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May 14th, 2022:

SCOTx issues mixed ruling on transgender child abuse investigations injunction

We’ll just have to see what happens next.

Texas’ child welfare agency remains blocked from investigating the family of a transgender teen that sued the state in March, but can once again investigate other families that provide gender-affirming care after the Supreme Court of Texas struck down a statewide injunction Friday.

Though it overturned the injunction on procedural grounds, the high court raised questions about why the Department of Family and Protective Services opened these investigations in the first place. The court affirmed in Friday’s ruling that neither Attorney General Ken Paxton nor Gov. Greg Abbott had any grounds to direct the agency’s actions.

[…]

“The Governor and the Attorney General were certainly well within their rights to state their legal and policy views on this topic, but DFPS was not compelled by law to follow them,” Friday’s ruling reads. “DFPS’s press statement, however, suggests that DFPS may have considered itself bound by either the Governor’s letter, the Attorney General’s Opinion, or both. Again, nothing before this Court supports the notion that DFPS is so bound.”

The ruling does note the myriad “informal mechanisms” through which elected officials can influence a state agency, but “ultimately, however, one department or another has the final say.”

[…]

In this case, the ruling said, DFPS was responsible for deciding whether these investigations aligned with current state regulations — and will now have to decide whether to continue these investigations and allow new ones to be opened.

DFPS employees have told The Texas Tribune that agency leadership has acknowledged that these investigations do not meet the current requirements for child abuse and have said policy would need to be generated to match the governor’s directives.

In March, a district judge granted an injunction blocking the state from continuing these investigations or opening new ones. Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, which reinstated the statewide temporary injunction.

He then petitioned the Supreme Court of Texas to review that appeal. In Friday’s ruling, the high court agreed with Paxton that the appeals court overstepped — while the appeals court can reinstate an injunction if it “preserves the parties’ rights,” they cannot reinstate a temporary injunction of any nature.

In this case, the justices ruled, the “parties” are the family that sued the state initially — not all parents of all transgender children.

Ian Pittman, an Austin attorney representing two families of transgender children that are under investigation for child abuse, said the injunction had allowed his clients to “breathe a sigh of relief” while their investigations were paused. Although the investigations can resume, he’s hopeful that DFPS will now close out the cases.

“This ruling reaffirms that [DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters] acted improperly when she acknowledged the directive and said they would follow it,” he said. “She was abdicating her responsibilities as commissioner to a political stunt that has no legal authority.”

If DFPS does not close out the cases, he expects other families may consider bringing suits to get any investigations against them similarly blocked.

See here and here for the most recent entries. There were multiple written opinions plus some concurrences and dissents, so just go here and look for case 22-0229 if you want to slog through them. I’ve seen varying reactions to the ruling and will link to them, but this Daily Kos piece is the closest to my own feelings.

Now, some folks are celebrating Friday’s ruling as a win, as the court does explicitly say the governor does not have the “authority to investigate, prosecute, or impose reporting requirements regarding child abuse allegations.” The court also pointed out that neither Abbott nor Paxton could “bind” the Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) “investigative authority.”

This all sounds encouraging, but again, the court didn’t rule on the ethics of the situation, but whether or not the lower courts were overstepping with the injunction holds. So … What happens now?

DFPS will decide whether or not to continue investigations, as well as whether or not they will open new ones. According to this ruling, the agency was responsible for determining if the investigations met state regulations, to begin with. Per The New York Times, it is not clear whether the ruling will cause the agency to resume investigations right away (or at all) or not.

If the department closes the cases, we can breathe a sigh of relief. If it doesn’t close the cases? It’s likely many more parents will sue the state.

For me? I’m taking it as a cautious win, but I’m not outright celebrating until the agency confirms those cases are closed and that more aren’t on the way.

I’m open to persuasion on this, but until and unless someone changes my mind, I’m waiting to see what DFPS does next, and hoping that as many parents of trans kids are preparing to file their own suits as possible, just in case. Here are statements from the ACLU and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, and the Chron, the Texas Signal, and the Texas Observer have more.

Treasury Department opens investigation into Abbott’s use of federal funds for border mission

Good, though I have a hard time believing there will be any real consequences.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s use of COVID-19 relief dollars to support his border security mission has come under scrutiny in Washington this week as questions grow about whether it’s the proper use of the federal funds.

The U.S. Treasury Department’s inspector general opened an inquiry into the spending on Tuesday, the Washington Post reported. The action came a day after a group of Texas Democrats in the U.S. House called on U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to investigate.

Those steps followed a Post analysis of money intended to combat the effects of the pandemic, showing that Texas “leaders rerouted public health and safety funds to their border operations, while relying on federal pandemic funds to replace some of the money.”

Those border operations included Operation Lone Star, a state border security program that Abbott launched in March 2021 to deal with increased border crossings. The initiative involves the deployment of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Military Department to the border. Abbott has used state resources to patrol the border, build border barriers and arrest migrants for trespassing on private land and then turn them over to immigration authorities.

The state has spent around $4 billion on the operations; the Post has reported that around $1 billion in coronavirus aid was used.

The money came from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, better known as the CARES Act, which had a key provision to support the medical response to the pandemic.

“In exercise of that responsibility … we are currently conducting a review of Texas’s uses of [Coronavirus Relief Fund] monies,” Richard K. Delmar, the U.S. Treasury Department’s deputy inspector general, said to the Washington Post.

[…]

Texas Democratic U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio and Veronica Escobar of El Paso spearheaded the letter to Yellen asking for her department to investigate the matter.

“It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor [Abbott] to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” the Texas Democrats wrote.

U.S. Reps. Colin Allred of Dallas, Lloyd Doggett of Austin, Marc Veasey of Fort Worth and Sylvia R. Garcia, Al Green, Lizzie Pannill Fletcher and Sheila Jackson Lee of Houston joined in signing the letter.

“As you continue your oversight of the Coronavirus State Fiscal Recovery Funds, we urge you to ensure all states are using these crucial funds for the reasons they were meant to be used,” they continued. “Governor Abbott must not be allowed to use federal coronavirus relief funds to further his political theater at the expense of Texas families.”

I’m happy for this, but let’s be clear that there are no circumstances under which Greg Abbott will be chastened by the outcome of the investigation, and no circumstances under which he will admit to any wrongdoing or make any changes in his behavior, except for the worse. Voting him out is still the only real hope at this point. Daily Kos has more.

Are road signs that warn about highway fatalities a danger?

Could be.

Driving along Texas highways, drivers will likely see electric signs that provide real-time traffic alerts, weather information or unique public safety announcements. While these signs are designed to increase public safety, new evidence suggests that one type does more harm than good.

recent study from Joshua Madsen and Jonathan D. Hall outlines how dynamic message signs (DMSs) displaying the year-to-date number of fatalities actually distract drivers and cause more accidents.

“The intention of these messages is to hopefully reduce crashes and encourage safe driving, and our findings are showing that it’s backfiring,” said Madsen, a professor at the University of Minnesota. “We’re finding an immediate increase in crashes, very small, but its clearly going in the wrong direction.”

After analyzing data on 880 fatality signs and all crashes occurring in Texas from 2010 through 2017, Madsen and Hall found that the number of crashes increased as drivers got closer to the signs.

The number of crashes increased by 1.35% within 10 kilometers of the signs, and raised to 1.52% within five kilometers of the signs. Those numbers only increased in areas with complicated road segments.

“What’s the cost of a two-second distraction?” Madsen asked. “If I’m on a straight highway between Austin and Houston, there’s not many consequences to a two-second distraction. If I’m dealing with an interchange, there’s five lanes of traffic. I need to be switching lanes and getting out. That would be a much more complicated road segment and having a two-second distraction could certainly be more costly.”

The research suggests that the signs cause an additional 2,600 crashes and 16 fatalities every year in Texas, with an annual cost of $377 million. The study says the effects of displaying fatality messages are comparable to raising the speed limit by 3-5 miles per hour or reducing the number of highway troopers by 6-14 percent.

[…]

In a statement to the Chronicle, a TxDOT spokesperson said the “real issues around traffic fatalities in Texas are speed, distracted driving, impaired driving and people not wearing seat belts.”

“We appreciate any focus on safety and the critical need to inspire drivers to make the best decisions behind the wheel,” the statement reads.” In relation to this particular study, there are too many unknowns to draw any firm conclusions, to include assumptions made by the study authors regarding driver psychology and behavior.”

“We continually evaluate the effectiveness of our safety messages, and for quite some time now, we have not shared fatality numbers on the dynamic messaging signs (DMS). We look for every way to make our roads as safe as possible, and to use effective measures to remind drivers that most of the time they have the power in their hands to help prevent fatalities on our roadways.”

The study is here. I read through the abstract, and if I’m reading this correctly they are comparing collisions during the weeks that TxDOT is displaying these dynamic messages (called “campaign weeks”, which as the authors note has been one week per month since August 2012) to the weeks when it is not. The comparison is for the areas near the signs in the campaign weeks to the off weeks. The method seems reasonable to me, and the time span is long enough that there ought to be enough data to draw conclusions, but I don’t fully buy it. The large area in which the crash data was measured, which I presume is to allow for a sufficient number of crashes to measure, is broad enough that I don’t think you can assume enough of these drivers even saw the signs in question on the journey that included the crash.

I don’t want to speculate about what else might be in play here. The way they defined the data sets does a pretty good job of eliminating a lot of randomness, and the hypothesis that the signs can be distractive has merit. I just feel like this is a broad conclusion to make from inferential data. I can certainly believe that the signs don’t have any positive effect, and I can believe they could have a negative effect. I’d just like to see some more data before I’m convinced.

Is that San Antonio airport tunnel really going to happen?

Reality check:

In March, the Alamo Regional Mobility Authority unanimously approved a feasibility study for a proposal from billionaire Elon Musk’s Boring Co. to build subterranean “public transit” from the San Antonio International Airport to downtown.

At the meeting, RMA Board Member Michael Lynd Jr. and Bexar County Director of Public Works Renee Green affirmed that the Boring Co.’s proposal — a nine-mile underground tunnel that would transport passengers in Teslas from the airport to the Pearl and downtown — was the most feasible option among the bids it considered.

Questions have swirled about what problem Musk’s $247 million-plus overture would solve, whether it qualifies as public transit and whether transportation dollars would be better spent on better-proven, if less-flashy, solutions to San Antonio’s traffic woes.

As the Boring Co.’s $247 million bid undergoes a feasibility evaluation, it’s worth considering whether Musk’s latest pie-in-the-sky venture has any prospect of working. According to local experts across a variety of disciplines, the project is doomed from the start.

See here, here, and here for the background. You should read the rest, but I’ll summarize it as concerns about water and other environmental issues (more on that here), property rights, and the fact that the San Antonio transit agency VIA is already in the process of implementing an express bus service from the airport to downtown; this would happen before the Musk tunnel and would directly compete with it. I’m also deeply skeptical of the price tag, which just seems awfully low to me. But hey, we’ll see what that feasibility study says. Maybe we’re all wrong.