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14th Court of Appeals

SCOTx hears firefighter pay parity arguments

Lots at stake here.

More than four years after Houston voters approved a measure that would grant firefighters equal pay with police officers, the legal battle to decide the referendum’s fate landed Tuesday in the hands of the Supreme Court of Texas.

The state’s highest justices heard oral arguments regarding Proposition B, the charter amendment pushed by the firefighters’ union and approved by voters in 2018. It would grant firefighters pay parity with police officers of a similar rank and seniority.

Justices also heard arguments in a similar case that stems from the city and union’s preceding contract stalemate.

It did not take long for the justices to probe the city’s divergent arguments in the two cases, which the fire union long has said conflict each other. One justice told attorneys representing the city they were operating on “a knife’s edge” between the two cases.

The court’s rulings, which likely will not be released for months, could have drastic consequences for the city’s roughly 3,900 firefighters, the annual City Hall budget and next year’s city elections. If it rules in favor of the union, it would give underpaid firefighters their biggest salary hikes in years, while introducing a hole in the city budget likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

The long-running legal dispute has its roots in a contract stalemate dating back to 2017, when the latest pact between the city and firefighters expired. The two sides were unable to reach a new deal in negotiations and mediation, and they have been locked in contentious court battles since.

Voters approved Prop B, the pay parity measure, by a 59-to-41 margin in 2018, but the city and the police union have contested its legality. The city has not implemented the measure, although City Council has given firefighters 6 percent raises in each of the last two budgets, with a promise to do so again next year.

The Prop B case centers on whether equal pay with police would conflict with the existing framework to pay firefighters, enshrined in state law and adopted by Houston voters in 2003.

After voters approved Prop B, the city and police union argued its new standard, comparing pay to police officers, conflicts with the state standard that compares pay to the private sector. That would run afoul of the law’s preemption clause, they argued, and the Texas Constitution, which says cities cannot pass laws or charters that conflict with state law.

The city, however, has made an incompatible argument in the other case heard Tuesday, which was consolidated with the Prop B hearings before the Supreme Court. In that case, the city has argued there is no private comparison to firefighters. And it has contended that phrase of the state law is unconstitutional, along with the judicial mechanism to enforce it, which the firefighters have sought to use.

In the Prop B case, the city says the pay parity measure is blocked by the state law. In the other, it argues that state law is unconstitutional.

You can read on for the details. This is the consolidation of two different lawsuits. I suppose under other circumstances the city would have a bit more leeway to make these apparently divergent arguments. The law can be weird like that sometimes. If the firefighters win, it’s going to cost the city a lot of money, though the firefighters say it won’t be as much as the city claims. I hope we don’t have to find out. We’ll likely get a ruling sometime next year, and I’m sure all of the people now running for Mayor will be keeping a close eye on it.

Endorsement watch: Four from the appellate courts

The Chron knocks out its appellate court endorsements in one piece.

Justice Julie Countiss

1st Court of Appeals, Chief Justice: Julie Countiss

The current chief justice of the 1st Court of Appeals, who is stepping down, is Sherry Radack, a Republican who has served on the court since 2002. (Former Harris County Commissioner Steve Radack is her husband.)

Voters are choosing between qualified candidates from each major party as well as a seasoned independent vying to take on the role of administering the court. We believe Justice Julie Countiss, who serves on this court now, has the edge because Radack has begun showing her the ropes of being the court’s administrator.

Elected in 2018 as part of the Democratic sweep, Countiss, 51, has two more years left in her term. If she wins this election, the Texas governor would appoint a replacement for her current place on a court that currently has seven Democrats and two Republicans. Prior to becoming a justice, Countiss was a lawyer with the Harris County Attorney’s Office and focused on ridding the county of illicit, dangerous businesses. With four years appellate experience now, Countiss praised the collegial culture of the court under Radack’s leadership and said she seeks to continue it.

[…]

1st Court of Appeals, Place 4: April Farris

Justice April Farris, 37, was appointed to the 1st Court of Appeals by Abbott in 2021. A Republican, she graduated from Abilene Christian University and Harvard Law School, and clerked on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, known as one of the most conservative in the country, for Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod. As an appellate lawyer for a private firm she represented large companies including ExxonMobil and Uber. Farris then worked for the Texas Solicitor General’s Office representing the state. Her experience includes both civil and criminal cases. She is well-regarded on a court with seven Democrats, and her conservative background likely adds rigor to the court’s process.

Judge Mike Engelhart, 52, is a Democrat and has presided over the 151st Civil District Court in Harris County since 2008. He argues that the 1st Court of Appeals needs more justices with experience serving as a trial court judge. He was the civil administrative judge when Hurricane Harvey hit and helped the criminal-court judges when their building was damaged by the storm, managing the compromises and accommodations to host 23 additional courts.

[…]

14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Cheri Thomas

The Republican incumbent, Justice Kevin Jewell, said he is the first to arrive at the courthouse in the mornings. Not only does he move through his cases with efficiency, he credits his leadership with making the court as a whole more timely. He helped implement a policy change that rewards staff attorneys with bonuses based on productivity. When the district courts are struggling with a massive backlog of cases, we like to hear about hardworking judges and efficient dockets. Appeals courts, however, are more deliberative than the trial courts.

We are concerned that the 14th Court of Appeals is known for fractiousness, not collegiality. That’s in contrast to the 1st Court of Appeals where candidates and others familiar with it told us that justices get along well across party lines. Should that be important to voters? After all, wouldn’t lively debate make for a better court? Cases are initially heard by panels of three justices who attempt to come to a consensus. There are split votes, and sometimes a case is heard by all the justices. A good process involves both debate as well as consensus building.

The Democratic challenger, Cheri Thomas, 42, said she was the first in her family to attend college. In 2020, the board recommended Thomas in a primary runoff for Place 7 of this court for her “solid reputation among other lawyers” and the experience she had as staff attorney for this court of appeals. Thomas is an honors graduate of the University of Texas School of Law and a former clerk for U.S. District Judge Jorge Solis. She worked in civil litigation for Baker Botts and the Stuart law firm, where she became a partner. Thomas worked as an appellate attorney at the Texas Workforce Commission.

[…]

14th Court of Appeals, Place 9: Randy Wilson

The challenger in this race, Democrat William Demond, 45, earned an enthusiastic endorsement from the board during the primary earlier this year. As an attorney, he has helped establish constitutional rights twice in cases before the 5th Circuit. One of them established a right to film police officers. He’s been inducted in the Texas Lawyer’s Verdicts Hall of Fame. Demond was appointed by a federal judge to represent Harris County inmates in cases concerning their conditions of confinement during the COVID pandemic.

Justice Randy Wilson, 70, was appointed a state district civil court judge in Harris County in 2003 and served as a Republican for roughly 16 years. Wilson was highly respected. Despite our urging against straight-ticket voting in 2018, he was swept out with other Republican judges. Our feelings haven’t changed. Wilson is still a straight-shooter and knows the law and has the respect of the lawyers who argue before him. He was appointed to the 14th Court of Appeals by Abbott in December 2020.

I have Q&As with Julie Countiss, Mike Engelhart, and from the primaries Cheri Thomas; I also have one with Ted Wood. The Chron doesn’t have anything bad to say about any of the candidates, which won’t stop the usual complaints about partisan judicial elections if Democrats sweep (somehow, those same complaints weren’t coming up when Republicans were winning all these races). I personally see “clerked for Jennifer Elrod” as a huge red flag, since she was out there trying her best to overrule Roe v Wade before SCOTUS got around to it. The reason why the Fifth Circuit is viewed as “one of the most conservative courts” in the country (which is both a misstatement and an understatement, but is generally the formulation we get) is precisely because of radicals like Jennifer Elrod. That doesn’t mean that one of her former clerks can’t be a decent judge, but the burden of proof for that is very much on them. They get no benefit of the doubt from me.

All interviews and judicial Q&As with nominees so far

Back in February, right before the primary, I posted a list of all of the candidate interviews and judicial Q&As I had done. A couple more Q&A responses came in after that, and I did some further interviews for the primary runoffs, so that post is out of date and also now contains people who will not be on the November ballot. So with that in mind, here’s a full updated list as I prepare to bring you more of these for November. Enjoy!

Interviews

Duncan Klussman, CD38

Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner
Janet Dudding, Comptroller

Staci Childs, SBOE4

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15

Jolanda Jones, HD147

Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)

Judicial Q&As

Cheri Thomas, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Gemayel Haynes, 183rd Criminal District Court
Katherine Thomas, 184th Criminal District Court
Andrea Beall, 185th Criminal District Court
Beverly Armstrong, 208th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Dedra Davis, 270th Civil District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Judge Leah Shapiro, 313th Family District Court
Veronica Monique Nelson, 482nd Criminal District Court

Manpreet Monica Singh, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8

Steve Duble, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Dolores Lozano, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

As before, you can see a full list of my interviews and a whole lot more info about the Democratic candidates on the Erik Manning spreadsheet. Look for many more to come starting tomorrow.

Maybe this is finally the end of that zombie same sex employee lawsuit

I dream a dream.

The Texas Supreme Court has declined to consider a challenge aimed at preventing the city of Houston from offering benefits to employees’ same-sex spouses.

The ruling is the latest blow to two Houston residents’ prolonged fight against a policy they consider an illegal use of taxpayer dollars.

Plaintiffs Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks have waged a legal battle against the policy since 2013, when the city, then led by former Mayor Annise Parker, granted government benefits to municipal employees’ same-sex spouses. Parker was the city’s first openly gay mayor.

On Friday, the state Supreme Court declined to review the pair’s case against the city, which originated nine years ago and has failed to find footing even in the conservative-leaning Texas judiciary.

[…]

Of the pair’s decade-long campaign to overturn her administration’s policy, Parker said Tuesday she hoped the court’s decision would quash future challenges.

“I didn’t do it to make a point,” Parker said of the policy. “I did it to be fair to all married city employees. Marriage should be marriage. Equal should be equal.”

See here and here for the previous updates. These guys and their stooge lawyer Jared Woodfill have more than proven that they really really hate gay people, but surely even this kind of rabid bigotry has its limits. The bell has rung, the lights are out, the doors have closed, and Elvis has left the building. Go find a less destructive hobby, fellas. I’ve heard gardening is nice.

Initial post-election wrapup

Just a few updates and observations to add onto what I posted yesterday morning. Any deeper thoughts, if I have them, will come later.

– Cheri Thomas and William Demond won their races for the 14th Court of Appeals. I didn’t mention them yesterday, just too much to cover.

– Also didn’t mention any of the SBOE races, four of which are headed to runoffs on the Dems side, including SBOE4 in Harris County. Those were all open or (with SBOE11) Republican-held seats. The three incumbents were all winners in their races – Marisa Perez-Diaz (SBOE3) and Aicha Davis (SBOE13) were unopposed, while Rebecca Bell-Metereau (SBOE5) easily dispatched two challengers.

– All of the district court judges who were leading as of yesterday morning are still leading today.

– Harold Dutton also held on in HD142, but the final result was much closer once the Tuesday votes were counted. He ultimately prevailed with less than 51% of the vote.

– Cam Campbell took and held onto the lead in HD132 (he had trailed by four votes initially), defeating Chase West 52.8 to 47.2, about 300 votes.

– Titus Benton was still leading in SD17, though his lead shrunk from 484 in early voting to 275.

– I touched on this in the runoff roundup post, but the perception that Jessica Cisneros was leading Rep. Henry Cuellar was totally a function of the order in which the counties reported their results. I say this because if you click on the race details for the CD28 primary on the SOS election returns page, you see that Cuellar led by more than 1,500 votes in early voting; he stretched that to about a 2,400 vote lead in the end, though it was just barely not enough to get to 50%. But because Bexar County was first out of the gate and thus first to be picked up by the SOS, and Cisneros ran strongly there, it looked like she was about to blow him out. There are a couple of tweets from Tuesday night that did not age well because of that.

– Statewide, the Dem gubernatorial primary will be a bit short of 1.1 million votes, up a tiny bit from 2018, while the GOP primary for Governor is over 1.9 million votes, comfortably ahead of the 1.55 million from 2018. More Republicans overall turned out on Tuesday than Dems statewide. In Harris County, it looks like the turnout numbers were at 157K for Dems and 180K for Republicans, with about 43% of the vote in each case being cast on Tuesday. Dems were down about 10K votes from 2018, Rs up about 24K. In a year where Republicans are supposed to have the wind at their backs and certainly had a lot more money in the primaries, I’m not sure that’s so impressive. That said, March is not November. Don’t go drawing broad inferences from any of this.

– At the risk of violating my own warning, I will note that the CD15 primary, in a district that is now slightly lean R and with the overall GOP turnout advantage and clear evidence of more GOP primary participation in South Texas, the Dem candidates combined for 32,517 votes while the Republicans and their million-dollar candidate combined for 29,715 votes. Does that mean anything? Voting in one party’s primary, because that’s where one or more local races of interest to you are, doesn’t mean anything for November, as any number of Democratic lawyers with Republican voting histories from a decade or more ago can attest. Still, I feel like if there had been more votes cast in that Republican primary that someone would make a big deal out of it, so since that didn’t happen I am noting it for the record. Like I said, it may mean absolutely nothing, and November is still a long way away, but it is what happened so there you have it.

– In Fort Bend, County Judge KP George won his own primary with about the same 70% of the vote as Judge Hidalgo did here. Longtime County Commissioner Grady Prestage defeated two challengers but just barely cleared fifty percent to avoid a runoff. The other commissioner, first termer Ken DeMerchant, didn’t do nearly as well. He got just 14.3% of the vote, and will watch as Dexter McCoy and Neeta Sane will battle in May. I confess, I wasn’t paying close attention to this race and I don’t have an ear to the ground in Fort Bend, so I don’t know what was the cause of this shocking (to me, anyway) result. Sitting County Commissioners, even first timers, just don’t fare that poorly in elections. Community Impact suggests redistricting might not have done him any favors, but still. If you have some insight, please leave a comment.

– As was the case in Harris, a couple of incumbent judges in Fort Bend lost in their primaries. I don’t know any of the players there, and my overall opinion of our system of choosing judges hasn’t changed from the last tiresome time we had this conversation.

This came in later in the day, so I thought I’d add it at the end instead of shoehorning it into the beginning.

Harris County election officials are still counting ballots Wednesday morning for the Tuesday Primary Election. Despite the Texas Secretary of State John B. Scott saying officials will not finish counting ballots by the deadline, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria said she’s confident counting votes will be done.

“It’s going to take a couple of days to finish the entire process as we’ve always seen,” Longoria said. “I don’t have concerns about counting the election ballots for this election.”

[…]

Harris County Voting Director Beth Stevens said the paper ballot system slows down the process for both voters and election workers.

“We’re working with paper here, what we know is we have hundreds of thousands of ballots processed accurately and securely here in our central counting station and we’re working with 2.5 million registered voters,” Stevens said.

In addition to voter registration identification mishaps, and mail-in ballot rejections, Harris County election officials also said damaged ballots have become an issue in the counting process. According to Stevens, damaged ballots have to be duplicated before being scanned by electronic tabulators and counted in at the central polling location. Officials said this could take some time.

“There was a negative attempt to make Harris County look bad in this moment and it’s completely unnecessary because we are processing as appropriate,” Stevens said. “Voters can be sure that paper ballots and electronic media that go with that is the most safe and secure ballot in the country.”

And this.

More than 1,600 ballots in Harris County were not read properly by the county’s new voting machines because of human error, the elections administration office said, resulting in a slower tabulation process for Tuesday’s primaries.

The new system requires voters to take paper ballots with their selections from a voting machine and feed it into a counting machine. Voters did this incorrectly in some cases, said elections office spokeswoman Leah Shah, making the ballots unreadable. Instead, those ballots were re-scanned at the county’s election headquarters, an extra time-consuming step.

Shah said Harris County’s long primary ballot required voters to feed two sheets of paper instead of the usual one, increasing the chance of error if they are inserted the wrong way or inadvertently creased or wrinkled. The 1,629 incorrectly scanned ballots represent less than 1 percent of the nearly 500,000 primary ballots cast.

“These are margins of error that are already accounted for, built in to how we process the ballot,” Shah said. “But we also understand the importance of having the paper trail and having that extra layer of security and backup.”

Voter Sara Cress, who ran the county’s popular elections social media accounts in 2020, said the first page of her ballot became wrinkled in her hand as she filled out the second page. When she attempted to feed the scuffed sheet into the counting machine, it would not take.

“I tried it twice, and then two poll workers tried it over and over again, and it just was giving errors,” Cress said.

[…]

Shah said new requirements under SB1, the voting bill passed by the Legislature last year, placed additional strain on county elections staff. She said 30 percent of the 24,000 mail ballots received have been flagged for rejection because they fail to meet the law’s ID requirements.

Elections staff have been calling those voters, who mostly are over 65, to inform them of the March 7 deadline by which they must provide the correct information or their ballots will not be counted.

The issue with the printers is one reason why the new voting machines were rolled out last year, when they could be tested in a lower-turnout environment. Fewer initial disruptions, but perhaps not enough actual testing to work through all the problems. Going to need a lot more voter education, and more stress testing on those machines. The fiasco with the mail ballots, which is 100% on the Republicans, is putting a lot of pressure on the elections staff. None of this had to happen like this. I mean, if we’re going to talk voter education, not to mention training for county election workers, that was a complete failure on the state’s part. It’s easy to dump on the Secretary of State here, and they do deserve some blame, but they too were put in a no-win spot by the Republicans.

As far as the rest goes, the early voting totals were up at about 7:20 or so on Tuesday night. Initial results came in slowly, as you could tell from my posts yesterday, but almost all of the voting centers had reported by 1 PM yesterday. I do believe there will be some improvement with the printers before November. At least we have two more chances to work out the kinks before then, with the primary runoffs, the May special election, and possibly May special election runoffs. Here’s hoping.

Final roundup of interviews and judicial Q&As

Here they all are. As noted, I may return to some races for the runoff. For now, this is what we have. As a reminder, much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. Vote well.

Interviews

Duncan Klussman, CD38
Diana Martinez Alexander, CD38

Jinny Suh, Land Commissioner
Jay Kleberg, Land Commissioner

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15
Molly Cook, SD15

Aurelia Wagner, HD147
Danielle Bess, HD147
Jolanda Jones, HD147
Nam Subramanian, HD147
Reagan Flowers, HD147

Candis Houston, HD142
Chase West, HD132

Ben Chou, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Ann Williams, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Gina Calanni, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4

Dylan Osborne, Harris County Treasurer (Incumbent)
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)
Desiree Broadnax, Harris County District Clerk

Judicial Q&As

Kyle Carter, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2
Cheri Thomas, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Judge Chuck Silverman, 183rd Criminal District Court
Judge Abigail Anastasio, 184th Criminal District Court
Katherine Thomas, 184th Criminal District Court
Judge Jason Luong, 184th Criminal District Court
Andrea Beall, 185th Criminal District Court
Lema Barazi, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Scott Dollinger, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Greg Glass, 208th Criminal District Court
Kim McTorry, 208th Criminal District Court
Samuel Milledge, 228th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Judge Tristan Longino, 245th Family District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Amy Martin, 263rd Criminal District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Judge Barbara Stalder, 280th Family District Court
Judge Chip Wells, 312th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Paul Calzada, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Glenda Duru, 313th Family District Court
Judge Leah Shapiro, 313th Family District Court
Ieshia Champs, 315th Family District Court
Alycia Harvey, 482nd Criminal District Court
Veronica Monique Nelson, 482nd Criminal District Court

David Patronella, County Civil Court At Law #4
Manpreet Monica Singh, County Civil Court At Law #4
Treasea Treviño, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8
Judge David Singer, County Criminal Court At Law #14
Judge Michael Newman, County Probate Court #2

Chris Watson, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Steve Duble, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Ron Campana, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Blair McClure, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Dolores Lozano, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Herbert Alexander Sanchez, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Ashleigh Roberson, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

UPDATE: Naturally, I woke up this morning to see another set of Q&A responses in my inbox. They will run tomorrow.

Judicial Q&A: Cheri Thomas

(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.

Cheri Thomas

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

My name is Cheri Thomas. I am running to be the Democratic candidate for Justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, Place 2. I am a 17-year lawyer with significant appellate and litigation experience. My husband, Lewis Thomas, is a criminal defense attorney. Together, we have three amazing daughters and one fuzzy Samoyed.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals is an intermediate appellate court composed of nine justices who hear appeals and original proceedings. The Fourteenth Court has jurisdiction over both civil and criminal appeals from lower courts in ten counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running for this particular bench because I can make a positive impact in the position. I am committed to doing my part to make Texas a place our children are proud to call home, one that values equality, dignity, and compassion. I know what it takes to handle an appeal with fairness, respect, accuracy, and efficiency. I also love the work of the appellate court. I enjoy the study and analysis that goes into working on an appeal, and I am good at the work of the court. My career has focused on legal research and writing; this makes me particularly well-suited to become a Justice on the Fourteenth Court of Appeals as the court’s work is primarily research and writing.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have extensive civil appellate and trial experience. I practiced civil litigation at Baker Botts, LLP, working on a wide variety of civil trial matters, including contract, employment, securities, toxic tort, and personal injury matters in state and federal courts. I then joined Stuart PC, where I represented clients in civil litigation and appellate matters, in state and federal courts all over the country. In 2016, I became a Partner at Stuart PC. I have managed civil cases at all stages of litigation and appeal.

I also have experience working on criminal appeals. I worked as a staff attorney for the Fourteenth Court of Appeals—the same court for which I am now running, and in this role I worked on numerous criminal appeals in addition to civil appeals, reviewing the record, conducting legal research, and drafting recommendations on various legal matters for the court’s consideration. In 2019, when I initially decided to run for a position on the court, I left my attorney position on the court and joined my husband’s law firm so that I would have flexibility while campaigning. My practice now focuses on federal and state criminal appeals.

I also clerked for a federal judge. After graduating with honors from the University of Texas School of Law, I secured a federal clerkship working with the Honorable Jorge Solis of the
United States District Court for the Northern District of Texas, where I had the opportunity to work on numerous civil cases involving various subject matters.

5. Why is this race important?

The Fourteenth Court hears a wide variety of cases: criminal matters as well as family, probate, business, and other civil matters. The decisions this court makes may impact your livelihood, your home, your family, and your liberty. Except for death-penalty cases, all cases appealed from district and county courts in ten counties are considered by the First or Fourteenth Courts of Appeals. Intermediate appellate courts like the Fourteenth Court are often the last courts to review these appeals. The Fourteenth Court reviews practically every appeal that comes before it whereas Texas’s highest appellate courts, the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals, consider a limited number of appeals. This is important because it means the Fourteenth Court is often the last court to consider a case, and thus, the last opportunity for justice.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

Texans are entitled to qualified, fair, and impartial justices. If elected, I will serve honorably. I will work hard, make well-reasoned decisions, and I will treat everyone with fairness and respect.

My education and experience have given me the skills I will need to be an excellent Justice: good judgment and the ability to perform rigorous, meticulous legal analysis. Despite being the first member of my family to graduate from college and attend law school, I graduated with honors from a top-ranked law school. I worked as an associate at a leading international law firm and made partner at boutique law firm. In addition, as a former staff attorney, I have a thorough understanding of the responsibilities of a justice, and I will be able to get to work on my very first day on the job. I was named a “Rising Star” by the Texas Super Lawyers magazine five times, and in 2019, I was elected as a Fellow to the Texas Bar Foundation.

In addition, I understand that the court affects real people and real families. I am one of eleven children in a blended family. We have had our own unique set of struggles, and we have experienced struggles that most everyone has experienced: divorce, cancer, death. Voters can count on me to care.

Endorsement watch: Finally, some judicial races

There are so many contested judicial races on the primary ballot, but we’re just now starting to get some judicial race endorsements from the Chronicle. Let’s being this roundup with three criminal district court races, in which the Chron went with the incumbents. First up, Judge Chuck Silverman in the 183rd.

Judge Chuck Silverman

When Chuck Silverman ran for the 183rd Criminal District Court in 2018, his main flaw as a candidate was his lack of criminal law experience. Now, Silverman has three years on the criminal bench under his belt, and while there are still areas where Silverman can improve, we recommend Democratic primary voters give him a chance to defend his seat this fall.

One of the chief criticisms leveled at Silverman, 61, is his relatively high pre-trial detention rate among district court judges. With the Harris County Jail already overcrowded, it’s critical that judges aren’t just locking up indigent defendants without cause. But in Silverman’s case, we believe the numbers don’t tell the whole story. He has built a reputation as a reformer and in 2020, filed a motion to join the historic lawsuit challenging cash bail in the felony court system, saying he wanted “to make the cash bail system obsolete or to make it work better.” We believe he is sincere in his desire for a fairer bond system and that his pre-trial detention figures require greater context.

“Individuals are entitled constitutionally to bail, and they’re given bail, but then the question becomes, what happens when those individuals violate the bond conditions? People are taken back into custody, and then my numbers may go up,” Silverman told the editorial board.

My Q&A with Judge Silverman is here. I did not receive responses from his opponent, Gemayel Haynes.

Next, Judge Abigail Anastasio in the 184th.

Judge Abigail Anastasio

Four years ago, we thought Abigail Anastasio was a qualified, enthusiastic, yet inexperienced candidate for the bench. Now, with three years as a district judge under her belt and a reputation for running an efficient, balanced courtroom, Anastasio has more than earned the chance to defend her seat in the general election.

A former high school teacher, defense attorney and prosecutor, Anastasio, 41, has proved to be a quick study as a judge.

At a time when the case backlog in Harris County remains stubbornly high, Anastasio consistently maintains one of the county’s lowest dockets. Her 101 percent clearance rate for the past year is third-highest of any district court judge and she also has a remarkably high trial rate, even with the COVID-19 pandemic grinding many court proceedings to a halt. She’s accomplished this in part by implementing a scheduling order issuing deadlines for attorneys to meet over the life of a case. Perhaps most impressively, Anastasio has managed to both maintain a low pretrial detention rate and the third-lowest bond population of any district court, proving that efficiency and public safety aren’t mutually exclusive.

Anastasio sets high expectations for how her courtroom should operate, which has won her the respect of both prosecutors and defense attorneys.

My Q&A with Judge Anastasio is here. I will have a Q&A with her opponent, Katherine Thomas, on Monday.

And then there’s Judge Jason Luong in the 185th.

Judge Jason Luong

Jason Luong has faced unprecedented challenges in his first term as judge, juggling myriad duties amid the backdrop of a global pandemic, while maintaining a reputation as a fair jurist. Voters should give him an opportunity to return to the bench.

Luong, 47, a former prosecutor and civil lawyer, didn’t even have a courtroom when he first began presiding over the 185th District Court due to the extensive damage at the Harris County Criminal Justice Center from Hurricane Harvey. Months after the building finally opened back up in 2019, the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily shut down the court system. Luong was part of the group that established the jury selection system at NRG Stadium, allowing courts to resume operating.

Even with those obstacles, Luong still managed to preside over the county’s Felony Veterans Treatment Court, chair the felony district courts’ Bail Bond Committee, and keep his docket relatively efficient, with a stellar 101 percent clearance rate over the past three months. However, we’d like to see Luong preside over more trials, as he’s only held 10 in three years.

I did not receive Q&A responses from Judge Luong for this election. I did get responses from him in 2018, which you can see here. He has two opponents, Andrea Beall and Kate Ferrell, and I received responses from Beall that you can see here.

There are two races among the five they focused on that only feature Democratic challengers. First we have William Demond for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 9.

William Demond

We recommend William Demond, a Houston constitutional rights attorney, as the best choice for the March 1 Democratic primary for Place 9 on the 14th Court of Appeals. The winner will face Justice Randy Wilson in the fall.

The Texas Courts of Appeals serve as the kitchen sink of the judiciary. When lawyers think something went wrong at the trial level, it falls on the appellate justices to set the legal record straight and ensure that the law is applied properly.

Demond, 44, has the breadth of experience that would fit this court perfectly. He has a background in civil litigation, covering everything from breach of contract cases to administrative law. Not many attorneys can say their case work has helped establish constitutional rights. Demond has done it twice in cases before the Fifth Circuit Court, including the right to film police officers. Recently, he was appointed to represent Harris County inmates in a case concerning their constitutional rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He’s already established relationships with some of the sitting justices on the court of appeals and believes he’d be able to fit in seamlessly with an ideologically diverse panel. Demond also assured us he wouldn’t take an activist approach as a judge.

Demond was a candidate for the Court of Criminal Appeals in 2020. I don’t have Q&A responses from him or his opponent Chris Conrad.

Finally, there’s Kyle Carter for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2.

Kyle Carter

After 13 years as a civil district court judge in Harris County, Judge Kyle Carter, 45, tells us he’s ready for a new job. “I am asking voters for a promotion,” he said.

We think he’s earned Democrats’ vote in the March 1 primary for Place 2 on the 14th District Court of Appeals in Harris County. The winner will face Justice Kevin Jewell in the fall.

Carter’s Democratic opponent, Cheri Thomas, 43, is a lawyer with an impressive background. She’s worked as a defense attorney focusing on criminal appeals, and for two years was a staff attorney at the 14th District Court of Appeals. She says she made presentations to the justices there in nine cases, and has more recently argued before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in a still-pending case. On Thursday, she was endorsed by the Houston Association of Women Attorneys.

That laudable background doesn’t match the experience Carter has gained on the bench. Thomas told us that Carter’s experience as a trial judge doesn’t necessarily prepare him for the more cerebral role appellate justices must play. While it’s true that a justice’s effectiveness greatly depends on legal knowledge, reasoning and writing skills, there are few better ways to prepare for a role in shaping and interpreting the law than 13 years of having to implement them daily.

Carter as noted has been the judge of the 125th Civil District Court since 2009; we was elected in the first Democratic wave of 2008, and has won re-election three times since then. I received Q&A responses from him for this race, and they are here. Cheri Thomas was a candidate for this court in 2020, and I will have Q&A responses from her on Wednesday.

Those of you who have more direct experience with these judges and attorneys, please feel free to leave a comment.

Interviews and judicial Q&As through February 4

Updating from last week. This is to put all of the interviews and judicial Q&As in a single post for your convenience, in case you missed something. This past week was CD38 plus Candis Houston in HD142 and Chase West in HD132. Next up, for the final week of interviews, will be two Land Commissioner candidates, Jinny Suh and Jay Kleberg. After that, I still have several Q&As and will run them till I run out. As noted before, I will likely do some more interviews for the runoffs.

Here’s the interview list so far, followed by the judicial Q&As. As a reminder, much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. Thanks to CityCast Houston for the recent shoutout in the newsletter and on the podcast. Let me know if you have any questions.

Interviews

Aurelia Wagner, HD147
Danielle Bess, HD147
Jolanda Jones, HD147
Nam Subramanian, HD147
Reagan Flowers, HD147

Ben Chou, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Ann Williams, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Gina Calanni, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Lesley Briones, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4
Clarence Miller, Harris County Commissioners Court Precinct 4

Dylan Osborne, Harris County Treasurer (Incumbent)
Carla Wyatt, Harris County Treasurer
Marilyn Burgess, Harris County District Clerk (Incumbent)
Desiree Broadnax, Harris County District Clerk

Sen. John Whitmire, SD15
Molly Cook, SD15

Duncan Klussman, CD38
Diana Martinez Alexander, CD38

Candis Houston, HD142
Chase West, HD132

Judicial Q&As

Kyle Carter, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2

Judge Chuck Silverman, 183rd Criminal District Court
Judge Abigail Anastasio, 184th Criminal District Court
Lema Barazi, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Scott Dollinger, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Greg Glass, 208th Criminal District Court
Samuel Milledge, 228th Criminal District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Judge Tristan Longino, 245th Family District Court
Angela Lancelin, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Dianne Curvey, 280th Family District Court
Judge Barbara Stalder, 280th Family District Court
Judge Chip Wells, 312th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court
Glenda Duru, 313th Family District Court
Alycia Harvey, 482nd Criminal District Court

David Patronella, County Civil Court At Law #4
Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Erika Ramirez, County Criminal Court At Law #8
Judge David Singer, County Criminal Court At Law #14
Judge Michael Newman, County Probate Court #2

Chris Watson, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2
Blair McClure, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 2 Place 2
Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Herbert Alexander Sanchez, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Ashleigh Roberson, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

Judicial Q&A: Judge Kyle Carter

(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.

Judge Kyle Carter

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

I am Judge Kyle Carter, a life-long Democrat and native Houstonian who has served as a District Judge in Harris County for the past 13 years. I am a married father of three, and I wake up every day excited to make a positive difference in the lives of others. I am asking for your vote for the 14th Court of Appeals, Place 2.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Fourteenth Court of Appeals was created in 1967. The Court is composed of a Chief Justice and eight (8) justices. It has intermediate appellate jurisdiction of both civil and criminal cases appealed from lower courts in ten (10) counties of Texas (see below); in civil cases where judgment rendered exceeds $250, exclusive of costs, and other civil proceedings as provided by law; and in criminal cases except in post-conviction writs of habeas corpus and where the death penalty has been imposed. Counties served: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have been a District Judge for 13 years, and am running for this position to continue making a positive difference in the lives of all Texans and serving them through the law. During my time on the bench, I have seen first-hand the need for experienced and qualified justices on the Courts of Appeals. The decision of just one appellate justice has the potential to affect millions of lives. I want to be there making those decisions, and in so doing, improve the lives of all Texans.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have served as judge of the 125th District Court for the past 13 years. I am board certified in Civil Trial Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. I have won awards for my work both on the bench and in the community. Recently I received the South Texas College of Law Public Service Award, as well as the Outstanding Judicial Leadership Award from the Texas Association of District Judges. I have twice been unanimously elected to serve as President of the Texas Association of District Judges. Prior to serving on the bench, I was an associate at the Carter Law Firm. Additionally, I served as general counsel to the Texas House Committee on General Investigations and Ethics as well as the House Committee on Urban Affairs.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is extremely important because appellate justices make decisions that affect millions of people's lives. It is vitally important to have justices who understand the trial process and have served as trial judges. Trial judges understand what has taken place at the trial court level and that the court record is more than just words on a page. The appellate courts are policy courts whose decisions have wide ranging influence on how trials are conducted and the law is applied.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

People should vote for me in the March Primary because I will continue making a positive difference in the lives of all Texans. I am a life-long Democrat and am the most qualified and experienced person in this race. I am an award-winning, board-certified trial judge who has the experience, the record, and the resources to win this race in November. Over the past 13 years I have demonstrated that I am a highly skilled judge who treats everyone who comes before me with equality, dignity, and respect. Additionally, I have a passion for serving those in need in our community. I have created two charitable organizations, Judges at Work in Schools and Judges Out in Neighborhoods and will continue my community work while serving on the Court of Appeals. Vote for better access, better equality, and better justice for a better Texas; vote for Judge Kyle Carter for the 14th Court of Appeals Place 2.

Filing update: How many contested judicial primaries are there? (Part one)

Pretty much all of the updates I’ve given about who has filed for what have been for legislative or executive offices. These are the highest-profile races, and they’re also easier to keep track of. But as we know, there are a crapton of judicial races on the ballot in Harris County, and as has been the case in recent cycles, there will be a lot of competition for them. Since Dems swept the judicial races in 2018, that means (with a couple of limited exceptions) challenges to incumbents.

I’ve gone through the list of judicial races for Harris County, and these are the contested ones that I can find. I’ll post the state court races here, and will do a separate post for the county and JP courts. Strap in, we have a long ride ahead of us.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 2: Kyle Carter and Cheri Thomas. Carter is the incumbent judge for the 125th Civil District Court. Thomas was a candidate for a different 14th Court of Appeals position in 2020, but lost in the primary runoff.

14th Court of Appeals, Place 9: Chris Conrad and William Demond. Demond was a candidate for Court of Criminal Appeals in the 2020 primary. I can’t find anything about Conrad.

183rd Criminal District Court: Gemayel Haynes and incumbent Judge Chuck Silverman.

184th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Abigail Anastasio and Katherine Thomas.

185th Criminal District Court: Andrea Beall, Kate Ferrell, and incumbent Judge Jason Luong.

189th Civil District Court: Lema Barazi, Tami Craft, and incumbent Judge Scott Dollinger. Craft ran for 14th Court of Appeals in 2020, losing in the general election. Her webpage still references that campaign.

228th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Frank Aguilar and Sam Milledge.

230th Criminal District Court: Incumbent Chris Morton and Joseph Sanchez.

245th Family District Court: Angela Lancelin and incumbent Judge Tristan Longino.

248th Criminal District Court: Linda Mazzagatti and incumbent Judge Hilary Unger.

263rd Criminal District Court: Incumbent Judge Amy Martin and Melissa Morris. Morris ran against Sen. Borris Miles in the 2020 primary for SD13, and was endorsed by the Chron in that race.

270th Civil District Court: Denise Brown and incumbent Judge Dedra Davis.

280th Family District Court: Dianne Curvey and incumbent Judge Barbara Stalder. Curvey has been a candidate for judge before, more than once, and as her website notes she is also known as Damiane Banieh.

312th Family District Court: Paul Calzada, Teresa Waldrop, and incumbent Judge Chip Wells.

313th Juvenile District Court: Glenda Duru and incumbent Judge Natalia Oakes.

315th Juvenile District Court: Ieshia Champs and incumbent Judge Leah Shapiro.

482nd Criminal District Court: Sherlene Cruz, Alycia Harvey, and Veronica Nelson. This is a new court, created by the Lege this past session. The incumbent judge, Judge Maritza Antu, was appointed by Greg Abbott.

That’s the end of part one. In part two, I’ll look at the county and Justice of the Peace courts, which also have a ton of contested races. Please note that if you don’t see a court in this post and you know that it’s on the ballot, it means that the incumbent is unopposed in their primary. There are a couple of unopposed challengers running for Republican-held appellate court benches as well. If I didn’t link to a campaign webpage or Facebook page, I couldn’t find one with a basic Google search. I mentioned the past candidacies of the challengers that I know ran for something in the past; if I missed anything, it was an oversight. Look for the next post tomorrow or the following day, depending on how long it takes me to put it together. And as always, let me know what you think.

Hotze’s first attempt at defending himself in the Lopez/Aguirre lawsuit fails

There’s a long way to go on this, but at least for now the courts aren’t having any of Steven Hotze’s bullshit.

A petition for mandamus was denied by the 14th Court of Appeals today – an appeal brought by Dr. Steven Hotze, who claims a lawsuit against him is nothing but a “political sword” aimed at assisting the Democrats going into the 2022 election.

The appeal, which sought to set aside an order compelling requests for production, stems from a lawsuit brought by David Lopez earlier this year.

Lopez sued Hotze and his nonprofit entity, Liberty Center for God and Country, alleging they wrongly targeted him as a key figure in their “bizarre and unfounded claims of massive voter fraud.”

[…]

In his petition for writ of mandamus, Hotze questioned whether the trial court abused its discretion by ordering him to produce documents controlled by Liberty Center.

Hotze, a Republican activist, asserts Lopez is represented by two highly partisan Democratic election lawyers, Scott Brazil and Dickey Grigg, and that it “is clear that Lopez and his counsel are using this lawsuit as a political sword, and through irrelevant and harassing discovery request are attempting to acquire documents intended to promote and assist their political agenda going into the 2022 election in an effort to assist Democratic candidates.”

The 14th Court found that Hotze has not established that he is entitled to mandamus relief, denying his petition for writ of mandamus.

See here for the last entry I have in this saga; the lawsuit in question was filed in March. You can see the writ, which had been filed on October 15, here, and the brief denial by a panel that included one Republican and two Democrats here; it was filed on October 28. The gist of the writ is that Hotze “in his individual capacity” says he shouldn’t have to produce documents from the company that he founded and is president of, and that the plaintiffs’ lawyers are a couple of meanies and Democrats and this whole thing is just not fair. I will just note that Hotze’s attorney is of course the highly partisan former Chair of the Harris County Republican Party, and that the Court’s response to his writ was basically “um, no”. I wish they had written something longer and more detailed, but honestly the brevity of it makes it all the more fun. Enjoy this little tasty tidbit of schadenfreude, you’ve earned it.

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

City appeals firefighter collective bargaining case to Supreme Court

Here we go.

The city of Houston on Monday asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on a recent appellate court ruling that rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law governing how firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits.

The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which claims Turner’s administration did not negotiate in good faith during failed contract talks between the city and fire union that year.

As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers without firmer guidelines for doing so.

In an appeal filed Monday, attorneys representing the city asked Texas’ highest civil court to reverse a ruling last month by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, in which a panel of justices found the provision challenged by the city does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers clause, which prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

Under state law, public employers must provide firefighters and police officers with “compensation and other conditions of employment” that are “substantially the same” as those of “comparable private sector employment.”

In the Supreme Court filing, the city contended that provision does not provide specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighter pay, an argument that was rejected by the appeals court in May. Still, city attorneys wrote in the latest filing that the law governing police and firefighter compensation has “existed under a legal cloud with respect to the unconstitutional delegation of legislative power accomplished by this judicial enforcement mechanism.”

See here and here for the background. This is too technical for me to have an opinion about the merits, but as I said before it would not have bothered me if the city had accepted the ruling and gone ahead with the judge setting the firefighters’ pay. I recognize that the downside risk of this for the city is getting a number they would not like, and if nothing else the appeal buys them some time. We’ll see how long it takes SCOTX to handle this.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, firefighters are collecting signatures for a charter amendment that would make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration. Union officials say they are aiming to place the measure on this year’s November ballot.

Insert your favorite GIF of someone shrugging their shoulders here.

Firefighters score a win in court

I confess, I had forgotten about this.

A panel of appellate court judges on Thursday rejected the city’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law that governs how police and firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits, dealing a blow to Mayor Sylvester Turner in his long-running dispute with the Houston fire union.

Barring a city appeal, the ruling clears the way for a judge to set Houston firefighters’ pay for up to a year and compensate them for “past losses.”

Firefighters have received raises of just 3 percent since 2011, after rejecting offers they say included too many concessions. Voters in 2018 approved a ballot measure granting firefighters pay “parity” to police of similar rank and seniority, but a district judge ruled the measure unconstitutional.

Thursday’s ruling came in a case that arose in June 2017 after Turner and the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association failed to agree on a new contract through collective bargaining.

The union sued the city, claiming Turner’s administration failed to negotiate in good faith. As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers.

Justices Ken Wise, Charles A. Spain and Meagan Hassan of Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals sided against the city, ruling the provision does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution separation of powers clause that prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

The justices also rejected the city’s argument that state lawmakers did not set specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighters’ compensation. Texas law requires public employers to give firefighters pay that is “substantially equal” to “comparable employment in the private sector.”

“The Legislature chose sufficiently detailed but not too confining language to account for the many different circumstances affecting compensation and other conditions of employment,” the justices wrote in their opinion, in which they also ordered the city to cover the fire union’s legal fees.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. In the story, the city said it hadn’t decided whether or not to appeal this ruling. It would be fine by me if the next step were for the city and the firefighters to try the bargaining table again. Or I guess they could roll the dice and let a judge decide the firefighters’ salaries, as they had tried to make happen. Who knows how that might turn out?

Zombie same sex employee lawsuit denied again

Shuffling along like the undead flesh eater that it is.

A Texas appellate court struck a challenge Thursday to Houston’s policy giving same-sex spouses of city employees the same benefits as different-sex spouses, saying that the city was immune from the case and that three major U.S. Supreme Courtrulings barred the claims.

A split Fourteenth Court of Appeals panel affirmed a state trial court’s February 2019 ruling against Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, who challenged the benefits policy in an October 2014 suit.

“Because appellants’ attempt to prevent the city from offering employment benefits to married same-sex couples on the same terms and conditions as married different-sex couples cannot be reconciled with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, we reject it,” Justice Margaret Poissant said in an opinion for the panel.

Mayor Sylvester Turner is not liable for the plaintiffs’ ultra vires claim, a claim used to target government officials for acting beyond their authority, because the 2013 directive issued by his predecessor was discretionary, the panel found.

The plaintiffs had even conceded that point when they argued the mayor and other officials spurned state marriage law “because it conflicts with their personal beliefs of what the U.S. Constitution or federal law requires,” the panel noted.

Further, Houston didn’t waive the immunity it typically has in ultra vires claims, according to the opinion. For a city to be a party to such a suit, the case must challenge a statute or ordinance, but the plaintiffs instead alleged violations of state law.

The plaintiffs also failed to establish that the directive was made without legal authority, according to the opinion.

Justice Poissant said the plaintiffs were wrongly trying to relitigate the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges , which legalized same-sex marriage and made the Texas state laws at issue unconstitutional.

The panel also cited the high court’s 2017 ruling in Pavan v. Smith , which allowed same-sex parents the right to be listed on their children’s birth certificates, and its 2019 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County , which protected transgender individuals from discrimination.

The panel further denied the plaintiffs’ request for an injunction barring the city policy, saying their claim that the city used their tax dollars to “subsidize homosexual relationship,” which they believe is “immoral and sinful,” didn’t demonstrate imminent harm.

Justice Randy Wilson penned a partial dissent, saying the rest of the panel took the issue too far.

The trial court, Wilson said, had “paradoxically” dismissed the claims for lack of jurisdiction while essentially granting summary judgment on the merits. The appellate court should have addressed only the former and simply vacated the latter, he said.

See here for the previous update, and for the case information, including the opinion and concurrence and dissent from Justice Wilson. The original lawsuit was filed in 2013, for those keeping score at home. How much do you have to hate gay people to continue to pursue this eight years later? Jared Woodfill is their lawyer, if that helps you answer that question. Let us hope there is no further news to note on this.

Appellate court redistricting bill withdrawn

I had a post all ready to go yesterday with more on the bill to redistrict the appellate courts, and then this happened on Thursday night:

This is not the end of it – there will be at least one special session on legislative redistricting, after all – but whatever does happen, it won’t be in this session. So the post that I had queued up for Friday morning became out of date, and so here we are. The original post is beneath the fold because it’s still worth reading, so click on for more. Whatever made this delay happen, I’m glad for it. Hopefully we will get a better bill out of this in the end, but we can’t take that for granted. The Chron story from Friday about this is here.

(more…)

Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

If that’s the Legislature’s goal, then this would be an effective way of accomplishing it.

A Texas Senate committee [heard] public comment Thursday on a controversial proposal to consolidate the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts into just seven, a move opponents have criticized as gerrymandering but that supporters say will make the courts more efficient and cure knotty court splits.

A committee substitute to S.B. 11 proposes dramatic changes to the organization of the state’s appellate districts: It would combine Houston’s two appellate courts, merge the Dallas and Austin districts together, lasso Waco and Eastland into a division with Texarkana and Fort Worth, and move two San Antonio justices to Midland in a district that would span roughly 500 miles — from Kendall County just southwest of Austin to the state’s western edge and include El Paso — among other changes.

The state’s current number and location of appellate courts largely reflects the state’s demographics, economy and travel conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Scott Brister wrote in a 2003 Houston Bar Association article.

Brister, who formerly served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and chief justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, told Law360 the districts need to be updated and consolidated.

“I just think 14 is too many,” he said. “They’re not located where all the people and the cases are.”

Yet opponents of the consolidation plan say it is blatant gerrymandering, and the worst instance of it they’ve seen in the Texas judiciary.

Elsa Alcala, a former justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, took to Twitter to call out the plan, writing “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with electing Republicans to the bench.”

Since the 2018 general election, a wave of Democratic justices have ousted Republican from Texas appellate benches in record numbers, largely concentrated in urban population centers.

Alcala told Law360 that in the past the Legislature has changed jurisdictions one county at a time, but lawmakers have never proposed completely eradicating certain appellate courts like the proposed committee substitute bill does.

“This is the most significant and blatant change I’ve ever seen,” she said.

S.B. 11 originally called for a realignment of five counties that are currently under the jurisdiction of two appellate courts outside of the Houston district to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction between multiple courts.

Details for the new bill were leaked and spread on social media Tuesday, but the bill’s text [hadn’t] yet been made public. Law360 has reviewed a map detailing the new appellate districts as well as a bill summary and a table explaining how the 80 Texas justices would be distributed among the new districts.

According to the bill summary, consolidating the appellate districts would balance a “highly unbalanced” workload across the courts, an issue the Texas judiciary has dealt with for years through a docket equalization program that transfers cases when needed. The summary cites workload data showing that, between 2015 and 2019, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso received an average of 79 appeals per justice compared to 158 appeals per justice in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

[…]

During her time on the First Court of Appeals, which has nine justices, Alcala said she would frequently review opinions handed down by her colleagues to make sure she didn’t have any qualms about their rulings. But on a court with 21 justices, it would be impossible to review all those decisions, she said.

Lawyers are also concerned that larger benches could cause issues at the ballot box.

Alcala said there’s already an issue with the public being able to make informed choices during elections about the various judges on the ballot. Expanding the court’s jurisdictions would mean more judges for the public to inform themselves about before voting.

Brister acknowledged that under the committee’s substitute, voting would look different. He would be concerned if he were a judge in Texarkana on the state’s eastern border with Arkansas, for example, because under the new district alignment, there’s a good chance voters from the more populous Fort Worth would control outcomes in the district and knock some small-town judges off the bench.

Christopher Kratovil, managing partner of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Dallas office, told Law360 he can see both sides of the consolidation argument but believes the committee’s substitute isn’t the proper way to redistrict the state.

“I do think there are some good-faith efficiency arguments for reducing the number of intermediate appellate courts in the state,” he said. “That said, this is not based on efficiency. If we’re being honest about this, it is a partisan gerrymandered map to return control of the majority of the state intermediate appellate courts to the Republican party.”

Other attorneys, like solo appellate practitioner Chad Ruback, are upset that information about the committee substitute bill hasn’t been released ahead of Thursday’s public hearing. The original version of S.B. 11 is currently attached to agenda materials for the meeting.

“That doesn’t give the appellate judiciary — or appellate lawyers who regularly practice in front of them — much time to analyze the potential ramifications of the proposed changes in advance of the hearing,” he said. “That looks awfully suspicious.”

See here for the background. Not being transparent about the process or giving anyone the time to review the bill in question is on brand for the Republicans. To give you a sense of what this looks like, here’s a picture from the story:

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

Maybe the new Fifth Circuit, with Dallas and Travis Counties, or the Third, with Bexar County and South Texas, would lean Democratic. I’d have to do a more in depth analysis. Katie Buehler, the reporter of the story linked above, attended the hearing and reported that Sen. Nathan Johnson said it would be a 5-2 split. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that someone with strong Republican credentials has already done such an analysis, and these districts are drawn in a maximally beneficial way for Republicans. What would even be the point from their perspective if that wasn’t the case?

You’ve read many bloviations from me over the years about why calls to change the way we select judges from the current system of partisan elections to something else were mostly a smokescreen to disguise complaints about the fact that Democrats were now winning many of those elections. It has never escaped my notice that we only began seeing those calls for change after the 2008 election, when Dems broke through in Harris County, and it moved to DefCon 1 following the 2018 election. If nothing else, I thank Sen. Joan Huffman for putting the lie to the idea that the motivating factor behind those calls for change was a fairer or more equitable or more merit-based system for picking judges, or that “taking politics out of the system” had anything to do with it. No, it is exactly what I thought it was from the beginning, a means to ensure that as many judges are Republican as possible. There may well be legitimate merits to rethinking the appellate court system in Texas – I’m not an appellate lawyer, I have no idea – but it’s crystal clear that this ain’t it. This is a full employment program for Republicans who want to be judges. That’s what we’ll get if this bill passes.

Which it has now done from the Senate committee, on a partisan 3-2 vote. For a report from the committee hearing, where multiple appellate court justices from both parties testified against SB11, see Law360 and The Texas Lawbook. This is easily the biggest redistricting matter going on right now it’s getting very little attention so far. (The DMN has a story, but it’s subscriber-only, which limits the impact.) Let’s not let this slip through without being noticed.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story as well, and it contains this knee-slapper:

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also an attorney, asked Huffman if she took partisanship into consideration when making the maps.

“Some people think this is going to result in five Republican courts and two Democratic courts,” Johnson said. “Do you think that would accurately represent the partisan breakdown of this state?”

Huffman said she did not consider political makeup in drawing the maps and didn’t know how her plan might alter that.

Yeah, that’s obvious bullshit. Anyone with a list of counties per appellate district and access to recent state election results could tell you in five minutes what the likely orientation of each district would look like. Joan Huffman isn’t stupid, but if that’s what she claims then she thinks the rest of us are.

One more thing:

Another bill introduced by Huffman would create a statewide Court of Appeals that would have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases of statewide significance filed by or against state agencies or officials. The justices on the court, seated in Austin, would be elected on a statewide ballot. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

That bill was met with similar opposition and accusations of partisan motivation. It, too, was referred to the full Senate on a 3-2 party line vote.

This appears to be SB1529, and I heard about it yesterday for the first time. I have no idea what problem (real, imagined, or political) this is intended to solve. Any thoughts from the lawyers out there?

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1

This post is going to focus on the judicial races in Fort Bend County. There are a lot of them – seven statewide, four appellate, five district and county – and I don’t want to split them into multiple posts because there’s not enough to say about them, nor do I want to present you with a wall of numbers that will make your eyes glaze over. So, I’m going to do a bit of analysis up top, then put all the number beneath the fold for those who want a closer look or to fact-check me. I’ll have one more post about the Fort Bend county races, and then maybe I’ll take a crack at Brazoria County, which will be even more manual labor than these posts were.

The point of interest at the statewide level is in the vote differentials between the three races that included a Libertarian candidate and the four races that did not. Just eyeballing the totals and bearing in mind that there’s some variance in each group, the Republican candidate got an increase of a bit more than half of the Libertarian vote total in each district, while the Democrats were more or less around the same level. That comports with the general thesis that Libertarians tend to take votes away from Republicans more than Democrats, though the effect here was pretty small. It’s also a small sample, and every county has its own characteristics, so don’t go drawing broad conclusions. For what it’s worth, there wasn’t anything here to contradict that piece of conventional wisdom.

For the appellate court races, the thing I have obsessed over is the incredibly small margin in the election for Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, which Jane Robinson lost by 1500 votes, or 0.06 percentage points. We saw in Harris County that she trailed the two victorious Democrats, Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Amparo Guerra, who were part of a trend in Harris County where Latino candidates generally out-performed the rest of the ticket. That wasn’t quite the case in Fort Bend. Robinson again trailed Rivas-Molloy by a little – in overall vote total, Robinson trailed Rivas-Molloy by about two thousand votes, while Republican Tracy Christopher did an equivalent amount better than Russell Lloyd. But unlike in Harris, Robinson outperformed Guerra, by about a thousand votes, and Guerra barely beat out Tamika Craft, who was farther behind the pack in Harris County. I don’t have a good explanation for that, it looks to me just like a weird result that has no obvious cause or correlation to what we saw elsewhere. It’s also the case, as we discussed in part one of the Fort Bend results, that if Dems had done a better job retaining voters downballot, none of this would matter all that much.

Finally, in the district court races (there were four of them, plus one county court), the results that grabbed my attention were in a couple of contests that appeared one after the other. Republican Maggie Jaramillo, running for the 400th District Court, was the closest member of Team GOP to win, as she lost to Tameika Carter by ten thousand votes. In the next race, for the 434th District Court, Republican Jim Shoemake lost to Christian Becerra by twenty-two thousand votes. This was the difference between a three-point loss for Jaramillo, and a six-and-a-half point loss for Shoemake. Jaramillo was the top performing Republican candidate in any race in Fort Bend, while Becerra was sixth best among Dems, trailing Joe Biden, three statewide judicial candidates, and Sheriff Eric Fagan. You may have noticed that they’re both Latinos, though the effect appears to have been a bit greater for the Republican Jaramillo. Becerra was the only Dem besides Biden to carry Commissioners Court Precinct 1, though that may not have been strictly a Latino candidate phenomenon – Elizabeth Frizell had the next highest percentage, with Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Tina Clinton close behind. (Amy Clark Meachum and Staci Williams, both in three-candidate races, came closer to carrying CC1 than any other candidates, but their percentage of the vote was lower.) Again, no broad conclusions here, just an observation.

Click on for the race data, and remember I had to piece this together by hand, so my numbers may be a little off from the official state totals when those come out. County races are next. Let me know what you think.

(more…)

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1

Here’s the more traditional look at the Court of Appeals races. Unlike the Supreme Court and CCA, all of these races just have two candidates, so we get a purer view of each district’s partisan measure.


Dist    Chris    Robsn  Chris%  Robsn%
======================================
CD02  184,964  152,768  54.77%  45.23%
CD07  157,736  147,670  51.65%  48.35%
CD08   26,431   14,916  63.92%  36.08%
CD09   39,195  119,621  24.68%  75.32%
CD10  104,717   59,540  63.75%  36.25%
CD18   62,244  178,810  25.82%  74.18%
CD22   22,412   20,080  52.74%  47.26%
CD29   51,407  100,718  33.79%  66.21%
CD36   84,772   47,797  63.95%  36.05%
				
SBOE4 111,462  333,791  25.03%  74.97%
SBOE6 398,123  345,585  53.53%  46.47%
SBOE8 224,293  162,545  57.98%  42.02%
				
SD04   56,898   22,562  71.61%  28.39%
SD06   59,896  116,837  33.89%  66.11%
SD07  241,721  170,662  58.62%  41.38%
SD11   79,273   46,425  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,578  158,975  19.93%  80.07%
SD15  118,283  192,558  38.05%  61.95%
SD17  122,640  122,169  50.10%  49.90%
SD18   15,589   11,734  57.05%  42.95%
				
HD126  39,903   33,263  54.54%  45.46%
HD127  55,384   34,979  61.29%  38.71%
HD128  49,071   21,878  69.16%  30.84%
HD129  49,357   34,835  58.62%  41.38%
HD130  71,485   31,992  69.08%  30.92%
HD131  10,547   44,331  19.22%  80.78%
HD132  51,970   48,189  51.89%  48.11%
HD133  52,531   35,414  59.73%  40.27%
HD134  51,636   55,503  48.20%  51.80%
HD135  37,498   36,828  50.45%  49.55%
HD137  10,775   20,855  34.07%  65.93%
HD138  32,788   30,669  51.67%  48.33%
HD139  16,375   44,551  26.88%  73.12%
HD140   9,795   21,511  31.29%  68.71%
HD141   7,493   35,952  17.25%  82.75%
HD142  14,378   41,649  25.66%  74.34%
HD143  12,559   24,038  34.32%  65.68%
HD144  14,250   16,410  46.48%  53.52%
HD145  15,600   26,725  36.86%  63.14%
HD146  11,819   43,211  21.48%  78.52%
HD147  16,024   52,771  23.29%  76.71%
HD148  23,255   36,320  39.03%  60.97%
HD149  22,187   30,741  41.92%  58.08%
HD150  57,197   39,304  59.27%  40.73%
				
CC1    97,397  278,086  25.94%  74.06%
CC2   154,992  143,474  51.93%  48.07%
CC3   234,325  208,116  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   247,164  212,247  53.80%  46.20%
				
JP1    97,730  161,507  37.70%  62.30%
JP2    35,419   48,550  42.18%  57.82%
JP3    53,112   67,814  43.92%  56.08%
JP4   239,927  183,854  56.62%  43.38%
JP5   210,230  213,175  49.65%  50.35%
JP6     8,570   26,891  24.17%  75.83%
JP7    19,569   99,806  16.39%  83.61%
JP8    69,321   40,326  63.22%  36.78%


Dist    Lloyd   Molloy  Lloyd% Molloy%
======================================
CD02  182,465  155,019  54.07%  45.93%
CD07  155,392  149,641  50.94%  49.06%
CD08   26,105   15,215  63.18%  36.82%
CD09   38,009  120,873  23.92%  76.08%
CD10  103,826   60,311  63.26%  36.74%
CD18   59,729  181,164  24.79%  75.21%
CD22   22,012   20,440  51.85%  48.15%
CD29   47,790  104,691  31.34%  68.66%
CD36   83,738   48,699  63.23%  36.77%
			
SBOE4 105,088  340,408  23.59%  76.41%
SBOE6 392,723  350,361  52.85%  47.15%
SBOE8 221,255  165,285  57.24%  42.76%
				
SD04   56,516   22,841  71.22%  28.78%
SD06   55,876  121,303  31.54%  68.46%
SD07  238,891  173,275  57.96%  42.04%
SD11   78,393   47,111  62.46%  37.54%
SD13   38,185  160,335  19.23%  80.77%
SD15  114,913  195,701  37.00%  63.00%
SD17  120,892  123,589  49.45%  50.55%
SD18   15,400   11,900  56.41%  43.59%
				
HD126  39,359   33,787  53.81%  46.19%
HD127  54,725   35,562  60.61%  39.39%
HD128  48,591   22,310  68.53%  31.47%
HD129  48,813   35,233  58.08%  41.92%
HD130  71,017   32,409  68.66%  31.34%
HD131   9,999   44,913  18.21%  81.79%
HD132  51,123   48,982  51.07%  48.93%
HD133  52,075   35,754  59.29%  40.71%
HD134  50,815   56,050  47.55%  52.45%
HD135  36,859   37,440  49.61%  50.39%
HD137  10,494   21,131  33.18%  66.82%
HD138  32,143   31,246  50.71%  49.29%
HD139  15,702   45,174  25.79%  74.21%
HD140   8,932   22,448  28.46%  71.54%
HD141   6,966   36,461  16.04%  83.96%
HD142  13,717   42,333  24.47%  75.53%
HD143  11,615   25,061  31.67%  68.33%
HD144  13,600   17,131  44.25%  55.75%
HD145  14,768   27,651  34.81%  65.19%
HD146  11,569   43,424  21.04%  78.96%
HD147  15,344   53,409  22.32%  77.68%
HD148  22,543   37,048  37.83%  62.17%
HD149  21,838   31,134  41.23%  58.77%
HD150  56,458   39,961  58.55%  41.45%
				
CC1    93,785  281,473  24.99%  75.01%
CC2   150,775  147,845  50.49%  49.51%
CC3   231,120  210,968  52.28%  47.72%
CC4   243,386  215,770  53.01%  46.99%
				
JP1    94,795  164,261  36.59%  63.41%
JP2    33,861   50,188  40.29%  59.71%
JP3    51,723   69,237  42.76%  57.24%
JP4   236,701  186,804  55.89%  44.11%
JP5   206,960  216,197  48.91%  51.09%
JP6     7,778   27,817  21.85%  78.15%
JP7    18,795  100,517  15.75%  84.25%
JP8    68,453   41,035  62.52%  37.48%


Dist    Adams   Guerra  Adams% Guerra%
======================================
CD02  184,405  152,836  54.68%  45.32%
CD07  157,212  147,381  51.61%  48.39%
CD08   26,351   14,919  63.85%  36.15%
CD09   38,998  119,778  24.56%  75.44%
CD10  104,820   59,234  63.89%  36.11%
CD18   61,326  179,332  25.48%  74.52%
CD22   22,218   20,211  52.37%  47.63%
CD29   48,121  104,386  31.55%  68.45%
CD36   84,501   47,871  63.84%  36.16%
			
SBOE4 107,293  337,920  24.10%  75.90%
SBOE6 397,124  345,286  53.49%  46.51%
SBOE8 223,535  162,743  57.87%  42.13%
				
SD04   56,904   22,386  71.77%  28.23%
SD06   56,357  120,880  31.80%  68.20%
SD07  241,466  170,348  58.63%  41.37%
SD11   79,098   46,319  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,476  158,887  19.90%  80.10%
SD15  116,690  193,656  37.60%  62.40%
SD17  122,412  121,729  50.14%  49.86%
SD18   15,549   11,745  56.97%  43.03%
				
HD126  39,813   33,289  54.46%  45.54%
HD127  55,237   34,999  61.21%  38.79%
HD128  48,957   21,899  69.09%  30.91%
HD129  49,340   34,653  58.74%  41.26%
HD130  71,559   31,806  69.23%  30.77%
HD131  10,266   44,574  18.72%  81.28%
HD132  51,808   48,208  51.80%  48.20%
HD133  52,597   35,086  59.99%  40.01%
HD134  51,370   55,317  48.15%  51.85%
HD135  37,274   36,945  50.22%  49.78%
HD137  10,724   20,876  33.94%  66.06%
HD138  32,559   30,808  51.38%  48.62%
HD139  16,147   44,644  26.56%  73.44%
HD140   8,966   22,430  28.56%  71.44%
HD141   7,254   36,084  16.74%  83.26%
HD142  14,142   41,863  25.25%  74.75%
HD143  11,744   24,953  32.00%  68.00%
HD144  13,658   17,072  44.45%  55.55%
HD145  14,824   27,584  34.96%  65.04%
HD146  11,928   43,032  21.70%  78.30%
HD147  15,656   53,073  22.78%  77.22%
HD148  22,757   36,812  38.20%  61.80%
HD149  22,195   30,784  41.89%  58.11%
HD150  57,176   39,156  59.35%  40.65%
				
CC1    95,892  278,971  25.58%  74.42%
CC2   152,017  146,563  50.91%  49.09%
CC3   233,933  207,769  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   246,110  212,648  53.65%  46.35%
				
JP1    95,938  162,864  37.07%  62.93%
JP2    34,099   49,931  40.58%  59.42%
JP3    52,405   68,430  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   239,343  183,827  56.56%  43.44%
JP5   209,649  213,147  49.59%  50.41%
JP6     7,852   27,792  22.03%  77.97%
JP7    19,566   99,631  16.41%  83.59%
JP8    69,100   40,329  63.15%  36.85%


Dist     Wise    Craft   Wise%  Craft%
======================================
CD02  187,076  150,161  55.47%  44.53%
CD07  160,323  144,461  52.60%  47.40%
CD08   26,468   14,814  64.12%  35.88%
CD09   39,255  119,480  24.73%  75.27%
CD10  105,224   58,786  64.16%  35.84%
CD18   62,464  178,398  25.93%  74.07%
CD22   22,479   19,942  52.99%  47.01%
CD29   51,350  100,685  33.78%  66.22%
CD36   85,152   47,195  64.34%  35.66%
				
SBOE4 111,160  333,956  24.97%  75.03%
SBOE6 403,452  338,891  54.35%  45.65%
SBOE8 225,179  161,076  58.30%  41.70%
				
SD04   57,202   22,111  72.12%  27.88%
SD06   59,943  116,758  33.92%  66.08%
SD07  242,902  168,936  58.98%  41.02%
SD11   79,698   45,696  63.56%  36.44%
SD13   39,579  158,895  19.94%  80.06%
SD15  119,640  190,784  38.54%  61.46%
SD17  125,186  119,108  51.24%  48.76%
SD18   15,641   11,636  57.34%  42.66%
				
HD126  40,122   32,983  54.88%  45.12%
HD127  55,653   34,618  61.65%  38.35%
HD128  49,175   21,666  69.42%  30.58%
HD129  49,744   34,245  59.23%  40.77%
HD130  71,894   31,468  69.56%  30.44%
HD131  10,420   44,469  18.98%  81.02%
HD132  52,080   47,898  52.09%  47.91%
HD133  53,487   34,292  60.93%  39.07%
HD134  53,678   53,121  50.26%  49.74%
HD135  37,617   36,577  50.70%  49.30%
HD137  10,841   20,738  34.33%  65.67%
HD138  33,111   30,252  52.26%  47.74%
HD139  16,338   44,533  26.84%  73.16%
HD140   9,677   21,649  30.89%  69.11%
HD141   7,162   36,255  16.50%  83.50%
HD142  14,336   41,735  25.57%  74.43%
HD143  12,465   24,123  34.07%  65.93%
HD144  14,238   16,400  46.47%  53.53%
HD145  15,761   26,507  37.29%  62.71%
HD146  12,019   42,980  21.85%  78.15%
HD147  16,327   52,404  23.75%  76.25%
HD148  24,026   35,407  40.43%  59.57%
HD149  22,369   30,513  42.30%  57.70%
HD150  57,250   39,088  59.43%  40.57%
				
CC1    98,291  276,873  26.20%  73.80%
CC2   155,580  142,504  52.19%  47.81%
CC3   236,903  204,782  53.64%  46.36%
CC4   249,017  209,766  54.28%  45.72%
				
JP1   100,430  158,362  38.81%  61.19%
JP2    35,440   48,448  42.25%  57.75%
JP3    52,981   67,919  43.82%  56.18%
JP4   240,598  182,662  56.84%  43.16%
JP5   212,371  210,308  50.24%  49.76%
JP6     8,629   26,793  24.36%  75.64%
JP7    19,649   99,743  16.46%  83.54%
JP8    69,693   39,690  63.71%  36.29%

If you just went by these results, you might think Dems did worse overall in Harris County than they actually did. None of the four candidates carried CD07, and only Veronica Rivas-Molloy carried HD135. They all still carried Harris County, by margins ranging from 6.0 to 8.7 points and 94K to 137K votes, but it’s clear they could have done better, and as we well know, even doing a little better would have carried Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft (who, despite her low score here still lost overall by less than 20K votes out of over 2.3 million ballots cast) to victory.

I don’t have a good explanation for any of this. Maybe the Libertarian candidates that some statewide races had a bigger effect on those races than we think. Maybe the incumbents had an advantage that enabled them to get a better share of the soft partisan vote. Maybe the Chron endorsements helped the incumbents. And maybe the lack of straight ticket voting did matter. The undervote rate in these races was around 4.7%, which is pretty low, but in 2018 it was around 2.7%. Picking on the Robinson race again, had the undervote rate been 2.7% instead of the 4.68% it actually was, there would have been an additional 36,154 votes cast. At the same 53.43% rate for Robinson, she would have received another 19,317 votes, with Tracy Christopher getting 16,837. That’s a 2,480 vote net for Robinson, which would be enough for her to win, by 1,291 votes. Tamika Craft would still fall short, but Dems would have won three out of four races instead of just two.

Of course, we can’t just give straight ticket voting back to Harris County and not the other nine counties. I’m not going to run through the math for each county, but given that Christopher did better in the non-Harris Counties, we can assume she’s net a few votes in them if straight ticket voting were still in effect. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough – remember, there were far more votes in Harris than in the other nine, and the Republican advantage wasn’t that much bigger, so the net would be smaller. It’s speculation built on guesswork, and it’s all in service of making up for the fact that the Democratic candidates could have done better in Harris County with the votes that were cast than they did. Let’s not get too wishful in our thinking here.

So does this affect my advice from the previous post? Not really – we still need to build on what we’re already doing, and figure out how to do better in the places where we need to do better. Maybe a greater focus judicial races is needed, by which I mean more money spent to advertise the Democratic judicial slate. As we’ve observed, these are close races in what is clearly very swingy territory, at least for now. With close races, there’s a broad range of possible factors that could change the outcome. Pick your preference and get to work on it.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Astros ticketholder lawsuit update

I share because I care.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked the state 14th Court of Appeals to dismiss a consolidated lawsuit filed by three groups of disgruntled ticketholders, repeating many of the same arguments in favor of dismissal that they presented to a Harris County district court earlier this year.

Along with repeating their claim that the suit should be tossed because the ballclub is protected by the Texas Citizens Participation Act, attorneys say a courtroom is not the proper venue to chasten the Astros for the decision of players in 2017-18 to use electronic means to steal signals in violation of Major League Baseball’s rules.

“No court in the United States has ever allowed fans or other members of the public to sue for how a sport is played, and Texas should not be the first jurisdiction that allows such claims,” the Astros said in their 78-page brief filed with the court this week.

If such claims were allowed, the ballclub added, “The courtroom would become the solace for any sports fan who has felt the pang of disappointment in a team’s strategy choices. In these divided times, appellate courts throughout the nation have united on one point: claim for disappointment in how a team played the game on the field – be it a rule violation or a performance fiasco – are not justiciable.”

The cases wound up before the 14th Court when state District Judge Robert Schaffer denied the Astros’ motion for summary judgment in proposed class action suits filed by ticketholders Adam Wallach, Roger Contreras and Kenneth Young, who allege they were defrauded into buying tickets by the Astros’ public relations campaign urging fans to buy tickets.

The Astros claim the ballclub is protected under the Texas Citizens Participation Act, which allows a judge to dismiss a case in which one of the parties is exercising the right of free speech, right to petition or right of association regarding discussions about a public figure or entity.

Schaffer suggested that the case go to the 14th Court to decide procedural matters before returning to his court for a potential rehearing on the summary judgment dismissal sought by the Astros, and the Astros then filed their appeal.

See here for the background. A copy of the appellate motion is in the Chron story. I believe this case is the consolidation of all of the Harris County lawsuits; there is still the California lawsuit that the Astros either want dismissed or moved to Texas, but I’ve lost track of it at this point. I still don’t believe any of this will go anywhere, but it will at least keep us occupied for the foreseeable future.

One last, desperate attempt to kill drive-though voting

These guys really suck. Not much more can be said.

A new challenge to Harris County’s drive-thru voting sites, filed by two GOP candidates and a Republican member of the Texas House, asks the state Supreme Court to void ballots “illegally” cast by voters in cars.

That could put more than 100,000 ballots at risk, drawing sharp criticism from Democrats and raising fears among voters, including those with disabilities and others who were directed into drive-thru lanes as a faster method of voting.

[…]

One of the unsuccessful challenges was filed by the Republican Party of Texas. The second was from the Harris County GOP, activist Steven Hotze, and Sharen Hemphill, a GOP candidate for district judge in Harris County. Neither petition sought to void votes.

That changed with the latest petition filed shortly before 11 p.m. Tuesday by Hotze, Hemphill, GOP congressional candidate Wendell Champion, and state Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands.

The new petition asks the all-Republican Supreme Court to confiscate memory cards from voting machines at drive-thru locations and reject any votes cast in violation of state election laws.

The petition argues that drive-thru voting is an illegal expansion of curbside voting, which state law reserves for voters who submit a sworn application saying they have an illness or disability that could put them at risk if forced to enter a polling place.

“Hollins is allowing curbside/drive-thru voting for all 2.37 million registered voters in Harris County. This is a clear and direct violation of his duties,” the petition argued.

But Hollins has said drive-thru voting is just another polling place with a different layout and structure, and that it was approved by the Texas secretary of state’s office before being adopted.

Vehicles form lines and enter the voting area one at a time, where a clerk checks each voter’s photo ID, has them sign a roster and hands over a sanitized voting machine. Voting typically takes place in large individual tents, and poll watchers can observe the processing of voters no differently than in traditional voting locations, Hollins has argued.

See here for the previous entry. As I said yesterday, I just don’t believe the Supreme Court will do this. It’s such a drastic step to take, it’s punitive towards a lot of voters who had every reason to believe they were doing something legal, it would be an enormous partisan stain on the court and the justices, four of whom are on the ballot themselves, and as I said if the court felt such an outcome was in play, they could have clearly signaled it earlier to minimize the effect on the voters. Maybe I’m naive, or willfully blind. This just seems like a bridge way too far. I guess we’ll find out.

SCOTX rejects challenges to drive-through voting

Halle-fricking-lujah.

Voters in the state’s most populous county can continue casting their ballots for the fall election at 10 drive-thru polling places after the Texas Supreme Court Thursday rejected a last-minute challenge by the Texas and Harris County Republican parties, one of many lawsuits in an election season ripe with litigation over voting access.

The court rejected the challenge without an order or opinion, though Justice John Devine dissented from the decision.

[…]

Though the program was publicized for months before the ongoing election, it was not until hours before early voting started last week that the Texas Republican Party and a voter challenged the move in a state appeals court, arguing that drive-thru votes would be illegal. They claimed drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore should only be available for disabled voters.

Curbside voting, a long-available option under Texas election law, requires workers at every polling place to deliver onsite curbside ballots to voters who are “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Posted signs at polling sites notify voters to ring a bell, call a number or honk to request curbside assistance.

The lawsuit also asked the court to further restrict curbside voting by requiring that voters first fill out applications citing a disability. Such applications are required for mail-in ballots, but voting rights advocates and the Harris County Clerk said they have never been a part of curbside voting.

The Harris County clerk argued its drive-thru locations are separate polling places, distinct from attached curbside spots, and therefore available to all voters. The clerk’s filing to the Supreme Court also said the Texas secretary of state’s Office had approved of drive-thru voting. Keith Ingram, the state’s chief election official, said in a court hearing last month in another lawsuit that drive-thru voting is “a creative approach that is probably okay legally,” according to court transcripts.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for County Clerk Chris Hollins’ attempt to get the Secretary of State on record about this. The decision came down a couple of hours after County Judge Lina Hidalgo (among others) called on Greg Abbott to do the same. This would have been a monumental middle finger to the voters of Harris County, and an utter disgrace for the Supreme Court, had they upheld the Republican challenge. I don’t know what took them so long, but if they’re going to be slow about it, they’d better get it right, and this time they did. Exhale, everyone.

We shouldn’t leave this item without giving Hollins the victory lap he deserves:

There’s a bit more on Hollins’ Twitter feed. When he says that every county should do it like this, he’s absolutely right. You can see all the SCOTX denials here, and the Chron has more.

(Oh, and let’s please do remember this when John Devine is up for election next. The rest of the court may have done the right thing, but that guy has truly got to go.)

And it’s off to SCOTX for the Republicans who want to stop drive-through voting

It was inevitable.

State and local Republicans have taken their challenge of drive-thru voting in Harris County to the Texas Supreme Court.

In separate petitions, the Texas and Harris County GOP are asking the state’s highest court to limit drive-thru voting, which Clerk Christopher Hollins opened this year at 10 sites and made available to all voters.

The GOP argues the new practice is a form of curbside voting, which only is allowed for people who are sick at the time, have a physical condition that requires personal assistance or are at risk of injured health if they venture inside a polling location.

[…]

“The aforementioned criteria for curbside voting is equally applicable to ballots by mail voting,” the petition said. “With respect to ballot by mail voting, the Texas Supreme Court has already held that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code, and therefore, is not a sufficient basis to permit a voter to validly vote by mail.”

The county argues its drive-thru sites are not a form of curbside voting. The 10 sites are contained within a parking garage or tent facilities, a quality attorneys argue satisfies the criteria to be polling sites in their own right.

“The basic requirement for polling places is that it’s in a building,” Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray said. “We’re interpreting that as long as we have a permanent or temporary structure,” it’s OK.

Even if it were curbside voting, Ray argued, it is up to the voter to decide whether he or she has a disability. The county does not have the legal authority to question disability claims, he said.

It is not clear how the votes already cast at drive-thru sites would be handled if the Supreme Court were to side with the plaintiffs.

The state GOP’s petition asks for a ruling forcing Hollins to “reject any curbside voting efforts” that do not comply with its interpretation of the law.

See here and here for the background, and here for both of the plaintiffs’ petitions. I have no idea how quickly the Supreme Court might move on this, but we’ve had three full days of drive-through voting so far, and going by the daily report, thousands of people have used it. I can’t imagine any ruling for the plaintiffs that wouldn’t be deeply disruptive, and that’s exactly the sort of thing that’s not supposed to happen with court rulings close to an election. But like I’ve said, the Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, and all we can do is adjust when they do it. Stay tuned.

Petition to stop drive-through voting dismissed

That was quick.

Drive-thru and curbside voting programs in Harris County can continue after a state appeals court Wednesday quickly threw out a last-minute lawsuit filed by the Texas Republican Party challenging the county’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic. The state GOP had filed suit Monday night asking the court to place limits on curbside voting and halt drive-thru voting.

The appellate judges said the party and a voter who filed the suit did so too late, and did not show how they specifically might be injured by the voting practices. The lawsuit was filed just hours before early voting polls opened and more than a month after the Harris County Clerk announced his plan for drive-thru voting.

“The election is currently in progress and the relators delayed filing this mandamus until over a month after learning of the actions of the Harris County Clerk’s Office,” the panel of three judges on Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals wrote in their ruling dismissing the case.

A Texas Republican Party spokesperson said it plans to appeal Wednesday’s ruling to the Texas Supreme Court “to ensure that no illegal votes would be cast and counted in this election.” In an unrelated recent voting lawsuit, the state’s high court ruled against another voting challenge because it was filed too late, saying changes during an ongoing election could cause voter confusion.

See here for the background, and here for the 14th Court’s ruling. It should be noted that the court dismissed the petition “sua sponte”, which is the fancy Latin phrase for “on its own initiative”. In other words, the court didn’t ask for the defendants to submit a response – the petition didn’t meet the bar for having a claim to be decided. That’s a pretty strong statement.

A bit from the ruing makes it clear what the problem was, and it wasn’t just the timing. The first two issues the court addressed were the standing of the plaintiffs to bring this challenge:

To have standing under section 273.061, a party must demonstrate that it “possesses an interest in a conflict distinct from that of the general public, such that the defendant’s actions have caused the plaintiff some particular injury.” In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d 548, 553 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] 2020, orig. proceeding) (quoting Williams v. Lara, 52 S.W.3d 171, 178 (Tex. 2001)).The claimant must show a particularized injury beyond that of the general public. Id. “Our decisions have always required a plaintiff to allege some injury distinct from that sustained by the public at large.” Brown v. Todd, 53 S.W.3d 297, 302 (Tex. 2001). “No Texas court has ever recognized that a plaintiff’s status as a voter, without more, confers standing to challenge the lawfulness of governmental acts.” Id. For example, a voter lacks standing to seek the removal of an ineligible candidate from the ballot because the voter has no special interest. See, e.g., Clifton v. Walters, 308 S.W.3d 94, 99 (Tex. App.—Fort Worth 2010, pet. denied); Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.).

Standing requires “a concrete injury to the plaintiff and a real controversy between the parties that will be resolved by the court.” Heckman, 369 S.W.3d at 154. Texas has adopted the federal courts’ standing doctrine to determine the constitutional jurisdiction of state courts. Id. To maintain standing, petitioners must show: (1) an “injury in fact” that is both “concrete and particularized” and “actual or imminent”; (2) that the injury is “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s challenged actions; and (3) that it is “‘likely,’ as opposed to merely ‘speculative,’ and that the injury will be ‘redressed by a favorable decision.’” Id. at 154–55 (quoting Lujan v. Defs. of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560–61 (1992)).

RELATORS’ FAILURE TO SHOW STANDING

Pichardo argues that he has standing to obtain mandamus relief under Election Code section 273.061 because, unless Hollins is compelled to enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting, Pichardo is at risk of having his vote canceled out by an ineligible vote. But that alleged harm is true of every member of the general public who is registered to vote. Pichardo lacks standing because he has not shown that he has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., Brown, 53 S.W.3d at 302; In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553; In re Pichardo, No. 14-20-00685-CV, 2020 WL 5950178, at *2 (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.] Oct. 8, 2020, orig. proceeding) (per curiam) (mem. op.).

The Republican Party of Texas argues that Hollins’s alleged intent to not enforce Election Code sections 64.009, 82.002, and 104.001 with respect to curbside voting will harm its mission and purpose of advancing limited government, lower taxes, less spending, and individual liberty and promoting compliance with state election statutes. The Republican Party of Texas lacks standing because it has not shown that it has an interest or a particularized injury that is distinct from that of the general public. See, e.g., In re Kherkher, 604 S.W.3d at 553. The Republican Party of Texas cites no authority that supports its standing argument.

In other words, neither the voter they dragged up to be a plaintiff, nor the Republican Party of Texas itself, can claim any injury that a court would recognize. Their complaint basically amounts to “but some people might vote in a way we don’t like”, and the court has no time for that. At least, this court had no time for it. I suppose SCOTX could do something different, but that’s always the risk. The fact that voting has in fact already started should also be a barrier to entry, but again, we’ll see.

Three minor points of note: One, the GOP was represented by our old buddy Andy Taylor – just search the archives for that name, and you’ll see why I’m laughing. Two, this ruling also cited the 2008 lawsuit brought by supporters of then-Sen. Kim Brimer in their attempt to knock Wendy Davis off the ballot, before she successfully knocked Brimer out of the Senate. And three, based on that “In re Pichardo” footnote, this particular plaintiff has served that role for whichever Republican group is seeking to stop some form of voting in court before, during this cycle. Put that name on your watch list for the future, these guys get around. The Chron has more.

State GOP files suit to stop curbside voting in Harris County

Honesty, it feels like they’re just trolling now.

Hours before early voting began, the Texas Republican Party filed a new lawsuit Monday night challenging Harris County’s efforts to provide more voting options during the coronavirus pandemic, this time asking a court to limit curbside voting and halt the county’s drive-thru voting programs.

State election law has long allowed voters with medical conditions to vote curbside. After they arrive at a polling location, a ballot is brought outside to them in their vehicle by an election worker. In addition to urging qualified voters to use the curbside option this year, Harris County also opened designated “drive-thru” polling locations for all voters, where poll workers hand people a voting machine through their car window after checking their photo identification.

The state GOP’s lawsuit, filed in a state appeals court in Houston, seeks to halt the drive-thru voting program and limit curbside voting to those who have submitted sworn applications saying they qualify for it. Glenn Smith, a senior strategist with Progress Texas, said Tuesday he could find nothing in the law requiring an application to vote curbside. Texas election law instructs election officers to deliver an on-site curbside ballot if a voter is “physically unable to enter the polling place without personal assistance or likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.”

“Unless stopped, each of these instances of illegal voting will cast a cloud over the results of the General Election,” the lawsuit states.

Chris Hollins, the Harris County Clerk, said the latest lawsuit is in line with the Republican Party “feverishly” using resources to limit people’s right to vote.

“This lawsuit is not only frivolous, but it’s also a gross misrepresentation of the differences between curbside voting — for voters with disabilities, including illness — and drive-thru voting, which is available for all voters who want to vote from the safety and convenience of their vehicle,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

[…]

The Republicans argue that fear of contracting the coronavirus isn’t enough under state election law to qualify for curbside voting. Their point is bolstered by a May ruling from the all-Republican state Supreme Court which said a lack of immunity to the coronavirus is not a disability that qualifies Texans to vote by mail. But Texas law differentiates between mail-in ballots — which must be requested ahead of time through an application under strict qualifications, like a disability — and curbside voting, which is requested onsite.

The Texas secretary of state’s office has repeatedly said this year that those who have symptoms or signs of the new coronavirus should use curbside voting. The office has provided placards for county election officials to use at polling locations that urge curbside voting for sick people or those who can’t enter a polling place without the “likelihood of injuring your health.”

[…]

Voters must provide photo identification, then will be handed a portable voting machine in their car, according to the website. The clerk’s office notes drive-thru voting is open to all voters, as opposed to curbside voting which is applicable for those with a disability.

The lawsuit filed Monday says drive-thru voting is an expansion of curbside voting, and therefore can’t be available to all voters. The Republican Party also notes that election law states polling places must be located inside a building, and the county’s promotional video for drive-thru voting is in an outdoor parking lot.

I will admit that I have generally not distinguished between curbside and drive-through voting. I’d not given any thought to the difference, or even that there was a difference. I will point out here that this drive-through method was piloted for the primary runoffs, and formally announced as part of the county’s overall election plan in August. I will also note that Bexar County had announced their own plans for drive-though voting even earlier in August. This once again raises the question of “if you’re gonna sue about this, why is it taking you so long?”

The Chron has some more details.

In a petition filed late Monday in Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, the Texas Republican Party contended the Texas Election Code limits curbside voting, including drive-thru voting, to voters who are sick or disabled, or if voting inside the polling location “would create a likelihood of injuring the voter’s health.” Those provisions do not apply to the coronavirus pandemic, the party argued in its filing.

“Chris Hollins is telling all Harris County residents that they are eligible for curbside voting when he knows that is not the case,” the party said in a statement. “Any voter that does not qualify to vote curbside under narrow statutory language would be voting illegally if allowed to vote drive-through.”

[…]

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said county officials are comfortable with the legality of drive-thru voting because they do not consider it to be a form of curbside voting. The drive-thru locations, he noted, are all inside buildings, such as garages and temporary structures, which he said prevents them from being curbside under Texas law.

“We looked at this carefully before we decided to do it and feel that it’s within the boundaries of the law,” Ray said. “It’s disingenuous on their part to try to classify drive-thru as curbside, because that is not what we’re doing.”

This was filed with the 14th Court of Appeals, so I presume it’s a writ of mandamus. (I couldn’t find any filings when I searched the 14th Court website, but maybe I was just searching wrong.) I presume also that the 14th Court is under no obligation to issue a ruling in a timely manner – I’d say sitting on this one, then dismissing it as moot is the fate it deserves, but then I’m both petty and Not A Lawyer, so don’t pay too much attention to that. We all understand what this is about, and we all understand the motivation for it. The courts are gonna do what they’re gonna do, and we’ll go from there. Let’s not give this any more thought than that.

Endorsement watch: Judicial races

The Chron endorses two Dem challengers and one Republican incumbent for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Tina Clinton

A court’s legitimacy derives in part from its capacity to inspire trust in the minds of those who live by its rulings. “There cannot be a trust among the African American community that the system is fair when the judges dispensing that justice are all represented by just one group,” Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County district court judge whom we recommend for Place 4, said last month at a virtual forum organized by the Innocence Project of Texas. She was noting that there are currently no Black justices on the court, and just one of nine members is Latino.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also true that in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals, diversity must also include a broader range of ideological perspective and of life experience. That’s because how a judge sees the law — and how he or she applies it to a particular case — is far more complex than sound bites about “activist judges” or labels such as conservative and liberal.

[…]

Place 4, Tina Yoo Clinton (D)
Tina Yoo Clinton, 50, has more than 14 years experience as a judge and 10 more as a prosecutor. She brings a combination of a veteran judge’s experience and the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of a newcomer. It’s exactly the mix the court needs.

For that reason, we recommend her over Justice Kevin Yeary, who has been on the court since 2014.

“Clearly when you look at what is going on in the United States within the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that even though we want justice to be colorblind, it is not colorblind,” Clinton said during last month’s candidate forum.

That’s a starting point that will help shape the discussions among the nine justices in ways that keep fairness at the center of the debate. Matched with her long experience and commitment to follow the law, we believe she will help render justice in which all Texans can have faith.

Place 9, Brandon Birmingham (D)
We recommend voters elect Dallas County criminal district court Judge Brandon Birmingham, 43, in Place 9, even at the high cost of losing Justice David Newell, whose voice on questions of actual innocence has been reasoned and refreshing.

But he adheres to the court’s overall emphasis on textualism, and approaches each case within a narrower view of what justice requires than would his opponent. The court’s nine members urgently need new perspectives, new sets of life experiences, and new vantage points from which to see the law and the facts in order to render decisions that have credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

Birmingham would stretch the boundaries of that debate — and would do so using experience as a judge, a prosecutor and a change agent.

They also endorsed Justice Bert Richardson, who I will agree is a good judge, over challenger Elizabeth Frizell. At least here, the Chron did more than just nod in the direction of increasing the diversity of this court, as they did with the Supreme Court.

In the other judicial races, the Chron endorsed all four Republican incumbents on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, and five Dems and five Republicans (plus one abstention) for the district courts. I’m just going to say this: If there’s one thing we should take away from the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett experiences, it’s that the judiciary is to Republicans (with a huge push from the professional conservative movement) nothing but an expression of political power. Gorsuch was given, and Barrett almost certainly will be given, a lifetime tenure on the US Supreme Court, where they will consistently rule in favor of Republican and conservative positions, because the Republican-held Senate had the power to block Garland and install the other two.

Here in Texas, where we elect judges as part of the regular electoral process, there has been a call to move away from partisan elections of judges and towards some other, as yet undefined system, which may involve appointments or bipartisan panels or who knows what else. This push has emerged and grown as Democrats have begun to assert more political power in Texas – I’ve been documenting it since 2008, when we elected Democratic judges for the first time since the early nineties. What the voters want is more Democratic judges, and so it has become Very Important for the Republicans that still retain full power in this state to make sure they don’t get them.

As a matter of abstract principle, I would agree that we could do a better job picking judges than the current system we have, where judges are voted on by people who mostly have no idea who they are and what they do. I’m sure if we put a few sober and learned types in a room for a few hours, they would emerge with a perfectly fine system for selecting judges on pure merit. But we’ve had this imperfect system for a long time, and when it benefitted the Republicans it was just fine. It certainly benefits them right now, when questions about voting rights are being litigated. If more Democratic judges get elected this cycle, I consider that just to be some balance on the scales. When we get to a point of having solid Democratic majorities on the Supreme Court and the CCA, and there’s a Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then come back with a fully-formed plan for non-partisan meritocratic judicial selections, and we can talk. Until then, I say elect more Democrats, including and especially Democratic judges. Politics has been a key part of this process from the beginning. The fact that the politics are slowly starting to favor the Democrats is not a compelling reason to change that. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Pension reform law partially blocked

I have to admit, I have no idea what this may mean.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A state district judge on Wednesday struck down a key portion of Houston’s landmark pension reform package that applies to firefighters, a move that likely would upend the system — and the city’s finances — if upheld.

In an order siding with the Houston Firefighters’ Relief and Retirement Fund, state District Judge Beau Miller wrote that the legislation passed in 2017 to overhaul the city’s troubled pension system prevents the firefighters’ pension board from determining “sound actuarial assumptions.”

Pension fund officials argued in court filings that the plan’s 7 percent assumed rate of return on investment strips them of their ability to control the fund’s cost projections. By codifying the rate in state law, they argued, city officials gained a role in that process when the Texas Constitution says only the pension fund should be able to set the assumed rate of return.

The argument mirrors one used in a prior legal challenge that was struck down in June 2019 by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals. Pension fund officials refiled the new lawsuit the following month, tweaking their argument but still challenging the constitutionality of the pension reform package.

It is unclear what the financial hit to the city would be if the portion of the law governing firefighter pensions is thrown out, but it could be significant. In the first fiscal year after the reforms took effect, the city paid $83 million into the fire pension fund, down from $93 million the year before.

At the time, the fire pension fund argued the city should have paid $148 million, an additional $65 million, equivalent to the current annual budget of the city parks department.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, a key architect of the reform plan, said the city would appeal the ruling. He predicted the lawsuit would fail, but warned that an unsuccessful appeal would lead to “the destruction of pension reform with devastating financial impacts for taxpayers, city employees, and the city.”

The mayor said in a statement that pension board officials had convinced Miller “the board’s powers exceed that of the State of Texas and that the firefighters are above any law and cannot be governed by anyone else, even the Texas Legislature.”

Miller stipulated his ruling would take effect Nov. 15 and ordered the city to “allocate funding in accordance with” the part of the Texas Constitution challenged by the pension fund, though he did not elaborate. He also issued a permanent injunction prohibiting city officials from “taking action under SB 2190.”

I’ll be honest, I did not realize there was still active litigation over this. I don’t have anything to add at this time, but I will keep an eye out on the appeal. My guess is the city will try to get this ruling stayed, so we’ll see what happens with that.

A matter of timing

That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.

The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.

[…]

Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.

“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”

[…]

In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.

Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.

First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.

The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.

We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.

I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).

Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.

The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.

Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.

As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.