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Legal matters

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Steven Hotze’s death wish

I have three things to say about this.

A hardline conservative power broker and three area pastors filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court Monday arguing that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus, filed by anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez, contends Hidalgo’s order undercuts the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls. Pastors also may minister to congregants individually.

Hotze and the pastors argue the order also “severely infringes” on Second Amendment rights by closing gun stores. The order does not define gun shops as essential businesses, though Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion Friday that stay-at-home orders cannot force gun stores to close or otherwise restrict sales or transfers.

Hidalgo’s order, issued March 24, requires most businesses to close and directs residents to stay home unless they are getting groceries, running crucial errands, exercising or going to work at a business deemed essential. The directive is aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and it came a day after chief executives at the Texas Medical Center unanimously called for the county to implement a shelter-in-place order.

[…]

Hidalgo spokesman Rafael Lemaitre declined to address “the specifics of the litigation,” but said: “Public health and science must drive our response, and the science is clear: If we fail to take adequate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, people will die. We continue to urge folks to take this seriously.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said county officials view the order as “necessary to deal with the extraordinary crisis that Harris County, Texas and the country are facing as a result of the coronavirus.”

Soard said the order does not intend to close gun stores and “we’ve not advised any gun stores to close, as far as I’m aware.” He also said Paxton’s opinion makes clear that gun shops in Texas will remain open.

As for the First Amendment challenge, Soard said there is “nothing in the order that prevents churches from broadcasting” services. He said Hidalgo crafted the order “as precisely or narrowly as she could to allow people to worship as they choose.”

1. If Hotze and his band of idiots were only putting their own health and lives at risk, I wouldn’t care. Hell, I’d cheer them on, from a sufficiently safe distance. But as we’ve said many times, that’s not how viruses work. They would be putting many other people in jeopardy. They may not care about that, but they don’t get to make that kind of decision unilaterally.

2. Even if the courts stop them, Hotze is still working to put other people in danger:

In a video posted to YouTube late last month, Hotze advised that people take multivitamins and not worry about the virus, which he said is “all media hype” and “fake news.”

Hotze then compared the virus to the flu or dysentery, and accused democrats of having “weaponized the coronavirus” to hurt President Donald Trump.

Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist, called the lawsuit “disheartening” and “reckless,” and said it is “potentially endangering lives.”

I’m old enough to remember when behavior like that was considered to be un-Christian.

3. I’ll leave the last word to this guy:

‘Nuff said. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. The county should be filing its response today.

Latest abortion ban halted for now

We follow the script.

Right there with them

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions, a prohibition state officials said was necessary to preserve medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling came less than a week after Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all procedures deemed to be not medically necessary should be interpreted to include abortions.

The court granted the abortion providers’ motion to temporarily block the state from enforcing the order, which was set to expire April 21, as it relates to abortions. The temporary restraining order will expire April 13.

“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “There can be no outright ban on such a procedure.”

Yeakel also wrote that people seeking abortions would “suffer serious and irreparable harm” if the ban were allowed and that temporarily blocking the executive order “will not disserve the public interest.”

“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable,” Yeakel wrote.

See here for the background. The next page of this script is the state appealing to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit inventing some reason to give the state what it asked for. After that it gets a little murky, but by then it almost doesn’t matter because the state gets to do what it wants in the interim. In theory, once the emergency order is lifted then the justification for this ban goes away, but if you don’t think there’s some way that Abbott and Paxton might try to work around that, you’re not thinking hard enough. The Current and Slate have more.

Of course he thinks that’s “essential”

Doesn’t get any more on-brand than this.

Best mugshot ever

Gun stores are essential business and should be allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday.

Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.

“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.

Many cities and counties had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the fire arms businesses.

“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.

The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.

That’s because this process normally requires research and inquiry, and leave open the possibility of an answer that doesn’t conform to one’s initial inclinations. Couldn’t take any chances on that here, obviously. People need to be able to defend themselves against that virus. I recommend very small-caliber bullets.

AG opinions are not binding, of course, so a city or county could go ahead and impose a ban on gun stores anyway if they wanted to. That would leave it up to a court to decide; there’s a fight over this already happening in California, where gun stores were (also not surprisingly) not classified as “essential”. I rather doubt any Texas municipality would want to expend that kind of effort when there are more important things to do, but they could if they chose to. The whole thing is ridiculous, but here we are.

Abortion providers file suit over Abbott executive order

You can’t let crass opportunism go unchallenged.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging an executive order earlier this week that included abortion in a ban of all procedures that are deemed to not be medically necessary.

In a press conference Wednesday, national and state abortion rights groups said they are seeking a temporary restraining order, with hopes of a more permanent injunction to follow. They are representing various abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women’s Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.

The ban, which Attorney General Ken Paxton later clarified applies to abortion clinics as well, was enacted to ensure the state maintains health care capacity as it prepares for an influx of COVID-19 patients. But abortion clinics and activists in the state pushed back almost immediately, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an “exploitation” of the current crisis.

Sealy Massingill, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, took politicians to task for “playing politics” at a critical time. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas still plans to keep clinics open, though he said the organization is bracing for further developments.

“I find it extremely distressing … that we are trying to respond to a purely political fight that [Gov. Greg Abbott] started. Patients who need abortions are on a time-sensitive deadline,” Massingill said.

Providers have already had to turn away patients, Massingill added, and delays of even a few weeks could render some abortions impossible if the patients’ pregnancies extend past legal deadlines.

Here’s the Trib story about the executive order. I didn’t get around to blogging about it because there’s just too much these days. It should be obvious that a “medically necessary” procedure is one that simply cannot be put off, at least not for a significant length of time, and that by that definition, abortion clearly fits. To claim otherwise, as the state of Ohio has also done, is sophistry at best and a straight up lie otherwise. In a rational world, this would get stopped in a hot second by any court. In a world that includes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, your guess is as good as mine. Given that Abbott has declined to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring to leave that to the locals, who have not seen fit to order clinics to stop providing abortions, the case for this is even flimsier. I feel confident that a district court judge will issue a temporary restraining order, but after that who knows. The Chron has more.

Former Bloomberg staffers sue him

Okay.

Four former workers for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in Texas are suing him for fraud, alleging that he went back on a promise to pay them through the November election.

In lawsuits filed Monday in Tarrant County, the former workers say the Democratic candidate promised that even if he dropped out — as he did earlier this month — he would continue to employ them through November “no matter what.” Each is seeking $42,000 in wages in addition to lost health insurance benefits, for a total capped at $75,000.

The lawsuits are apparently the first of their type in Texas against Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, who faces a growing uproar nationwide from former staffers. They also come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in Texas and across the country, an especially harrowing situation for the unemployed and for those without health insurance.

The former workers in Texas, who were all organizers, are Abdoulaye Gueye, Argunda Jefferson, Gregory Snow and Melinda Hamilton. All are from Tarrant County except for Snow, who resides in neighboring Parker County.

Each plaintiff says he or she agreed not to disparage Bloomberg while working for him or afterward. “If plaintiff knew that Mike Bloomberg would go back on his word much in the style of Donald Trump, he never would have agreed to not bad mouth Bloomberg,” the lawsuits say.

I think a lot of people would have made different decisions if they had known what Bloomberg was going to end up doing. I have a lot of sympathy for these folks, and I’d love to see the NDAs they all had to sign get thrown out, but I don’t expect this to go anywhere.

Harris County settles lawsuit about voter registration records

I’m not sure what to make of this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a victory for government transparency, Harris County officials settled a lawsuit Tuesday with a conservative voting rights group, agreeing to disclose records of foreign nationals who voted in Texas elections and records documenting their attempts to register.

The Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation behind the lawsuit is headed by J. Christian Adams, a voting-fraud crusader. He served in the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush and was later tapped to serve on the Trump administration’s election integrity commission, which set out to clean up voting rolls around the country and prevent non-citizens from casting ballots.

Critics said his organization was hunting for a problem that didn’t exist, targeting low-income, left-leaning localities with a string of lawsuits that sought personal documents related to voters.

Adams characterized the agreement as “the best possible outcome for clean elections in Texas” and said his group intends to use the data to catalog and provide stakeholders with information on problems that allow foreigners to get on voter rolls.

Adams’ group PILF targeted Harris County in a March 2018 voting-rights lawsuit based on testimony from former voter registrar Mike Sullivan, a Republican, before the Texas House of Representatives alleging that for nearly two decades, officials had refused to comply with the federal law mandating inspection. The group’s presumption, according to internal briefs, was “not if, but how many aliens are getting onto Texas rolls, and voting?”

As PILF’s general counsel, Adams participated in the negotiated settlement with the county’s Democratic voter registrar, Ann Harris Bennett, in which the county agreed to provide records of people taken off the voter roll due to ineligibility and names of those who received “notices of examination” where their eligibility was questioned by election officials. The county also agreed to provide records dating back to 2013, including copies of voter registration applications with blank or negative responses to questions about their citizenship.

The county also said it would provide lists of registrants who were stricken from rolls after they were disqualified from jury service due to their non-citizenship as well as all communications between the registrar’s office and law-enforcement entities regarding registrants who were ineligible to vote.

What the county refused to provide were responses to jury summons from people who said they weren’t citizens. Instead, the county would provide the conclusions of its own findings about who shouldn’t be on the rolls.

See here for the background. I wish this story provided more context, because J. Christian Adams is a major bad guy, whom Rick Hasen calls “one of the Four Horsemen of voter suppression”. I don’t see a blog pot by Hasen about this lawsuit at this time, but you can see a list of his previous mentions of PILF here. I actually reached out to Hasen to ask him his thoughts, but with all that is going on right now he said he had not followed this story and wasn’t read up on it.

It’s clear that large parts of this story were lifted directly from a press release from PILF (I swear, it’s hard not to giggle when reading that name), with a bunch of their puffery left in for no obvious reason. Note that the settlement is about voter registrations and not actual votes cast, which is what Adams claimed to be searching for but didn’t get. Later on, Doug Ray of the County Attorney’s office noted that the plaintiffs wanted unredacted information from them, but were not given that, either. So, it’s a little hard to take this all that seriously, and I haven’t seen any chatter about this on Facebook from local Dems. Commissioners Court will have to approve this settlement as well (it’s possible they already have, it’s not clear from the story and I haven’t gone scanning through recent Court agendas), so I hope to see some reaction from the likes of the HCDP and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. Unless I begin to hear otherwise, I’d say this is much ado about nothing much.

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

Following fruitless negotiations over how to proceed with the upcoming primary runoff elections, Texas Democrats are looking to the courts to push for an expansion of voting by mail in the state.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court late Friday, the Democrats are asking a judge to declare that a portion of the Texas election code allowing voters to cast a mail-in ballot if they suffer from a disability applies to any voter in Texas “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder” the spread of the new coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters who would seek to vote by mail given the state of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward with respect to the pandemic, numerous voters, including the two individual Plaintiffs herein, seek to avail themselves of the option of mail-in ballots,” the lawsuit reads. “Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party needs to know how state law permits local election officials to handle such ballots cast in the Texas Democratic Party Runoff Primary Election so the [party] can determine how it desires to proceed in selecting nominees who were facing a runoff.”

[…]

Election officials in Texas generally agreed that a traditional election for the runoffs is implausible if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May.

But in conversations with the Texas Democratic Party this week, some local election officials said they opposed moving to universal voting by mail, under which all registered voters or all voters who participated in the March primaries would be automatically sent ballots, without a postponement to build up their capacity to take on that expansion.

The expansion Democrats are seeking would not result in all mail-in ballot election, and voters would still have to formally request mail ballots from their counties.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. It’s basically the argument that we’ve discussed before about the law as written being sufficiently broad – or vague, if you prefer – as to allow anyone who believes they qualify for the disability provision due to health issues, especially in this time of coronavirus, to be able to vote by mail. Obviously, I believe this argument has merit, though I thought it would be more of a stealth application rather than formally litigating the question. There will need to be a quick ruling for this to be relevant to the runoff, so I expect we’ll have an idea of what the courts think shortly. We’ll see.

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

Lawsuit filed over straight ticket voting ban

Lots of litigation lately.

In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Laredo, the Texas Democratic Party — joined by the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party and the Democratic campaign arms of the U.S. Senate and House — claims the elimination of straight-ticket voting is unconstitutional and intentionally discriminatory because the longer lines and waiting times it is expected to cause would be disproportionately felt at polling places that serve Hispanic and black voters.

“In ending a century-old voting practice that Texans have relied on to exercise their most fundamental and sacred rights — the rights to political participation and association — Texas has recklessly created a recipe for disaster at the polls in 2020,” the Democrats wrote in their lawsuit.

The popular practice allowed general-election voters to vote for all of the candidates of either party in an election by simply picking a straight-ticket option at the top of the ballot. But Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot.

Most states don’t allow for one-punch voting, but its elimination in Texas met intense opposition from Democrats who fear the change will be most felt among voters of color and lead to voter dropoff, particularly in blue urban counties that have the longest ballots in the state.

[…]

Citing violations of the First and 14th Amendments and the federal Voting Rights Act, Democrats are asking a federal judge to block the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting ahead of the general election.

“The end of straight-ticket voting was yet another Republican attempt to suppress the vote, alter the electorate, and take away power from the rising Texas majority,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “In minority-majority districts, lines to vote have already proven to be hours long.”

Courthouse News has the details of the lawsuit.

The Democrats say in the lawsuit that Texas’ longest polling-place lines are in its most populous counties, which have large concentrations of Democratic-leaning black and Latino voters.

The biggest counties also have the longest ballots, with voters wading through dozens of candidates, exacerbated by the fact Texas is one of a handful of states that selects judges in partisan elections.

For years, Texans could complete their civic duty in minutes by stepping into the voting booth and clicking one box to vote for all the Democratic or Republican candidates on the ticket — and millions of Texans chose that option.

“During Texas’s 2018 general election, approximately two-thirds of voters — more than 5.6 million Texans — cast their votes using STV [straight-ticket voting],” the lawsuit states. (Emphasis in original.)

But in 2017 the Republican-led Legislature passed House Bill 25 along party lines to end straight-ticket voting on Sept. 1, 2020 and Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed it into law.

Texas Democrats brought a federal complaint Thursday against Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in Laredo, seeking an injunction to stop House Bill 25 from going on the books.

The party says in the lawsuit that HB 25 is a “recipe for disaster,” especially after Super Tuesday saw voters waiting more than two hours in Houston and Dallas to get to voting booths.

Well, the tie-in to the Super Tuesday mess is clever and timely, though how legally relevant it may be remains to be seen. As both stories note, there’s been quite the fusillade of voting rights lawsuits lately, from Motor Voter 2.0 to electronic signatures for voter registration to mobile voting locations. Some have more merit than others, though I remain skeptical that the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS would ever allow any of them to succeed. As has been the case before, I agree with the basic premise of this lawsuit – I remain a staunch defender of straight ticket voting, even as I doubt its loss will affect Dems more than it will affect Republicans – and I have no doubt that the 2017 bill was passed for the express purpose of making it harder on Democrats. I mean, no one in the GOP had any problems with straight ticket voting when it clearly benefited their side.

I also think the claim that eliminating it is weak, given that Texas was an anomaly by having straight ticket voting, and even if voluminous evidence exists to show that the bill outlawing it was racially motivated, such issues didn’t bother SCOTUS in the redistricting and voter ID litigation. I’m fine with this aggressive approach – it puts the Republicans on the defensive, there’s always the chance something juicy comes out during discovery, and who knows, one or more of these might actually win despite my skepticism. I’m just going to keep my expectations in check. The Chron has more.

City responds to busking lawsuit

And I’m not thrilled with it.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit Friday that the city is beholden to keeping its streets and sidewalks safe, and that striking down the decades-old ordinance limiting where buskers — musicians who play in public places — can set up shop is not in its best interest. The law became the target of a lawsuit in January when Houston musician Anthony Barilla contended it violates the First Amendment.

While busking — the performing of music in public places — is mostly unrestricted in cities, such as Seattle, New York City, lawyers argue Houston is not that kind of town.

“Houstonians have a noted tendency to congregate in areas indoors, or even underground, to ‘avoid the heat of the summer, traffic, and inclement weather,’” the motion states.

Another worry to Houston is that loosening the ordinance would condone “unregulated competitors, obstructions of access, or objectionable noise.”

[…]

The city’s lengthy response to Barilla’s lawsuit goes as far to suggest how he could make money outside the Theater District — without soliciting tips, such as encouraginh pedestrians to “subscribe to his podcast or YouTube channel, asking them to purchase his music online, or asking them to attend upcoming concerts for which he will be compensated.”

See here for the background. The bit about “obstructions of access, or objectionable noise” I can understand, though surely those could be addressed by less-restrictive means. The rest, I don’t quite get what point the city’s attorneys are trying to make. For that matter, I don’t quite understand the principle that is being defended by the city here. What is the harm the city is trying to mitigate? I really don’t see how allowing street musicians to set up in non-downtown locations is going to cause chaos. Let’s please work towards a settlement and an amendment of that 1991 ordinance. We have better things to do than fight this.

ACLU sues the “abortion sanctuary cities”

This was expected.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against seven Texas cities on Tuesday for passing ordinances that aim to ban abortion by outlawing providers and advocates from doing business in their towns.

The suit, brought by the ACLU of Texas and ACLU National, contends the cities are violating the free speech of the eight banned groups, which include abortion providers and organizations that help people who need abortions. The ordinances label the groups “criminal organizations” and make it unlawful for them to operate within city limits.

“These ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Anjali Salvador, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Abortion is legal in every city and state in the country. Cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important work.”

The ordinances subject groups that would aid women seeking an abortion to illegal punishment without a fair trial, according to the lawsuit. The Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two of the eight groups banned from operating in the cities, are among the plaintiffs. Other banned organizations include Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

The ordinances make it unlawful for the organizations to offer services of any kind in the city, rent office space, purchase property or establish a physical presence. On the other hand, the ordinances acknowledge that cities cannot ban abortion under current law unless the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn abortion protections guaranteed in Roe v Wade.

[…]

Waskom, a small town on the Texas-Louisiana border, became the first city in the state to ban abortion this way, although it had no abortion clinics. City officials voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, fearful a Louisiana law banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected could push clinics to relocate in Texas. Six other small cities in East Texas have passed similar ordinances: Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary and Wells.

The ordinances make it illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion. They also offer families of an aborted fetus the ability to sue abortion providers.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. I haven’t blogged about most of these ordinances because there’s not much new to say for each, and so far all of the “cities” involved have been tiny towns that have no clinics in them. You’d think that just the provision making it “illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion” would be unconstitutional – would a city also be allowed to make it illegal to “provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on” gambling in Louisiana, or smoking weed in Colorado, or visiting the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, all things that are presumably also frowned upon by the people of Waskom? In theory, the Uber driver who takes you to the Greyhound station for a trip to Planned Parenthood in Houston would be guilty under this law, as would the driver of the Greyhound bus. You can’t stop someone from engaging in a perfectly legal pursuit.

As is always the case with this sort of thing, I agree completely with the intent of the lawsuit, and I’d love to see these towns get socked with large legal bills for their exercise in unconstitutional frivolity, that they may serve as grim examples for the next burg that might find itself tempted by the zealous anti-abortion grifters that sold them on it. But I admit to having some concerns as well. Do we really want to 1) provide another opportunity for Ken Paxton to grandstand (which, even though the state is not a party to the lawsuit, you know he will), 2) provide the Fifth Circuit with an opportunity to invent a reason why this is all hunky dory, and 3) provide SCOTUS with another opportunity to kneecap Roe v. Wade without explicitly overruling it? I shouldn’t have to feel this way – these ordinances are so obviously wrong there should be no cause for concern – but this is the world we live in. I just don’t love the risk/reward profile on this, and I hate myself for saying that. The Trib has more.

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

What is happening in the CD22 primary?

Holy smokes.

Nyanza Moore

A state district judge on Wednesday barred Democratic congressional candidate Nyanza Moore from making domestic violence allegations against opponent Derrick Reed after the former Pearland councilman sued her for defamation.

Brazoria County Judge Patrick Sebesta issued a temporary restraining order after concluding that Reed would “suffer immediate and irreparable damage” to his integrity and reputation if Moore persisted with a series of social media posts implying that Reed “beats women.”

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Reed cited a handful of times in which Moore alleged or suggested that he had beaten his ex-wife or otherwise committed domestic violence. In one post, Moore indicated she possessed a protective order between Reed and his ex-wife.

In the court filing, Reed emphatically denied the allegations and said no protective order “exists between he and his ex-wife or any other woman.”

“Mr. Reed was with his ex-wife for approximately 20 years and has never beat or abused her,” the filing reads. “The police have never been called out to any of their residences for domestic violence or any physical altercation.”

In a statement, Reed’s ex-wife, Erin Reed, said, “The claim being made that my ex-husband, Derrick Reed, physically abused me during our marriage is false. This accusation is damaging and unfair to our young and impressionable children and is an untrue characterization of their father.”

The order prohibits Moore from making any allegations that Reed committed domestic violence, and instructs her to retract any prior statement “used to disseminate the defamatory statements.”

The lawsuit is embedded in the story, or you can see it here. There’s a high standard to meet to win in an action like this when you are a public figure and political speech is involved, as noted in the story. A hearing for the injunction will be held on February 25, after which there will be three more days of early voting. I think it’s safe to say that more people are now aware of this allegation than when it was first made.

We’re all more sensitive to claims about violence against women now, and we all know that just because such a claim was not decided in a courtroom doesn’t mean it was without merit. That said, there are two things about this particular case that stand out to me. One is Moore’s claim about that alleged protective order. She did’t say she heard that one existed, she said she had an actual copy of an actual order in her possession, which she has threatened to make public – “Keep it up and the Protective Order will see day light” was a response Moore made on one of the cited Facebook posts (see Exhibit B in the lawsuit). If you claim you have something like this, you better have it. If she doesn’t, that puts a big dent in her own credibility. Sooner or later in this process, she is going to be asked to produce that order.

The other thing is that if Reed is not being fully truthful, there is a chance someone else could come forward now that this has all been made public and provide their own evidence to back up Moore’s claim or make one of their own. We have certainly seen that dynamic play out in other cases. What we know for sure is that it cannot be the case that both of them are telling the truth. It could be the case that both of them are being less than fully honest, but at least one of them is wrong. We’ll see what happens in court.

One more thing, which isn’t relevant to the lawsuit but which I noticed in the document: Moore repeatedly referred to Reed as a Republican in the Facebook posts. The Erik Manning spreadsheet lists candidates’ primary voting history for the last four cycles. Derrick Reed did indeed vote in the Republican primary in 2016; he then voted in the Democratic primary in 2018. Nyanza Moore had no primary voting history shown. Make of that what you will.

Ken Paxton does Ken Paxton thing

Film at 11.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is not defending a state agency that is being sued for punishing a judge who refuses to officiate gay marriages.

It’s the most recent in a handful of cases in which Paxton, a Republican, has stepped away from one of the basic requirements of his job because the state’s actions conflict with his views of the Constitution.

Just days after the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Paxton issued a legal opinion arguing that Texas clerks and judges with religious objections could not be forced to officiate those marriages or process the paperwork. In the nonbinding opinion, Paxton, also pledged to “be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”

That argument will be tested in Texas courts for the first time after Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley of Waco sued the Commission on Judicial Conduct for issuing her a warning last year. Since 2015, the general practice in Texas has been that judges either perform all types of marriages or none, if they have religious objections to same-sex marriages. But Hensley argued she could continue officiating straight marriages while referring same-sex couples to others because of the conflict with her religious beliefs.

The attorney general would have been expected to represent the commission as part of his charge to defend state agencies, putting Paxton in the awkward position of arguing against his 2015 opinion.

Instead, the attorney general’s office is not representing the agency.

“We believe judges retain their right to religious liberty when they take the bench,” spokesman Marc Rylander said in a statement.

Jacqueline Habersham, interim executive director of the Judicial Commission, has so far acted as counsel for the commission in the case. Habersham declined to comment.

See here and here for the background. The Trib notes another dimension to this.

Paxton declined to defend a different state agency, the Texas Ethics Commission, in a lawsuit filed years ago by Empower Texans, a hardline conservative group that has been an important political ally to him. And he has opted not to defend state laws, like the Texas Advance Directives Act, when they conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Hensley is represented in the case by the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm with deep ties to Paxton’s office that reach back to the earliest days of his political career. Hensley’s lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former solicitor general of Texas. And Paxton and the First Liberty Institute have often been allies in religious liberty fights in Texas, collaborating on a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio after it banned Chick-fil-A from opening a location in its airport. Jeff Mateer, now Paxton’s top aide, worked as the firm’s general counsel before joining the attorney general’s office.

Kelly Shackelford, the group’s president and CEO, has endorsed Paxton and contributed to a legal defense fund Paxton has used to fight off a four-year-old criminal indictment for securities fraud.

Nothing ol’ Kenny won’t do to help his buddies. In this sense, it’s just as well that he’s peaced out of the litigation, because literally any alternate arrangement for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, whether they represent themselves or hire an outside firm, would be better than having an attorney that’s biased against you as your advocate. The solution here is the same as it’s ever been – we need a better AG. We tried in 2018, we’ll need to finish the job in 2022. He’s not going to change, we have to swap him out.

County files lawsuit over Watson Grinding explosion

As well they should.

Harris County and state officials entered the fray Thursday, bringing civil charges against Watson Grinding and Manufacturing in the explosion that left two dead and damaged 450 structures last week in west Houston.

The county has asked a judge to impose an immediate halt on all activity at the company until the site and surrounding area are deemed safe from fires and explosions. Officials also want a detailed inventory of materials on the premises as well as all air, water and soil samples and studies. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is also a party to the suit, as required by law.

[…]

The county lawsuit says Watson violated environmental, regulatory, nuisance and common law following the explosion involving “ultra-hazardous chemicals” Friday at its Gessner facility. It says the company violated the Clean Air Act by exposing the public to unauthorized emissions, imperiling public health, general welfare, physical property, basic air resources and visibility. The county also states Watson created a public nuisance and violated Texas code by failing to report dangerous emissions and through unauthorized outdoor burning and air pollution.

Watson discharged air pollutants into the atmosphere including propylene and byproducts of combustion when a 2,000 gallon tank exploded, the lawsuit says.

“Flying glass and debris injured many residents while they slept,” court documents say. “As a result of the blast, many nearby residents cannot occupy their damaged homes while others now live in damaged structures.”

As of Thursday, the emission event had not been reported to the TCEQ or to Harris County Pollution Control, according to the county.

“Watson’s use of propylene was an ultra-hazardous activity and the company failed to exercise its duty of care to protect the public,” County Attorney Vince Ryan said in a draft of a news release, “particularly when the facility is located in a neighborhood.”

The lawsuit says Watson officials were negligent in failing to maintain equipment and properly store chemicals. Its failure to properly train, supervise and monitor employees endangered lives and damaged property, according to a draft copy.

“Due to the high degree of risk involved it Watson’s conduct, Watson’s actual and subjective constructive awareness of this risk, the fact that Watson had been made aware of the probability and extent of the potential harm that could result from engaging in such conduct on numerous occasions by numerous governmental regulatory authorities, Watson continued to operate in a reckless manner demonstrating a conscious indifference to welfare and safety of others, including employees and residents of Harris County,” the suit says.

The county will seek exemplary damages for gross negligence, according to documents.

See here for the background. Other lawsuits are being filed as well; the more, the merrier, I say. Part of this, as the County Attorney notes, is to ensure that all evidence is preserved. I’m sure we’ll find out that there were even more problems at this place than firsts reported. Harris County has invested more resources in environmental protection, and there may need to be more beyond that. For now, let’s do all we can to figure this one out, and hold the responsible parties accountable for their actions.

The next round in the Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

Score one for the plaintiffs.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Finding Texas in violation of federal law, a U.S. judge gave civil rights lawyers a small win Thursday — fueling hopes of a wider victory in a continuing fight over the state’s online voter registration practices.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said the 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires that Texans be able to register to vote at the same time they go online to renew or update a driver’s license.

Visitors to the Department of Public Safety website, however, must click through to another website, download a form, print it out, fill it in and mail it to their county registrar — extra steps that violate the federal law’s “motor voter” provision designed to encourage voter participation, Garcia said in a written order.

“Congress lifted these burdens to make voter registration easier, not more confusing and difficult,” he wrote.

Noting that Monday is the deadline to register to vote in the March 3 primaries, Garcia limited the scope of his order. He required state officials to update the voter registrations of three Texans who sued over the motor voter law, using the information already provided to DPS when they renewed their driver’s licenses.

Longer-term solutions remain under consideration and will be ruled on in the future, the judge said.

See here for the background. An earlier storylaid out the arguments.

Pressing for speedy action with a key voting deadline only days away, civil rights lawyers returned to federal court Tuesday to argue that Texas continues to violate a U.S. law designed to make voter registration easier.

Under the “motor voter” provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, Texans who renew their driver’s license online must be allowed to simultaneously register to vote or update their registration with a new address, Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project argued.

For years, however, Texas has required potential voters to take extra steps in violation of the law, Stevens said, urging U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to take action against the state.

“It will refuse to comply with federal law until it is forced to do so, Texas voters be damned,” Stevens said during a 2½-hour hearing in Garcia’s San Antonio courtroom.

Under the state system, Stevens estimated, more than 735 Texans lost the right to vote in 2018.

[…]

The Texas Civil Rights Project recently filed a new lawsuit with three voters who had moved, renewed their driver’s license online but are still registered to vote at their old address. Two nonprofits, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas, also joined the newest lawsuit, arguing that they have standing because they are forced to spend time and money signing up voters who should have been able to update their registrations on the DPS website.

Stevens said the new lawsuit still seeks to require simultaneous voter registration, but she asked Garcia to issue an order no later than Friday to require state officials to let the three plaintiffs register to vote using the information already provided to DPS to renew their driver’s licenses.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the March 3 Texas primaries, she noted.

The state argues that nothing is stopping these three people from registering by other means. That’s true, but also not the point. The point is that the law says that they are supposed to be registered this way. In the initial lawsuit, the Fifth Circuit said the plaintiffs didn’t have standing because by the time the lawsuit was filed they had been registered and thus there was no injury claim to remediate. If that’s the case, then the state is arguing that the plaintiffs should invalidate their own case. As we now see, that didn’t work. I would expect the court to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor on the larger question at some future date, and from there we’ll see if the Fifth Circuit admits that they fixed the problem with the first lawsuit or finds some other pretext to throw out this one. In the meantime, kudos to all for a job well done. A press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and from the TDP is here.

The busking lawsuit

Interesting.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

A Houston accordionist is feeling squeezed by an obscure city law aimed at restricting where musicians can play for tips.

Anthony Barilla, also a composer whose work can be heard on the radio program “This American Life,” lodged the lawsuit in federal court recently in hopes of striking down the decades-old Houston ordinance, contending that it violates the First Amendment.

As the law stands, a performer — regardless of their talent or instrument, be it a guitar, violin or their voice — must have a permit to serenade the streets with any hope of making a buck. And that permit confines them to the Theater District.

Barilla does not consider himself solely a busker, a musician who performs in public places — often with a belly-up hat or an open instrument case to invite a toss of the coin. But he traversed Houston’s permit process in 2018 to see what would happen and to brush up on the accordion.

[…]

For most of the 20th century, musicians were barred from public street performances in Houston. Chronicle archives show that musicians began wooing the city for permits in the 1980s, but nothing serious happened until 1990, when the G-7 Summit was predicted to draw visitors to Houston.

City officials OK’d an experimental program to allow street performers — in the Theater District only. The program, if it worked and were then made permanent, would lure more people downtown, especially during conventions, then-Mayor Kathy Whitmire hoped. According to reports, only five permits were issued during the pilot.

The following year, City Council signed off on the ordinance.

Unlike Houston, some cities do not require permits. Musicians don’t need one to entertain straphangers amid the roar of New York City’s subway system. Busking has been street legal in most areas of Seattle for more than 40 years

“Houston is such a business-friendly town. This is my business,” Barilla said. “You’d think Houston, given our pro-business climate, that we wouldn’t be that way. The law is archaic. We haven’t caught up to other world-class cities.”

Let me say up front that I agree with the basic premise of this lawsuit, that the ordinance in question is overly restrictive and at the very least needs an overhaul. Busking isn’t going to be viable in many parts of the city, but there’s no reason to restrict it to the Theater District. Let people busk, as long as they’re not blocking pedestrian or vehicular traffic, and as long as they’re not disturbing the peace. It would be wise for the city to offer a settlement and fix this law.

“Motor voter” lawsuit 2.0

Try, try again, this time hopefully addressing the cause of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ rejection of the first lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The first time former English professor Jarrod Stringer was told he couldn’t vote in a Texas election, he sued. A federal appeals court tossed his case on a technicality, but one of the judges ended up admonishing state officials to not let it happen again.

Yet it did, and now Stringer and other frustrated Texans are taking the state back to federal court.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, they are arguing anew that the state continues to disenfranchise an unknown number of voters by violating the motor voter law, a federal requirement that people be allowed to complete voter registration when they get a driver’s license. Stringer is the lead plaintiff in the second legal chapter of a fight over Texas’ resistance to online voter registration.

The state allows driver’s licenses applicants to complete their voter registration when they physically appear at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, but does not allow the same result when residents update or renew licenses online. At least 1.5 million Texans use the state’s online driver’s license portal a year, according to Stringer’s lawyers, though it’s unclear how many also attempt to re-register.

Stringer first encountered the prohibition after moving back to his hometown of San Antonio in 2014. He updated his driver’s license and mistakenly thought he had re-registered to vote at the same time. But after standing in line at an early voting polling place set up on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he discovered he was not on the voter roll.

“Having the option to vote was something that I have taken seriously,” Stringer said in an interview. “Voting is just a fundamental act of expression of citizenship.”

[…]

In their new lawsuit, Stringer, two other voters, along with two nonprofits that work to register Texans to vote, have revived the arguments from the first lawsuit, pressing virtually the same legal claims that prompted Garcia’s initial favorable ruling.

This time, to avoid the legal pitfall over standing to sue, Stringer and the other voters in the case are filing their legal challenge while remaining off the voter rolls in the counties where they now live, and Stringer has noted that he has plans to move in 2020 — a point at which he will again run into the limitations of the online DPS system.

But while they’re working to address the issues found by the 5th Circuit last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t plan to ask the plaintiffs to sit out the upcoming election. With the three individual voters in the case expected to reregister before the Feb. 3 deadline for the March primaries, the lawsuit could ultimately serve as a test case of what sacrifices a voter must make at the ballot box to challenge a system that they see as impeding their access to it.

In the interest of not quoting the whole story I cut out a bunch in the middle that recapped the first lawsuit and why it was dismissed – you can read this post for my own link-filled “previously on…” segment. This story reminded me that the Fifth Circuit wasn’t necessarily hostile to the first lawsuit, perhaps just overly pedantic. If that’s the case, and this isn’t a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football” situation, then maybe we can get a different result. There’s every reason to believe that the district court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs again. The question is what happens after that. With any luck, we’ll find out soon.

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

Texas Education Agency officials said they filed an appeal Thursday to overturn an injunction by a Travis County judge blocking it from replacing Houston ISD’s trustees with a state-appointed board of managers.

The appeal was sent to the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals, and if a panel of judges sides with the agency, it could resume its work to strip Houston ISD’s board of power.

If the injunction is upheld, the TEA would not be able to move forward until a lawsuit by the Houston ISD board of trustees has been decided. Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy on Wednesday set a hearing date for June 22.

[…]

Shepherd ISD, a small school district just south of Lake Livingston also is targeted for a board takeover by the TEA. That district also sought a temporary injunction this year to stop the education agency takeover. On Thursday, Travis County District Judge Karin Crump denied that application for an injunction.

HB 1842 was not the TEA’s only potential option to replace Houston ISD’s board. It could sanction the district over the state investigation. State law also allows the TEA to take over the board if a district has had a TEA conservator for two or more years.

HISD attorneys argue that the TEA’s investigation was biased and that because the TEA conservator was assigned to one campus, and not the district as a whole, her presence would not trigger a takeover.

The injunction by Judge Mauzy also blocks the TEA from acting under either of those rules.

See here for the background. The conventional wisdom seems to be that while the Third Court of Appeals may uphold the injunction, the all-Republican Supreme Court may be more favorable to the TEA. Make of that what you will. Time could be a factor, depending on how long it takes each court to hear and rule on the appeals. Honestly, I hope this gets decided on the merits in a timely fashion. Whatever the outcome, having some extra clarity on the law would be a good thing.

HISD gets another injunction

In state court this time.

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board. At a hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Houston ISD argued that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority in nearly every step in the process of deciding on a takeover.

[…]

Mauzy also denied Morath the ability to strike down the injunction on appeal. The trial is set for the morning of June 22, months after the state intended to seat a board of managers.

In the ruling, she said Houston ISD proved it needed the injunction because once Morath takes action to remove power from the elected board, the district would then have no recourse.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Houston ISD’s lawyers challenged Morath’s reasons for the planned takeover, accusing him of inaccurately interpreting state law and skipping procedural steps to get the results he wanted.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

See here for the previous update, when a federal judge denied HISD’s request to halt the takeover but said they could file in state court. I’m still not betting on HISD prevailing, but they haven’t lost yet. Now the TEA needs to figure out how this affects their plans. Check back in June, this is going to be interesting. The Chron has more.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

Federal lawsuit filed against Precinct 2 Constable over campaign practices

Hoo boy.

Chris Diaz

Nearly a dozen former employees and high-ranking officials are suing Precinct 2 Constable Chris Diaz, alleging that the elected Harris County lawman required deputies and command staff to help with his reelection campaign and retaliated against them with demotions and terminations if they refused.

The wide-ranging accusations in the 33-page federal suit paint a picture of a troubled office, where campaign donors were allegedly given preference in promotions, and anyone who cooperated with state investigators could expect to be punished.

“He’s just running Precinct 2 like it was his own campaign,” said attorney Scott Poerschke, who is representing the former employees. “He’s conditioning employment upon service of his campaign and any time that is challenged in any way, then those employees are retaliated against.”

Poerschke said the plaintiffs fall into two main categories: people who supported election challenger Jerry Garcia and people who helped out with a Texas Rangers probe into overtime claims and the possible misappropriation of Hurricane Harvey donations.

Neither Diaz nor his wife – Jacinto City Mayor Ana Diaz, who the plaintiffs accused of helping with her husband’s retaliation efforts – responded Tuesday to the Chronicle’s request for comment. A spokesman for the Harris County Attorney’s Office said the office was aware of and reviewing the litigation, but did not offer comment on it.

Even before the latest lawsuit, the constable was already the target of a whistleblower claim filed earlier this year in state court earlier. But last week, his reelection efforts landed in the news over a different concern, after one challenger accused him of putting up a relative of the same name – another Jerry Garcia – as a ploy to confuse voters.

See here for the “two Jerry Garcias” story, which I would have blogged about separately had it not been subsumed by this story. You can read the Chron article for details; I’m going to wait to see what happens at trial before making any firm conclusions, since I was not aware of any of this before now. On a broader level, is it maybe time to think about getting rid of the elected office of Constable all together? We have a pretty damn spotty record with Constables in Harris County, from Perry Wooten to Jack Abercia to Victor Trevino to Ron Hickman, and maybe allegedly now Chris Diaz. Someone make the case that elected Constables are still a good idea in the 21st century, as opposed to just absorbing the office into the Sheriff’s department. I’m going to need to hear it, because I’m not sure I see it. Campos has more.

City wins water rights lawsuit

A bit of pre-holiday good news.

A Travis County state district judge on Friday tossed a state law that would force the city of Houston to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton.

The law, which breezed through the Legislature last session and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, requires the city to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of the year for up to $23 million.

The city sued the state and the Brazos River Authority in July, claiming the law was unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

In a ruling issued Friday evening, state district Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court agreed with the city’s interpretation, finding the law violates several provisions of the Texas Constitution and Local Government Code.

Crump ruled that the law constitutes a forced sale and “changes the legal consequences of acts completed before the bill’s effective date without sufficient findings to justify passage” of the bill.

See here for the background, and see here for a statement from Mayor Turner on the ruling. I don’t see any other coverage, so I have no idea if there will be an appeal, but I agreed with the lawsuit and I’m glad to see this outcome. Let’s hope it sticks.

Anti-gay Waco JP sues for the right to be an anti-gay JP

Ugh.

A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.

The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.

“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said in a statement.

Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

[…]

Ricardo Martinez, Equality Texas CEO, said in a statement that as a justice of the peace, Hensley took an oath “to serve all Texans.”

“These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans. This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials,” Martinez said. “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”

See here for the background. Look, if Judge Hensley had “politely referred” mixed-race couples to other JPs because her religious beliefs were that only people of the same race should get married, no one would take her seriously. If she were a clerk at the DMV who refused to process drivers license applications from women because her religious beliefs were that women should not drive, she’d be fired on the spot. As a public servant, she serves the whole public, not just the public she approves of. That means she can perform weddings for anyone who comes before her, she can perform no weddings as she had originally chosen, or she can find another line of work. It’s that simple.

This was filed in a state court, as the allegation is that the “public warning” violated a state law. I feel like this will eventually wind up as a federal case, especially if she wins. It’s an open question at this point whether the AG’s office will represent the defense, or the State Commission (which is authorized to defend itself) will do it. All things considered, I’d prefer the latter. This case is going to be a hot mess, so buckle up for it. The Waco Tribune has more.

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

Army Corps held liable for Harvey reservoir flooding

A big deal.

Thousands of Houston area residents and property owners landed a historic win against the U.S. government on Tuesday when a federal judge found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is liable for damage caused when it used homes and businesses to retain floodwater upstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during Hurricane Harvey.

The judge ruled the government’s actions led to a violation of civilians’ rights, finding that officials intentionally stored rising floodwaters on private property. He determined — based on complicated data, testimony, evidence and an in-person tour of test properties — that people whose homes and businesses flooded should be permitted to seek compensation for what happened. The residents and business owners successfully made the case that the government knew for decades that the reservoirs would likely not retain floodwaters in a deluge and they did nothing to prevent it.

“We are extraordinarily pleased for the upstream flood victims and honored that the court found that the government was liable for the damage they suffered,” said Daniel Charest, one of the lead lawyers for the group of flood victims. “While we have a lot of work to do for damages this is a massive step toward making these victims whole.”

[…]

Property owners may file suit for six years from the time of the flooding.

Charest said he encourages people in the upstream area who haven’t submitted a claim to do so.

“The window remains open for people the join the litigation and I encourage them to do so to bring justice to the flood victims,” he said.

According to the Trib, there’s a second lawsuit that is still in litigation; this may refer to it, I’m not 100% sure. Be that as it may, this could represent a lot of money to the affected homeowners, which would be a very big deal for them. There’s no indication at this time if this ruling will be appealed, but it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

In which Greg Abbott moves to protect an anti-gay judge

First, there was this.

The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct on Monday issued a public warning to a Republican judge from Waco who refuses to perform same-sex marriages but still performs them for opposite-sex couples.

McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley told the commission that the way she has handled the matter is based on her “conscience and religion” despite the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

“I sought a solution so that anyone in McLennan County who wants to get married can get married,” Hensley said in an emailed statement on Tuesday. “I have, do, and always will, follow the law.”

Hensley has spoken publicly about her decision, including in a 2017 article in the Waco Tribune-Herald in which she said she felt she was entitled to a “religious exemption.”

“I’m entitled to accommodations just as much as anyone else,” Hensley was quoted saying.

We’re all aware of the bullshit arguments for “accommodation”, the TL;dr summary of which is No, you’re not, you’re entitled to follow the law and treat everyone equally or resign from the bench. People have a right to get married. You can choose to marry any couple with a license and a wish to be married, or you can choose to not enter that entirely optional part of the job. To say “these people can get married but those people can’t” is illegal, insulting, and frankly worth a much harsher penalty from the State Commission on Judicial Conduct than this jackass received.

And then we got the backstory.

Two former members of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct say Gov. Greg Abbott removed them from the panel because he disagreed with their position on a case involving same-sex marriage.

Amy Suhl, a retired information technology executive from Sugar Land, and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Maricela Alvarado, of Harlingen, were appointed to the commission as public members in June 2018.

They served as voting members for nine months while waiting for the Texas Senate to confirm their appointments. Then, when they were about to come up for a Senate vote, the governor withdrew the nominations.

It’s extremely uncommon for Abbott’s office to go back on an appointment. Since 2017, only one other nominee has been withdrawn for a reason other than a resignation or death, records show.

Suhl and Alvarado, in recent interviews with Hearst Newspapers, say they were told that the governor had decided to go in a different direction. But they believe Abbott pushed them out because of their votes to sanction a Waco judge who officiates opposite-sex marriages but refuses to conduct gay marriages.

Suhl made an audio recording of a meeting with the governor’s staff and a later phone call. The recordings, which were reviewed by Hearst Newspapers, shows the staffers were encouraging her to act with Abbott’s views in mind.

“When we appoint people, we appreciate so much that people are willing to serve and hope that people understand that they’re serving the governor, not themselves,” one staffer said.

Suhl said the governor’s office wanted to “change them out with the hope that maybe more people would vote the way they want.”

“I thought it was wrong,” she said. “That commission is there to serve the public, to make sure judges are operating ethically, and not to serve any one group’s interest.”

Suhl is of course correct, in the same way that the US Attorney General is supposed to represent and serve the people, not be the personal attorney of the President. I admire her and Lt. Col. Alvarado for their convictions and their willingness to call BS on this. This, at a most fundamental level, is what corruption is. It’s not just about using power for personal gain, it’s also about using it to subvert and go around existing structures and processes to achieve a result that couldn’t have been achieved by letting the system work as designed. It’s about putting pressure on people who were hired or appointed to do a job to do that job in a bent and perverse way, to rig an outcome. This is what that old saying “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Greg Abbott, like Donald Trump, wields his power in service of himself. He does it because he wants to, and because he thinks he’s entitled to. If he had picked less honorable people to serve on this Commission, he might well have gotten away with it, too.

By the way, remember how Abbott rushed to condemn Rick Miller, because (he said) Miller’s comments were “inappropriate and out of touch with the values of the Republican Party”? Clearly, discriminating against some people is inappropriate and out of touch with Republican values, but discriminating against some other people is just peachy. Good to know. The Trib has more.

(Full disclosure: Amy Suhl is retired from the company I work for. I know who she is, though I had no idea about this appointment she was to have had. We never worked together – ours is a big company – and she may or may not know who I am

HISD lawsuit to stop TEA takeover has its day in court

We’ll see how it goes.

As Houston Independent School District fights for its independence, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel gave little indication Thursday of whether he would tap the brakes on the state’s plans to strip power from the elected trustees and install a new governing board.

However, Yeakel complimented the district on a “well-presented” case and said he plans to rule quickly on HISD’s request for a preliminary injunction. An injunction would stop the state from making moves to upend management at the state’s largest school district until the court hears and decides the full case.

David Campbell, an attorney arguing on behalf of HISD, said the state’s attempt to appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district is like “bringing an elephant gun to shoot a mouse.”

[…]

“This case starts and ends with Wheatley High School,” said Emily Ardolino, assistant attorney general in the state’s general ligation division. She said the commissioner has a mandate to take action and much of what the state is challenging is not reviewable by the courts under state law.

Yeakel questioned whether the decision to take over the entire governing body of the school district was an overreaction to the failing performance of one in more than 280 schools.

“Texas law provides for this,” Ardolino said, adding government intervention is mandated by state law. She argued the current board has been characterized as “dysfunctional” by one of its members and said disarray in meetings has exposed racial tensions. She pointed to a state investigation that found HISD trustees were unilaterally taking actions that required board approval. The appointed board would serve for a matter of years, not indefinitely, according to the state’s defense.

See here, here, and here for the background. You know my opinion of this, so let me just say I appreciate that Judge Yeakel will give a ruling quickly. Whatever happens, best we know it soon. The Trib has more.

Second mobile voting locations lawsuit filed

Same claims, different plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in Austin. It is led by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Texas College Democrats.

“We are here to tear down an obstacle to the right to vote,” Mike Siegel, who is representing Blodgett, said during a press conference Tuesday.

Siegel, a civil rights attorney who is running for Congress against Republican incumbent Michael McCaul, said the law “suppresses the vote of young people, of seniors, of people with disabilities” and people without access to transportation.

Blodgett, who is 96, said he has almost never missed an election – that is until HB 1888 went into effect. Because of the law, the mobile polling site at Westminster, the senior living community he lives in, was forced to close. Blodgett said he has relied on that polling location and was unable to vote because he wasn’t feeling well and couldn’t use public transportation.

“I would have had to climb on this bus and go over from the house to the library and vote because we didn’t have the facility or the voting machines there at Westminster,” he said.

When asked, Blodgett said he thinks Republicans in the Legislature passed the law for political reasons.

“I think they did it to suppress the Democratic vote,” he said.

[…]

According to the lawsuit, many young voters were unable to vote in 2019 because they lacked access to transportation.

“For example, at three different college campuses in Austin where there are TYD constituents — Huston-Tillotson University, St. Edward’s University and Austin Community College — mobile voting locations that had been available and used by TYD voters in the 2018 elections were no longer available for use in the November 2019 election,” plaintiffs say in the lawsuit.

See here for more on the other lawsuit. A copy of this lawsuit and other information can be found here. As I said before, I agree with the motivation for HB1888 and I agree with the goals of these lawsuits, but I have little to no faith that the federal judiciary, at least once you get past the district courts, will have any sympathy. And to be honest, in reading this story, I can see what the likely defense strategy will be. Mr. Blodgett doesn’t need to worry about where any voting location is, because he is eligible to vote by mail, and if he had requested a mail ballot he would not have had this problem. As for the college students, Travis County isn’t barred from having early voting locations on those campuses. They just have to keep them open throughout the early voting period. Which costs more, sure, but they could choose to budget the funds for it. Whether any of that is actually responsive to the complaints is beside the point, because I can totally see the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS buying it. I’ll be delighted to be proven wrong. The Texas Signal has more.

Judge officially approves final Harris County bail settlement

It’s officially finally final and official.

A federal judge has signed off on a historic bail reform agreement for Harris County, setting in place new protections for people accused of minor offenses in the country’s third largest criminal justice system.

The sweeping agreement and consent decree, officially approved Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, seeks to level the playing field for the thousands of people arrested each year on misdemeanor charges. For years, judges jailed poor people by default while they awaited trial, while those with money to cover bail could walk free and return to their families and livelihoods.

[…]

Rosenthal wrote that her ruling was rooted in extensive legal findings over the past three years.

“No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are released on personal bonds — rich or poor — will appear for hearings or trial, or that they will commit no crimes on release,” Rosenthal said in a 55-page opinion. “No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are detained pending trial — rich or poor — should have been detained. But Harris County … can stop systematically depriving indigent misdemeanor defendants of their constitutionally-protected rights by detaining them simply because they cannot afford to post money bail.”

Her opinion acknowledged the objections brought up by “amici,” or friends of the court, including the state Attorney General’s Office, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Steve Radack, who voiced concerns at the final hearing that the deal limited judicial discretion and did not do enough to ensure the safety of communities.

“The court does not question the amici and objectors’ good faith,” she wrote. “The public safety and public resource concerns they raise are important.

“The proposed consent decree and settlement agreement are approved because these concerns are fully recognized and addressed,” the opinion said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement following the judge’s decision, saying it “puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding the impact of bail reform.”

“We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety,” she said. “In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said: “After decades of harmful injustice and three years of a legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all — no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin — Harris County’s oppressive and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are ending.”

You know the story by now. At this point, we need to focus on making this work as it is supposed to, to ensuring that we are making adjustments to the risk assessment tool as needed, and just generally measuring everything so a year from now we can present some metrics to show how it all has gone. There are still political fights to be had – just ask the people running against Vince Ryan and Kim Ogg, for starters, and the Lege still needs to address bail reform in a meaningful way – and there are still legal fights to be had – the second bail lawsuit, which is about felony defendants, and the Dallas County bail lawsuit, among others – but this was a huge step forward. A copy of the consent decree is here, and a copy of the settlement agreement is here. Kudos to everyone who helped make this happen.

HFT may join lawsuit to block TEA takeover

That’s a lot of acronyms, so just read this.

Houston ISD’s largest teachers union is considering whether to join a lawsuit filed by the district’s school board that aims to stop the expected ouster of elected trustees by the Texas Education Agency.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said the union is expected to decide this week whether to take part in the lawsuit, which claims TEA officials do not have legal authority to replace the district’s school board and would violate the federal Voting Rights Act in doing so. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced earlier this month that he plans to temporarily strip power from HISD’s elected trustees and install an appointed board, citing three reasons: chronically low academic performance at Wheatley High School; a state investigation that substantiated several allegations of misconduct by trustees; and the continued presence of a state-appointed conservator monitoring HISD.

“We do not feel the students and teachers are anyone’s first interest at this particular point,” Capo said. “We’re having our legal specialist looking at the Voting Rights Act and a few other things, to determine whether we could actually intervene in HISD’s lawsuit. I suspect that’s the way we would go.”

[…]

Legal experts have expressed skepticism about whether the state is violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of elections. They noted all voters in HISD — not just black and Hispanic residents — would be impacted by the ouster of their elected officials.

The HFT likely would not have legal standing to fight the state’s authority to install an appointed board because the union cannot represent Houston ISD in court. However, the union’s lawyers could have legal standing to argue the TEA would violate the rights of voters in Houston, as long as a plaintiff resides within one of HISD’s nine single-member voting districts.

“We’re going to take care of that,” Capo said. “There will be voters. I’m making sure there’s one for every district.”

HISD trustees voted 4-1 in June to hire an outside counsel to represent the board for the purposes of the state’s investigation into potential trustee misconduct, which included allegations of Open Meetings Act violations and interfering with vendor contracts. At the time, HISD Board President Diana Dávila said trustees wanted legal clarification on aspects of the state law.

In subsequent months, the legal firm’s scope of work dramatically expanded, without another vote from trustees. The board’s lawyers now are seeing temporary and permanent injunctions that would stop state intervention. A hearing date for the temporary injunction request is scheduled for Dec. 5 in Austin.

See here for the background. There was another lawsuit filed in August as well, and at this point it’s not clear to me if these are two separate and active legal challenges, if they have been combined into one, or if the first one has been dropped or dismissed. It’s the same law firm representing HISD in this action, for what that’s worth. As I said before, I don’t expect this to be successful, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to try. I’ll be very interested to see what the HFT decides to do, and what happens at that hearing in December.

UPDATE: They have joined the lawsuit, and the state has filed a motion to dismiss.