Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

November 13th, 2020:

The state of the county 2020

Mostly, COVID is bad and we’re not getting much help, and we’re also not allowed to do the things we know we need to do. Other than that…

Judge Lina Hidalgo

The worsening COVID-19 pandemic in Texas, which this week became the first state to exceed 1 million cases, demands a more aggressive response that may include more restrictions, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said Thursday.

Hidalgo used her annual State of the County address to criticize what she views as a half-hearted state and federal response that has led to unnecessary deaths and a laggard economy stuck in a cycle of halted reopenings.

She called for the adoption of science-based shutdown thresholds, similar to the county’s threat level system, and lamented that Gov. Greg Abbott earlier this year stripped local officials of the ability to issue enforceable COVID-19 restrictions on travel and commerce. The recent, sustained increases in cases and hospitalizations will lead to new shutdowns, she predicted.

“Inevitably, another pullback is necessary,” Hidalgo said. “We see the numbers in El Paso. Our hospitals were almost overwhelmed in June and July, and now our numbers are again ticking up. We have to get this under control.”

Houston region hospitals reported 1,079 admitted COVID patients on Thursday, the highest figure since Sept. 7, according to the Southeast Texas Regional Advisory Council. Hospitalizations peaked in mid-July just below 4,000 and had been steadily declining until October.

The percent of ICU patients who are COVID-positive again has grown beyond 15 percent, the warning threshold used by health officials.

Harris County has been at its highest threat level since mid-June, which urges residents to stay home when possible and avoid unnecessary contact with others. Though some have criticized Hidalgo for sticking to the recommendation, even as most people have resumed some form of normal life, Hidalgo said the county never met all the criteria for downgrading to Level 2. Those include a test positivity rate of 5 percent and a daily new case average of 400.

Hidalgo did not mention the governor by name, but her message to his administration was clear: adopt a set of metrics, stick to them and let science rather than politics guide Texas through a potentially grim winter before a vaccine is ready next year.

Abbott told a Dallas-Fort Worth television station on Wednesday that businesses will be able to remain open so long as Texans “return to those safe practices” that helped the state defeat the summer surge in cases.

I mean, she’s right. Abbott, who never paid much attention to the metrics his own people recommended way back in May, has basically lost interest in COVID. Remember, bars and gyms are open, restaurants can operate at 75% capacity, and there’s no statewide mask mandate. The state of Texas is suing El Paso for attempting to impose a shutdown as cases there go through the roof. I don’t know how bad it has to get for Abbott to care again, and I’m afraid we’re going to find out. And I strongly suspect that when President Biden and his all-star task force try to take action to get this pandemic under control, he’s going to bitch and moan and resist, because he just doesn’t care and would rather play politics. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge Hidalgo did talk about other things, including criminal justice reform, establishing a defense program for immigrants facing deportation, and supporting the Ike Dike. All good things, but all in the back seat until we crush COVID. You can see the video of her address here.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

A bad streak

Twenty years. Geez.

For 20 years, Texans have been dying to get somewhere, and there is little sign they will stop anytime soon.

Saturday marks 20 years of at least one death a day on Texas roads, a grim milestone in a long-simmering safety crisis lawmakers and local agencies have pledged to stop but have barely slowed in the past two years.

“The numbers don’t reflect it yet, to be frank,” state Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said of efforts to eliminate roadway deaths by 2050.

They eventually will reduce dying on streets, officials said, but only through efforts on numerous fronts. Plans call for spending millions on education campaigns to change driver behavior and keep impaired drivers from choosing to get behind the wheel. Engineers expect to use crash data to identify and then build better intersections and crosswalks. Upcoming state highway repairs include rumble strips to warn drivers when they drift from the road.

Whatever changes officials have in store, the intent is to encourage drivers to do what they need to do to keep themselves and others safe, or not enable whatever it is that leads them to poor choices.

“It is the difference between life and death,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said, noting the city’s plan for eliminating fatalities on city streets will be released later this month. It is expected to recommend significant reconstruction changes at intersections and along major streets.

“No loss of life is acceptable,” Turner said. “We need to communicate the value of life over speed.”

If we couldn’t have a traffic death-free day during the height of the pandemic shutdowns, I can’t imagine how we’ll ever have one again. Just from a sheer numbers perspective, it seems impossible, barring a radical paradigm shift at some point. (Yeah, yeah, driverless cars. When were those supposed to start being regular features of our daily commute again?) There’s been a lot of work done to make roads safer, and there are more such projects in the pipeline, but those things take time, and we have zillions of miles of roads. Stay safe out there, y’all.

More on the Luhnow lawsuit

Because I now have the brain space to think about stuff like this again.

Did not age well

While baseball fans and courtroom voyeurs might long for a public legal showdown between Astros owner Jim Crane and former general manager Jeff Luhnow, attorneys say the more likely outcome of their contract dispute over Luhnow’s firing is a quiet, secretive resolution behind the protective wall of private arbitration.

Three Texas attorneys were united on that point of view Monday after examining the 18-page breach of contract lawsuit filed by Luhnow against the ballclub before Texas 125th District Judge Kyle Carter.

Luhnow alleges that Crane violated his contract by firing him in January after he was suspended for a year by Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. Crane’s decision, Luhnow says, denied him benefits that include $22 million of his $31 million contract plus bonuses and a guaranteed slice of the ballclub’s profits.

While the bulk of the complaint alleges a plot by the Astros and MLB to scapegoat Luhnow as the villain of the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal, attorneys say its most critical point is in the 34th of 43 paragraphs, which says Luhnow is required to submit contract disputes to arbitration “by the commissioner or the commissioner’s designee.”

“Jeff Luhnow will have a very difficult time defeating the arbitration agreement clause,” said Rogge Dunn, a Dallas attorney who has represented former Orioles manager Buck Showalter, Texas Tech University and a former Baylor University Title IX oversight director in employment law cases.

Luhnow’s attorneys say it would be a “complete sham” for Manfred to have a key role in arbitrating disputes in which he is a central figure. The lawsuit asks Carter to submit the case to a jury or to appoint an arbitrator of his own choosing.

“His point is that this is an inside deal,” Dunn said. “The commissioner will protect the owner and scapegoat me, and he also gets to appoint the arbitrator, who will know on whose bread is being buttered.”

Mike Muskat, a partner with the Houston firm Muskat, Mahony & Devine, said Texas law is “very favorable toward enforcement provisions,” which decreases the prospect Luhnow can avoid an arbitration proceeding in which MLB gets to pick the arbitrator.

“I’ll give (Luhnow’s attorneys) credit for a creative argument, but the law is pretty solid,” Muskat said. “There’s a pretty high hurdle to avoid arbitration based on the selection of the arbitrator.”

See here for the background, and there’s a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. I’ll say this much, if Luhnow turns this into a crusade against mandatory arbitration clauses in employment agreements, even if it’s for the most self-interested of reasons (*), I will regain a modicum of respect for him. He’s right that this kind of forced arbitration is a scam that greatly benefits employers – and businesses in general when we’re talking about other types of service agreements – but the fight needs to be bigger than this. You can do it, Jeff!

(*) Money is very much the motivating factor here, as there’s over $30 million at stake. If the Astros can fire Luhnow for cause, instead of firing him for being a loser, as is the case most of the time when managers/GMs are canned, then they don’t owe him any of the money he was to be paid in his contract. Whatever else you may think of Luhnow, he’s not an idiot.