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February 10th, 2021:

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

The Sports Betting Alliance

Keep an eye on this.

A new alliance of major Texas sports teams has announced they will be backing legislation to allow for sports betting in Texas.

The Dallas Cowboys, the Texas Rangers, and the Dallas Mavericks are among the first members of the Sports Betting Alliance, with more teams expected to announce their association with the group according to the Dallas Morning News.

While 25 states have legalized sports betting some of the largest, including California, Florida, and the lone star state have not yet legalized the industry that could bring in billions nationally.

The announcement of the Sports Betting Alliance comes after the late Sheldon Adelson’s group, Las Vegas Sands, expanded their lobbying effort to legalize gaming in Texas.

The Las Vegas Sands lobbying effort appears to want to work in tandem with the sports betting alliance to make the biggest push to legalize both sports betting and gambling in Texas in recent memory.

That DMN story is paywalled, so the synopses of it here and here are the best I can do at this time. There are quotes from Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and lobbyist Andy Abboud, who is also busy with the push for casinos. The major sports leagues were endorsing federal legislation to allow wagering on their games a few years ago, and a SCOTUS decision in 2018 opened the door for states to get in on the act, though states like Texas would have to change their own laws first. Which is where we are now, and though the economic outlook is better than it was a few months ago, the pressure to expand gambling is increasing, at least if you think of it in terms of the financial interests that are pursuing it. The Lege has remained steadfast, including in some really hard times, and until Dan Patrick says he’s for it, I’m betting the under.

And just a few hours after I typed that, I saw this.

While other states race to legalize sports betting, don’t count on Texas to follow suit.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told a radio host in Lubbock on Tuesday that he just doesn’t see support for the idea in the Texas Senate, which he presides over, or among Republican voters.

“It’s not even an issue that’s going to see the light of day this session,” Patrick told Chad Hasty on KFYO in Lubbock.

Patrick said he personally has never been in favor of expanding legal gaming, but beyond that, there are not enough members of the Texas Senate in favor of it — which makes the issue a waste of time.

“We are nowhere close to having the votes for it,” Patrick said.

OK then. You can still expect more sports teams to get on this bandwagon and make a lot of noise about it, and who knows, maybe they will be able to wrangle a few more votes. But adjust your expectations accordingly. The Sports Betting Alliance US and Sports Betting Alliance TX each have Twitter feeds to follow, though they are currently vacant, if you’re interested in that sort of thing.

As the COVID mutates

Just another reminder that we need to continue trying not to spread the virus while we wait for everyone to get vaccinated.

A more contagious variant of the coronavirus first found in Britain is spreading rapidly in the United States, doubling roughly every 10 days, according to a new study.

Analyzing half a million coronavirus tests and hundreds of genomes, a team of researchers predicted that in a month this variant could become predominant in the United States, potentially bringing a surge of new cases and increased risk of death.

The new research offers the first nationwide look at the history of the variant, known as B.1.1.7, since it arrived in the United States in late 2020. Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that B.1.1.7 could become predominant by March if it behaved the way it did in Britain. The new study confirms that projected path.

“Nothing in this paper is surprising, but people need to see it,” said Kristian Andersen, a co-author of the study and a virologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, Calif. “We should probably prepare for this being the predominant lineage in most places in the United States by March.”

Dr. Andersen’s team estimated that the transmission rate of B.1.1.7 in the United States is 30 percent to 40 percent higher than that of more common variants, although those figures may rise as more data comes in, he said. The variant has already been implicated in surges in other countries, including Ireland, Portugal and Jordan.

“There could indeed be a very serious situation developing in a matter of months or weeks,” said Nicholas Davies, an epidemiologist at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine who was not involved in the study. “These may be early signals warranting urgent investigation by public health authorities.”

[…]

“There’s still a lot that we have to learn,” said Nathan Grubaugh, a virologist at Yale University who was not involved in the study. “But these things are important enough that we have to start doing things now.”

It’s possible that chains of B.1.1.7 transmission are spreading faster than other viruses. Or it might be that B.1.1.7 was more common among incoming travelers starting new outbreaks.

“I still think that we are weeks away from really knowing how this will turn out,” Dr. Grubaugh said.

The contagiousness of B.1.1.7 makes it a threat to take seriously. Public health measures that work on other variants may not be enough to stop B.1.1.7. More cases in the United States would mean more hospitalizations, potentially straining hospitals that are only now recovering from record high numbers of patients last month.

Making matters worse, Dr. Davies and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine posted a study online on Wednesday suggesting that the risk of dying of B.1.1.7 is 35 percent higher than it is for other variants. The study has yet to be published in a scientific journal.

And if you’re worried about that, you can also be worried about this.

The likely more transmissible variant of COVID-19 first detected in South Africa has arrived in the Houston area, according to Houston Methodist Hospital.

The hospital system said it found the region’s first case of the new, faster-spreading variant on Saturday while sequencing the genomes of positive test results. It also found two cases of the variant first discovered in the United Kingdom. The UK variant first was confirmed in the Houston area in early January.

The infected person is a Fort Bend County man, who tested positive weeks ago and has recovered from the illness, said Dr. Jacquelyn Johnson Minter, Fort Bend County Health & Human Services Director. The patient had traveled domestically before his diagnosis. His household members have tested negative, and he did not work while infected so there was no exposure at his job, Minter said.

Still, Minter said she would not be surprised to learn the South Africa variant was spreading through the community.

[…]

Dr. Wesley Long, who works with the Methodist sequencing effort, said there is no evidence from the clinical trials of Pfizer and Moderna vaccines that they are less effective against the variants, especially the U.K. strain. He said there is limited evidence that certain other vaccines and therapies that target the spike protein of COVID-19 may be less effective against the South African variant, though they still should provide benefits to most people.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says “rigorous and increased compliance” with mitigation strategies like social distancing and wearing masks is needed to combat the spread of the virus.

Yes, the same basic techniques to avoid spreading the disease are still effective – masking, social distancing, washing hands, avoiding indoor gatherings – but they have to be strictly followed, because the newer versions of the virus are easier to transmit. So far there’s no evidence that these mutations are resistant to the vaccine, but the risk there is that the more infections, the greater the chances of further mutation, and thus the greater the chances that such a variant could emerge. All of this is to say, stay vigilant. Infection numbers are finally starting to drop, and with that comes the temptation to ease up. It’s still way too early for that.

Deportation pause still on hold

Another pause for the pause, which is as dumb and annoying as it sounds.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has extended the block on President Joe Biden’s deportation moratorium for two more weeks as the case continues to play out in court.

Judge Drew Tipton said in an order dated Monday the extension was necessary for “the record to be more fully developed” in the case brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who challenged Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations.

Tipton originally issued a 14-day suspension of Biden’s moratorium on Jan. 26. The pause in deportations was part of Biden’s attempted day one overhaul of several of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But Paxton quickly filed a lawsuit in response to Biden’s moratorium, claiming the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released from custody, because of costs associated with health care and education.

In his order, Tipton, a Trump appointee who took the bench last year, said Texas would face more harm than the federal government if the extension was not granted.

See here and here for the background. Not clear to me why this is taking so long, or even if this counts as “so long” at this point. I started to write that I wasn’t sure why there hasn’t been an appeal yet, but this tweet by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick answered that question, and suggested now one may be forthcoming . Beyond that, all I know is we’re still waiting.