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Texas Civil Rights Project

High schools need to do a better job of making voter registration available to students

As the Texas Civil Rights Project notes, it is the law.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a report published today by the Texas Civil Rights Project, new data from October 2016 to February 2018 shows that just 34 percent of high schools in Texas requested voter registration forms from the Secretary of State—the key first step in registering students under the process mandated by Texas law. This is up from a mere 14 percent of public high schools in 2016.

“Our schools must prepare young Texans for the future, which includes teaching them how to participate in our democracy. For more than five years, TCRP has attempted to work with the Secretary of State to help schools comply with our unique high school student voter registration law,” said James Slattery, Senior Staff Attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project and author of the report. “Instead of working with civic engagement groups, parents, and students, the Secretary’s office has dragged its feet in implementing common sense reforms to help high schools comply with the law. This means that, every year, more than 180,000 eligible students are not getting the opportunity to register to vote as required by law.”

In addition to the report, TCRP is also releasing the first-ever digital map of nearly 3,000 public and private high schools in Texas that visually displays which schools and school districts have requested high school voter registration forms from the Secretary, pursuant to the law, and those schools for which we have not been able to verify compliance.

Currently 82 out of 232 counties in Texas, or 35 percent of all Texas counties, did not have a single high school request a voter registration form. The digital map will serve as a resource for parents, students, policy makers, and community members in spearheading efforts to register eligible students to vote.

“As the state’s chief elections officer, we encourage Secretary Rolando Pablos to take common sense steps to address the abysmal compliance rate,” continued Slattery. “We owe it to these young Texans to make sure they are equipped with the tools they need to participate in the democracy they will soon inherit from us. That includes making sure that every eligible high school student is offered the opportunity to register to vote as soon as they come of age, and educating them in all the duties of citizenship.”

See here for the report, and here for the map. To me, the answer to the question “why aren’t we doing a better job of this” is simply that there’s no enforcement. If it’s not anyone’s job to make it happen, it’s not going to happen. If we want the SOS to get schools and districts to do what they’re supposed to do, then give the SOS the resources to do that, and then hold the SOS accountable for it. This isn’t rocket science.

State asks for emergency stay of “motor voter” ruling

Also as expected.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Friday asked a federal appeals court to block a San Antonio judge’s order that gave state officials 45 days to correct an online voter registration system that was found to violate federal law.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia on Monday ordered officials to create a process that lets Texans simultaneously register to vote when they obtain or renew a driver’s license on the Department of Public Safety website. The current system violates the National Voter Registration Act’s motor-voter provision by adding several hurdles to the registration process, the judge ruled.

Paxton quickly informed the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that he intends to challenge Garcia’s order.

[…]

Paxton’s filing argued that Garcia added requirements that are not included in federal law, such as ordering state officials to create a public-education campaign to explain the new voter-registration process.

In addition, Paxton argued that the three voters who sued lacked standing because they were already registered to vote when their lawsuit was filed in 2016.

He also complained that Garcia gave state officials only 45 days to make the changes, saying the state’s current online vendor could not complete changes before its contract expires Sept. 1, and the new vendor would need 90 days to create a process.

See here for the background. The next scene in this movie that we’ve all seen before is the Fifth Circuit giving Paxton what he wants, and then we wait for the appeals process to play out. Lather, rinse, repeat.

State appeals “motor voter” ruling

No surprise.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The legal fight over whether Texas is disenfranchising thousands of voters by violating a federal voter registration law is on its way to federal appeals court.

Just after a federal judge gave Texas less than two months to implement a limited version of online voter registration, the state on Monday formally notified U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia that it was appealing his finding that Texas was violating the law — also known as the “Motor Voter Act” — by failing to allow drivers to register to vote when they renew their driver’s licenses online.

Pointing to registration deadlines for the November election, Garcia created a 45-day deadline for the state to create the online system for drivers in order to comply with the federal law that requires states to allow people to register to vote while getting their drivers licenses.

[…]

The AG’s office tried to defend the state’s practice of directing drivers to the secretary of state’s website. But Garcia ruled that practice “is not enough” and violates the Motor Voter Act and the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

The state had also argued that there are technological difficulties associated with online voter registration even in this narrow form, particularly because state law requires a signature when an individual registers to vote. But Garcia also dismissed that argument because the state already keeps an electronic signature on file.

The state’s “excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia said in his ruling.

See here and here for the background. I figure the first order of business will be for the state to try to get the Fifth Circuit to put this on hold pending the appeal. Given that court’s track record of granting such injunctions whenever the state comes knocking, I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that online system to come about. The Chron has more.

State offers no fixes for “motor voter” law non-compliance

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Told it was breaking the law, and asked to propose a fix, Texas seems to have mostly declined.

Following a ruling last month that Texas was violating a federal law designed to ease the voter registration process, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia orderedboth the state and the voting rights advocacy group that sued Texas to submit detailed plans for fixing the violation. The Texas Civil Rights Project submitted its plan Thursday afternoon. About three hours later, Texas responded with a document criticizing that group’s proposal as overly broad and once again disputing the judge’s ruling. It did not present a clear, specific solution of its own.

[…]

Attorneys for the state argued this week — again — that the state was not violating the law, and that the voters who sued them had no standing to do so in the first place. They also objected strenuously to the advocacy group’s fix, which proposed giving the state 45 days to begin allowing Texas drivers to register online while updating their license information and forcing Texas to create a “broad-based public education plan” to advertise the new avenue for voter registration.

“It is one thing to issue a ‘simple injunction’ ordering a state official to comply with the [the Motor Voter Act], it is another to micromanage the details of that compliance,” attorneys for the state wrote. “[The law] does not give federal courts carte blanche to order the State to do anything they think may be beneficial.”

Texas emphasized that it doesn’t believe the court should order any remedy. But attorneys for the state did offer some guidelines as to how that fix should be ordered. Any solution, the state said, “must be narrowly tailored,” to the problem at hand and show what other courts have described as “adequate sensitivity to the principles of federalism.”

See here for the background. It’s a bit like Willie Sutton arguing that he was just making withdrawals, and that maybe the bank should look into shorter teller lines or something. Judge Garcia, who I’m sure appreciated the pointers, will make his ruling, at which point the state will file its appeal and we’ll get to see if that ruling is ever allowed to take effect. Stay tuned.

Revisiting online voter registration

Camel’s nose in the tent alert.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas could be forced to create at least one narrow avenue for online voter registration after a federal judge ruled that the state is violating the National Voter Registration Act, a decades-old federal law aimed at making it easier for people to register to vote by forcing states to allow registration while drivers apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

Texas allows people renew their licenses online, but doesn’t allow them to register to vote at the same time. Last week, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia told the state to fix that.

And while the Texas Attorney General’s Office has said it will appeal that ruling, supporters of online voter registration are hoping that a court-ordered online system for drivers will open the floodgates to broader implementation in Texas.

Once such a system is in place for some, supporters ask, why not broaden it to everyone else?

[…]

Legislation has been raised several times — championed in recent years by state Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin — but it has never made it to the governor’s desk.

In 2015, Israel touted bipartisan support for the bill after 75 other state representatives, including more than 20 Republicans, signed on. But in the most recent legislative session, Israel’s proposal hardly gained any traction, even with the endorsement of many of the state’s election officials — tax assessors and voter registrars, election administrators, county clerks and the Texas Association of Counties.

Now, Israel says she is eying a possible online system for drivers as a test run that could help make her case at the Capitol for full-blown online registration.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about online voter registration, and this is a step in the right direction,” Israel said. “The truth of the matter is that online voter registration is more secure than our current paper process, and it is going to save our counties precious time and money.”

The only real opposition to her proposal seems to come from detractors in the populous Harris County. Officials from the Harris County Clerk’s Office have warned that online voter registration could leave the state vulnerable to voter fraud.

See here and here for the background. Don’t get too excited about this, because even if this ruling survives appeal and isn’t put on hold for the duration of the case, it’s still a limited implementation of online registration that could be ordered. That’s unlikely to change the opposition that exists, though installing a new Harris County Clerk would help in that regard. We’re going to need a lot more change in the Legislature before we’re likely to get true online voter registration, or really anything to make it easier to register people. Progress is progress and it would be great if we get even this much. I’m just saying we need to keep some perspective on what that would mean.

State ordered to come up with fix for voter registration problems

The clock is ticking.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas has less than a week to tell a federal judge in San Antonio how it will begin complying with the National Voter Registration Act, a decades-old federal law aimed at making it easier for people to register to vote by forcing states to allow registration while drivers apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled more than a month ago that Texas was violating the law, sometimes called the Motor Voter Act, by not allowing Texas drivers to register to vote when they update their driver’s license information online. But it wasn’t clear until this week what exactly state officials would have to do to address that — and by when they’d have to do it.

Now, Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project — which sued the state over the issue in 2016, saying Texas’ current system disenfranchised thousands of voters and violated the U.S. Constitution — have until Thursday to propose a detailed fix for the system. After that, Garcia will weigh the proposals and order a remedy.

“Defendants are violating [several sections] of the NVRA and their excuse for noncompliance is not supported by the facts or the law,” Garcia ruled in a strongly-worded 61-page opinion.

Texas Civil Rights Project President Mimi Marziani said her group will fight to get a fix in place in time for voters to register for this fall’s midterm elections. The deadline for Texas’ closest election — May 22 primary runoff races — has already passed.

The Texas Civil Rights Project has offered to work with the state to submit a remedy both sides can support. The Texas Attorney General’s Office said Friday it was “reviewing the order and weighing our options.” But a spokesman already pledged last month to appeal Garcia’s ruling.

“We are not surprised by the order … by this particular judge,” spokesman Marc Rylander said at the time. “The Fifth Circuit will not give merit to such judicial activism because Texas voter registration is consistent with federal voter laws.”

But, Marziani said, the state will not have the opportunity to appeal until after Garcia weighs in on the remedies each side proposes.

See here for the background. You’d think this would be a fairly straightforward thing to fix, for the two sides to figure out an acceptable way forward. But this is Texas, and Ken Paxton, and “solutions” and “compromise” are not their thing. So this is just another step in the process until we get to the next appeal. Round and round we go. The Chron has more.

Texas loses another voting rights lawsuit

Anyone else detecting a pattern here?

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Handing the state another voting rights loss, a federal judge has sided with a civil rights group that claimed Texas violated federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their drivers’ license information online.

In a court order made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio ruled that Texas was in violation of the federal National Voter Registration Act. A portion of that law requires states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time that they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

It wasn’t immediately clear how Garcia will direct the state to comply with the law; Garcia indicated he will provide more details in the next two weeks. But the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represents several Texas voters in the case, said the state would “soon be forced” to change its voter registration policies — and possibly introduce its first mechanism for online voter registration.

[…]

The voter registration lawsuit was filed in 2016 against the Texas secretary of state and the Texas Department of Public Safety. Alleging that Texas was disenfranchising thousands of voters, the plaintiffs also claimed that Texas was violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online differently than those who register in person.

DPS followed the law for in-person voter registration, but residents trying to register online ran into convoluted and misleading language, the plaintiffs claimed.

Plaintiffs objected to what they called a misleading process on the agency’s website. When users checked “yes” to a prompt that said “I want to register to vote,” they were directed to a registration form that they had to print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” that language has caused “widespread confusion” among Texans who incorrectly thought their voting registration had been updated, the plaintiffs claimed.

See here and here for the background, and here for the TCRP’s statement. As noted in the Trib story, this is the lawsuit in which the judge sanctioned the AG’s office for dragging their feet on meeting deadlines. We’ll know more about what this means when the opinion is published. If there is an online registration part to it, it will apply only to business related to drivers license applications or renewals. Whatever the case, you can be sure this will be appealed, and given the crapshow that is the Fifth Circuit, don’t be surprised if the ruling is put on hold pending appeals. I hate to say it, but we’ve seen that movie before and we know how it ends. Celebrate the ruling, but stay on task.

More on the status of SB4

Ed Sills sent this one-pager from MALDEF to his mailing list; there’s no link and I couldn’t find it on the MALDEF webpage, so I’m just going to copy and paste here:

What did the Fifth Circuit Court decide?

On March 13, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit issued its ruling on whether SB4 should be allowed to take effect while the lawsuit moves through court. Most of SB4 is in effect today. The Fifth Circuit decision allows most of SB4 to remain in effect, but keeps part of SB4 blocked. In addition, the Fifth Circuit stated several important limitations on SB4.

What is the status of SB4 after the Fifth Circuit decision?

  • Elected officials are allowed to criticize SB4 and speak favorably about immigration reform without the fear of being punished. The Fifth Circuit ruled that SB4’s prohibition on speech about immigration is likely to be unconstitutional.
  • Cities and counties can adopt immigration-neutral policies that preserve scarce local resources. This means that cities and counties can direct their police officers to focus on local priorities such as keeping the community safe and maintaining community trust.
  • Cities and counties cannot bar their police officers and employees from assisting or cooperating with federal agents on immigration enforcement. However, local officials can only cooperate with federal agents when federal agents ask for help. Local officials cannot act on their own. Local officials also must act under federal direction and supervision.
  • Cities and counties cannot prohibit their employees or local police officers from questioning a detained person’s immigration status. However, local officers must still comply with the Constitution. For example, a local officer cannot decide on his own to arrest an individual simply for being undocumented. Local officers cannot stop individuals because of their race or detain individuals for prolonged periods of time.
  • SB4’s mandate to comply with ICE detainers remains in effect. However, jail officers must review detainers and can refuse a detainer if they know a detainee is authorized to be present in the United States or if the detainer does not follow ICE rules.

Where are we in this case?

The Fifth Circuit’s March 13, 2018 decision on the preliminary injunction is temporary. The district court will make a decision in the case after a trial. The March 13, 2018 decision from the Fifth Circuit remains in effect until a new court ruling is issued.

What can I do to help?

Contact MALDEF Staff Attorney Fátima Menéndez at fmenendez@maldef.org with any reports of local officers making immigration arrests or a jail detaining a person after that person has posted bail.

See here for the background. This Trib story discusses the legal strategy.

Attorneys and immigrants’ rights groups who fought against SB 4 said their next move isn’t clear but that they’re considering seeking a hearing before the entire 5th Circuit.

“There are a lot of parties [involved], so we are coordinating on this,” Efrén Olivares, the racial and economic justice director for the Texas Civil Rights Project, told reporters during a conference call. “But procedurally, the next step would be to request an en banc hearing.” There is also the possibility of asking the U.S. Supreme Court, he said.

The plaintiffs’ attorneys admitted Wednesday that they were not surprised at the ruling due to the 5th Circuit’s conservative leanings, so it’s unclear how much faith they will have in pleading their case before the entire court. But, they said, there remains the option to show that in its implementation, SB 4 leads to several constitutional violations.

[…]

Olivares said that while the next step in the appeals process is being considered, the lawyers and their supporters will also prepare for the case to head back to San Antonio. Tuesday’s ruling was only on the temporary injunction of SB 4; now, the district court is set to consider the law itself.

It’s not so much that the Fifth Circuit is conservative but that the specific three-judge panel that heard this appeal was made up of some of its most conservative members. Any time you draw Edith Jones and Jerry Smith, you can probably predict the outcome, and it ain’t gonna be pretty. There’s at least a chance the en banc appeal could get a different result. Beyond that, I’d say focusing on the case on the merits is probably the best thing to do. Either way, it still sucks.

Yet another report about how much our voter ID law sucked

Keep ’em coming.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Hundreds were delayed from voting and others nearly turned away entirely during the presidential election because of confusion over the status Texas voter ID laws, a new report from a voting rights advocacy group shows.

It’s just one of numerous problems Texas voters — particularly minority groups — faced during the 2016 election cycle, the report from the Texas Civil Rights Project detailed on Thursday.

“Unfortunately, throughout the state, voters faced numerous obstacles that complicated the process,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights director at the Texas Civil Rights Project which put out the report on Thursday. “Through our Election Protection Coalition, we heard directly from thousands of voters about the barriers they faced in our electoral system.”

The first of its kind Texas-based report on voter issues was limited in scope to just over 4,000 incidents that we logged. But Stevens said it’s safe to assume there are many more Texans who experienced similar obstacles in voting that simply did not know who to turn to.

“Common sense says that there is whole subset of voters that didn’t know who to call and just walked away,” she said.

Of the 4,000 incidents that were tracked by a coalition of voting advocacy groups during the presidential election most were issues related to polling place problems, voter registration status or voter ID requirements.

The Texas Civil Rights Project press release is here, and the full report is here. Confusion and discouragement were the point of the voter ID law. The only just and sensible way to address that is to throw the whole thing out.

State files motion to combine all the “sanctuary cities” lawsuits

This isn’t a surprise, but there is a bit of a twist.

Best mugshot ever

In a filing late Thursday, Attorney General Ken Paxton asked a federal district court in Austin to absorb two other legal challenges that have been filed against the ban in San Antonio, which is seen as a friendlier venue toward opponents of the law.

In May, the city of El Cenizo became the first jurisdiction to file suit to block the ban. El Paso County followed a few weeks later.

But Texas had filed a pre-emptive lawsuit May 7 asking for the Austin district court to rule the ban constitutional. Because Texas had filed its suit first, Paxton argued in his motion, the cases should be tried in the court it had petitioned under a concept known as the “first-filed” rule.

“The El Paso case (in the San Antonio Division) and this case ask the courts to decide the same legal issues because they are essentially the same case,” Paxton wrote. “Since this case was first-filed, the interests of justice and judicial economy warrant consolidating these cases in the Austin Division.”

Because Texas had filed its suit first in the Austin Division, Paxton said, that court should determine whether other cases should be “dismissed, stayed, transferred or consolidated.”

Paxton also argued that the legal challenges in the San Antonio court should be stopped because the plaintiffs, which include El Paso and El Cenizo, had no connection to that jurisdiction.

“The proper venue for the El Paso case lies in Austin,” he wrote. “There is no substantial connection to San Antonio and plaintiffs sued the Governor and Attorney General in their official capacities. Suits against government officials in their official capacities should be brought in the division from where those officials primarily perform their duties.”

The motion could mean that jurisdictions and groups that had signed on to lawsuits as plaintiffs — like El Paso, El Cenizo and the League of United Latin American Citizens — will now become defendants in the state’s original suit.

[…]

Mimi Marziani, executive director of the Texas Civil Rights Project that is representing the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, said the state is trying to intimidate civil rights groups to make them wary of joining suits against the ban.

“It’s clear that Texas is seeking to punish civil rights organizations that have bravely stood up against the State and prevent additional groups from coming forward,” she said in a written statement. “Indeed, their lawsuit does not include any specific allegations against groups like our client.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I presume that Paxton will eventually amend his motion to encompass the San Antonio/Austin lawsuit as well. I Am Not A Lawyer, so it is not clear to me what the advantage to Paxton is in doing this, other than his apparent belief that the court he filed in is more amenable to his argument than the San Antonio court. Plaintiffs usually have some burden of proof on them, so you’d think that being the defendant would be the less onerous task, but again, I don’t know what I’m talking about, so any actual attorneys out there are encouraged to weigh in. I do believe that this is intended to intimidate any other potential litigants, though I don’t think it will be successful on that front. In any event, I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

El Paso files “sanctuary cities” lawsuit

Two and counting, as El Paso gets in on the anti-SB4 action.

The lawsuit, filed by El Paso County, its Sheriff Richard Wiles and the Texas Organizing Project Education Fund, a client of the Texas Civil Rights Project, charges that the law, if enacted, would violate several provisions of the U.S. Constitution, including the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of the equal protection of laws; the 14th Amendment’s due process clause; and the Fourth Amendment protection against unreasonable searches and seizures.

The plaintiffs also allege the bill would violate the U.S. Supremacy Clause, which states that federal law — including statutes dealing with immigration enforcement — is “wholly dedicated to the federal government and may not be usurped by the states.”

“All law enforcement agencies and jurisdictions that opt to stay out of immigration enforcement face stringent civil liability,” the lawsuit charges. “And, persons in Texas, particularly Mexican-Americans, those of Hispanic descent, and immigrants and their families, will be caught in the crossfire.”

The lawsuit, filed in San Antonio, which is part of the Western District of Texas’ federal judicial district, comes after the City of El Cenizo and Maverick County filed suit against the state earlier this month. The city of Austin also voted last week to file a suit to stop the controversial measure, which Abbott and other Republicans have argued is needed to ensure Texans are safe from non-deported criminal immigrants who aren’t turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.

El Paso County is in a unique situation, however, because it agreed in 2006 to a court settlement after a local resident sued, accusing sheriff’s deputies of conducting unlawful immigration checks at roadside checkpoints. The parties reached an agreement: The sheriff’s office had to “memorialize in writing its policies that prohibits Sheriff’s Department Deputies from enforcing civil immigration law.”

“El Paso also has adopted policies, which may violate SB 4’s unconstitutional mandates,” the complaint reads. “Specifically, the El Paso County Attorney’s office has adopted a policy that prohibits its investigators from making inquiries into the citizenship or residency status for the purpose of determining whether an individual has violated civil immigration law or for the purpose of enforcing those laws.”

See here for more on the El Cenizo/Maverick County lawsuit. More cities are expected to follow suit, though on different grounds than El Paso and its unique situation. It would be nice to know when Houston will join in; one hopes there are plans to address this after the session is over and pension reform is in the can. Meanwhile, Greg Abbott is out there telling lies about SB4 and its effects. Gotta do what you gotta do when the facts are against you, after all. The Press and the Current have more.

Some Texas voting rights lawsuit updates

This has been a busy week for litigation related to voting rights issues in Texas. Here are updates to some cases, all of which happened this past week.

From Texas Redistricting:

The three-judge panel in the Texas redistricting case has set a status conference for April 27, at 9:30 a.m. in San Antonio to discuss a trial schedule for the remaining claims in the case as well as the redistricting plaintiffs’ request to block the state’s use of its current congressional plan (Plan C235) on the grounds that defects found by the court in the 2011 plan continue to exist in the current plan. The court directed lawyers for the state to be prepared to discuss at the status conference “whether the Legislature intends to take up redistricting during this legislative session to remedy any violations that persist in the 2013 plans.”

The court also asked the parties to be ready to discuss the timing for its consideration of requests that Texas be bailed back into preclearance coverage under section 3© of the Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the court’s order setting a status conference can be found here.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs want a new map in place by July 1.

A couple of days after that happened, the plaintiffs responded.

On Friday, plaintiffs in the Texas redistricting responded in a court filing to the State of Texas’ position that it was premature to consider the plaintiff’s request to block and require a redraw of the state’s congressional map (Plan C235).

In the filing, the plaintiffs told the court that while there was sufficient time to remedy constitutional defects in the map if the process began now, “delaying all relief until the Court schedules and holds another trial and issues another merits determination would raise a serious risk that Plaintiffs will be forced to vote in yet another election under unconstitutional districts.” The plaintiffs noting that filing for the 2018 Texas primary will open on November 11 and that a number of steps would have to occur to finalize any map changes, including redrawing precinct boundaries.

Circle April 27 on your calendar. We won’t have final answers to these questions then, but we should have some idea of what answers to expect.

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

[On April 3], Chief Judge Orlando Garcia of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied the state’s motion to dismiss Stringer v. Pablos, TCRP’s “motor voter” case.

This decision provides critical validation of the arguments advanced by the plaintiffs — disenfranchised Texas voters — who challenge voter registration processes at the Department of Public Safety under the National Voter Registration Act, or NVRA, and the U.S. Constitution.

One by one, Judge Garcia considered the state’s arguments for dismissal and rejected them. Judge Garcia found the state’s current procedures “inconsistent with the plain language of the NVRA,” refusing to adopt “circular and self-defeating” interpretations of the NVRA offered by the defendants. Instead, the Judge expressly found that the NVRA applies to the thousands of online transactions Texans initiated through DPS.gov every day. This ruling means that the Secretary of State should be registering and updating voter registrations for all of these individuals as a matter of course unless they opt out. Moreover, any alleged interest in avoiding the upfront expense in creating a modern system cannot justify “the burden imposed on voters” under the Equal Protection Clause.

From the beginning, TCRP has argued that “motor voter” failures have excluded countless eligible voters from the Texas electorate. The judge acknowledged the systemic nature of the state’s actions, noting that the plaintiffs had “produced evidence that thousands of Texans submitted complaints to the state that related in some way to DPS’s processing of voter registration information through its website.”

Judge Garcia’s decision comes on the heels of sanctions imposed against Texas on February 17th for causing undue delay and for repeatedly, and without justification, ignoring court orders to provide the necessary documents to move forward with the case. TCRP represents the plaintiffs with co-counsel at Waters Kraus LLP.

Mimi Marziani, Executive Director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said:

“Today’s opinion is a resounding victory for the countless Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s failure to adhere with federal law. With this decision, we are hopeful that we can resolve the case before the 2018 election so that every eligible voter can cast a ballot that counts.”

See here, here, and here for some background. Link via Rick Hasen.

From the Express News:

A federal judge has denied the state of Texas’ attempt to quash a lawsuit that challenges the way the state elects judges to the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals.

Seven Hispanic voters (six from Nueces County and one from El Paso) and a civic organization, La Unión Del Pueblo Entero Inc., allege in the suit that Latino candidates almost always lose statewide elections for judges to the two highest courts in Texas.

In an opinion issued Monday, U.S. District Judge Nelva Ramos ruled that all the plaintiffs have standing to bring the suit under the Voting Rights Act.

The judge rejected the state’s argument that the plaintiffs had failed to state a cause of action under Section 2 of the law, noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has already held that Section 2 applies to judicial elections.

The ruling clears the way for a trial, according to a news release from two law firms and an organization representing the plaintiffs.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. It’s not clear to me what a remedy for this looks like if the plaintiffs ultimately prevail, but in the meantime it will be interesting to see how this plays out. Rick Hasen has one of the press releases mentioned in the story; I couldn’t find any others googling around.

And finally, also from the Express-News:

Proposed legislative changes to Texas’ voter ID law won’t affect a lawsuit’s claim that the law is discriminatory, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, based in Corpus Christi, made the declaration in an opinion that also allowed the Justice Department to withdraw from the case.

The opinion follows a hearing in February in which — as directed by a federal appeals court, the U.S. Fifth Circuit — she heard more arguments about whether the law, SB 14, was passed with discriminatory intent.

The state argued that lawmakers planned fixes to be made in Austin with a measure called Senate Bill 5.

“The court holds that the Fifth Circuit did not direct this Court to withhold a decision on the discriminatory purpose claim and that the claim is not, and will not be, moot as a result of pending or future legislation,” Gonzales Ramos wrote.

The civil rights groups that brought the suit say the proposed changes, if passed in the newly introduced legislation, are irrelevant and that the GOP-controlled Legislature designed and passed the 2011 voter i.d. law with discriminatory purpose.

See here and here for some background. Judge Ramos did let the Justice Department officially withdraw from the case, so only the private plaintiffs will continue on. Her order can be seen here, in which she sets a status call on June 7 to discuss whether an evidentiary hearing on remedies is required, how long that might take, and what the deadlines for briefs and whatnot should be. This too came via Rick Hasen.

So the TL;dr summary of all this is:

1. The judges in the redistricting case will discuss wrapping up the other items and figuring out what to do with the Congressional map on April 27 with the litigants. This isn’t a hearing, just a discussion of what they all will be doing and when they will be doing it.

2. Similarly, the judge in the litigation to determine (again, under the standards set by the Fifth Circuit) whether the 2011 voter ID law was passed with discriminatory intent will discuss the schedule and logistics with the attorneys on June 7.

3. Two previously filed lawsuits, one that alleges the state of Texas does not comply with federal Motor Voter laws and one that argues that the statewide election of judges violates the Voting Rights Act, survived motions to dismiss.

Whew!

AG’s office sanctioned in voter registration lawsuit

They were warned.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge has ordered sanctions against the state of Texas for blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents in a lawsuit challenging its voter registration practices.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office’s “months-long delay” in producing the documents “has been disruptive, time consuming, cost consuming” and has burdened plaintiffs in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio wrote in an order signed Thursday. Garcia ordered the state to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, including those tied to the sanctions request.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The group, hoping for quick action during the 2018 election cycle, argued in a motion for sanctions last month that foot-dragging from Paxton’s office was hampering its case. State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 requested pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas asked for several extensions.

Texas argued that the Secretary of State’s office was busy dealing with the 2016 general election and that its legal team — with only one attorney assigned to the case — lacked the manpower to respond to the information request.

Garcia rejected those and other arguments. He wrote that Texas had never asked for a deadline extension because of the election, and he suggested that Paxton’s office had plenty of resources.

“It is critical that these issues be resolved well before the 2018 election,” Beth Stevens, voting rights director with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement Friday. “Today’s order is a strong sign the Court also recognizes the important issues at stake.”

See here, here, and here for the background. At this point, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the state is deliberately dragging its feet to prevent a ruling from being in place for the 2018 elections. If these sanctions aren’t enough to compel some action from Ken Paxton, then I think the next step needs to be to grant summary judgment for the plaintiffs. I mean, if the state doesn’t want to contest the allegations, maybe it’s because it can’t. A statement from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and the Statesman has more.

State fails to respond to voter registration lawsuit

Here’s an update on a different voting rights lawsuit from last year.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Civil rights lawyers suing Texas over its voter registration practices are asking a federal judge to sanction the state for allegedly blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents related to the case.

The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.

The plaintiffs say they were hoping for quick action as the 2018 election cycle looms, but claim the state is dragging its feet.

State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas requested multiple extensions, according to a filing this week in a U.S. District Court in San Antonio.

“It’s hampering our ability to prepare for the case,” said Cassie Champion, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “The timing is so important.”

The filing asked Judge Orlando Garcia to hold Texas in contempt and order its lawyers to immediately produce the documents and pay any fees “resulting from their failure to comply” with his previous order. Champion said she wasn’t sure what such fees would total.

[…]

No one disputes that Department of Public Safety follows the law when Texans handle that business in person, but it’s a different story for folks who update their license information online, the lawsuit argues.

The DPS website eventually directs Texans who check “yes” to the statement “I want to register to vote” to the Secretary of State’s website. There, they can find a registration form that they must print out and send to their county registrar.

Though the website specifies that checking yes “does not register you to vote,” the process has spurred “widespread confusion” among Texans who erroneously thought the state had automatically updated their registrations, the lawsuit alleges.

Over a 20-month stretch ending in May 2015, the state fielded more than 1,800 complaints from Texans who erroneously thought their voter registration records were up-to-date after they dealt with their driver’s licenses online, according to court filings.

The lawsuit argues the Motor Voter law applies to all voters — regardless of how they deal with their driver’s licenses — and Texas violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause by treating them differently.

See here and here for the background. I know, it’s hard to believe that Ken Paxton’s office would be uncooperative on something like this. Maybe this motion will shame them into action, and maybe it will require a slap on the wrist from the judge. Either way, I agree that it would be nice to get something accomplished before the 2018 cycle gets underway. KUT has more.

Another Voting Rights Act violation alleged

From Friday:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Today, a coalition of 10 groups sent a letter to Carlos Casco, Secretary of State of Texas, requesting that his office take immediate steps to comply with the federal Voting Rights Act of 1985 (VRA) and the Texas Elections Code.

Evidence currently shows that the State is failing to provide critical materials for potential Volunteer Deputy Registrars (VDRs) in Spanish and is not uniformly distributing Spanish language materials in all counties across Texas.

Under the Texas Elections Code, it is a crime to handle a completed voter registration form in any Texas county without being appointed as a VDR for that particular county. The failure to provide Spanish language materials identical to the English language materials, or to ensure all Texas Counties make the Spanish language materials available, for potential VDRs excludes Spanish-speaking Texans from equal participation in the electoral process and can lead to depressed voter turnout in predominantly Latino voter communities.

The letter calls for the Secretary of State to, among other things, translate and distribute all VDR training materials into Spanish, ensure that all Texas counties create reasonable ways for potential VDRs to complete the required training in any minority language covered in that county by the VRA, and require full compliance with any minority language requirements stipulated by the VRA in all Texas counties.

The letter is signed by groups including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the League of Women Voters, MOVE San Antonio, the Texas Organizing Project, and more.

You can see the full letter they sent to Secretary Cascos here. The Texas Civil Rights Project has been busy this year – they filed a lawsuit over voter registration procedures at DPS in March. I don’t know what the current status of that is. According to the letter, they want a response from the SOS by August 31. We’ll see what happens. Link via Rick Hasen, and see here for more.

State settles birth certificate lawsuit

Good.

After undergoing mediation, the state of Texas has reached an agreement with undocumented families in a lawsuit over its denial to issue birth certificates to children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants.

The state will clarify and expand the types of secondary forms undocumented immigrants can use to prove their identity, according to attorneys representing the group of undocumented parents and their U.S-born children who filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Previously, immigrants in Texas could request birth certificates for their children if they had two secondary forms of ID, including Mexican voter registration cards and foreign IDs with a photo.

In the agreement, the state said it would accept voter ID cards received by undocumented immigrants in Texas by mail under recent changes to Mexican law, the attorneys said. Until earlier this year, the Mexican voter registration cards could only be obtained in Mexico.

The state also agreed to accept certain documents Central American parents can obtain from their consulates in the U.S. as secondary forms of ID if they are signed and stamped by consular officials. Under the agreement, the list of acceptable secondary documents was also expanded to include other supporting documents, such as copies of utility bills, paycheck stubs and letters relating to public assistance benefits, according to the families’ lawyers.

“We feel confident that undocumented parents with children born here will be able to access their children’s birth certificates,” said Marinda van Dalen, a staff attorney with Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid.

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs’ argument was that the state had no basis for changing its rules for what ID it would and would not accept, and the state’s defense to that argument didn’t resonate with the judge, so given all that a settlement seems like the best outcome all around. With the exception of the immigration executive order lawsuit, it hasn’t exactly been a great month in the courts for the state of Texas, has it? A statement from the Senate Hispanic Caucus is here, and the NYT and the Observer have more.

More on the TCRP voter registration lawsuit

Here’s the first news story I’ve seen about that voter registration lawsuit that was filed two weeks ago.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The lead plaintiff is Jarrod Stringer of San Antonio, who relocated from Arlington in 2014. When he updated his driver license address online, Stringer believed that his voter registration records would be updated as well, the lawsuit said. That November, when he attempted to vote in Bexar County, Stringer was told he wasn’t registered here and was issued a limited ballot with only statewide candidates, the lawsuit stated.

The same thing happened to Benjamin Hernandez in 2014, when he moved from Odessa to Dallas, the lawsuit said. He, too, was issued a provisional ballot, “but later received notice that his vote was not counted.”

The four named plaintiffs each complained that they didn’t realize until it was time to vote that their voter registration wasn’t updated, as they believed.

“Even though the state does not use information from online change-of-address transactions to properly register a voter at his or her new address, these transmissions may be used to cancel a voter’s prior registration record,” the petition added.

[…]

Last year, the state rejected the plaintiffs’ proposals for dealing with transactions where the patron answers both yes and no to the prompt about registering to vote. The plaintiffs recommended automatically using the affirmative response, but the state said that could lead to registration of ineligible noncitizens.

The attorney general’s office also told the plaintiffs that “no state agency is in a position to provide online voter registration absent a legislative directive and appropriation for that purpose — nor does any applicable law so require.”

But plaintiffs’ attorney Mimi Marziani of the Texas Civil Rights Project in Austin said no legislation is required to remedy the problems.

“Texas is violating federal law and the U.S. Constitution by failing to take common-sense steps to register eligible voters who update their information online,” Marziani said Friday.

“Voters are supposed to be allowed to register to vote at their motor vehicle office at the same time they get a driver license or update their driver license. Under the law, that opportunity to register to vote has to be simultaneous … to the driver license process,” she said.

When applicants respond affirmatively to the statement “I want to register to vote,” Marziani said “nothing happens. You are not actually put on the rolls.”

The plaintiffs “are looking for an injunction that requires the state to simply transfer the information it’s already collecting online (at DPS) to state election officials,” Marziani said.

See here for the background. The plaintiffs aren’t exactly asking for a lot here, and it’s hardly unreasonable to think that when one answers Yes to an “I want to register to vote” prompt that one will in fact be registered. As the story notes, the vast majority of these problems could be avoided with a bit of double-checking. The state just needs to follow the law.

Lawsuit filed over voter registration problems

From the Texas Civil Rights Project:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a lawsuit filed this morning in a San Antonio federal court, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) challenged voter registration procedures at the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS). As the Complaint explains, Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal law by refusing to register eligible voters who submit changes through the DPS website. TCRP and its co-counsel Waters & Kraus, LLP represent several Texas voters who have been disenfranchised by the state’s unlawful practices.

Under the National Voter Registration Act, eligible voters have a right to register to vote every time they update or renew their driver’s license with DPS. The Plaintiffs, all eligible voters, attempted to update their driver’s licenses and voter registration records through DPS’ website but the state disregarded their registration request. When the Plaintiffs tried to vote, they were not allowed to cast a regular ballot.

“I felt that my voice was taken away from me when my vote wasn’t counted,” said Totysa Watkins, an Irving health insurance representative and mother of two. “Voting has always been something I value and is a right I have instilled in my children. Texas should not be able to take that away.”

Between September 2013 and May 2015, the state recorded complaints from nearly 2,000 voters who completed an online transaction with DPS and mistakenly believed that their registration records were updated too. These voters represent a mere fraction of the total number of Texas voters injured as a result of the state’s policies. Indeed, TCRP received numerous reports of additional voters who were disenfranchised in Texas’ primary election due to voter registration problems at DPS. Until Texas reforms its registration practices, countless voters will be excluded from the democratic process every election.

“The NVRA is very clear: The state must update registration records every time a voter updates his or her driver’s license files,” stated Peter Kraus, founding partner of Waters & Kraus, LLP. “We are asking Texas to take simple, commonsense steps to modernize its voter registration procedures and comply with longstanding federal law.”

“TCRP is a champion for equality and justice. We will fight to ensure that historically disenfranchised Texans are no longer shut out of the democratic process.” Mimi Marziani, Executive Director of TCRP, added: “Our clients updated their information with DPS and should have been placed on the rolls. Texas cannot ignore voting rights because it deems them inconvenient.”

For twenty-five years, TCRP has used impact litigation and advocacy to fight for equality and justice in Texas. Since its founding, TCRP has brought over 2,300 cases, challenging institutional discrimination, reforming systems of criminal justice, ensuring equal access to government services and vindicating the civil rights of countless marginalized Texans. Today — with offices in Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Houston and in the Rio Grande Valley; dozens of high-caliber attorneys and other professionals on staff; and an extensive network of pro bono counsel and community allies — TCRP has become the largest and most influential civil rights organization in the Lone Star State.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Apparently, getting an updated voter registration card is as hard to do as getting an election identification certificate. It’s wholly appropriate that this was announced the same day – within an hour or so, really – of Greg Abbott’s blithe dismissal of President Obama’s apt criticism that people like Greg Abbott are perfectly happy with Texas’ pathetic rate of voter participation. Maybe another loss in court will help drive the point home. The Current has more.

Oral arguments in birth certificate lawsuit

Here we go.

U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman heard oral arguments in a lawsuit filed by a group of undocumented parents and their U.S.-citizen children against the state Department of State Health Services, which has effectively blocked the children from obtaining birth certificates.

The families allege that the department has violated the children’s constitutional rights by ordering local county registrars to stop recognizing Mexican consular IDs — known as a matrícula consular — and foreign passports without valid visas, as proof of identification that the parents may use to obtain the vital records. The state argues the documents are susceptible to fraud.

“Is this a solution in search of a problem?” Pitman asked assistant attorney general Thomas Albright, representing the agency, health Commissioner Kirk Cole and State Registrar Geraldine Harris. “What makes this burden necessary?”

Pitman’s remarks came after he told the state’s attorneys he would not allow them to debate the importance of birth certificates, a document he said was “the primary evidence of U.S. citizenship.”

The hearing came after the families asked for an emergency injunction ordering the health department to identify two acceptable forms of identification parents can use to obtain birth certificates.

Attorney Jennifer Harbury, representing the families, reiterated her belief that Texas changed its policies without warning in reaction to the national debate over illegal immigration that reached a fever pitch in 2011. After that, she said, Texas became the only state in the country to prevent undocumented immigrants from getting birth certificates.

But Albright said the families haven’t proven their case enough for Pitman to grant the emergency order, and instead said the issue should play out through a regular trial.

“There is no burden on us to say ‘We’re great. Our rule is perfect,’” he told Pitman. “Today is just one step in what is a longer process. I don’t think they’ve argued the proof that you need.”

Albright also focused on the Mexican matrícula, conceding it has been made more secure and tamper proof but saying it is still susceptible to fraud.

Harbury said the families would be amenable to a ruling that excluded that document from a list of approved items. Her argument, she said, is that nothing else is currently acceptable.

“Forty-nine other states accept another form [of ID],” she said.

Though he seemed to question more than one of the state’s claims, Pitman also appeared hesitant to make a decision without more information. It’s unclear when he will rule.

See here, here, here, and here for the background. If you get the impression that the state didn’t have the strongest argument for its defense, you wouldn’t be alone.

Judge Robert Pittman did not offer many clues about his feelings on the case during the three-hour hearing, but he did grill Albright about the extent of birth certificate fraud, asking several times whether the new state policy was a “solution in search of a problem.”

“If you’re asking if there’s some statistical analysis … I don’t have that,” Albright conceded.

He was quick to add, however: “That’s not my burden.”

Still, the judge did not grant the emergency order, and it is not clear when he will rule. So until then, things will continue to be as they were. The Observer has more.

I’m not the only one who thought the state’s response to the birth certificate lawsuit was specious

Actual legal experts didn’t think much of it, either.

The state of Texas can’t hide behind sovereign immunity to escape a lawsuit for denying birth certificates to U.S. citizen children of undocumented immigrants, the director of the University of Texas’ Transnational Worker Rights Clinic said Tuesday.

That state’s claim of immunity is mere “boilerplate,” said Bill Beardall, who also serves as executive director of the Equal Justice Center, and the lawsuit against the Department of State Health Services should proceed.

“The state filed a standard boilerplate response that states and state officials always file in these lawsuits,” Beardall said. “This is a form of discrimination.”

[…]

While some sovereignty claims have merit, Beardall said, U.S. Supreme Court case law includes precedents that private parties can sue state officials in their official capacities to enforce federal rights.

Michael Gerhardt, a professor of constitutional law at the University of North Carolina’s School of Law, said states often reply to lawsuits with an 11th Amendment argument. “It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegitimate, but it also doesn’t necessarily have merit,” he said.

Instead, it could be a part of what he calls the state’s “rich judicial history” that could influence how the case moves forward. He cites specifically Plyler v. Doe, the case where the Texas Legislature’s attempt to deny undocumented students access to public education was rejected by the Supreme Court. In essence, Gerhardt said, the court decided that the children should be admitted and not punished based on something their parents had done.

“It’s not hard to extrapolate from that that someone born in this country [is] going to be, presumably, a U.S. citizen,” he said. “In this case you’re talking about a federal right, and states cannot deny a federal right.”

See here and here for the background. The plaintiffs will file their response shortly, and the state will then respond to that response. I presume we’ll get a better idea of what their real argument is then. In the meantime, more plaintiffs are expected to join the suit. I suspect there’s no shortage of them to be found.

State wants birth certificate lawsuit dropped

I don’t know about that.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday asked a federal district judge to dismiss a lawsuit that claims a state agency violated the U.S. Constitution by denying birth certificates to U.S.-citizen children of immigrant parents.

Attorneys with Paxton’s office said that the Texas Department of State Health Services, which is being sued by 17 families living in Cameron, Hidalgo and Starr counties, has sovereign immunity under the 11th Amendment and cannot be sued in federal court because it has not waived that right, according to court documents.

The immunity extends to interim DSHS Commissioner Kirk Cole and State Registrar Geraldine Harris, who are also named as defendants in the suit, Paxton’s office argues.

A spokesperson in Paxton’s office would not discuss the filing further, saying the “motion speaks for itself.” A spokesperson for the health agency was not available to comment.

See here and here for the background. This sounds specious, more like an ideological argument than a legal one, and a get-out-of-jail-free card if it’s upheld. But I’m not a lawyer, so what do I know?

[Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Jennifer] Harbury said Wednesday afternoon that her team would file a response after reading the state’s motion. The problem appears more widespread than just the families in the lawsuit, she said.

“What I know is there is a very large number of people who are afraid to come forward,” she said.

That would not surprise me. The Chron and the Observer have more.

Lawsuit filed over state refusal to issue birth certificates

I’m sure this won’t be contentious at all.

For nearly 150 years, the United States, under the 14th Amendment, has recognized people born here as citizens, regardless of whether their parents were citizens.

But Texas has other plans. In the last year, the state has refused to issue birth certificates to children who were born in Texas to undocumented parents. In May, four women filed a civil rights lawsuit against the Texas Department of State Health Services alleging constitutional discrimination and interference in the federal government’s authority over immigration.

Jennifer Harbury, a lawyer with Texas RioGrande Legal Aid, who is representing the women, said the deluge of birth certificate refusals began last winter. “I’ve never seen such a large number of women with this problem,” she says. “In the past someone might be turned away, but it was always resolved. This is something altogether new.”

According to the lawsuit, the women who requested birth certificates for their children at the state’s vital statistics offices in Cameron and Hidalgo counties were turned away because of insufficient proof of their identities. State law allows the use of a foreign ID if the mother lacks a Texas driver’s license or a U.S. passport.

But employees at the offices, which are run by the Texas Department of State Health Services, told the women they would no longer accept either the matricula consular, which is a photo ID issued by the Mexican Consulate to Mexican nationals living in the U.S., or a foreign passport without a current U.S. visa. Undocumented Central American women are also being turned away because they only have a passport without a U.S. visa. “They are locking out a huge chunk of the undocumented immigrant community,” says Harbury.

[…]

James Harrington, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, is also representing the undocumented families. The legal team is seeking a court order to reinstate the use of the matricula consular and foreign passports as valid proof of identity for undocumented mothers.

“Even in the darkest hours of Texas’ history of discrimination, officials never denied birth certificates to Hispanic children of immigrants,” said Harrington in a written statement. “Everyone born in the United States is entitled to the full rights of citizenship.”

Here’s the Express-News story from May that the Observer post references; it has some more detail so read it as well. Just as a reminder, the 14th Amendment grants birthright citizenship, so I have no idea on what ground the Department of State Health Services thinks it has to stand. Here’s a bit from a press release from MALC that expands on that:

Recently, several parents were denied birth certificates for their U.S. born children by employees at offices administered by the Department of State Health Services, after administrators declined to accept their foreign government forms of identification. This is a major departure from prior practice, as parents had been able to obtain a copy of their child’s birth certificate by providing their passport or a consular ID from their country of national origin in lieu of a US-issued ID.

“The legal standing for this prerequisite is questionable. No section under Texas’s Health and Safety Code mandates that the Department require verification of immigrant status or national original before the issuance of a birth certificate to the parents of an American-born child. This practice also runs counter to the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which grants citizenship to all children born in the United States, regardless of whether their parents are citizens.

The full statement is here. I’d hope this would spur a quick reversal, but I know better than to expect it. We’ll see what the courts have to say. TPM has more.

Body cameras for HPD

I’ll be very interested to see how this goes.

Houston Police Chief Charles McClelland is asking City Hall for $8 million to equip 3,500 police officers over three years with small body cameras to record encounters between law enforcement and residents as a way of improving accountability and transparency.

Last December, McClelland announced a pilot program that fitted 100 officers with the recording devices at a cost of $2,500 per officer, explaining that body cameras were more likely to record officers’ contact with residents than dashboard cameras in patrol cars.

[…]

Proponents of body cameras – roughly the size of a pager that can be clipped to the front of a uniform shirt- say the technology can be key in lowering use of force by police and citizen complaints. However, the effort to equip additional officers with the devices faces uncertainty as Mayor Annise Parker’s administration acknowledged Wednesday it is having trouble finding money to pay for the project.

Amin Alehashem, director and staff attorney for the Texas Civil Rights Project office in Houston, called the proposed camera expansion a “huge victory for transparency” in assessing the actions of local law enforcement.

“Often times a lot of what happens with interactions on the street between an officer and an individual ends up being a ‘he said, she said’ altercation,” Alehashem said. “It’s great if we have cameras there. For the criminal process, it will allow juries in the future to see what happened and make up their mind as far as guilt or innocence of the individual or even the officer.”

Capt. Mike Skillern, who heads HPD’s gang unit and is involved in testing the cameras, said his fellow officers act “a little more professionally” when wearing the devices.

Obviously, there’s a sense of urgency for the adoption of this kind of technology in the wake of Ferguson. There are questions about how these cameras will be used, in particular how available the data will be, but these are a better option than dashboard cams, which are often not facing the right direction to capture what’s happening, and don’t have audio either. As with video recording interrogations, having these cameras in wide use will protect both the public and the police, since unfounded complaints can be dispatched easily. Having a clear record of what happens when there’s a violent confrontation, especially a shooting, should help restore some trust. I hope a funding source can be identified and the potential of this technology can be fully exploited. See Grits and Hair Balls for more.

Vaping in jail

Not sure how I feel about this.

As a way to allow some inmates to get their nicotine fix and sheriffs to shore up tight budgets, county jails across the country have begun selling electronic cigarettes. Though the trend has largely bypassed Texas, jail officials say that could change as sheriffs begin to warm up to the smokeless technology.

While traditional cigarettes are banned from most jails, vendors of e-cigarettes, which vaporize a liquid solution for inhalation, see a big market in Texas. The 245 jails regulated by the Texas Commission on Jail Standards have a combined capacity of about 95,000.

Shannon Herklotz, the commission’s assistant director, said he knew of only two county jails in Texas that allowed electronic cigarettes. But more sheriffs, primarily in rural counties with smaller facilities, have expressed a cautious interest in selling them, asking questions about the technology, he said.

“It’s not that it’s not allowed. It’s up to each individual sheriff,” said Herklotz, who supports banning e-cigarettes to prevent issues with contraband at jails. With county jails facing budget shortfalls, e-cigarette vendors are pushing their products as a way for sheriffs to supplement revenue and help inmates suffering from withdrawal.

[…]

One vendor, Precision Vapor, recently began selling e-cigarettes to the Titus County Jail in Northeast Texas.

“It was at the request of inmates that we started selling them,” said Michael Garcia, a lieutenant at the jail, which sells the item from its commissary. “The inmates report that they feel more at ease and not as nervous,” he said. “They don’t have the agitation of going from two packs a day to zero.”

The jail, which has an average daily population of about 110 inmates, buys each e-cigarette for $3 and sells about 80 a week at $6 apiece, Garcia said. That profit helps pay for inmate uniforms and other supplies, which “eases the burden of the taxpayers.”

Brian McGiverin, a prisoner rights lawyer at the Texas Civil Rights Project, said that most jails strictly banned tobacco but that sheriffs were likely to view e-cigarettes more favorably because they are less of a fire hazard than traditional cigarettes.

“It doesn’t seem like a terrible idea, setting aside the idea of whether it’s a smart idea to smoke in the first place,” he said. “The people are buying it, so that means it’s something that they want.”

Out of curiosity, I sent an email to Alan Bernstein, the Director of Public Affairs for the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, to inquire about their policies on e-cigarettes. Here’s what he sent me:

The Harris County Jail, the state’s largest, does not allow inmate use of e-cigarettes because of the negative health effects of nicotine, the potential for these items to be traded among inmates as “currency” and the potential for misuse of the lithium battery and vaporizing function of the items. We are not aware of any vendors approaching our staff to discuss adding e-cigs to our list of inmate commissary products.

As noted before, my main concern is that the health effects of e-cigarettes are not well understood at this time. If they turn out to be helpful in getting people to quit tobacco and they don’t have any harmful effects of their own, then I can see the merit in this, though Bernstein’s point about the potential for misuse is well taken. The bit about e-cigarette sales being helpful to counties with tight budgets and “easing the burden” on taxpayers, however, makes me queasy in the same way that expanded gambling does. Being dependent on a potentially volatile income stream that is in turn highly dependent on the habits – in many cases, addictions – of a small number of mostly vulnerable people but which is invisible to most everyone else strikes me as bad public policy, one that comes with a built-in set of skewed incentives. Maybe I’m wrong – maybe e-cigarettes don’t have much in common with the tobacco kind – but until we know that I’m very skeptical of this.

Another lawsuit against Uber and Lyft

That’s three lawsuits that I know of.

Lyft

A coalition of Texas disability advocates sued ride-share companies Uber and Lyft on Thursday as part of dozens of lawsuits filed around the state ahead of the anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

“Uber and Lyft are up and coming in terms of transportation companies, and they don’t really have any means to provide wheelchair accessibility,” said plaintiff David Wittie, of the advocacy group ADAPT of Texas. “They are socially irresponsible and not accessible and equivalent for people with disabilities.”

Wittie said denials of services to disabled Texans led ADAPT and the Texas Civil Rights Project to target the companies, which connect interested riders with willing drivers via smartphone applications.

[…]

Uber

The suits were filed in Travis County, but theoretically could affect the rest of the state, Wittie said. Uber and Lyft operate – albeit illegally – in several Texas cities, including Houston.

Houston City Council is scheduled to vote next week on regulations proposed by Mayor Annise Parker that would allow them to operate legally if they acquire permits and carry commercial liability insurance, among other requirements. Taxi and limousine companies oppose the rules because they oppose the ride-sharing companies, and have filed federal lawsuits of their own to stop the companies.

Last month, three wheelchair-using Texans in Houston and San Antonio sued Uber and Lyft in federal court for alleged discrimination under the ADA, according to the Courthouse News Service.

Also sued Thursday as part of the coordinated effort was Austin-based Yellow Cab, which Wittie said routinely makes people with disabilities wait hours before sending an accessible taxi. Wittie said he has experienced that. The company did not return a telephone call seeking comment.

Here’s what I had on the earlier federal lawsuit. It was reported in Courthouse News and pretty much noplace else, so if it’s news to you, I understand. I suppose it’s possible that lawsuit could get combined with this one, but I’m just guessing. There’s also the lawsuit filed by cab companies in an effort to enjoin Uber and Lyft from operating in Houston. Am I missing anything? All this is happening as Council gets set to (maybe) take up the vehicles for hire matter again next week. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Who enforces voter registration requirements?

My guess upon reading this is in effect nobody.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A combination of lax enforcement in the state’s election code, a faulty voter registration system and lack of leadership by state election officials have led to the disenfranchisement of thousands of Texans who faced challenges while registering to vote in the 2012 elections, according to a report the Texas Civil Rights Project released on Monday.

The TCRP’s report largely focused on what the organization calls a problematic lack of enforcement power in the office of the state’s top election official, the secretary of state, and calls on the Legislature to amend the Texas Election Code to give officials there the ability to enforce voter registration procedures at the state and local levels. The Texas secretary of state’s office said that while it does not have enforcement authority, it does educate and work with entities that carry out voter registration and ensure that voters are able to cast ballots.

The report outlines several recommendations to improve voter registration, including additional oversight of state agencies that are required by law to register individuals who apply for state services.

“Sometimes the election code is a paper title,” TCRP director Jim Harrington said at a press conference on Monday, adding that the Texas secretary of state’s office, which oversees state elections, is not effectively using its “bully pulpit,” as it has in the past, to deal with the increased amount of noncompliance.

Alicia Pierce, a spokeswoman for the Texas secretary of state’s office, said the agency is not an enforcement agency and “has no authority to compel another agency to take specific actions.”

You can find a copy of the report here. A quick highlight of what the Texas Civil Rights Project found:

1. Lackadaisical leadership by the Texas Secretary of State John Steen and his Elections Division Director Keith Ingram, including:

a. No effective register-to-vote campaigns, including in the state’s 10 various language communities;

b. No effective follow up with high school administrators to assure their compliance with the law in registering of-age students to vote (see Finding No. 2, below);

c. No effective follow up with state agencies to assure their compliance with the law to register voters when they apply for services (see Finding No. 4, below);

d. Lack of leadership in helping create standard, uniform Voluntary Voter Registrar processes among the counties (see Findings Nos. 3 and 5, below).

2. Failure of high schools to comply with the law in registering of-age students as voters, as they are required to do by law.

3. Lack of cross-county voter registrars such that a Voluntary Voter Registrars have to be certified in each county they register voters (and subject to widely different qualifications in each county), even where a city would overlap into different counties.

4. Lack of agency registration of voters, when they apply for services, as required by law. Seven agencies and governmental entities are mandated by statute to register voters, and the Secretary is empowered to require others to do the same.

5. Extraordinary slow recording of voter registrations by local county registrars and the Secretary of State (some of which is due to lack of electronic transfer of registrations).

6. Lack of uniform receipt for voters when they register so that they can use them when voting in case their registration has not been recorded.

7. Failure of the Texas Education Agency to encourage and promote voter registration and education for of-age students.

8. Lack of effective statutory remedies in the Election Code for noncompliance with legal requirements.

I’m sure the answer to my question above is that any enforcement of state laws regarding voter registration requirements would fall to the Attorney General – I believe the SOS when they say they’re not an enforcement agency. The AG’s office is, at least for civil law. Can you imagine Greg Abbott sending a stern letter to a County Clerk or elections administrator somewhere, threatening to take legal action against them if they didn’t comply with these processes? I’m having a hard time picturing it. It’s the opposite of what he cares about and it does nothing to advance his political agenda. So yeah, I’m sure these items have been a problem for some time now. And while it’s great that the Texas Civil Rights Project have brought them to life, that’s about all that can be done.

Well, it’s possible there may be things that can be done via the courts, if it comes to that. Along those lines, here are the most recent updates on the voter ID litigation, via Texas Redistricting:

State of Texas files final brief on effort to dismiss voter ID suits

New claims in the Texas voter ID litigation

Court denies request of True the Vote to intervene in Texas voter ID case

State of Texas files motions to dismiss voter ID claims of intervenors

True the Vote appeals decision not to let it into Texas voter ID case

It would be nice if Congress could step in an address the issues in the Voting Rights Act that the Supreme Court invented found, but that seems unlikely. People are still working on it, however, and I feel confident that there’s another big national battle over voting rights and accessibility coming. Here’s a press release I received from State Rep. Garnet Coleman about one of these ongoing efforts:

STATE LEGISLATORS FORGE POLICY AGENDA TO GUIDE VOTING RIGHTS LEGISLATIVE INITIATIVES ACROSS THE U.S.

— Leaders Seek to Transcend Partisan Differences, Emphasis Need to Preserve Voting Rights, Promote Voting Participation for All Americans —

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Marking an important milestone in fulfilling American Values First’s vision for its nationwide Voting Rights Project, a select group of legislators comprising the Project’s Task Force met in Washington, DC to develop the following policy agenda to guide legislative efforts in all 50 states:

* Modernizing the registration process

* Removing barriers to ballot access

* Addressing inefficiencies in the electoral system

* Improving voter education

* Increasing participation of eligible voters

* Ensuring that certain communities – students, seniors, rural voters, etc. – aren’t prevented from exercising their constitutional rights because of outdated processes that don’t account for today’s technology

This Voting Rights Policy Agenda includes a range of initiatives that can be implemented in the states as legislators deem appropriate.

Below a statement from Michael Sargeant, President American Values First Voting Rights Project

“Today’s summit brought together legislators to share the success and challenges they have experienced in their respective states, so that they can use those experiences to craft a vision for their own states,” said Michael Sargeant, President of American Values First.

“Incremental gains are possible in all 50 states, and as members of the Task Force return to their home states, this strategy will produce more examples of success that can be adopted across the United States.”

“Our goal is to empower state legislators nationwide to protect the rights of all eligible American citizens to vote,” said Michael Sargeant, President of American Values First. “Some states are already having this important debate; others seek incremental gains to improve voting laws in a way that fully enfranchises their citizens. Events like today’s will help to fulfill the promise of the Voting Rights Project.”

This first Task Force Policy Summit on Voting Rights was organized by the non-profit American Values First to foster discussion, share information and exchange ideas about the challenges lawmakers will have to overcome and opportunities in state legislative chambers to protect the rights of eligible American citizens to vote.

The summit comes at a critical time when states have aggressively and swiftly adopted laws that create barriers to the voting booth. The Brennan Center for Justice says these laws disproportionately affect seniors, military personnel, low-income citizens, the disabled, minorities and students.

American Values First is a non-profit organization that created the Voting Rights Project to engage state legislators in preserving the right to vote even as states endeavor to weaken voting rights protections.

See here and here for more. It’s discouraging to still be fighting these battles after fifty years, but there it is. We can complain about it all we want, but it’s engagement that will make the difference.

Review ordered for Jones allegations

Moving forward.

Judge Edith Jones

Chief Justice John Roberts of the U.S. Supreme Court formally ordered on Wednesday that a rare public judicial misconduct complaint against 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edith Jones be reviewed by officials in a different circuit — one based in the nation’s capital.

“I have selected the Judicial Council of the District of Columbia Circuit to accept the transfer and to exercise the powers of a judicial council with respect to the identified complaint and any pending or new complaints relating to the same subject matter,” Roberts said in a letter addressed to the D.C. circuit’s chief judge that was posted on the 5th Circuit’s website.

It is only one of a handful of times in U.S. history that a federal circuit judge has been the subject of a public judicial misconduct complaint and a formal disciplinary review. Normally such matters are secret under federal law.

“This is a hopeful sign that (federal judges) are taking this seriously,” says a lawyer who signed the complaint, James C. Harrington of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

[…]

Chief Justice Roberts’ letter, dated June 12, reports that the reassignment of the judicial misconduct complaint against Jones to jurists in Washington, D.C., came in response to a request for transfer from the current Chief Judge of the 5th Circuit, Carl E. Stewart.

Stewart, who replaced Jones as chief judge last October, apparently requested last week that the June 4 complaint review be assigned to another circuit court for review. However, his request on Friday for transfer was not previously made public.

See here for the background. Chief Justice Roberts’ letter is here, and more on the details of the complaint are here and here. I have no idea what to expect out of this, but I’m glad to see it being taken seriously. BOR has more.

From the “Things that are not considered legislative emergencies” department

That list would include removing Texas’ unconstitutional anti-sodomy law from the books.

Although Texas’ so-called sodomy law cannot be enforced legally, civil rights advocates say it should be removed from the books because it creates a climate favorable to bullying, gay-bashing and hate crimes.

“By leaving it on the books, you create the potential for abuse,” said Jim Harrington, director of the Texas Civil Rights Project , which is representing two gay men who were kicked out of an El Paso restaurant in 2009 for kissing in public.

In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Texas could not stop people of the same sex from engaging in sexual activity. Today, the Texas Penal Code still states that it is a Class C misdemeanor to engage in “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex” — just after a line explaining that the law is unconstitutional.

El Paso police cited the “homosexual conduct” wording when the two men were kicked out of a Chico’s Tacos restaurant. The men refused to leave and called the police, assuming the restaurant staff was out of line with a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation. Instead, an officer told the men it was illegal for two men to kiss in public and said they could be cited for “homosexual conduct.”

At the time, El Paso Police Department spokesman Javier Sambrano described the officers involved as “relatively inexperienced.”

Harrington said even though the men were not cited, the Chico’s Tacos incident is about harassment.

That’s why Texas needs to strip the language from the books, said State Rep. Jessica Farrar, D-Houston, who has sponsored legislation to do so.

“There is archaic language in our code that is used against our citizens today,” said Farrar, whose colleague, Rep. Garnet Coleman, also a Houston Democrat, has filed an identical bill.

Farrar’s bill is HB604; Coleman’s is HB2156. Neither is likely to get a hearing in committee, much less voted out of committee; if by some miracle that were to happen, it would never be approved by the full House or signed by Governor Perry. The attitude of Rep. Wayne Christian, president of the Texas Conservative Coalition, tells you all you need to know:

Christian said he had not looked at the bills in detail, but that the time it would take them to go through committee probably would not be worth the outcome — especially in a session where lawmakers are wrestling with major issues like redistricting and filling a multi-billion-dollar budget hole.

“In this particular session, I’d be hesitant to do any changing,” Christian said, adding that the law probably “better reflects the views of a lot of citizens” as it is.

Priorities, you know? The Dallas Voice has more.

Another complaint filed against Keller

This ought to be interesting.

A civil rights group is asking the state to revoke the law license of a judge who has been a lightning rod in debates over the death penalty.

The Austin-based Texas Civil Rights Project filed a grievance Wednesday with the State Bar of Texas against Justice Sharon Keller, the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, saying she is unfit to retain her license to practice law. Records show Keller has been licensed since graduating from SMU’s law school in 1978.

The group alleges she is untrustworthy and dishonest, citing:

A review by the Texas Ethics Commission that found she failed to disclose several sources of income, as required by law.

Her refusal in 2007 to keep the court open after 5 p.m. at the request of lawyers drafting an appeal on behalf of death row inmate Michael Richard, who was executed that evening.

Statements she made in a federal lawsuit filed by Richard’s widow that purportedly contradict what she told the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Well, yeah. All of these things are true. I don’t have any particular reason to think the State Bar will hold her accountable, but what the heck. Having gotten off on a technicality before, I’m convinced she’s made of Teflon. Let’s just say I don’t have my hopes up for this.

Trying to reinstate a lawsuit against Sharon Keller

Last year, a wrongful death lawsuit against Court of Criminal Appeals Presiding Judge Sharon Keller that was filed by the daughter of death row inmate Michael Richard, the man who was executed in the “we close at 5” case, was dismissed after Keller successfully argued that she had immunity because she was acting in her capacity as a judge. Earlier this year, Keller argued at her judicial misconduct trial that her actions there were in an administrative capacity, not a judicial one. See here and here for more on that. Now Richard’s family is asking the judge who dismissed the lawsuit to reconsider his ruling based on this inconsistency.

Judges acting in their administrative capacity are not immune from lawsuits, said Jim Harrington, director of the civil rights group.

“You can’t have it both ways. You can’t argue out of one side of your mouth in federal court,” then argue differently in another court, Harrington said. “This is a judge who understands the law, who understands how important it is to plead correctly … and to say things correctly when under oath.

“I think this speaks volumes about her integrity and her truthfulness.”

You know my opinion about Keller’s integrity and truthfulness. I think this is a creative argument by the plaintiffs, but I have my doubts that it will work. Not because it doesn’t deserve to, I just don’t think there’s any official inclination to open that particular can of worms. But I hope I’m wrong about that. Thanks to Vince for the catch.

Another lawsuit filed against DPS

That makes two such suits over the new DPS policy of verifying residency status in order to get a drivers license.

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund filed the lawsuit in state district court in Austin. It’s on behalf of three men with permission to work in the country and a Lewisville landscaping business that employs seasonal foreign workers through a federal program.

The men are landscaping workers in North Texas who need to drive as part of their job but could not obtain a Texas driver’s license under the new DPS policies because their visas are valid for only 10 months.

DPS rules exclude people from receiving driver’s licenses if they have a visa for less than one year or have less than six months remaining on it, MALDEF said.

Officials also changed the appearance of driver’s licenses for persons with legal permission to be in the U.S. so that they differ from licenses given to citizens and green card holders.

MALDEF contends the Public Safety Commission, which oversees DPS, exceeded its authority and did not have Legislative approval to adopt the rules.

Another suit had been filed two weeks ago by the Texas Civil Rights Project on the grounds that the new rules were discriminatory. At the very least, we know they’re causing all kinds of grief for plenty of folks whose paperwork is all in order. I’d bet someone will win an injunction, at least for the time being, to suspend these new procedures.