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4th Court of Appeals

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?

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

Paxton seeks to overturn all local bag ban laws

It’s up to the Supreme Court to decide whether he gets it or not.

Attorney General Ken Paxton on Thursday filed paperwork urging the Texas Supreme Court to eliminate plastic bag bans across Texas, including Austin’s.

Paxton is seeking for the court to affirm an earlier decision that overturned a bag ban in Laredo. However, he also wants to court to expand the ruling to eliminate all bag bans across the state.

“Texas must be empowered to enforce its statewide solution of waste disposal,” the brief said. “To give full meaning to the Legislature’s directive about the management of waste, the Court should clarify that municipalities cannot pass waste management duties onto consumers by banning packaging or containers.”

[…]

Paxton said the Texas Health and Safety Code prohibits cities from creating bag bans that restrict the sale or use of a waste container.

“Municipalities do not get to violate Texas law merely because they don’t like it,” Paxton said in a news release. “We’re asking the Texas Supreme Court to uphold the law so that the ruling can be used to invalidate similar ordinances across Texas.”

See here and here for background on the Laredo case. The bag law was upheld by the district court and then overturned by the 4th Court of Appeals. A statewide restriction on municipal bag laws was on the Abbott anti-local-control agenda for this legislative session, but did not succeed. If Paxton and the plaintiffs against Laredo win, that won’t matter.

Initial thoughts: Statewide

vote-button

See part 1 on Harris County here.

The current statewide tally is Trump 52.39%, Clinton 43.34%. She received 3,848,617 votes to his 4,651,955. That’s an improvement of some 540K votes over Obama in 2012, which I certainly would have deemed acceptable going into Tuesday, while he added about 100K to Mitt Romney’s score. As with Harris County, there were clearly some crossovers, as the other statewide Republicans received about 4.75 million votes. I’d guess the crossover number is in the 100K range as well.

Due to those crossovers, as well as the usual dropoff from the top, the downballot Dems didn’t do as well as Clinton, ranging from 3,337,411 votes for Grady Yarbrough (38.36%) to 3,580,358 for Dori Contreras Garza (41.14%); other Dems ranged in between, with all but one clearing 3.4 million. Which is an increase of about 300K over downballot Dems in 2012, but downballor Rs who had Dem opponents improved by about 400K. There’s still work to be done here, and part of it I think just involves ensuring that good candidates who want to run a real campaign 1) survive the primary, and 2) have sufficient resources to at least get their names out there. Both of these will require an investment in money and campaign infrastructure. I’d hoped that the Clinton campaign would be able to help with that post-November, but that ain’t happening now.

One more point about the crossovers is that doing direct comparisons between Obama/Romney in 2012 and Clinton/Trump in 2016 will be tricky and often misleading. Comparing statewide judicial results will be a little better, though the range of results this year makes that tricky as well. I’m sure I’ll figure something out.

Looking at my sidebar, I’d say the last YouGov poll, which had it at Trump 50,3, Clinton 42.4, was probably the most accurate. The polls of the state were all over the map, but not really any worse than they were elsewhere. Mark Jones basically nailed it in the Texas Monthly expert roundup, with Cal Jillson and Mary Beth Rogers right behind. Technically, GOP pollster Bryan Eppstein was about as accurate as those latter two, but he threw in a prediction of 7.5 million turnout, which was off by over 1.3 million, so I’m knocking him down a notch for that.

In terms of the races I was watching, the pickings were slim but not non-existent. The Dems won the four “back to parity” legislative races plus HD107 in Dallas County, thus bringing their numbers back to the 2012 level of 55. (Actually, it will dip down to 54 again after Rep. Dawnna Dukes resigns; it will revert to 55 after a Democrat wins that special election.) HDs 105 (120 votes) and 115 (1,115 votes) were the closest, but no cigar.

Dems also picked up two appellate benches, in the Fourth and Thirteenth districts. None of the candidates whose districts included Harris County won, with Barbara Gardner (48.94%) coming closest. If Dems in Harris County can build on this year, those seats ought to be winnable in 2020.

Sadly, neither Jon Harris in Edwards County nor Cedric Watson in Waller County emerged victorious. Waller County went more strongly for Trump (62-34) than it did for Romney (57-41), which probably didn’t help Watson’s cause.

Also in the close-but-not-quite bucket was the SBOE 5 race, where incumbent Ken Mercer held on by four points despite failing to reach fifty percent. Like Harris County, Bexar County was a Democratic sweep, though the part of this district that touches Bexar is pretty strongly Republican. Still, with a dominant performance in Travis County, this district could be won next time with an improvement in Bexar and some way of limiting the damage in Comal and Guadalupe.

The theme of the national election is very much about an urban/rural divide between the voters, and a brief survey of the Texas urban counties bears that out. I’ll go into more detail in another post, but Dems definitely gained ground in the big urbans; Harris’ sweep is testimony to that, but it wasn’t the only place that this happened. I’ll need to spend a little more time figuring out where the Dems fell back.

Two last points of interest. The strangest result I saw on Tuesday was in HD66, in Collin County. Not because of the result itself – the Republican incumbent won with a decent though not overwhelming margin – but because of the stark difference between the early vote and the Election Day vote:


Name                     Early  Early%   E Day  E Day%   Total  Total%
======================================================================
Matt Shaheen (I)   REP  24,609  49.40%  15,613  77.36%  40,222  57.46%
Gnanse Nelson      DEM  23,112  46.39%   3,950  19.57%  27,062  38.66%
Shawn W. Jones     LIB   2,091   4.19%     620   3.07%   2,711   3.87%

I’ve never seen anything like that. None of the other races in Collin County showed anything remotely similar. Either this was a weird quirk or something is wrong with the data.

And finally, here are two stories in the Trib about the Democratic and Republican reactions to Tuesday’s events. Even scarier than “President Trump” is the realization that there’s basically no backstop on these guys any more. The upcoming legislative session is going to be so much worse now. On that cheery note, I’ll bring this to a close.

Races I’ll be watching today, non-Legislative edition

vote-button

This is my companion to yesterday’s piece.

1. SBOE district 5

I’ve discussed the SBOE races before. This particular race, between incumbent Ken Mercer and repeat challenger Rebecca Bell-Metereau, is the one that has the closest spread based on past performance, and thus is the most likely to flip. If it does flip, it would not only have a significant effect on the SBOE, which would go from 10-5 Republican to 9-6, with one of the more noxious members getting ousted, it would also cause a bit of a tremor in that this was not really on anyone’s radar going into 2016. Redistricting is supposed to be destiny, based on long-established voting patterns. If those patterns don’t hold any more, that’s a big effing deal.

2. Appeals courts

I’ve also talked about this. The five courts of interest are the First, Fourth, Fifth, 13th, and 14th Courts of Appeals, and there are multiple benches available to win. I honestly have no idea if having more Democrats on these benches will have a similar effect as having more Democrats on the various federal appellate benches, especially given that the Supreme Court and CCA will most likely remain more or less as they are – I would love to hear from the lawyers out there about this – but I do know that having more Dems on these benches means having more experienced and credible candidates available to run for the Supreme Court and CCA, and also having more such candidates available for elevation to federal benches. Building up the political bench is a big deal.

3. Edwards County Sheriff’s race

Jon Harris is an experienced Democratic lawman running for Sheriff against a wacko extremist in a very Republican county, though one with a small number of voters. This one is about sanity more than anything else.

4. Waller County Sheriff’s race

I’ll be honest, I didn’t have this one on my radar until I read this Trib story about the race, in which the recent death of Sandra Bland is a factor. Waller County went 53-46 for McCain over Obama in 2008, though the Sheriff’s race that featured a problematic Republican was a lot closer. It was 58-41 for Romney, which is close to what it was statewide. Democratic challenger Cedric Watson will have to outperfom the countywide base to defeat incumbent Glenn Smith, it’s mostly a matter of by how much he’ll have to outperform.

5. Harris County Department of Education, Precinct 2

There aren’t any at large HCDE Trustee positions up for election this year, so I haven’t paid much attention to them. This race is interesting for two reasons. One, the Democratic candidate is Sherrie Matula, who is exceptionally qualified and who ran a couple of honorable races for HD129 in 2008 and 2010. And two, this is Jack Morman’s Commissioner’s Court precinct. A win by Matula might serve as a catalyst for a strong candidate (*cough* *cough* Adrian Garcia *cough* *cough*) to run against Morman in 2018.

6. HISD District VII special election

You know this one. It’s Democrat Anne Sung versus two credible Republicans and one non-entity who hasn’t bothered to do anything other than have a few signs put up around town. One key to this race is that it’s the only one that will go to a runoff if no one reaches 50% plus one. Needless to say, the conditions for a December runoff would be very different than the conditions are today.

7. HISD recapture and Heights dry referenda

I don’t think any explanation is needed for these.

What non-legislative races are on your watch list for today?

Laredo plastic bag ban overturned

Ugh.

plastic-bag

The Fourth Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with merchants and free-market groups who argued that Laredo’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because it is pre-empted by state law regulating solid waste disposal.

The 2-1 ruling overturned a lower court’s decision, the latest setback for environmentalists and advocates of local control in Texas.

Laredo, which estimates it once went through some 120 million plastic bags each year, is among several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas — that have sought to regulate them to reduce waste.

The city argued that its ban was designed to beautify the city and reduce clogs in storm drains, not to manage solid waste as barred by the state law.

The lawsuit, filed by the Laredo Merchants Association, was the first challenge to such a ban to be heard in court. And it triggered briefs from 20 Texas lawmakers, a prominent free-market group and the Texas Municipal League — who squabbled over cities’ power to regulate commerce.

Wednesday’s ruling only affects Laredo’s ordinance for now, but it gives legal momentum to bag ban opponents elsewhere.

[…]

The state law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Local governments, it says, can’t adopt a regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

Laredo contended that its bag ban’s purpose — “prevention of litter” — did not fall within the “management purposes” barred under the law.

The appeals court disagreed.

“The Ordinance does exactly what the Act intends to prevent — regulate the sale or use of plastic bags for solid waste management purposes,” Justice Marialyn Barnard wrote for the majority.

See here for the background. I’m sorry, I know I’m not a lawyer, but this is a ridiculous reading of the law. You can see here for the bill in question, and see here for its text. I’d bet you a dollar right now that if you tracked down the key people on that bill – author, sponsor, and conference committee members – none of them would claim it was their intent to forbid cities from banning or taxing plastic bags. The idea never would have occurred to them. It just boggles my mind that people who claim to be “conservatives”, who claim to decry “judicial activism”, who claim to oppose “big government meddling”, could view this as a victory for their principles. Do we want the Legislature to set the solid waste pickup schedules for cities like Laredo, too? I don’t get this at all. But here we are, and far too many of our Republican legislative overlords can’t wait to get to Austin in January and pass bills to do more things like this. This is where we are these days.

By the way, to continue with my hobby horse about the appeals courts and the opportunity that this year’s election provides: That 2-1 decision? The two are both Republicans, and the one is a Democrat. Now, there’s nothing that would keep the Supreme Court from overruling a 2-1 decision that had gone the other way, but still. This is what I’m talking about.

Appeals court blocks litigation against payday lenders

Lousy.

BagOfMoney

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio derailed a class action lawsuit aimed at keeping payday lenders from using the state’s criminal justice system as de facto collection agencies.

The suit filed by 1,400 plaintiffs argued that Cash Biz, a payday lender, illegally used district attorney offices to file criminal charges against debtors. Under the ruling, the plaintiffs will now have to settle their disputes with the firm through individual arbitration.

“This is a devastating opinion,” Daniel Dutko, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview with the Observer. “[It] basically means that payday loan companies can do anything they want and send the cases to individual arbitration where nothing bad will happen except maybe a slap on the wrist.”

In 2013, the Observer was the first to report that Cash Biz and other payday lenders, in violation of state law, were using courts and prosecutors to extract payment from their customers by wrongfully filing criminal charges against them for writing “hot (illegal) checks.”

Under Texas state law, writing a post-dated check to a lender that bounces is not the same as writing an illegal check. When post-dated checks bounce, lenders are supposed to negotiate payment with customers. In fact, state laws forbid payday loan companies from even threatening to pursue criminal charges against their customers, except in unusual circumstances.

But the Observer investigation found at least 1,700 instances in which Texas payday loan companies filed criminal complaints against customers in San Antonio, Houston and Amarillo. In at least a few cases, people landed in jail because they owed money to a payday loan company.

A copy of the opinion is here. I Am Not A Lawyer, so maybe there’s some sound legal reason for this, but on its face it sounds terrible. Forced arbitration clauses are a racket, and even the idea of jailing someone for owing money to a payday loan company is repugnant. If I thought there was a chance the Legislature might address this, I’d be less concerned, but despite bipartisan support for statewide regulations on payday lenders, nothing has happened and nothing is likely to. This just sucks.

By the way, since I have mentioned the appeals court races as an underappreciated target for Democrats this November, I will note that the judge who wrote the majority opinion, a 2015 appointee by Greg Abbott to the 4th Court of Appeals, is on the ballot in Bexar and other counties. The dissenting judge was one of three Democrats (out of five races total) to be elected in 2012. Like I said, opportunities.

Another view of Democratic goals for 2016

Sounds about right.

vote-button

Some Democrats say Clinton has a chance at winning a majority in Texas, where interest is heightened because U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has been mentioned as a possible Clinton running mate. Castro said Friday that he isn’t being vetted as one.

They’re looking for Trump’s rhetoric to help unite Democrats behind their presumptive nominee after her hard fight with U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, although signs of division still exist.

“We’re going to win. It’s going to be bigger than what Obama was able to do when he ran in Texas,” said state Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston. “Donald Trump has done one thing for us. He’s united us.”

Others simply are hoping for some progress, given the steep hill ahead of Democrats who last won a statewide election in 1994. The last time a Democratic presidential candidate lost to a Republican by only single digits in Texas was in 1996, when President Bill Clinton defeated Republican Bob Dole nationally and Reform party candidate Ross Perot got 7 percent of the vote.

“I think that the best that Democrats can hope for this cycle is that we’re getting better,” said Democratic strategist Colin Strother. “What Democrats can hope for this cycle is that everybody gets a little more engaged … that they get out there and start busting their knuckles and building our list and improving our fundamentals.”

Rice University political scientist Mark P. Jones put some parameters on what “better” could look like for Democrats.

“‘Better’ is keeping Trump’s victory in the single digits, and taking back somewhere around a half-dozen state House seats, taking back Congressional District 23 and turning Harris County blue,” Jones said.

In Harris County, he said, that means reclaiming the sheriff’s office, flipping the district attorney and tax assessor-collector offices and sweeping the overwhelming majority of countywide judicial elections.

That’s basically in line with what I suggested previously. On a great day, Dems could pick up two or three more House seats, and it’s not crazy to suggest that Fort Bend County, where Barack Obama won 48.5% of the vote in 2008, could be flipped, but they got the basics. I will note again that an under-the-radar opportunity for Dems is in the district Court of Appeals races. Here’s Texas Lawyer on this possibility:

But political experts who’ve taken a closer look at judicial races in Texas believe there’s one very important set of elections where Trump and his bombastic behavior could do some serious damage to his party’s ballot mates.

If a Trump effect is going to be felt anywhere in Texas, they believe it’s most likely to occur on Republican-held intermediate courts of appeals based in large Texas cities. Those races draw a pool of a mix of voters from both urban and suburban counties. And the split between Democrat and Republican votes have grown much closer in those courts in recent years.

Two simple things have to happen for the Trump effect to upset a down-ballot races in Texas, according to Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political science professor who had studied the state’s voting trends for years.

First, Democrats in urban counties have to come out and vote at full strength to vote against him. And second, Republican voters who are turned off by the bigoted and often offensive candidate have to stay home on Election Day in November.

“When you think about Texas’ major cities, the inner cities are blue, the inner ring suburbs are purple and the outlying suburbs are red,” Jillson said. And the biggest problem for Republicans can be found in the purple suburbs, where stalwart Republicans may be turned off by Trump, he said.

“Two thirds of Republicans didn’t vote for Trump, but most are making their peace with him. And the money people are coming back to Trump,” Jillson said. “But … for a party to be competitive, they have to pull 90 percent of their electorate. And if you’re only pulling 85 percent up to 90 percent, you’ll lose. And that will effect congressional races and some state races.”

And the best place to watch the Trump effect in action on election night might be Houston’s First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals and Dallas’ Fifth Court of Appeals. Those courts, which have six seats up for grabs, are based in solid Democratic counties but are surrounded by numerous smaller red counties that have made those courts safe seats for Republicans for more than two decades.

The Trump effect has Democrats believing they now have the best shot ever for electing a complete slate of candidates to the Houston and Dallas courts of appeals. Democrats mounted a complete sweep of trial court races in Dallas County in 2006 and nearly took all of those seats in Harris County in 2008.

Those aren’t the only ones to watch. Dems lost a seat on the 13th Court of Appeals in the 2010 debacle, for example. That bench, held by 2008 Supreme Court candidate Linda Yanez, is up for re-election this year, and Dems have an experienced candidate in a judicial district that gave over 58% of the vote to a Democrat in 2008. There are Democrats running for Republican-held benches on the 4th (anchored in Bexar County) as well. The 13th should be the easiest pickup, with perhaps the 4th being next, and the 1st, 5th, and 14th more challenging still, but those are all opportunities that should be watched. The weeds get deeper from here, but you get the idea. There are available gains and attainable goals. We need to define what we want and figure out how we want to get them.

Plastic bag litigation update

This could be a big deal.

plastic-bag

Is a plastic bag a container? Does the definition of “solid waste management” include litter control?

If a state appeals court answers yes to both of those questions, regulations on plastic bags in several Texas cities — including Austin, Fort Stockton, and Port Aransas, which ban the bags, and Brownsville, which requires businesses to charge customers a $1 fee for the bags — could be in danger.

The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio heard oral arguments Tuesday in Laredo Merchants Association v. City of Laredo, in which the merchants claim the city’s ban on single-use bags is illegal because existing state law regulating solid waste disposal preempts it.

The law in question is a small piece of Texas’ Health and Safety Code. Section 361.0961, passed into law by the 1993 Solid Waste Disposal Act, says that local governments can’t adopt regulation to “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Arguments on Tuesday focused on the definitions of several phrases in the law, especially “container or package” and “solid waste management,” and what, precisely, the Legislature had intended.

The merchants’ case is the first challenge to a Texas municipality’s bag ordinance to make it to court. The Texas Retailers Association filed a suit against Austin’s bag ban in 2013 but later withdrew its petition, and Dallas repealed its bag fee after plastic bag manufacturers sued last year.

The Laredo merchants sued the city in March 2015, and appealed to the Fourth Court after the 341st Judicial District Court in Webb County sided with the city last June. A victory for the merchants could mean the overturning of local bag regulations across the state, while a win for Laredo could encourage other cities to pass regulations of their own.

[…]

On its face, the case is a fight over flimsy pieces of plastic. But the series of amicus briefs filed on each side establish that a much weightier issue is at stake: How much power do local governments have to establish regulations that affect commerce? Three Texas state senators and 17 state representatives, all Republicans, filed an amicus brief last week in support of the merchants, arguing, like the Texas Public Policy Foundation, that state law preempts the bag ban. The Texas Municipal League filed a brief in support of the city. Executive director Bennett Sandlin told the Tribune that the bag issue is one where local control is particularly important because different cities have different environmental concerns; Fort Stockton, for example, cited cattle deaths from ingesting plastic as a reason for the bag ban.

The implications of the local control dispute go beyond plastic bags and extend to ridesharing, energy, rent control, and other areas where municipalities have sought to pass stringent regulations. Last May, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law House Bill 40, which limited local regulation of drilling activities after Denton voted to ban hydraulic fracking in the city. Recently, legislators have vowed to address local rules on ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

“We’ve got a Legislature that used to believe in local control and now, some of them, all they believe is control of the locals,” Sandlin said. “We’re facing it not just in plastic bags but any number of issues.”

You can say that again. I’ve blogged a bunch about plastic bags, but this lawsuit had escaped my notice till now. I fully expect the issue to be on the agenda for the Lege in 2017 no matter what happens here. It’s not that Texas Republicans love regulating individual behavior, it’s that they do not recognize as legitimate any form of governance that does things they don’t approve of. They sue the feds, and now the cities are squarely in their sights. Look at the words of two-bit authoritarians like Sen. Don Huffines, who was quoted again in this story, and ask yourself whatever happened to the Republican brand of “small government”. Whatever else these guys are now, that ain’t it.