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December 29th, 2021:

Judicial Q&A: Porscha Natasha Brown

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Porscha Natasha Brown

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

I am Porscha Natasha Brown, a Public Defender and Criminal Justice Reform proponent. I have been a Public Defender since 2016. I graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in Criminal Justice from Sam Houston State in 2011, received my law degree from Thurgood Marshall School of Law in 2015, and my Master’s in Public Administration from University of Texas in Arlington in 2018. I am a proud graduate of the Gideon’s Promise Core Training for Public Defenders and I actively work on multiple committees that work to mentor newer public defenders and better indigent criminal legal services.

I am seeking to be the next Judge of Harris County Criminal Court No. 3.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Harris County Criminal Court No. 3 hears misdemeanor criminal cases. Misdemeanor criminal cases are low level offenses such as Resisting arrest, Evading on foot, Driving while Intoxicated 1st offense and 2nd offense, Assault Family Violence, and small possession of drugs. Misdemeanors are divided into three different levels which are Class A Class B, and Class C misdemeanors. Harris County Criminal Court No. 3 hears only Class A and Class B misdemeanors, while Municipal Courts handle Class C misdemeanors such as traffic tickets. The difference between Class A/B misdemeanors and Class C are that Class A/B are punishable by possible county jail time. Class A misdemeanors may be punishable with probation of up to 2 years or confinement in the county jail for no more than a year and a fine not to exceed $4000, while Class B misdemeanors may be punishable with probation of up to 2 years or confinement in county jail for no more than 6 months and a fine not to exceed $2000.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running to be a Judge because I care. I care about the rights and lives of those accused of a crime, victims of crime, and the community. As a Public Defender, I have seen what types of Criminal Justice reform are successful in real-time and I can also see where we are able to improve to better the chances of successful returns to court and reduce the rate of recidivism. As a crime victim, I have felt unsafe and I don’t want that feeling for anyone else. People should be held accountable once there has been a fair trial and/or sentencing. Unfortunately, even in 2021, there are still unfair trials and disparities in sentencing along racial, gender, and income level. I believe that in pretrial and sentencing we can push for more comprehensive services that provide for future success such as resources that address mental health, substance abuse, and homelessness. I believe that I can be a part of the solution for Harris County and provide a court that is efficient, follows the law, and is fair for all.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have been an attorney for 6 years, most of which has been as a Public Defender. I have been to trial on cases ranging from misdemeanors, felonies, and 1st degree felonies, as well as I have worked on high profile media cases, complex mental health and competency cases. I have handled heavy and fast paced dockets. I participate on committees and groups that work with Public Defenders and groups that work to enhance the knowledge of the Criminal Law codes. Currently, I serve as the Course Director of the Future Indigent Defense Leader’s Steering Committee. I am also a member of the State Bar of Texas Legal Services to the Poor in Criminal Matters Committee. Lastly, I am one of four hosts who lead a weekly Criminal Defense Study Group with attorneys throughout the state of Texas that are currently reviewing and discussing each section of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as well as legislative updates and other pertinent timely criminal issues.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because the lives of the people who are affected in this court are important. It is essential that those who are accused, those seeking justice as crime victims, and the community know that they will be taken seriously and that they will be treated fairly by each of the 16 misdemeanor courts. Currently, Harris County Criminal Court No. 3 has the lowest number of active cases out of the other 16 misdemeanor courts. It is important that Harris County continues to make sure that cases, justice, and the community are swiftly served by the courts. Even though misdemeanor courts cannot result in prison, the cases that are heard in this court can still be life changing.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

People should vote for me because I care. I care about the rights and lives of those accused of a crime, victims of crime, and the community. I am currently a Public Defender in Harris County which has afforded the opportunity to see first-hand what types of pretrial and sentencing methods work best to promote success and lower instances of recidivism. As someone who has also been a victim of a crime, I know that victims want their day in court and to be treated with importance by law enforcement. People should vote for me because I can relate to the people that are coming in the court, whether those are people who are charged with crimes, victims, and/or the community. I know that it is imperative that people who are accused of crimes know that the person who is presiding over their case is someone who doesn’t have a one-sided background or is unable to put themselves in their shoes. Judges must be able to be fair to all and follow the law. Based on my legal background, my experience as a Public Defender, and my past experience as a crime victim, I feel that I am best to see both sides in the Court and provide fair and just rulings for all of Harris County. Harris County has made tremendous strides in Criminal Justice Reform but we are not done yet. A vote for me, is a vote to push to be efficient and fair in a way that ultimately provides equality in reducing recidivism, enhancing victim solutions, reducing poor policing habits, and increasing success of the accused.

Preliminary injunction sought against mail ballot restrictions

Of interest.

Today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office moved for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton, their challenge to the provision in Texas’s restrictive voting law (S.B. 1) that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The Brennan Center, Weil, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office are seeking the injunction on behalf of Isabel Longoria, the Election Administrator for Harris County, Texas; and the Brennan Center and Weil are also representing Cathy Morgan, a volunteer election worker in Texas.

The motion filed today requests a preliminary injunction against the S.B. 1 provision no later than February 14, 2022. Texas has a primary election on March 1, 2022. To vote by mail in the primary, Texas voters must request mail ballot applications between January 1, 2022, and February 18, 2022.

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for me to do a critical part of my job, and it hurts the most vulnerable voters,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County Election Administrator. “As the highest-ranking election official in Harris County, I’m responsible for enabling the county’s millions of voters to exercise their right to cast a lawful ballot, many of whom face obstacles to voting in person due to illness, disability, or age. S.B. 1 subjects me to criminal prosecution for encouraging eligible voters to vote by mail so they may participate in our democracy –an option they have under Texas law.”

Under S.B. 1, Longoria, Morgan, and other election officials and election workers across Texas can be imprisoned for a minimum of six months and fined up to $10,000 if they encourage a voter to apply for a mail ballot application. As the motion filed today argues, this provision violates the First Amendment and undermines election officials’ and election workers’ ability to perform their duties.

“The right to free speech and the right to vote are vital to democracy, and S.B. 1 takes direct aim at both,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “Texas should be encouraging election officials to provide voters all the information they need to participate in elections. Instead, the legislature and the Governor have made it a crime to do so.”

Texas law allows voting by mail in certain circumstances, including when a voter is 65 years old or older, sick, or disabled, out of the country on election day, or confined in jail.

“This law was created to combat alleged voter fraud that we know does not exist, and instead hinders the ability to properly encourage seniors and voters with disabilities to exercise their right to vote by mail,” said Christian Menefee, the County Attorney for Harris County, Texas. “This anti-solicitation provision of SB 1 not only makes it harder for these folks vote, but it criminalizes the constitutionally protected free speech of the Harris County Elections Administrator and violates the First Amendment.”

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for public officials or election officials to encourage voters to request a mail ballot application, even if the person would be eligible to vote by mail. By contrast, under Texas law, it is not a crime for a public official or election official to discourage eligible voters to vote by mail,” said Liz Ryan, partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “There is no valid justification for such a one-sided restriction on speech.”

S.B. 1 went into effect on December 2, 2021. It is an omnibus law, containing the provision challenged in Longoria v. Paxton as well as restrictions on other aspects of voting and elections. The law has drawn multiple lawsuits in addition to Longoria v. Paxton. The Department of Justice has challenged S.B. 1 and, many other entities, including the Brennan Center (in LUPE v. Abbott), have also filed suit against various parts of the law.

The motion for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton is here.

The complaint, and more background on Longoria v Paxton, is here.

The first lawsuits filed against SB1 were filed in September, with Isabel Longoria a plaintiff in a complaint filed by MALDEF on behalf of a large group. The Justice Department lawsuit was filed in November, and there were three others filed in between. This one was filed on December 10, and if there was any news coverage of it I am not able to find it. The amended complaint was filed on Monday, December 27. It’s the motion for preliminary injunction, filed on Tuesday the 28th, for which I received a press release from the Harris County Attorney’s office, which in turn led me to find the linked article from the Brennan Center (and this Twitter thread), that is trying to make something happen more quickly.

My read on this – I’ve sent some questions to the Harris County Attorney’s office to get clarification – is that Elections Admin Longoria would like a ruling from the court to settle the question of what exactly she is and is not allowed to do, given that as things stand right now saying the wrong thing could get her arrested. We have the primaries coming up real soon, which means mail ballots are going to be getting requested, and people will have questions about them. Raising this as a First Amendment issue makes sense to me, and maybe it will make sense to the courts as well. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

UPDATE: Later in the day I found this Statesman story, which added a few details.

The ban on sending unsolicited mail-voting applications was one of many provisions contained in Senate Bill 1, the sweeping GOP voting law that was passed Sept. 1 during the Legislature’s second special session.

Several other provisions of SB 1 have been challenged in a half-dozen lawsuits by civil rights groups and the Biden administration’s Justice Department, including bans on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, ID requirements for mail-in ballots and protections for partisan poll watchers.

Those challenges are awaiting a summer trial.

Longoria and Morgan, however, told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio that waiting until summer is not an option for a prohibition that will handcuff them in the weeks leading up to the March 1 Texas primaries.

“Longoria has planned to engage in speeches and hold voter-outreach events but has been unable to do so for fear of criminal prosecution and civil penalties,” said Tuesday’s filing, adding that Longoria also halted plans to promote mail-in voting with fliers and on social media.

Similarly, Morgan argued in the filing that her work as a voter registrar — particularly around the University of Texas in Austin — will be hampered if she “can no longer proactively suggest that eligible but unaware voters request an application to vote by mail … as she has in the past.”

They asked Biery to rule no later than Feb. 14, noting that to cast a mail-in ballot in the primaries, voters must fill out and return an application between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, though his office opposes the request for an injunction and will respond to that in the future, as well.

So there you have it. My guess is that the state’s response will be some combination of “you can’t sue us” and “neener neener neener”, secure in the belief that the Fifth Circuit will undo anything Judge Biery does. I will of course keep an eye on it.

Another look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

Man, do I ever want this to be the end of Steven Hotze as a political force.

A well-funded far-right group—that made inroads with Stop The Steal organizations, paid a former police captain more than $200,000 to hunt ballots, and became entangled in a roadside stickup—was making war plans for Election Day 2020 months ahead of time, documents reveal.

The fringe group, the Liberty Center for God and Country (LCGC), led a lucrative fundraising blitz in the run-up to the election and quietly networked with now-notorious election denialists. Their work came to light in October of that year when former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into a man’s truck, forced the man onto the ground at gunpoint, and accused him of transporting 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre’s claims were baseless—his victim was an innocent air conditioner technician—and no widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 election. Aguirre was indicted this week for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The criminal charges outed the LCGC, which had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of preventing voter fraud in the months before the election, launching a website and fundraisers in the months before Nov. 3.

In the fall of 2020, as Donald Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls, Republican activists sought ways to sow doubt in the event of a possible Trump loss. Aguirre and LCGC were among them.

Aguirre’s description of himself as a “retired” police captain (he’d actually been fired for a disastrous raid) was the least of the fundraiser’s lies. Although the fundraiser shed little light on Aguirre’s “team,” the fundraiser was launched one day after Aguirre signed an affidavit in a lawsuit accusing Houston-area Democrats of widespread voter fraud.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican activist Steven Hotze, accused Texas Democrats of a plot to defraud voters, in part by offering early voting and more voting locations. Some of its claims rested on supposed evidence collected by Aguirre and a former FBI agent who, like Aguirre, later became a private investigator.

“Based on interviews, review of documents, and other information, I have identified the individuals in charge of the ballot harvesting scheme,” Aguirre wrote. Aguirre’s involvement with Hotze went deeper than the lawsuit suggested. In late August, according to business records, Hotze formed the LCGC. The group’s earliest web presence called on Trump to designate three days “for national repentance, fasting, and prayer.”

[…]

In order to crack down on alleged fraud pre-election, the LCGC allegedly hired Aguirre to investigate people it suspected of running fake ballot rings. According to charging documents, Aguirre admitted to surveilling the home of air-conditioning technician David Lopez-Zuniga, on the suspicion that the Houston man was running a scheme to force children to sign 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre allegedly rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s car off the road, forced him onto the ground at gunpoint, and knelt on his back before an actual police officer was able to intervene. The day after the incident, the LCGC sent $211,400 to Aguirre’s bank account.

The LCGC was pulling in big money, its fundraisers suggest. In addition to Aguirre’s GoFundMe, which earned at least $2,600, the group operated its own GoFundMe, which raised nearly $70,000 from mid-October to mid-December.

The LCGC also registered as a nonprofit—a status that would be useful when networking with a burgeoning movement of voter fraud hoaxers.

See here, here, and here for a bit of background; there’s more if you go looking for the bogus and universally losing lawsuits Hotze filed in 2020. The Washington Post did a deep dive on this about a year ago, and I’m glad to see others are continuing that quest. The possible key to ending this little piece of madness is the lawsuit filed by AC repairman David Lopez, which has survived a motion to dismiss and will surely provide a lot more evidence of wrongdoings as it proceeds. All I want for Christmas for the next 20 years or so is for a verdict to come down that absolutely bankrupts Steven Hotze. Link via Daily Kos.

Hey, if libraries are fair game…

Why stop at school libraries?

When the Llano County Library shuts down for three days this week, starting Tuesday, it won’t be for the holidays.

Instead, a group of six librarians in this small Central Texas county will be conducting a “thorough review” of every children’s book in the library, at the behest of the Llano County Commissioners Court. Their mission will be to make sure all of the reading material for younger readers includes subjects that are age-appropriate. A new “young adults plus” section will be added to separate books written for an older teen audience from those geared toward younger readers.

The three-day closure of the library system in Llano County, about 80 miles northwest of Austin, also means a temporary shutdown of its virtual portal through the online book provider Overdrive.

“I think we owe it to all parents, regardless if it’s a school library or a public library, to make sure that material is not inappropriate for children,” Llano County Judge Ron Cunningham said.

The Llano County community’s push to scrutinize the local library’s book stacks comes two months after a Texas lawmaker first questioned the inclusion of more than 850 books about race, equality or sexuality in public school libraries.

And Llano County is not the only community in Texas asking harder questions.

Local public libraries in Texas, including those in Victoria, Irving and Tyler, are fielding a flurry of book challenges from local residents. While book challenges are nothing new, there has been a growing number of complaints about books for libraries in recent months. And the fact that the numbers are rising after questions are being raised about school library content seems more than coincidental, according to the Texas Library Association.

“I think it definitely ramped it up,” said Wendy Woodland, the TLA’s director of advocacy and communication, of the late October investigation into school library reading materials launched by state Rep. Matt Krause in his role as chair of the House Committee on General Investigating.

[…]

“A library may get one or two [book challenges] in two years, or some librarians have never had challenges,” Woodland said. “So this is very rare and very unusual and different from the way challenges have been brought forth in the past.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The “review” of school library books will surely be the template for the “review” of public library books. But don’t worry, I’m sure everyone involved is passionately opposed to cancel culture.