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Legal matters

Second lawsuit filed by bars against Abbott

This one was expected.

Several Texas bar owners filed a $10 million federal lawsuit Tuesday afternoon against Gov. Greg Abbott, in an attempt to void his executive order shutting down bars for a second time since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

All of the plaintiffs are members of the Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance. This is the second lawsuit filed against Abbott this week after more than 30 Texas bars filed a lawsuit in Travis County over his recent shutdown order on Monday.

In addition to the damages, the lawsuit asks the court to stop Abbott from enforcing his executive order which closes bars and to prevent him from issuing similar orders in the future without proper notice. The suit said Abbott should give businesses more than 24 hours notice before shutting them down, “unless in the case of imminent threat of harm.” The lawsuit also asks that future shutdown orders have a clear end date and lay out conditions that would have to be met for the order be extended.

[…]

The lawsuit noted that the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission recently posted a notice on its website saying it observed a “high level of compliance” by permit holders. The lawsuit claims that Abbott is abusing his emergency powers “without proper legal notice.”

“With the erratic legal situation fueled (if not created) by the Governor and given that Plaintiffs have largely complied with the spirit & letter of the Governor’s voluntary guidelines, it came as an unfortunate surprise,” the lawsuit states.

The bar owners say in the suit that Abbott’s order violates their constitutional rights for due process, equal protection, and their patrons right to assembly, and “may very well leave long-term scarring on the republican form of government if left unchecked.”

“It wasn’t like he even reduced the bars and nightclubs to 25% — we’re closed to 100%,” said Michael Klein, one of the plaintiffs and Texas Bar and Nightclub Alliance president, drawing a distinction between bars and other businesses which are allowed to operate at limited occupancies. “You better have some pretty good scientific evidence if you’re going to take one group of alcoholic beverage licenses over another, or one group of businesses.”

See here and here for the background. The Woodfill lawsuit was filed in state court and this one is in federal court, and someone who is much better versed in legal matters than I am will need to explain the reasons for that. I actually think these guys have some reasonable claims – sufficient notice, a deadline and criteria for the order, etc – though whether those claims are justiciable in federal court is a question I can’t answer. I figure both sets of plaintiffs are going to ask for an order suspending this action on Abbott’s part, and if so we’ll get some kind of rulings quickly. I have no idea what to expect, but can’t wait to see what happens.

More on that bar owners’ lawsuit

It’s something, that’s for sure.

Maybe not the best messaging

They’re here. They serve beer. And they are hopping mad at Greg Abbott.

As the Washington Post’s Teo Amus reported Tuesday, a group of Texas bar owners from around the state has banded together to sue Governor Greg Abbott for what they believe is a prejudiced edict targeting bar-owning Americans.

“You can’t tell me that my tiny little bar is the problem,” said Tee Allen Parker, a 45-year-old bar owner from Kilgore who recently banned wearing masks in her establishment.

Frustrated by the initial shutdown, reopening and subsequent backpedaling in the face of surging coronavirus case numbers, Parker has singled out the governor as the one recurring feature in her misery.

“[Abbott]’s the problem,” Parker says. “He’s targeting us, and it’s discrimination.”

Parker and 21 other bar owners have joined with Houston attorney Jared Woodfill to sue the governor and state alcohol regulators for Friday’s order, which shut down bars and restaurants with alcohol-dominant revenue streams. They claim the order is unconstitutional and unfairly discriminates against bar people and bar spaces.

“It’s just a horde of infringement on people’s individual liberties and constitution,” said Woodfill, a high profile right-leaning litigator who has already filed six lawsuits against state and local governments for COVID-related orders since the pandemic’s beginning.

“This is one individual making draconian decisions that have destroyed the Texas economy.”

I noted this in an update to my local control post from yesterday; here’s the Trib story that was based on. I have three comments to make. One, to Tee Allen Parker, we can indeed tell you that your bar is part of the problem. Or at least, experts like Dr. Peter Hotez can tell you that. Maybe not your bar specifically, but bars as a category. I’m sorry, I truly am, that you’re going through this. It sucks, I agree. But bars really are an excellent vector for this virus. Two, for all the lawsuits that the Woodfill/Hotze machine have filed, we have no rulings or orders from any of them yet to gauge if they’re onto something, or just basically farting in our general direction. I wouldn’t put it past the State Supreme Court to issue some truly oddball rulings, but I also wouldn’t advise anyone to mistake either of these guys for legal geniuses. And three, I’ll ask again, when does Steven Hotze, Woodfill’s partner in crime, announce his primary challenge to Abbott? This all just feels more like real bad blood than a typical fight within the family. We’ll see.

SCOTUS declines to outlaw abortion for now

You may have heard about this from the other day.

Right there with them

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law Monday that would have curtailed access to abortions in the state and that was nearly identical to a measure the court overturned in Texas in 2016.

The ruling is a win for advocates of abortion access, who feared the case could quickly pave the way for states to impose greater restrictions on the procedure. But legal and legislative battles over the procedure are sure to continue, including in Texas, where there are more than 6 million women of reproductive age. More than 53,800 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, including 1,1,74 for out-of-state residents, according to government data.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the liberal justices in a 5-4 decision that struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Roberts had dissented in the 2016 decision that found Texas’ restrictions placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. He did not agree with the liberal justices’ reasoning Monday, instead citing the precedent set by the previous case.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.

[…]

While advocates for abortion access celebrated the ruling, they expressed worry about future fights over the procedure.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today, but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” said Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit that represented the Louisiana abortion providers. “Unfortunately, the court’s ruling today will not stop those hell bent on banning abortion.”

See here for a bit of background. I hate to be the party pooper, but after reading what Dahlia Lithwick has to say, I’m going to keep any celebrations of this ruling to the minimum.

Roberts’ concurrence is classic Roberts—cloak a major blow to the left in what appears to be a small victory for it. Four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health, the court struck down the Texas admitting privileges law by assessing that such a law would constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—a standard that in Justice Stephen Breyer’s formulation called for a careful balancing of the stated benefits of an abortion restriction against its burdens. Reading Roberts’ concurrence carefully, one sees that in June Medical, he managed to claw back that standard, replacing it with a much more deferential one that asks only whether the proposed regulation is unduly burdensome without requiring any consideration of the benefit. Not only that, he goes further and does essentially what he did in last year’s census case and last week’s challenge to the DACA rescission: He hints that essentially any old pretextual defense of an abortion law will serve; he just doesn’t like when lazy litigants offer up sloppy pretexts.

The problem for Roberts in June Medical is that the state of Louisiana offered up demonstrably bad reasons for insisting on admitting privileges for abortion providers at local hospitals, and then the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered up sloppy reasons for disturbing the findings of the trial court showing that two out of three clinics would close and women would be burdened. As was the case in the census litigation, and the DACA litigation, the outcome here is correct, but one can easily reverse-engineer the chief justice’s opinion to say, “Come back to me with the right road map and I’m all yours,” and in fact, he actually grabs your pencil, flips over the napkin, and sketches the map out at no extra cost.

As Mark Joseph Stern and I wrote this time last year, “Lie better next time” could easily be the holding of June Medical, and states seeking to restrict abortion rights can now do precisely that, without running afoul of this ruling, so long as they ground the laws in better pretextual arguments about maternal health and fetal life and women’s need to make better choices. Roberts has turned a substantive constitutional right into a paper-thin debate about regulatory justifications. His scrupulous review of the many abortion restrictions that were permitted in Casey is a useful reminder that nothing is truly an “undue burden” if it comes dressed in the right language of solicitude and benign concern for mothers’ healthy choices. After today, Roberts is telling states wanting to impose all sort of needless regulations that it doesn’t matter if they are utterly without health benefits, so long as the burdens on women are not that bad.

Mark Joseph Stern arrived at a similar conclusion earlier. It was correct to throw out this ridiculous Louisiana law, but the door is still very much open for a similar law to flip Roberts back to his natural inclination. It’s just a matter of time. Mother Jones has more.

Interview with Rep. Marc Veasey

Rep. Marc Veasey

When I came up with the idea to do a series of interviews about redistricting, Rep. Marc Veasey was among the first people I wanted to talk to. He was a State Rep in 2011 when the original maps were passed, and then he got elected as the first member of Congress in CD33, one of the new districts created in that 2011 session. He was one of the litigants in the consolidated case that made it to the Supreme Court (he was also one of the main litigants in the voter ID lawsuit; the 2010s were a busy decade for Rep. Veasey), and I wanted to get the insight from someone who was in this fight from the beginning. As a member of the now-Democratic majority US House, he’s also got a role to play in making the landscape better in the 2020’s, with legislation to make redistricting fairer that will also generally expand voting rights. Here’s what we talked about:

Here’s my interview with redistricting expert Michael Li if you haven’t listened to it yet. I hope to have more of these in the coming weeks.

Judges added to felony bail reform lawsuit

This could be a sign that things are about to happen.

All 23 Harris County felony judges have been added as proposed defendants in the lawsuit alleging that the region’s felony bail practices are discriminatory and damaging to poor defendants.

The amended filing came late Friday after a second judge on the court intervened in support of the 2019 civil rights lawsuit arguing that it’s unconstitutional to jail poor people before trial simply because they cannot afford bail. These two judges, Brian Warren and Chuck Silverman, could potentially become both defendants and intervenors.

Several other judges said they looked forward to being formally included in the case in order to make changes to the current protocol.

Lawyers for the indigent people at the jail asked in a motion Friday that nearly two dozen judges be included in the case. They said in court documents that amid rising COVID-19 infections at the jail, the judges have continued to mandate that thousands of arrestees come up with secured money bail without first determining that pretrial detention is necessary or the least-restrictive condition to ensure public safety or cooperation with court hearings.

These judges don’t routinely hold adversarial hearings to allow defendants to make their case about bail and make findings about defendants’ ability to pay bail, the motion said.

Warren, a Democrat who was elected as presiding judge of the 209th Criminal Court, defeating a judge who berated Black Lives Matter, said he supports “intelligent bond reform” in his request to join the case. Silverman, of the 183rd Criminal Court, was accepted as a party in the case Thursday, a day after he filed an unopposed motion to join it.

“The pandemic has brought this into stark relief,” Warren said. He noted that bail has disproportionately affected people of color.

“The implementation of bond reform is a complex issue. It requires well-reasoned and intelligent proposals,” his motion said.

The lawsuit was filed last January, and this is the first real news I’ve heard about it since. The misdemeanor bail reform lawsuit settlement was finalized in November and has been in operation since earlier that year. There are lawsuits in other counties over felony bail practices, such as in Dallas, but so far nothing has come to a courtroom.

A big difference between this lawsuit and the previous one in Harris County over misdemeanor bail practices is that all but one of the judges who were named as defendants in the earlier lawsuit were Republicans, and all but two of them (the one Democrat and one of the Republicans) opposed the plaintiffs’ arguments and refused to settle the suit. It wasn’t until Democrats swept the 2018 election, in part on a message of settling that lawsuit, that it came to its conclusion. In this case, all of the judges are Democrats. As of Friday, when this story was written, at least two of them have expressed a desire to join on the side of the plaintiffs. Brian Warren was mentioned in this story, and on Thursday we got this story about the first judge to speak up, Chuck Silverman.

Saying the bail system “perpetuates inequalities” and can have “devastating” consequences on lives and livelihoods, State District Chuck Silverman of the 183rd Criminal Court filed paperwork Wednesday to intervene in the 2019 federal civil rights lawsuit brought on behalf of poor defendants stuck at the jail. In addition, fellow jurist Brian Warren, of the 209th Criminal Court, said he planned to file his own motion to join the case this week, with hopes of reforming the way judges handle with pretrial release.

Silverman said he thinks the majority of his colleagues on the felony bench want to revise how PR bonds work and “want to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.”

Like his colleagues on the bench, Silverman, a Democrat elected in 2018, is not a party in the lawsuit. He sought to intervene to ensure equal protection and due process rights are fairly administered, while protecting public safety.

Silverman said in an interview that negotiations on the bail lawsuit had been moving slowly and he learned in his civil practice prior to becoming a judge that the best way to push it forward and accomplish true bail reform was to intervene.

“We need systemic change in the cash bail system because it disproportionately affects minorities and the poor,” he said. “The time to do something proactive was now.”

The unopposed motion argues that cash bail discriminates against people who can’t access funds, often forcing them to settle for guilty pleas rather than await trial in lockup.

Neal Manne, one of the lawyers for the indigent plaintiffs, applauded Silverman’s “courageous” move and encouraged other judges to follow his lead.

“Any state judge looking in good faith at the cash bail situation in the felony courts in Harris County can see that the system is broken and requires reform,” Manne said. “I am delighted that Judge Silverman has acknowledged that the current situation violates the rights of poor people.”

I too would like to see all of the judges join with the plaintiffs to work towards a fair and equitable solution as quickly as possible. The way COVID-19 has burned through all the jails in the state, as well as the ever-increasing jail population, should make this an urgent priority, from a public health standpoint as well as a justice standpoint. I hope that most if not all of the judges will take similar action as Silverman and Warren have done, and I am damn sure that those who don’t will need to account for their actions in the next primary election. We know what is right, and we know what needs to be done. There’s plenty of room to negotiate the details and particulars, but the goal is clear and we need to get there. Let’s make this happen.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

Straight ticket voting lawsuit tossed

Not a big surprise.

A federal judge on Wednesday threw out Democrats’ effort to reinstate the straight-ticket voting option in Texas.

Siding with the state, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo found that Democrats lacked standing to challenge Texas Republicans’ decision to kill straight-ticket voting ahead of the November general election. The judge dismissed the federal lawsuit after ruling that Democrats’ claims of the electoral fallout that could come from eliminating straight-ticket voting were too speculative.

The Texas Democratic Party — joined by the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party and the Democratic campaign arms of the U.S. Senate and House — filed the lawsuit in March on the heels of Super Tuesday voting that left some Texans waiting for hours to cast their ballots.

They claimed the elimination of straight-ticket voting is unconstitutional and intentionally discriminatory because the longer lines and waiting times it is expected to cause would be disproportionately felt at polling places that serve Hispanic and Black voters.

[…]

In her order, Garcia Marmolejo ruled that that Democrats’ predictions about the negative effects the lack of straight-ticket voting would have on voters and the election process were “uncertain to occur.” She also found fault with their assumptions that the Texas secretary of state and local officials would not work to “ameliorate the situation.”

Garcia Marmolejo also pointed to the likelihood that in-person voting would be transformed by the new coronavirus, which has led to long lines in other states where elections have already occurred during the pandemic, regardless of whether straight-ticket voting was eliminated.

“Considering the pandemic has already caused long lines at polling-places, many Texans will endure longer lines at polling places indefinitely, irrespective of any order issued by this Court,” she wrote. “And other Texans will experience shorter lines given that voters have been encouraged to steer clear from in-person voting where possible.”

See here for the background. I thought this case was weak, and I am not surprised by the ruling. I do find it ironic that the judge is citing vote by mail as a mitigation of the concerns raised by the plaintiffs. From your lips to John Roberts’ ears, Your Honor. Anyway, there’s still a lot of legal action going on out there. We’ll hope to get ’em next time.

Interview with Michael Li

Michael Li

As we know, among the many monumental tasks that the Legislature has before it in 2021 is redistricting. That will almost certainly be done in a summer or even autumn special session, since Census data will be delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it will happen next year, with all the usual pomp and partisan fighting that accompanies it. And as we also know from living in Texas, litigation and redistricting go together like chips and salsa. This past decade was particularly eventful for redistricting and the courts, and I wanted to have a chance to review where we are now before we embark on the next round. The best person I could think of to have this conversation with is Michael Li, Senior Counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, where his work focuses on redistricting, voting rights, and elections. I was of course a dedicated reader of his Texas Redistricting blog, and I follow him now on Twitter, and I was delighted to have the opportunity to ask him all my questions about the state of redistricting litigation:

I have a number of interviews in mind on this topic that I would like to do. I’m working on making that happen, but have no set schedule for any of it at this time. Please let me know what you think.

Pro-choice groups sue that “abortion sanctuary cities” guy

Good.

Three abortion support organizations – The Lilith Fund, the Texas Equal Access Fund, and The Afiya Center – are hitting back at anti-choice activist Mark Lee Dickson and the group he leads, Right to Life East Texas.

Those two are now the defendants in a defamation lawsuit, after labeling the pro-choice groups “criminal” and spewing lies about abortion care to – in their eyes – purposely “confuse, intimidate, and dissuade” abortion-seeking women in Texas. Dickson and Right to Life are behind the string of abortion bans passed recently by small Texas towns, many of which were also sued earlier this year by the ACLU of Texas.

“With this lawsuit, we are saying enough is enough,” said Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, a reproductive justice group that addresses the health disparities black women and girls face. “We have been at the hands of those seeking to distort our purpose by damaging our standing in the community. Going after organizations like ours will not stop us from helping black folk; it will only cause confusion in our communities and create barriers to people seeking abortion care. The women that we serve have already been marginalized and disenfranchised and we are saying enough already. To be labeled as a ‘criminal entity’ presents a clear and present danger to the life of this organization.”

[…]

In February, the ACLU of Texas, representing the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund, filed suit against seven towns that passed the ordinance, arguing they violated pro-choice advocates’ First Amendment rights. By ideologically designating those groups as criminal entities, the towns are illegally imposing punishment without a fair trial, they argued. By May, the ACLU dropped the lawsuit after the cities backed down and revised ordinance language to stop calling such groups “criminal.”

Even with that partial victory, the plaintiffs believe a lot of damage is already done. They want to make sure Dickson and Right to Life East Texas are held accountable for disrupting and confusing communities who have a right to abortion care. Though the cities themselves have amended their ordinances, Dickson and his group continue in defamatory conduct as they “refuse to stop lying and refuse to correct the false record,” attorneys write in legal challenges filed today. (Afiya and TEA have filed suit in Dallas County while the Lilith Fund filed in Travis County district court.)

“The Lilith Fund has been defamed because Defendants have falsely accused it of assisting in the commission of the specific crime of murder,” the suit reads. “Ultimately, defamation is the purpose of the ordinance; Dickson’s campaign is designed to confuse people about the legal status of abortion and abortion advocacy, and paint abortion rights organizations like the Lilith Fund as criminals.”

See here and here for the background. Accusations of criminal activity, when done with malicious intent, is not protected speech. I look forward to these groups taking that guy to the cleaners. KUT, the Dallas Observer, and this TEA Fund Twitter thread have more.

Hotze versus contact tracing

We should have expected this.

Conservative firebrand Steven Hotze has launched another lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s coronavirus response, joined by current and former lawmakers and several hundred business owners who argue the state’s contact tracing program infringes on their privacy and ability to make a living.

The civil action filed Monday in federal court takes on the disparate operating capacities the governor mandated in his “COVID-19 lottery,” claiming Abbott’s actions have limited restaurants and bars with 25 or 50 percent limits, while bicycle shops, liquor stores, pool cleaners and supermarkets are running at full tilt.

[…]

The lawsuit by Hotze includes nearly 1,500 names. Most are small business owners, but topping the list are state Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington, former Republican state representatives Gary Elkins, of Houston, Molly White, of Bell County, Rick Green, of Hays County, and former party chair Cathie Adams, of Collin County.

The suit argues that Texas’ $295 million contract tracing program — aimed at tracking down all people exposed to an infected person — violates the first amendment, privacy, due process and equal protection provisions. Such tracking amounts to an illegal, warrantless search, the suit says. While tracing back contacts is supposed to be voluntary, it is enforced through local health departments based on a presumption of guilt for all people in proximity to a sick person, according to the lawsuit. It requires people to turn over names, call in with their temperature readings and assumes a person has COVID-19 unless they can prove otherwise, Woodfill said.

Woodfill said he believes this is the first federal challenge to contact tracing. He hopes it will set the tone for “how we as a government and as a people will deal with diseases that we don’t have a vaccine for yet.”

Yes, of course that’s Jared Woodfill, joined at the hip as ever with Hotze on these things. We had the original lawsuit against Harris County, over the stay-at-home order. That was then followed by the lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay-at-home order, for which there is now an emergency petition before the State Supreme Court. Another lawsuit against Harris County was filed over Judge Hidalgo’s face mask order, a subject that may soon be relevant again. That one too has a motion before the Supreme Court for an emergency ruling. I am not aware of any rulings in any of these lawsuits, but sooner or later something will happen. Abbott’s contact tracing plan is full of problems, and as I’ve said before there are legitimate questions to be raised about Abbott’s various orders during this pandemic. For sure, the Lege should try to clarify matters in 2021. I would just greatly prefer to have these legitimate questions get asked by legitimate people, not con men and grifters. That’s not the world we live in, unfortunately.

All this got me to thinking: Why doesn’t Hotze announce that he’s running for Governor in 2022? He clearly has some strong opinions about the way the state is supposed to be run, and in doing so he has some stark disagreements with Greg Abbott. Just as clearly, he has some support among the wingnut fringe for those differing opinions. It seems unlikely he could win – among other things, Abbott has a gazillion dollars in his campaign treasury – but he could force a dialogue on his issues, and very likely could bring some real pressure on Abbott. He’s also the kind of preening egotist who’d think he’s got The People behind him. I’m just idly speculating, and maybe trying to stir up some trouble. I can’t help but think that this is the biggest public example of Republican-on-Republican rhetorical violence since Carole Keeton Strayhorn was Rick Perry’s main nemesis. (I’m not counting Kay Bailey Hutchison’s primary against Perry in 2010, since she barely showed up for it.) I don’t really think this is where Hotze is going, but if he does do something like this, would you be surprised? At this point, I would not be.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

SCOTUS delivers a win for equality

Quite a pleasant surprise.

In a major victory for gay and transgender workers in Texas and nationwide, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday that federal civil rights law prohibits employers from discriminating against workers on the basis of their sexual orientation or transgender identity.

Texas is among a majority of states that do not offer explicit protections for LGBTQ communities in employment, housing or public spaces, though some of the state’s biggest cities have passed some protections. And the ruling carries particular weight in a state where proposals to expand those protections have historically been dead on arrival at the GOP-dominated Texas Legislature.

Jason Smith, a Fort Worth employment attorney who represented Stacy Bailey, a Mansfield ISD art teacher who was put on leave after showing students a photo of her wife, called the far-reaching ruling a pleasant surprise because it “covers everybody in the rainbow.” He had not dared hope for such a comprehensive opinion, he said.

“I can’t tell you how many phone calls we’ve had at our law office from LGBTQ folks who we had to tell the courts were going to turn their case out,” Smith said.

Now, he said, “we can do something for them.”

[…]

Many federal courts, including those in and governing Texas, had ruled that Title VII did not protect workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

The state’s first LGBTQ Caucus, founded in 2019, announced earlier this summer that it has bipartisan support for a comprehensive non-discrimination law for LGBTQ Texans. Long a legislative push from some Democrats, that proposal has never gone far at the Capitol in Austin, facing particular resistance from Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and the socially conservative Texas Senate.

Now the fight moves to the state Capitol, where lawmakers said they will fight for similar protections in housing and other spheres. Wesley Story, a communications associate for Progress Texas, said it’s time “to expand those protections to other areas including education, housing, and health care.”

“Equal protection for LGBTQ employees is now the land of the land!” tweeted state Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood and a member of the LGBTQ Caucus. “I’ve never been more happy to strike a piece of legislation off my bill list for next session.”

Zwiener added that she looks forward to fighting for other protections not covered by Monday’s ruling, including in housing and other areas.

As noted in that tweet, while this ruling offers protections at the workplace, it does not address things like housing. Plus, federal lawsuits are expensive and time-consuming, and thus limited as a way to redress discrimination complaints. That was one of the rationales behind local anti-discrimination ordinances, and the reason why a statewide non-discrimination law is still necessary. This was a big step forward, but it’s hardly the end of the road.

Let’s also be clear that the opponents of equality, once they are done wailing and gnashing their teeth, are going to set about doing everything they can to limit the effect of this ruling. They’re still trying to minimize the Obergefell ruling, so you can be sure this one will be in their sights as well. As long as the likes of Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton hold power, there will be danger. Celebrate the win, but don’t let your guard down. Slate and the Chron have more.

Plaintiffs move for dismissal of state lawsuit over mail ballots

Not a surprise.

The fight over expanding voting by mail in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be coming to an end in state courts, but a lawsuit continues at the federal level.

Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that closed the door to expanded mail-in voting, the individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations that sued to expand voting by mail based on a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus asked a state appeals court on Tuesday evening to dismiss their case.

[…]

Legal challenges to the state’s voting by mail rules continue in federal courts though a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week extended its order blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel cited in part the proximity of the upcoming July primary runoffs. It’s possible the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after the runoffs.

This was more or less expected after that State Supreme Court ruling, which directly addressed the question of what the state law on “disability” meant in this context. At the federal level there remains the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, neither of which has had a hearing yet, as well as the TDP/LULAC lawsuit for which there is a block of the lower court’s ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. (This Daily Kos elections lawsuit tracker may be useful for you.) If there’s going to be any change in the status quo, it will be for the November election, though at this point I’m dubious even if the age discrimination claims have merit. Ultimately, the sure path forward is winning enough elections to change the state law. We’re talking 2023 at the earliest for that, so in the meantime this is where the fight is. It’s all up to the federal courts now.

A legal analysis of age discrimination in voting

Here’s an interesting report by a group of lawyers about age restrictions and the 26th Amendment, with specific commentary about the federal age discrimination lawsuits over voting by mail in Texas. A brief excerpt:

In the immediate wake of the Amendment’s ratification, a few states persisted in making it much harder for younger voters, especially students and military voters, to vote than others. Plaintiffs challenged several such state and local laws, and courts applied strict scrutiny to those claims. In other words, the laws could survive only if states could demonstrate (1) a compelling state interest for the age discrimination, and (2) that the law was narrowly tailored to meet that interest. In many cases, courts struck down the laws. See Ownby v. Dies, 337 F. Supp. 38, 39 (E.D. Tex. 1971) (invalidating, under the Twenty-Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments, a state statute providing different criteria for determining voting residency for voters age 18–21 than for voters over the age of 21); cf. Dunn v. Blumstein, 405 U.S. 330 (1972) (applying strict scrutiny to Tennessee durational residency requirement for voter registration because the law forced voters to choose between the right to vote and the right to travel); Worden v. Mercer County Bd. Of Elections, 61 N.J. 325 (1972)(reviewing Twenty-Sixth Amendment legislative history and jurisprudence, applying strict scrutiny to invalidate a county policy of refusing voter registration to students domiciled on campus).18

The Supreme Court’s lone ruling on a case directly involving a Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim occurred in 1979, towards the end of the initial wave of post- ratification litigation. In that case, the Court summarily affirmed a three-judge district court’s decision to overturn voter registration restrictions in Waller County, Texas, because the registrar had been imposing unconstitutional burdens on students wishing to vote. Symm v. United States, 439 U.S. 1105 (1979) (reviewing the legislative history and bevy of litigation brought following ratification, finding consistency with the right to vote doctrine’s application of strict scrutiny), aff’g United States v. Texas, 445 F. Supp. 1245 (S.D. Tex. 1978). That summary affirmance has precedential weight.19

After Symm, however, few cases challenged laws that discriminate against voters based on age. Thus, Twenty-Sixth Amendment jurisprudence largely froze in the decade following its ratification. Meanwhile, courts have considered numerous voting rights cases invoking the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process and equal protection clauses.20 Recently, litigants have turned back to the Twenty-Sixth Amendment in cases where politicians are discriminating against young voters or student voters. Enforcing the Twenty-Sixth Amendment’s guarantee in the context of laws that allow only older voters to vote at home—especially during a pandemic when in-person voting is fraught with health concerns—is particularly appropriate.

For instance, one court recently noted that the Twenty-Sixth Amendment contributes “added protection to that already offered by the Fourteenth Amendment.” League of Women Voters of Fla., Inc. v. Detzner, 314 F. Supp. 3d 1205, 1221 (N.D. Fla. 2018). Given the Twenty-Sixth Amendment’s express identification of age as an impermissible axis of discrimination in voting, the more state-friendly balancing test that the Supreme Court uses under the Equal Protection Clause would be “unfitting” in a case alleging direct age discrimination in voting. Id. (citing One Wisconsin Inst., Inc. v. Thomsen, 198 F. Supp. 3d 896, 926 (W.D. Wis. 2016)). This heightened scrutiny is consistent with courts’ use of strict scrutiny in the decade following ratification of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, as well as with the reality that courts should interpret the Twenty-Sixth Amendment as prohibiting states from discriminating against any otherwise-eligible voter on the basis of age.

There’s more, so go read the rest. These lawyers conclude that the plaintiffs have an excellent chance of winning, though as noted there’s not a lot of precedent to guide us. And of course, this was written before the Fifth Circuit ruling from last week, so who knows how or if that changes the calculus.

Ian Millhiser in Vox, writing a few days before this analysis was published, largely agrees with the conclusion about the plaintiffs’ chances, but offers this warning:

It is possible, however, that higher courts will never even reach the question of whether Texas is violating the 26th Amendment. Indeed, there is a very real risk that either the Fifth Circuit or the Supreme Court will effectively conclude that it is never possible to challenge Texas’s effort to prevent younger voters from voting during the pandemic.

The reason turns on two fairly obscure Supreme Court decisions, Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman (1941) and Purcell v. Gonzalez (2006).

Pullman sometimes requires federal courts to abstain from deciding a pending case — if the outcome of that case turns upon the proper way to read a state law, the meaning of which is currently being litigated in state court. Purcell, meanwhile, warned that “Court orders affecting elections can themselves result in voter confusion and consequent incentive to remain away from the polls” and that “as an election draws closer, that risk will increase.”

More recent Supreme Court decisions drawing on Purcell suggest that federal courts must avoid deciding many voting rights cases altogether as an election nears.

So it’s not hard to see how these two decisions could work together to thwart the plaintiffs in Abbott. Until the Texas Supreme Court decides DeBeauvoir, the Fifth Circuit and the US Supreme Court are likely to conclude that Pullman prevents them from weighing the constitutional claims in Abbott. Then, when the Texas Supreme Court does hand down its decision in DeBeauvoir, the Fifth Circuit and the US Supreme Court could just as easily conclude that it’s too close to Election Day — and Purcell prevents federal courts from weighing in.

It’s a trap that often arises in voting rights cases that reach the Roberts Court. Plaintiffs who file lawsuits early frequently lose because they filed too early to develop enough evidence to win their case, or because a doctrine like Pullman abstention prevents them from pursuing their case right away. But plaintiffs who take the time to develop their case frequently lose because Purcell does not allow them to bring a voting rights case too close to an election.

Doesn’t mean that’s how this will go, but be forewarned. And remember, the way to fix voting rights problems is to elect legislators and state executives who want to fix them. The Current has more.

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

State ordered to pay plaintiffs’ fees in voter ID case

Pending appeal, of course.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas ultimately won the long-winding fight to keep its voter ID law on the books, but a federal judge has ruled the state is on the hook for nearly $6.8 million in legal fees and costs.

In a Wednesday order, federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi found the state must pay that sum to the collection of parties who sued over the 2011 restrictions the state set on what forms of photo identification are accepted at the polls. A spokesperson for the Texas attorney general indicated the state will appeal the ruling.

The voter ID case ricocheted through the federal courts for nearly seven years and over several elections, with Ramos first ruling in 2014 that lawmakers discriminated against Hispanic and black voters when they crafted one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws.

Lawmakers eventually revised the voter ID law in 2017 to match temporary rules Ramos had put in place for the 2016 election in an effort to ease the state’s requirements as the litigation moved forward. After the state faced multiple losses in the courts, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld Texas’ revised law.

But left intact were findings that the original law produced discriminatory results.

It is what it is, and the appeals process will take many more months. No one should be making detailed plans for the money, because even if it survives appeal it’s going to be awhile before any checks get cut. This is a consolation prize, and not that much of one, but it’s what we’ve got. Until we can take back the Lege and more and repeal this stupid law.

Hotze and pals still crying to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Houston GOP activist Steve Hotze and a coalition of business owners and conservatives have launched a legal challenge claiming Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus violate the Texas Constitution.

In a 34-page emergency pleading filed Friday, lawyers for Hotze as well as three pastors, state Rep. Bill Zedler and five business owners ask the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the orders.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Jared Woodfill argued in the petition that the governor does not have the power to issue mandates that suspend state laws and that he should have convened the Legislature instead.

“Our senators and state representatives have been muted because Gov. Abbott has chosen to act as a king, and that is fundamentally unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong,” Woodfill said.

Even if the law that gave Abbott his emergency powers is constitutional, Woodfill wrote, the orders are still unconstitutional because they deny due process by assuming every Texan and business is a threat to public health without allowing them the chance to defend themselves; violate equal protection by allowing some businesses to stay open and others not; and are otherwise “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

[…]

Woodfill said the petitioners’ goal is to set the precedent for governors’ authority during future emergencies.

“What’s going to happen if we have a COVID-20?” Woodfill said. “Are we going to again surrender all our constitutional rights?”

It’s hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and petitions coming from the Hotze machine, but I’m going to try. He and this same cohort (more or less) had previously filed a lawsuit in Travis County against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay at home orders. This had followed a lawsuit filed in March against the Harris County stay at home order, which he then tried to get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court but was denied. He then filed another lawsuit against Harris County over the face mask order and sought an emergency ruling from the Supreme Court on it, but by that time Abbott had issued an order overriding local orders and forbidding the requirement that face masks be worn. It’s not clear to me if this pleading is related to the Travis County lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton or if it is a second front in their war on anyone who dares to try to tell them what to do under any circumstance. I’m also not sure if that Harris County lawsuit is still in effect or if it has been mooted by subsequent state actions.

All right, so that’s where I think we are now. I’ll say again, I think there are very valid questions to be asked about what powers the Governor does and does not have in emergencies. When must the Legislature be involved? What if any laws can be superseded or suspended by executive order, and under what circumstance? What power does the Governor have to unilaterally overrule cities and counties, whose executives have their own emergency powers? There’s plenty of room for robust debate on these topics, and I hope the Lege addresses some of them in the spring. It’s clear that the Governor – and Mayors, and County Judges – need to have some latitude to take quick action in times of crisis, but it’s equally clear there needs to be some limits on that, in terms of scope and duration and jurisdiction. I don’t want any Governor to have unchecked power, least of all Greg Abbott. I also don’t want a bunch of nihilistic cranks to have the power to disregard public health and safety with impunity. I don’t want the worst people in the world to be the ones asking the questions that will affect all of us going forward. I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of responding to this.

RNC sues to halt California mail ballot expansion

Put a pin in this.

The Republican National Committee and other Republican groups have filed a lawsuit against California to stop the state from mailing absentee ballots to all voters ahead of the 2020 general election, a move that was made in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit comes after California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, announced this month that the state would move to encourage all voters to cast their ballots by mail in November — the most widespread expansion of vote-by-mail that has been announced as a result of the pandemic and in the nation’s most populous state.

The RNC’s lawsuit challenges that step, marking a significant escalation in the legal battles between Republicans and Democrats that are currently being waged in more than a dozen states.

[…]

Sunday’s suit — filed on behalf of the RNC, the National Republican Congressional Committee and the California Republican Party — seeks to halt Newsom’s order, arguing that it “violates eligible citizens’ right to vote.”

The groups argue that Newsom’s order will lead to fraud because the state plans to mail ballots to inactive voters automatically, which “invites fraud, coercion, theft, and otherwise illegitimate voting.”

Studies have found no evidence of widespread voter fraud as a result of in-person or mail-in voting.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the complaint here. Part of it is specific to California law and whether or not Governor Newsom has the authority to issue this executive order, and part of it is the claim that mailing a ballot to all eligible voters will result in an unconstitutional “dilution” of the vote because of the likelihood that more “fraudulent” votes will be cast. I can’t speak to the former, but the latter is a claim that bears watching. It’s ridiculous on its face, especially given the utter lack of evidence to bolster any claim about significant “vote fraud”, but that doesn’t mean that SCOTUS couldn’t eventually find a way to justify a limit to voting rights down the line.

None of this directly impacts Texas – we’re in a different judicial district, and there’s not a chance on earth that we would mail a ballot to every registered voter, no matter the outcome of the various federal lawsuits. But we need to keep an eye on this because it could eventually have an effect here.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

Arguments due this week in Astros sign stealing lawsuits

Here we go.

Did not age well

Attorneys will submit written arguments May 25 to a Harris County judge in the Astros’ attempt to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit filed by season ticket holders upset by the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

State District Judge Robert Schaffer is overseeing the case, which combines three earlier lawsuits accusing the Astros of fraud and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

A hearing to dismiss normally would be held in person but will be conducted in writing because courthouse access is limited by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The consolidated suit, which was updated earlier this month, expands a proposed class of Astros season ticket holders suing the team to include full and partial season ticket-holders from 2016 through 2020.

It also adds three plaintiffs as prospective representatives for the requested class action.

One represents 2016 ticket holders. A second, the engineering and construction management firm CHA Consulting, would represent Diamond Club customers.

A third, Houston resident Donald Rao, represents 2020 season ticket holders who are seeking refunds from the ballclub for games that are not expected to be played this season because of the Major League Baseball shutdown.

See here for the previous update. With the DraftKings lawsuit tossed, there’s this one and the California lawsuit, which the Astros want either to be dismissed or moved to Texas.

First federal vote by mail lawsuit hearing

One down, two to go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery heard arguments Friday in a federal lawsuit seeking to give all voters the option to vote by mail due to fears of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

[…]

During Friday’s federal court hearing, Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn argued that concerns about coronavirus should not disqualify someone from exercising their right to vote. Doing so discriminates against classes of voters, such as voters under the age of 65.

Requiring people under the age of 65 to vote in person creates a “survival of the fittest election,” Dunn said via videoconference, and an impossible choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, voters will be left in a “twilight zone,” unclear if they can apply for a mail-in ballot or not, Dunn said.

The Texas Democratic Party named Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen as defendants in the suit. Other plaintiffs include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other individual voters Joseph Daniel Cascino, Shandra Marie Sansing, and Brenda Li Garcia.

They are seeking a preliminary injunction for the finding that the current election conditions violate tenets of the First, 14th and 26th amendments as well as some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The suit also requests that the defendants stop issuing threats of criminal or civil sanctions for helping voters vote by mail.

Biery said he could not estimate when he would issue a ruling in the case. “All I can tell you is it will be forthcoming,” he said. “No guarantee as to when.”

Robert Green, an attorney representing Bexar County and Callanen, said the county “is not here to take a position” on the various legal arguments presented by the Democratic Party or by the State. However, Green stated that counties have no mechanism or authority to investigate what “disability” a voter cites in an application for a mail-in ballot.

“A voter who believes that they are eligible … is permitted to indicate that solely by checking a box,” he said. “If a court were to order or if the Secretary of State were to issue guidance that local officials should reject certain disability applications if they’re premised on some COVID-related fear or lack of immunity, it’s not clear at all that local officials would be able to do that because the application does not allow voters” to explain their disability, he said.

Lack of immunity to COVID-19 is a physical condition, Green said. “A voter lacking that immunity is endangered by in-person voting. I think that that’s an inescapable reality.”

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, not long after this hearing came the State Supreme Court ruling that for now at least halted efforts to encourage people to apply for mail ballots. The people who have already asked for them and cited “disability” as the reason will presumably still receive them – as noted, there’s neither a process nor the authorization to check on that. The other two federal lawsuits are not on the calendar yet as far as I know. I have no idea if we’re going to have a clear ruling on this in time for the primary runoff. Of course, the question of what comes after that is even bigger, so this story is just getting underway. Stay tuned.

When is a strip club not a strip club?

When it’s a restaurant, with no strippers. What, did you think that was a trick question?

A week after a temporary court order allowed a Houston strip club to resume operations, a federal judge has ruled that the club’s owner must operate as just a restaurant – no dancers allowed.

Houston police raided Onyx Club just after midnight on May 1, insisting the business did not qualify to reopen under Gov. Greg Abbott’s guidelines for phased reopenings. Officers threatened to arrest owner Eric Langan, who defied orders until 4 a.m., when he shut down the club.

Langan’s business, Trumps Inc., filed a federal lawsuit calling the club a restaurant, and alleging that the police raid and closure violated his civil rights.

U.S. District Judge Vanessa D. Gilmore granted Langan and Onyx Club a temporary injunction on May 1 that let the club resume operations, but said at a Friday hearing that the business may not offer any services that go beyond those specifically allowed in the new guidance.

“Sexually oriented businesses may only offer restaurant services and are prohibited from providing any other service,” Gilmore wrote in the ruling.

Onyx Club is allowed to reopen as a restaurant so long as it only serves food, but it’s presently defined as a “sexually oriented business,” according to the ruling.

“Because (Trumps Inc.) operates a sexually oriented business, they are prohibited from offering both restaurant services and entertainers, even if the entertainers are fully clothed,” Gilmore wrote.

See here for the background. That was from last Friday, and while the club owner says their business is doing well now, who knows how long that may last under these conditions. Not to put too fine a point on it, but they’re now competing with a bunch of places whose primary business has always been food service. We’ll see how Onyx does without the loss of their main amenity.

One more thing, since this came up in that post:

In a case filed by a Houston strip club that wanted to reopen as a restaurant, U.S. District Judge Vanessa Gilmore of Houston said Abbott’s changing series of orders “has caused a state of confusion that rests clearly on the Governor’s doorstep.”

Gilmore ruled that Onyx Houston could open only “without additional entertainment” — in other words, no dancers, “even if the entertainers are fully clothed.”

But she went on to suggest some flaws in the state’s executive orders.

“As previously stated, the Plaintiff has failed to add the State as a party to this action to address the First Amendment and equal protection issues raised by the Governor’s orders. Nonetheless, the Court feels compelled to point out the constitutional problems raised by the Governor’s various orders.

“The fact that the governor has now apparently decided that jail time is too harsh a penalty for a violation of his orders is little comfort,” the judge wrote, “as even that action seems to have been motivated by the impact of his order on a single violator, Dallas salon owner Shelley Luther, leaving many business owners unsure, even now, if the orders would be equally applied to them.”

The story points out that the state of Texas – not just Greg Abbott, but also Ken Paxton in his role as lapdog/enforcer – has been quite inconsistent in its directives to businesses and cities, doing a complete reversal on the matter of enforcement after Shelley Luther started showboating. This pandemic has been very difficult for all levels of government to manage. It’s something we hadn’t seen before, and the various stay-at-home orders do raise a lot of questions about executive authority and competing interests and so forth, which the courts will be sorting out, in some cases for years to come. Greg Abbott and his craven response to the first sign of pushback from the seething masses that make up his Republican Party didn’t make any of this any easier.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.

LULAC joins TDP’s federal mail ballot lawsuit

More plaintiffs, more fun.

A prominent Latino civil rights group is jumping into the fight to expand Texas’ voting-by-mail eligibility, alleging the restriction that limits age eligibility for voting by mail to those 65 and older disproportionately harms Texas Latinos because they tend to be younger in age.

The League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms signed on Tuesday to the Texas Democratic Party’s federal lawsuit against the state raising claims that the state’s absentee voting restriction is unconstitutional and violates the federal Voting Rights Act’s prohibition on discrimination against voters based on race.

“All voters will face substantial health risks by voting in person. But the consequences of voting in person will not be equally shared among Texas’ demographic populations,” reads LULAC’s complaint, which was filed in federal court in San Antonio.

LULAC cited census estimates that show nearly two out of every three adults older than 65 in Texas are white, indicating that the pool of voters eligible to request a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in is predominantly white.

“This means that the younger and minority voters, including many of LULAC Plaintiffs’ members, are disproportionately harmed by Defendants’ enforcement of the Eligibility Criteria,” the organization argued. “Nearly a third of Texas’s Latino voters are between the ages of 18-29.”

See here for the background. As noted, there’s a hearing this Friday for this suit. There’s also the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, both in federal court, and the other TDP lawsuit, in state court. Kind of amazing there are this many seemingly viable arguments for allowing greater access to mail ballots, isn’t it? Almost like our state laws are overly restrictive. Doesn’t mean any of these will make it past the Fifth Circuit, but they’re going to have to work hard to shoot these all down.

Yet another lawsuit over voting by mail

Turns out there are a lot of obstacles to voting by mail in Texas, and so there are a lot of lawsuits being filed by various plaintiffs to rectify that.

A coalition of voters and civil rights groups opened a new front Monday in the legal wars over mail-in voting in Texas during the new coronavirus pandemic.

Several lawsuits already underway challenge state limits on who can vote by mail, but a lawsuit filed Monday dives into the mechanics of mail-in balloting, arguing that existing rules will deprive voters of their constitutional rights in the middle of a public health crisis. In the federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio, five Texas voters with medical conditions, Voto Latino, the NAACP Texas and the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans argue that four existing rules for absentee voting will place undue burdens on the right to vote, or risk disenfranchising Texans, during the pandemic.

First, they’re challenging a requirement that voters pay postage to return mail-in ballots, arguing that it amounts to a poll tax during a public health crisis. Second, they’re challenging a requirement that sets deadlines for when ballots must be postmarked and received, arguing that the window should be extended. Third, they object to a requirement for matching signatures on the flap of a ballot envelope and the signature used on an application to vote by mail, which they argue discriminates against voters with disabilities whose signatures may change. And fourth, they’re challenging restrictions on the assistance absentee voters can get to return a marked ballot.

Naming Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as the defendant, they’re asking a federal judge to block the state from enforcing the provisions.

“Even if all registered voters are eligible to vote by mail in Texas in the November election, that would not be sufficient to prevent the serious risk of disenfranchisement and threats to public health that will occur if the Vote By Mail Restrictions remain in place in the pandemic,” the plaintiffs, who are backed by the National Redistricting Foundation, wrote in their complaint.

[…]

But the latest challenge brings in voters who already qualify to vote by mail based on their disabilities but who must navigate the provisions for absentee voting in question during the pandemic. Among the plaintiffs is George “Eddie” Morgan, a 63-year-old former nurse in Dallas who has a genetic lung disorder and has been in strict isolation during the coronavirus outbreak in his community.

Morgan receives $19 dollars a week in food stamps and relies on food banks. To obtain postage for a mail-in ballot online to remain in isolation, he would have to purchase an entire book of stamps for $11, according to the lawsuit.

“The Postage Tax’s burden on the right to vote is severe. At best, it requires Texans — millions of whom are vulnerable to severe complications from COVID-19 or have vulnerable loved ones — to pay to vote by mail so that they can avoid exposing themselves to the virus while exercising their right to vote,” the plaintiffs wrote. “At worst, it disenfranchises the millions of Texans who cannot risk exposure to COVID-19 but who also cannot obtain postage to mail their ballots.”

To recap, we have the federal lawsuit filed by the TDP, which has its first hearing this Friday, which argues that the threat of coronavirus qualifies as a disability under the law for anyone who wants to request a mail ballot. We have the federal age discrimination lawsuit, which alleges that the 65-and-over provision for requesting a mail ballot violates the 26th Amendment. We have the state lawsuit, also filed by the TDP on the same grounds, for which a judge has issued an order allowing anyone to request a mail ballot for the July runoff, with a hearing set for later on the merits, which would allow the same for November and beyond. That order is being threatened by Ken Paxton, and the plaintiffs have filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals to end those shenanigans. Oh, and now a couple of activists have filed a complaint in Dallas County alleging that Paxton’s communication to county election officials constitutes voter fraud on Paxton’s part. I believe that sums it all up.

This lawsuit goes in a slightly different direction. It argues that even if everyone were granted the ability to request a mail ballot today, there would still be problems. In a rational world, with a well-designed election system, of course mail ballots would be postage free for exactly the reasons cited by the plaintiffs, there would be no effort to criminalize helping someone who needs it to fill out their ballot, and signature matching would be done in a fair and efficient manner. We obviously do not live in that world, but maybe we can take a step towards it with this flurry of litigation. At the very least, I hope they’re all losing sleep in the Solicitor General’s office. The Chron has more.

Criminal complaint filed against AG Ken Paxton

I should say “another criminal complaint”, this one over his bullying tactics about vote by mail.

MOAR MUG SHOTS

Two voting rights advocates have filed a complaint with the Dallas County district attorney, alleging Attorney General Ken Paxton committed voter fraud in each of the state’s 254 counties by contradicting a judge’s order expanding the availability of mail-in voting during the pandemic.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton’s letter intentionally misled Texas elections officials about eligibility to vote by mail,” said Kendall Scudder, one of the complainants. “Mail-in ballots aren’t where the election fraud is happening, it’s happening in the office of our indicted attorney general.”

Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak on April 17 issued a temporary injunction stating that any voter concerned about exposure to the coronavirus can avoid in-person voting and request a mail-in ballot by claiming a disability.

Paxton, a Republican who has argued disability claims should be reserved only for those who currently fall under that category, wrote in a filing that same day that Sulak’s order was automatically stayed when he filed an appeal.

[…]

Two attorneys reached by Hearst Newspapers agreed with Paxton’s assessment that the April 17 order was stayed when Paxton appealed.

Any appeal of an order that grants a temporary injunction or denies a plea to the jurisdiction, both of which occurred in this case, places an immediate stay on that order, said Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback. On top of that, the Attorney General’s office noted in its appeal that governmental entities are entitled to automatic stays in this situation, under Texas law.

In the Dallas County case, complainants Scudder and Woot Lervisit, who live and vote in the county, say that under the Texas election code, their complaint should trigger a criminal investigation of Paxton’s conduct.

See here and here for the background. You can see the press release relating to this action here, a copy of the complaint here, and a copy of the tweets submitted as supporting evidence here. This is another one of those times when I don’t feel qualified to evaluate the action, but if as the lawyers quoted in the story indicate, Paxton was correct to assert that the order was stayed, then I don’t know what the case is for action against him. I presume the Dallas County DA is better positioned to answer that question, and we’ll know his answer by the action he takes. In the meantime, it’s at least fun to note the irony of Ken Paxton being tripped up by a voter fraud charge. I don’t expect to get any more out of this than that, but we’ll see.

UPDATE: The DMN notes that Dallas County DA John Creuzot declined comment on the complaint. It also reports that Paxton has asked one of the Houston-area appeals courts to vacate the Sulak ruling. I don’t understand the jurisdiction there, given that the lawsuit originated in Travis County, but that’s all the story says.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

TDP petitions appeals court to get Paxton to knock it off

Good.

The Texas Democratic Party has asked a court to order state officials not to interfere with a previous court order that opened up mail-in voting in the state.

In their filing Tuesday with the Third Court of Appeals, lawyers accused the state of thrusting voters and local election officials into “legal limbo” by contradicting the earlier ruling.

[…]

Earlier this month, Attorney General Ken Paxton accused local election officials of “misleading the public about their ability to vote by mail.”

“Fear of contracting COVID-19, however, is a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not amount to an actual disability that qualifies a voter to receive a ballot by mail,” Paxton said in a statement last week. ““My office will continue to defend the integrity of Texas’s election laws.”

In its filing, the Texas Democratic Party said the court needs to step in to ensure counties and voters do not fear applying for and processing vote-by-mail applications.

“The State has taken the extraordinary action of publicly disregarding an order from a coequal branch of the government, asserting that its view of the Texas Election Code, which was rejected by the trial court, is law of the land and threatening those who follow the trial court’s interpretation with prosecution,” lawyers wrote in their motion. “This includes calling into question the validity of the injunction within Travis County and intimidating Travis County voters.”

See here and here for the background, and here for the TDP’s motion. Here I am Not Being A Lawyer again, but it sure seems weird to me that Ken Paxton would simply announce what Judge Sulak’s ruling meant, when the 3rd Court is right there. I get that the AG’s job includes offering non-binding legal opinion about things, but he’s also a party in this lawsuit, so his opinion in this case is hardly disinterested. Anyway, we’ll see what the 3rd Court makes of all this.

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.