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July 8th, 2015:

Paxton drops another same sex marriage appeal

Another step forward.

RedEquality

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton plans to dismiss an appeal challenging a Travis County judge’s February ruling that found the state’s ban on gay marriage to be unconstitutional.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 decision declaring gay couples have a fundamental right to marry left no legal controversy to be decided by Texas’ highest civil court, the attorney general’s office said Monday.

Once the appeal to the Texas Supreme Court is dropped, Travis County Probate Judge Guy Herman will be able to continue a case asking him to determine if an eight-year relationship between two Austin women should be recognized as a common-law marriage.

Paxton’s office, however, has not yet decided whether to continue a separate appeal in a Travis County case that allowed two Austin women to get married in February.

The Travis County cases are among the final loose ends remaining in the legal battle over gay marriage in Texas.

[…]

The Travis County marriage cases began Feb. 17, when Herman found the state’s ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional as part of an estate fight in which Austin resident Sonemaly Phrasavath sought to have her longtime relationship with another woman, Stella Powell, declared a common-law marriage. Powell died last summer of colon cancer.

Two days later, state District Judge David Wahlberg ordered the Travis County clerk’s office to issue a marriage license to Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, citing Goodfriend’s poor health.

At Paxton’s request, the Texas Supreme Court temporarily blocked both rulings in February, and then began accepting legal briefs on how it should ultimately rule.

During a Monday hearing on the common-law marriage case, a lawyer for Paxton told Herman that the appeal would be dropped in that case. Herman then set an Oct. 5 hearing to determine if Phrasavath and Powell were in a common-law marriage.

“We’re going to treat it like any other common-law marriage case in Texas, which is all we’ve ever wanted,” said Brian Thompson, lawyer for Phrasavath.

See here and here for background on the Phrasavath and Powell case, and here for more on the Goodfriend and Bryant case, including a link to the Supreme Court injunction. I have to assume Paxton will drop that appeal as well, since it’s hard to see any legal grounds he’d have for continuing to pursue it.

As far as other legal loose ends go, I have yet to see any further news regarding the injunction against granting FMLA benefits to federal employees with same sex spouses in Texas. I feel certain this will go away with the filing of a motion, but either that hasn’t happened yet or I just haven’t been able to find a story about it. Here in Houston, the lawsuits that were filed over Mayor Annise Parker’s executive order allowing spousal benefits to all legally married city employees – one filed by three city employees seeking to force this action, and two other filed by agitators seeking to stop it; see here for the latest update – have now been dismissed. According to a Facebook update on Noel Freeman’s wall (Freeman being one of the original plaintiffs), “the case was closed today with this last entry: FINAL ORDER LIFTING STAY, DISSOLVING PRELIMINARY INJUNCTION, AND DISMISSING CASE AS MOOT granting 15 Unopposed MOTION to Lift Stay, Unopposed MOTION To Dissolve Preliminary Injunction, Unopposed MOTION to Dismiss 13 Preliminary Injunction and Dismiss Case as Moot Pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2). Case terminated on 7/6/2015. (Signed by Judge Sim Lake)”. Spousal benefits are now available to all city of Houston employees, as they should be.

The debate over changing Confederate-named schools in HISD

Predictably, not everybody likes the idea of rechristening HISD schools that were named for Confederate generals.

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Rhonda Skillern-Jones

Houston ISD board president Rhonda Skillern-Jones has said she wants her fellow trustees to consider renaming six campuses, following the June shooting deaths of nine black worshipers by an alleged white supremacist at a church in South Carolina. In that state, the Confederate flag hangs on statehouse grounds.

State Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston, and James Douglas, president of the NAACP of Houston, are among those requesting new names. Superintendent Terry Grier said he is seriously considering asking the board to approve changes.

A consensus is far from clear.

A Facebook page called “Reagan High School Houston – Save the Name” has received more than 1,200 “likes” since it launched June 28. Former Lee students mostly came to the moniker’s defense on an alumni page.

[…]

School officials stopped using the full name, Robert E. Lee High School, in 2001, though a district spokeswoman could not confirm whether the board formally approved the shorter version. The mascot remains the Generals, but the revised logo looks more like a silhouetted cowboy holding a school flag.

Marla Morrow, a U.S. history teacher at Lee and a 1980 graduate, recalled her classmates proudly waving the Confederate flag at football games. Then, the student demographics of the southwest Houston school were different. According to data from 1988, the earliest year readily available, Lee’s enrollment was 46 percent Anglo, 31 percent Hispanic, 17 percent black and 6 percent other. Last year, Lee was 4 percent Anglo, 74 percent Hispanic, 15 percent black, and 8 percent Asian and other.

With HISD rebuilding the aging Lee campus, Morrow said the time is right to rename the school without reference to the top Confederate general.

“I was raised to believe he was this great mythical hero,” she said. “With my study of the Civil War and of U.S. history, I think he was an admirable man in many ways, but he was fighting for the wrong side. I know people say the South was fighting for states’ rights, but the right they were fighting to defend was slavery.”

Melanie Hauser, a 1971 Lee graduate who chaired the spirit committee and helped start the alumni association, countered that the school name should endure. She noted that Lee graduated from West Point and served as president of Virginia’s Washington College (now Washington and Lee University, named after him).

“He was an educator first and foremost,” said Hauser, a sportswriter. “Lee moved on and helped heal the country. There’s more to the narrative than just screaming one way.”

Houston City Councilman Ed Gonzalez, a 1987 Lee graduate, said he leans toward changing the name but wants a community dialogue first.

“It’s not to say we castigate our history forever,” he said, “but should it be prominent with every graduating class going forward when there’s an opportunity to pivot and change?”

See here for the background. I’ll say again, as a damn Yankee I’m woefully ignorant of the Confederate iconography that we are inescapably steeped in around here, and completely indifferent to any appeal to history or “heritage” in favor of keeping it in place, unless that place is a museum or the like. It’s fine by me to change these names, but if we don’t get there at least we’re talking about what those names represent. Campos has more.

Pushing for Vision Zero

Jay Crossley opines in the Chron for a lower speed limit in Houston.

Texas law requires a 30 mph speed limit in the city of Houston on local residential streets unless a different speed limit is posted. If you are walking and are hit by a car traveling 30 mph, you have a 60 percent chance of survival, while at 20 mph, you have a 95 percent chance of survival. In the legislative session that just ended earlier this month, Houston Tomorrow worked on SB 1717 with the city of Houston Public Works and Engineering Department and Houston state Sen. Rodney Ellis to change the local street speed limit to 25 mph and allow the city to use 20 mph where appropriate. Unfortunately, the bill was never taken up for consideration by the Senate Transportation Committee.

[…]

We need streets and sidewalks designed for little boys doing what little boys do. Two urban road safety approaches address this need. The Complete Streets concept, which the city has embraced, is the idea that all Houstonians matter – whether they’re in cars, on two wheels or on foot. And it’s a crucial element of Vision Zero, a multinational road-safety project. Specifically, it is the idea that we should design, allocate funding and build our transportation system for the safety and comfort of all users, regardless of age, ability or mode of transport.

[…]

We must treat traffic deaths in the Houston region as the public health crisis it is.

Cities around the world are taking a comprehensive approach to bringing the number of people who die on the streets to zero. New York City, Seattle, Chicago, Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, San Jose and Austin are all committed to Vision Zero. While we have made progress on bicycle deaths with the Goal Zero bicycle safety program, Houston is now the largest city in America without a Vision Zero plan that would attempt to eliminate traffic deaths for people using all modes of travel.

The Houston region’s 134 mayors should commit to Vision Zero by the end of this year, starting with Houston Mayor Annise Parker. And every Houston mayoral candidate should commit to pursuing this vision and making serious progress over the next six years. This crisis will not be fixed overnight, but we can begin making progress immediately.

See here for some background on Vision Zero, whose goals were just approved by the US Conference of Mayors. Crossley is not the first person to call for this in Houston, though I couldn’t say how much traction the idea has gotten. Part of the Bike Plan that the city is currently working on includes Goal Zero Fatalities, which doesn’t specify a speed limit but does call for creating “streets that encourage safe speeds”.

You may be wondering what all the fuss is about. This would be the reason.

Crashes involving a motorist and a pedestrian or bicyclist have jumped 63 percent here since 2010, contributing to more than 220 related deaths, and Houston has the dubious distinction of leading the state in such accidents.

More than 4,000 wrecks between motorists and pedestrians or bicyclists were recorded in Houston city limits from 2010 to June 2015, according to data obtained from the Texas Department of Transportation. Austin places second with a little more than 2,580.

Motorist-pedestrian collisions saw the largest increase, according to the data, jumping 71 percent since 2010.

The string of fatal crashes here in the past month alone has motivated local enthusiasts to demand that city leaders fulfill their promises to provide safer roadways.

[…]

The recent uptick in fatal crashes is significant for Houston, which has reported an average of five fatal bicyclist accidents per year in city limits since 2010.

“It’s unusual, and that’s very concerning,” said Michael Payne, BikeHouston executive director. “These weren’t accidents caused by reckless cyclists or cyclists who were drinking. These were cyclists who were obeying the law.”

Payne says the city needs to get serious about reducing collisions for pedestrians and people who ride bicycles. In 2014, the city recognized a need for improved cyclist safety and partnered with Payne and BikeHouston to launch a major bike safety campaign designed to enforce road safety.

That’s an awful lot of death and injury to pedestrians and bicyclists. Yes, sometimes it is the fault of the pedestrian or bicyclist, but let’s be real here: The automobile always wins these collisions, and the person not in the vehicle pays a vastly disproportionate share of the price for it. Surely we can do better than this, and yes, it’s something the Mayoral candidates ought to be speaking about.

SOS to review motor voter complaints

I hope this amounts to more than lip service.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Secretary of State has agreed to study why thousands of Texans have complained over the past year and a half that they had problems registering to vote despite a federal law that requires all states to offer voter registration in offices where citizens apply for a driver’s license.

The state began its review only after Battleground Texas, a nonprofit voter registration aligned with the Democratic Party, said it might take legal action on behalf of individual Texans who have claimed they were disenfranchised because voter applications filed at driver’s licensing offices were not promptly processed, according to correspondence the Houston Chronicle obtained through public information requests.

In all, 4,600 individuals complained online between September 2013 and February 2015 about processing issues they experienced at motor vehicle offices run by the Department of Public Safety, public records show.

“Texas is failing to comply with the law and voters are being disenfranchised,” Mimi Marziani, legal director of Battleground Texas, wrote in a letter to the state. The fact that so many Texas voters complained through a relatively obscure online “portal” provided by the state, she said, indicates that the problem is likely much more common.

Alicia Phillips Pierce, communications director for the Secretary of State, told the Chronicle the office “is committed to fully complying with all State and federal law, and to safeguarding the voting rights of all Texans.”

“Our office is currently investigating the allegations in Battleground Texas’ letter, and, accordingly, is not in a position at this time to confirm or deny any of the allegations or characterizations contained therein,” she added.

[…]

One of the most common complaints is that driver’s licensing employees failed to process voters’ requests to register. Only if that voter later complained online or by contacting a county election official would state officials review scanned files to determine whether an individual had checked “yes” on a voter application. If that “yes” was verified, the individual was then registered to vote.

Other voters got confused when trying to update their Texas addresses on a Department of Public Safety website, which they wrongly assumed would simultaneously update their driver’s license file and their voter registration record. In fact, the Texas Secretary of State does not allow Texas voters to update their voter registration addresses online. Voters must do that separately by printing out and mailing in a new application.

Battleground Texas has argued that both of those glitches in Texas’ motor voter process violate the National Voter Registration Act. “Under the NVRA, every time an eligible resident obtains, renews or updates his or her driver’s license with DPS, DPS must simultaneously register that person to vote or update that person’s voter registration file. … There is considerable evidence that (Texas) is violating these mandates on an ongoing and continuing basis,” Marziani of Battleground Texas wrote in her letter.

Good for BGTX for pursuing this. Registering voters is tricky enough in Texas, and there’s no help on the way from the Legislature. The least we can do is make sure the registrations we do get don’t get screwed up.