is a scandal of maliciousness,” said Anchia, who chairs the caucus. “The fact that a group of duly elected legislators is getting the stiff arm from the state is troubling.”

His confirmation is not assured.

Though Republicans hold 19 seats in the 31-seat upper chamber and can largely consider legislation without the say of any Democrat, Whitley needs a two-thirds vote among the senators present when the full Senate votes on his nomination. That means even with the support of all of the Republicans, he’ll need at least some Democratic support unless several senators are gone the day of the vote.

Whether he’ll clear that hurdle remains a question. Democrats on the Nominations Committee say they’re heading into Thursday’s hearing with a set of what are likely to be blistering questions about whether Whitley acted to suppress the votes of naturalized citizens.

“There is very little about this that doesn’t concern me — everything from intent to what a reasonable person would do under these circumstances to flaws in the system,” said state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat who serves as the vice chair of the committee.

Watson described Thursday’s hearing as a “very important step” in the confirmation process. It will allow senators to question Whitley about a review of the voter rolls “that has caused great concern — justifiable concern — about whether it’s an effort to infringe on people’s right to vote,” Watson said.

Whitley knows the appointments process well. Though he most recently served as Abbott’s deputy chief of staff, he previously oversaw appointments for the governor, remaining in that role during the confirmation of his predecessor, Rolando Pablos. Like Abbott’s first secretary of state, Carlos Cascos, Pablos was confirmed on a unanimous vote by the Senate.

But Abbott’s prior appointees haven’t had to explain themselves in the way Whitley might.

You can say that again. In the end, his nomination will surely advance out of committee for a vote by the full Senate, likely on a 4-3 vote. After that, who knows. He will finally get asked some questions about how this debacle came to be. Given all the lawsuits, getting him on the record, no matter how much he tries to dissemble and evade, will be both helpful and clarifying. Plus, you know, that ought to be part of the job description. The Statesman has more.

Paxton asks for summary judgement to end DACA

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

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

Second lawsuit filed over bogus SOS advisory

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

Bail reform settlement looks to be a go

Excellent news.

Chief U.S. District Court Judge Lee H. Rosenthal on Friday offered initial support for new bail rules proposed by Harris County, signaling the three-year lawsuit challenging the county’s cash bond system soon may reach its conclusion.

The settlement of the case, which Harris County has spent more than $9 million defending, would seal victory for the poor misdemeanor defendants who brought the suit and allow Rosenthal and both legal teams to turn their attention to a similar lawsuit challenging the county’s felony bail system.

“We’ve actively been talking to each other,” said Neal Manne, an attorney representing the poor defendants. “I think we’d be ready in a month to come back to the court with a final, permanent order.”

For the first time in a federal court hearing, all the parties in the misdemeanor suit stood in agreement Friday afternoon about how the case should be settled. In an unusual scene in Rosenthal’s 11th-floor courtroom, the attorneys in the once-contentious case urged Rosenthal to sign off on new bail rules proposed by the newly elected slate of Democratic misdemeanor judges.

[…]

Rosenthal, who in 2017 agreed Harris County’s bail system was unfair to poor defendants, suggested waiting to see how well the new bail rules work in practice before issuing her approval. With the opening of the new joint processing center for inmates, the judge said minor, unforeseen problems may need to be addressed.

“The devil, in the broader issues, is in the day-to-day,” Rosenthal said. She ordered the parties to return March 8.

Allan Van Fleet, the attorney representing the misdemeanor judges, agreed that the revised bail system will require each part of Harris County’s criminal justice apparatus to cooperate.

“The judges are committed, with the sheriff, the DA, the plaintiffs, that we’re going to work together to get the best system that anybody can come with,” Van Fleet said.

See here for the previous update. We’re headed in the right direction, and we know where we’re going. It’s a new day.

Orlando Sanchez files $1 million lawsuit against water-pourer

Oh, good grief.

Orlando Sanchez

The former Harris County treasurer has sued a man for $1 million after water was poured on his head during a news conference about HISD in December.

Orlando Sanchez, who lost his re-election campaign in November, filed suit on Thursday against Steve Striever.

Sanchez and his attorney said that Striever assaulted Sanchez by “offensive physical contact” during the news conference on Dec. 28, and that he “knew or reasonably should have believed that Orlando Sanchez would regard the contact as offensive or provocative.”

“It’s not about the physical damage, it’s about the bigger effect the damage has,” Sanchez’s attorney Hector G. Longoria said. “It’s the visceral reaction it causes.”

[…]

The $1 million includes relief for past and future mental anguish, according to the lawsuit. The amount would ultimately be for the jury to decide, Longoria said.

Sanchez also demanded a jury trial and requested that Striever turn over material relevant to the incident, including any videos, documents, texts, or phone calls about the press conference or pouring water on Sanchez’s head.

See here for the background. I’ll say again, Steve Striever is an idiot who should at the least have been charged with some form of misdemeanor assault. But a million dollars? For “past and future mental anguish”? I don’t even know what to say to that. But hey, at least ol’ Orlando got his name in the newspaper again. At this rate, he’ll surpass his total coverage from twelve years as Treasurer in no time.

SOS advisory lawsuit update

Add another plaintiff, litigate till done.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A naturalized citizen — who immigrated to Texas from the United Kingdom and is a registered voter — is joining a Latino civil rights group in suing top Texas officials after her voter registration was flagged by the state for a citizenship check.

Signing onto a lawsuit filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens, Atascosa County resident Julie Hilberg on Friday alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley’s move to question the legality of tens of thousands of registered voters in Texas was an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the right to vote.

Hilberg — who also joined the League of United Latin American Citizens in its claims that Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton have violated a provision of the federal Voting Rights that prohibits the intimidation of voters — added her name to the suit, but she is also seeking to represent all of the legitimately registered voters who appear on the state’s list as a plaintiff class.

“The burden imposed by Defendant Whitley’s new voter purge program — both the current list of 95,000 registrants flagged for potential removal and the plan to continue this practice on a monthly basis — imposes a severe and plainly discriminatory burden on naturalized citizens who wish to exercise their right to vote,” the complaint reads.

[…]

After learning about the citizenship checks in the news, Hilberg on Thursday went to the local elections office with her naturalization certificate in hand to figure out if she was among those voters.

Hilberg suspected she would be on the list because she had most recently renewed her driver’s license in 2014 — the year before she took her oath of citizenship at a naturalization ceremony in San Antonio. She had registered to vote in Atascosa County in June 2015, and then voted in several elections from 2016 to 2018.

When Atascosa County’s election administrator, Janice Ruple, confirmed Hilberg was on the list they had received from the state, Hilberg assumed any questions about her citizenship status would be resolved in that moment because Ruple knows Hilberg — and her citizenship status — personally, according to the complaint.

Instead, “Ms. Ruple was unable or unwilling to give Ms. Hilberg any information or assurances about whether her registration would be in jeopardy because her name was on Defendant Whitley’s list,” the lawsuit reads.

See here for the background. I don’t know what difference it makes from a legal standpoint to include a plaintiff who was directly affected, but I presume it can’t hurt. Ms. Hilberg was done wrong, and she deserves redress for it.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

SJL accused of retaliation against staffer

Not good.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee

Houston Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee, under fire from a former aide’s lawsuit alleging she was fired in connection with a sexual assault complaint, said Wednesday that she will step down temporarily as chairwoman of a key House Judiciary subcommittee on criminal justice.

Jackson Lee, in her 13th term, also resigned as chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, a post that helped raise her national profile.

The lawsuit, filed by a woman who worked in Jackson Lee’s office from November 2017 to March 2018, claims that she was dismissed after notifying the congresswoman’s chief of staff that she planned to take legal action against the foundation over an alleged sexual assault involving one of the group’s supervisors.

She is identified in court records only as “Jane Doe,” a special assistant and director of public engagement. Her suit says she sometimes served as Jackson Lee’s personal driver.

Jackson Lee issued a statement Wednesday “adamantly” denying the woman’s allegation and recounting her record of advancing civil rights and non-discrimination legislation, including a law that applies to Congress.

[…]

The lawsuit stems from events October 2015, when the woman, then a 19-year-old Howard University intern for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, alleges that a 30-year-old male supervisor she was drinking and socializing with took her to his home and forced her to have sex.

According to her complaint filed in a federal court in Washington, the woman reported the incident to the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and was told the supervisor would be placed on leave. She decided not to bring legal action against the foundation at the time.

She also reported the assault to Washington’s Metropolitan Police Department, which investigated but did not bring charges.

The woman was hired by Jackson Lee’s office two years later after she graduated from Howard. The earlier incident involving the foundation supervisor, identified as Damien Jones, did not come to light until Jones also was being considered for a job in Jackson Lee’s office.

The woman then reportedly told Jackson Lee’s chief of staff, Glenn Rushing, about the “prior situation.” Jones was not hired.

[…]

In the lawsuit, the woman said that soon after going to work for Jackson Lee, she learned about a text message sent to Jackson Lee by A. Shuanise Washington, the foundation’s chief executive, offering “background” on the woman.

The woman said she connected the text to her assault and told Rushing that she would take legal action against the foundation. She also said she wanted to speak to Jackson Lee personally. Instead, she said, she was fired. The reason given was “budgetary issues.”

Her lawsuit names both Jackson Lee’s office and the foundation, which released a statement promising to cooperate with an investigation of the woman’s claims.

Jones, the alleged rapist, also denies the accusation. The Trib had a brief story about the lawsuit, which includes a link to it. Stepping down as committee chair is the right thing for Rep. Lee to do for now, as we don’t have much information to go on. If there’s merit to the accusation – I hope there isn’t, but there very well could be – it won’t be enough. In that case, she will need to resign. Either we hold ourselves accountable, or our words mean nothing.

Bail lawsuit 2.0

This one will be tougher to tackle, but the principle remains the same.

A hard-fought battle to reform Harris County’s bail system has prompted a second civil rights action.

The legal team that successfully challenged the county’s bail practices for low level offenses on the grounds they unfairly detained indigents, filed a new federal class action suit this week tackling money bail for felonies, which results in thousands of poor defendants being locked up before trial or entering guilty pleas to avoid lengthy incarceration.

This new lawsuit, which hit the docket during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday, claims the county is holding people unjustly, simply because they cannot afford to pay a cash bail. Currently, people arrested who can post a cash bond or hire a commercial bonding company can simply resume their lives as their cases proceed through the criminal docket.

The lawyers argue that pretrial release should not be contingent on how much money a person has. Its one of a number of lawsuits around the country, including one before a district judge in Galveston, attempting to topple bail systems that treat people differently based on their income.

“This mass detention caused by arrestees’ inability to access money has devastating consequences for arrested individuals, for their families, and for the community,” the lawsuit argues. “Pretrial detention of presumptively innocent individuals causes them to lose their jobs and shelter, interrupts vital medication cycles, worsens mental health conditions, makes people working to remain sober more likely to relapse, and separates parents and children.”

[…]

The lawsuit noted there are human costs to keeping people in jail. Since 2009, the complaint stated, 125 people have died while awaiting trial in the county lockup, including a woman who committed suicide this month after she could not pay her original bail of $3,000.

“Now is the time for a new vision and a new era of collaboration and innovation,” the lawyers said in a joint statement to the Houston Chronicle. “We are confident that with the leadership of the county judge, the sheriff, the district attorney, the public defender, and the felony judges, all of whom have expressed their commitment to bail reform, we will be able to resolve this case without wasting millions of dollars of taxpayer money as happened in the prior case.”

Most of the key stakeholders struck a similar note in responding to the new lawsuit.

Tom Berg, first assistant to District Attorney Kim Ogg,said the office is glad to work with the parties toward “a fair, just and speedy resolution” and at the same time “responsibly conserve the county’s resources so that they go for the staffing needed for bail reform implementation and not litigation costs.”

County Judge Lina Hidalgo said the county aims to support public safety, fairness and a cost-effective, fiscally responsible system. She acknowledged that there’s a long way to go.

“We’ve got a system that in a way fails on all three fronts,” she said Tuesday. Hidalgo said the crop of newly elected officials seem dedicated to enacting these types of change.

The sheriff also mentioned safety concerns, saying felony bail improvements require careful examination. However, he lauded the idea of reforming what he has referred to as a “broken system.”

“I support all efforts to improve our criminal justice system that strike a smart balance between our duty to ensure public safety and upholding our American ideal that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty in court,” Gonzalez said. “I support equipping judges with the data they need to accurately measure each defendant’s unique risk of failing to appear in court and committing additional crimes before they stand trial.”

Of the three plaintiffs in this lawsuit, two were busted for drug possession and the other for DUI. There’s still a lot of non-violent inmates in the jail awaiting disposition of their case because they couldn’t scrape up a bond payment. As with misdemeanants, the ability to write a check to a bail bond agency has no correlation with whether you will show up for your court date or if you are likely to commit further crimes while out. Again, Robert Durst was out on bail. It makes sense to separate the genuine risks from the harmless shlubs. Will such a system be perfect? No, of course not. Some people who get out on a personal recognizance bond are going to turn out to have been bad risks. But again – I can’t say this often enough – people do that right now, under the current system. We just accept it as the way things are. Well, the way things are is capricious, unjust, and almost certainly unconstitutional, as the system for misdemeanors was as well. We’ll never have a better chance to design a better system. Let’s get to it.

MALDEF Census lawsuit in court

Census lawsuit #2.

In a federal courtroom in Maryland on Tuesday, lawyers representing the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Senate Hispanic Caucus and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino and Asian residents will set out to convince U.S. District Judge George Hazel that the federal government’s decision to ask about citizenship status as part of the upcoming census is improper, because it will lead to a disproportionate undercount of immigrants and people of color.

The Texas legal battle has run mostly parallel to several other court fights across the country — and might not be decided before the New York case makes it to the U.S. Supreme Court — but it’s the only census case that could ultimately determine whether Trump administration officials conspired to deprive people of color of equal protection and representation.

[…]

What we’re referring to as the “Texas case” is actually two consolidated cases filed in Maryland — one of which was filed on behalf of more than a dozen plaintiffs, including Texas’ legislative Latino caucuses; legislative caucuses out of Maryland, Arizona and California; and several community organizations. La Unión del Pueblo Entero, a nonprofit organization based in the Rio Grande Valley, is the lead plaintiff.

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

More broadly, they argue the citizenship question will lead to a disproportionate undercount of Hispanic and immigrant households, affecting areas of the country like Texas that are more likely to be home to members of those communities, and that officials’ decision to add the question was unconstitutional because it was based on intentional racial discrimination. They go further than other opponents in also alleging that Trump administration officials conspired to add the question to the 2020 questionnaire based on animus against Hispanics and immigrants, particularly when it comes to counting immigrants for the apportionment of political districts.

The federal government, which has been unsuccessful in its repeated requests to dismiss the case, has argued the question is necessary for “more effective enforcement” of the federal Voting Rights Act and was added at the Justice Department’s request. But evidence that emerged through litigation indicated U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross asked the Justice Department to make that request after he was in touch with advisers to President Donald Trump.

[…]

In the New York case, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman scolded the Trump administration for “egregious” violations of the Administrative Procedure Act, the federal law the Texas plaintiffs are also citing, and described Ross’ decision to add the question as “arbitrary and capricious.” Furman, however, ruled there wasn’t enough evidence to prove that Ross had intentionally acted to discriminate against immigrants and people of color.

The Texas case is moving forward despite the New York ruling because it involves allegations that the courts haven’t addressed. The New York lawsuit — filed on behalf of a coalition of more than 30 states, cities and counties, including El Paso, Hidalgo and Cameron — didn’t include some of the legal claims opponents in Texas are leaning on.

See here and here for background on this lawsuit. The New York case was ruled entirely on statutory grounds, with the Constitutional claims put aside in part because there had been no deposition of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. A ruling for the plaintiffs on the Constitutional claims would be a stronger and more expansive ruling, but given the SCOTUS that we have, it seems like a ruling we are less likely to get. You never know till you try, though.

And speaking of that New York case:

The Trump administration asked the Supreme Court on Tuesday to bypass its normal procedures and decide quickly whether a question on citizenship can be placed on the 2020 Census.

[…]

Normally, the Justice Department would appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit. But Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco said that would not leave enough time for a final ruling from the Supreme Court.

“The government must finalize the census questionnaire by the end of June 2019 to enable it to be printed on time,” he told the court. “It is exceedingly unlikely that there is sufficient time for review in both the court of appeals and in this Court by that deadline.”

Citing a Supreme Court rule, Francisco said the “case is of such imperative public importance as to justify deviation from normal appellate practice and to require immediate determination in this Court.”

As this story notes, SCOTUS had a hearing to address the question of whether Secretary Ross could be deposed – they declined to allow it while the trial was happening – but since the New York court went ahead and made a ruling anyway, they have since canceled that hearing. I don’t know if they will take up the request for an expedited appeal, but it won’t surprise me if they do. (Rick Hasen, an actual expert in these matters, thinks they will.) That ruling was designed to stick to things this SCOTUS likes to uphold and away from things it likes to bat down, so who knows what they’ll do. NPR has more.

Bail lawsuit continues in Galveston County

Good.

A lawsuit alleging that Galveston County’s cash bail system favors wealthier defendants will continue after a recent ruling by a U.S. district court judge.

On Jan. 10, Judge George Hanks Jr. upheld Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison’s denial of the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ACLU of Texas and the Arnold & Porter law firm filed the suit in April 2018 on behalf of Aaron Booth, 37, of Galveston, who was arrested on felony drug possession charges but couldn’t afford to post his $20,000 bail — the minimum permitted under the county’s bail schedule for that charge.

The suit accuses county officials, including local judges and magistrates as well as District Attorney Jack Roady, of operating an arbitrary, two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the constitutional right to counsel, the right to due process and equal protection under the law.

In addition to keeping the suit alive, Hanks agreed that the ACLU sufficiently argued that under the Constitution’s 6th Amendment, Booth and all defendants are guaranteed a right to counsel at any bail hearing.

Hanks also agreed that Roady, who controls the county’s bail schedule, was liable for his role in perpetuating a wealth-based detention system. Magistrate Edison had ruled that magistrate judges “always strictly adhere” to the bail amounts recommended by Roady.

[…]

A preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for Tuesday will give the ACLU the opportunity to present evidence that Galveston County has not done enough to reform its bail system.

“It’s still our burden to show that the facts are what we’ve alleged,” [Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas] said. “So we are presenting evidence that actually shows that an injunction is necessary.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he hoped Tuesday’s hearing would be the “end or beginning of the end” to the lawsuit. Henry said the litigation has hindered the county’s bail reform efforts, and said he was pleased to see individual magistrate judges and district judges dismissed as defendants.

“We’ve been trying to get these things done for years,” Henry said. “Government moves notoriously slow, I think we’ve been about as fast as we can be.”

See here for the background. It should be clear to everyone where this is going, given the rulings in the Harris County case. One presumes it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get there.

Fifth Circuit does it again

Another terrible ruling by a terrible judge on a terrible court.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court has lifted a lower court order that blocked Texas from booting Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid, potentially imperiling the health care provider’s participation in the federal-state health insurance program.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Sam Sparks, the federal district judge who preserved Planned Parenthood’s status in the program in February 2017, had used the wrong standard in his ruling. The appeals court sent the case back to him for further consideration.

The case stems from a long-running flap over a misleading video released in late 2015 by the anti-abortion group Center for Medical Progress, which suggested that abortion providers at Planned Parenthood sold fetal tissue for profit. The sting video included edited clips of Planned Parenthood officials discussing the use of fetal tissue for research. A string of investigations that followed the video’s release were unable to confirm its claims, but it energized a crusade against the health care provider and sparked outrage from the state’s Republican leadership.

[…]

In February 2017, a federal judge in Austin ruled that Texas clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood could continue to care for patients under the state’s Medicaid program. The state’s arguments, Sparks wrote in a 42-page ruling, were “the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning the interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program.”

But a panel on the conservative-leaning appeals court said Thursday that Sparks had used the wrong standard in his ruling, taking the arguments as a novel, or “de novo,” review and by “giving no deference” to the findings of the state agency that opted to expel Planned Parenthood in the first place. The Office of Inspector General, an arm of the state’s health and human services agency charged with rooting out fraud and abuse, claimed the videos “showed “that Planned Parenthood violated state and federal law.”

“OIG is the agency that the state of Texas has empowered to investigate and penalize Medicaid program violations. The agency is in the business of saying when providers are qualified and when they are not,” Judge Edith Jones wrote. “It is [odd] to claim that federal judges, who have no experience in the regulations and ethics applicable to Medicaid or medical practice, much less in regard to harvesting fetal organs for research, should claim superior expertise.”

See here for the background. Of course Edith Jones would insist that we have to take seriously the lying video of lying liars when it suits her agenda. She’s as predictable as the sunrise. Now we go back to district court and try again to knock down the bullshit. What an utter disgrace.

We really are about to do away with the old cash bail system

I have four things to say about this.

The new slate of Democratic judges has approved a drastic revision to Harris County’s bail system that could serve as a model for a settlement in the historic lawsuit in which a federal judge found the county’s judicial rulings unjustly relegated poor people arrested on minor offenses to jail because they couldn’t afford costly bonds.

The 15 new court-at-law judges and new presiding Democrat who was not up for election voted Wednesday on the new bail protocol that will affect thousands. They have spent weeks hammering out a plan with the sheriff, the district attorney and county leadership and will ask the federal court this week to implement it as a foundation for a settlement.

County Court at Law Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding judge, estimates that 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors will now qualify to be released after arrest on no-cash bonds, with a few exceptions for people who must await a hearing – for up to 48 hours – for bond violations, repeat drunken driving offenses and domestic violence charges. At that point, they may also qualify for personal recognizance bonds.

“What it means is that no one will be in jail because they cannot afford to get out,” Jordan said. “The only people who will be detained and have to speak to a judge are a very small subset who will be processed through the Harris County Jail and those carve outs are aligned with best practices from around the country.”

The change was widely celebrated.

“It’s a big day for Harris County,” said attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represents the judges in the federal lawsuit. “It will make Harris County safer and more equal and provide more efficient processing of people accused of misdemeanors.”

1. Elections have consequences. I almost can’t believe this is actually about to happen.

2. Just a reminder, many of the people now in the jail are there awaiting trial. They have not been convicted of anything. Many others like them in the past never were convicted of anything, and many more pled guilty to something so they could get out. This will ensure there are far, far fewer people like them in the future.

3. The question of who was in jail awaiting trial and who was not was always largely about financial wherewithal, not about risk and danger to society. Remember, Robert Durst was granted bail.

4. One hopes that having far fewer inmates, many of whom don’t need to be there, will allow us to do a better job of ensuring the safety of those inmates, and enabling the jail to meet state standards. No more inmate suicides, please. We really need to do better than that.

Trump administration opposes Section 3 oversight

I mean, duh.

In the latest about-face on voting rights under President Donald Trump, the U.S. Department of Justice no longer supports efforts to force Texas back under federal oversight of its electoral map drawing.

In legal filings this week, the Justice Department indicated it would side against the voters of color, civil rights groups and Democratic lawmakers who want a three-judge federal panel in San Antonio to require Texas to seek pre-approval of its legislative and congressional maps, given previous maps that the federal judges ruled discriminatory.

“The United States no longer believes that [federal supervision] is warranted in this case,” federal attorneys said in their filing to the court.

[…]

Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department sided with those challenging the state’s maps as discriminatory. But last year, Deputy U.S. Solicitor General Edwin Kneedler joined state attorneys in convincing the U.S. Supreme Court that Texas’ current congressional and state House maps, which were adopted in 2013, were legally sound.

In approving the state’s current maps, the high court in June wiped out a ruling by the San Antonio panel that found the maps were tainted with discrimination that was meant to thwart the voting power of Hispanic and black voters, oftentimes to keep white incumbents in office. But seemingly left untouched were previous findings of intentional discrimination at the hands of the state lawmakers who first redrew the state’s maps in 2011.

The state’s opponents are now pointing to some of those 2011 violations in asking the San Antonio panel to consider returning Texas to federal guardianship of its maps.

“In a jurisdiction like Texas, which has consistently engaged in intentional discrimination since its inception, and which year after year attempts to sharpen and hone its ability to violate the law in more covert and artful ways, the Constitution’s promise of equal protection under the laws requires the imposition” of federal supervision, the opponents said in a November filing.

See here for the background. The only reason the Trumpies hasn’t opposed this before now is because there hadn’t been a filing by the plaintiffs before. They’re consistent when it comes to opposing voting rights, that’s for sure. As you know, I don’t have any faith in SCOTUS to do the right thing, but you can’t get what you want if you don’t ask for it.

Firefighters go back to court

I dunno, man.

The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association sought a court order Tuesday aiming to force the city to pay firefighters the same as police officers of corresponding rank and seniority, one day before Mayor Sylvester Turner and the union are set to discuss ideas for implementing pay raises.

The move comes more than two months after voters approved Proposition B, a November ballot measure granting pay parity to Houston firefighters, which would amount to a massive raise that Turner says the city cannot afford. Since the election, firefighters have yet to see their paychecks grow fatter, a delay that has frustrated the union and sown confusion among city workers who face the threat of layoffs.

“By failing to give firefighters a date certain for implementation of voter-approved Proposition B, the City of Houston forced Houston firefighters” to seek Tuesday’s court order, fire union President Marty Lancton said in a statement. “With the election two months behind us, Prop B is now the law. It’s past time for Mayor Turner to respect the will of the voters.”

In response, Turner questioned why the firefighters would ask him to meet, then take court action on the eve of the meeting.

“Now that I’m willing to sit down, what do they do? They go to the courthouse,” Turner said. “Common sense has to prevail here.”

[…]

Since the election, Lancton has asked the mayor to negotiate a contract that would phase in pay parity instead of implementing it in one fell swoop. Until recently, Turner resisted the union’s calls, citing ongoing litigation while at times contending he could not negotiate what voters had already decided.

On Jan. 9, however, Turner invited firefighters to discuss ideas to implement Proposition B, though the mayor’s letter to Lancton did not say whether he is open to negotiating pay raises through contract talks.

“I do not want to lay off employees; and, I interpret some of the things you have said in public to acknowledge the true state of the City’s financial affairs,” Turner wrote to Lancton. “If the sacrifice of city services and city employees and their families in order to finance your pay increase can be avoided, I am open to consideration of your ideas.”

Lancton, responded by saying the union would not participate in “stage-managed, taxpayer-funded public ‘stakeholder’ forums.”

I don’t know what the way forward is. I feel like we’re here now because the firefighters are mad about the pension reform law that got passed. Which confounds me to this day, because were they not listening to what Turner and others were saying on the campaign trail? Did they think they were going to somehow be magically exempt? Anyway, I agree that there should be a date set for when this will be implemented, and a plan that outlines what that will mean. No one knows what it means because that was never part of the marketing for Prop B, but it has to mean something, so let’s get to it. And when the firefighters don’t like what it means, well, the courts will still be there.

Plaintiffs win in Census citizenship question lawsuit

Very good news.

A federal judge on Tuesday blocked the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census, with an opinion that found the move by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated the Administrative Procedure Act.

Furman’s decision, if not overturned by a higher court, is a monumental victory for voting rights activists and immigrant advocates, who feared the question would spook immigrant participation in the census. An undercount of those populations would shift political representation and governmental resources away from those communities, in favor of less diverse, less urban parts of the country. Furthermore, there were strong hints that the citizenship data procured would then be used to exclude non-citizenships from redistricting — a long-sought goal of conservatives that would boost Republicans’ electoral advantages.

In his 277-page opinion, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman in Manhattan said that Ross “failed to consider several important aspects of the problem; alternately ignored, cherry-picked, or badly misconstrued the evidence in the record before him; acted irrationally both in light of that evidence and his own stated decisional criteria; and failed to justify significant departures from past policies and practices — a veritable smorgasbord of classic, clear-cut APA violations.”

[…]

The case was a consolidation of two lawsuits — one brought by the ACLU and the other by a multi-state coalition — and is among some half dozen cases across the country challenging the decision, which was announced last March. Furman’s case was he first to go trial and he is the first judge to reach a decision on the merits.

It is also an issue already headed to the Supreme Court, so it is unlikely that Furman’s word will be the last one. After the Trump administration fought tooth and nail Furman’s order that Ross be deposed for the case, the Supreme Court blocked the deposition and scheduled a hearing on whether Ross’ motive for adding the question should play a role in the case for February.

Furman said that his decision Tuesday was based solely on the so-called administrative record — the official record that administration put forward justifying its process of coming to a decision on the question.

By basing his ruling only on the administrative record, Furman segregated his findings from the contentious issue at the heart of dispute the Supreme Court will hear next month.

“Looking beyond the Administrative Record merely confirms the Court’s conclusions and illustrates how egregious the APA violations were,” he said.

While ruling with the challengers on the Administrative Procedures Act claim, the judge did not find a constitutional due process violation, as the challengers alleged.

“In particular, although the Court finds that Secretary Ross’s decision was pretextual, it is unable to find, on the record before it, that the decision was a pretext for impermissible discrimination,” he said. “To be fair to Plaintiffs, it is impossible to know if they could have carried their burden to prove such discriminatory intent had they been allowed to depose Secretary Ross, as the Court had authorized last September.”

His opinion took a not-so-veiled swipe at Justice Neil Gorsuch, who wrote, when the dispute over deposing Ross was at the Supreme Court at an earlier stage, that there was nothing wrong with a new cabinet secretary “cutting through red tape.”

“[A]lthough some may deride its requirements as ‘red tape,’ the APA exists to
protect core constitutional and democratic values,” Furman wrote. “It ensures that agencies exercise only the authority that Congress has given them, that they exercise that authority reasonably, and that they follow applicable procedures — in short, it ensures that agencies remain accountable to the public they serve.”

See here for the previous update. Though you wouldn’t know it from the slavish devotion our state leaders pay to Donald Trump, this ruling is very good for Texas. There will of course be an appeal and as noted this will surely make its way to SCOTUS, but for now this is a big win. ThinkProgress, Slate, and Mother Jones all have good analyses of the opinion, so go check ’em out.

Time again for craft brewers to get their legislative hopes up

We’ve seen this movie before. I hope for a better ending, but I’m keeping those hopes modest.

Texas is the only state in the country that prohibits some breweries from selling six-packs, bottles and growlers of beer to-go, but a pair of bills filed for consideration during the 86th legislative session aim to change that.

Sen. Dawn Buckingham (R-Lakeway) and Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) introduced companion bills SB 312 and HB 672, respectively, which would allow manufacturing breweries to sell beer to drinkers for off-premise consumption.

[…]

In 2015, North Texas’ Deep Ellum Brewing Co. and the now-defunct Grapevine Craft Brewery sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission over the issue and lost. Earlier this year, the court ruled in favor of the TABC, citing the potential impact to Texas’ three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

In the decision, however, the judge noted that off-premise sales were granted to distilleries and wineries by the legislature, not the courts. That and the support shown for to-go sales during both the Republican and Democratic conventions in 2018 is giving the Texas beer industry hope that the legislation will pass.

I noted the lawsuit back in 2015, but missed that it had been decided. The story here has always been that the beer distributors’ lobbyists are mightier than everyone else. Maybe this year it will be different – hope springs eternal – but it is always safer to bet on the house. Alas.

Omnibus lawsuit against Texas abortion laws begins

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

Appeal of bail injunction dropped

Elections have consequences, and thank goodness for it.

Less than a week after the new jurists were sworn into office, Harris County’s misdemeanor judges on Monday withdrew their appeal in the landmark lawsuit over local bail practices that a federal judge said unfairly targeted poor people accused of crimes.

The historic litigation began in 2016, when attorneys and civil rights groups sued the county on behalf of defendants jailed for days because they couldn’t afford bond on low-level offenses. Though Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal said the practice was unconstitutional and amounted to wealth-based detention, so far the county has spent more than $9 million in legal fees to fight the case, according to Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis.

But many saw the Democratic wave in November’s elections as a sign of change ahead – and Monday’s court filings look to be one of the first indicators of that shift.

“It’s going to be a new day,” Neal Manne, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in November just after the ballot-box sweep. And now, according to Judge Darrell Jordan – the one misdemeanor judge who did not lose his bench in the last election – the parties have already begun hashing out a settlement they hope to have in place in the next few weeks.

“Our goal is have this accomplished by February 1, 2019,” Jordan told the Houston Chronicle.

One of a series of documents filed in recent days, the two-page motion simply lists the names of the new judges – who automatically replaced their predecessors as defendants in the suit – and asks that the case be dismissed. The court granted the motion and dismissed the appeal by mid-day.

[…]

Mike Fields, the one outgoing judge who supported the lawsuit, lauded the move as a “great first step” toward reform.

“Quite frankly, it’s overdue,” he said. “I remain convinced that fighting against bail reform was a mistake and, I believe, part and parcel of why the citizens of Harris County voted for such a sweeping change in our political landscape. Hopefully, this issue will, finally, be put to bed and taxpayer money better spent going forward.”

[…]

Meanwhile, the Harris County Attorney’s Office issued a statement expressing confidence in the possibility of a settlement.

“The County Attorney’s Office supports the newly-elected judges in their effort to resolve this case on terms they find acceptable,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a statement. “This is a case about judicial discretion.”

The next hearing, in Rosenthal’s court, is slated for Feb. 1.

Out-fricking-standing. The new judges are now represented by a pro bono attorney, instead of the high-priced guy that had been arguing the case in court. What this means is that the injunction will remain in place while the settlement is hashed out, with no further briefs or arguments or whatever else before the Fifth Circuit. (The last update I had on this was from August; I don’t think there was any other business on the agenda, but if there was it’s now moot.) Perhaps once we get this settlement in place we can stop outsourcing inmates once and for all. Now we need the city of Houston to get its act together and follow the county’s lead. Bottom line is that this, as much as anything, is what I wanted from the 2018 election. Well done, y’all.

Anti-Obamacare ruling appealed

The big non-Mueller story to follow for 2019.

Best mugshot ever

The Democratic coalition of states battling Texas over the fate of the Affordable Care Act has formally begun the process of challenging a Dec. 14 decision ruling the law unconstitutional in its entirety.

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who’s leading the charge, filed a notice of appeal Thursday morning before the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals. The blue states will ask the federal appeals court to overturn last month’s ruling from U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor, who declared that President Barack Obama’s signature health care law is unconstitutional after Congress in December 2017 gutted one of its major provisions, the individual mandate.

The notice of appeal marks the next stage of what is expected to be a long-running litigation process that could reach the U.S. Supreme Court. A Texas-led coalition of 20 states kicked the process off nearly a year ago by suing the federal government to kill the law; after the Justice Department sided partially with Texas, the California-led coalition of states stepped in to defend Obamacare in court.

“The wheels start turning as of now,” Becerra said on a press call Thursday morning.

See here and here for the background. Every legal scholar with a shred of integrity has denounced this ruling as ridiculous, but we all know that what matters is what five members of SCOTUS think is legal. One story I read about this noted that the coalition of states defending Obamacare picked up an ally after the 2018 election, the new Attorney General of Colorado. One can only wonder what might be happening today if we could have added a new Attorney General of Texas to this. Alas, we’ll have to file that under What Might Have Been.

Greg Abbott to HISD: Drop dead

I have four things to say about this.

A post sent from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s Twitter account Thursday lambasted Houston ISD’s leadership as “a disaster” that has failed children in the state’s largest school district — a rare public condemnation of the district from the state’s top executive.

“What a joke. HISD leadership is a disaster,” read a tweet posted from Abbott’s official account. “Their self-centered ineptitude has failed the children they are supposed to educate. If ever there was a school board that needs to be taken over and reformed, it’s HISD. Their students & parents deserve change.”

The comments come as HISD faces potentially major sanctions, including a state takeover of its locally elected school board, tied to chronically low academic results at four schools. They also come as HISD’s board of trustees has been bombarded with criticism in recent months for its acrimonious public displays and its widely-panned effort to covertly oust Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan.

[…]

The post linked to a commentary authored by three community members and printed in the Houston Chronicle that criticized Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s efforts to partner with HISD to operate several long-struggling schools. The authors of the commentary also argued for taking legal action against the Texas Education Agency to prevent a state takeover of HISD’s board of trustees.

[…]

Abbott’s education commissioner, Mike Morath, must replace HISD’s school board or close underperforming schools if any one of four long-struggling campuses fail to meet state academic standards in 2019. Earlier comments by Morath and his deputy commissioner of governance, AJ Crabill, suggest Morath is more likely to install a replacement school board instead of shuttering any under-performing schools.

1. Just a reminder, the HISD Board is composed entirely of Democrats right now. Throwing them out of office is all dessert and no vegetables as far as Abbott is concerned.

2. Along those lines, remember that Abbott was just re-elected by over a million votes. He’s got the highest approval rating of any statewide elected official. He doesn’t face voters again until 2022. He could not possibly care less what a bunch of Pantsuit Nation or Indivisible members think, about this or about himself. There is no amount of activism or noise-making that will affect his opinions or his actions.

3. Again, this is why I have been extremely queasy about the all-or-nothing strategy that HISD has adopted, at the urging of some activists. I continue to believe that a TEA takeover is the worst possible outcome, and a partnership – if not with the city of Houston, then with HCC, which was never explored and now cannot be explored – for the purposes of forestalling such a takeover is a reasonable way to mitigate this risk. I understand that people have strong objections to this. I’m not here to relitigate that question, as the matter is settled. I’m just stating what my risk-averse nature is telling me. But look, none of this matters now. We’re not going to win a staredown with Abbott over this. He holds all the cards.

4. As for the litigation idea, someone is going to need to explain to me 1) on what grounds we would sue at this time, prior to a takeover, and 2) why a lawsuit filed in advance of a TEA takeover would be allowed to proceed. A lawsuit filed afterwards I understand, as then an alleged injury that the courts could correct has occurred. But before that, I feel confident that a motion to dismiss on the grounds that the issue is not ripe and no one yet has standing would be accepted. As always, I Am Not A Lawyer, so if someone knows better than me on this, please say so. The Trib has more.

Lina Hidalgo officially sworn in

It’s Judge Hidalgo now, thank you very much.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Ushering in a new era of Democratic rule, Lina Hidalgo took the oath of office as Harris County judge early Tuesday, becoming the first Latina and first woman to lead the nation’s third-largest county.

Her swearing in minutes past midnight by 151st Civil Court Judge Mike Engelhart capped the remarkable rise of Hidalgo, 27, who just two months ago was a graduate student making her first bid for public office against a popular incumbent.

She takes charge as chief executive overseeing thousands of employees and an annual budget of more than $5 billion. Hidalgo will also lead the county’s Office of Emergency Management, which has already responded to 23 floods this century.

Hidalgo was joined by her parents and other family members. She succeeds longtime County Judge Ed Emmett, a Republican who steered a massive Hurricane Harvey bond package to passage before being swept out of office in November after 11 years.

She said the greatest challenge during her transition to office has been knowing where to start.

“There’s just so much enthusiasm in the community and in the meetings I have,” Hidalgo said. “There’s this incredible desire to bring in new ideas and breathe in new energy.”

Hidalgo was one of scores of Democrats who unseated Republicans in November in a sweep of countywide positions that brought more than 50 civil and criminal judges and other top leaders into key positions. Of the 81 officials at the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday at NRG Center, only Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle and a justice of the peace were Republicans.

I just want to pause here for a moment so the full impact of that last sentence can settle in on you. The forecast is for more of the same in the foreseeable future.

Hidalgo, who campaigned on making county government more accessible to the public, announced a massive engagement effort. With support from Houston Endowment Inc. and the Ford Foundation, she said Harris County will circulate a survey asking residents how government can be improved.

The Talking Transition program will also include workshops educating residents on how county government functions and town hall forums on topics such as education, housing and transportation.

Several key positions in Hidalgo’s administration remain unfilled, including communication and policy directors. She said her staff continues to vet candidates with the help of a consulting firm that also assisted the administration of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

Hidalgo said she hopes to work with commissioners to quickly settle the federal lawsuit challenging Harris County’s cash bail system. The protracted legal wrangling over the suit — and its $7 million cost to taxpayers so far — has long frustrated Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who until now was the lone Democrat on Commissioners Court.

“Like many, I’m hopeful that 2019 will be the year the county settles the lawsuit and ceases its defense of an unconstitutional, unsafe cash bail system,” Ellis wrote in an email to constituents Tuesday.

I for damn sure want to see a settlement, and I want it to be a high priority. I don’t know what the court’s calendar looks like, but I see no reason why there can’t be an agreement in principle between the parties by the end of Q1 2019.

As fort the transition stuff, this is from the inbox on January 1:

Judge Hidalgo’s initiative, Talking Transition: Harris County, will provide a forum for residents to discuss the issues that matter most to them, learn about County government, and weigh in on pressing public policy matters.

The first program of its kind in Harris County, Talking Transition will allow Judge Hidalgo and her team to obtain a qualitative and quantitative analysis of the issues and ideas that most impact County residents, as they work to shape their agenda.

“Throughout my campaign, I pledged to increase transparency and accountability in Harris County government. Too few residents know how County government works and how to engage with it,” said Judge Lina Hidalgo. “For me, public service means ensuring that our most vulnerable residents have the same voice in our local government as the most powerful among us.”

Talking Transition: Harris County is expected to be the largest civic engagement program in the South. It is modeled after similar programs in New York and Washington, D.C., and made possible by the Houston Endowment and the Ford Foundation.

“Houston Endowment recognizes the value of community voice in good governance,” said Ann Stern, president and CEO of Houston Endowment. “By ensuring all voices are heard, we can continue to enhance our region’s assets, achieve equitable outcomes, and resolve issues that are important to the residents of Harris County.”

Talking Transition will address seven public policy areas – education, housing, transportation, resiliency, health, justice, and economic opportunity – through a series of public events across the County. The initiative includes a variety of ways for Harris County residents to interact with and learn more about their local government. The core components include:

Transparency Project: Announcements throughout the County will provide easily-digestible information about how County government works and eye-opening statistics intended to motivate residents to learn more.

Civic Saturdays: Offered at a seven locations around Harris County, Civic Saturdays are a series of full-day public events happening on consecutive Saturdays:

  • Civic School: Features classroom-style lessons for Harris County residents to learn about how County government works.
  • Town Halls: A large gathering organized around a specific policy area that will give residents a chance to share new ideas for improving their communities and to hear from others.
  • Action Plan Workshops: Smaller working groups for people who have devoted time to specific issues to focus on how to best realize community-driven ideas through County government.

Survey: Teams of canvassers will be spread throughout the County to ask residents about what needs to be improved among County services, what would help them engage more with County government, and what needs to be prioritized when it comes to prioritizing the County budget. The survey will also be available both online and at each Civic Saturday.

All Talking Transitions events are free and open to the public. A full schedule of activities will become available online at www.talkingtransition.us.

I’ll be very interested to see how that turns out. In the meantime, best of luck to Judge Hidalgo and all of the newly sworn-in officials.

Ridiculous anti-Obamacare ruling remains on hold

It is what it is.

Best mugshot ever

The federal judge in Texas who ruled the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional said today that the law can stand while his judgment is under appeal.

In his order issuing a stay and final partial judgment in the controversial case, U.S. District Court Judge Reed O’Connor reiterated that he believes the entire ACA cannot stand without its individual mandate penalty, which Congress zeroed out last year. O’Connor argued that appellate judges will agree with his judgment, but said it should not take effect while the case is being appealed. “[M]any everyday Americans would otherwise face great uncertainty,” he wrote.

The judge’s order means that Obamacare will likely remain the law of the land for at least another year. Depending on how the appeals proceed, it also tees up the possibility of a Supreme Court ruling on the case in 2020, during the presidential campaign.

[…]

In his new filing, O’Connor expanded his reasoning for siding with the conservative states seeking to strike down Obamacare, arguing that they have standing to bring the case. This point has been disputed, because the conservative states have struggled to show how the ACA has harmed them.

O’Connor also stressed that “courts must refrain from resolving policy disputes” created by Congress. His conclusions were widely panned, including by conservative legal scholars who maintain that O’Connor continues to misread the law and is engaging in the same judicial activism that he decries.

“I’ve been very critical of Judge O’Connor’s severability analysis, but the standing analysis in these opinions may be even worse — and that’s saying something,” tweeted Jonathan Adler, a Case Western Reserve University law professor who was a legal architect of another major ACA challenge. “I will be gobsmacked if O’Connor’s opinion survives review in the Fifth Circuit.”

O’Connor also noted that four other counts remain unresolved — signaling that even if the appeals court overturns his ruling, conservative states could find further paths to weaken the ACA. The remaining issues include challenges under the Administrative Procedures Act and the Fifth and 10th amendments.

See here for the background. Basically everyone has panned this ruling as legally unsound – I’m being kind here – and most people believe that the ruling will be reversed. I have less faith in the Fifth Circuit than that, but we’ll see. In the meantime, we can’t get a Congress and a President who are committed to providing health care for all soon enough.

Orlando Sanchez’s bizarre press conference

What a weird thing.

Orlando Sanchez

It was an absolutely wild afternoon for Harris County Treasurer Orlando Sanchez. He planned to have a news conference across the street from the HISD administration building, but things didn’t go as planned.

Protestors showed up and completely disrupted Sanchez’s news conference. When he tried to get it started, the group would chant things like, ‘Go away, TEA’ and ‘You got voted out.’

Things really got heated when he was answering one of our questions. Someone from the group ran up and dumped water on him.

Someone from Sanchez’s team confronted the man. He ended up on the ground and police were called. Both sides claimed they were assaulted.

The news conference was supposed to be for Sanchez to call for the state to take over HISD.

“Taxpayers are fed up and it’s time for the governor and the Texas Education Agency to step up and make sure that children in HISD, which 83 percent of them are minority, get an education,” said Sanchez.

“To have somebody like that step on my toes like that when I have sacrificed so much for these kids, yeah, it’s emotional,” said HISD Board President Rhonda Skillern. “It is because it’s personal. These kids mean a lot to me; not just my five but all 215,000.”

Click over to see pictures and video. Far as I can tell, the only coverage of this fiasco has come from the TV stations; I’ve not seen anything in the Chron as yet.

Let me say up front that whoever poured water on Sanchez is an idiot, and what he did sure sounds like assault to me. It’s also terrible strategy from a public relations perspective. Sanchez’s purpose for calling the press conference was ridiculous on its face, and would have been easy to dismiss on its merits. Anyone who felt the need to attack Sanchez physically is someone who has no faith in their own political position.

Why do I say that Sanchez’s purpose is ridiculous? The law is clear that the authority of the TEA to step in only occurs after the schools fail to meet state standards. We won’t have that data for several months, a fact that everyone knows. It is entirely possible that the four schools in question, which were all granted one-year waivers due to the effects of Hurricane Harvey, could meet standards this year, as the other schools that had originally been under scrutiny and which did not get Harvey waivers did. One could easily argue that by making this needless and premature call for a TEA takeover, Sanchez is expressing a complete lack of faith in the students at the four schools. That’s an insult to them and their parents and teachers. Maybe he had some qualifiers and weasel words in his prepared text, but still, the message is clear: Orlando Sanchez expects you to fail, and so he wants the consequences of your failure to begin now.

One also can’t help but notice that Orlando Sanchez, who just got voted out of a cushy elected position where he was basically invisible for twelve years and has never before expressed any opinions about education or ideas about how to improve it, is jumping up and waving his arms in front of Greg Abbott at a time when he really needs something to do. It’s a clear grab for attention at a time when the news cycle is quiet and he can still call it in his capacity as an elected official. There’s also the rumors that Sanchez is prepping to run for Mayor (again). No such thing as bad publicity, am I right?

Finally, there will surely be litigation over the process of replacing an elected board with an appointed one – for sure, there’s a Voting Rights Act complaint to be made. There were lawsuits over the closure of North Forest ISD and La Marque ISD, and while the state prevailed in each of them, the situation with HISD, which is a much bigger district with many successful schools and is financially solvent, is vastly different. The state may well prevail in any litigation that will occur, but it will take time. There’s also the very real possibility that the Lege could modify the law in question that delays or makes less likely a TEA takeover. The point here is that in every way, this was way premature, and served to do nothing more than call attention to Orlando Sanchez. On that score at least, mission accomplished.

Paxton prosecutors take their shot at a do-over

Good luck.

Best mugshot ever

In a fiery filing that amounts to a legal Hail Mary, the attorneys appointed to prosecute Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton implored the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yielded “a patently absurd result.”

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled in November that a six-figure payment originally approved for the special prosecutors was outside legal limits — a move that boosted Paxton and threatened to derail the case against him, as the prosecutors had indicated they might withdraw if they could not be paid. A month later, the prosecutors have asked the court to reconsider their decision in a crucial case “where the ‘x’ axis of justice and the ‘y’ axis of politics intersect.”

Rehearing, they argued in a filing last week, is critical for ensuring that the high court’s proceedings “appear fair to all who observe them.” [Read the filing here]

[…]

In the Dec. 21 filing, prosecutor Brian Wice wrote that the prosecutors “would never have accepted the formidable task of prosecuting the Texas Attorney General over the last three-plus years had they been able to look into the future and discern that their pay would come within a coat of paint of minimum wage.”

From the opening sentence, the 18-page filing doesn’t mince words.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, you can lawfully create and endow a defense fund to pay for an armada of top-flight legal talent that most defendants can only dream of to defend yourself against three felony offenses,” Wice wrote.

In the motion for rehearing, which includes references to Atticus Finch, Shakespeare, Gilbert & Sullivan and the impending “Sword of Damocles,” the prosecutors implore the state’s highest criminal court to take the unusual step of considering their case again because last month’s opinion yields “a patently absurd result” that would pay the special prosecutors “unconscionable” rates.

Letting the ruling stand, Wice argued, would allow any local government in Texas “to derail what it sees as an unjust prosecution by de-funding it.” And that type of funding dispute can be influenced by major political players, he suggested.

“Make no mistake,” he wrote. “While it was the Commissioners who prevailed in this Court, Paxton first recognized that the best, indeed, the only way to derail his prosecution was to de-fund it by challenging [prosecutors’] fees three years ago.”

See here and here for the background. I mean, the prosecutors are 100% right on the merits, and they lay it out with utter clarity. I maintain that the Legislature can and should fix this by making the state pick up the tab for prosecutions like this, but that won’t help here, even if we could be sure that a bill to address this would pass. We need the Court to do the right thing, which they failed to do the first time around. It’s either that or they show that they don’t care about the law when one of their own is on the sharp end of it.

Recapture reinterpretation lawsuit update

This is a bit in the weeds, so bear with me.

Houston ISD likely will keep an additional tens of millions of dollars more in property tax revenues each year following a widely expected Texas appeals court decision Friday.

Judges from the state’s 3rd District Court of Appeals ruled against two small school districts and a nonprofit that sued the Texas Education Agency over its re-interpretation of statutes related to “recapture,” the state’s method of redistributing tax revenues from property-wealthy districts to property-poor districts. The ruling means that property-wealthy districts, such as HISD, will face lower “recapture” payments back to the state moving forward.

HISD officials projected the ruling would result in the district keeping an additional $51 million in 2018-19. District leaders expected the Texas Education Agency to win the lawsuit, so the already factored the $51 million in revenue into the current budget. As a result, the district will not see a windfall that can be spent on additional costs.

The plaintiffs alleged the Texas Education Agency improperly re-interpreted state law to include optional property tax homestead exemptions into “recapture” calculations for districts with wealthy property tax bases relative to their student enrollment totals.

A district court judge granted a temporary injunction in favor of the plaintiffs. However, the appellate court found the plaintiffs could not prove they were harmed by the re-interpretation because it did not cause a shortfall in the state’s Foundation School Program, the fund through which state money is distributed to school districts.

See here and here for the background. Back when we were all arguing about HISD making recapture payments to the state, HISD successfully managed to get the TEA to interpret the law over how such payments are calculated to take into account the Local Option Homestead Exemption (LOHE) that some districts like HISD offer. Taking the LOHE into account, which the TEA had not previously done, causes the recapture formula to produce a smaller bill for districts like HISD that use it. That’s where that $51 million figure comes from. A couple of smaller school districts, along with MALDEF, filed suit over this reinterpretation on the grounds that it would cost them money, which was in conflict with the Foundation School Program. The Third Court of Appeals has ruled that the smaller districts could not prove that they were harmed, so the TEA rule as now interpreted was upheld, which in turn saves HISD some money. Makes sense? Of course, if the Lege follows through on its latest plan to reform school finance, any or all of this could change in ways we don’t yet know. But for now, this is where we stand.

And now we move forward with Prop B

No other option.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

Mayor Sylvester Turner said Wednesday his administration is moving forward to implement the voter-approved charter amendment granting Houston firefighters equal pay to police of corresponding rank and seniority, though the city has not yet determined when firefighters will begin receiving increased paychecks or how the charter amendment will impact individual city departments.

Turner’s administration plans to lay off hundreds of city employees, including firefighters and police officers, to cover the cost of paying firefighters on par with police officers, a move city officials say will amount to a 29 percent raise costing the city upwards of $100 million annually.

The mayor said he did not know when the city would begin layoffs, but indicated to reporters Wednesday that it likely would take several months to put Proposition B into effect.

“I don’t want anybody to operate under the assumption that even as we move forward to the implementation that checks are going to start flowing in January,” Turner said. “It will take some time.”

[…]

Asked why the city is only now beginning to put Proposition B into effect, Turner said his administration did not take action while the temporary restraining order was in place from Nov. 30 until Tuesday. Proposition B passed Nov. 6 with 59 percent of the vote.

The fire union, meanwhile, has sought to negotiate a new contract with Turner that would allow the city to phase in Proposition B. Fire union president Marty Lancton has cast Turner’s refusal to return to the table as vindictive, and said after state District Judge Randy Wilson’s ruling Tuesday that the mayor could implement the amendment or “pick up the phone and call firefighters so we can work toward a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

Asked Wednesday about the union’s negotiation offer, Turner did not indicate he has was any closer to sitting down with the firefighters, saying that doing so would go against “what people wanted” when they approved Proposition B. The firefighters, who have contended that the police union’s lawsuit is aimed at circumventing the will of the voters, say it is possible to arrive at “a solution that implements the will of the voters in the best possible way.”

The mayor previously has said the city could not phase in Proposition B, and since has accused firefighters of attempting to confuse the issue by calling for negotiations while the lawsuits play out in the courts.

See here for the background. I don’t know what else there is to say at this point. It’s not clear what happens from here, but I’m pretty sure no one is going to like it.

Restraining order lifted on firefighter pay referendum

Back to the planning stage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Tuesday dissolved a temporary restraining order blocking implementation of the voter-approved charter amendment granting pay parity to Houston firefighters and denied further attempts by the city and police union to delay the measure.

State District Judge Randy Wilson, ruling in favor of the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, decided that voters were informed of the amendment’s price tag — more than $100 million a year — before the election and approved it anyway. The measure, appearing on the November ballot as Proposition B, passed with 59 percent of the vote.

“While this Court is sensitive to the budget difficulties the Pay-Parity Amendment will produce, the Houston voters decided they would rather have pay parity,” Wilson wrote.

[…]

The latest ruling comes more than two weeks after the HPOU sued the fire union and city over the parity measure, contending the amendment, which would tie firefighter pay to that of police of corresponding rank and experience, is unconstitutional because it conflicts with a provision of state law requiring firefighters to receive comparable pay to that of private sector employees.

Wilson, ruling that the amendment does not conflict with state law, indicated the city had contradicted its argument in a separate case by claiming that no private sector jobs are comparable to those of firefighters.

The lawsuit has been underway since Nov. 30, when the police union filed the suit against the fire union and the city, and [Judge Kristen] Hawkins granted a temporary restraining order.

The city later filed a cross-claim against the fire union, a remedy available to defendants seeking to take legal action against a co-defendant. In its claim, the city argued that the charter amendment “directly conflicts with the collective bargaining process and guidelines for firefighter compensation” laid out in the Texas Local Government Code, and therefore is invalid. Ultimately, the police union and city sought an injuction and stay on the parity amendment.

As the lawsuit has played out, the separate case referenced by Wilson — filed by the fire union against the city after contract talks stalled last year — has reached Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

See here for the background, and here for the Mayor’s statement. Neither the HPOU nor the city plans to appeal at this time, so as things stand the city will need to figure out how to move forward with Prop B while the litigation plays out, as was the case with Renew Houston. It’s not going to get any more cordial from here, that much I know.

The ACA decision

Utterly ridiculous, and likely to be short-lived.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas threw a dagger on Friday into the Affordable Care Act, ruling that the entire health-care law is unconstitutional because of a recent change in federal tax law.

The opinion by U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor overturns all of the sprawling law nationwide.

The ruling came on the eve of the deadline for Americans to sign up for coverage in the federal insurance exchange created under the law.

Since the suit was filed in January, many health-law specialists have viewed its logic as weak but nevertheless have regarded the case as the greatest looming legal threat to the 2010 law, which has been a GOP whipping post ever since and assailed repeatedly in the courts.

The Supreme Court upheld the law as constitutional in 2012 and 2015, though the first of those opinions struck down the ACA’s provision that was to expand Medicaid nationwide, letting each state choose instead. No matter how O’Connor ruled, legal experts have been forecasting that the Texas case would be appealed and could well place the law again before the high court, giving its conservative newest member, Justice Brett Kavenaugh, a first opportunity to take part.

Not mentioned in this story, as it came out very quickly after the ruling was released late Friday afternoon (*), is that the judge also denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction. This means that the ruling, which is so absurd that even conservative legal experts who oppose the ACA were appalled by it. What happens next is a bit unclear – there will of course be an appeal, and this will almost certainly go to SCOTUS – but for now this is mostly a big legal turd in the punch bowl. Enjoy that health insurance while you can, sure would be a pity if something happened to it. The Trib, Nicholas Bagley, and Daily Kos, among many others, have more.

The Blake Farenthold Memorial Sexual Harassment Bill

That’s what this should be called.

Blake Farenthold

Less than a year after Corpus Christi Republican Blake Farenthold left Congress behind with an $84,000 settlement for sexual harassment, the House and Senate have agreed to make lawmakers pay their own misconduct judgments.

The legislation, which the House and Senate each passed unanimously on Thursday, caps a year of acrimonious debate over how to handle sexual harassment claims on Capitol Hill.

Under the terms of a bipartisan deal reached this week, members of the House and Senate would assume financial liability for settlements and judgments stemming from sexual harassment complaints. Historically, taxpayers have picked up the tab.

The issue came to a head last April when Farenthold, a four-term congressman, resigned amid an Ethics Committee investigation into allegations of improper conduct by at least three former staffers. That followed revelations that Congress had already covered an $84,000 settlement reached in a 2014 harassment suit brought by Lauren Greene, his former communications director.

The payment came to light last December only after House administrators, under pressure in the early months of the #MeToo era, agreed to release summary data on payouts involving Capitol Hill offices.

[…]

While denying any personal wrongdoing in the case, Farenthold initially vowed to repay taxpayers. He later reneged, however, on the “advice of counsel.”

He also refused a request by Gov. Greg Abbott to help defray the estimated $200,000 in expenses for the special election prompted by his early departure. Victoria Republican Mike Cloud was elected to replace him.

Farenthold later took a job lobbying for the Calhoun Port Authority, a move that sparked further controversy because of his involvement as a member of Congress in trying to steer a contract to Randy Boyd, the port’s chairman.

Campaign finance reports also showed that Farenthold, who had a net worth in the millions, spent more than $100,000 from his campaign account on legal bills before and after the Ethics probe.

From the bottom of my heart, Blake: Go fuck yourself.

HISD rejects partnership idea

The die is cast.

Houston ISD trustees narrowly voted Thursday to not seek proposals from outside organizations to run long-struggling schools, a decision that keeps those campuses under local control but sets the stage for a possible state takeover of the district’s school board.

Barring an unexpected legislative or legal change, four HISD schools now must meet state academic standards in 2019 after missing the mark for four-plus consecutive years to stave off major state sanctions against the district. If any of those four schools fail to meet standard, the Texas Education Agency is legally required to replace HISD’s entire school board and appoint new members, or close still-failing schools.

HISD could have preempted any punishment for two years if the district temporarily surrendered control of the four schools to outside groups. TEA leaders have previously said they do not see closing schools as a strong option for improving student outcomes, though they have not committed to either option.

In a 5-4 vote following about an hour of debate, interrupted several times by community members who vocally opposed seeking partnerships, trustees opted against directing Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan to issue a request for proposals to take control of an undetermined number of campuses. The four campuses that have repeatedly failed to meet state standard — Highland Heights Elementary School, Henry Middle School, and Kashmere and Wheatley high schools — would have been considered for partnerships.

[…]

Trustees Wanda Adams, Diana Dávila, Jolanda Jones, Elizabeth Santos and Rhonda Skillern-Jones opposed seeking proposals. Trustees Sue Deigaard, Sergio Lira, Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca and Anne Sung supported the option.

Well, now Mayor Turner can quit pursuing the partnership plan he had proposed. At this point, either the four schools meet standards or we will say goodbye to the Board of Trustees for some number of years. I don’t foresee a bill getting passed to change the law that mandates the consequences, though that is a possibility that is worth pursuing because there’s nothing to lose and much to gain. While I expect there will be litigation over a state takeover – if nothing else, a Voting Rights Act lawsuit over the disenfranchisement of HISD voters seems likely – that kind of action can take years and is highly unpredictable. So it’s basically up to the students and parents and teachers and administrators at those four schools now. I wish them all the very best. The Press has more.

(On a side note, Diana Davila’s 2015 victory over Juliet Stipeche sure turned out to be consequential. I haven’t asked either of her opponents from 2017 how they might have voted, but Elizabeth Santos’ election in 2017 also looms large now. I sure hope we get to have HISD Trustee elections again next year.)