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Legal matters

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.

Fifth Circuit overturns “motor voter” lawsuit verdict

Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.

In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.

The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.

[…]

Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.

But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.

The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.

I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.

The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.

Lawsuit filed over bill banning temporary voting locations

Of interest.

Worried about the suppression of young voters in 2020, national and Texas Democrats are suing the state over a newly implemented election measure that’s triggered the shuttering of early voting places, including on college campuses, in various parts of the state.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Austin, the Texas Democratic Party — joined by the Democratic campaign arms for the U.S. House and Senate — alleges that the state’s move to effectively end the use of what were known as temporary or mobile early voting sites is unconstitutional because it discriminates against young voters by shrinking their access to the ballot box.

Republican lawmakers pushed the law, introduced during the last legislative session as House Bill 1888, to curb what they saw as abuse in school bond elections by requiring voting sites to remain open for all 12 days of early voting. Despite warnings from local election officials, HB 1888 was crafted broadly enough to outlaw the long-established practice of moving polling places during the early voting period to reach as many voters as possible near where they live, work or go to school.

As a result, both young and rural voters are losing access to early voting sites that were legitimately used to offer a day or two of early voting to places in places where it wasn’t practical or cost-efficient to maintain a site open for all of early voting.

“HB 1888 now mandates that, based on where they live, some voters will enjoy the same consistent access to early voting they had previously, but voters who live near now defunct temporary voting sites, especially young voters, will suffer reduced or eliminated access to the franchise,” the Democrats claimed in the lawsuit.

Citing violations of the First, 14th and 26th Amendments, the Democrats are asking a federal judge to block the state from implementing HB 1888.

See this Observer story and this earlier Trib story for the background. I mentioned this new law, along with a link to the Observer story, in a post that was more about the likely effects of no straight ticket voting. I’m always happy to see a pro-voting rights lawsuit, and I have zero doubt that the intent of this law was primarily to make it harder for students to vote, but I’m just not going to be optimistic about any voting rights litigation in federal court at this time. The Fifth Circuit, and SCOTUS if it comes to that, are just too hostile to voting rights. We are just going to have to add this to the ever-growing to do list for the next Democratic government in Texas, however long that may take. Yes, yes, I Am Not A Lawyer, and maybe this is a slam dunk case. It’s not the law or the Constitution I’m evaluating here, it’s the courts and the justices. Believe me, I wish I could be more optimistic and less cynical about this, but not on this kind of case. A statement from the TDP about the lawsuit is here.

City wins final judgment in revenue cap lawsuit

Wow, is this ever a blast from the past.

The city of Houston has prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the amount it can collect in property taxes, ending 14 years of litigation over a set of measures approved by voters in 2004.

At issue in the suit were two ballot measures from 2004, specifically Proposition 1, which limited the annual increases in property tax and utility revenues to the combined increases in population and inflation for Houston, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Prop 1 was approved by voters in 2004, as was was another measure, Proposition 2, that further limited the city’s ability to collect revenue. The city, under then-Mayor Bill White, abided by the first measure because of a directive in it that stated whichever cap received more votes would be the one adopted.

Individuals from a conservative group then filed suit, accusing the city of violating the caps by not also adopting Proposition 2.

After years of court battles, a state district judge has ruled that the city has “fully complied” with Proposition 1.

See here for the city’s statement. The most recent update I can find in my own archives is from 2008 (!!), though it is likely there has been more action on the lawsuit that either wasn’t reported or went unremarked upon by me. However you look at it, this is some old, old business, and now it is done. Think of it as an alternate thing the city of Houston can celebrate now that the World Series didn’t work out the way we’d hoped.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

Abbott and Paxton threaten transgender child

I’m utterly speechless.

Top Texas Republicans have directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate whether a mother who supports her 7-year-old child’s gender transition is committing “child abuse” — a move that has alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared via tweet Wednesday that two state agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are looking into a dispute between divorced North Texas parents who disagree on whether their child should continue the process of transitioning from male to female, a path that could culminate, when the child is years older, in medical interventions.

In a letter Thursday to the state’s child welfare agency, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer declared that the child — who identifies as a girl, according to testimony from a counselor and pediatrician — is “in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

“We ask that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible and act pursuant to your emergency powers to protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother,” Mateer wrote, repeatedly referring to the 7-year-old as a boy. Mateer’s nomination to the federal bench was withdrawn in 2017 after revelations that he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”

A spokesman for DFPS said the agency’s “review of the allegations is already underway.”

The case’s path to public discourse began with the child’s father, Jeff Younger, whose blog has generated a maelstrom of right-wing outrage, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the child “a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Younger, who also appeared at a rally at the Capitol this spring, does not agree with his ex-wife that his child is transgender. In blog posts, he has claimed his child could face “chemical castration.”

In reality, experts say, the transition process for prepubescent children does not involve medical intervention; instead, it consists of social affirmations like allowing children to wear the clothes they like, employ the names and pronouns they prefer, and paint their nails if they choose. During puberty, a transgender child might, with the consultation of a doctor, begin to take puberty blockers, reversible drugs that can stop puberty and the gender markers that come with it, like a deepening voice, the development of breasts or starting a period. Later on, experts say, transgender young adults might explore the option of surgery.

In a court ruling Thursday that granted the parents joint custody, Dallas Judge Kim Cooks noted that there was never a court order for the child to undergo medical treatment, according to The Dallas Morning News. Indeed, the mother, Anne Georgulas, had requested that Cooks require mutual consent before the child underwent any treatment, the Morning News reported.

So yes, this is Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz and the rest getting involved in a marital dispute. Am I the only one who remembers when Republicans claimed to be about getting government out of people’s lives? However true that may have been once, it sure isn’t the case now.

This is nothing short of an authoritarian move by Abbott. The governor appoints the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services. How much faith are you going to have in the outcome of that investigation? Or the investigation by the AG’s office, under Jeff “transgender people are satan’s spawn” Mateer, for that matter? Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that they made the child’s name public, so everyone who agrees with them can force their own opinion on her as well. How lovely.

And all because they disagree with this child’s mother about what the child is allowed to wear, and they had the power to stick their noses in. They won’t stop this child from being transgender, any more than they could stop her from being left-handed or allergic to peanuts. They will cause a lot of damage trying, though. We cannot vote them out of office soon enough.

Another ReBuild Houston lawsuit

Gotta say, this puzzles me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A pair of Houston residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council Monday, accusing them of failing to follow the will of voters who approved a charter amendment last year for funding drainage and street repairs.

The lawsuit accuses city leaders of shortchanging the dedicated drainage fund by failing to transfer the full amount required by last year’s ballot proposition.

The proposition, which essentially was a “do-over” vote on the city’s 2010 street and drainage repair program known as Rebuild Houston, requires the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of its property tax rate to the street and drainage fund. The city, under former mayor Annise Parker and Turner, has transferred less than the full amount generated by the 11.8 cents for the last five years.

The plaintiffs allege a roughly $44 million discrepancy in what the city currently has budgeted compared to the amount generated by 11.8 cents of property tax rate. Over 10 years, the funding shortfall could exceed $500 million, the plaintiffs say.

Turner’s office issued a statement disagreeing with the premise of the lawsuit, saying that transferring the full amount generated by 11.8 cents of tax rate would require moving some $50 million more annually and would “cripple” city services.

“That would mean cuts to essential services like police, fire, solid waste, and other services,” the statement said. “Mayor Turner doesn’t support that.”

The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, are engineers who were part of the campaign that put the program, then known as ReNew Houston, on the 2010 ballot. It later was renamed Rebuild Houston.

They said they were suing because the city had failed to meet the expectations outlined in Proposition A, which 74 percent of voters approved last year. They are seeking a court order to force the city to direct more money and “to fund the things they said they were going to fund,” Jones said.

“Houstonians spoke loud and clear just one year ago when they voted to create a fund to fix our streets and drainage,” Jones said in a later statement. “…We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our street and drainage infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 about the ReBuild re-vote. You can click the links to the Chron stories, but there’s nothing in either of them that mentioned a percentage of property taxes. The story mentions this was a part of the original mix of funding for ReBuild Houston, and here I have to confess I don’t remember that. There was so much noise and drama about the drainage fee that anything and everything else got overpowered. If this is what’s supposed to happen, then the consequences will be unpleasant. On the plus side, maybe it’ll take another decade to get settled via the courts.

Ogg continues to have problems with the bail settlement

I don’t like this.

Kim Ogg

District Attorney Kim Ogg is rallying police officers across Harris County to show up in federal court en masse to oppose to a landmark bail reform agreement at a final hearing set for this month.

She emailed about 100 police chiefs to invite them to attend an Oct. 28 court proceeding before Chief U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to lend support on an issue she says “endangers the public.”

In addition to recruiting top brass to the hearing, Ogg also requested that her lieutenants be present to support her concerns about portions of the settlement that allowed most defendants arrested on minor offenses to await trial at home without posting up-front cash bail, according to her spokesman, Dane Schiller.

Ogg expressed misgivings about the proposed consent decree approved last summer by Commissioners Court after months of intensive meetings between county leaders, judges and the lawyers for the plaintiffs in the 2016 class action.

Ogg, who is not a defendant in the lawsuit, is among a number of parties, including many from the bail bond industry, who submitted concerns about the settlement in court during the summer.

“The district attorney has always supported bail reform, so that nobody is held just because they are poor, but she also says public safety should always be considered,” Schiller said.

[…]

The county public defender, who has been friends with Ogg since law school, said he suspects Ogg’s approach will be perceived as overkill by Rosenthal, the region’s highest ranking lifetime appointee to the federal bench.

“A courtroom full of police officers is not going to intimidate her,” said Harris County Public Defender Alex Bunin. “She might be insulted that they would do that to her.”

“It’s over the top, and this kind of bravado backfires every time,” Bunin added. He said the majority of the concerns Ogg raised were resolved by a judicial rule passed in January.

See here and here for the background. I agree with Alex Bunin here, this is not going to help and will serve as fuel for Ogg’s primary opponents. The fears being expressed are overblown, and frankly it’s fine by me if the county has to experience a little inconvenience to accommodate a non-violent offender who need assistance getting back to court. As I’ve said before, I’d much rather pay for an Uber for that guy than pay to feed, clothe, and house him for some number of weeks or months. Maybe – stay with me here – we could arrest fewer of these non-violent mostly drug offenders in the first place, which would go a long way towards reducing inconvenience for everyone. In the meantime, the bail agreement is in place and it is going to be the law. Let’s all do what we can to make it work.

Lawsuit filed against Texas drone law

This ought to be interesting.

By Josh Sorenson, archived on 20 May 2018 at the Wayback Machine, CC0

A federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin seeks to strike down Texas laws that restrict what can legally be photographed by drones.

Filed by two journalism organizations and a reporter, the lawsuit argues that a 2013 law places improper limits on news gathering, violating the First Amendment by making it a crime to capture images of private property, or a person on that property, no matter where the drone is flying.

The law bans the use of drones with the “intent to conduct surveillance,” a phrase that is not defined and is vague enough to include most news-gathering activities, allowing for arbitrary and discriminatory enforcement, the lawsuit argued.

“Visual journalists have faced great uncertainty about their permitted use of drones to gather the news in Texas,” forcing some to abandon drones, the least expensive and safest way to capture aerial images of great impact, the lawsuit said.

[…]

Although the law was updated in 2015, 2017 and earlier this year to add exceptions for permissible drone photography — allowing, for example, the professional use by engineers, land surveyors and insurance company employees — similar protections were not extended to journalists, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also challenged a provision added in 2015 that bans all drone use below 400 feet above sports venues, prisons and “critical infrastructure facilities,” including oil fields, pipelines, refineries and animal feedlots.

Because Federal Aviation Administration regulations ban drones from flying above 400 feet, “the no-fly provisions function as a near absolute ban on the use of (drones) in these locations,” the lawsuit argued.

Although lawmakers said restricting drone use over critical facilities was an essential safety provision, the lawsuit argued that the law was intended to suppress potentially embarrassing news coverage, such as environmental problems at oil or chemical plants.

“The no-fly provisions inevitably single out journalists for disfavored treatment by prohibiting the use of drones for news-gathering purposes over facilities of public interest, while broadly excepting governmental and commercial uses of (drones) in these same zones,” the lawsuit said.

Here’s a story about the bill’s passage. You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. One example of the law’s effect cited in the story was an effort to document conditions of a facility that houses immigrant children that drew threats from the San Marcos police. Based on what’s presented here, it sounds to me like the plaintiffs have a good case, but we’ll see what the defense from the state looks like. The Dallas Observer has more.

One thing our state loves spending money on

Defending unconstitutional anti-abortion laws in the courts.

As Texas defends abortion laws in federal court that mandate fetal burials and seek to outlaw certain medical procedures, the state has been ordered to pay pro-abortion attorneys $2.5 million — fortifying women’s reproductive rights groups that have repeatedly sued over restrictions passed by the state Legislature.

The August order from a federal judge in Austin is seemingly the final decision in a high-profile battle over a 2013 Texas abortion law the U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down as medically unnecessary and thus unconstitutional. The law, which was in effect for three years, required abortion providers to comply with all the regulations for ambulatory surgical centers, forcing many to undergo expensive renovations, and required their physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The judge’s order brings the state’s total cost for defending those now-defunct pieces of the law to an estimated $3.6 million.

“Passing regulations that are blatantly unconstitutional, and then wasting people’s resources to fight them, costs money and precious resources and time. And people are harmed in the process,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider and lead plaintiff in the case who notes that half of the state’s abortion clinics closed before the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling. “That is a precious resource of Texans’ dollars being used toward that.”

Because the state lost the case, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled it must pay the plaintiffs $2,297,860 attorney’s fees, $170,142 in nontaxable expenses and $95,873 in other costs. The amount represents nearly half of the $4.7 million in costs the plaintiffs say they incurred preparing and trying the case. The Texas attorney general’s office did not contest the judge’s ruling.

The award for the opposing attorneys is more than double the nearly $1.1 million the attorney general’s office reported spending on its own attorney’s salary, overhead, travel expenses and other costs associated with defending the law, according to open records obtained by the Texas Tribune in 2016.

Hardly the first time – that 2016 SCOTUS ruling cost the state even more – and until we get a different government, hardly the last time. The AG’s office declined to comment for the story, but we both know that Ken Paxton would gladly spend down the entire Rainy Day Fund in defense of these laws. It’s not really a cost, as far as they’re concerned. It’s an investment.

On a related note:

[Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life which advocates for stiffer abortion regulations,] said anti-abortion advocates need to think long-term if they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established legal precedent protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. The long-time activist said he is not confident the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court is favorable to overturning Roe v. Wade — but it could be in a few years.

“We are telling our people that they need to stay focused on re-electing President Donald Trump because he has a track record of nominating justices who are possibly willing to take an honest look at Roe v. Wade,” said Pojman.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and people who voted for Jill Stein in 2016 have ridiculed the notion of judicial appointments as an electoral issue. Joe Pojman would like to thank them for their dedication to their principles.

Suing ERCOT

Interesting.

Panda Power built three power plants earlier in this decade, investing billions of dollars based on projections from the state’s grid manager that Texas desperately needed more generation to meet growing electricity demand. But those projections turned out to be wildly wrong — Texas, in fact, had plenty of power — and Panda ended up losing billions of dollars and putting one of the plants into bankruptcy, unable to sell electricity at prices sufficient to cover debts.

The Dallas company is now in court, alleging that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas intentionally manipulated the projections to encourage new power plant construction and relieve the political pressure that was building on the grid manager to increase generation in the state. The case has implications that reach beyond whether Panda gets its money back to issues as profound as the reliability of power grid, the integrity of the wholesale electricity market and the accountability of an organization whose decisions affect thousands of businesses, millions of people and billions of dollars.

The Texas Supreme Court is considering whether ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation, is entitled to its sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governments and their agencies from lawsuits. The high court’s decision, expected later this year, could determine whether electricity buyers and sellers can hold the grid manager responsible for pricing errors, mistake-ridden forecasts or life-and-death consequences of power outages.

These problems aren’t just hypothetical. After a data error this spring forced electricity buyers to pay millions of dollars more than they should have, ERCOT declined to reprice the power, arguing that such errors are so frequent that continual repricing would disrupt the electricity market.

Case details are here. I have no idea how this may play out, but it’s one of those things that no one is paying attention to that may turn out to be a big deal, so I figured it was worth noting. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Galveston ordered to provide counsel at bail hearings

Sure seems like the proper thing to do.

Add Galveston to the list of Texas counties that have been court ordered to change their bail practices.

A federal district judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction in a 2018 lawsuit where attorneys for inmates have called Galveston County’s money bail system discriminatory against poor criminal defendants. The court’s order doesn’t target the entire pretrial system — which has largely changed since the suit was filed after federal rulings against Harris County. But it requires poor arrestees to have a lawyer at their first court appearance, where their bail is set to determine the monetary or other conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before trial.

The ACLU of Texas, which represents Galveston County inmates in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the order that it was the first court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to counsel, requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”

[…]

Since the lawsuit was filed — and as the two most populous counties in the state were repeatedly slammed by federal judges for their bail practices — Galveston County has transformed its pretrial practices. The district attorney’s office still recommends bail amounts from a schedule, but the judicial officer setting bail now has financial information the defendant provided before the first court appearance. Defendants who want to request a lower bond amount for financial reasons can get a second bail review hearing, typically within 12 hours of their first court appearance, where a defense attorney is present to represent all the defendants before the judge in that time slot.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr.’s injunction, however, said the county needs to have a lawyer not just at the review hearings, but at the initial court appearance. He clarified that the order applies to those arrested without warrants and that are first seen in court through Galveston County jail. Hanks adopted the recommendation of magistrate judge Andrew Edison, who said having a defense attorney at a hearing where the court determines how, if at all, to release a defendant before trial, is “a no-brainer.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here and a copy of the magistrate’s recommendations is here. I have to say, I don’t know what the argument against providing an attorney for defendants at bail hearings is, but we’ll find out if there’s an appeal. The Chron has more.

The San Antonio Chick-fil-A lawsuit

Oh, good Lord.

In a lawsuit citing a controversial new state law, five area residents are suing the city of San Antonio over its decision to prevent Chick-fil-A — a franchise known for opposing same-sex marriage — from opening a location in the city’s airport.

“The continued religious ban on Chick-fil-A by the San Antonio City Council has by left citizens with no choice but to take this case to court,” Jonathan Saenz, president of Texas Values Action, said Monday at a news conference with the plaintiffs in announcing the lawsuit. “Any other vendor that tries to replace Chick-fil-A at the airport will be doing so under a major cloud of long and costly litigation with the city.”

The lawsuit, which also seeks the city to pay the plaintiffs’ legal fees, calls for an injunction preventing San Antonio from taking adverse action against Chick-Fil-A or others “based wholly or partly on that person or entity’s support for religious organizations that oppose homosexual behavior.”

It cites Senate Bill 1978, a law passed this year in the Texas Legislature, that outlaws government retaliation based on “membership in and support to religious organizations.”

Laura Mayes, chief communications officer for the city of San Antonio, said in an email that the lawsuit “is an attempt by the plaintiffs to improperly use the court to advance their political agenda.”

“Among the many weaknesses in their case, they are trying to rely on a law that did not exist when Council voted on the airport concessions contract,” Mayes said. “We will seek a quick resolution from the Court.”

State Rep. Mary González, D-Clint, chairwoman of the Legislature’s LBGTQ caucus, said in a statement that it is disappointing that SB 1978 has “created the space for discriminatory lawsuits, such as the one against San Antonio” and commended San Antonio City Council for supporting inclusion.

“LGBTQ Texans are routinely denied fair and equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and economic opportunity — that is what the government should be protecting Texans from,” González said.

See here, here, and here for the background. The Current explains how silly this is.

The suit, filed in Bexar County district court, argues that a recent Texas law dubbed the “save Chick-fil-A bill” makes it illegal for the city to bar the fast-food purveyor from the airport. The problem with that, points out St. Mary’s University Law Professor Michael Ariens, is that the law passed after the city’s decision, and courts are almost never willing to retroactively apply statutes.

“I didn’t see any statement in the petition explaining why it is permissible for a court to apply retroactively the statute which serves as the basis for the plaintiffs’ claim,” Ariens said, “And I know the City of San Antonio will raise this as a defense, so I’m not sure what is going on.”

[…]

Also likely dooming the suit is the concept of standing, which requires plaintiffs to show they suffered damages, Ariens said. To that end, the petition only explains that the plaintiffs “use the San Antonio airport for travel and would patronize Chick-fil-A at the airport if it were allowed to operate there.”

Yes. Really.

It’s difficult to imagine any court considering an unmet craving for fried chicken — no matter how tasty — as a legitimate damage.

Yeah, that’s pretty weak, but Chick-fil-A is the golden calf of the zealot faction these days. If nothing else expect there to be a lot of posturing, and it’s only a matter of time before Ken Paxton invents a reason to get involved. This will go on for awhile.

One more step towards the bail lawsuit settlement

We’re almost there. I know it feels like we’ve been there for awhile and are just waiting for it all to become official, but there were still a few checkpoints to get through first, and this is one of them.

In a move that signals she will likely approve a landmark bail agreement, a federal judge in Houston issued a lengthy opinion Thursday meticulously addressing concerns raised by outside parties to the proposed consent decree that would govern bail practices in Harris County for the next seven years.

The 55-page document from Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal is not the norm in that preliminary approvals at this point in most class action suits usually take up half a page, at most two pages, according to lawyers familiar with typical dockets.

In the opinion, the judge addresses whether the deal was properly negotiated, whether it addressed the needs of all parties and whether the solution was adequate given the potential delays, costs and impact on public safety.

Specifically, she said the plan hit on the key factors required: it addressed the constitutional violations, protected poor defendants, safeguarded the public and reduced the chances that defendants would miss hearings.

While atypical, Rosenthal’s comprehensive memorandum and opinion are in keeping with how the judge runs her office, according to a former law clerk who served in the Houston federal courthouse.

“I’d say this is pretty standard for a judge who is thorough to a fault,” the former clerk said. “It definitely signals ultimate approval, but the point isn’t to telegraph.”

The clerk, who asked to remain anonymous, continued, “It’s simply to respond to the filings in a complete and timely way.”

[…]

Two county commissioners who opposed the resolution — Jack Cagle and Steve Radack — submitted their concerns to the judge along with District Attorney Kim Ogg, the Pasadena police chief and several organizations. The objectors included the Harris County Deputies’ Organization, the Houston Area Police Chiefs Association, the Texas School District Police Chiefs’Association, the Professional Bondsmen of Harris County, Equal Justice Now, Crime Stoppers of Houston, Inc. and the Harris County Domestic Violence Coordinating Council.

The parties directly involved in the case then submitted detailed responses to these amicus or “friend of the court” briefs.

Rosenthal said “the amicus briefs and objections do not identify an adequate basis to deny preliminary approval of the proposed settlement and consent decree.”

See here for the background. Ogg, who continues to talk about the imminent settlement in a way that makes one think she’s asking for trouble in her forthcoming primary election, made a statement about how it’s now all up to the judges to make this work. It’s always been all up to the judges, it’s just that in the past they did a lousy job of that. There’s a “final fairness hearing” set for October 21, and I’m guessing we’ll get the officially signed and sanctioned settlement agreement some time after that. I’m ready for this to be over and done.

Who gets to perform marriages?

In Texas, the answer to that question is quite limited, and a lawsuit to change that just suffered a legal setback.

Texas couples who hope to marry — and leave religion completely out of it — suffered a setback last week.

A Texas judge ruled on Friday to dismiss a civil suit challenging the state’s long-standing law that says only government officials and clergy can perform marriages in the state.

The Center for Inquiry, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes secular values, filed the suit last year against Dallas County Clerk John Warren. In its complaint — brought on behalf of two Texas members of the nonprofit group who want to officiate weddings — the center charged that the law is unconstitutional because it violates nonreligious Americans’ rights as spelled out in the First and 14th amendments, as well as the establishment clause.

In her decision, U.S. District Judge Jane Boyle conceded that the Texas statute may provide a “benefit to religious groups and their adherents over nonreligious ones” but said no “constitutional rights are violated” by the law.

She wrote that “the state has an interest in … ensuring the respect, solemnity, and gravity of marriage ceremonies” and that the “Statute in this case rationally serves that purpose.” Only judges and religious leaders can “reasonably be expected” to maintain the appropriate ceremonial dignity, Boyle wrote.

The center, which has forced two other states to allow secular officiants through similar lawsuits over the past decade, said it would appeal the ruling. Warren’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Nicholas Little, the center’s vice president and general counsel, said he was shocked by the judge’s ruling, which he called “ridiculous.”

“What business is it of the state of Texas what the level of solemnity in your marriage ceremony is?” Little asked in an interview. “What if you want to get married by an Elvis impersonator? That’s not the state’s business!”

Many years ago – circa 1991, as best I can recall – I attended the wedding of a friend of mine and her then-boss at the We’ve Only Just Begun Chapel of Love in (of course) Las Vegas. This was, as the proprietors of said chapel took pains to note, including via a document acknowledging such, a 100% legally binding marriage. That didn’t deter my friend or her soon-to-be-legally-wedded-husband, who were in Vegas and thought “hey! we should get married at one of these silly chapels! won’t that be fun!”, because they were a couple of dumbasses. My friend later got another friend, a lawyer who specialized in maritime law, to help her get this marriage annulled. My point here is that the level of solemnity has never had anything to do with how legal a marriage is.

(For the record, we were all in town to attend COMDEX, and the “let’s get married!” idea sprung from having too much free time after the exhibition halls closed. My friend and her boss had traveled in from California, and I had happened to run into them one evening, the evening they decided to do this dumb stunt. My main regret from all this is that I didn’t have a camera.)

“It’s obviously unconstitutional because it gives a benefit to religious groups and denies that same benefit to comparable secular groups,” said Noah Feldman, a Harvard professor of constitutional law. “However — and this is a big ‘however’ — this is also an exemplar of the kind of law that might well survive judicial scrutiny.”

Courts may not want to declare state marriage laws like Texas’s unconstitutional because “it’s such a well-established tradition” and they “don’t want to rock the boat,” Feldman said. Laycock agreed, noting he was “pleasantly surprised” to learn of the center’s lawsuit.

“This hasn’t come up very often before because everyone is so used to it and because it just seemed the natural order of things,” Laycock said.

Little said the center, which began authorizing nonreligious Americans to perform weddings in 2009, wants to “fight this battle now” because the country’s shifting religious demographics demand action. He pointed to statistics suggesting that the United States is increasingly less religious — including in a recent Gallup poll that found the number of Americans belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque hit an all-time low of 50 percent in 2018.

The center plans to file more lawsuits against a range of states in the coming months, Little said.

“There’s this growing number of secular people, of agnostic or atheistic people who follow no particular religion, who want to have their wedding reflect their values,” Little said. “So we’re saying, ‘Hey! Add an extra category of people who can solemnize marriages!’ ”

[…]

That’s another reason Little is determined to advocate for the legalization of secular wedding officiants across the country. He said that there aren’t enough paths for nonreligious men and women to wed in the United States, and that Internet ordination, which is legal in Texas but was recently barred in Tennessee, isn’t a fair alternative. Little called it ludicrous that some nonreligious people must profess false sentiments online to earn a possibly bizarre religious affiliation — all in pursuit of the wedding they want.

That’s another reason Little is determined to advocate for the legalization of secular wedding officiants across the country. He said that there aren’t enough paths for nonreligious men and women to wed in the United States, and that Internet ordination, which is legal in Texas but was recently barred in Tennessee, isn’t a fair alternative. Little called it ludicrous that some nonreligious people must profess false sentiments online to earn a possibly bizarre religious affiliation — all in pursuit of the wedding they want.

Another wedding I once attended was in 1992, in Arizona, in which two dear friends were married by another dear friend, who had written off to some mail-order church in which one could get quickly ordained, for the express purpose of being able to perform this ceremony. This was the opposite of the Vegas wedding in that it was planned and involved many family and friends who came in for the celebration; the happy couple remains wedded to this day. It was the celebrant, who achieved ordination via an outfit that ran ads in the back of magazines and comic books (this was 1992, the Internet wasn’t a thing yet), and was legally empowered by the state of Arizona to join them or any other couple together as husband and wife as a result. The wedding was beautiful and solemn and if you didn’t know any better you’d have had no idea that the celebrant was performing her first (and as far as I know, only) marriage. It’s just that this was not exactly what one would call traditional.

All of this is my typically long-winded way of saying that I support the Center for Inquiry in their quest, and I agree that this ruling was ridiculous and built on an extremely shaky foundation. I wish them well in their appeal and in their other lawsuits on this topic around the country. See here and here for more.

Ogg’s objections

This kind of came out of the blue.

Kim Ogg

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg — who has been aligned with bail reformers during an ongoing legal conflict over the disparate treatment of poor defendants — filed a brief Thursday opposing portions of the consent decree governing the misdemeanor bail system, prompting fellow Democrats on the bench to question why Ogg is raising her concerns at the eleventh hour.

Ogg’s amicus brief landed on the docket this week amid a flurry of eight or nine pleadings and letters from individuals and groups opposing the bail agreement, including briefs by Republican Commissioners Steve Radack and Jack Cagle, who both voted against the settlement and have opposed what they consider “bells and whistles” the parties added which they say extend beyond the scope of the lawsuit.

[…]

The district attorney said in her court filing that the bail deal disproportionately favors the convenience of defendants over the needs of victims, witnesses and other stakeholders.

Ogg also expressed concern that the settlement removes the role of the prosecutor in getting defendants to show up for court and sets sanctions for noncompliance with the new bail process without providing clarity about what’s expected from prosecutors.

“It is fundamentally unfair to expose the District Attorney and her employees to federal sanctions for noncompliance with the proposed settlement absent appropriate clarity on her rights and responsibilities under the Proposed Settlement,” it says.

In addition, the DA objected to the “unfettered and unreviewable discretion” allowed to judges to delay or “outright excuse” defendants from appearing in court, which Ogg says violates Texas law.

Judge Darrell Jordan, the presiding jurist on the County Courts at Law, said he and his fellow judges welcome all criticism, but he said Ogg had ample opportunity to give this input while the settlement was being hammered out.

Jordan said Ogg’s office played an essential role in developing rule 9.1, which allows about 85 percent of defendants to be released on no-cash bond.

“Her former First Assistant Tom Berg was a great asset during the entire process,” Jordan said. “Once he left the office Kim Ogg was a ghost.”

“She has not attended any meetings or sent a representative since Mr. Berg’s departure. I have called, texted and emailed the District Attorney and she does not respond,” Jordan continued. “Government cannot function the way it should when there is no communication.”

Jordan said the judges have set an emergency meeting for the misdemeanor judges to review Ogg’s brief “line-by line” and “address all concerns raised by the District Attorney.”

You can read her filing here. I skimmed through it and it seemed more superficial than substantive, but I Am Not A Lawyer so take that for what it’s worth. Alec Karakatsanis, who is a lawyer and in fact represented the plaintiffs, is quoted in the story saying these are “some minor objections that are not significant issues”, so take that for much more than what my comments are worth. They have until Sunday to respond to this and any other brief. Judge Rosenthal will get the final say, presumably some time in September. Grits for Breakfast has more.

HISD has a lawsuit against the TEA over that ethics investigation

I missed the first act of this story, but that’s okay because this is where it gets interesting.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board are seeking to stop the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected trustees following a state investigation into alleged misconduct, arguing the agency conducted a “one-sided investigation” that reached conclusions “unsupported by any credible evidence.”

In an amended lawsuit filed Friday, lawyers for the nine-member board cite several ways in which agency leaders violated trustees’ rights and failed to fully investigate allegations of wrongdoing. The lawsuit comes two weeks after TEA investigators determined several trustees violated the Texas Open Meetings Act, improperly influenced district contracts and overstepped their governance role — allegations denied by the HISD board’s lawyers.

The 49-page complaint argues that TEA officials were determined from the outset of the inquiry to oust HISD’s school board, failed to fully investigate allegations and incorrectly applied the law to their findings. In addition, the lawsuit alleges the agency is violating federal civil rights laws by only replacing school boards in districts where a majority of residents are people of color.

“TEA intends to punish the district by replacing Houston ISD’s elected board of trustees with an unelected board of managers — a sanction that is unavailable under the law and facts of this case,” David Campbell, a lawyer hired by HISD’s school board, wrote in the complaint.

[…]

TEA officials already had appointed a conservator to oversee the district due to chronically low performance at several campuses. Appointing a state board of managers is considered the next most serious sanction at the agency’s disposal. Morath has not issued a final decision, which likely will come in the next several weeks.

The HISD board’s lawsuit, however, seeks to negate virtually all of the TEA’s findings and stop Morath from replacing the board. Trustees originally filed the suit in June, seeking to preempt possible state sanctions resulting from any finding that board members violated the open meetings law. Friday’s amended petition expands trustees’ defense in response to specific allegations by TEA investigators.

Lawyers for the trustees argue that board members did not violate the Texas Open Meetings Act because they did not meet together as a group of five or talk about replacing Lathan.

“At the time of these discussions, no board members discussed any terms of employment, or any other matters regarding the potential appointment of Dr. Saavedra as interim superintendent,” Campbell wrote.

As noted, this lawsuit is about the results of the ethics investigation. That investigation began in January and expanded to include things beyond the original open meetings complaint. The lawsuit was filed in June, and if there was a story about that I missed it. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this lawsuit or its likelihood to succeed – in addition to Not Being A Lawyer, I haven’t had a chance to read the thing yet – but as noted even if this succeeds then the HISD Board is still not out of the woods because of the accountability ratings. Oh, and yesterday was the filing deadline, and none of the four trustees up for re-election had filed as of the weekend; I don’t know yet who’s in and who’s not, but will have an update on that by tomorrow. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure.

Lawsuit filed over mail ballot practices

We haven’t had a good voting rights lawsuit in a few months.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Antonio, [two] voters — George Richardson of Brazos County and Rosalie Weisfeld of McAllen — alleged that the state law that allows “untrained local election officials to arbitrarily and subjectively” reject mail-in ballots based on mismatching signatures violates the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Joined by groups that represent Texans with disabilities, veterans and young voters, they are asking a federal judge to either block election officials from rejecting mail-in ballots over signature doubts or require Texas to notify voters about an alleged mismatch in time for them to “cure” their ballot.

“Even though Texas’ mail in-ballot process should make voting easier for voters from these underrepresented groups, the current flawed process leads to the unlawful disenfranchisement of these Texas voters,” the lawsuit says.

Like other states, Texas offers voting by mail to various kinds of voters — people with disabilities, Texans who are 65 and older, voters who will be outside of the county during an election, such as college students, and those in jail during an election.

Before they are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews mail-in ballots to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that law is applied unequally with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

The lawsuit claims at least 1,873 mail-in ballots were rejected on the basis of mismatched signatures during the 2018 general election; at least 1,567 were rejected in 2016.

See here for the TCRP press release, which contains a link to the lawsuit and a video explaining things. Ideally, this should lead to a settlement. Both parties make use of mail ballots, so it’s not a partisan issue the way voter ID is. And objectively, the standard being applied, such as it is, is ridiculously arbitrary. I can tell you that my signature has changed over the years, from something that was readable as my full name to a basically meaningless scrawl. I noticed it as it was happening, but it happened anyway. I doubt I could replicate one of my older signatures even if I tried. It’s still my hand scrawling it, and it makes no sense that some bureaucrat could decide that it didn’t represent me. I don’t think Ken Paxton’s office knows how to settle lawsuits like this, though, so I expect it to be fought out in the courts. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

TDP sues over Bonnen-MQS secret meeting

Here’s an interesting turn.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas Democratic Party is suing House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan, alleging they created an unregistered political action committee and violated other state election laws.

The lawsuit, filed in Travis County District Court on Thursday, stems from a June 12 meeting Sullivan had with Bonnen and Republican Caucus Chairman Dustin Burrows in Bonnen’s Capitol office. In the meeting, Sullivan has said, Bonnen and Burrows offered to give writers at his website, Texas Scorecard, House media credentials in the next legislative session in exchange for Sullivan’s political group targeting 10 Republican incumbents in next year’s primary elections. Sullivan said he rebuffed the offer.

But Democrats allege that meeting and any agreements reached in it show a coordinated effort “between political actors intended to influence the election or defeat of specific candidates” and amounts to an unregistered political committee as defined by state law.

The Democrats also allege that Bonnen and Burrows directed Sullivan to make political contributions or expenditures at their request under his political action committee, Empower Texans, which is illegal under Texas campaign finance law. They further claim that the alleged quid pro quo Bonnen offered Sullivan of public benefits in return for targeting elected officials amounts to a violation of state law.

The complaint says any contribution proposed at the meeting violated state law because it was made in the Capitol and during the Legislature’s fundraising moratorium.

[…]

As part of their lawsuit, the Democrats request that Sullivan produce the entire recording of the June meeting and any other recordings Sullivan has of Bonnen and Burrows. The Democrats also ask Sullivan to produce a list of all the people who have listened to the June recording and any documentation relevant to that meeting.

Ramos, a Richardson Democrat, is a plaintiff in the case because the Democratic Party says she “is one of the candidates mentioned in this recording as a target of the coordinated political efforts between the Speaker and Sullivan.” It is unclear whether she was named as a target, though multiple people who have heard the recording confirm Bonnen called her “awful.”

“Texans deserve to know exactly what happened on June 12, 2019 and they deserve accountability from their elected officials,” Ramos said in a prepared statement. “There needs to be accountability for any violations of ethics or the law that occurred during a meeting between a Republican activist and the Speaker of the House.”

You can see the TDP press release here, and a copy of the lawsuit here. We know about the tape. There’s no argument I can see for keeping it secret, though I’m sure MQS will come up with something. The Texas House General Investigating Committee investigation may also serve as a way to get the tape released, though I’d put more faith in the courts to serve as a fulcrum if it comes to that. One caveat about the House investigation:

But the actions of the committee – which can issue subpoenas, hire outside investigators or tap the state’s existing criminal investigative capability, such as the Texas Rangers – may complicate matters.

Under state law, a person testifying about incriminating behavior before the Legislature may not be prosecuted or indicted for any actions about which they truthfully testify, potentially giving Bonnen, Burrows and Sullivan immunity in any further legal actions if they testify before the committee.

If we didn’t have complications, we wouldn’t have anything. That said, MQS will not be able to delete the recording while the litigation is active, either, so we’ve got that going for us. Juanita and the Trib have more.

The Harris County bail lawsuit effect on Dallas County

The Trib looks to see if the recent Harris County bail lawsuit settlement might affect the bail lawsuit in Dallas County.

“Anytime one county settles, it could possibly provide a roadmap for another county, but I can’t say that it will,” said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, whose county’s bail practices have also been slammed by a federal judge. “The landscape of this lawsuit is different.”

A big piece of that is because Dallas’ lawsuit, like another in Harris and one in Galveston, targets bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants, but for felony cases, too.

[…]

“I’ve been studying very closely what’s happening in Harris County, and I think that it’s a step in the right direction and something that we should … modify or use as a blueprint for felony cases,” said State District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham, a Democrat and defendant in Dallas’ lawsuit. He was especially interested in the idea of an open-hours court.

Adding felonies to the lawsuit against bail practices in Dallas brought a new complication, however. The judges work for the state, not the county, and are being represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, which claims they have no jurisdiction over early bail decisions. County officials, who are largely Democratic, have said the attorney general’s office, run by Republican Ken Paxton, has stalled settlement talks and reform efforts.

“The fact that felony judges are part of the lawsuit complicates resolution,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “The AG office’s public positions on criminal justice reform and bail reform are not the same as the Commissioners Court or most of our elected judges.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing last month, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote that the Dallas lawsuit goes too far by including felony judges. He said bail decisions are set by county judicial officers before felony judges assume jurisdiction over criminal matters.

“Despite tens of thousands of words spilled in this case so far, [the plaintiff] has yet to articulate just what she expects the felony judges to do, going forward, to remedy her alleged harm,” Hawkins wrote.

But things appear to be moving toward resolution. Two district judges, including Birmingham, recently began conducting their own bail hearings every morning and hired a lawyer to represent them instead of the attorney general. Jenkins and Creuzot confirmed that the parties are now headed to mediation to hopefully come up with a settlement proposal or consent decree.

See here for more on the second Harris County lawsuit, the one involving felony cases. It was filed in January and I haven’t seen any updates as yet, nor do I know if the AG’s office has gotten involved. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the underlying principle is the same, and should be viewed through a similar lens by the federal court. This time, Harris will follow behind Dallas, so we’ll see where they lead us.

Mediation fails again

Not really a surprise.

A third round of mediation between Mayor Sylvester Turner and the Houston firefighters union concluded in an apparent impasse Thursday afternoon, ending another attempt to resolve the long-running contract dispute and sending a lawsuit over the matter back to a state appellate court.

The mediation session, ordered by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, ended around 2 p.m. at the office of the Baker Botts law firm. After leaving the meeting, Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association President Marty Lancton said city officials “walked” and “absolutely decided they were not going to continue” the session.

“It was crystal clear to myself and to our team that this mayor was not interested in resolving this,” Lancton said. “This is a game of politics by this mayor trying to get past the election.”

See here for the background. This I think sums up the situation well:

The story says that the 14th Court of Appeals will likely not render a verdict until after the election. And let’s be clear, if this election was illegal as the lower court ruled, then there really isn’t much basis for mediation. The city’s position can and should be that any negotiations should be done in the context of the normal collective bargaining process, as the firefighters have been operating without a new agreement for a couple of years now. The firefighters have a good argument that some form of pay parity should be the goal of those negotiations, since the people did vote in favor of Prop B. Unless the 14th Court eventually decides that the lower court ruling was wrong, I’m honestly not sure what else there is to talk about at this point.

UPDATE: Here’s the longer version of the Chron story.

Commissioners Court approves bail lawsuit settlement

Excellent.

Harris County Commissioners Court approved a historic settlement Tuesday fixing a bail system a federal judge found unconstitutional and ushering in a new era for criminal justice in one of the nation’s largest metropolitan areas.

The deal resulted from months of intensive negotiations between the county and lawyers for indigent misdemeanor defendants who sued over a two-tiered system that jailed people prior to trial if they couldn’t pay up front cash bail but allowed people with similar backgrounds and charges to resume their lives and await trial at home.

“This was the result of careful negotiation,” County Judge Lina Hidalgo said just before the commissioner’s voted 3-2 to approve the deal.

The vote split along party lines. Commissioners Jack Cagle and Steve Radack, the only Republicans now on the the commissioners court, voted against it.

The settlement agreement — which still must be approved by a federal judge — installs a monitor to oversee the new bail protocol for seven years. It provides comprehensive public defense services and safeguards to help ensure defendants show up for court. It will allow about 85 percent of people arrested on misdemeanors to avoid pretrial detention. The settlement also calls for transparent data collection, which will allow the county to keep better track of what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the background, so see here for the previous update. I can only wonder what would have happened in a world where Democrats swept the judicial races but failed to win those two seats on Commissioners Court. I feel pretty confident saying that as of July 30 in that alternate universe, there would not be an agreement in place. Elections, they do have consequences. Congratulations one and all for getting this done.

Final bail settlement reached

We are coming to the end of a very long road.

A long-awaited settlement in Harris County’s historic bail lawsuit won tentative approval Friday from all parties, setting up a possible end to a contentious system that kept poor people behind bars on low-level charges while those with money could walk free.

The agreement — if approved by a federal judge and county officials — would formally adopt the judge’s findings and modernize the way local officials handle bail hearings for the steady stream of people arrested every day on misdemeanors.

Key reforms in the lengthy consent decree include revised judicial protocol, access to more public defense services, open court hours for defendants to clear or prevent warrants, as well as text reminders about hearings and a bail education program for officials and the public. The county will have a court-appointed monitor for seven years to oversee implementation.

The county also would agree to pay about $4.7 million in legal costs for the plaintiffs, on top of the $9.1 million already spent to contest the lawsuit. An additional $2.1 million in legal fees has been waived by the Susman Godfrey firm.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis, who has championed bail and criminal justice reform for decades, called the agreement one of the highlights of his career.

“It’s a major civil rights victory that will have national implications,” Ellis said. “This fixes a broken system that has traditionally punished people based on how much money they have before they are convicted of a crime.”

The deal could provide a road map for other jurisdictions around the country to rethink their bail systems amid widespread overcrowding and a nationwide push for criminal justice reform.

Commissioners Court is set to vote Tuesday on the proposed deal. Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal could then consider approving it after a hearing Aug. 21.

See here for some background. I got a press release from the Texas Organizing Project on Thursday about this, so I’ve been eagerly awaiting the news story. I can predict with confidence that Commissioners Court will approve this by a 3-2 margin. Elections have consequences. Kudos to everyone who worked hard to make this happen.

Houston sues over water rights

This could be interesting.

The city of Houston sued the state and the Brazos River Authority Monday, seeking to block the implementation of a new law that would force the city to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton to the river authority, a decree the city says is unconstitutional.

The law, which sailed through the Legislature this spring and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott on June 2 over Mayor Sylvester Turner’s objections, requires Houston to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of this year for up to $23 million.

The law’s backers argue Houston has developed its water rights in the Trinity and San Jacinto river basins so thoroughly that it has no urgent need and no immediate plan to build the reservoir, whereas huge petrochemical plants along the Lower Brazos have skipped expansions due to a lack of water resources.

The river authority argued it was ready and able to tackle the project immediately, and that it would charge roughly half what the city would charge for the water.

[…]

The city argues the law is unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

You can see the city’s press release here. Mayor Turner has been threatening to sue since the bill (HB 28146) was passed. Note that this bill took effect immediately, which means that it passed with a two-thirds majority in each chamber. As a Houston taxpayer, I support this suit and agree with Mayor Turner’s argument that the city is not being adequately compensated for its investment. I don’t know enough about the law, or about how often the Brazos River Authority or similar agency has done this before, to guess how this may go. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Mediation 3.0

Third time’s the charm, right?

The Houston firefighters union and Mayor Sylvester Turner’s administration will return to mediation Aug. 1 in the hopes of working out a new contract amid a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Proposition B.

The ballot measure, which grants firefighters the same pay as police of similar rank and experience, passed last November but was struck down by a state district judge who ruled it unconstitutional and void. The Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association appealed the ruling, sending the case to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

Last month, the appeals court ordered the city and fire union to hold talks within 60 days. The union announced Wednesday the parties had agreed to hold the mediation session Aug. 1, which a spokesperson for the mayor confirmed. The two sides also agreed to have Houston attorney Daryl Bristow serve as mediator.

[…]

Asked Wednesday if there was any reason to expect a deal on the third mediation attempt, Turner repeated his claim that the firefighters deserve a pay raise “the city can afford” and said he would seek to reach a deal.

“The resolution has to be one that’s good for the people of the city of Houston,” Turner said.

See here for the background, and my thoughts on this process, which doesn’t seem any more likely to resolve things now than before, but you never know. They have a different mediator this time, for whatever that’s worth. I don’t know what timeline they may have, but most likely they will either come to an agreement or declare that it’s hopeless in a fairly short period of time.

Libertarians and Greens sue over the petition process for ballot access

We’ll see about this.

Mark Miller

Ahead of the 2020 election cycle, a group of Texans, along with a number of nonmajor political parties, have sued the secretary of state’s office, alleging that Texas election law discriminates against third-party and independent candidates vying for a spot on the general election ballot.

In a lawsuit filed Thursday in Austin, plaintiffs argued that current state law would give nonmajor political parties in 2020 just 75 days to obtain over 80,000 valid signatures to gain ballot access — and that the cost of doing so could cost more than $600,000.

Currently, third parties like the Green Party and the Libertarian Party can secure a spot on the general election ballot by either having at least one candidate who wins more than 5% of the vote in a statewide race during the previous election cycle, or by collecting a certain number of required signatures. That 5% threshold will soon be lowered to 2% of the vote in one of the past five general elections once a measure that passed the Texas Legislature this year takes effect Sept. 1.

Candidates unaffiliated with a political party, meanwhile, are allowed access to the general election ballot as long as they file the required paperwork and gather a certain number of signatures, which depends on which office they’re seeking.

For both third-party and independent candidates, signatures must come from registered voters who did not vote in either the Republican or Democratic primaries or participate in another party’s convention that year.

“Collecting signatures by hand is inherently time-consuming, labor-intensive and expensive,” Mark Miller, a plaintiff in the case and a two-time Libertarian candidate for Texas Railroad Commission, said in a news release. “And collecting 80,000-plus valid signatures in the limited time allowed under Texas law is all but impossible without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire paid petition circulators.”

In the lawsuit, plaintiffs suggested that Texas could modernize its signature petition procedure to help alleviate the burden they say has been placed on them. Plaintiffs pointed to Arizona, which they said has a secretary of state who recently implemented an online platform to allow voters to sign nomination petitions electronically — instead of in person and on paper.

Let me start by saying that if the minor parties win the right to collect electronic petition signatures so their candidates can get on the ballot in a state where electronic voter registration is illegal, that will be infuriating. The latter is by far the bigger affront to democracy.

Before I get to the main part of my analysis, let me add some more details about this from the Statesman.

State law offers three paths for candidates to land on the general election ballot:

Political parties that received at least 20 percent of the vote in the previous election for governor nominate their candidates for state and county office and the U.S. Congress via primary elections, with the winners advancing to the general election. “Since at least 1900, only the Democratic Party and Republican Party have qualified,” the lawsuit said.

Major-party candidates pay filing fees ranging from $75 to $5,000 or by submitting petitions with 5,000 signatures for statewide office. The law does not set a time limit on when they can begin collecting those signatures, the lawsuit said. Minor parties must nominate general-election candidates at a convention where participants equal at least 1% of the number of Texans who voted for governor in the prior election, or 83,717 participants in 2020. No minor party has met the 1% requirement in at least 50 years, the lawsuit said, but Texas law allows candidates to collect voter signatures within a 75-day window to make up the difference.

The tight deadline and limits on who may sign the petitions – registered voters cannot sign if they voted in a recent primary, attended another party’s convention or signed another party’s nominating petition for the same election – put minor-party candidates at a significant disadvantage, the lawsuit said.

Independent candidates are allowed on the general election ballot if they collect petition signatures equal to 1% of the voters in the previous gubernatorial election. Petitions cannot be circulated until after the major parties hold a primary or primary runoff election, meaning candidates could have 114 days, or as little as 30 days, to collect signatures, the lawsuit said. “This uncertainty alone imposes a significant burden that chills potential candidacies,” the lawsuit said.

Having to collect about 80,000 valid signatures by hand can cost $600,000, largely to hire people to circulate petitions, the lawsuit said. The result is an election scheme that makes it difficult, if not impossible, for candidates who are not wealthy to participate in the political arena, said Oliver Hall, a lawyer with the nonprofit Center for Competitive Democracy, which worked on the lawsuit without charge along with the Shearman & Sterling law firm, which has an office in Austin. “We think the federal courts will recognize that Supreme Court precedent prohibits Texas from limiting participation in its electoral process to those with financial means,” Hall said.

So the first thing to realize is that this cycle is an especially challenging one for parties or candidates who need to go the petition route to get on the ballot. That includes the Libertarians, whose best performance in 2018 was 3.42% in the Comptroller’s race. The Libertarians and to a lesser extent the Greens have benefited in the past from the Democrats not competing in all of the statewide judicial races, leaving at least one slot with a Republican running against an L and a G, with the two of them combining for 20% or so of the vote; there were two such races in 2014. In 2018 Dems had candidates in all of the judicial races, and that left the Libertarians (the Greens were not on the ballot because none of their candidates got to five percent in 2016) out in the cold. The other thing about 2018, you might recall, is that it shattered records for off-year turnout, which is why that “one percent of the Governor’s race” (*) requirement is as high as it is. Had the Ls and Gs needed petition signatures for 2016, they’d have only needed about 47,000 of them based on gubernatorial turnout from 2014. In addition, primary turnout, especially on the Dem side, is going to be through the roof, meaning that the pool of eligible petition-signers will be that much smaller. However you feel about the plight of the minor parties and would-be independents, this is a bad year to have to collect petition signatures.

The other fact to reckon with is that this isn’t the first time a federal lawsuit (which this one is, according to the Statesman) has been filed over this requirement. Back in 2004, after Ralph Nader tried and failed to get enough signatures to be on the ballot as an independent Presidential candidate, he sued and ultimately lost; his subsequent appeal was rejected. Federal judge Lee Yeakel ruled at the time that Texas’ ballot access laws did not create an unconstitutional burden. I’m not exactly sure what is different this time, other than the number of plaintiffs, but who knows. This is the main question, at least as far as I’m concerned, that will need to be addressed. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

For what it’s worth, while I have no warmth for the third parties, I’d be all right with a petition process that gave them more time, and even that allowed them to solicit any voter, not just non-primary voters. If and when we get electronic voter registration, I’d concede on the electronic petition gathering item. Beyond that, I don’t see much of a problem. We’ll see what the judge says.

(*) There were 8,343,443 votes cast in the 2018 Governor’s race, one percent of which is 83,434. I have no idea where that 83,717 figure comes from, unless it’s some kind of weird typo.

The Fifth Circuit Obamacare hearing

Remember, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to die. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the left was Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of Jimmy Carter; on the right sat Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a nominee of Donald Trump, and in the center sat Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, the George W. Bush appointee expected to represent the critical swing vote on a three-judge panel now charged with deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

It was that perhaps fitting seating arrangement that greeted attorneys for Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the state and its allies asked this three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the sweeping health law known as “Obamacare,” a legal means to a political end that has eluded conservatives for the better part of a decade.

Texas won a major victory in its bid to end the law in December, when a federal district judge in North Texas sided with the state, declaring that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety after Congress in 2017 gutted one of its important provisions, a tax penalty for individuals who chose to remain uninsured. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has declined to defend the law.

A California-led coalition of blue states that has stepped in to oppose Texas in the lawsuit quibbles with that question of “severability,” arguing that even if one slice of the law must fall as unconstitutional, its other hundreds of provisions — including a host of popular patient protections — should stand. The question of how much of the law may rightly be salvaged was a focal point of court discussions on Tuesday.

Texas’ odds of total vindication remain in question after nearly two hours of questions before the three judges.

Most of the unusually-large courtroom audience of journalists and interested but unaffiliated attorneys focused on Elrod at the center. By far the most vocal judge of the three, Elrod probed both sides on the issue of standing — whether they have the right to participate in the lawsuit at all. And she seemed highly focused on her court’s options for ordering a remedy, seeming to weigh options for sending the case back to a lower court for further consideration.

Engelhardt, who is among the newest appointees to the court, was harsh and occasionally sarcastic, asking more questions of the blue state coalition than he did of the Texas-led team. He seemed skeptical of the standing of both the California-led coalition and the Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened in the case although the Republican-majority U.S. Senate did not.

The Senate, Engelhardt remarked, “is sort of the 800 lb. gorilla that’s not in the room.”

King, meanwhile, did not speak at all.

See here and here for the background. The legal basis of this lawsuit is so ridiculous that anything short of tossing it and its lawyers out of court is insufficient, but given where we are I could find a way to live with the idea of sending it back to the idiot district court judge for reconsideration. I fear we’ll get some kind of split-the-baby decision that strikes down parts of the law but leaves some crippled skeleton of it intact, which dumbass pundits will then call a “moderate compromise”, in the same way that the midpoint between “I murder you and burn down your house” and “I leave you alone” is a moderate compromise. Not much to do at this point but wait and work your ass off voting these morons out in 2020. NBC News, CNN, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Think Progress have more.

Some Census shenanigans short-circuited

The head, it spins.

In a scalding order that called the Justice Department’s motion to change lawyers “patently deficient,” a federal judge in Manhattan on Tuesday blocked the move by the Justice Department to withdraw several of its attorneys from the census citizenship question case in New York.

With the exception of two DOJ lawyers who are withdrawing from the case because they have left their position at the Justice Department altogether, U.S. District Judge Jesse Furman is not letting the other attorneys withdraw because the department failed to provide “satisfactory reasons” for their exit from the case.

“Defendants provide no reasons, let alone ‘satisfactory reasons,’ for the substitution of counsel,” Furman said. Furman said that the government’s vague claim in its withdrawal motion that it did not expect the withdrawal to cause disruption to the proceedings was “not good enough, particularly given the circumstances of this case.”

[…]

“As this Court observed many months ago, this case has been litigated on the premise — based ‘in no small part’ on Defendants’ own ‘insist[ence]’ — that the speedy resolution of Plaintiffs’ claims is a matter of great private and public importance,” Furman said in his order Tuesday. “If anything, that urgency — and the need for efficient judicial proceedings — has only grown since that time.”

The Department of Justice has not offered many details as to why it was shaking up its legal team, prompting speculation that the career attorneys were not comfortable with the direction the administration was going in trying to get the question re-added.

In comments to the press on Monday Attorney General Bill Barr said that he could “understand if they’re interested in not participating in this phase.” But he also said he did not know the details as to why they were exiting the case.

On Tuesday, Furman raked the Justice Department over the coals for its failures to meet the procedural requirements for replacing its attorneys.

See here for some background, though note that that post is primarily about the Maryland case, while this is about the New York case. I could not tell if there was a similar effort by the attorneys in that case to withdraw. This all happened in a hurry, from the initial announcement to the pushback by the plaintiffs, to the judge’s order. What happens next is anyone’s guess, for both cases. Remember, the whole reason why SCOTUS took this case when it did was because the Trump administration insisted they needed to have everything resolved by the end of June to have enough time to actually do the Census. So much for that. How big a chump does Donald Trump think John Roberts is? We’re about to find out. A copy of the judge’s order is here, and Daily Kos and Politico have more.

UPDATE: The Maryland judge has also rejected a request for the Justice Department attorneys to withdraw, though he will allow the request to be re-submitted.

The lawsuit to kill Obamacare has its hearing at the Fifth Circuit today

Brace yourselves.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Last year, after a federal judge in Texas declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, throwing into question millions of Americans’ health coverage, the state’s Republican leaders promised they would come up with a plan to replace it.

But on Tuesday, after a legislative session that seemed to have no room for issues other than property tax reform and school finance, Texas will ask a federal appeals court in New Orleans to end the law in its entirety — without offering a replacement plan.

The conservative crusade against portions of the act, known as Obamacare, has spanned a decade. But Texas’ latest lawsuit, filed in February 2018, became an existential threat to the law after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in December that it is unconstitutional in its entirety. At stake: the subsidized health coverage of roughly 1 million Texans, sweeping protections for patients with preexisting conditions, young adults staying on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 and a host of low-cost benefits available to all people with health insurance, including those covered through their employers.

Texas already has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

In a highly unusual — if not entirely surprising — move, the U.S. Department of Justice has declined to defend the federal law, leaving a California-led coalition of blue states to protect it. As the case proceeds, Obamacare has remained in place, and likely will until the litigation is finally resolved.

Attorneys for the state of Texas argue the health law cannot stand since the Republican-led Congress in 2017 zeroed out Obamacare’s individual mandate — a penalty imposed on people who chose to remain uninsured. Democrats had favored the penalty as a way to induce more people to purchase health insurance, with the goal of reaching near-universal coverage. Without it, Texas argues, the whole law must fall.

But the state’s Republican leaders have offered few ideas about what should replace Obamacare, a law that touches practically every aspect of health care regulations and includes several popular protections for patients. Gov. Greg Abbott — a vocal critic of the law — pledged in December that if the law remained struck down on appeal, “Texas will be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Since then, he’s been quiet on the issue, including during this year’s 140-day Texas legislative session. Abbott did not respond to questions for this story.

See here for the background. And of course Greg Abbott doesn’t have a single thing to say about reducing the extremely high uninsured rate in Texas. That’s because Abbott’s plan to reduce the uninsured in Texas, supported by Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and the rest of the Republicans, is for more of them to die. Just as a reminder, Republicans have been in complete control of Texas government since 2003. Not once during that time have they taken any steps to improve access to health care in the state. Indeed, on multiple occasions, beginning in 2003 with the savage cuts to CHIP and continuing through their assault on women’s health via attacks on Planned Parenthood, they have time and time again make accessing health care harder. That’s what is at stake here. The only fix, regardless of the ruling in this case, is to vote them out. The WaPo, the Chron, and Think Progress have more.

Yeah, we spoke too soon about the Census citizenship question

It’s maximum chaos time.

The Justice Department affirmed Friday that it still is pursuing a path for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, according to a filing in federal court in Maryland.

The filing followed statements earlier in the day from President Trump in which he said he is “thinking of” issuing an executive order to add the controversial question.

Government lawyers said in their filing Friday that the Justice and Commerce Departments had been “instructed to examine whether there is a path forward” for the question and that if one was found they would file a motion in the U.S. Supreme Court to try to get the question on the survey to be sent to every U.S. household.

Attorneys for the government and challengers to the addition of the question faced a 2 p.m. deadline set by U.S. District Judge George J. Hazel to lay out their plans.

Hazel said earlier this week that if the government stuck with a plan to try to add the question, he would move ahead on a case before him probing whether the government has discriminatory intent in wanting to ask about citizenship.

The Justice Department lawyers argued in Friday’s filing that there was no need to start producing information in that case since for now courts have barred the government from adding the question. But the government also agreed to follow a schedule to move ahead if that was laid out.

The government has begun printing the census forms without the question, and that process will continue, administration officials said.

[…]

Census officials and lawyers at the Justice and Commerce departments scrapped holiday plans and spent Independence Day seeking new legal rationales for a citizenship question that critics say could lead to a steep undercount of immigrants, which could limit federal funding to some communities and skew congressional redistricting to favor Republicans.

“It’s kind of shocking that they still don’t know what they’re doing,” Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund said. MALDEF is representing some of the plaintiffs in the case in Maryland. “We’re in this posture because they don’t know what the real plan is.”

See here for the background. This all began with some Trump tweets, because that’s the hellscape we now inhabit. Literally no one knows what will happen next – the judge even remarked that the Justice Department lead attorney “didn’t speak for his client” – so try some cleansing breaths and do a little binge-watching, to stay calm. TPM, Daily Kos, Think Progress, Mother Jones, and Slate have more.

UPDATE: And then there’s this.

The American Civil Liberties Union and partners today asked a federal court in New York to block the Trump administration from taking any action that would delay the printing of 2020 census forms or change the forms to include the citizenship question.

They have an oral argument date of July 23. Note that this is in the New York court. The hearing yesterday was in the Maryland court. Multiple lawsuits, remember? So there are multiple fronts on which to fight.

UPDATE: And discovery will begin in the Maryland case.

No Census citizenship question

Hallelujah.

The Trump administration is dropping plans to add a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, the Justice Department confirmed Tuesday just days after the Supreme Court described the rationale for the question as “contrived.”

The decision to back away from the controversial question was a victory for civil rights advocates concerned that the query would lead to an inaccurate count of immigrant communities that could skew political representation and federal funding.

“In light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, the government had no choice but to proceed with printing the 2020 census forms without a citizenship question. Everyone in America counts in the census, and today’s decision means we all will,” attorney Dale Ho of the American Civil Liberties Union said in a statement.

The fate of the question has been the subject of legal and political wrangling since March 2018, when Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced he planned to add it to the decennial survey, sparking a half-dozen lawsuits from states, cities, civil rights groups and others.

Just last week, President Trump responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling by saying he would seek to delay the census to give administration officials time to come up with a better explanation for why it should include a citizenship question.

Instead, government lawyers notified those challenging the question of the decision to proceed without it.

See here and here for the background. It sure is nice to see lying not get rewarded for once, isn’t it? Despite this early cave, it was a closer call than you might think, because if the government had been able to get any slightly-less-bullshit pretext back before SCOTUS in time, you know John Roberts would have waved it on through. Now we can at least get this done in something approaching a normal manner, and add “pass a law outlawing citizenship questions on the Census” to the ever-longer to do list for the next Democratic government. Note that this should not affect the examination of the newly uncovered Hofeller evidence, but it does close this chapter of the story. Big sigh of relief. Think Progress, TPM, Mother Jones, Slate, and Daily Kos have more.

Next up for the Census lawsuit

Before the Trump administration can take a second shot at SCOTUS with the Census citizenship question, the federal court in Maryland will be revisiting their case with some new data.

[The SCOTUS] decision came two days after a federal appeals court ruled that Maryland-based federal Judge George Hazel — who is considering another legal challenge that was not before the high court — could consider new evidence that recently emerged in the litigation related to the federal government’s motivation for adding the question.

That challenge in Maryland was filed on behalf of more than two dozen plaintiffs, including the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, the Texas Senate Hispanic Caucus and several Texas-based nonprofits that advocate for Latino residents. They argued that including the question would lead to a disproportionate undercount of immigrants and people of color.

Hazel had already agreed with those plaintiffs’ allegations that the inclusion of the citizenship question violated the U.S. Constitution’s enumeration clause and a federal law that governs federal agencies and their decision-making process.

But they failed to convince Hazel that the question unconstitutionally violated equal-protection guarantees and that Trump administration officials had conspired to add the question to the 2020 questionnaire based on animus against Hispanics and immigrants, particularly when it comes to counting noncitizens for the apportionment of political districts.

(Those issues were not before the Supreme Court in the case it ruled on this week.)

On Monday, Hazel said he would reconsider the plaintiffs’ arguments after evidence emerged suggesting the question may have been tacked on to advance Republican gerrymandering and undermine Hispanics’ political clout.

[…]

“The citizenship question is blocked for now but the Supreme Court’s decision leaves open the possibility for it to come back. That’s why our lawsuit is so important,” said Juanita Valdez-Cox, the executive director of La Unión del Pueblo Entero. “In fact, the court in Maryland is weighing new evidence that shows that the real intention is to injure communities of color for partisan gain.”

Lawyers with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing some of the Texas plaintiffs, said Thursday they would immediately pursue their claims before Hazel. They had already asked him to enter an injunction while the court was still considering the case so they could prevent the administration from adding the citizenship question to the 2020 census forms it had planned to print this summer.

This of course is all in reference to the Hofeller evidence, which came out after the original ruling in that case. This is the case with the closest relationship to Texas – the Hofeller data was based on Texas’ state legislative districts – so it would be extra sweet if it helps keep the citizenship question off the Census regardless. I’ll be keeping a close eye on it.

Census citizenship question stopped for now

“For now” being the key point.

The Supreme Court on Thursday put on hold the Trump administration’s plan to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census form sent to every household, saying it had provided a “contrived” reason for wanting the information.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the splintered opinion. In a section agreed with by the court’s liberals, he said the Commerce Department must provide a clearer explanation.

Agencies must offer “genuine justifications for important decisions, reasons that can be scrutinized by courts and the interested public,” Roberts wrote. “Accepting contrived reasons would defeat the purpose of the enterprise. If judicial review is to be more than an empty ritual, it must demand something better than the explanation offered for the action taken in this case.”

Roberts said a district judge was right to send the issue back to the Commerce Department for a better explanation.

A string of lower-court judges found that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross violated federal law and regulations in attempting to include the question on the census. They starkly rebutted his claim that the information was first requested by the Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act, and they noted his consultations with hard-line immigration advocates in the White House beforehand.

What happens next was not immediately clear; the department had said it must know by the summer whether the question can be added.

See here for some background. Trump has already tweeted that they will try again, so it’s mostly a question of timing. Rick Hasen thinks they may be able to get back before SCOTUS in time for the fall term, which would allow for the question to be re-decided in time. Ari Berman, talking to ACLU attorneys who were among the counsel for the plaintiffs, think it’s unlikely. Everyone agrees that SCOTUS ruled that the Commerce Department could add a citizenship question if it had followed the Administrative Procedures Act, so if they can get back to SCOTUS they will almost certainly prevail. The new questions raised by the Hofeller files may be an extra obstacle for the Commerce Department, but not necessarily. Hold onto your butts. Daily Kos and Texas Monthly have more.