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Here’s hoping we’ll have fewer mail ballot rejections in November

Counties are taking the problem seriously, which is a good start.

The statewide rejection rate [for mail ballots] was more than 12 percent in the primary — six times what it was in the last midterm year in 2018. By the primary runoffs, the rate was down to less than 4 percent rejected, according to data from the secretary of state’s office.

Ahead of the November general elections, a number of elections officials say they have found a simple fix — a brightly colored insert that arrives with mail ballots, explaining the new requirements and showing the easily forgotten space under the flap of the return envelope where the voter’s ID number needs to be printed.

[Bexar County Election Administrator Jacqui] Callanen said the insert is small enough and positioned in such a way that it will likely fall to the floor when voters open the mail ballot packet, so they can’t miss it. She said her office used the inserts in May primary runoff elections and saw immediate results.

“We had under a 1 percent reject rate,” Callanen said. “We were back to where we belonged, which was a dance of joy.”

Other large counties saw similar success with including physical reminders in ballot materials. Those counties may hold the answer for still-struggling counties like Harris to improve their own rates.

Harris County did not include a notice with May primary runoff ballots and reported a rejection rate of 7.7 percent in the Republican primary and 5.9 percent in the Democratic primary. Overall, out of 34,124 ballots cast; 2,294 were rejected.

While those rates were down from the sky-high 20 percent and 18 percent rates in the Republican and Democratic primaries respectively, they were still far higher than the county’s less than 0.3 percent rejection rate in the last midterm primary in 2018, when just 135 ballots were tossed.

[…]

Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the inserts “appeared to make a difference.” Taylor said elections officials across the state learned about the inserts and other best practices during an election law seminar the agency held at the beginning of this month.

Following the success of inserts in other parts of the state, Harris County election officials said this week they are including a new insert about voter ID requirements with their mail ballot applications, and adding voter ID information to an existing insert with mail ballots, for November’s general election.

In addition to an insert, Harris County interim elections administrator Beth Stevens said the county will redesign its mail ballot envelope, highlighting the space for the voter’s ID with a red box, in the same way the space for the signature is highlighted.

They will also educate voters through paid advertising and in-person community meetings and will put more resources into identifying ballots that need corrections, she said.

“We have increased our vote-by-mail team’s staffing level to account for the new requirements of SB1,” Stevens said, “which includes additional folks to answer phones, to answer voters’ questions, as well as people to handle vote-by-mail cures, either done online or in person.”

You know me and mail ballot rejections. We’ve talked about the design of the ballot and the envelope as a way of giving voters a hand in ensuring they fill in all the right data, and I’ve singled out Bexar County for being ahead of the curve. I’m more than happy to see Harris County start to catch up in this department. I’m reasonably optimistic that counties have taken adequate steps to really mitigate this issue.

I also want to point out that in a world where we absolutely had to have these new requirements, it would have been far better for there to have been a seminar like the one Sam Taylor from the SOS office describes well before the first election subject to those requirements, not four months after the first one and with two others in between. The Legislature gets the lion’s share of the blame for that – they simply didn’t care about the negative effects of the new law – but the SOS deserves some criticism for not pushing back hard enough. There’s nothing we can do now about the ballots that got rejected for no good reason. I just hope we’ve learned enough from this painful experience to minimize those losses going forward.

It’s not a teacher shortage yet

But you can see one on the horizon.

School districts across the Houston region are trying to fill thousands of teacher vacancies before most will be welcoming students back to classrooms in the coming weeks.

A review of about 18 area school districts’ job listings, including Alvin, Deer Park, Fort Bend, Galena Park, Goose Creek, Katy, Magnolia, Pasadena, Galveston, Humble, Spring Branch and Spring ISDs, as well as Lamar CISD, showed a need for more than 3,400 educators to fill a variety of vacancies as of Monday.

The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest system scheduled to kick off its year Aug. 22, had about 870 openings for certified teachers listed on its career portal Monday.

Aldine ISD, which serves nearly 67,000 students and employs more than 4,000 educators, currently has 370 teacher vacancies. That number is “way up” from previous years, according to administrators, despite recruiting efforts that include signing bonuses, increased salaries and looking for applicants internationally. Klein ISD is searching for 120 teachers, according to its website. Cypress-Fairbanks ISD, the state’s third-largest system, is trying to fill 472 teaching vacancies.

It is a nationwide problem as low pay, long hours and the politicization of education have taken their toll on the beleaguered profession.

“You look across the state and across the country, there are districts even smaller than us with even more vacancies,” HISD chief talent officer Jeremy Grant-Skinner said. “We’re all feeling the challenge together of staffing during this very unique time. We’re feeling like we’re going to get as close as we can.”

HISD, with roughly 195,000 students and 27,000 full- and part-time employees, had about the same number of vacancies at this time a year ago, Grant-Skinner said, before reducing it to about 400 by the time schools opened. To fill those openings until certified educators could be hired, the district sent central administration staffers who held teacher certifications into classrooms. Grant-Skinner said there have been no conversations about doing that again this year.

The 870 openings represent about 8 percent of the 11,000 teachers included in the upcoming year’s budget.

Since then, the district has raised teacher pay, hoping it will help recruit and retain educators. Several other districts, including Katy and Cypress-Fair ISDs, also have boosted teacher salaries.

Emphasis mine. I highlighted that to note that this problem, at least for HISD, is not unprecedented. The gap was more than cut in half least year, HISD was able to fill in other vacancies from within, and they have raised their pay as a way to attract new job seekers. There are obviously a lot of major challenges facing teachers now, most of which are the result of actions taken by Republicans, but it’s too soon to say for this year that the problem is getting worse. That may end up being the case, and it’s good to draw attention to this now, I just want to be a little cautious about getting ahead of ourselves.

That said, there are other danger signs out there that should be taken seriously.

More Texas teachers are considering leaving the profession than at any point in the last 40 years, according to new polling from the Texas State Teachers Assocation.

The survey found that 70 percent of teachers were seriously considering quitting this year, a substantial jump from the 53 percent who said so in 2018, the last time the typically biennial survey was conducted. Teachers attributed their grim outlook to pandemic-related stress, political pressure from state lawmakers, less support from parents and stretched finances.

The survey represented all grade levels and regions of the states. It was skipped in 2020 amid of the pandemic.

[…]

In the survey, which was completed by 688 Texas teachers, 94 percent said the pandemic increased their professional stress, and 82 percent said financial stress was exacerbated. Experts have pointed to better pay as a key way to recruit and retain teachers. Respondents taught for about 16 years on average, and their average salary was around $59,000. That’s about $7,000 below the national trend, according to the teachers association.

Besides salary, Texas teachers on average also receive some of the worst retirement benefits of those in any state, a separate study from June found. Teachers who have retired since 2004 have not received a cost-of-living adjustment, although the Legislature has routinely passed “13th check” bills that send extra annuity payments.

In addition to pay, 85 percent said they felt state lawmakers held a negative view of teachers, 65 percent said the public held a negative view and 70 percent said support from parents had decreased over the last several years.

If your job is more stressful than before, if you don’t feel respected by the powers that be or your stakeholders, and if on top of that you could make more money doing something else, well, that’s a pretty powerful combination. We can take this feedback seriously and try to do something about it, or we can ignore it and risk having to deal with a crisis situation later. Seems like a straightforward choice to me.

If “bad apples” are the problem, then shouldn’t getting rid of them be a high priority?

This San Antonio Report story is about the nine-year saga of the Redus family to get justice for their son Cameron, who was killed by University of the Incarnate Word (UIW) police officer Christopher Carter in 2013 outside Redus’ apartment. Carter has said in reports and depositions that he observed Redus getting into his car late at night while appearing to be drunk and followed him home to his apartment complex. (Redus happened to be a UIW student, which Carter didn’t know as he first observed him.) At the apartment complex, Carter shot and killed Redus, claiming that Redus had attacked him. All the evidence that has been found about the shooting contradicts that claim. By any reckoning, the shooting of Cameron Redus was completely unjustified.

The wrongful death litigation has been ongoing for several years, with UIW declining to settle despite a lot of pressure being put on them to do so. The lawsuit just survived a motion to dismiss by the 4th Court of Appeals, which led to this overview of the case by the San Antonio Report. I want to highlight the bits in there about Carter’s record as a police officer.

If the case finally goes to trial, Carter’s troubled past as a peace officer and UIW’s failure to conduct a background check before hiring Carter in 2011, or provide him with significant training afterwards, will come under the spotlight, according to pretrial depositions.

So will a number of incidents involving Carter during his time at UIW, including a middle-of-the-night intrusion into a female student’s dorm room under the guise of investigating a campus fender-bender, an episode that occurred two months before the Redus shooting. A formal complaint by the student’s family resulted in Carter’s supervisors acknowledging the officer’s unacceptable behavior and warning the student to avoid on-campus encounters with Carter.

Other allegations reported by fellow UIW officers: Carter twice unholstered his service weapon on campus in inappropriate shows of bravado and took part in an illegal, on-campus shooting of pigeons after police vehicles were soiled by the birds. Carter was formally reprimanded by his supervisor for verbally abusing and intimidating people on the Incarnate Word High School campus while directing traffic.

None of his transgressions or past issues in other law enforcement jobs led to serious disciplinary actions or a decision to terminate him from the campus force, even though other officers and UIW employees have told me Carter was widely regarded as a pariah unsuited to carry a gun or wear a badge.

[…]

Pretrial depositions raise serious questions about UIW’s hiring practices for its police force. Sources at UTSA and Trinity University told me Carter applied for positions there at the time, but his evident inability to hold a job led them to ignore his application.

Carter said he worked as a convenience store clerk and pawn shop manager trainee after earning a criminal justice degree from UTSA in 1997. He attended San Antonio College’s Law Enforcement Training Academy from 2003 through 2004 where he earned his peace officer’s license.

From September 2004 when he was hired as an unpaid reserve deputy for the City of Marion until May 2011 when he was hired as a full-time campus police officer for UIW, Carter held nine different law enforcement or security jobs, most only for a matter of months, according to his deposition testimony.

Carter said he lasted six months in the unpaid position with the City of Marion; eight months as an unpaid reserve officer with the City of Cibolo; six months as an unpaid support deputy with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department; three months as a paid deputy with the Atascosa County Sheriff’s Department; six months as a paid court bailiff with the Bexar County Sheriff’s Department; six months as a licensed private investigator for Hub International insurance company; five months as a part time reserve officer for the City of San Antonio’s Marshal Unit, working nights as a municipal court bailiff; seven months as a night patrol officer for the City of Mathis, where he was fired for reasons Carter said he cannot recall; and six months as a code enforcement officer and peace officer for the City of George West.

Carter was hired by UIW as a campus police officer in May 2011 and was placed on paid administrative leave after fatally shooting Redus in December 2013. One year later, university officials allowed him to resign in good standing.

Since then, after applying without success for dozens of positions with various area law enforcement agencies, including applications to the City of San Antonio and Bexar County, Carter was finally hired in December 2015 for a part-time job in the City of Orange Grove in Jim Wells County, which he held for six months until May 2016. Carter was then rehired by the City of Mathis, but was fired after 11 months in March 2017.

Carter’s last job in law enforcement was with the City of Poteet, where he began as a reserve officer before moving into a full-time position. That employment ended after three-and-a-half years in November 2020 when he said he “retired” to return to San Antonio to care for family members.

A UIW panel that conducted a single pre-employment interview with Carter in April 2011 did not press him about his inability to hold a job for long, and did not ask why he was terminated by the City of Mathis, Carter said in his deposition. Carter said UIW did not require him to take any verbal or written tests, and he was never shown the university police department’s 113-page policy and procedures manual.

Carter said he did not meet UIW Police Chief Jacob Colunga prior to his hiring, and initial on-the-job training was limited to shadowing another UIW officer for two weeks. Colunga was demoted in 2014, months after the shooting.

Author Robert Rivard, who has been a longtime critic of UIW for its behavior in this incident, turned that into an editorial decrying the common practice of cops being able to go from one job to the next even as their performance demonstrates their inability to do that job. Even a cursory glance at Carter’s career would make one wonder why any law enforcement agency would hire him, and if they did hire him why they wouldn’t train him relentlessly to make sure he was up to snuff. The consequences for not doing those things are predictable and tragic. And all of this is before we take race into account – Cameron Redus, unlike many other high-profile victims of police violence, was white. These consequences so often and so regularly fall on people of color, and for the most part are invisible to many of us. But they’re very much there.

The “bad apples” explanation for police violence is woefully inadequate, but it is the case that a small number of police officers at any agency are disproportionately responsible for unjust and violent actions. It’s hard enough getting those officers off the force, but when that does happen – often through non-official means, which allows said officers to resign in good standing – they can almost always find employment elsewhere, with few to no questions asked. Tom Coleman, the undercover cop responsible for the arrest and conviction of dozens of innocent Black residents of Tulia, Texas, is another prime example of this. It’s long past time for us to ask the question why this is so, and what we should be doing about it.

Acompañamiento

Great story about the abortion access community in Mexico, which arose while abortion was criminalized there and continues now that it is legal in much of the country, and how it is starting to help women in the US, especially in Texas.

Hi, I’m four weeks pregnant. Eight weeks. Six weeks.

The stream of pings and messages through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and WhatsApp reach Sandra Cardona Alanís at her home in this mountainous region of northern Mexico. She is an acompañante and a founder of Necesito Abortar México, a volunteer network that has helped thousands of people across Mexico access abortion, usually at home, by providing medication and support.

With the constitutional right to abortion in the United States eliminated and numerous states moving swiftly to cut off all access, more and more of the calls to Mexican organizations like Cardona Alanís’ are coming from places like Texas.

People seeking help are reaching not just over a border but across a cultural divide between two countries following distinct paths in providing reproductive health care. As abortion access is being restricted in the United States, it is expanding in Mexico.

Because abortion-inducing medication can be obtained in Mexico without a prescription, networks like the one Cardona Alanís helped found exist alongside the more traditional medical clinics that typify abortion in the United States.

The Necesito Abortar México network is one of several that operate outside the formal medical establishment, offering people the ability to manage their own abortions without visiting a clinic. They usually hear from two or three new people a day. The day the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against abortion rights, they heard from 70, half of them calling from the United States.

Even before the full effects of Roe v. Wade’s reversal kick in, Texas is being stitched into the Mexican system as the networks build out their models of helping provide safe abortion at home on an international scale. For months, they’ve been helping train volunteers that will prop up new U.S.-based networks. And they have moved thousands of doses of abortion medication into the United States, creating informal stockpiles to more easily distribute the drugs.

Exporting their model likely will not come easily, though, as the legal landscape continues to shift. Abortion-inducing drugs must be discreetly transported into the United States where they’re available only with a prescription.

Those in the United States involved in building an accompaniment system face potential legal risks both criminally and civilly, especially as Republicans in states like Texas seek to choke off any and all possibility of allowing their residents to access abortion.

Adopting the Mexican model would also require a revolution in thinking about abortion in the U.S., removing the procedure from a system of doctors and clinics and shifting it into homes across states like Texas.

But that autonomy, Cardona Alanís and her partner Vanessa Jiménez Rubalcava often say, changes everything.

“This is an opening for women to realize that they can have abortions in their own homes,” Jiménez Rubalcava said. “When they realize it can be in their hands — and not in the hands of government or the medical system — there’s going to be no stopping them.”

Read the rest, it’s well worth your time. “Acompañamiento” is the collective term for this social movement created by women looking to help each other access safe abortion. Ensuring that misoprostal and mifepristone can get to women who need them for a medication abortion and expanding clinic access in Mexico for Americans who can travel there are a part of it. There’s a ton to admire about all this, but if you think that the border is politicized now, wait until abortion becomes part of that dynamic. It’s just a matter of time before someone claims that part of the justification for the border wall is to keep American women from crossing into Mexico to seek abortion care.

On resign to run

The TL;dr version of this is “No one ever said the Elections Code was fair”.

John Whitmire’s plans have been clear since November: He is running for re-election to the state Senate, and he also is running for mayor.

If all goes according to his plan, Whitmire will serve out his final legislative session in the Senate in 2023, turn his attention to campaigning for City Hall in the summer and win a new job in November or December.

City officials in Houston, though, do not have the same luxury, and it is creating political hurdles this year for ambitious council members looking for new jobs — especially those that may want to take City Hall’s top office.

Texas has a resign-to-run law meant to discourage officials from holding one office while running for another. The law dates back to a 1958 constitutional amendment, purportedly aimed at ensuring elected officials concentrate their attention on the job they already have and do not run campaigns while on the taxpayers’ dime.

The state applies the rule only to certain county and city officials, though, and not to those who serve in Austin. That is why Whitmire can, essentially, run for two jobs at the same time. Legislators have run for just about every job in the state while keeping their posts.

Lawmakers have amended the constitutional provision underlying the rule several times over the last couple decades. None of those changes added state officials to the mix.

“They never applied the logic to themselves,” said Nancy Sims, a longtime political consultant who now teaches at the University of Houston.

The story notes that this has only been an issue for Houston City Council members since 2016, following the referendum that altered the term limits ordinance and changing Council terms from two years to four. It also notices the outlier fundraising of CM Ed Pollard, who if he is a Mayoral candidate would have to step down. I confess, I had forgotten about the new application of resign-to-run in discussing Pollard’s potential plans; it is certainly more complicated for him now. Maybe he’ll keep piling up the cash and then challenge whoever gets elected next year in 2027, when he’d only be giving up the last year or so of his second term. I’m just speculating wildly here. Anyway, the state constitution specifies who has to resign to run for something else and who doesn’t, it’s highly unlikely that will ever change to apply to legislators, and that’s just the way it is.

The Fresh Start program

I approve of this.

The possibility of finally putting a misdemeanor from 1993 behind her brings 53-year-old Jennifer Sigers to tears.

“I’m more excited than anything that this too shall pass,” said Sigers, who was among at least 100 people who showed up to a north Houston community center for the opportunity to remove certain non-violent misdemeanors from their criminal records. The event on Saturday morning was the latest resource fair affiliated with the new Fresh Start program with Harris County Courts.

“I’m ashamed of it,” Sigers said about the incident from roughly 30 years ago that’s still on her criminal record, which occurred after she said police misidentified her while pursuing someone else who had been evading police at her sister’s apartment complex.

“I’m a kind, gentle person. And when you have people that ask you ‘do you have a background’ and you tell them, they turn around and look down on you like, you’re this bad person. I’m not a bad person,” said Sigers, who drove from her home in Spring to participate in the program and brought both her sons to see if they could benefit as well.

More than two hours before the Harris County Courts Fresh Start event began, people were outside to sign up, indicating significant community interest in the programs offered — records sealing as well as receiving free children’s backpacks, free enhanced library cards, COVID-19 vaccines and immigration consults.

Saturday’s event is the third Fresh Start community outreach event by Harris County Courts for sealing records, which can be a burdensome, costly process, according to Harris County Criminal Court Judge Raul Rodriguez.

“A lot of times, many don’t know how to do it so they hire a lawyer to do it, and so there’s fees there. So, this particular program allows these individuals to be able to seal their records without having to hire a lawyer,” Rodriguez said.

[…]

Hundreds – even thousands – of individuals are likely eligible to seal their criminal record, according to a rough estimate from Harris County Courts Office of Court Management.

Sealing records is available for people with a completed deferred adjudication for low-level, non-violent misdemeanor offenses.

Under the Fresh Start program, “sealing your record” means that qualifying individuals can get orders of non-disclosures, which means their criminal charge isn’t required on public disclosures, like apartment or job applications. However, criminal justice agencies are still able to view the charges.

The program was created as an extension of the restorative justice initiative Bayou City Community Court and is aimed at bridging the gap between the community and the criminal justice system, according to Harris County Criminal Court Judge Toria Finch.

“We believe that if we give people resources, we give people opportunity, we give people purpose, that also combats crime. And so a lot of people cannot get jobs, a lot of people cannot move forward with their life because of a mistake that may have happened years ago,” she said.

Details of the Fresh Start program, for which there will be another event before the end of the year, are here. This is a great idea, and should be emulated by other counties. One of the points of the criminal justice system is to get people who have transgressed to go back to being lawful citizens. When they do, they should be able to officially put their past behind them, for if they cannot then what’s the point? Given how cumbersome and time-consuming the process to seal one’s record can be, offering it as an occasional service makes a lot of sense. Kudos to all for doing this.

When we say “fix the grid”…

This is one of the obvious ways we could attempt to do that.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons

The state’s High Plains region, which covers 41 counties in the Texas Panhandle and West Texas, is home to more than 11,000 wind turbines — the most in any area of the state.

The region could generate enough wind energy to power at least 9 million homes. Experts say the additional energy could help provide much-needed stability to the electric grid during high energy-demand summers like this one, and even lower the power bills of Texans in other parts of the state.

But a significant portion of the electricity produced in the High Plains stays there for a simple reason: It can’t be moved elsewhere. Despite the growing development of wind energy production in Texas, the state’s transmission network would need significant infrastructure upgrades to ship out the energy produced in the region.

“We’re at a moment when wind is at its peak production profile, but we see a lot of wind energy being curtailed or congested and not able to flow through to some of the higher-population areas,” said John Hensley, vice president for research and analytics at the American Clean Power Association. “Which is a loss for ratepayers and a loss for those energy consumers that now have to either face conserving energy or paying more for the energy they do use because they don’t have access to that lower-cost wind resource.”

And when the rest of the state is asked to conserve energy to help stabilize the grid, the High Plains has to turn off turbines to limit wind production it doesn’t need.

“Because there’s not enough transmission to move it where it’s needed, ERCOT has to throttle back the [wind] generators,” energy lawyer Michael Jewell said. “They actually tell the wind generators to stop generating electricity. It gets to the point where [wind farm operators] literally have to disengage the generators entirely and stop them from doing anything.”

[…]

Wind energy is one of the lowest-priced energy sources because it is sold at fixed prices, turbines do not need fuel to run and the federal government provides subsidies. Texans who get their energy from wind farms in the High Plains region usually pay less for electricity than people in other areas of the state. But with the price of natural gas increasing from inflation, Jewell said areas where wind energy is not accessible have to depend on electricity that costs more.

“Other generation resources are more expensive than what [customers] would have gotten from the wind generators if they could move it,” Jewell said. “That is the definition of transmission congestion. Because you can’t move the cheaper electricity through the grid.”

A 2021 ERCOT report shows there have been increases in stability constraints for wind energy in recent years in both West and South Texas that have limited the long-distance transfer of power.

“The transmission constraints are such that energy can’t make it to the load centers. [High Plains wind power] might be able to make it to Lubbock, but it may not be able to make it to Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston or Austin,” Jewell said. “This is not an insignificant problem — it is costing Texans a lot of money.”

Some wind farms in the High Plains foresaw there would be a need for transmission. The Trent Wind Farm was one of the first in the region. Beginning operations in 2001, the wind farm is between Abilene and Sweetwater in West Texas and has about 100 wind turbines, which can supply power to 35,000 homes. Energy company American Electric Power built the site near a power transmission network and built a short transmission line, so the power generated there does go into the ERCOT system.

But Jewell said high energy demand and costs this summer show there’s a need to build additional transmission lines to move more wind energy produced in the High Plains to other areas of the state.

Jewell said the Public Utility Commission, which oversees the grid, is conducting tests to determine the economic benefits of adding transmission lines from the High Plains to the more than 52,000 miles of lines that already connect to the grid across the state. As of now, however, there is no official proposal to build new lines.

Sure would be nice to have such a proposal, wouldn’t it? That’s a thing that the Governor and the Legislature could make happen if they wanted to. Unfortunately, a lot of them don’t want to, and of course Greg Abbott is incapable of taking any positive action. So here we are, with those of us too far away from the existing turbines to benefit from them looking longingly at the Gulf of Mexico for some future relief. I don’t know how much it might cost to build out the transmission network (the story doesn’t say), or to invest in battery storage for solar energy (another thing we’re good at generating in this state, as noted in the story), but I’m sure we could find the money if we wanted to. First, though, we have to want to. And that means electing people who want to. Because we don’t have that now.

Texas Two-Step (TM)

What a tale.

After two years experimenting with an old Persian family technique using grains and raisins, Ali Ansari finally nailed his new vodka recipe. He poured $4 million into building a distillery outside of Houston and branded his drink DASH, hoping it would evoke a slow-sipping spirit — “one dash at a time,” he explained.

But when it came time to name a new productline, it occurred to him that DASH, which he had thought of as sleek and modern, wasn’t exactly right. “It doesn’t really present Texas,” he said.

Ansari had started several businesses since immigrating nearly 30 years ago to attend school. One thing he’d learned was when it comes to brand loyalty, Texans love Texas. As a guiding spirit, Austin-based Tito’s Vodka built a multi-billion-dollar empire off its folksy Lone Star roots.

Brainstorming possible names with friends, he hit on a perfect fit. “I used to go dancing with my girlfriend at this old club, Wild West, on Gessner Street,” he said. “We would do the Texas Two Step.”

The words conjured pearl-snapped couples gliding across boot-smoothed dance floors on warm summer nights. People having Texas fun — and, between dances, perhaps enjoying a new and unique adult beverage. Ansari filed an application to trademark Texas Two Step Vodka.

But he was dismayed to learn that a rich and powerful entity already claimed to have locked up the legal right to the famous dance name. It demanded Ansari immediately drop his plans to use the words for his product. When it lost its Two Step case at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, it continued to pursue Ansari into federal court.

It was the State of Texas.

Specifically, it was the Texas Lottery Commission that sued him, having trademarked “Texas Two-Step” in 2001 for one of its games. I will admit that as a non-gambling person I had no idea about that, but I will say that if you google “Texas Two Step”, the first results are indeed the Texas Lottery Commission. If Google says it, it must be true.

The funny thing to me is that “Texas Two-Step” was also the name used to describe the primary election process used by Texas Democrats through the year 2008. That was my first year as a precinct chair, and for my troubles I got to lead the caucus part of that – after the vote, there was a caucus in each precinct, which through a process too convoluted to describe eventually led to the number of delegates each Presidential candidate wound up with. You may recall that Hillary Clinton wound up with more delegates than her share of the vote would have provided if it had been based solely on vote totals. Anyway, that was scrapped for something simpler and more sane in 2012, and it is little more than a bit of dusty history now.

Except that as far as I know, the TLC didn’t sue anyone over the use of that name. Maybe because the Dems had used that name prior to the TLC trademarking it, maybe because there wasn’t any money at stake, maybe for some other reason, I don’t know. I’m just saying, maybe the state of Texas could cool its jets here a little and give Mr. Ansari a break. As he said in the story, it’s not like an association with vodka is going to sully the good name of a scratch-off game. Go read the rest and see what you think.

Buzbee blames the NFL for Watson’s short suspension

Surely you expected that Tony Buzbee would have something to say about all this.

For the first woman to sue former Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson —and nearly all those who followed suit — the legal process is over.

They settled their cases alleging sexual assault and harassment. An NFL-hired arbitrator gave the football player a six-week suspension. And two grand juries declined to pursue criminal charges.

Through it all, the NFL and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg failed those women, Houston attorney Tony Buzbee said Thursday.

“We are here today with a message to the NFL,” the lawyer said during a news conference. “Every victim of sexual assault is watching (Commissioner) Roger Goodell and the NFL right now. And this idea that Mr. Goodell is going to hand it off to someone independent, we don’t buy it.”

“Mr. Goodell, what will you do?”

[…]

Despite the disappointing decision with the District Attorney’s Office and the league, [Ashley] Solis said she finally feels like she has power.

She described the past two-and-a-half years as “emotionally and mentally tasking.” As the first person to file a lawsuit and the first to speak publicly, she received countless threats from Watson fans. That vitriol sent her into a depression, but letters she received from numerous victims rejuvenated her, she said.

Solis learned that victims have the ability to speak up. They can make changes happen, she said.

“If anyone has ever tried to abuse their status, and overpower you, remind them that they picked the wrong one to try that with,” she said. “That’s exactly what I am – the wrong one.”

Solis was one of 10 women to speak with NFL investigators, Buzbee said. He added that he would’ve made more of his clients available, but he said the NFL “wasn’t really interested in talking to them.”

“It really makes you want to scratch your head and wonder, ‘What the devil is going on?'” Buzbee said.

Arbitrator Sue L. Robinson made note of the NFL’s failure to interview all 24 women in her 16-page report, distancing her decision by saying, “My credibility determinations are based largely on the credibility of the NFL investigators.”

NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy disputed Buzbee’s claims. He provided a statement that said the league interviewed 49 total people and attempted to interview all of the 24 women who filed suit but the remaining 12 “were not made available by their attorney or did not feel comfortable being interviewed.”

The investigation’s outcome made some of the victims to feel invisible, or as if they had been slapped, Buzbee said.

See here for the previous update. Goodell has already delegated the appeal to someone else, as allowed by the collective bargaining agreement. I think that was the correct thing for him to do, but I can see how Buzbee sees it differently. As for the dispute over how many of the women were available to talk with the NFL as part of the process, I’ll wait and see if there’s evidence to support one side’s claims or the other’s.

In the meantime, now we wait on the appeal.

The NFL Players Association announced Friday that it replied to the NFL’s appeal of Deshaun Watson’s six-game suspension by NFL disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson for violating the league’s personal conduct policy.

“We have filed our reply brief to the NFL’s appeal regarding the Deshaun Watson matter,’’ the NFLPA said in a statement posted on Twitter.

The union, which had two business days to reply, had no further comment.

The matter is now in the hands of appeals officer Peter C. Harvey, the former New Jersey attorney general who was appointed Thursday by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. There’s no set timeframe for a decision, but it must be processed on an expedited basis. The two sides — the NFL and NFLPA — can also try to negotiate a settlement before the ruling.

But the NFLPA is still poised to sue in federal court, possibly pending the outcome of the appeal.

“If the new arbitrator increases Watson’s punishment – once again this sets up a legal battle between the union and league challenging the fairness of the penalties and (Roger) Goodell’s authority to penalize the players for their alleged roles,’’ said attorney Daniel Moskowitz, a sports law litigator in Dallas, who has represented several NFL players in NFL investigations involving the personal conduct policy, violation of league substance abuse and other code of conduct policies.

The NFLPA and Watson’s legal team can also file before the decision by Harvey, who helped develop and implement the league’s personal conduct policy.

So we wait. I don’t think this will take very long for the simple reason that it makes sense for there to be a resolution, at least as far as this process goes, before the season begins. After that, who knows. Sean Pendergast has more.

Weekend link dump for August 7

“Misinformation is eroding the public’s confidence in democracy”.

The anti-abortion fanatics just don’t care at all about the life and health of the mother.

“Do Vending Machines Really Kill More Americans Than Sharks Every Year?”

“A collective of more than 400 television creators and showrunners sent a letter to top-level executives at Netflix, Disney, Warner Bros. Discovery, NBC Universal, Apple and more, demanding specific protocols to protect pregnant employees in states where abortion is outlawed.”

By the way, if you got to the bottom of that list and asked yourself “where are all the dudes?”, the answer is here. And good for them.

A brief history of recessions, and how something gets to be called a “recession”.

“The infant mortality rate in states banning or expected to soon ban abortion is 6.3 per 1,000 births. In states that aren’t going to ban abortion, it’s 4.7 per 1,000.”

RIP, Nichelle Nichols, actor best known for playing Lt. Uhura on Star Trek, one of the first Black female leads on TV. A bunch of well-deserved tributes from across the Star Trek universe is here.

RIP, Pat Carroll, Emmy-winning actor who provided the voice of Ursula in The Little Mermaid.

Welp, Netflix is now suing the creators of that Bridgerton: The Musical production.

RIP, Paul Coker, character and production designer for the classic Rankin/Bass stop-motion and animated holiday specials and longtime MAD Magazine artist.

“It’s Time For a National Gun Buyback“.

“It’s hardly new to point out that algorithmic trending lists can amplify bad stuff to huge audiences. So why does Twitter still have this feature in 2022?”

RIP, Vin Scully, iconic and legendary broadcaster for the LA Dodgers.

Schadenfreude. Pure, unadulterated, blissful schadenfreude. Try not to injure yourself stifling giggles.

“This is a foundational principle in the United States: That while voters should be able to pick their president and their representatives in Congress and at the state level, and have the power to vote on various state-level laws, our Constitution protects the rights of minority and other historically mistreated groups as well. No one should see their basic rights subject to the tyranny of the majority.”

“I can only speak for myself, but I never believed their infinitely repeated protestations that they didn’t want to ban abortion, just make reasonable regulations about it. I didn’t believe it because they didn’t even believe it themselves. Apparently, about six out of 10 voters didn’t believe them either.”

But his emails!

“After passing the House with the support of 47 Republicans, the Respect for Marriage Act, which would protect marriage rights for same-sex couples if the Supreme Court were to overturn its 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, faces much dimmer prospects in the Senate. There is one reason why: the Christian right still controls the Republican Party.”

Multiple cities sue streaming services over franchise fees

This has been coming for awhile, it seems.

A lawsuit filed Thursday by 25 Texas cities claims that Disney, Hulu and Netflix have for years stiffed the cities out of dollars the streaming giants are required to pay under state law — and now cities are coming to collect.

Austin, Houston, Dallas and Fort Worth are among the cities that sued the streaming services in Dallas County to recover money they say they has been owed since 2007 and to require the services to pay each year going forward. Under state law, the services have to pay cities a franchise fee — which traditional cable providers also pay — in exchange for using communication lines over public rights of way to transmit their services into homes.

As more people abandon cable subscriptions in favor of streaming services, cities have lost franchise fee revenue — money that goes to fund city services like police and fire protection as well as roads, parks and libraries.

Cities haven’t made up that revenue with fees from streaming services, said Steven Wolens, a former Texas lawmaker and lead attorney for the cities. Even though state law classifies them as video service providers that must pay the fees, the major streamers haven’t paid cities a dime, Wolens said.

“They should have been paying this fee from the very beginning,” Wolens said. “Shame on them because they are using the public right of way that every other company pays the city to use.”

Exactly how much the streaming giants owe Texas cities isn’t known, Wolens said. For a smaller city, the losses could number in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said. For a larger city, that figure could be in the millions.

Other Texas cities that joined the lawsuit are Abilene, Allen, Amarillo, Arlington, Beaumont, Carrollton, Denton, Frisco, Garland, Grand Prairie, Irving, Lewisville, McKinney, Mesquite, Nacogdoches, Pearland, Plano, Rowlett, Sugar Land, Tyler and Waco.

The cities are seeking funds dating to when the services launched — Netflix in 2007, Hulu in 2008 and Disney+, The Walt Disney Co.’s streaming service, in late 2019.

The city of Beaumont, which as you can see is involved in this litigation, filed its own lawsuit against these three streaming services in February. I could not find any news about that lawsuit since then, so I don’t know if it has been dropped in favor of the current litigation or if there are now two separate actions. My searching did find that several cities were working on this at least as far back as last year. I’d sure like to see a more in depth story about this, but for now this is what we have. Any lawyers want to offer an opinion on their odds of success? The Chron has more.

How would HISD’s police respond to an active shooter incident?

It’s a question we would all rather not have to think about, but this is the world we live in. And at this time, the answer that Superintendent Millard House gave to that question was not reassuring.

Houston ISD’s police department would not be prepared should Texas’ largest school district be targeted by active shooter, Superintendent Millard House II said Thursday night.

“I don’t know that this has garnered community insight but what I do know is that, if there was an active shooter in HISD, our police department is not prepared,” House said during an agenda review meeting.

His remarks were in response to questioning from Trustee Dani Hernandez regarding an item the board is expected to vote on during next week’s meeting for purchase of items worth more than $100,000. The specific agenda item includes various purchases for the school district’s police department.

House said the district would be buying 200 rifles, 200 ballistic plate shields and rifle ammunition.

“As we study the Uvalde scenario and looked at what … proper preparation that needs to be in place, officers would not have been prepared for what that looks like,” House said.

[…]

Hernandez asked what research was guiding HISD, instead of feelings. House asked HISD police Chief Pete Lopez to share information in response to her question.

Lopez said research showed police who were better prepared helped in stopping a shooter faster. He was confident about training the district’s police force — estimated to be more than 200 employees — had received. But he did “not have a lot of confidence in preparing our officers to encounter a suspect without the proper equipment.” He said they needed scenario-based training to learn how to respond to such a threat.

The school district has about 195,000 students.

“The equipment that I’ve requested is to provide additional training to teach the officers how to breach the doors, how to use those shields and also quickly enter that room and neutralize the suspect,” Lopez said. “And of course save our students and our staff.”

Like I said, nobody wants to have to think about this. Given that we have to, there are two things that I want to know up front, based on what we have witnessed from Uvalde. One is that there is always a clear definition of who is in command at such a scene. While it’s unlikely that DPS and Border Patrol would show up at an HISD school wit an active shooter, HPD and the Sheriff’s office will almost certainly have officers on the scene. Make sure that there is a written policy that says who is the leader, so that we don’t have a nightmare situation where dozens of cops are waiting around for someone to tell them what to do. And two, the policy must also state that the top priority is going after the shooter, again to avoid a repeat of what happened at Robb Elementary. Everything else, from best practices to training to equipment to whatever else can be provided for. First and foremost, we have to make sure that there’s a commitment to stop the person or persons responsible for the shooting. You wouldn’t think this is a thing that needs to be said, and to be clearly spelled out in an official document for which there would be severe consequences for now following it, but it is and we do. So let’s make sure we have one. Campos has more.

Houston will monitor for monkeypox in the wastewater

Seems like a good idea.

Houston will begin monitoring its wastewater for monkeypox in late August as cases of the blister-causing contagion continue to climb, health officials said.

Scientists will begin testing for the monkeypox virus in city sewage samples “starting in about three weeks,” Houston Health Department spokesperson Porfirio Villarreal said Thursday morning.

There are 152 cases in Harris County, 131 of those in Houston, the county’s Public Health Department reports. More than 6,300 Americans had tested positive for monkeypox as of Wednesday, nearly 500 of them in Texas. Many cases have been among gay and bisexual men, but the disease can be spread among anyone via close contact.

To collect the data, Houston scientists will take weekly samples from flushed wastewater at sewage treatment plants across the city. Once tested, the samples will give scientists a snapshot of which neighborhoods have the most monkeypox virus.

Health officials have used wastewater tracking to monitor COVID-19 levels in the city’s sewage since the beginning of the pandemic to understand how quickly the virus is spreading among the city’s two million inhabitants. The tracking project, a joint effort by Rice University and the Houston Health Department, offers clues to the severity of the pandemic that may be invisible in testing data.

We are familiar with the track-COVID-in-the-wastewater project, which has been a resounding success (and which is currently showing a decrease in the levels, praise be). Not clear yet if this data will show up on the same dashboard or if there will be a new one, but we’ll know soon enough. I’ll be on the lookout.

Most of the lawsuit against the voter suppression law survives a motion to dismiss

Some good news.

In a limited order this week, a federal judge threw out some civil rights and discrimination claims brought as part of a complex and ongoing legal dispute over strict new voting rules in Texas.

The lawsuit filed last year alleges that the rules violate the U.S. Constitution, the Voting Rights Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act by restricting voter assistance and making it easier for “partisan poll watchers to intimidate voters and poll workers.”

[…]

In his order on Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez, a George W. Bush appointee, did not provide a clear win to either side in the protracted legal fight.

On one hand, Rodriguez did agree with Texas officials that civil rights groups had in some cases failed to a state a claim, meaning they could not adequately show a violation of federal law or a potential injury to voters. He dismissed a handful of claims brought by the civil rights groups, which include the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Workers Defense Action Fund.

On the other hand, Rodriguez’s order was hardly kind to Texas officials. Over the course of 61 pages, he detailed not only why civil rights groups had standing to sue, but also how they’d “clearly” established that SB1 could have discriminatory effects on voting rights.

The judge waved off efforts by Texas officials to have more or all of the lawsuit dismissed — including the state’s unusual argument that civil rights groups shouldn’t be able to sue because “the organizations themselves do not have a disability.”

“It is well settled,” Rodriguez wrote, “that an organization may sue as the representative of its members.”

While past filings in this lawsuit have largely hinged on nuances of civil rights law, Tuesday’s order was interesting because it detailed the lived experiences of disabled voters in Texas.

The civil plaintiffs presented examples from at least three voters — all members of the disability voting-rights group REV UP — whom they said could be harmed by Texas’ new voting law.

These examples were “non-exhaustive,” plaintiffs said, and represented just some of the disabled Texans who could face voting difficulties if SB 1 is allowed to stand.

See here for the background. There were multiple lawsuits filed, with the Justice Department getting involved later on. This is the San Antonio lawsuit from that first blog post. I assume that most if not all of these cases have been combined but it’s hard for me to say from the information I have easily available. Democracy Docket has some information on this one, and they provide a PDF that combines multiple orders from Judge Rodriguez; the Courthouse News story only has one of them, which threw me for a minute as I was trying to verify that I was referring to the correct case. This stuff is complicated, y’all.

Anyway. That story goes into two of those examples, and you should read about them, they’re quite compelling. I’m never quite sure if the Republicans who pass these voter suppression bills legitimately don’t care that people such as these plaintiffs won’t be able to vote as a result, or if they just can’t be bothered to hear their stories while the bills are in progress, lest they have some feelings of guilt or remorse, if those are possible for them. The end result is the same, I just want to know how to calibrate my contempt. Anyway, this is in addition to the other voter suppression bill that was struck down – we are apparently at a point where a bunch of these are getting some action, which is always exciting. As usual, nothing is safe until the Fifth Circuit is done with it, and we know what that usually means. So celebrate responsibly, we may be mourning later on.

William-Paul Thomas

This is bad. The question is how much worse might it be.

William-Paul Thomas, the mayor’s council liaison, was offered more than $13,000 by a local bar owner to help him pass a building inspection and fast-track a new permit to reopen a bar as a restaurant, newly unsealed court documents show.

Thomas contacted the “relevant” fire official to ensure the unnamed business owner passed the inspection in May 2020, prosecutors wrote, and then he used his position in the mayor’s office to “pressure other officials” to approve the permit in July, as well. He was paid an undisclosed amount of money for his efforts.

Thomas pleaded guilty on July 25 to one federal count of conspiracy to accept a bribe. He will appear for sentencing before U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen on Nov. 28. His lawyer, Monique Chantelle Sparks, did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

The documents were sealed until Wednesday morning at the request of the U.S. Attorney’s office. The Chronicle published an article about the allegations Tuesday night. Thomas’ plea deal, however, remains sealed.

It is unclear whether federal investigators are looking into the unnamed city officials Thomas allegedly worked with to get the certificate and permit approved, or if they are conducting a broader inquiry into City Hall affairs.

Sean Buckley, a legal expert on federal judicial procedures, said Thomas’ quick guilty plea and his willingness to forgo a probable cause hearing before a grand jury means he likely agreed they had strong information against him. It also suggests Thomas may be part of a wider investigation by the Justice Department.

Thomas abruptly resigned from his City Hall position last Wednesday, one day after pleading guilty. He told the mayor in an 11:30 p.m. email he was retiring due to health reasons.

[…]

City Attorney Arturo Michel said later Wednesday the office of the inspector general is opening its own investigation, based on the document’s charges that Thomas worked with officials in the fire department and permitting office to approve the requests.

Prosecutors say the bar owner — whom they did not name — needed to pass a city fire inspection to get a temporary certificate of occupancy in May 2020. He turned to Thomas for help.

“Thomas, in his official capacity, placed calls to the relevant Houston Fire Department official to ensure that COMPANY 1 would pass its fire inspection and be issued its TCO,” the charging document says. The owner then paid Thomas an undisclosed amount of money after he got the certificate.

It is not clear which fire department official Thomas contacted. Fire Chief Samuel Peña said it difficult to identify the person without the name of the business.

The business owner reached out again in June 2020, after his bar — a separate business — was shut down by the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. COVID-19 restrictions around that time ordered bars to close but allowed restaurants to continue operating with limited capacity.

“On July 6, 2020, BUSINESSMAN 1 offered THOMAS up to $13,0000 to have the necessary permit issued quickly so that COMPANY 2 could reopen,” the document says. “THOMAS agreed to use his official position to pressure other officials to issue the permit quickly, all in exchange for money.”

Thomas then used his position to “pressure other officials” to grant the necessary permit, and the owner was allowed to open as a restaurant. It is not clear which specific permit the owner was seeking from the city; the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission was responsible for classifying bars and restaurants based on the percentage of sales that came from alcohol.

Buckley, a federal defense lawyer who represented former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman and authored a book on federal criminal rules and codes used by trial attorneys across the country, reviewed the court documents at the request of the Houston Chronicle. He is not involved in the case.

“He’s obviously cooperating because no one who is a target in a federal investigation would ever agree to plea to a criminal information unless there have been extensive discussions between the target, his lawyer and the government leading up to that decision,” Buckley said.

“Either the government lawyers showed him what they had or he knew what they had. He knew he had everything to gain by cooperating and agreeing to plead guilty without forcing the government to get an indictment from the grand jury, and much to lose by not cooperating.”

Buckley said it also clear the investigation, by prosecutors from the public corruption unit, has been going on for months and there likely is a wider-ranging investigation underway involving multiple defendants.

“My read on this is that this person has something of value to the government,” Buckley said.

He said the documents also indicate “there is an environment in the city of Houston that allows this type of thing to take place.”

I will say up front that I am acquainted with William-Paul. As is the case in this kind of situation, I’m shocked to see the story. I don’t know him well enough to say more than that, but as I have met him and talked to him, I wanted to say so.

I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have no experience in these matters, but it seems to me unlikely that there would be only one such transgression like this. If nothing else, I would think the FBI wouldn’t prioritize a case with one crime of this nature. I’d expect that the bribe payer and whoever was involved with the Fire Department and permitting office will be implicated next. The big question is then whether it goes beyond that, and if so how far. There is certainly the potential for this to be big, but we won’t know until the FBI tells us, and as we know from other experiences that may take a long time. In the meantime, I wouldn’t want to be BUSINESSMAN 1 or anyone else who might be implicated. Don’t take or give bribes, y’all.

Further thoughts on the Deshaun Watson suspension

Just a few things I’ve read, to try to understand what happened here. Make of them what you will. Note that I drafted this before the news of the NFL’s appeal.

Pro Football Talk:

How does Watson, who faced 24 lawsuits alleging sexual misconduct during massage therapy sessions, get suspended only six games when Cardinal receiver DeAndre Hopkins was suspended six games for trace amounts of a PED he claims he didn’t know he ingested and Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley was suspended a whole season for making $1,500 in parlay wagers?

On the surface, the answer is easy. These three players were suspended under three completely different policies: Personal Conduct, PED, and gambling.

There’s a more nuanced explanation. The PED policies and gambling policies go directly to the integrity of the game, whether by cheating in it or betting on it. The Personal Conduct Policy relates to off-duty behavior, conduct that has no connection to the league’s core business interests.

Not sure how much that nuance helps, but I suppose it’s worth keeping those distinctions in mind, if only to get the underlying facts straight.

CBS Sports:

There’s a chance that the length of the suspension could still change and that’s because the NFL is allowed to appeal the decision (Watson’s camp could also appeal the decision, but the NFLPA previously announced on Sunday that no appeal would be coming from that end).

If the NFL decides to appeal, it will create a new layer of drama and that’s because the appeal would be heard by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates. As of Monday afternoon though, the league had yet to make a decision about a possible appeal.

“We appreciate Judge Robinson’s diligence and professionalism throughout this process,” the NFL said in a statement. “Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement, the NFL or the NFLPA on behalf of Watson may appeal the decision within three days. In light of her findings, the league is reviewing Judge Robinson’s imposition of a six-game suspension and will make a determination on next steps.”

[…]

Although the new collective bargaining agreement took away Goodell’s power to hand out a punishment, he didn’t really lose very much power since he’s the one who oversees the appeal process.

Here’s the pertinent language in the CBA:

“The Disciplinary Officer’s disciplinary determination will be final and binding subject only to the right of either party to appeal to the Commissioner. The appeal shall be in writing within three business days of the Disciplinary Officer’s decision, and any response to the appeal shall be filed in writing within two business days thereafter. The appeal shall be limited to arguments why, based on the evidentiary record below, the amount of discipline, if any, should be modified. The Commissioner or his designee will issue a written decision that will constitute full, final and complete disposition of the dispute and will be binding upon the player(s), Club(s) and the parties to this Agreement.”

Based on the language in the CBA, the NFL now has three days to file an appeal in writing. Once the appeal is filed, Goodell (or his designee) will have two days to respond to it.

If the NFL doesn’t appeal, then the case is over and Watson will serve a six-game suspension. It’s possible the league will go this route because it doesn’t want to undermine Robinson’s decision.

In my initial reaction, I said that I’d change “possible” to “highly likely”, and that I could not see the NFL stirring this up when they have a chance to let it go and get on with their business. Clearly, I was wrong about that.

Slate:

Why did Watson skate? It isn’t because Goodell doesn’t understand the seriousness of the situation. Even if only for image maintenance, the NFL wanted a bigger chunk of games. But that does not let the NFL off the hook. It also does not mean all of the fault with the short suspension lies with the arbitrator, whom both management and labor asked to resolve the length of the suspension. At core, Watson will soon be under center for the Browns because the NFL spent years laying two sets of tracks that led straight to this decision and will soon lead the league beyond it. One was a disciplinary system that did not come down hard on violence against women for many years, and which complicated the NFL’s efforts to win a workplace dispute with Watson when it became clear that one of the best, most famous players in the NFL deserved a long, long break away from the game. The other was cultural. The NFL and its giant media industry cultivated an environment where any player as good as Watson can be two things at once—a hero whom fans adore and a commodity that teams crave—and where any inconveniences the real world might impose on those roles are just those: inconveniences. Watson did not get a light punishment because the NFL doesn’t care. He got one because the NFL is a universe where “caring” is not the point.

The contradictory thing about Robinson’s report is that she seems to generally agree with the NFL that Watson behaved horrendously toward his accusers. “Mr. Watson’s pattern of conduct is more egregious than any before reviewed by the NFL,” she writes at one point. She writes that “it is difficult to give weight” to Watson’s wholesale denial not just of any criminal conduct, but of ever having so much as gotten an erection during one of the massages in question. She finds that by the NFL’s definition of sexual assault in its code of conduct, which is “unwanted sexual contact with another person,” Watson committed sexual assault. But Robinson calls Watson’s acts “non-violent sexual assault.” It is a mind-bending phrase. Can any sort of sexual assault be “non-violent”? Is there a way to breach consent and not be violent? Of course not. It is an inherently violent act, whether it involves blood and bruises or not. But to read Robinson’s decision, the NFL’s past laxness toward overt violence made it difficult for her to square the league’s desired punishment of Watson as a matter of workplace policy. “By ignoring past decisions because none involve ‘similar’ conduct, however, the NFL is not just equating violent conduct with non-violent conduct, but has elevated the importance of the latter without any substantial evidence to support its position,” Robinson says. The NFL decided that it cared about this player violating women, but because it hadn’t acted accordingly in the past, it couldn’t impose the punishment it wanted.

My mind is still trying to unbend from that one.

ESPN:

Basically, Robinson is saying something akin to, You want to argue that this behavior deserves a more severe penalty, fine. Maybe you’re right. But that’s not in your policy, and you can’t just make policy to support one specific case as it’s going on. If the league wants to do what it did post-Rice and adjust its policy to account for the type of behavior Watson is herein found guilty of, it should do that — then everyone would know.

Interesting argument, for sure, but it answers a lot of the questions about the length of the suspension vis-à-vis some others in the past. She goes on to write, “It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”

Remember, Robinson first decided she was not starting from a six-game baseline but from one of three games or fewer, based on precedent set by other nonviolent sexual assault cases. As “aggravating factors” (that is, reasons to increase the suspension), she cites Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse and his tardy notice to the NFL of the first-filed lawsuit.” As “mitigating factors” (that is, reasons to go easier on him), she cites “he is a first-time offender and had an excellent reputation in his community prior to these events. He cooperated and has paid restitution.”

Very interestingly, she also notes the league could have placed Watson on the commissioner’s exempt list last year and chose not to, which she appears to think means the league didn’t consider his behavior worthy of such punishment until it saw the public reaction to it. She makes that clear in her conclusion when she writes, “The NFL may be a ‘forward-facing’ organization, but it is not necessarily a forward-looking one. Just as the NFL responded to violent conduct after a public outcry, so it seems the NFL is responding to yet another public outcry about Mr. Watson’s conduct.”

Robinson writes that she settled on six games because it is the largest suspension ever imposed for nonviolent sexual conduct but that Watson’s behavior is more egregious than the behavior that led to previous suspensions for nonviolent sexual conduct.

If the NFL had taken domestic violence seriously from the beginning, we wouldn’t be where we are now.

The Ringer:

The ruling fails to grapple with the serial nature of Watson’s actions, which is essential to the nature of what he did. Some of the women who said Watson harassed or abused them refused to work with him again. Some considered changing careers entirely. And after each woman made clear that Watson’s advances were unwanted and wrong, Watson sought out more women.

Twenty-seven women, six games. Robinson was looking at only four of the cases—was each of those four women worth 1.5 games? If Robinson had ruled on all 27 women who came forward with their accounts of Watson’s misconduct, would he be suspended for 40.5 games? Or perhaps it’s an unsolvable equation, because the NFL’s personal conduct policy left no room for the gray areas of sexual violence or the possibility of multiple accusers.

Robinson’s ruling is based on two guiding principles, both of which are immensely flawed. On the one hand, the ruling emphasizes that the six-game suspension is a matter of precedent based on the league’s previous penalties related to sexual misconduct. This is a mistake. No previous player has been named in so many accounts by so many women. I don’t know the correct punishment for 27 cases, or whether it’s different from the amount that would be correct for 10 or 50 or 75. But how can anybody appeal to precedent when the misconduct itself is so clearly unprecedented? There’s no number that would have felt right, but it’s certainly wrong for the number to be determined by a technicality that doesn’t have anything to do with Watson’s case or the women affected.

[…]

In the end, there’s one easy way to tell that this punishment was too light: by looking at Watson, who spent decision day practicing with the Browns and signing autographs for a mob of fans at training camp. Watson has avoided criminal charges and settled 23 of the 24 lawsuits against him. He has not even remotely expressed public contrition for his actions. At this point, it would be possible for him to say some form of “I’m sorry,” or to speak out against sexual violence without admitting personal guilt. He has chosen not to, and he probably never will. (Robinson specifically mentioned Watson’s “lack of expressed remorse” as a factor in her decision, though clearly it didn’t weigh that heavily.)

I don’t have anything insightful to add to that.

Defector:

You do not need to have a PhD in workplace procedures to gather that a policy crafted in response to a public relations crisis will not work. In this case, the NFL created its anti-violence policy in the late 1990s after future Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon was arrested for intimate-partner violence, for which he was found not guilty, followed by exposé after exposé from sports reporters about violence by players toward women, all amid the 1990s wave of tough-on-crime legislation. Like many of the pro-police, pro-prison policies of that era, the NFL’s plan to threaten its players into compliance with vague threats of “suspension” failed, has continued to fail, and probably will always fail because bad policy begets bad policy, no matter how many times you rework it, reframe it, or even renegotiate it. The personal conduct policy has been a failure from the moment it was created, (though this has not stopped other major North American sports leagues from copying it for the sake of public relations). Left to its own devices, the NFL will never get this right.

All the NFL can do is try to find a different person to blame, a new figure onto which it can foist this odious burden of reminding us all that a good enough player will always find a way back onto the field, with just their bank account a little lighter. On Monday, that person was retired judge Sue L. Robinson, who issued her decision to suspend Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson for six games after two dozen women sued Watson in civil court, all describing various levels of sexual misconduct by him during massage therapy appointments that included finding ways to touch them with his penis and ejaculating on them. Depending on who delivers your sports news, this was seen as either a humiliation for the NFL or great news for Watson’s new team, the Cleveland Browns. But what those quick takes never quite address is why the NFL and pro sports, time and time again, seem utterly clueless about what to do when a player is accused of violence.

[…]

Robinson ended her decision with the equivalent of a legal tongue-lashing for the NFL, essentially telling them that significant changes to how it handles player discipline must be collectively bargained. (“It is inherently unfair to identify conduct as prohibited only after the conduct has been committed, just as it is inherently unjust to change the penalties for such conduct after the fact.”) You could say the NFL has a precedent problem. It’s a problem with a solution—negotiate better rules with players during the next round of collective bargaining. The players would, in return, request significant concessions from the league, and that would be fair because that’s how unions protect the rights of workers. The NFL could completely revamp its conduct policy to include community service, therapy, more preventative measures like education, or one of the many tools shown to actually work. It could even ask for harsher punishments, though it’s always worth remembering that that zero-tolerance policies don’t work and harsh punishment does not deter crime. In return, the league could give players truly guaranteed contracts, better healthcare, or agree to stop extending the regular season. All of this would be fair and likely would withstand the scrutiny of a retired judge, like Robinson, if the league chose to go this route.

The NFL will never do it.

Diana Moskovitz has been on the sports-and-crime-and-society beat for a long time, and she’s always a must read on these stories.

And here’s one more from The Ringer, post-appeal by the NFL.

The danger of a short suspension for Watson, then, is twofold: First, the media scrutiny if he were to return in mid-October would be intense. The NFL could weather that. But the second and biggest problem with a short suspension is that the Watson saga is still ongoing. It hasn’t even been two months since Vrentas’s most recent bombshell report: that Watson met with at least 66 women for massages within a 17-month period, and that the Houston Texans helped facilitate appointments and even provided Watson with nondisclosure agreements. One lawsuit is still active. Optically—and a lot of this is optics—it’s bad for the league to have Watson play in October. But even worse, the depth and scope of the story means that there may be more reporting to come, more shoes to drop. The outside investigations are not going away. The women involved in these cases are not going away simply because Watson might return to the field.

The NFL had to appeal for any number of reasons: First, Robinson’s report savages Watson’s behavior but makes clear that the six-game suspension was based on her belief that the NFL can’t make wholesale changes to its suspension lengths without prior notice to the players. The ruling came from an extremely narrow interpretation of the CBA, while the NFL, on the other hand, has a long history of changing rules quickly and without much notice. Also, there’s the matter of Watson not showing any remorse for his actions or admitting any wrongdoing—both factors that were cited to his detriment in Robinson’s report. In fact, reporters on Wednesday said that Watson’s camp still believed six games was too much.

If Watson’s suspension had stayed at six games, it would have kept a broken system broken. Not just because it would mean that virtually no personal conduct policy violation could extend beyond six games, but because it would reward a franchise that went all in on one of the most reckless moves in modern NFL history. It’s important to note here that a handful of teams would have loved to have Watson on their team, which is why the cost to trade for him this spring was so high in picks, and eventually money. The Browns were the ones who guaranteed him a fifth year. The Browns were the team that, just after a grand jury declined to indict Watson, gave him more leverage and the largest fully guaranteed deal in NFL history. Watson’s no-trade clause meant he could pick his destination, and Cleveland did everything it could to ensure it would be his choice.

I don’t know how much any of this helped me make sense of it all, but I feel like I needed to read all this. Hope it helped you a little.

State ordered to turn over voter purge data

Very good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge ruled this week that the state is violating U.S. law by refusing to release its list of more than 11,000 registered voters that it identified as potential noncitizens, and ordered the release of the data within 14 days.

A coalition of civil rights groups sued the Secretary of State’s Office in February for withholding the data concerning a voter purge program targeting immigrants that was mandated by a new Republican-backed election law.

The new elections law, passed after a heated partisan battle last summer, requires that the office conduct regular sweeps of the voter rolls to verify citizenship status by cross-checking data provided by the Texas Department of Public of Safety.

The groups are concerned that thousands of immigrants could have their voter registrations canceled based on outdated or incorrect records, a potential repeat of a botched voter purge in 2019 that ended with a court settlement restricting who could be targeted in future purges.

The state had attempted to cancel registrations of almost 100,000 registered voters, but many were later found to be naturalized citizens or others who had been flagged in error. About 70,000 immigrants are naturalized in Texas each year on average and become eligible to vote.

Without the data on the purge initiated earlier this year, the groups say they can’t confirm that the state is complying with the 2019 settlement agreement. Within months of the new program’s launch, county officials warned the state that the lists included people who registered to vote at their naturalization ceremonies.

“We’ve kind of seen this movie before in 2019,” said Danielle Lang, senior director for voting rights at the Campaign Legal Center, which represented the civil rights groups. “Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests the same thing is happening despite Texas’ claims that it’s following 2019 settlement agreement. We’re glad to finally be able to get access to the data, so the public can better understand what this process looks like and why eligible citizens are being caught up in the system.”

See here for the background. The Secretary of State has amply demonstrated that it cannot be trusted in matters like this. They need to be watched like a hawk, and that means they need to be completely transparent about every step they take. As with the other voter registration case we heard about this week (*), the Fifth Circuit is a threat, but maybe not as bog a threat in this one. The state could accept the ruling and provide the data – surely they want to show they have nothing to hide, right? – but I’m not that naive. We’ll see what they do next.

(*) As it happens, the judge for both of these cases is Lee Yeakel, a George W. Bush appointee. He has had himself a busy week.

Commissioners Court plans to put a bond issue on the ballot

First one in seven years.

Harris County voters will have more on their November ballot, after a divided commissioners court Tuesday took the first step toward a $1.2 billion bond package for police, parks, drainage and roads.

Common with many votes, the court was split 3-2 on the matter, with County Judge Lina Hidalgo, Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia in favor and Tom Ramsey and Jack Cagle opposed.

Tuesday’s debate reiterated much of what divided county officials leading up to the vote, including the ability to put a robust plan in front of voters by November, concerns about future needs such as flood control and how exactly officials would split the windfall of money should voters approve.

The plan would likely lead to three bond votes on the ballot — $100 million for public safety, $200 million for parks and $900 million for transportation and drainage projects ranging from street maintenance to sidewalks and safety-related road repairs.

“People want to see that money spent yesterday,” Garcia said, noting the litany of improvements county residents are demanding.

Tuesday’s vote moved the county closer to a bond referendum, but did not finalize it. To call the election and set it for the November election, commissioners court must meet and call for the election between Aug. 12 and Aug. 22, per state law. They must also approve ballot language, which will guide the terms of the bond.

[…]

Though split on the plan, no one disputed Harris County has massive needs across a host of categories.

“I think people are clamoring for more capital investments,” Ellis said.

Local roads are in disrepair, drainage worries dot unincorporated communities who remember rising waters from Tropical Storm Harvey and Tropical Storm Imelda all too well and sheriffs operate out of outdated and crumbling buildings.

Voters “don’t need to be sold on flood control, roads and public safety,” said State Rep. Gene Wu, D-Houston, who spoke Tuesday in favor of the bonds.

Commissioners, however, struggled to find common ground on how they would share the money. Ellis and Garcia pressed for a “worst-first” approach that would focus funding in areas they said were previously neglected in their Precinct One and Precinct Two areas, and away from doling the money based on population and lane miles of road. Ramsey and Cagle, concerned about the inequity of that plan, said some equal divisions were needed so Precinct Three and Precinct Four could make needed repairs.

To satisfy her own concerns that funds needed to address problem areas but fairly include projects in each commissioners’ area, Hidalgo proposed the $100 million in public safety remain countywide, but that the road and parks money be divided in a way by the county that assured each precinct at least $220 million — leaving another $220 million to be spent where needs are greatest.

“Everybody has a base level of revenue from this bond,” she said.

Despite that compromise, other doubts remain, Ramsey said, citing the lack of project specifics provided by county staff.

Here’s the Tuesday morning version of the story, which in turn references that 2015 bond package. A total of four propositions that year passed easily, with percentages ranging from 61 to 74. I don’t have a strong opinion at this time about how the funds should be divvied up – I don’t recall that particular debate coming up in the past, for what it’s worth, but Commissioners Court was a lot clubbier in those days – nor am I particularly worried about a detailed project list at this time. We should have one, to be sure, but I think most people don’t get too far into those details when casting their vote. It’s for law enforcement/roads/bridges/parks/flood control/etc etc etc? That’s likely enough info for most voters. We’ll see what details we get when the final ballot language is proposed.

The latest COVID wave may be peaking in Houston

Hopefully

Texas Medical Center data released Tuesday suggests the latest wave of COVID-19 might have reached its peak in the Houston area, though several key metrics used to track the virus remain high.

The medical center’s weekly data report shows that COVID-19 hospitalizations, the positivity rate of coronaviruus tests and the amount of virus detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants all trended downward for the second straight week. Those trends indicate the Houston area has likely crested the peak of a recent surge caused by the extremely contagious BA.5 subvariant, said Dr. James McDeavitt, executive vice president and dean of clinical affairs at Baylor College of Medicine.

“All the numbers are pointing to the fact that we’ve peaked maybe a week, a week and a half ago,” McDeavitt said. “I fully expect we will continue to trend down over the next several weeks.”

The line graphs from the TMC show a mountain range of peaks from prior waves of COVID-19, such as those caused by the delta and omicron variants. The latest BA.5 wave shows that after several weeks of steady climbing, the line is finally on the descent.

During previous waves, the virus did not pick up steam again after the numbers started to trend downward, McDeavitt said. He expects the same trajectory from BA.5.

It appears the current wave has at least reached a plateau, said Dr. Ashley Drews, an infectious disease specialist at Houston Methodist. The fact that the key metrics have stabilized is an encouraging sign, she said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic that things are turning in the right direction, and we’re going down,” Drews said.

[…]

During the week of July 25, TMC hospitals admitted an average of 219 patients with COVID-19 per day. That’s down from an average of 226 during the week of July 18, and 240 during the week of July 11.

However, the numbers remain much higher than they were before the emergence of BA.5. Three months ago, TMC hospitals admitted an average of 80 patients per day.

The good news is that the percentage of patients who need to be treated in an ICU remains lower than prior surges of COVID-19.

Last week, less than 14 percent of the 912 patients admitted with COVID-19 were treated in an ICU, according to TMC data. That’s lower than the percentage of patients treated in an ICU at the peaks of the omicron wave (17 percent) and the delta wave (22 percent).

[…]

The amount of virus detected at the city of Houston’s wastewater treatment plants, which has been a reliable indicator of community spread, also fell for the second straight week.

Wastewater loads reached an all-time high during the week of July 11, at 927 percent higher than a baseline established in June 2020. That fell to 774 percent during the week of July 18, and to 725 percent over the past week.

The amount of virus in the wastewater is still much higher than before the recent surge. Three months ago, it was less than 100 percent higher than the June 2020 baseline.

So, the data is starting to go in the right direction, which is good. But there’s still a lot of COVID out there, and all of the levels are still a lot higher than they were before the wave began, even if they never approached the heights of the previous peaks, and that’s bad. You should still be exercising caution, which is to say wearing your mask and avoiding indoor crowds if you can. And of course, get vaxxed and boosted as needed. We may be back on the downswing, but there’s no reason to believe we won’t trend up again at some point, and we’ve still got a ways to go to get to the lower levels we want.

Yes, it’s been an especially hot summer

Record-breaking, in fact.

Average high temperatures in Houston so far this summer have outpaced previous historically hot summers on record, according to the National Weather Service.

In the months of May, June and July, temperatures in the city averaged 95.1 degrees, ranking first in average high temperature at this point of the year, NWS meteorologist Josh Lichter said.

Houston’s hottest summer on record — the summer of 2011 — registered an average temperature of 94.4 degrees in the same months, Lichter added. The data sets go back to 1889.

Weather experts predicted an above normal July and August after a historically hot June saw temperatures reach an average of 86.7 degrees, according to the National Weather Service. Those temperatures surpassed the previous record average of 86.2 degrees set in June 2011.

Although some thunderstorms have come to the region within the past week, the weather pattern right now above Houston is one which “suppresses” rain and exasperates droughts, he said.

“Once once you get that pattern going where we have, you know, a week of 100-plus degree temperatures and you only have a couple days where you get rain but then you go back another week or two of 90 to 100-degree temperatures with little rain again, you’re going to increase the risk of droughts.”

It’s not just Houston, it’s all over Texas. And there’s a lot of drought, with some Texas cities beginning to experience real water problems. Like 2011, only hotter. Anyone feel like defending the position that climate change isn’t real today?

UPDATE: San Antonio, too.

Law against some new voter registration restrictions is struck down

Good, though one must always remember the threat of the Fifth Circuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal judge on Tuesday night blocked a Texas law passed in 2021 that put new restrictions on people trying to register to vote in the state.

The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Lee Yeakel was celebrated by one of the Latino groups that had sued the state and claimed the law was an attempt to disenfranchise Latino voters.

Senate Bill 1111 was passed during the 2021 Texas Legislative session. The bill, which passed the House and Senate on party-line votes, required people who register to vote using a P.O. box to provide proof of a home address to ensure that they vote only in eligible elections.

[…]

The law didn’t bar people from using P.O. boxes for voter registration, but required people registering to vote with a post office box to provide other proof, like a drivers license or utility bill, to show proof of address. The lawsuit called that requirement an unfair burden.

Part of the lawsuit challenged a section of the law that prohibited people from establishing residence “for the purpose of influencing the outcome of a certain election.” That language could lead to unintended consequences, the groups argued.

The groups, the Texas chapter of League of United Latin American Citizens and Voto Latino, also said they suffered direct harm from the law because they had to divert resources away from their missions to assist its members in overcoming new barriers to registration and voting.

In a summary judgement, Yeakel found that the groups had suffered “direct harms” to their finances and to their First Amendment rights under the law, and that the state used vague language in the law and that parts of the fail “any degree of constitutional scrutiny.”

The judge ruled that the law particularly burdened part-time and off-campus college students, who would be left unable to register both where they have moved and where they have moved from.

“The burden imposed is ‘severe,’ if not insurmountable,” Yeakel wrote. “Such an insurmountable burden is not easily overcome.”

The state was permanently enjoined from enforcing the parts of the election code created by S.B. 1111.

See here for the background. Democracy Docket, which was involved in the litigation, has a more detailed description of what was at issue and what the ruling says.

Specifically, the plaintiffs challenged three major provisions of S.B. 1111 that prohibited voters from registering to vote using a prior address after they moved, prevented voters from registering to vote where they did not live full time and created stricter ID requirements for those registering to vote using a P.O. box. Yesterday, the court prevented Texas officials from enforcing the first two provisions in full and the third P.O. box restriction in part (the court found that Texas cannot enforce the provision if it’s clear to registrars that voters do not permanently reside at the P.O. box address at which they register, but the state can otherwise enforce additional requirements for P.O. box registrations). This means voters will not be subject to the strict residency requirements in S.B. 1111 outside of proving their residence when registering using a P.O. box address.

In the order ruling in favor of the plaintiffs, the court illustrates S.B. 1111’s burden on college students who live on campus and want to register to vote: “The burden imposed [by SB 1111] is ‘severe,’ if not insurmountable. Such an insurmountable burden is not easily overcome. Certainly not by Texas’s stated interest in ensuring Texans only have one residence. Instead the law renders some Texans without any residence [to vote].” However, the court states that Texas’ interests “justify the PO Box Provision” in reference to voters claiming to live at PO box addresses: “Voter-registration fraud is at risk where voters improperly use a PO Box as their residence address; voters may have a PO Box from the United States Postal Service at many post-office locations in Texas, even if the voters’ home or business is elsewhere.” In cases where the voter is not claiming to live at the P.O. box address, the state has no interest in imposing this burden and cannot do so.

Given the shenanigans we see all the damn time with rich people registering at second houses or apartments of convenience (hello, Kubosh Brothers!) or warehouses for the purposes of running for a particular office, I have a hard time believing that Texas really has an interest in “ensuring Texans only have one residence”. Hell, even some people who lived and voted in other states have registered at Texas addresses for that purpose with no problems. The state of Texas, in its current political configuration, cares a lot about where some people say they live when they register to vote, and cares not at all about others. That in and of itself makes this law suspect. I approve of this ruling, but I am aware that the Fifth Circuit exists, and I would expect them to bat this aside as they do any time Ken Paxton comes calling. So don’t celebrate this one just yet. LULAC’s statement on the ruling is here.

San Antonio passes its abortion access ordinance

Good.

With a 9-2 vote, San Antonio City Council approved a resolution on Tuesday that condemns Texas’ abortion ban and recommends that no local funds be used to investigate criminal charges related to abortions.

“By passing this resolution, the City of San Antonio is committing to not using any city funds or data to sell out persons seeking out a safe abortion,” said Councilwoman Teri Castillo (D5), who spearheaded the resolution. “Furthermore, council is communicating to our governmental relations team that … protecting persons seeking an abortion is a priority heading into the state legislative session.”

More than 100 people signed up to speak during the raucous, nearly five-hour meeting. The speakers offered impassioned, often emotional testimony in favor and opposed to the resolution and the right to choose. Mayor Ron Nirenberg paused the meeting briefly after shouting erupted during testimony.

“While the legal authority over reproductive health policy lies with the state and federal governments, we do refuse to stand idly by and watch an important constitutional right, be taken away without speaking on behalf of our constituents,” Nirenberg said. “As federal and state law changes in the future, we must do all we can to support and gain ground for reproductive freedom.”

The resolution makes exceptions for investigations into instances where “coercion or force is used against the pregnant person, or in cases involving conduct criminally negligent to the health of the pregnant person seeking care.”

Several proponents of the resolution asked that more specific language be added to direct police to “deprioritize” abortion investigations.

The resolution does not prevent local law enforcement from investigating criminal cases of abortion, because the council cannot tell police departments how or whether to investigate criminal cases, according to state law and the city’s charter. Council can only make recommendations.

The resolution “does not decriminalize” abortion, City Attorney Andy Segovia said. “It does articulate a policy recommendation from the council.”

Bexar County District Attorney Joe Gonzales has said he doesn’t plan on prosecuting abortion providers under the ban.

See here for the background. As we know, Dallas and Waco are also in the queue for similar action. As yet, I haven’t seen any response to ordinances like this one and the one passed by Austin from the likes of Abbott or Patrick or Paxton; they may just be talking on their channels and it hasn’t gotten to the regular news yet, or maybe they’re just keeping their powder dry for now. It’s just a matter of time, I’m sure. The Current has more.

Who audits the auditors?

A novel idea. Not sure it will get anywhere, but it does send a message.

Harris County Commissioners Court, by a 3-2 partisan vote, agreed to explore legal options, including a possible lawsuit, to challenge the results of a random drawing by the Texas Secretary of State’s Office that means another round of election scrutiny for Texas’ largest county.

“It ought to be the state of Texas that is audited,” said Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who proposed the lawsuit. “This place has gone back to the bad old days.”

Harris County learned last week it was one of two large counties chosen for an election audit by state officials, under new procedures lawmakers approved for election scrutiny. It is the second audit of Harris County, after another approved weeks following the 2020 general election.

[…]

Harris and Cameron counties were the two large ones chosen in a drawing from a bucket, the Secretary of State’s office announced; Eastland and Guadalupe counties were the two small counties selected.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, however, questioned the authenticity of the drawing, saying the broadcast of the drawing “looks like a video out of a sketch comedy show.”

“The camera does not show the slips going into the bucket,” Menefee said, noting various aspects of the drawing that are not filmed. “They don’t even show the slips to the camera.”

See here for the background. Just as a reminder, while there have been issues in other elections in Harris County, the November 2020 election ran incredibly smoothly. And the SOS has already done an “audit” of that election, even if they never bothered to release a report on their “audit”.

My guess is that this doesn’t go anywhere, because I can’t see what grounds there are to sue. (Remember: I Am Not A Lawyer. There is an excellent chance that I am full of beans here.) One could argue that Harris County should have been exempted from this year’s drawing, as the law states that counties cannot be subjected to this audit in consecutive cycles. But the previous audit was not done under the auspices of that law, so the legal response to that would be some form of “tough luck”. Again, I don’t know what the actual attorneys who will be looking into the legal possibilities may find here, so take all this with an appropriate amount of skepticism. But if you were to bet me a dollar right now that 1) Harris County would file a suit as threatened, and 2) it would result in a temporary restraining order, I would take that bet.

If on the other hand the point of this is to denigrate the audit process, which was created in response to Big Lie mania, I’m fine with that. If the idea is to suggest that the state can’t be trusted to conduct a fair random drawing, let alone a fair audit process, that works for me. Judge Hidalgo spoke about the need to combat Big Lie hysteria, which is doing immense damage to the election process and a whole lot more, in the story. That’s a worthwhile mission. If it turns out there really is more to it than that, I’ll be happy to have been proven wrong.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 1

The Texas Progressive Alliance would prefer there to be fewer right-wing billionaires with hegemonic fantasies as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

NFL to appeal Watson suspension

Wow. I did not expect that.

The NFL on Wednesday appealed the six-game suspension for Cleveland Browns quarterback Deshaun Watson, seeking a tougher penalty for violating the league’s personal conduct policy in the wake of disciplinary officer Sue L. Robinson’s ruling Monday.

In a statement, the league said it notified the NFL Players Association that it would appeal and then filed its brief Wednesday afternoon.

The league said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will determine who will hear the appeal. Under the CBA, Goodell has the option to consider the appeal himself or can appoint a designee to do so.

A source told ESPN that the league is appealing for an indefinite suspension that would be a minimum of one year (as it had previously sought), a monetary fine (which Watson was not levied initially by Robinson) and treatment that the star QB must undergo.

The union also had the right to appeal Robinson’s ruling, although it issued a statement Sunday night saying it would “stand by her decision” and not appeal, regardless of the result, and called on the league to agree to the same.

The NFLPA has until Friday to file a written response to the NFL’s appeal. Sources told ESPN’s Jeff Darlington on Wednesday that the NFLPA was preparing to sue the NFL in federal court if it appealed Robinson’s decision.

Once the NFLPA files its response, Goodell will decide to hear the appeal himself or appoint a designee — a source told Darlington on Wednesday that he’s yet to formalize a decision on who will do it — and that will be followed by a hearing date.

Any appeal must be limited to arguments from the evidentiary record from the three-day hearing before Robinson in late June and “without reference to evidence or testimony not previously considered.” It will be processed on an “expedited basis,” per the NFL’s personal conduct policy, although NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy said there’s no timeline for Goodell or his designee to make a ruling.

Whenever the ruling is made, it will be final and binding to all parties.

[…]

In the days leading up to Robinson’s decision, the NFL and Watson’s side engaged in further settlement talks, sources told ESPN’s Dan Graziano, but neither side ever felt they were close to an agreement.

The most Watson’s side indicated it was willing to offer was a suspension in the range of six to eight games, according to sources. The best the league indicated it was willing to offer was a 12-game suspension and a significant fine — in the range of $8 million, sources said. Since no additional fine was levied, Watson is slated to miss six of his $57,500 game checks in 2022 for a total of $345,000 lost off his $1.035 million base salary.

See here for the background. I had assumed that the NFL would let this go, despite how poorly the ruling was received by the public, on the grounds that it was the least messy path and would get them on the road to putting it all behind them, which is usually what they want in any uncomfortable situation. I’m genuinely surprised by this. I figure it gets chaotic from here, between the promised lawsuit from the NFLPA and the decision Commissioner Goodell will have to make about who actually makes the appeal decision; it would probably be best if he picked a delegate for it. We are in uncharted waters, that much is for sure. CBS Sports has more.

July 2022 campaign finance reports: State races

I don’t often follow the campaign finance reports in state races, mostly because they’re usually not that interesting and there’s too many races to look at if I was interested. I didn’t review these in January for the contested primaries, but I decided there are enough races that are worth checking on to have a peek at some July reports. I’ve noted the big Beto numbers, so I’ll skip that here.

Mike Collier, Lt Gov
Rochelle Garza, Attorney General
Janet Dudding, Comptroller
Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner
Susan Hays, Ag Commissioner
Luke Warford, Railroad Commissioner

Morgan LaMantia, SD27

Daniel Lee, HD26
Luis Echagaray, HD52
Sheena King, HD61
Brittney Verdell, HD65
Jesse Ringness, HD66
Kevin Morris, HD67
Mihaela Plesa, HD70
Suleiman Lalani, HD76
Salman Bhojani, HD92
Elizabeth Ginsberg, HD108
Elva Curl, HD112
Frank Ramirez, HD118
Rebecca Moyer DeFelice, HD121
Angela Aramburu, HD122
Stephanie Morales, HD138


Candidate     Raised      Spent       Loan     On Hand
======================================================
Collier      693,806    226,315    450,500     534,242
Garza        518,054    107,134          0     445,817
Dudding       37,956     52,378     45,884      16,908
Kleberg      586,296    433,030    100,000     439,854
Hays          96,085     94,777          0      53,310
Warford      296,516    271,506     23,561     110,066

LaMantia     183,859    427,090  2,980,000      58,024

Lee            2,580        904      1,000      11,345
Echegaray      9,343      9,123          0       9,081
King          20,999     14,635          0           0
Verdell       16,711      4,252          0      16,669
Ringness       2,635      3,212          0       2,635
Morris        20,124     11,589          0       9,266
Plesa         80,030     45,215     59,000      45,793
Lalani        10,742     26,925    145,000      10,617
Bhojani       84,346     77,688    100,000      24,682
Ginsberg     105,297     22,587          0      83,152
Curl          27,622      7,455     10,000      35,274
Ramirez       43,423     32,299          0       6,962
DeFelice      64,110     40,476      5,000      35,460
Aramburu      38,353      8,289          0       5,063
Morales        6,131      3,252          0       8,583

I’m looking at the non-Beto and non-judicial statewide races, the one open State Senate seat that could be interesting, and a handful of State House races based partly on 2020 election data and my own idiosyncrasies. There were a few State House races that might be intriguing on paper, I couldn’t find a finance report for the candidate in question. If there’s a race that I’ve skipped that offends you, let me know in the comments.

Remember that these reports may cover different time spans, depending on the candidate’s primary status. Candidates who had no primary opponent, such as Luis Echagaray in HD52, have reports that include all activity since January 1. Candidates who won their March primary, such as Daniel Lee in HD26, have reports that include all activity since February 21. And candidates who had to win a primary runoff, such as Suleimon Lalani in HD76, have reports that include all activity since May 16. Check the report itself if you’re not sure for a given candidate – the information is there on the first page.

Mike Collier is one of those who had to endure a runoff, so that $693K is since mid-May. That in itself is not too bad – it’s not particularly eye-catching, but it’s a decent pace and will add up over time. To that extent, here are the totals Collier has posted over other periods since last year:

Feb 20 – May 14 – $487,963
Jan 21 – Feb 19 – $124,329
Jan 01 – Jan 20 – $55,989
Jul 01 – Dec 31 – $826,861
Jan 01 – Jun 30 – $757,109

That’s nearly $3 million raised since the beginning of 2021. It’s not a huge amount – you may not be aware of this, but Texas is a big state with a lot of media markets and it costs a crapton of money to effectively advertise statewide as a result – but it’s not nothing. If Collier can continue at the pace from his last report, he’ll collect a couple million dollars by November. Maybe that’s another reason why Republicans are now attacking him.

Rochelle Garza and Jay Kleberg, who were also in the May runoffs, posted their own $500K-plus totals for the six weeks of their periods. I won’t do the same listing as I did for Collier, but I can tell you that Garza has raised about $1.1 million and Kleberg about $2 million since last November. The same caveats as with Collier apply, but I can’t think of any election since maybe 2002 where multiple statewide Dems posted similar numbers. As I’ve said elsewhere, whatever you’ve budgeted to give to Beto, leave a little room for Collier and Garza and Kleberg and the others.

SD27 is the Senate seat that Eddie Lucio is finally vacating. Morgan LaMantia won the nomination in the runoff, so her totals are from May 15. SD27 was moderately Democratic in 2020 after having been much more Democratic in 2016, so it’s one to watch for signs of either a rebound or further decay. There was a recent Trib story that I don’t feel like looking for with a headline that says Republicans are mulling whether to pour money into this one. I don’t know why they wouldn’t, but I guess even they don’t have infinite resources and have to choose their priorities.

I haven’t paid a lot of attention to most of these State House races, many of which were uncontested in March. I didn’t even recognize a few of the names before I went looking for their reports. HDs 70 (Collin County) and 92 (Tarrant) are new Democratic districts drawn to shore of neighboring Republican districts. HD76 had been a Democratic district in El Paso, and is now a Democratic district in Fort Bend. The rest for the most part are districts Trump won by less than ten points, with HD118 being a slight Biden seat that the Republicans won in a special election last year. Frank Ramirez is back for a second shot at it, and I’d certainly like to see a bigger cash on hand number in that one. Otherwise, not much here to grab your attention, with the possible exceptions of Elizabeth Ginsburg, who hopes to flip one of the last two red districts in Dallas County, and Rebecca Moyer DeFelice, running in HD121, the Bexar County equivalent of HD134 (and HD108, for that matter).

This concludes my tour of the July finance reports. I expect to look at the 30-day reports for Harris County, and maybe the 8-day reports for it as well. As always, let me know if you have any questions.

News orgs sue DPS over Uvalde info

Same annoying story, part whatever. Getting public records about this tragedy shouldn’t be this hard to do.

More than a dozen news organizations filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety on Monday, accusing the agency of unlawfully withholding public records related to the May school shooting in Uvalde.

The organizations — which include The Texas Tribune and its partner ProPublica and other local, state and national newsrooms — have each filed requests under the Texas Public Information Act for information detailing the response by various authorities, including law enforcement, to the massacre.

DPS has refused to release records in response to these requests, even as the agency has selectively disclosed some information through public testimonythird-party analyses and news conferences.

“In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, and continuing throughout the ensuing two months, DPS has declined to provide any meaningful information in response to the Requests regarding the events of that day — despite the unfathomable reality that some 376 members of law enforcement responded to the tragedy, and hundreds of those were in the school or on school property not going into the unlocked classroom where the gunman continued killing helpless youth,” the lawsuit states. “At the same time, DPS has offered conflicting accounts regarding the response of law enforcement, the conduct of its officers, the results of its own investigation, and the agency’s justifications for withholding information from the public.”

[…]

DPS is claiming an exemption for records related to an ongoing investigation, but the news organizations argue there is no such investigation, given the guilt of the gunman is not in dispute and authorities say the 18-year-old acted alone. The local prosecutor, Uvalde County District Attorney Christina Mitchell Busbee, has acknowledged that she is not conducting a criminal investigation.

The records requested include emails; body camera and other video footage; call logs, 911 and other emergency communications; interview notes; forensic and ballistic records; and lists of DPS personnel who responded to the tragedy, among other information.

The plaintiffs include The New York Times Company, The Washington Post, NBC News, CNN, ABC News, CBS News, Scripps Media and Gannett. The Texas Tribune and ProPublica, who also joined the suit, have filed about 70 records requests.

See here and here for some background. It’s not just been DPS that has been resistant to releasing information, but they’ve definitely dug in their heels. However this ends up, expect it to be fought till the bitter end in court.

Perhaps one reason why DPS is so reluctant to give up any of their information is because any time any data about the Uvalde massacre gets released, law enforcement just looks bad.

On July 17, the city of Uvalde released nearly 3.5 hours of video from city police body cameras. The stream of recordings came only hours after a special Texas House committee investigating the massacre issued a report that condemned the law enforcement response as a jumble of missed opportunities and unlearned lessons from past mass shootings.

The recordings — from seven Uvalde officers’ body cameras — show officers anxious, frustrated or confused by conflicting information. Several frantically searched for a master key for Room 111’s door, which apparently was unlocked.

The footage also shows a steadily increasing flow of police officers from other local, state and federal agencies into Robb Elementary, beginning less than 10 minutes after Ramos began shooting inside the classrooms. Some of the police carried rifles. Some wore body armor or full protective gear.

The recordings — especially of the radio message at 12:11 a.m. alerting officers that wounded victims were trapped in the rooms with Ramos — could become pivotal as prosecutors weigh whether to charge some of the responding officers with a crime because of their failure to confront the shooter much earlier in his rampage.

“They’re looking hard at when officers learned about kids being in the classrooms,” said one law enforcement source familiar with the conversations of prosecutors looking into the case. “At what point did (officers) know when the kids called from inside the classrooms?”

Christina Mitchell Busbee, district attorney of Uvalde and Real counties, has declined to comment on the investigation.

The Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Rangers are handling the probe, with input from Mitchell’s office. In August, the agencies are expected to hand over their findings to Mitchell, who will decide whether to file any charges.

I don’t know that any of the responding officers should be held criminally liable for their response, but I can damn sure imagine some civil lawsuits against the various agencies involved. But good luck building a case if you don’t have enough evidence.

Maybe don’t vote against a popular bill that you’d previously supported out of spite next time?

Sowing, meet reaping.

Not Ted Cruz

Veterans groups are irate with Texas Sens. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn after they joined Senate Republicans in blocking a bill expanding health care to veterans exposed to toxic chemicals from burn pits while they were deployed overseas.

The Senate is expected to pass the bill as soon as this week, but veterans advocates say the move to block the bill — which Cornyn and Cruz had previously supported — caused unnecessary delays for people with potentially life-threatening cancer who need help now. They accuse Republicans of pushing a false narrative about funding in the bill that Cruz and others have described as a blank check for Democrats.

“What it’s in danger of is more delays,” said Patrick Murray, director of legislative services at the Veterans of Foreign Wars. He said Cornyn and Cruz “are too cavalier about this eventually passing.

“That doesn’t fly to people with some of these horrible illnesses that this is meant to remedy,” he said. “Don’t tell people with cancer, ‘We’ll get to it a month or two.’”

The Senate vote is the final hurdle for the once bipartisan legislation that would open up roughly $280 billion for health care for veterans suffering from exposure to toxic fumes. The bill would make it so that those veterans no longer need to prove they were exposed to receive care from the Department of Veterans Affairs if they are suffering from certain symptoms.

The bill has passed the House and was approved by the Senate on a 84-14 vote in June. But administrative issues require the bill to be tweaked and voted on once more before it can be sent to President Joe Biden to be signed into law. Last Wednesday, 25 Republicans, including Cornyn and Cruz, changed their vote and opposed the bill.

The reason for the switch was because a bunch of Republican Senators got their undies in a twist after they voted for the CHIPS Act and then the Manchin/Schumer reconciliation bill was announced. Mitch McConnell had threatened to tank the CHIPS Act if the Dems went forward with reconciliation, and once that hostage had been freed, they had to find another. (The fledgling Senate version of the Respect for Marriage Act is also in their crosshairs.) Turns out, though, that double-crossing injured veterans like this, complete with celebratory fist bumps, especially when they have a loud-mouthed celebrity out there relentlessly attacking them for their perfidy, may not have been the best political move. Too bad, so sad. What can I tell you, fellas, sometimes nihilism isn’t the best look. Be glad you’re not on the ballot in November. TPM and Daily Kos have more.

UPDATE: And in the end, the Senate Republicans caved, with both Cruz and Cornyn going back to Yes.

Elevating I-10

My antennae are up about this.

A state proposal to elevate Interstate 10 near White Oak Bayou is raising concerns among neighbors, who worry about the effects a higher freeway would have on noise and drainage.

The $347 million project, unveiled Tuesday by the Texas Department of Transportation, would raise I-10 between Interstate 45 and Heights Boulevard, a distance of less than two miles. Where the freeway is now, slightly up the slope from White Oak Bayou, would become drainage and open space in some spots, while the lanes would be rebuilt atop concrete pillars.

More detailed designs of the proposal are expected later this year, with an environmental review planned in 2023. Construction would start in summer 2024, according to TxDOT, which opened a public comment period until Aug. 12 on the plan. An in-person meeting is scheduled for Thursday, at TxDOT’s Houston district headquarters near I-10 and Washington.

In their initial presentation, TxDOT officials said the area is too prone to flooding from heavy rains, and too important to regional travel. More than 200,000 vehicles used that area of the freeway on the average day last year, according to TxDOT.

All of that comes to a halt when White Oak tops its banks in heavy rain, however, something that happened during Tropical Storms Allison and Imelda and Hurricane Harvey. Those storms sent water onto the freeway, making it impassable.

Any change to the current design, however, is going to draw intense scrutiny from the neighborhood, residents said.

“We’re skeptical, especially with TxDOT’s track record of valuing exurb commuters over urban neighborhoods,” Brad Snead, a member of the Woodland Heights Civic Association and head of the club’s infrastructure committee, wrote in an email. “That said, our biggest ask at the moment will likely be more time to comment and see the data. We’re not immediately opposed, but we don’t know enough.”

If built, the project would keep the freeway at roughly the same elevation as it goes over Heights and Studemont, and raise it again between Taylor and I-45 to around the same height as the current HOV lane into downtown Houston.

[…]

The proposed elevation, however, is among several changes envisioned along I-10 within Loop 610. TxDOT has proposed adding managed lanes — similar to the Katy Managed Lanes outside the loop — to the freeway, likely elevated above the existing lanes.

Metropolitan Transit Authority, meanwhile, has its own plan to add bus rapid transit along elevated lanes from the Northwest Transit Center near Loop 610 and Post Oak to downtown Houston. Plans for the busway rely on using the existing HOV ramp into the central business district or building the lanes south of the freeway through First Ward.

This story is from last week, so the public meeting has already happened. You can see a video of the presentation, in English or in Spanish, here. Also on that page are the exhibit boards, which are also the PowerPoint slides from the video, and the schematic, among other things.

I get the reason for this, and I’m glad to see the project if it goes forward as is would not require any taking of residential or commercial property. The construction would be a major pain, and would make a significant part of the Heights bike trail inaccessible (I assume there would be some alternate route, though I don’t know what that would be yet) while construction was ongoing. The noise concern is real – I can’t imagine how loud it might be to have all that traffic up in the air like that, with nothing to block the noise emanating from it. I’m a big proponent of building these elevated lanes for Metro’s Inner Katy BRT line, but that’s far less traffic, and would really only require two lanes so it would be much smaller in scope. After years of fighting the I-45 expansion, I don’t think there’s much goodwill for TxDOT in this area, whatever the benefits of this plan may be. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

The independents

Recently I got an email from a gentleman named Ted Wood, who wrote to inform me that he had successfully completed the requirements to be an independent candidate for Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals on the November 2022 ballot. The basic requirements to be an independent candidate for non-statewide office are filing a declaration of intent to run as an indy – this is to be done at the filing deadline – and then collecting 500 signatures from people who didn’t vote in the primaries.

Wood told me his candidacy is the first Independent run for an appellate bench in Texas since 1996. I hadn’t checked that at the time he told me, but I believed it. In my experience, most of the independent candidates run for Congress or the Legislature. I’ll get to some past numbers in a minute, but did you know that there’s no public listing of independent candidates for the 2022 election right now? Obviously there will be one in about a month when the ballots are finalized and printed to be sent to overseas voters, but if you want to know right now who besides Ted Wood is an independent candidate running for state or federal office in Texas, you have to make a Public Information Act request to the Secretary of State. Seems crazy to me, but here we are.

Anyway, Wood did this and shared the list with me, which you can see here. It’s six candidates for Congress, two for the State House, and him. Two of the Congressional candidates are repeat customers – Vince Duncan has been an indy for Cd18 in 2020, 2018, and 2014, while Chris Royal ran as an indy for CD34 in 2020. The current cycle and the last two have been relatively busy ones for independent candidates for Congress – six this year, seven in 2020 and 2018, though in 2018 there were two in CD09, so indy candidates were only in six races – but for whatever the reason it wasn’t like that at all before 2018. I found no independent candidates for Congress in 2016, two in 2014, and one in 2012. I have no explanation for that – if you have one, let me know. I found one independent candidate for State House in each of 2014, 2016, and 2018; I didn’t search 2020 because the new format on the SOS website is a pain in the ass for that sort of thing. I found no independent candidates for any other offices since 2012, which was as far back as I checked for state elections.

Wood also inquired with Harris County about any independent candidates running for county offices. He was informed by Judge Lina Hidalgo’s office that there were no independent candidates for county office on the ballot in Harris County in 2022. This didn’t surprise me, as I couldn’t think of any recent examples of such a candidacy offhand. I went back through Harris County election results all the way to 1996, and found two non-legislative indies in that time. One was a candidate for the 245th Civil District Court in 2002, an Angelina Goodman, who got 3.69% of the vote. That’s not a county office, though – it’s a state office. I finally found a genuine indy for a county office in 1996. In the race that year for Constable in Precinct 7, a fellow named Andy Williams was the sole opponent to Democrat A. B. Chambers, and he got 6.39% of the vote. You learn something new every day.

Anyway. Wood as noted is running for Chief Justice of the First Court of Appeals, a seat that is being vacated by Sherry Radack. Democrat Julie Countiss, who is currently a Justice on this court but for another bench (she can run for Chief Justice without giving up her current seat), and Republican Terry Adams, who had been appointed to the First Court for Place 5 in 2020 then lost to Amparo Guerra that November, are his opponents. He’s working now in the Harris County Public Defender’s office. Before that, he worked for the General Counsel at the Texas Office of Court Administration (OCA) in Austin, and served two terms as County Judge in Randall County. As a Democratic precinct chair I am supporting Julie Countiss, who is also someone I know in real life and who I voted for the First Court in 2018. But I enjoyed having the chance to talk to Ted Wood, and I definitely appreciate the opportunity to get a nerdy blog post out of it. Hope you enjoyed this little excursion into electoral miscellania as well.

Redistricting plaintiffs get a win on discovery

Every little bit helps.

A federal judge on Monday issued a wide-ranging discovery order requiring Texas state lawmakers to turn over documents related to the state’s congressional redistricting plans.

The underlying lawsuit, filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens and several other civil rights groups, is part of a broad effort to correct what critics say is voter intimidation and discrimination in Texas heading into the 2022 midterm elections.

[…]

Like the separate lawsuit over Texas election laws, this redistricting case has continued to swell since its initial filing, with six other lawsuits consolidated into the legal fight. Days after the case was filed, the Fifth Circuit appointed a three-judge panel to oversee the increasingly complex case.

In November, the Justice Department also joined those suing state officials. It was doing so, the federal government said, because Texas redistricting plans had raised “important questions” about possible violations of the Voting Rights Act.

Since then, the case has largely hinged on issues of discovery. Texas lawmakers have battled against subpoenas, arguing that much of their work on redistricting was privileged information. They filed hundreds of pages of court documents detailing information they do not think they should have to turn over, including what they’ve described as “confidential communications” reflecting “thoughts, opinions and mental impressions.”

The Department of Justice, meanwhile, has continued its efforts to enforce subpoenas. The feds argue Texas officials have “inappropriately” claimed attorney-client privilege, refused to turn over documents from decades ago and “advanced an overbroad conception” of legislative privilege that has withheld “even communications with members of the public.” As a result, they say, lawmakers have disclosed “merely one-third” of the documents requested in subpoenas.

In his order on Monday, U.S. District Court Judge David Guaderrama, an Obama appointee, agreed with arguments from the DOJ and the civil rights groups. He found that Texas lawmakers were using overly broad theories of legislative privilege and could not “cloak conversations with executive-branch officials, lobbyists, and other interested outsiders.”

Guaderrama ruled the factors in this case weighed in favor of granting discovery requests. He cited the “seriousness of the litigation and the issues involved,” including allegations of lawbreaking and “intentional discrimination” against minority voters.

While Texas lawmakers asserted attorney-client privilege, the judge ruled they could not simply decline to release any documents referencing legal analysis, including scheduling calendars and communications with outside firms involved in redistricting. These documents are not “categorically privileged,” he wrote.

In the end, Guaderrama ordered Texas lawmakers to turn over a wide array of documents relating to redistricting, including “talking points” defending the maps. For any documents that contained “bona fide legal advice” or “privileged material,” Guaderrama ordered lawmakers to produce redacted versions.

About two months ago, the plaintiffs scored a different win in that three Republican legislators who had tried to avoid having to sit for depositions failed to get a lower court ruling against them overturned. If this ruling stands – always a dicey proposal when the Fifth Circuit is involved – then what the plaintiffs will gain is a lot of insight into what the legislators and their staff and advisors were saying to each other at the time. The experience from previous rounds of redistricting litigation is that there will be some good stuff there for the plaintiffs. Which still might not matter in the end, since SCOTUS has made its preferences very clear, but as I said in that last post, you have to start somewhere. Link via Reform Austin.

Dallas joins the abortion decriminalization queue

Good for them.

The Dallas City Council could consider a resolution in August aimed at blunting the impact of the Texas Legislature’s trigger law that will go into effect following the Supreme Court’s decision that overturned Roe vs. Wade.

Dallas’ measure would direct city staff—which includes the Dallas Police Department—to make investigating and prosecuting accusations of abortion “the lowest priority for enforcement” and instructs City Manager T.C. Broadnax to not use “city resources, including … funds, personnel, or hardware” to create records regarding individual pregnancy outcomes, provide information about pregnancy outcomes to any agency, or to investigate whether an abortion has occurred, a draft copy of the resolution obtained by D reads.

“I would say that it technically really does accomplish the decriminalization here locally,” said Dallas City Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who worked on the resolution and chairs the committee that will consider the matter before it goes to the full Council. “Being the lowest priority, … there’s not much of an investigation that could be done if there’s no resources that are able to be allocated.”

The measure does not apply to instances where law enforcement officials might need to investigate cases of criminal negligence by a practitioner in the care of a pregnant person, or where force or coercion is used against a pregnant person.

The resolution will be introduced in a special-called meeting of the council’s Quality of Life, Arts, and Culture Committee Tuesday. If approved by the committee, he aims to have it before the full Council at its Aug. 10 meeting. If it passes, Dallas would join many cities that have sought restrictions with similar resolutions, including Denton, Waco, and Austin. The San Antonio City Council will vote on its resolution Tuesday.

Yes, Denton and Waco. You knew about San Antonio and Austin, now you can add these three to the list.

Bazaldua said he knows the city can do little about the law itself, but he hopes this resolution would provide a measure of protection for healthcare providers who could face felony charges if suspected of providing an abortion. Pregnant people would also have similar protections, he said.

“There’s only so much that can be done at the local level and this is about as much as we can get,” he said, adding that after the resolution is passed, ideally the city would begin working with nonprofit and private-sector partners to help people locate resources if they need to travel to another state for an abortion.

He also doesn’t see this resolution endangering the city when it comes to another recently passed law that would penalize cities that “defund” their police departments. He argues that funding isn’t being reduced.

“What can they do? Punish a city for saying this should not be a priority of ours?” he said. “When we have violent crime that’s going on, that we should be focusing our resources and funding on?”

I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past Ken Paxton or the forced-birth fanatics in the Lege, but on its face that’s a strong argument. It’s also consistent with the earlier advice we saw about what cities can do on their end. I don’t know how this will play out – I cannot overemphasize how much effect the November elections could have in blunting the worst possible effects of the new anti-abortion laws and preventing the creation of new ones – but it feels good to do something, even if it may be transient. One has to wonder when there will be some action in Houston on this front. Is there a campaign going on about this that I haven’t seen yet?

Deshaun Watson suspended for six games

Feels light to me. And not just to me.

Months after trading six draft picks and committing a fully guaranteed $230 million to land Deshaun Watson from the Texans, the Browns have lost their star quarterback for the first six games of the 2022 season, CBS Sports NFL Insider Josina Anderson reports. Former federal judge Sue L. Robinson determined Monday that Watson should be suspended for six weeks after hearing testimony regarding the former Pro Bowler’s alleged off-field conduct. The QB this offseason faced civil lawsuits from 24 different women accusing him of sexual assault or misconduct.

Under this suspension, Watson will miss the following games to begin Cleveland’s season: at Panthers, vs. Jets, vs. Steelers, at Falcons, vs. Chargers, vs. Patriots. His first game back will be on Oct. 23 when the Browns visit the Ravens in Week 7.

Watson’s suspension arrives after multiple reports indicated the NFL would seek at least a full-season ban for the QB, who recently reached confidential settlements for 20 of the 24 lawsuits. It marks the league’s harshest discipline imposed on a QB since Michael Vick was banned indefinitely in 2009, before serving a nearly two-year prison sentence.

[…]

Watson has the power to appeal his suspension, but the NFLPA announced in a statement on the eve of this ruling that they would not. They also implored the NFL to also not appeal. Any appeal would ultimately be decided by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, seemingly making it unlikely he could significantly reduce his punishment. (Goodell previously reduced suspensions for Roethlisberger and Vick after in-person meetings, but Watson’s case carries a different magnitude.) The NFLPA could also sue the NFL over unfair discipline in light of certain team owners (i.e. the Commanders’ Daniel Snyder) allegedly receiving more lenient penalties over sexual assault accusations, but in the past, lawsuits over suspensions have only proven to delay, not significantly reduce or overturn, NFL discipline.

See here for the previous update. Here’s the Chron story with some more details (that CBS story was the first one I saw, literally minutes after the news broke).

The NFL, which had pushed for a suspension of at least one year and a fine of $5 million, has three days to appeal. If either side appealed, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell or someone he designates will make the decision, per terms of the collective bargaining agreement. The union then could try to challenge that ruling in federal court.

Watson’s six-game suspension aligns with past punishments levied against former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott, who both were accused of sexual assault and were not criminally charged.

There were expectations Watson’s suspension could have been longer. The Watson suspension comes months after the MLB announced a two-year suspension for Dodgers pitcher Trevor Bauer, who faced sexual assault and domestic violence allegations that did not lead to criminal charges.

According to NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero, Robinson’s decision says Watson’s “pattern of behavior was egregious,” but the behavior was “nonviolent sexual conduct.”

The league had pushed for an indefinite suspension of at least one year and a $5 million fine for the 26-year-old Watson during a three-day hearing before Robinson in June. The NFL Players’ Association argued Watson shouldn’t be punished at all because he was not convicted of any crime.

Robinson’s decision focused on information regarding five of the women who sued Watson, according to the Wall Street Journal. Watson, who has repeatedly denied wrongdoing, settled all but four of the lawsuits in June that had been levied against him. NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said then those settlements would have no impact on the league’s disciplinary process.

I dunno, I feel like Watson’s alleged transgressions were worse, for their cumulative nature if nothing else. I thought that one year was the right amount of suspension, partly because I thought the Trevor Bauer comparison was more accurate, but I could have accepted something like ten or twelve games. I just don’t think six is enough, and I don’t think Deshaun Watson will come away from this thinking anything other than he was exonerated. A look at some other possible points of comparison bolster my opinion on that.

The suspension being limited to six games raises some eyebrows when compared the one-year suspension the league dealt Falcons receiver Calvin Ridley after he was found to have placed $1,500 worth of online parlay wagers when he was away from the team last season.

Six games also is the same punishment given to Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins, Watson’s former teammate in Houston, for having a trace amount of performance-enhancing drugs in his system.

The comparisons can go on and on, including former Saints coach Sean Payton being suspended for a year when his team allegedly had bounties on opponents’ heads and Payton sent an email to his coaches telling them to make sure you “get you ducks in a row” when talking to NFL investigators.

Comparisons of disciplinary actions can often be facile, as there can be multiple dimensions to each decision, but in this case I don’t think you’ll find many examples of people getting less time off for more egregious activity. It’s possible I could change my view over time, but right now I don’t feel like justice was served. More from the Chron and Sean Pendergast.

UPDATE: Per ESPN, Watson has now also settled all but one of the lawsuits pending against him; there had been four remaining, and three are now resolved. That includes the lawsuit filed by Ashley Solis. All in all, Monday was a pretty good day for Deshaun Watson.

Texas is sooooooooo gerrymandered…

How gerrymandered are we? By this measure, we’re literally as gerrymandered as we could possibly be.

But just how biased have modern-day maps become in the state of Texas? The map that was approved last October is so highly biased, it is quite literally off the charts, according to the SMU findings.

The open-source software that the SMU researchers use helps them generate millions of maps that follow state guidelines for drawing districts.

The software allowed the researchers to answer a simple question: “If you didn’t try to design [maps] to maximize Democratic seats or Republican seats, if you just pick them randomly to satisfy the law — what would you get?” said Andrea Barreiro, associate professor of mathematics at SMU.

Using this large set of randomly generated maps, the group established a baseline for what a typical map that follows state guidelines looks like. With this baseline, the researchers were then able to measure how far from the baseline a proposed map was — and, therefore, how biased it was.

“If you have something that’s way outside of [the baseline], then there must have been some design goal that pushed it away from all these randomly generated maps, and that’s what we would call a biased map,” said Scott Norris, SMU associate professor of mathematics.

As soon as Texas’ first proposed congressional maps were made available on the Capitol Data Portal in late September, the SMU team got to work analyzing how the maps fared.

As different maps were proposed, the team generated over a million maps to create an unbiased baseline, offering key measures that are commonly used by political scientists to assess gerrymandering.

They completed this analysis for 59 proposed congressional maps. (The SMU team also shared their analysis for proposed Texas House, Senate and city council maps.)

Of the 1.5 million maps that the team generated and analyzed to compare with the final proposed Texas congressional district map, not a single baseline map showed levels of bias as high.

The proposed map was more biased than every single map their software had generated, the SMU researchers showed.

With their findings in hand, the SMU team reached out to all members of the Texas subcommittees involved in redistricting, as well as the researchers’ own local legislators.

They sent emails and posted to the comment portals provided by the legislature. Several of them testified at an open community hearing, explaining how this software works and advocating for its use to create less biased maps.

But they only heard back from a few offices. “The only people that we have actually spoken to are Democrats. … As you might expect, we haven’t had any interest from Republican members of the committees and, you know, that makes sense from their perspective,” said Norris.

[…]

The SMU group’s software revealed that the approved Texas map reduced the competitiveness of almost 50% of congressional districts in the state. This means that Republicans can win 50% of the state’s congressional seats, with only 42.2% of the state’s votes, the researchers showed.

In addition to dampening the need for officials to earn votes, gerrymandering can also leave large numbers of voters in a district with a representative who is out of touch with their community, said SMU researchers.

“When we testified to the House about this, I was struck [by] how many rural Republican voters were basically pleading with legislators not to break up their districts,” said Matthew Lockard, SMU associate professor of philosophy.

Farmers worried that their lives are so different from those of the city voters they might be in a district with that it just didn’t make sense.

You can see all the data here. I will confess, I don’t really understand the numbers they have in the tables there, but you don’t need a deep understanding of their methods to grok that the Republican-drawn ones were more gerrymandered than all 1.5 million randomly-drawn legal maps done by the team. We saw last decade that in a rapidly growing and diversifying state like Texas big changes can happen in a short time. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen again, just that the future isn’t set in stone. But that’s not for lack of trying on the Republicans’ part.