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September 29th, 2022:

Judicial Q&A: Judge Gloria Lopez

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for Democratic judicial candidates. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to my readers. This year it’s mostly incumbents running for re-election, so it’s an opportunity to hear that talk about what they have accomplished. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. For more information about these and other Democratic candidates, including links to interviews and Q&As from the primary and runoff, see the Erik Manning spreadsheet.)

Judge Gloria Lopez

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

My name is Gloria López and I am the 308th Family District Court Judge in Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 308th Family District Court is one or ten Family District Courts in Harris County, Texas. It hears family law matters — divorces, child custody disputes, child support cases, child visitation determination, marital property divisions, parental terminations and adoption cases. This Court also handles issues involving Children’s Protective Services (CPS) cases, enforcements, modifications, and paternity cases.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

When I was elected, I restored integrity to the 308th Family District Court. Bias and impropriety were eliminated. Parties finally have an opportunity to have their case heard in a fair and just manner. Additionally, during this time, cases run smoother, the docket was streamlined and people get their day in court in a dependable and fair fashion. This was not the case prior to me taking this bench. I have restored efficiency, fairness, kindness, and energy to this court. I am running for re-election because public service is my passion and the issues handled in our overcrowded family courts are of prime importance to our community and our families.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I hope to maintain the level of transparency that I have brought to the 308th Family District Court and continue to improve participation rates from families is CPS cases. During Covid, the 308th Family District Court used technology to improve the experience of litigants, especially people who do not have attorneys. We leveraged technology not only to stay open, but also to improve participation rates and help users resolve disputes more efficiently. The boost in court appearances that followed the shift to virtual hearings is consistent with pre-pandemic assertions that reducing the day-to-day costs of coming to court—such as transportation, childcare, lost wages, and travel time—would increase people’s ability to meaningfully engage in court cases. Currently, the 308th Family District Court lives streams all hearings and trials. The increased transparency has restored trust in the judicial system and helped students, lawyers, and families learn about family law.

5. Why is this race important?

It is important to note that the family courts in Harris County are extremely busy. The cases must be presided over by a judge who understands the law and the complexities of the family issues faced in these courts each day. A family law judge must conduct herself honorably and be efficient. Justice is best served when it is handled efficiently and by a family law judge who is compassionate within the bounds of the law. These cases must be handled by someone who is going to work hard each and every day. These cases must be handled by someone dedicated to being a public servant to the constituents of Harris County and not a politician.

6. Why should people vote for you in November?

Representation matters. It is important for Harris County constituents to see people like themselves on the bench. People from marginalized communities tend to be discouraged by the judicial process. Seeing a person with experience and a similar background (as their own) helps restore faith and trust in the judicial system. Additionally, I am Board Certified in Family Law. I exclusively practiced family law prior to being elected in 2018. I have presented and published articles on family law issues/topics for the Texas Center for the Judiciary, the State Bar of Texas, the American Bar Association, the State Bar Office of Minority Affairs, the Houston Bar Association, the Mexican American Bar Association, the Muslim Bar Association, the South Asian Bar Association, and local organizations. I am experienced and dedicated to the practice of family law. I am also compassionate, measured, consistent, and fair. I took an oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution and laws of the United State of America and Texas. I do not take this oath lightly and will continue to execute my oath faithfully. I am seeking re-election to ensure that the constituents of Harris County have a Family Law Judge that executes the duties of this position with integrity and compassion. It is important to keep a Judge in the 308th that understands the law and uses her discretion in a way that helps all people feel safe and heard.

The hearing that Paxton was trying to flee from

It’s about whether the First Amendment rights of abortion funds have been abridged by threats of prosecution from people like Ken Paxton. You know, no big deal.

Leaders of Texas’ most prominent abortion funds on Tuesday implored a federal judge to give them clearance to resume providing assistance to people seeking abortions in states where the procedure is legal.

The funds filed the class-action suit in August seeking to block state and local prosecutors from suing them if they get back to work offering Texans funding and support for travel, lodging, meals and child care, among other expenses incurred while they obtain abortions. On Tuesday, they sought to temporarily block any potential prosecutions until the case is decided.

The groups halted abortion support operations in June after the Supreme Court issued its decision this summer overturning federal protections for the procedure. The decision also led clinics throughout the state to stop providing abortion services.

The legal battle carries immense implications for thousands of Texans seeking abortions, who will inevitably incur higher costs as they depend on other states due to Texas’ near-total abortion ban. Studies show the vast majority of pregnant people pursue abortion for financial reasons, and most who obtain abortions are low-income people of color.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, is named as a defendant in the suit, as well as a number of county and district attorneys who are responsible for enforcing the state’s abortion bans. Some local prosecutors in liberal-leaning counties have pledged not to prosecute, while others in redder counties have said they will.

The plaintiffs point to “myriad threats” of prosecution by the attorney general “and his associates,” including social media posts, statements and cease-and-desist letters sent by members of the hard-line conservative Texas Freedom Caucus to corporations.

Caucus member and Deer Park Republican state Rep. Briscoe Cain has also sent similar letters to Texas abortion funds, including plaintiff organizations, saying their donors, employees and volunteers are subject to prosecution under the pre-Roe statutes, according to the suit.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in July that the state’s pre-Roe statutes, which make it illegal to “(furnish) the means for procuring an abortion,” are enforceable.

The plaintiffs also cited an advisory issued by Paxton just hours after the Dobbs decision was announced that stated the pre-Roe statutes could be enforced by district and county attorneys immediately.

[…]

The abortion funds claim in their suit that charitable donations are a protected form of freedom of speech and association under the First Amendment, but the possibility of debilitating litigation has chilled their exercise of those rights. It has also, they argue, scared some donors out of giving freely to the group.

“Despite their strong desires and commitment to assisting their fellow Texans, Plaintiffs will be unable to safely return to their prior operations until it is made clear that Defendants have no authority to prosecute Plaintiffs or seek civil penalties from them for their constitutionally protected behavior,” they state in the suit.

See here for some background, and I’ll get back to this in a minute. The Trib adds some details.

They have asked U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman for a preliminary injunction that would stop Paxton from pursuing criminal charges or civil penalties against abortion funds. The state has countered that their fear of prosecution is “self-imposed,” as the attorney general cannot bring criminal charges and the law that allows him to bring civil penalties does not apply to abortion funds.

At the end of the seven-hour hearing Tuesday, Pitman noted that while attorneys for the state had repeatedly implied that the abortion funds had “nothing to worry about,” they had stopped short of saying so directly.

Pitman is expected to rule on the request for a preliminary injunction in the coming weeks but in the meantime is also considering a motion to require Paxton to testify himself. Before the hearing Tuesday, Pitman quashed a subpoena seeking the attorney general’s testimony, but lawyers for the plaintiffs have asked him to reconsider. Paxton fled his home Monday to avoid being served with the original subpoena.

The lawsuit also seeks clarity on whether a Texas-based abortion provider can perform abortions for Texans in other states where the procedure remains legal, or provide telehealth services from Texas to patients in other states.

On that question, the attorney for the state was even less definitive about whether the attorney general would try to enforce the civil penalties in the law, saying that situation was not amenable to a clear “up or down” answer but would have to be handled on a case-by-case basis.

[…]

But all of that changed when the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June, allowing states to set their own laws on abortion. Immediately, Paxton issued guidance that said prosecutors could “immediately pursue criminal prosecutions based on violations of Texas abortion prohibitions predating Roe that were never repealed by the Texas Legislature.”

“Under these pre-Roe statutes, abortion providers could be criminally liable for providing abortions starting today,” Paxton wrote.

But those pre-Roe statutes don’t criminalize just abortion providers — they also criminalize anyone who “furnishes the means” for an abortion, punishable by up to five years in prison.

Immediately, abortion funds in Texas stopped their operations, citing confusion over whether paying for abortions out of state constituted furnishing the means for an illegal abortion. As the leaders of several abortion funds testified to on Tuesday, they were particularly alarmed by Paxton’s statement that his office would “assist any local prosecutor who pursues criminal charges.”

Their fears were exacerbated, according to testimony, when a group of conservative lawmakers in the Texas House, including Cain, issued a letter to Sidley Austin, a prestigious law firm that had offered to pay for its Texas-based employees to travel out of state to get abortions. In the letter, the lawmakers threatened the law firm with criminal prosecution for their actions.

Based on these indications from Paxton and lawmakers, “we believed we would be prosecuted, to be frank,” Anna Rupani, the executive director of Fund Texas Choice said Tuesday.

This freeze on their work came with other consequences, according to Tuesday’s testimony. Several of the funds said they had lost donors or had to spend more time reassuring donors who were confused and worried. Some said they had lost staff or board members over fear of criminal prosecution.

Lawyers for the state, though, argued that this chilling effect was “self-imposed” and “unreasonable.” None of the people the abortion funds cited threats from — Cain, the other legislators or Paxton himself — have the ability to bring criminal charges against anyone.

Only district and county attorneys can bring criminal charges in Texas; the prosecutors named on this lawsuit have agreed not to press charges against abortion funds for paying for out-of-state abortions until the case is fully resolved.

Paxton, though, still has the ability to pursue civil cases and, in the case of Texas’ more recent abortion laws, is actually required to by state statute.

To me, the most salient fact of this case is this, and here I quote from my earlier post: “[I]n their amicus brief to a writ of mandamus that blocked a lower court order that would have enjoined the 1925 state law criminalizing abortion, 70 Republican legislators argued that criminal penalties should apply to people who help others get an abortion.” I Am Not A Lawyer, but it seems to me that a very credible threat of being thrown in jail for your political advocacy is a First Amendment issue. That said, I think we all know what will happen here: Judge Pitman will grant the restraining order, and the Fifth Circuit will block it for no good reason. And so back to SCOTUS we go, and I sure hope they enjoy being constantly dragged into every abortion fight that they said should have been a state issue. What happens from there, I have no idea.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Texas blog roundup for the week of September 26

The Texas Progressive Alliance stands with the people of Ukraine as it brings you this week’s roundup.

(more…)

The SPURS bills

I admit that I tipped my cap to this one.

What if it took an act of Congress to keep the Spurs in San Antonio?

With the team playing two games in Austin this season and Austin billionaire Michael Dell buying a 10 percent share of the team last year, U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales worries it might, even as the Spurs’ owners have sought to reassure fans and local officials that they have no plans to move.

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire — and there’s absolutely smoke,” the San Antonio Republican said.

“Look what happened to the Seattle SuperSonics,” Gonzales said of the now-Oklahoma City Thunder; or the San Diego Chargers or St. Louis Rams, both of which now call Los Angeles home.

“No one would ever imagine the Spurs would leave San Antonio, but what if they do?” Gonzales said. “Sometimes when we say it takes an act of Congress, sometimes we have to take that seriously.”

So Gonzales is filing legislation to stop any possible move up Interstate 35 for the Spurs, and to prevent other small market teams from ditching communities that have invested time, tears — and a whole lot of cash — in them.

His bill, The Strengthening Public Undertakings for Retaining Sports Act — or SPURS Act for short — would set up strict requirements for teams to relocate. A franchise would have to lose money for five years in a row, plus prove that its stadium is inadequate or that local governments are flouting its agreements with the team.

The legislation would require teams to give a year’s notice if they want to relocate, and it would allow local governments to veto the move. It would also force teams that do move to reimburse whatever financial assistance or incentives were provided to them, such as special tax incentives or arena financing. Local governments could sue teams for damages, as well.

[…]

The legislation comes after Spurs managing partner Peter J. Holt in May wrote an open letter to fans seeking to ease months of suspicion that the team might be eyeing a move. The Spurs are under a non-relocation agreement with Bexar County that runs through 2032, but county commissioners have agreed to a one-year pilot program allowing the team to play “home” games in Austin and Mexico City.

The team has said it’s all part of an effort to broaden the fan base as attendance has plummeted amid a franchise record three-year playoff drought.

“We will keep making memories, together, inside of Bexar County,” Holt wrote.

Gonzales said he believes Holt, but worries about future owners. Dell buying a share of the team could be the first step toward building an ownership more open to a move, he said.

Some background reading on this if it’s all new to you. I don’t know if this bill makes any sense legally or economically, but if you want to find a non-partisan issue to support that might draw you some crossover voters, it would be hard to top a pro-Spurs-in-San-Antonio bill for a guy who represents a lot of their fanbase. Whatever happens to this – I will bet you $1 right now that it doesn’t get a committee hearing in this Congress – it’s a brilliant piece of politics.