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October 2nd, 2021:

The “abortion bans are good for interstate commerce, actually” defense

I can never tell when Ken Paxton is trolling or sincere.

In briefs filed Wednesday in the Justice Department’s challenge to Texas’ abortion ban, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton touted the trips Texas women are making out of state to obtain abortions as a point in his favor in defending the law.

Paxton was addressing an argument that the Biden administration had made for why it should be allowed to challenge the six-week abortion ban in federal court. The Justice Department said that the way the ban affects interstate commerce gives the United States the authority to bring a lawsuit challenging it.

Paxton shot back on Wednesday in his brief by arguing that the Justice Department did not cite any “actual evidence that the Texas Heartbeat Act burdens interstate commerce.”

“What evidence that does exist in the record suggests that, if anything, the Act is stimulating rather than obstructing interstate travel,” Paxton said, pointing to an increase in Texas women seeking to travel to Kansas and Oklahoma to obtain the procedure.

In an earlier court filing, the leader of the clinic organization Trust Women told a court that call volume for appointments at its clinics in Kansas and Oklahoma had doubled, and a significant portion of those patients were from Texas.

“About two-thirds of our [Oklahoma City clinic] patient appointment calls now come from Texas patients seeking abortions that are unavailable throughout their home state,” the provider said, noting that typically only a quarter of the clinic’s patients are from Texas. In Kansas, where in 2019 only 25 abortion patients were from Texas, approximately half of the calls to its Wichita clinic are now coming from Texas patients, according to the filing.

That’s not how I have understood the Justice Department’s case, but what do I know? Ken Paxton is a ninth-level legal ninja and we must bow before his superior wisdom.

Be that as it may, yesterday was the hearing for the motion for an injunction against SB8, which we have all been waiting for:

A federal judge Friday expressed doubt about Texas officials’ argument that the state’s virtual ban on abortion is constitutional and must stay in effect while the courts determine whether it violates the right to access the procedure.

Lawyers for the state say the law is immune from being temporarily blocked in the meantime because it is enforced by civilians who sue over violations, not the state.

“If the state is so confident in the constitutionality of the limitations on women’s access to abortion, then why did it go to such great lengths to create this very unusual private cause of action rather than simply doing it directly?” U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman asked Texas’ attorneys. “If the state had done this directly, would you still defend the constitutionality of these limitations on their merits?”

After a three-hour hearing, Pitman did not give a timeline for when he would rule on the Justice Department’s request to halt the law temporarily while its lawsuit is ongoing. Texas has indicated in court filings that it will immediately appeal any temporary block placed on the law.

“I will give careful consideration to very important issues that you have raised and argued, and we will get to work on the appropriate order in this case,” said Pitman, an Obama appointee.

[…]

The Justice Department filed the suit last month after the U.S. Supreme Court denied an emergency request to block the law as it took effect Sept. 1, citing procedural constraints because of the law’s unique construction. The high court did not weigh in on the substance of the case.

Pitman acknowledged the challenge he would face in issuing an injunction because state officials do not enforce the law.

“What would you believe that would obligate you to do, if anything?” Pitman asked Will Thompson, deputy chief for special litigation for the Texas attorney general’s office.

“Honestly, Your Honor, I’m not sure,” Thompson answered. “I think that’s part of the problem.”

The federal government is asking Pitman to specify that his order would apply to private individuals who may wish to file suits for violations of the law, Senate Bill 8, “such as by requiring Texas to post the injunction on court websites and inform all state court judges and judicial employees about the injunction.” The state has urged Pitman to be specific about who would be restricted by any order he makes, and how.

Brian Netter, a lawyer for the Justice Department, argued that the state can’t hide behind the law’s unique construction to help it “unambiguously violate” the Constitution.

“The state resorted to an unprecedented scheme of vigilante justice that was designed to scare abortion providers and others who might help women exercise their constitutional rights while skirting judicial review,” Netter said. “So far, it’s working. … Women have been left desperate, forced under sometimes harrowing circumstances to get out of Texas, if they even can.”

“The facts on the ground are quite clear and make an unambiguous case that SB 8 has already had the effect of materially diminishing the opportunity of women in Texas to exercise a constitutional right.”

Those who can travel face a difficult journey: On average, patients are traveling 650 miles each way to reach abortion clinics in the Southwest, court filings stated.

One minor, who was raped by a family member, traveled eight hours from Galveston to Oklahoma to get an abortion, the Justice Department alleges.

Another patient traveled six hours one way to get to Oklahoma by herself because she was worried that asking someone to come with her would leave that person open to a suit filed under SB 8.

Not much more to do right now but wait and hope. Zoe Tillman from Buzzfeed News has a long thread from the hearing, while law professor Leah Litman throws some water on the state’s defense. The 19th has a broader look at the legal landscape and the various cases against the “heartbeat” law, and Daily Kos has more.

More redistricting stuff

Just a roundup of some redistricting stories. We’ll start with the DMN.

The new map, part of a process of redrawing legislative boundaries every 10 years, makes significant changes in North Texas, where Democrats likely will gain a seat held by Republican Jeff Cason. The district would move to an area made up of mostly minority voters.

But the Republican proposal also adjusts the southern Denton County district represented by Democrat Michelle Beckley to make it more favorable for a GOP candidate. Beckley has opted to run for Congress in 2022 against Republican incumbent Beth Van Duyne in Congressional District 24.

Meanwhile, the North Dallas district represented by John Turner would move west and become a majority Hispanic district in Oak Cliff and Grand Prairie. Turner is retiring after his term ends, and had he stayed, he would have been paired with a Republican Morgan Meyer.

In North Texas, Republicans had the goal of protecting their incumbents who could be in trouble during the next decade. They made alterations that now have the Dallas County seats held by Republicans Angie Chen Button of Garland and Meyer, who lives in University Park. The new maps place them in areas won in 2020 by Donald Trump, but only at a 50% to 49% margin. Those districts will remain battlegrounds as Democrats try to make Dallas County a blue oasis.

Republicans bolstered their Tarrant County seats, except for the one held by Cason, which will become more Democratic. Cason also was one of only two Republicans who voted against House Speaker Dade Phelan in January. And they made the Collin County districts represented by GOP Reps. Matt Shaheen and Jeff Leach stronger for a Republican, but as with the case in Dallas County, the Collin County seats will remain targets for Democrats.

“Republicans did their best to cement their majority and, from a partisan gerrymandering standpoint, they played this very smart,” said David de la Fuente, a senior policy analysts for the center-left group called Third Way. “They didn’t go overly aggressive for new pickup opportunities for themselves because they know that a lot of this growth that’s happening in Texas is growth that could benefit the Democratic Party, so they tried to stop losses more than anything else.”

[…]

Rep. Jasmine Crockett, a Dallas Democrats who represents District 100, which includes parts of southern and eastern Dallas County, as well as West Dallas, is upset that her district is slated to incur a radical drop in its Black population. Under the new maps, the number of voting age Black residents District 100 will drop from 34.6% to 27%. The white voting age population would increase from 22% to nearly 37%. Crockett’s voting age Hispanic population drops from 41% to 29%.

“They have taken the voice away from African Americans in my district and that’s a clear violation of the Voting Rights Act,” Crockett said. “They are spitting on the legacy of HD 100. They went too far.”

Most of the Black population lost by Crockett will be moved to the nearby District 104 that is represented by Dallas Democrat Jessica González. Her new constituents would include residents from the historic Joppa neighborhood, a community built by freed slaves. District 104 has largely changed, González said. The district now extends to Mesquite and Garland.

While she would pick up Black population from districts represented by Crockett and Rose, González said the number of eligible voters with Hispanic surnames would drop from over 50% to about 48%. That could be a Voting Rights Act violation, analysts say.

Crockett and González were vocal participants of the quorum break by House Democrats to stall a controversial elections bill.

“I’m not too shocked that it ended up being me they targeted,” Crockett said. “I kind of wear it as a badge of honor…It is still a safe Democratic seat, but partisan gerrymandering is legal and when you slice and dice communities of interests, you end up with a problem.”

State Rep. Toni Rose, D-Dallas, would also have the Black population in her district sharply reduced, and she would lose Paul Quinn College. Rose’s district would see a drop in Black voting age population–from 34% to 26%. The Hispanic voting age population in the district would rise from 58% to 63%.

Black residents represented 25% of the growth in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Well, that answers my question about what Rep. Cason did to offend the redistricting gods. Gotta say, I was under the impression that doing what was done here to Rep. Crockett’s district was called “retrogression” and it was a no-no under the Voting Rights Act. It’s not clear to me if that slicing and dicing was done for strategic reasons or just out of spite. Wait for the lawsuits, I guess.

Here’s the Chronicle:

“The map gives Republicans a slight advantage,” said Ross Sherman of the advocacy group RepresentUs, which works with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project to grade redistricting proposals. “This seems to be a trend this cycle: another map producing safe seats and insulating politicians from their constituents.”

The Gerrymandering Project gave the proposed House map a “C” in fairness for its GOP advantages. It’s the highest grade a Texas map has received so far, after proposals for congressional and state Senate maps earned “F” grades.

[…]

Speaking in general about the maps, GOP strategist Brendan Steinhauser said the Republicans tried to “lock in the gains” they earned during the 2020 election, rather than “be too aggressive” and shift blue seats their way.

The House seats currently are divided almost equally between districts that favored Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in 2020. The current map includes 76 Trump-led districts and 74 Biden-led districts, but the new map shifts that support to 86 in favor of Trump and 64 in support of Biden.

Texas grew by roughly 4 million people over the past decade, a surge driven almost entirely by people of color, especially Latinos. Updating the political maps is required every 10 years, to account for such shifts.

Still, the proposed House map reduces the number of majority-minority districts by voting age population. Previously, 67 districts were majority-white; the new map proposes 72 districts that have mostly white voters.

Those numbers change dramatically when evaluating estimates for adult citizens. Using those figures, the House currently has 83 majority-white districts, compared with 89 under the new map. And while the current districts include 33 with Hispanic majorities and seven with Black majorities, those numbers would fall to 30 and four, respectively.

“These maps do nothing but preserve the status quo at the expense of Black and brown Texans,” said Anthony Gutierrez, the executive director of the good-government group Common Cause Texas.

Same observation about the reduction of majority-minority districts. I mean, I get that the Voting Rights Act may as well be written on toilet paper with this Supreme Court, but it’s still theoretically the law of the land. The Republicans may have had more challenges with the State House districts because of the law that requires districts to be entirely within counties where possible, which prevented them from putting pieces of urban counties in the same district with rural counties, which was not the case for the Congress or State Senate maps. Again, I figure the lawyers will have a lot to say about all this when the dust settles.

Speaking of Congress:

In a strongly-worded letter, U.S. Reps Sheila Jackson Lee and Al Green said they oppose the Republicans’ proposed redrawing of their districts and say they were not consulted before the map was released to the public.

The map “makes radical and unneeded changes to the two local congressional districts that include the majority of Black voters in Harris and Fort Bend counties,” the letter to the Texas Senate Redistricting committee states.

There are massive changes for Harris County in the congressional redistricting plan the Texas Senate released earlier this week. The county would still have nine members of Congress, but the district lines would be dramatically altered to improve the re-election chances of current Republicans and create a new congressional seat that appears to have been drafted to ensure another Republican would be elected to Congress.

The map would have a dramatic impact on the districts represented by Jackson Lee and Green, changing who represents 200,000 mostly Black residents.

Jackson Lee’s 18th Congressional District would not only lose the Third Ward, but also downtown Houston, the University of Houston and Texas Southern University — most of those areas would instead be shifted to the 29th Congressional District, represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia.

And the Republican map would put Jackson Lee’s home in Riverside Terrace into Green’s 9th Congressional District, meaning she would not even be able to vote for herself unless she moved. It would also put Jackson Lee’s main district office for the 18th in Green’s district, forcing her to move it.

“No other member of the large Texas delegation is so severely impacted by the proposed map,” the letter notes, pointing out at Jackson Lee’s 18th Congressional District has roots that tie back to Barbara Jordan, who in 1972 became the first Black woman to represent Texas in Congress.

I said before that Reps. Green and Jackson Lee would easily win the new districts as drawn, but what was done to them is clearly an insult. For Sen. Huffman to claim that no one got in touch with her about the maps she was drawing is disingenuous, especially when she knows what effect those maps are going to have. You have the power, you have the responsibility. Spare me the whining.

More from the Statesman:

Nonwhite residents accounted for about 95% of the population growth that gave Texas two additional seats in the U.S. House.

Despite that, the number of predominantly Hispanic congressional districts in Texas would fall from eight to seven, while majority Anglo districts would rise from 22 to 23, in the Republican-drawn map unveiled this week, said Gloria Leal with the League of United Latin American Citizens.

[…]

“Toss-up seats, which presented an opportunity for Hispanics to elect candidates of choice, were cut from 12 to one,” Leal said. “This blatant attempt to increase partisanship in districts not only results in the suppression of minority votes, but it eliminates the opportunity for Hispanics to elect a candidate of their choice in violation of the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution.”

State Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston and chairwoman of the committee, said the map was drawn in a “color-blind way,” without taking into account the race of residents.

“We did not consider race in drawing the maps at all,” Huffman said. “Once we drew the maps, we provided them to our legal counsel … and we are advised that they were legally compliant” with the Voting Rights Act.

Michael Li, with the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, testified that creating the map without regard to race is not enough to insulate it from legal challenges, particularly if lawmakers know about its adverse impact on nonwhite Texans.

Li said the proposed map raised several “red flags,” particularly in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, where Black and Hispanic populations increased sharply in the past decade, yet no new districts were created to give nonwhite voters an opportunity to elect preferred candidates. At the same time, SB 6 would move a significant Latino population from a district held by U.S. Rep. Mark Veasy, D-Fort Worth, and into an Anglo majority district that includes seven rural counties, he said.

Li also questioned changes made to District 22 — centered on Fort Bend County, one of the most diverse suburban counties in America — where the voting age population would rise to 55% Anglo, up from the current 46%. Dismantling a district where rising numbers of Hispanic, Black and Asian voters were able to create voting coalitions “raises many red flags,” he said.

Have I mentioned that the lawyers are going to be busy? I don’t have much faith in the courts, but I believe in the lawyers.

Decision Desk:

Texas gained two Congressional districts through 2020 reapportionment. One district went into Austin, which the GOP previously divided between five Republican districts in 2010. All five ended up as marginal races by 2020. This new Democratic district releases pressure on the five seats allowing them to absorb Democratic voters from other parts of the state. The second new Congressional seat is roughly the successor to the old Seventh district in west Houston, with the new TX-07 traveling between Houston and her suburbs as a new, safe Democratic seat.

TX-03, TX-06, TX-07, TX-10, TX-21, TX-22, TX-23, TX-24, TX-25, TX31, and TX-32 were all potential competitive seats in 2020. TX-15, TX-28, and TX-34 became competitive because of newfound Republican strength among South Texas Hispanics. All but one of the districts are now uncompetitive. Republican Districts gain more Republican voters, and the few Democratic held seats become more Democratic. All of the former Republican suburban seats reach deep into the rural and exurban areas and drop Democratic suburbs. Former rural and exurban seats – TX-04, TX-05, TX-08, TX-13, and TX-36 – reach deeper into the suburbs to carve up Democratic areas. The result is  districts with obtuse borders where the Democrats gained the most voters, such as the north Dallas suburbs with the new TX-04.

In South Texas, past voting rights litigation prevents Republican map-makers from exploiting recent party gains. The resulting districts resemble the present lines and stretch northwards, but the most GOP-favoring Hispanic areas are now congregated in TX-15 which makes it a potential swing district. O’Rourke did win this seat by over 10%, so the district will not be competitive if the 2020 results end up as a one-off occurrence.

Texas mappers still found ways to cater to their protected incumbents. In TX-10, Senior Republican Michael McCaul gets a district that squiggles narrowly around Austin from his neighborhood west of the city to rural Texas. New TX-06 Republican Jake Ellzey’s district takes in more rural areas where he is better known and loses Arlington Republican voters who backed Susan Wright during the 2021 Special Election. TX-25 previously did not include Republican Roger Williams’ base in Weatherford, west of Fort Worth. Now it does.

Republicans also released their proposed Legislative and Board of Education district maps, which can be viewed here. Biden in 2020 and O’Rourke in 2018 won a majority or a near-majority of districts on the former maps for these bodies, so Republican mappers were even more desperate to gerrymander these lines. Both maps protect incumbents in a similar manner to the Congressional plan with the rural and exurban areas reaching into the suburbs. The legislative plans however go beyond incumbent protection and each attempt to carve up a marginally Democratic seat in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. 

The desire to protect incumbents may end up dooming State House Republicans in future years. County nesting requirements prevented the GOP from linking the Republican dominated rural areas to the suburbs. By giving former Biden-District Republicans seats Trump won, other, formerly safe Republican seats needed to take in Democratic voters. Even more districts than previously become marginal districts that could potentially swing heavily away from the GOP.

Voting rights litigation is a constant factor in Texas redistricting. For example, plaintiffs forced Texas Republicans to draw the new Dallas-based TX-33 into a Hispanic Democratic seat in 2010 (initial 2010 map here). This new Congressional gerrymander disadvantages minority communities across the state, especially since nearly all of Texas’s recent growth came from minority groups. The proposed TX-23 is only 60% Hispanic compared to the 80% or higher in other South Texas seats, limiting minority opportunity. TX-27 has several majority Hispanic counties, including the city of Corpus Christi, inside a seat where White voters historically pick the representative. TX-38 could be a second, overwhelmingly Hispanic seat in the Houston area. TX-18 was previously an African American district, but is here majority Hispanic, an example of regression. Fort Worth minority voters are distributed between four Districts and there could be a fourth minority seat in the region. A majority-minority coalition seat can be drawn in the suburbs north of Dallas. Expect this criticism and more to potentially be levied in future court cases.

I suspect he means that only CD15 is competitive, but CD23 is only Trump+7, which seems competitive enough to me. I also think that over time several others will become more competitive as well, if these districts are allowed to go into effect as is. I’m sure there will be changes, and then of course the lawsuits, though as we well know they will take years to resolve. What we eventually get here is what we’re going to have for awhile. The Current and the Trib have more.

COVID continues to run amuck at the schools

This is our reality.

Students in Texas public schools are facing another year upturned by COVID-19 as the highly contagious delta variant spreads, mask mandates are inconsistent and children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated against the virus.

Less than two months into this school year, the number of reported coronavirus cases among students has surpassed the total from the entire 2020-21 school year. Schools are prohibited from taking precautions such as requiring masks, though some are fighting the governor’s order banning mask mandates. Far more students are on campus, since most districts do not have a remote learning option.

[…]

State data on school cases is incomplete and likely an undercount. TEA suppresses some districts’ case counts to protect student privacy, and not all districts report student and staff cases to the state, despite agency guidance requiring otherwise. The agency also retroactively updates its data from previous weeks as more districts report cases.

Some large districts, such as Houston and Dallas, have not consistently reported cases to the state since TEA started tracking COVID-19 data on Aug. 2 for this school year. Many districts publish a COVID-19 dashboard that shows cases, and TEA recommends families check for the latest data there.

Entire districts, including Angleton and Lumberton, have closed temporarily without reporting cases to the state. These districts don’t necessarily report their closures, either, since they are not required to do so. TEA informally tracks closures based on media and district reports, said Frank Ward, an agency spokesperson.

I don’t quite understand the embedded table that this story has about school districts with the most reported COVID cases, as the numbers they report for HISD don’t match up with the ones on the HISD site. I guess they’re showing active cases and not cumulative ones, but it doesn’t sound like that from their description. In any event, the point is there’s a lot of COVID in the schools, and the schools have few options right now to mitigate it other than defying Greg Abbott’s mask mandate ban and hoping for the best in the courts. The forthcoming EUA for the Pfizer shot for kids will help eventually, though that will take time as even pro-vaxx parents may wait a bit before giving it to their kids.. And that is our reality.

Our latest wake-up call about our power grid

Same song, next verse.

Federal energy officials vowed to ensure that Texas improves its electricity grid and natural gas system after widespread blackouts during the February freeze led to more than 200 deaths and billions of dollars in property damage.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the North American Reliability Corp. on Thursday presented their preliminary findings from the winter storm and outlined a series of familiar recommendations to prevent another catastrophic power failure as climate change brings about more severe weather that threatens the nation’s power grids.

These recommendations, similar to the ones FERC issued in the aftermath of the 2011 Texas blackouts, would require power plants and natural gas producers to protect critical equipment from freezing temperatures, to update power generators that experience freeze-related outages and provide compensation for generators to recoup weatherization costs.

“This is a wake-up call for all of us,” FERC Chairman Rich Glick said. “We must take these recommendations seriously, and act decisively, to ensure the bulk power system doesn’t fail the next time extreme weather hits. I cannot, and will not, allow this to become yet another report that serves no purpose other than to gather dust on the shelf.”

Glick said he was “extremely frustrated” that Texas energy regulators and the state’s grid manager ERCOT failed to heed FERC’s recommendations after a February 2011 winter storm left more than 3 million Texans without power as the Super Bowl was played outside Dallas.

You and me both, buddy. You and me both.

Had Texas followed FERC’s guidance a decade ago, the state could have avoided February’s deadly and devastating blackouts, he said.

“In this day and age, we have people that froze to death because of power outages. That’s beyond unacceptable,” Glick said. “The worst part about this, one of the points that frustrates me the most, is that some of it was avoidable.”

[…]

In a 31-page report published Thursday, FERC said the February winter storm caused the largest forced power outages in the nation’s history, and was the third largest blackout after the Northeast blackout in 2003 and the West Coast blackout in 1996. The February freeze was the fourth severe winter event over the past decade, knocking out 61,800 megawatts of power across the Midwest and South, including Texas and Louisiana.

The Texas power grid managed by ERCOT received the harshest effects of the freeze. The storm knocked out an average of 34,000 megawatts of power on ERCOT’s grid, nearly half of its record winter demand load of 69,871 megawatts.

FERC said the biggest factors contributing to power plants failing were the lack of weatherization of critical equipment and natural gas supply issues at power plants. Nearly 58 percent of the power generators that went offline during the storm were natural gas plants.

You can find the FERC report here and their press release here. If you want to find any plan that Greg Abbott has to take action on this report, you’re going to have to look a lot harder.