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October 9th, 2020:

On executive power and the role of the Legislature

Just a few thoughts from recent events relating to Greg Abbott, COVID-19, vote access and suppression, local control, all those Hotze lawsuits, and so forth.

1. I think most of us would agree that however we assess Greg Abbott’s performance in response to the COVID pandemic, we need to have a conversation about the extent of the Governor’s executive powers and the role that the Legislature should have when laws are being amended or suspended on the fly in response to crisis situations. The lack of any input from the Legislature in all these COVID actions, from mask and shutdown orders and the subsequent reopening orders to expanding and contracting early voting and voting by mail, is a direct result of the system we have where the Legislature only meets once every other year, unless called into session by the Governor. All Abbott needs to do to keep the Lege at arm’s length is to not call a special session, which has been his response numerous times going back to the Hurricane Harvey aftermath. It may be time to admit that our quaint little system of “citizen legislators” who leave the farm every other year to handle The People’s Business in Austin just doesn’t work in the 21st century. If we don’t want Greg Abbott or any other Governor to be the sole authority on these matters, then we need to have a Lege that meets more often, and to have a Lege that meets more often means we need to accept the idea of legislating as a profession and adjust the compensation accordingly. I recognize that this is a thing that will almost certainly never happen, but I’m putting it on the table because we’re kidding ourselves otherwise.

2. A somewhat less foundation-shifting response would be to pass laws that mandate an expiration date on all emergency-response executive orders, which can only be renewed with the approval of the legislature. Put in a provision that allows the Lege to convene and vote on such things remotely, which bypasses the need for a special session and also allows for the Lege to operate in the context of a pandemic or other condition that would prevent them from meeting in person at the Capitol. Another possibility, which need not be mutually exclusive, is to mandate some conditions under which a special session must be called, say after an emergency declaration that has lasted for a certain duration or has resulted in some set of actions on the Governor’s part. It is within the Lege’s power to force itself into this conversation.

3. I would argue that when the Lege takes up the Disaster Act, or whatever other response it makes to review and revise executive authority in the wake of a declared disaster, it should clarify what kind of actions the Governor can take. Specifically, any action by the Governor must be taken in the service of containing, mitigating, or recovering from the disaster in question. As I said before, in the context of early voting and voting by mail, extending early voting and expanding vote by mail and allowing for mail ballots to be dropped off during early voting all served the purpose of mitigating the spread of coronavirus, but limiting the number of mail ballot dropoff locations did not, in the same way that limiting the number of food distribution locations following a hurricane would not count as hurricane/flood relief. I say that should make Abbott’s order illegal under the Disaster Act, and whatever the courts ultimately rule about that, the law should be changed to reflect that viewpoint.

4. The law could also be amended to limit litigation that would contravene this goal of mitigating the declared disaster. What is the law here for, and why should we let some cranks make technical (and let’s face it, mostly ridiculous) arguments that would worsen the disaster for some number of people?

5. If the Republican Party still had some affinity for local control, instead of putting all its chips on limiting what local officials they don’t like are allowed to do, then codifying the powers of county officials in response to a disaster might be worthwhile. I have some sympathy for Abbott’s stated impulse to not put a burden on smaller rural counties when it’s the more heavily populated ones that needed shutdown orders, but that sympathy only extends to the limit of what Abbott was willing to let the county judges of those more populated places do. I want to be careful here because a wacko county judge like the guy in Montgomery could easily have a negative effect on his neighbors like Harris if granted too much discretion, but I think if we stick to the mantra of everything needing to be in the service of mitigating and recovering from the disaster in order to be legal and valid, we can work this out.

6. Some of what I’m talking about here will split along partisan lines, but not all of it will. Clearly, there is some appetite among Republicans to limit executive power, though not in a way that I would endorse, but that is not universal. It’s clear from the Paxton brief in response to the latest Hotze mandamus that our AG at least believes in a strong executive, and I believe that feeling extends to other Republicans. Democrats can likely drive some of this discussion, especially if they are a majority in the House, but they will want to be careful as well, lest they wind up clipping the wings of (say) Governor Julian Castro in 2023. This is a multi-dimensional problem, that’s all I’m saying.

(Oh, and any Republican coalition in favor of a strong executive will of course evaporate the minute there is a Democratic Governor. I mean, obviously.)

I’m sure there are other aspects to this that I am not thinking of. My point is that this is a topic the Lege can and should take up, even if any bill they pass is likely to run into a veto. I just wanted to lay out what I think the parameters of the discussion are, or at least what I’d like them to be. Who knows what actually will happen – the election will shape it in some ways – but I hope this serves as a starting point for us to think about.

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

Lawyers for voters and voting rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order limiting counties to one location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.

Abbott waited too long to issue his order on Oct. 1, they argued, not only because it came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations after a monthlong public information campaign, but also because voting had already begun in the Nov. 3 general election.

“It is too late and too dangerously burdensome to change election rules midstream,” lawyer Chad Dunn told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in a hearing that was held via Zoom as a pandemic precaution.

Other lawyers argued that Abbott’s order placed a disproportionate burden on Texans who are most likely to vote by mail — those who are 65 and older or have a disability — by forcing many to endure longer and more difficult travel to ensure that their votes are submitted in a time of decreasing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s ironic and sad,” lawyer John Devaney said. “Now, after voting has started, the plug has been pulled.”

Lawyers for Abbott disputed claims that his order limited voting rights, saying the governor acted to expand opportunities and options for voters during the pandemic.

Abbott’s first election-related order, issued July 27, added six days of early voting and suspended a state law that allows voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day, lawyer Eric Hudson told the judge.

In effect, Abbott gave voters almost 40 extra days to hand-deliver their ballots, Hudson argued.

“That’s not provided for in Texas law, and without Gov. Abbott’s proclamation, that right … would not be possible,” he said.

Pitman broke in to ask: “Is it the governor’s position that we’ve given you so much it’s OK to take back a little?”

“I don’t think we’ve taken anything back, your honor,” Hudson replied.

This hearing was for the first lawsuit, filed by LULAC and the League of Women Voters. Earlier in the day, the ACLU and the Lincoln Project announced they had filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Courthouse News has some further details.

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

It wouldn’t shock me if we get a ruling by Monday, but we’ll see. This is now the fourth lawsuit filed against the Abbott order, with three of them in federal court. According to the Statesman story, there’s a hearing scheduled for the state lawsuit next week.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman appeared unconvinced by the idea that eliminating the additional locations would have no impact on voting accessibility.

The suit before Pitman is one of several challenging Texas election laws and Abbott’s pandemic executive orders amending them that are still swirling, even as the start of early voting approaches.

[…]

The pool of voters using this method appears to be relatively small so far, though mail-in voting is up across Texas, so demand could rise.

In Harris County, for example, just 0.2 percent of 85,922 absentee voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff; 39 of the 404 ballots for the Nov. 3 election that have been returned through Thursday were dropped off by voters. Those dropoffs ceased when Abbott’s order went into effect with less than 24 hours notice.

It should be noted that dropoff boxes were basically never mentioned as an option for the July primary runoffs, so the fact that almost no one used them is no surprise. And since 39 out of 404 is almost ten percent, it sure looks like we were on our way to a significant increase in the use of this method. I point these numbers out because one can make an argument about how much of a burden Abbott’s order is based on them.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Fourth lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is heard from:

A copy of the complaint is here – this is a federal suit, filed in the Western District of Texas, in Austin. It joins two other federal suits and one state lawsuit. I have no idea if the sheer number of complaints has any effect on the outcome, but whatever the case, this action on Abbott’s part sure did draw a lot of response.

I don’t really have anything else to add, but I thought you might like this:

People sure are determined to vote. I am cheered by their determination to not get deterred by all of the obstacles in their path, and angry that those obstacles exist in the first place. There are so many things our future Democratic Legislature is going to have to do to fix this crap.