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September 4th, 2021:

First two lawsuits filed against the voter suppression bill

No time wasted.

The top elections official in Harris County and a host of organizations that serve Texans of color and Texans with disabilities have fired the opening salvos in what’s expected to be an extensive legal battle over Texas’ new voting rules.

In separate federal lawsuits filed in Austin and San Antonio, the coalition of groups and Harris County sued the state over Senate Bill 1 before it was even signed into law, arguing it creates new hurdles and restrictions that will suppress voters and unconstitutionally discourage public officials and organizations from helping Texans exercise their right to vote.

The lawsuits claim the legislation violates a broad range of federal laws — the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 — and the First, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

“Egregiously, SB 1 takes particular aim at voters with disabilities, voters with limited English proficiency — who, in Texas, are also overwhelmingly voters of color — and the organizations that represent, assist, and support these voters,” the plaintiffs in the Austin lawsuit wrote in their complaint.

The plaintiffs in the San Antonio lawsuit,, which includes Harris County, also raise claims that lawmakers intentionally discriminated against voters of color in pushing the legislation.

[…]

The plaintiffs attack head on the lack of evidence that fraud is a widespread problem in Texas elections.

In the San Antonio lawsuit, they argue SB 1’s “additional burdens and restrictions” cannot be justified by invoking “unspecified and unproven voter fraud” when there is no proof that it occurs “beyond the very few examples already identified through Texas’s pre-existing processes and procedures.”

“Rather … SB1 is a reaction to Texas’s changing electorate, which is now more racially diverse and younger than ever before,” they wrote in their complaint.

The claims raised collectively in both lawsuits are as expansive as the legislation is far-ranging.

They include claims on SB 1’s new restrictions on voter assistance, including the help voters with disabilities and those with limited English proficiency are entitled to receive. The plaintiffs point to the reworked oath that a person assisting a voter must recite, now under penalty of perjury, that no longer explicitly includes answering the voter’s questions. Instead, they must pledge to limit their assistance to “reading the ballot to the voter, directing the voter to read the ballot, marking the voter’s ballot, or directing the voter to mark the ballot.”

As part of its claims of intentional discrimination, the lawsuit that includes Harris County as a plaintiff also calls out SB 1’s prohibition on the drive-thru and 24-hour voting initiatives used by the diverse, Democratic county in the 2020 election — both of which county officials said were disproportionately used by voters of color.

SB1 also makes it a state jail felony for local election officials to send unsolicited applications to request a mail-in ballot. Several counties proactively sent applications to voters 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail, but Harris County attempted to send them to all 2.4 million registered voters last year with specific instructions on how to determine if they were eligible.

In outlawing those voting initiatives, Republican lawmakers made it clear they were targeting the state’s most populous county, even though other counties employed similar voting methods.

“My first and only priority is to educate and help voters to lawfully cast their ballots,” Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said in a statement. “Voting by mail is not simply another method to vote — for many senior voters and voters with disabilities, it’s their only option to vote. SB1 makes it a crime for me to encourage those who are eligible to vote by mail to do so, effectively making it impossible to fulfill my sworn duty as Elections Administrator.”

Both lawsuits also argue the constitutionality of a section of SB 1 that creates new a “vote harvesting” criminal offense, which it defines as in-person interactions with voters “in the physical presence of an official ballot or a ballot voted by mail, intended to deliver votes for a specific candidate or measure.” The lawsuits argue the language in that section — and the criminal penalties attached to it — are unconstitutionally overbroad and vague and could serve to quash legitimate voter turnout initiatives.

The lawsuits also challenge provisions of SB1 that bolster protections for partisan poll watchers inside polling places, and new ID requirements for voting by mail.

You can see copies of the lawsuits here for Austin and here for San Antonio. I note that Isabel Longoria, the Harris County elections administrator, is a defendant in her official capacity in the Austin lawsuit and a plaintiff in the San Antonio lawsuit. I assume there’s a technical reason why a county elections administrator is named as a defendant in these actions, but I have no idea what algorithm is used to decide which county and administrator. (The Austin lawsuit also includes Dana DeBeauvoir from the Travis County elections office as a defendant, while the San Antonio lawsuit picks the Medina County admin. Go figure.)

I’m not going to speculate on the merits or chances of these lawsuits, which I assume will eventually get combined into a single action. I expect that they have a strong case, and we know from past performance that the Republicans in the Lege tend to be shoddy and indifferent in their work when they pass bills like these, but none of that really matters. What matters is what if anything the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS deign to find objectionable. For obvious reasons, I’m not going to get my hopes up. I expect the Justice Department to get involved on the side of the plaintiffs, and there’s always the specter of passing the John Lewis Act and making this way easier on everyone. In the meantime, settle in for the long haul, because we know this will take years to come to a resolution. Look to see what happens when (I feel confident saying “when” and not “if”) a temporary restraining order is granted.

Sine die’d

Special session 2.0 is over. And what a lousy thing it was.

The Texas Legislature adjourned its second special session Thursday evening, ending a nearly 30-day stretch that was called to pass a GOP elections bill after House Democrats carried out a weekslong quorum break to block the passage of that legislation during the summer’s first overtime round.

The two chambers gaveled out minutes apart after giving final approval to a number of Gov. Greg Abbott’s agenda items, including so-called critical race theory legislation and a bill that will, among other things, restore funding for the Legislature itself.

The House adjourned first, with House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, wishing members a happy Labor Day weekend before gaveling out.

Over in the Senate, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told senators he was proud of their work and nodded to another yet-to-be-called special session that will focus on the redistricting process in the coming weeks — where lawmakers will draw new political maps for the state’s congressional delegation, the Legislature and the State Board of Education.

“We’ll be back soon,” he said. “There’s a little bit of unfinished business yet to be done.”

Earlier Thursday, state lawmakers passed legislation that restores funding for the Legislature — including salaries and benefits for some 2,100 state employees — that was set to run out at the end of the month after Abbott vetoed those dollars earlier this summer. The governor’s veto was intended as retribution for House Democrats who walked out of the Capitol in the final hours of the regular legislative session to block a GOP elections bill in May.

In addition to restoring the funding, the Legislature this week passed a similar version of that controversial GOP elections bill. State lawmakers also reworked the process for releasing accused criminals on bail, beefed up border security fundingexpanded virtual learning for studentsrestricted use of abortion-inducing drugs and banned the storage or disposal of high-level radioactive waste in Texas.

The small bit of good news is that the transgender sports bill and the last-minute fraudit bill did not pass, though as noted there will be another shot at that. Redistricting is up next, and the rumor mill suggests we will have two weeks off before the machinery cranks up again. I suppose it’s possible there could be a temporary restraining order in the lawsuit filed against doing legislative redistricting, but as Congressional redistricting would still be on the menu that would not stop the session from being needed. Anyway, enjoy the brief respite before the next bout of madness begins.

No Roe roundup

I don’t have a good title for this post, but I do have a collection of stories.

Planned Parenthood files restraining order against Texas Right to Life.

Right there with them

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and its affiliates filed a temporary restraining order with a Texas district court Thursday night against Texas Right to Life to stop the anti-abortion organization from suing abortion providers under a new law that all but bans abortions in the state.

[…]

Planned Parenthood, which has stopped providing abortion services in San Antonio but continues elsewhere in the state, refers to SB 8 as the “sue thy neighbor law.”

“Anti-abortion activists are already staking out our health centers, surveilling our providers, and threatening our patients,” said Helene Krasnoff, vice president for public policy litigation and law for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a news release. “The physicians, nurses, and clinic staff at Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas — and at abortion providers statewide — deserve to come to work without fear of harassment or frivolous lawsuits.”

This unprecedented enforcement framework essentially circumvents traditional judicial review. Typically, individuals or groups would legally challenge the state as the enforcer — but this law removes the state from the equation. In order for the Supreme Court to review the law, someone will have to sue someone who performed or assisted an illegal abortion; only then it can be challenged.

If the district court grants the restraining order, it would only apply to Planned Parenthood, its affiliates, and an individual Planned Parenthood Houston physician, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who joined the order. This means other providers would likely still be subject to the law.

Texas Right to Life, which helped write the bill, set up a “whistleblower” tip line so people can report violations to the anti-abortion organization. An email seeking the organization’s comment on the restraining order was not returned Friday morning.

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said on Twitter that it will defy the law.

“The ban on abortion in Texas is an abomination,” the nonprofit tweeted. “We want to send a very clear message: RAICES will not obey this archaic and sexist law. We’ve funded & supported access to abortions for immigrants in Texas for years and will continue to do so. Some laws are meant to be broken.”

You can see a copy of the lawsuit, which asks for a temporary restraining order as well as temporary and permanent injunctions against the defendants, “>here. The suit includes 100 “John Doe” defendants as “those individuals or entities who have expressed to other Defendants, whether by words or actions, their intention to enforce S.B. 8 against Plaintiffs”. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I guess we’ll find out. It seems to me that in addition to the federal lawsuit, which is still ongoing despite the Supreme Court’s cowardly and corrupt ruling that allowed SB8 to take effect in the interim, every stakeholder who could reasonably foresee themselves as being on the wrong side of one of these nuisance vigilante actions should do the same thing and file their own pre-emptive lawsuit. We’ve already established that anyone can sue anyone over this, so who needs standing? KVUE has more.

On the subject of that federal litigation, it’s hard to say what comes next.

“This is all uncharted territory,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “So it’s really hard to say definitively what’s going to happen.”

What makes the law so unusual is its private enforcement, allowing nearly anyone to sue a doctor or other person who helps provide an abortion after six weeks, a point at which many women don’t yet realize they’re pregnant. Because the ban is not enforced by state officials, it’s difficult to know who abortion clinics can sue to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

The court’s conservative majority did not rule Wednesday on the law itself, and in fact acknowledged that abortion providers had raised “serious questions” about its constitutionality.

But the justices also expressed doubt about their ability to intervene in a privately enforced law such as the Texas law, Senate Bill 8, and experts said abortion proponents may have to think through other ways to get the issue before the court.

“The federal route is not dead, but the problem with it is it’s going to take some creativity on the part of federal courts to figure out why SB 8 and laws that may be like it are a real problem,” said Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston School of Law.

“If SB 8 is OK, there’s nothing to stop Texas from passing a law that creates $10,000 private bounties for newspaper reporters who write things that are critical of the governor,” Chandler said. “Or for California to pass laws that may create a private bounty against people who own handguns in their home.”

Maya Manian, a visiting professor at the American University Washington College of Law, said the court could have at least temporarily intervened to allow for more time to review the claims.

“There is no question the Supreme Court could have found a way to overcome these procedural hurdles,” Manian said. “Yet they’re using this procedural cover to covertly overrule Roe v. Wade,” referring to the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

There’s no question that SCOTUS’ refusal to issue a stay against SB8 was an appalling and wholly political abandonment of their duty. Maybe the outcry that is now occurring will be enough to actually spur some federal action, both in terms of passing a law to enshrine Roe as the standard, and also to put some restraints on the increasingly overreaching Supreme Court. Just its abuse of the shadow docket is sufficient cause to reel them in. I’ll believe it when I see it happen, unfortunately. Beyond that, SB8 is so vague as well as unprecedented that no one really knows what its scope is. I suspect that was a feature of this abomination.

Back to the Chron story:

Several legal experts said the fastest way to challenge the law may be to openly defy it, a move Planned Parenthood and other providers have so far been reluctant to do.

“There will be someone mad enough to violate the law and happily serve as a test subject,” Mala Corbin said. “Because the women of Texas are not going to take this without a fight. This is their right to control their body at stake.”

Miriam Camero, vice president of social programs at RAICES, a group that gives legal aid to immigrants, said it was prepared to help women access abortion regardless of the law. Camero noted that the ban especially harms immigrants who already have a difficult time traveling to abortion clinics or out of state given their legal status.

“We will continue to assist clients, whether it be in Texas or Louisiana or Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico,” Camero said.

It appears RAICES has already taken that step. We’ll see if they get hit with one of those lawsuits, in which case perhaps there will be a route to swifter action.

Doctors are also very unhappy with this new law.

The Texas Medical Association slammed the state Legislature on Friday, calling its passage of two anti-abortion bills “unconstitutional” and an interference with the fundamental patient-physician relationship.

“Enough,” the organization wrote in a statement. “The Texas Medical Association supports our physicians specializing in women’s health and opposes legislation in Senate Bill 8 of Texas’ 87th legislative session and Senate Bill 4 of this special session. SB 4 contains language that criminalizes the practice of medicine. Both bills interfere with the patient-physician relationship.”

[…]

On Wednesday, SB 8, which bans abortion after six weeks, including in instances of rape and incest, went into effect. The new law is a near-total ban on abortion and one of the strictest such measures in the country.

Hours before that, the Texas House passed Senate Bill 4, which would reduce access to abortion-inducing pills, the most common method for patients terminating a pregnancy. As sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, the bill would prevent physicians or providers from prescribing these medications to patients more than seven weeks pregnant.

Current Texas laws allow, and FDA guidelines suggest, practitioners to give these pills to patients who are up to 10 weeks pregnant.

“SB 8 and SB 4 go too far. Clearly these provisions are unconstitutional, in our opinion. TMA stands for the health care of all Texans and our profession. Enough is enough,” the statement continued.

[…]

“SB 8 allows for a bounty that encourages practically any citizen to file a cause of action against physicians, other health care professionals, and anyone who ‘aids or abets,’ based on a suspicion. If permitted to proceed, this law will be precedent-setting and could normalize vigilante interference in the patient-physician relationship in other complex, controversial medical or ethical situations.”

Meanwhile, the bill that was passed in the Texas House this week, SB 4, which limits access to abortion-inducing pills, would make it a criminal act for physicians to give these medications to patients more than seven weeks into a pregnancy.

“The physicians of Texas never thought the day would come when the performance of our oath would create a private cause of action for persons not connected to or harmed by the action. Yet, that day has sadly arrived in the state we love,” the TMA wrote.

Very heartfelt, and it’s easy to understand their outrage, but last I checked the TMA has been pretty supportive of Republican politicians, mostly because of tort “reform”. You want to convince me that you’re actually mad and not just having a minor snit, there’s an easy way to put your literal money where your figurative mouths are.

Finally, I mentioned the Texas Right to Life snitch site. As you may have heard, it has attracted some attention from folks who intend to disrupt it.

The Texas Right to Life organization created a website for those reports. But instead of citizens reporting on, say, the Uber driver who brought a woman to a clinic, critics of the law are spamming it with a barrage of fake information. Gov. Greg Abbott and Marvel’s Avengers are among those being reported receiving abortions, according to the New York Times.

Part of the flood of false info sent to the website appears to be aided by an activist and developer who posts under the social media alias Sean Black. In a viral TikTok first reported by Motherboard at Vice, Black explained that he wrote a script that anyone can access, which automates the process of letting them file fake reports. Each time they access Black’s script, new information is generated, theoretically making it harder for the Right to Life group to parse and ban people who are submitting fake reports.

As of September 2, not even 24 hours after the Supreme Court refused to halt the implementation of the law, Black told Vice the script had been clicked over 4,000 times.

Go get ’em, Sean Black.

UPDATE: One more story to add: Uber And Lyft Have Pledged To Cover Their Drivers’ Legal Fees If They Get Sued Under The Texas Abortion Law. Kudos to them for that.

UPDATE: TRO granted to Planned Parenthood. A hearing for an injunction will be September 13. No word yet about an appeal of the TRO.

A rough start to the school year

For some districts more than others.

Angleton and Livingston ISDs announced this week they temporarily were shutting down their schools, the first Houston-area districts to halt all in-person learning amid rising numbers of COVID-19 cases among students and staff, but possibly not the last.

With reported cases increasing rapidly since schools in the Houston region reopened last month, some districts are discussing contingency plans for closing campuses and, in some cases, shifting to online learning.

Already a handful of districts temporarily have shuttered individual classrooms or entire schools, prompted by the number of student infections, the number of kids having to quarantine or staff shortages caused by illness or quarantines.

With little guidance from the Texas Education Agency on metrics and thresholds that should trigger closures, school districts are making those calls on their own or relying on local health authorities. Among the factors being considered are rates of infection, teacher staffing — including the availability of substitutes — and student absences.

According to TEA, many districts have built time into their calendars in “anticipation that a temporary shutdown due to COVID” may be necessary.

“The agency has been coordinating with (districts) experiencing the need to close to ensure they have the information necessary to plan, adjust, and prepare to provide the required minimum of 75,600 operational minutes,” the agency said in an emailed statement.

[…]

Elsewhere in the state, Connally ISD in central Texas closed its five campuses near Waco for the week after two teachers died of COVID, as have a handful of east Texas districts and others in rural areas of the state.

Area districts that are mandating the use of face masks by students and staff, including Houston, Spring and Texas City ISDs, said they are not in talks about shutting down schools and are focusing on keeping in-person learning safe.

“We do not anticipate school closures,” reads Houston ISD’s COVID protocols. “However, should conditions change and an HISD school or building need to close, the determination will be made on a case-by-case basis by the superintendent in consultation with HISD Health and Medical Services and the Houston Health Department.”

Well, HISD still has a mask mandate, and I figure that has to be helping. I don’t want to get obnoxious about it since the Delta variant is terrible and pride goeth before a fall, but I’ll put better odds on HISD than on a district that isn’t taking the minimal steps to protect its students and teachers and staffers. According to the Trib, “At least 45 small school districts across Texas have been forced to temporarily stop offering in-person classes as a result of COVID-19 cases in the first few weeks of the new school year”. I’m willing to bet none of them had a mask mandate; the story didn’t specify but it did say at the end that at least one of these small districts is thinking about it in defiance of Abbott. The total number of student COVID cases that have been reported is up 90% over the previous week, which needless to say is a trend that needs to stop quickly or else. I don’t know how long we can go on like this, but I do know that whatever happens it’s on Greg Abbott. Keep all of these folks in your thoughts.