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June 13th, 2022:

March For Our Lives

I sure would like to think that all this activist energy means that things are different this time.

Hundreds of Houstonians gathered near City Hall in downtown Saturday for the student-led March for Our Lives, one of dozens of events planned across the nation today to rally for stronger regulations on guns.

The protest comes almost three weeks after 21 were killed in a mass shooting at a Uvalde elementary school. In Houston, demonstrators marched just over a half mile from City Hall to outside the office of Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some explicit chants broke out as demonstrators called for voters to oust Cruz in the next election.

The event followed a demonstration of about 150 people in The Woodlands, where advocates also worked to register voters.

Katherine Chen, high school senior and executive director of MFOL Houston, said her experience as a student has included three instances of gun violence.

“The first time I had a brush with gun violence was the community college across the street from my middle school had an active shooter,” she said, remembering the sounds of helicopters and the commotion of the scene directly facing her classroom.

“That’s not something that should happen to kids at school. Especially not when you’re 12 years old.”

[…]

MFOL started in 2018 following the shooting at Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and rallies in support of new gun safety laws.

Among MFOL’s sought reforms: banning assault-style weapons or raising the age to purchase one from 18 to 21; outlawing high-capacity magazines that can hold many rounds of ammunition; implementing “red flag” laws to temporarily remove firearms from individuals deemed a danger to themselves or others; expanding background checks to include all gun sales; and establishing a “cool-off” period for someone seeking a firearm.

There were other rallies like this one around the state and around the country. The next step is to turn this into action at the ballot box, for all the reasons we have discussed a million times before.

I hesitate to be optimistic, because we have certainly seen this kind of outrage and emotion in other public rallies, and we know how they all ended up. But maybe this time it is a little different. It feels a little different, though I admit that may just be extremely wishful thinking on my part. But then, this part is actually different.

A bipartisan group of senators on Sunday announced a deal on framework of legislation aimed at reducing gun violence that includes funding for mental health and school security. Thus far, 10 Republican senators stated their support of the deal.

The agreement is currently in principle as legislative text has yet to be drafted. The deal comes in the wake of a series of mass shootings nationwide, including the tragic elementary school shooting in Uvalde, Texas late last month.

The deal includes enhanced background checks for buyers under the age of 21, funding for the expansion of mental health services and school security, and state grants to implement so-called “red flag” laws championed by Republicans that permit law enforcement to seek temporary removal of firearms from those who pose threats to themselves or others.

The deal closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole” in order to prevent a domestic abuse from purchasing a gun if they are convicted of abusing their partner.

Additionally, it seeks to crack down on illegal straw purchasers and firearms dealers without a license.

It’s still not enough – the House bill that passed included banning the purchase of these weapons by anyone under the age of 21, which really should be the starting point – but we’ve not gotten this far on anything like it in the filibuster-everything era. It still needs to actually pass, and it may face resistance from the more progressive wing of House Democrats, who have some leverage here, but it would be something. That’s almost shocking, which says a lot of other things about where we are. But it’s something. The Trib has more.

C’mon, we should get to see the city’s after-action report on the freeze

This is silly.

Houston will not release its retrospective report on the 2021 winter freeze, citing a post-9/11 law shielding information that could be exposed by terrorists or criminals.

The city drafted a report, called “After-Action Report/Improvement Plans for the 2021 Winter Storm,” after the February freeze, when plunging temperatures crippled the state’s electrical grid and led to hundreds of deaths across Texas.

The prolonged power outages, paired with tens of thousands of burst water pipes, also brought down Houston’s water system. The city at times was unable to send water to customers, including the Harris County Jail and parts of the Texas Medical Center. The system was under a state-mandated boil water advisory for four days. More than a dozen generators failed at city water plants, inhibiting their ability to withstand the electrical outages.

The after-action report includes information about the city’s response and adjustments it has made to plan for future events. It details operational coordination, communication procedures, and emergency medical services, among other information.

The Chronicle requested the report in February 2022 under the Texas Public Information Act, but the city sought the opinion of the attorney general’s office, which said the city must withhold the document. City attorneys argued the information could help criminals or terrorists plot an attack.

The Texas Government Code says municipalities must withhold information that is collected “for the purpose of preventing, detecting, responding to, or investigating an act of terrorism or related criminal activity,” and relates to staffing requirement and tactical plans. It also allows an exemption for assessments about how to protect people, property or critical infrastructure from terrorism or criminal activity. Those exemptions were added as part of the Homeland Security Act, passed by the Texas Legislature in 2003.

[…]

Joseph Larsen, a Houston attorney who has worked on public information cases, said the issue lies in the broad interpretation of the exemptions by governments seeking to withhold documents, the attorney general’s office tasked with enforcing it, and the courts that review those decisions.

“Their hands are not tied, that’s just ridiculous. They can release the report if they want to,” Larsen said of the city. “This is one of the very worst exceptions… It can be used to basically withhold anything.”

Governments often use the terrorism exemption to the Texas Public Information Act to shield weather readiness plans, Larsen said. Similar arguments were made to conceal plans made after Hurricane Ike. And the city is not the only one to use it for the winter storm. The Public Utility Commission, which oversees the state’s electrical grid, has been raising the same argument, according to Larsen.

The open records law is supposed to be “liberally construed in favor of granting a request for information,” the attorney general’s office has said. Exceptions to that rule should be interpreted narrowly, Larsen said.

“They’re not being narrowly interpreted, and that’s just a fact,” Larsen said. “They allow government bodies to cover their behinds for any specific event, and it prevents the public from actually fixing the problems, which is the whole point of freedom of information.”

I can believe that the existing law could be interpreted broadly enough to exclude this after-action report, and I can certainly believe that Ken Paxton’s office would prefer a sufficiently broad interpretation so as to keep most government activity under wraps. That doesn’t mean this is a good idea or that it’s the correct interpretation of the law. I don’t see what’s wrong with just doing a little redaction if there is some legitimately sensitive operational data in there. Blocking the whole thing, especially when there has already been reporting about what the city will do differently now, seems to me to serve no one. We can do better than that.

Two redistricting lawsuit updates

Legislators involved in the most recent redistricting effort can be made to sit for depositions.

The Supreme Court refused Tuesday to block the deposition of Texas lawmakers in redistricting suits.

Mum as to whether there were any dissents, the order from the justices keeps in place a lower court ruling that will force Republican lawmakers to appear for depositions in suits claiming that Texas’ redistricting plans are discriminatory. Per their custom, the justices also did not offer any explanation for their ruling.

The United States subpoenaed three Texas lawmakers at the beginning of the month to testify in a challenge to the state’s 2021 congressional and state House redistricting plans. The Department of Justice and voting rights groups claim the new maps violate Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act by intentionally discriminating against minority voters in West Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area.

Representatives Ryan Guillen, Brooks Landgraf and John Lujan tried to limit their testimony to matters in the public record, but a federal judge denied their motion and their attempt to block the testimony altogether. Likewise the Fifth Circuit refused to enter a stay pending appeal that would block their testimony.

In their application to the high court, Texas lawmakers claim they have the privilege and immunity to avoid testifying in the suits.

“The legislators’ depositions will probe the very innerworkings of the legislative process, examining the legislators’ thoughts, impressions, and motivations for their legislative acts,” wrote Taylor A.R. Meehan, an attorney with Consovoy McCarthy representing the lawmakers.

He also warned that lawmakers would have to answer questions in full the “proverbial ‘cat is out of the bag.’ And the twin safeguards of legislative immunity and privilege — older than the country itself — are no safeguards at all.”

The Justice Department said the depositions were routine.

“Courts, including this Court, often rely on such testimony both in assessing the motive and justification for districting choices and in considering the ‘totality of circumstances’ relevant to minority voters’ electoral opportunities, as the VRA directs,” Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar wrote in the government’s opposition brief.

The government notes that Lujan has a particularly weak claim to legislative privilege since he was not in the Legislature when the redistricting plans were passed.

“Representative John Lujan, does not have even an arguable claim of legislative privilege with respect to the challenged districting plans because he was not in the legislature when the plans were passed — a critical fact that applicants do not mention,” Prelogar wrote.

This is from the LULAC lawsuit, which is now consolidated with most of the other federal lawsuits. The order is from a couple of weeks ago, as the depositions were set to begin the week of May 24. SCOTUS just never took up the defendants’ motion, so they did not get an order to protect them from being deposed. This is not going to change the overall trajectory of the litigation, but it ought to lead to some interesting facts for the eventual hearings. Lujan as noted was not a legislator when the maps were passed in the special session, so who knows what he thinks he has to keep quiet about, while Guillen was still a Democrat when this was all happening. Should make for some fun questions, if nothing else.

The other federal lawsuit, which was not combined with the LULAC et al complaint, is the one filed by the Justice Department. That one survived a motion to dismiss:

A federal judge has ruled that U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland can proceed with voting and civil rights claims against Texas over a state law passed last year to address purported voter fraud.

State officials had asked U.S. District Court Judge Xavier Rodriguez to dismiss the case, arguing that federal officials did not have standing to sue them. They argued that local election officials — not state ones — were charged with implementing the new law.

The George W. Bush appointee disagreed in an order Tuesday, finding the U.S. attorney general has “broad constitutional power to protect the right to vote” and is “congressionally authorized” to go after voting rights violations.

The federal government had a “significant stake” in protecting “the general welfare of its citizenry,” Rodriguez wrote. He found the U.S. government had plausibly alleged that Texas law would “disenfranchise eligible Texas citizens who seek to exercise their vote,” including those with disabilities, limited knowledge of English and “members of the military deployed away from home.”

[…]

In November, the U.S. attorney general’s office intervened, expressing an interest the [LULAC et al consolidated] case and urging Rodriguez not to dismiss the claims. Voting lawsuits brought by private groups were necessary, the filing argued, due to the “limited federal resources available for Voting Rights Act enforcement” and because states with histories of voter restrictions no longer had to seek federal preclearance for voting changes following the 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder.

Later that month, the AG’s office also filed suit against the Lone Star State. In a strongly worded complaint, federal officials argued that Texas already had some of the “strictest [voting] limitations in the nation” and that SB1 would “impermissibly” restrict and disenfranchise voters.

Texas’s “history of official voting-related discrimination against its disfavored citizens is longstanding and well-documented,” the complaint said. “Federal intervention has been necessary to eliminate numerous devices intentionally used to restrict minority voting in Texas.”

This lengthy and complex legal battle, involving a variety of parties, led up to Tuesday’s order. Over the months, Texas officials have tried numerous avenues to dismiss the case.

Among other things, state officials zeroed in on the state’s new voter ID and mail-in ballot requirements. Because the state allows voters to “cure” their ballots, they argued, the law did not deny the right to vote.

Rodriguez rejected this argument and others, writing that a voter’s opportunity to cure their ballot “does not necessarily mean” that SB 1 did not violate the Civil Rights Act. The law does not allow state officials to “initially deny the right to vote…as long as they institute cure processes,” he wrote. Instead, it bars these actions altogether.

He also found that, while local elections officials may be in charge of implementing the law, SB 1 was in fact “traceable” to state officials, and therefore they could be sued. Since the law has so far been in effect for the state’s primary elections, the U.S. government had also alleged an injury, he found.

Rather than issuing an injunction preventing enforcement of parts of SB 1, Rodriguez’s order instead simply allows the U.S. government to continue with its lawsuit. It remains to be seen how the case will play out, including whether controversial aspects of SB 1 will remain in effect for the 2022 midterm elections later this year.

There’s a long road ahead for this litigation, and at the end awaits a US Supreme Court that is extremely hostile to voting rights. But you have to start somewhere, and who knows, maybe the landscape will change by that time.

We will learn Houston’s fate as a World Cup site this week

It’s been a long road.

On June 16, FIFA will announce its host cities for the 2026 Men’s World Cup set to be held within the U.S., Canada and Mexico. If Houston is one of the 16 locations chosen for the 48-team tournament, the city’s robust international soccer culture will serve as a prominent backdrop.

The Houston metro area is more racially and ethnically diverse than the United States as a whole, and is notably home to the nation’s fourth-largest Hispanic and Latinx population. According to a Pew Research Center analysis, Harris County’s Hispanic population grew by 363,000 from 2010 to 2020, the largest increase of any county in the United States.

Houston’s global culture is reflected in its two professional soccer teams. The Dynamo’s roster includes players from 13 different countries, including eight in Latin America. Seven countries are represented on the Dash, including Mexico and Argentina.

[…]

As part of the pitch from the Houston 2026 World Cup Bid Committee, in which Dynamo FC majority owner Ted Segal has taken an active role, the Dynamo offered up PNC Stadium and its Houston Sports Park practice ground as locations for training or other events around the World Cup.

That would give the Dynamo some operational responsibility for the tournament. But more importantly, [Dynamo President of Business Operations John] Walker said, “I think it’s about the buzz that it’s going to create in the city for the next four years around soccer.”

“The programming that will go on that leads up to it will be so soccer-focused and we think that’s a benefit to us,” he continued. “Because the more discussion about soccer that is going on in the city, the more relevant it becomes as a sport and hopefully our teams become relevant as well.”

NRG Stadium would serve as the primary venue for World Cup games in Houston. The arena, with a capacity of 72,000, has hosted soccer friendlies featuring powerhouse European clubs FC Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Manchester City, and Manchester United.

The city made its initial pitch in 2017, and survived the first round of cuts the following year. All that was happening while the joint US/Mexico/Canada bid was still competing to be the host countries for the 2026 FIFA World Cup; they were officially named as hosts later in 2018. We got annual updates with not much in the way of actual news after that, and the most recent dispatch was last October. I sure hope we make it after all that. I plan to buy some tickets if we do.