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September 19th, 2020:

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

HPD adopts cite-and-release

Took them long enough.

The Houston Police Department plans to join Harris County’s cite-and-release program, fulfilling advocates’ long-running request to implement the policy they say keeps low-level offenders out of jail and saves law enforcement resources for more serious threats.

In a presentation to the city council’s Public Safety Committee, two assistant chiefs on Thursday laid out the program they would use for a set of six misdemeanors offenses. The strategy mirrors that already used by the Harris County Sheriff’s Office and other local departments in the county, using a program set up by Harris County court-at-law judges.

In those cases, officers now would be required to give people a citation with the time and date they must appear in court, instead of hauling them to jail, unless they meet certain exceptions. Like the sheriff’s office, HPD officers who use their discretion to disqualify an eligible offender from the program would have to get supervisor approval and list the reason in their report, according to the presentation.

“I believe cite-and-release programs are critical, not just as it relates to police reform, but addressing the prison pipeline and, quite frankly, racism in our criminal justice system,” said City Councilmember Abbie Kamin, who chairs the committee. “I reiterate that this is just one aspect of improving and making sure our city is safe for all Houstonians. We can’t be finished after cite and release.”

Assistant Chief Wendy Baimbridge said the department plans to adopt the program internally, as it is allowed to do under state law. It was not clear when that will be done.

[…]

Darrell Jordan, a Harris County court-at-law judge who helped design the cite-and-release program, which launched in February, said the city should not win plaudits for dragging its feet and finally succumbing to pressure.

He said the roll-out and presentation of the program was “all for show” and wasted time. The city could have opted into the program without an ordinance days, weeks, or months ago, if it wanted. The county’s cite-and-release court has processed 113 cases since the program’s launch in February. About half of those, 60, came from the Harris County Sheriff’s Office, that agency reported.

“I don’t believe in applauding people for waiting six months to fix a problem,” he said. “That’s six months Houstonians had less officers on the streets. How many victims have suffered waiting for police officers to respond? How many alleged criminals have gotten away?”

See here and here for the background. I largely agree with Judge Jordan here, with two caveats. One, late is still better than never, so I do credit the city for eventually coming around. It shouldn’t have taken this long, but at least in the end they did make the right decision. And two, I do want City Council to vote on making this an ordinance, to make it harder for future police chiefs to tinker around the edges of this system if for whatever the reason they don’t like some part of it. It would also ensure that HPD doesn’t take too much time getting around to implementing this. This can, and ideally should, be part of a larger ordinance that includes other reforms. It’s a first step, not the end of the journey.

Adding to the team in Texas

Shot:

Chaser.

Joe Biden’s campaign is expanding its staff in Texas, bringing on 13 more people as the state continues to look competitive with just over seven weeks to go before the November election.

The Democratic nominee’s latest hires, shared first with The Texas Tribune, include several experienced Democratic operatives from the state. They include Dallas Jones, a Houston political consultant who will serve as Biden’s Texas political director, and Jackie Uresti and Jerry Phillips, who will each serve as political advisers to the campaign in Texas. Uresti was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 state director, while Phillips brings deep experience around Texas House politics and previously was executive director of the House Democratic Campaign Committee.

Biden’s campaign has also named Bethanie Olivan as digital organizing director and Terry Bermea as organizing director. Olivan recently held similar roles for the state party and Julián Castro’s presidential campaign, while Bermea is the former organizing director for Battleground Texas and was deputy state director for Michael Bloomberg’s White House bid earlier this year.

The campaign also said David Gins will serve as state operations director. Gins is a former U.S. Senate staffer who has since worked for the LGBTQ Victory Fund and the data science company Civis Analytics.

The campaign announced that Victoria Godinez, a former staffer to state Rep. Diego Bernal of San Antonio, is being hired as communications associate.

Rounding out the hires are six deputy coalitions directors, most with varying levels of Texas political experience: Deidre Rasheed, Karim Farishta, Dominique Calhoun, Teri Ervin, Lola Wilson and Joseph Ramirez.

That’s 19 paid staffers, and while I don’t know offhand how much Team Biden is spending in Texas, I do know that there’s plenty of national money coming in for Congress and the Lege. There’s a lot more happening here now than we’re used to seeing.

For what it’s worth, Trump has a 1.1 point polling lead in Texas, according to FiveThirtyEight. That site projects Trump to carry the state by 3.6 points. The Economist projects a 3.2 point win for Trump. In 2018, FiveThirtyEight projected a 4.9 point win for Ted Cruz (in their Classic model; two other models had him up 5.2 and 5.3 instead). That overshot the mark by about two and a half points, as Cruz actually won by a 2.56 point margin. To be fair, they nailed it in 2016, predicting an 8.5 point margin. The point is, it’s close. Closer than any time in recent memory. May as well play it that way.

Smoots-Thomas takes a plea

A sad but hardly unexpected end to this story.

The ex-judge in an orange jail uniform stood before a judge in black robes, swore to tell the truth and tried to make sense of her predicament.

“My world truly turned upside down,” Alexandra Smoots-Thomas, a former Harris County civil judge, told federal Judge Lynn N. Hughes on Thursday, enumerating the heartbreaks amid tears. Her husband’s unemployment. A house in foreclosure. Her cancer treatments. Her father’s cancer diagnosis. Two divorces. A child’s suicide attempt.

“I regret wholeheartedly leaving such a terrible stain at what is the end of a wonderful and rewarding 18-year legal career,” she said. “I truly apologize for my actions. I apologize for the stain that this has placed on my family and even my former colleagues on the bench.”

The 44-year-old pleaded guilty to using campaign funds to pay personal expenses, capping off a turbulent year that included chemotherapy, remission, a failed bid to reclaim her former bench and criminal charges last month alleging she fired a shotgun at her husband’s girlfriend. The government dropped six remaining counts of wire fraud.

Her plea agreement details how she siphoned off campaign money to purchase a Zales engagement ring and two Prada handbags, and to make two mortgage payments and cover private school tuition for her two sons. As a convicted felon, she will no longer be permitted to practice law, the only career she’s ever known, according to her lawyer in the assault case.

Hughes took into consideration her admission of guilt, her hardships and her likelihood of re-offending, and sentenced her to the 36 days she’d just spent in jail for a bond violation connected to the shooting charges, as well as three years of supervised release.

He ordered her released from federal lockup in Conroe, and made off-handed remark to a deputy U.S. marshal to make sure she got a ride back into Houston.

Prosecutor Ted Imperato, of the U.S. Attorney’s public corruption unit, challenged the “unreasonableness” of the sentence. The judge responded, in his trademark snarky bluster, that the sentence was “pure wisdom.”

The prosecutor had requested a sentence within the guideline range of 18 to 24 months in prison, saying the defendant abused her power and authority as a sitting judge.

Imperato noted that rather than agree to a deal where she would leave the bench, “She thumbed her nose at us, and, with these charges pending, ran for re-election.”

See here and here for the background. As I’ve said before, I know Smoots-Thomas and I feel terrible for the things she has gone through. I truly hope she is able to get the help she needs to get her life back on track. I hope her children are doing all right – the story goes into more detail about the effect this has had on their lives, and it was not good. I’m also glad she lost her primary election – I voted against her in both rounds. And I hope the next time we see her name in the news it’s for something positive.

On a side note, we can certainly have a debate about the prosecutor’s complaint that the sentence she received was too light. One could argue that the guideline range is too harsh, or too limited, or that we should just let judges have the discretion to sentence defendants as they see fit. Perhaps the problem is not that she got off too easy, but that other, less prominent, defendants in her position get sentences that are overly severe. It’s a good debate to be having in many contexts.

Endorsement watch: Three to get started

But first, why do endorsements, anyway?

If newspapers are objective, why do you recommend candidates?
Newspapers don’t endorse candidates. Editorial boards do. The editorial board is separate from the newsroom. It is made up of opinion journalists with wide-ranging expertise whose consensus opinions and recommendations represent the voice of the institution — defined as the board members, their editor and the publisher. We do it as a service to our readers and to our democracy, which cannot flourish without an informed citizenry. For many busy people, researching each candidate isn’t possible. Rather than turn to partisan slates, some with pay-to-play motivations, we offer an alternative: informed candidate recommendations from nonpartisan journalists informed by facts, borne of careful analysis.

[…]

What’s our process?
General elections always involve hundreds of hours of screening, writing and editing to ensure trustworthy recommendations that readers can access readily and even take to the polls. The pandemic has forced a few changes. For congressional and local top races, we’re conducting Zoom interviews with all who accept our invitations. For many other races, we’ve conducted one-on-one interviews. In most races, lead writers for each research, conduct outside interviews and background candidates before making recommendations to the full board, which reaches a consensus.

Consensus isn’t always easy, especially when parties have failed to draw qualified candidates. Still, voters must vote, so we feel we must decide. When recommending someone we have reservations about, we’ll explain why to readers, same as we do when there are multiple excellent candidates.

Sometimes, an extra level of focus and expertise is needed to make the right call. As in past years, we’ve enlisted the help of retired longtime journalists in the 20 local judicial races. Mary Flood and Jeff Franks research and background candidates and then make recommendations for the board to consider.

Do we only endorse candidates who agree with us?
No. While we look favorably upon candidates whose values mirror our basic commitments to responsible spending, economic growth, strong public schools, improving health and protecting the environment, we often endorse candidates who don’t share our opinions on more contentious issues. To better serve voters in a diverse array of districts, we prioritize broader expectations of elected leaders: experience, willingness to work across the aisle, knowledge of issues, strong sense of ethics, fit with the district and general viability of the candidacy. For judges, fairness, competence and temperament are also strong considerations and, at times, the ideological diversity of the court as a whole. We give weight to incumbency, especially if it means seniority benefiting constituents, but we also scrutinize incumbents’ records on effectiveness, leadership, constituent services and ability to keep promises to voters.

Whether readers agree with our ultimate choices or not, we hope the facts, observations and analysis in each written editorial recommendation serves as a helpful tool in voters’ own research and decision-making.

I appreciate the Chron’s efforts and I find their process to be useful and valuable, even though I (sometimes very strenuously) disagree with some of their selections. Honestly, this is more of an academic exercise for me in an election where there’s no doubt about who’s getting my votes, but it is of great value to me in other contexts. It is good to have some reasonably objective and process-oriented sources for the races where the decision is truly hard.

Anyway, on to the endorsements. We start statewide with the Railroad Commissioner’s race and an endorsement for Chrysta Castaneda.

Chrysta Castañeda

Texas and Houston depend mightily on a thriving oil and gas industry, and that’s why it’s so important that the Railroad Commission of Texas be led by experienced, capable commissioners.

Fortunately, as an engineer and a lawyer, Democrat Chrysta Castañeda has the combination of knowledge and experience to help the RRC shepherd the crucial industry through one of the most challenging economies in decades.

As the founding law partner of the Castañeda Firm, which focuses on oil and gas litigation, she also understands the importance of crafting and enforcing regulations to protect the state’s environment.

That is why we recommend Castañeda, 57, in the statewide Railroad Commission race in the Nov. 3 election. If elected, she would join two Republican commissioners who, like her opponent, can be counted on to give the industry’s needs top billing over environmental concerns. What’s really needed is a balance between helping the industry thrive and minimizing its harmful impacts.

[…]

While [Republican candidate Jim] Wright also would bring experience to the job, it would be solely from the industry side. Texas needs at least one member of the Railroad Commission who takes to heart both the mandate that the commission promote the oil and gas industry and its charge to safeguard the water and air Texans drink or breathe.

Wright has some other issues, which the Chron does not delve into. With Presidential-level polling showing a very tight race, the other statewides are being seen as tossups this year. Castaneda may draw some crossover support if she can get enough of a message out. You can listen to my interview with her here if you haven’t yet.

Next, Michelle Palmer for SBOE.

Michelle Palmer

Long-time history teacher Michelle Palmer was troubled when the Texas State Board of Education approved a social studies curriculum that describes Moses as an influence on the Founding Fathers.

The Aldine ISD teacher saw the 2018 decision as a particularly egregious example of the board incorporating historical inaccuracies into textbooks and curricula used to teach 5.4 million Texas public school students.

“Moses was not much of an influence on Thomas Jefferson. He was not much of an influence on many of the Founding Fathers,” Palmer told the editorial board. “I find it very troubling that they have that as a standard that is supposed to be taught to our 13- and 14-year-old eighth graders.”

Even more troubling: It was part of a pattern for the 15-member state board of education, which is more often guided by conservative ideology than by good curriculum design.

That history motivated Palmer, 50, to run for the position currently held by Chair Donna Bahorich, R-Houston, who is not seeking re-election.

“As a board member, I would listen to the experts,” said Palmer, a Democrat.

That sounds basic, and it should be. But too many on the current board have refused to do so. That is why we are recommending Palmer for SBOE Position 6. The state board of education has responsibilities critical for the education of Texas children: setting curriculum standards, adopting textbooks and other instructional materials for public schools, overseeing the Texas Permanent School Fund and reviewing charter school applications.

We’re all familiar with the clown show that has been the SBOE. To be fair, it has gotten somewhat less bad in recent years, thanks in large part to the eviction of Don McLeroy from its ranks. There’s still plenty of room for improvement, and adding Michelle Palmer would be a step in that direction. My primary interview with Palmer is here.

Finally, there’s Natali Hurtado for HD126.

Natali Hurtado

In a repeat of the 2018 race for state House District 126, Democrat Natali Hurtado is facing off against Republican Sam Harless.

Two years ago, we recommended Harless for this seat based in large part on the Republican’s wise and politically brave support for expanding Medicaid and his contempt for the unscrupulous far-right activist group Empower Texans.

Unfortunately, Harless has backed away from Medicaid expansion at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made access to health care more important than ever. In a recent screening with the editorial board, he said he looked forward to a debate about expansion and expected it would happen someday. But he would not express support outright.

He also voted against a 2019 amendment that would have directed the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to seek a federal waiver to expand Medicaid in the state. That vote just happened to earn a green check mark from Empower Texans.

As our state battles COVID-19, Harless has appeared at campaign events without a mask and taken issue with Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order. Those actions show a troubling tendency to ignore science and turn a public health crisis into a partisan issue.

All this led us to take a fresh look at Hurtado. We like what we see.

You can read the rest for the affirmative case for Hurtado. She’s got a compelling biography, and actually means it when she says she supports Medicaid expansion in Texas. HD126 is on the target list for Dems this year, though not as high up as HDs 134 and 138. It’s looking like a competitive race, and an Election Day that includes a Dem win in HD126 almost certainly means a Democratic House.

The Chron also endorsed Republican Rep. Dan Huberty in a non-competitive race for HD127. More to come as they run ’em.