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ACLU of Texas

Pro-choice groups sue that “abortion sanctuary cities” guy

Good.

Three abortion support organizations – The Lilith Fund, the Texas Equal Access Fund, and The Afiya Center – are hitting back at anti-choice activist Mark Lee Dickson and the group he leads, Right to Life East Texas.

Those two are now the defendants in a defamation lawsuit, after labeling the pro-choice groups “criminal” and spewing lies about abortion care to – in their eyes – purposely “confuse, intimidate, and dissuade” abortion-seeking women in Texas. Dickson and Right to Life are behind the string of abortion bans passed recently by small Texas towns, many of which were also sued earlier this year by the ACLU of Texas.

“With this lawsuit, we are saying enough is enough,” said Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, a reproductive justice group that addresses the health disparities black women and girls face. “We have been at the hands of those seeking to distort our purpose by damaging our standing in the community. Going after organizations like ours will not stop us from helping black folk; it will only cause confusion in our communities and create barriers to people seeking abortion care. The women that we serve have already been marginalized and disenfranchised and we are saying enough already. To be labeled as a ‘criminal entity’ presents a clear and present danger to the life of this organization.”

[…]

In February, the ACLU of Texas, representing the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund, filed suit against seven towns that passed the ordinance, arguing they violated pro-choice advocates’ First Amendment rights. By ideologically designating those groups as criminal entities, the towns are illegally imposing punishment without a fair trial, they argued. By May, the ACLU dropped the lawsuit after the cities backed down and revised ordinance language to stop calling such groups “criminal.”

Even with that partial victory, the plaintiffs believe a lot of damage is already done. They want to make sure Dickson and Right to Life East Texas are held accountable for disrupting and confusing communities who have a right to abortion care. Though the cities themselves have amended their ordinances, Dickson and his group continue in defamatory conduct as they “refuse to stop lying and refuse to correct the false record,” attorneys write in legal challenges filed today. (Afiya and TEA have filed suit in Dallas County while the Lilith Fund filed in Travis County district court.)

“The Lilith Fund has been defamed because Defendants have falsely accused it of assisting in the commission of the specific crime of murder,” the suit reads. “Ultimately, defamation is the purpose of the ordinance; Dickson’s campaign is designed to confuse people about the legal status of abortion and abortion advocacy, and paint abortion rights organizations like the Lilith Fund as criminals.”

See here and here for the background. Accusations of criminal activity, when done with malicious intent, is not protected speech. I look forward to these groups taking that guy to the cleaners. KUT, the Dallas Observer, and this TEA Fund Twitter thread have more.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

It’s a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A state district judge on Wednesday said he will move forward with an order easing restrictions for voting by mail in Texas in light of the new coronavirus pandemic.

After conducting a video conference hearing in a lawsuit filed by state Democrats and civic organizations, Judge Tim Sulak told the attorneys he will issue a temporary injunction allowing all voters fearful of contracting coronavirus if they vote in person to ask for a mail-in ballot under a portion of the Texas election code allowing absentee ballots for voters who cite a disability. His ruling, which is almost certain to be appealed by the state, could greatly expand the number of voters casting ballots by mail in the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

[…]

During the hearing, those plaintiffs offered up two expert witnesses — a local doctor and an epidemiologist — who testified to the risks for transmitting the virus that would come with in-person voting. Meanwhile, the risks tied to mail ballots are “negligible,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The Texas attorney general’s office, which intervened in the case, argued against the expansion, claiming the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a “sickness or physical condition” and not those who fear contracting a disease “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”

Just as the hearing was wrapping up, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton made public an “informal letter of advice” that further teed up what is expected to be a drawn out court battle over expanding voting by mail ahead of the runoffs and the November election.

Paxton stated that an individual’s sole fear of contracting the virus was not enough to meet the definition of disability to qualify for a mail ballot, and that those who advise voters to apply for a mail ballot based on that fear could be criminally prosecuted.

See here and here for the background; there is also a federal lawsuit over the same issues, for which I don’t know the status. The Chron adds some more detail.

State law currently allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result,” Paxton wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature … The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.”

The state’s elections director earlier this month issued guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties pointing to the election code’s disability clause, which voting rights advocates had claimed as a victory.

Attorneys for the Democratic Party argued in court on Wednesday that the disability clause “plainly provided for circumstances such as this when public health makes it dangerous to vote in person.”

But they said the courts need to make that clear as county officials are currently wrestling with how to conduct the upcoming runoff elections in July, when voters will pick a Democrat to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

“This is a total muddled mess,” said Glen Maxey, the Texas Democratic Party’s primary director, who administers elections in dozens of counties, as he testified about the guidance during a court hearing on Wednesday. “We’re going to have a mishmash of who can vote and who cannot vote by mail in this election.”

But Anna Mackin, an assistant attorney general, argued that the law clearly does not cover those afraid of COVID-19 and urged state District Judge Tim Sulak “not to allow this global crisis to be manipulated as a basis for rewriting a provision of the election code.”

Yes, Paxton’s “letter” does indeed seem to fly in the face of that SOS advisory. Is that a lack of communication between branches, or a real difference of opinion? Hard to say. Bear in mind, there’s nothing in state law that allows the Governor to order the cessation of abortions in the state. AG Ken Paxton interpreted the Abbott emergency order that initiated a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services to include abortion providers, which the exigent circumstances allowed. Here, however, he’s arguing that these same exigent circumstances do not allow for an interpretation of the state’s absentee ballot law that includes voting by mail for people who claim under that law that they are unable to vote in person. It’s not that these interpretations are indefensible, but the two of them together sure suggest a strictly partisan motive. (Add in the ruling that gun shops do count as “essential” for some extra zest.)

In a vacuum, I think people of good faith could reasonably differ on the interpretation of our vaguely-worded state law, and one could make a principled argument that it’s the role of the Legislature to make such a significant change in how it should be read and enforced. But Ken Paxton is not making a good faith argument, he’s simply doing what he always does, advancing his partisan interests over anything else. He certainly may win, in both venues. Let’s just be clear about what he’s doing. The TDP (a plaintiff in the case), the ACLU of Texas (an intervenor), and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

The dispute—which asks whether all Texans should be able to vote by mail because of social distancing restrictions and the risk of contracting the coronavirus—was headed to a higher court. Acknowledging that, Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd District Court ruled from the bench that he would grant a temporary injunction, and reject jurisdictional arguments by the state of Texas.
The judge will issue a written order once it’s prepared.

Sulak said that if voters didn’t get clarity on whether the Texas vote-by-mail law applied to them, they might face a choice of having to vote in person, and accept the risk of getting sick. Or they could try to apply for a mail-in ballot. However, if the government later found their mail-in ballot inappropriate, voters could face prosecution, or find that their ballot was not counted, the judge said.

Also, if Sulak didn’t grant relief, he said there was a risk of future conflicts involving candidates filing election contests to challenge the voting results.

“Some of that could lead to the unstable, unsettled, uncertain situation about: Who are our elected representatives,” Sulak said. “Especially now that we are in this disaster scenario, where we don’t have courts running as efficiently as they have previously, it could result in some very serious governance issues, very serious jurisprudential issues.”

[…]

The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction, and eventually a permanent injunction, that would require the defendants to accept and tabulate mail-in ballots from voters who are practicing social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, the state of Texas, which intervened as a defendant, argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. The state claimed that a voter wouldn’t qualify to vote by mail just from having a fear of contracting the coronavirus. Also, the claim wasn’t ripe, since no one knows if the contagion will still be present in July, when the primary runoff elections are scheduled.

However, during a hearing Wednesday on the application for a temporary restraining order, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who testified for the plaintiffs said that it’s highly likely that the coronavirus will continue to spread in Texas through the summer.

“Once social distancing guidelines are relaxed, in my expert opinion, it’s inevitable we will see a rise in cases,” said Cathy Troisi, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Voters going to the polls will be at risk of infection because they’ll come into close contact with other people, and they’ll touch voting machines that many voters have touched, Troisi explained. Election workers would be at a higher risk, because they stay at polling locations all day and have contact with many more people, she added.

When asked if voting by mail carries a risk of infection, Troisi replied, ”Voting by mail does not, so yes, voting by mail would protect the public health and public safety of Texans.”

Sulak rejected the state’s jurisdictional arguments, which also included claims that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the vote-by-mail law was significantly expanding the statute the Texas Legislature wrote.

“I respect the separation of powers. We’ve got a choice here between arguments from that perspective and arguments from something that has seminal, fundamental, individual constitutional rights: that is, free people making full choices and having full access to have choices about their government,” Sulak said.

The judge asked plaintiffs’ counsel to draft an temporary restraining order, and to submit a proposed order denying the state’s plea to the jurisdiction.

And now we wait for the appeal, and for a hearing in the federal case.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

From Ian Millhiser at Vox, who is decidedly more pessimistic about the plaintiffs’ chances. He starts by noting how restrictive Texas’ existing vote-by-mail law is.

The law only allows Texas voters to obtain an absentee ballot under a very limited list of circumstances. Voters may obtain an absentee ballot if they plan to be absent from their home county on Election Day, if they have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from voting in person, if they are over the age of 65, or if they are jailed.

It is far from clear that a healthy person who remains at home to avoid contracting coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot.

Texas Democratic Party v. Hughs, a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party, seeks to fix this law — or, at least, to interpret the law in a way that will ensure healthy people can still vote. But the lawsuit potentially faces an uphill battle in a state court system dominated by conservative judges.

All nine members of the state Supreme Court are Republicans, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion seeking to intervene in the lawsuit — a sign that he intends to resist efforts to prevent this law from disenfranchising voters.

The stakes in this case are astoundingly high. As Texas Democrats note in their complaint, voters are “now heavily discouraged” from even leaving their homes “by various government orders and are being discouraged in an enormous public education campaign.”

Even if the pandemic were to end by July 14, when the state plans to hold several runoff elections, “certain populations will feel the need and/or be required to continue social distancing.” Millions of voters could potentially be forced to choose between losing their right to vote and risking contracting a deadly disease.

[…]

Whether these Texans can get an absentee ballot could end up depending on how the courts interpret the phrase “physical condition.”

On the one hand, the law explicitly labels this provision as an accommodation for people who have a “disability.” The words “physical condition” also appear in conjunction with the word “sickness,” which implies that those words should be interpreted to refer to some sort of disabling condition that only a subset of Texans possess. Often, when a law uses a general term in the context of other, more specific terms, courts will assume that the general term should be given a narrow reading — one similar to the specific terms.

On the other hand, the literal meaning of the words “physical condition” is much more expansive. As a team of civil rights lawyers, including several from the ACLU, argue in a motion suggesting that the state law should be read expansively, “everyone has a physical condition” that prevents them from appearing at their polling place during a pandemic — the physical condition of being susceptible to coronavirus.

Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate. One judge might argue that the words “physical condition” should be read expansively, because that is the ordinary meaning of those words. Another might argue that they must be read in context with words like “sickness.”

The problem facing the Texas Democratic Party is that, when a fair judge acting in good faith could legitimately read a law in two different ways, it is very easy for a partisan judge to choose the interpretation they prefer. And every one of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court is a Republican.

Because older voters tend to prefer the GOP, the Texas Republican Party has a clear interest in preserving a legal regime that allows voters over 65 to obtain an absentee ballot but makes it much harder for younger voters to do so.

That said, if Democrats lose this particular lawsuit, that does not necessarily mean millions of Texans will lose their right to vote. It’s possible a federal court could rescue Texas voters in a separate lawsuit — one that most likely has not even been filed yet — holding that the unique burden the coronavirus pandemic imposes on voters renders Texas’s strict absentee ballot law unconstitutional.

This was written before the TDP filed its federal lawsuit, so bear that in mind as you read. I appreciate the analysis, which is the first in-depth look at the crux of the issue that I’ve seen. It’s a little crazy that it all hangs on the interpretation of two words, but here we are. I agree that in normal times one could reasonably interpret this either way, but if there’s ever a time for a bit of leeway, this is it. It’s not terribly surprising to me that the AG’s office has petitioned to intervene in the case – this is standard procedure for when the state gets sued, though the SOS does have its own attorneys. I’m more keen to know what if anything Greg Abbott thinks – if there’s going to be some influence on the court, it’ll come from him. There are definitely plenty of Republican elected officials who are in denial about the situation, and that could lead to pressure on Abbott to take a line-in-the-sand stance. Hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or it won’t.

It’s also possible that the delayed July 14 primary runoffs will go off without any problems and in-person voting is fine, thus leading to a sense of complacency for November. Or maybe things will still be bad, or at least bad in the more-Republican rural areas, and that might make some people more aware of the fact that everyone has something to lose if we don’t plan better. That recent SOS advisory leaves me with some hope for a settlement in the existing litigation. The real tell will be if and when the usual agitators on the right start whipping up a frenzy. Remember also that the Republicans are busy trying to register voters this year – they have a stake in getting whatever new voters they sign up to the polls, too. Like I said, I have hope for a settlement, but it’s too early to tell which way the wind will blow.

Abbott’s stay-in-jail order blocked and then unblocked

This was Friday.

A state district judge in Travis County has temporarily blocked enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to limit jail releases during the new coronavirus pandemic. She cited unconstitutional provisions and overreach of executive power in the gubernatorial order.

State District Judge Lora Livingston issued her ruling Friday night after a lawsuit this week challenged the governor’s order that prohibited judges from releasing some inmates without paying bail. Abbott’s order was prompted by some local officials moving to reduce the number of people locked up in disease-prone county jails. He said “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.”

Abbott’s order banned the release of jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime on no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas argued in their lawsuit filed Wednesday that Abbott’s order violates the constitutional separation of powers and keeps only poor defendants in jails. The plaintiffs, represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project, asked the court to declare Abbott’s order unconstitutional and an overreach of his power.

[…]

In a virtual hearing Friday, Livingston repeatedly questioned how the governor’s order affected public safety and whether he could make a widespread decision to take away judges’ authority to individually assess defendants.

“I’m just trying to understand how this order without regard to any particular specific information about a case can blanketly decide that a personal bond is not necessary or appropriate or required in a particular situation,” she said. “I’m troubled by the sort of blanket nature of that order in the same way that apparently the governor was concerned about a blanket order from judges that hasn’t yet happened but could theoretically be entered.”

[…]

“What confusion is solved by the governor taking action in this way when in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the Harris County district judges, there’s no confusion at all?” she asked Biggs. “I think the judges do what they do and that Harris County order seemed to bear that out: This is what judges do everyday and we will handle it, thank you very much.”

She later added that the county judge can’t tell local judges how to make decisions. “That’s not how separation of powers works; that’s not how reality works.”

See here for the previous update. Judge Livingston more or less addressed the question I had raised, which is that given how the judges in Harris County had already said they were going to operate, what was Abbott’s order even doing? This ruling was to in effect until April 24, at which time there will be another hearing. But then the Supreme Court stepped in:

The Texas Supreme Court has revived Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the high court stayed a state district judge’s ruling from Friday night that blocked Abbott’s order. The district judge cited unconstitutional provisions and an overreach of executive power in her temporary order against Abbott. The Supreme Court’s order is also temporary, with responses due to the court Monday evening.

The legal battle stems from an Abbott order issued last month during the state disaster. The governor’s order prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

A copy of Judge Livingston’s ruling is here. I would refer you to the Grits for Breakfast analysis of why the plaintiffs should win on the merits, which now we have to hope that the Supreme Court is able to recognize as well. The Chron has more.

Another lawsuit filed over Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

There’s no slowdown in the litigation business, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the new coronavirus pandemic is facing a second court challenge arguing his order violates the constitutional separation of powers and discriminates against poor criminal defendants.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas sued Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Wednesday in Travis County district court. The plaintiffs are represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Last month, Abbott issued an executive order that suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes without paying bail. The order largely banned judges across the state from releasing such defendants on no-cost, personal bonds, which can include conditions like drug testing and regular check-ins. The attorney general’s office has said no-cost release could be considered for individuals based on health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, which some attorneys said takes weeks.

But, under Abbott’s order, people accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still quickly be released from jail if they had access to cash. The lawsuit argues Abbott’s order ignores constitutionally-mandated separation of powers by taking away judges’ discretion. It also states the system put in place under the order creates an unconstitutional wealth-based system, similar to those that federal courts have slammed in Texas counties.

“The harms of this order are not abstract: poor people are being detained pretrial with no way to escape a possible jail outbreak,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The governor has overstepped his legal authority, and this is causing significant harm on the ground.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the lawsuit is here and the full statement from the ACLU is here. I get that this lawsuit is over the authority Abbott has to suspend various criminal laws, but it’s a little unclear to me what the actual stakes are. The misdemeanor court judges, who are plaintiffs in this suit, have already said they will continue to abide by the bail lawsuit agreement, while the felony court judges are doing their own thing. I guess we’ll find out when we start having hearings. If you’re a lawyer and want to help clarify this for me, please do. Grits has more.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

ACLU sues the “abortion sanctuary cities”

This was expected.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against seven Texas cities on Tuesday for passing ordinances that aim to ban abortion by outlawing providers and advocates from doing business in their towns.

The suit, brought by the ACLU of Texas and ACLU National, contends the cities are violating the free speech of the eight banned groups, which include abortion providers and organizations that help people who need abortions. The ordinances label the groups “criminal organizations” and make it unlawful for them to operate within city limits.

“These ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Anjali Salvador, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Abortion is legal in every city and state in the country. Cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important work.”

The ordinances subject groups that would aid women seeking an abortion to illegal punishment without a fair trial, according to the lawsuit. The Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two of the eight groups banned from operating in the cities, are among the plaintiffs. Other banned organizations include Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

The ordinances make it unlawful for the organizations to offer services of any kind in the city, rent office space, purchase property or establish a physical presence. On the other hand, the ordinances acknowledge that cities cannot ban abortion under current law unless the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn abortion protections guaranteed in Roe v Wade.

[…]

Waskom, a small town on the Texas-Louisiana border, became the first city in the state to ban abortion this way, although it had no abortion clinics. City officials voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, fearful a Louisiana law banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected could push clinics to relocate in Texas. Six other small cities in East Texas have passed similar ordinances: Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary and Wells.

The ordinances make it illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion. They also offer families of an aborted fetus the ability to sue abortion providers.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. I haven’t blogged about most of these ordinances because there’s not much new to say for each, and so far all of the “cities” involved have been tiny towns that have no clinics in them. You’d think that just the provision making it “illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion” would be unconstitutional – would a city also be allowed to make it illegal to “provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on” gambling in Louisiana, or smoking weed in Colorado, or visiting the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, all things that are presumably also frowned upon by the people of Waskom? In theory, the Uber driver who takes you to the Greyhound station for a trip to Planned Parenthood in Houston would be guilty under this law, as would the driver of the Greyhound bus. You can’t stop someone from engaging in a perfectly legal pursuit.

As is always the case with this sort of thing, I agree completely with the intent of the lawsuit, and I’d love to see these towns get socked with large legal bills for their exercise in unconstitutional frivolity, that they may serve as grim examples for the next burg that might find itself tempted by the zealous anti-abortion grifters that sold them on it. But I admit to having some concerns as well. Do we really want to 1) provide another opportunity for Ken Paxton to grandstand (which, even though the state is not a party to the lawsuit, you know he will), 2) provide the Fifth Circuit with an opportunity to invent a reason why this is all hunky dory, and 3) provide SCOTUS with another opportunity to kneecap Roe v. Wade without explicitly overruling it? I shouldn’t have to feel this way – these ordinances are so obviously wrong there should be no cause for concern – but this is the world we live in. I just don’t love the risk/reward profile on this, and I hate myself for saying that. The Trib has more.

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.

Galveston ordered to provide counsel at bail hearings

Sure seems like the proper thing to do.

Add Galveston to the list of Texas counties that have been court ordered to change their bail practices.

A federal district judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction in a 2018 lawsuit where attorneys for inmates have called Galveston County’s money bail system discriminatory against poor criminal defendants. The court’s order doesn’t target the entire pretrial system — which has largely changed since the suit was filed after federal rulings against Harris County. But it requires poor arrestees to have a lawyer at their first court appearance, where their bail is set to determine the monetary or other conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before trial.

The ACLU of Texas, which represents Galveston County inmates in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the order that it was the first court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to counsel, requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”

[…]

Since the lawsuit was filed — and as the two most populous counties in the state were repeatedly slammed by federal judges for their bail practices — Galveston County has transformed its pretrial practices. The district attorney’s office still recommends bail amounts from a schedule, but the judicial officer setting bail now has financial information the defendant provided before the first court appearance. Defendants who want to request a lower bond amount for financial reasons can get a second bail review hearing, typically within 12 hours of their first court appearance, where a defense attorney is present to represent all the defendants before the judge in that time slot.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr.’s injunction, however, said the county needs to have a lawyer not just at the review hearings, but at the initial court appearance. He clarified that the order applies to those arrested without warrants and that are first seen in court through Galveston County jail. Hanks adopted the recommendation of magistrate judge Andrew Edison, who said having a defense attorney at a hearing where the court determines how, if at all, to release a defendant before trial, is “a no-brainer.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here and a copy of the magistrate’s recommendations is here. I have to say, I don’t know what the argument against providing an attorney for defendants at bail hearings is, but we’ll find out if there’s an appeal. The Chron has more.

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed a bill into law that limits the scope of a controversial anti-Israel boycott law, just weeks after a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in an ongoing First Amendment lawsuit.

The 2017 law — which seeks to combat the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, an international protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — prohibits state agencies from investing in and contracting with companies that boycott Israel. It also requires anyone contracting with the state to pledge in writing that it will not boycott Israel.

The changes Abbott signed into law Tuesday make it only applicable to contracts of at least $100,000 with companies with 10 or more full-time employees. Legislators who support the law have said they never intended for it to impact individuals or small businesses.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, did not waste time in filing a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought by several Texas contractors who claimed it violated their right to free speech.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Paxton argued that “this legislative enactment is exactly the kind of development that the Fifth Circuit has recognized will render a case moot.”

ACLU of Texas spokeswoman Imelda Mejia said the agency, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the agency is “analyzing the new law and its possible implications on our case.”

[…]

Federal judges have struck down laws in Arizona and Kansas and upheld one in Arkansas; all are on appeal but the Kansas law.

There, after the Kansas Legislature made nearly identical changes to those signed by Abbott on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, lacking an affected plaintiff, agreed to dismiss its lawsuit.

See here for the background. Given that the lawsuit in question involved an individual who would no longer be affected by the law, it probably is the case that a motion to dismiss would succeed. That said – and here I put on my I Am Not A Lawyer hat – I don’t think the change to the law fixes the underlying constitutional problem. We’ll see if the court agrees.

Settlement officially reached in lawsuits over bogus SOS advisory

Great news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Three months after first questioning the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, the Texas secretary of state has agreed to end a review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens that was flawed from the start.

The deal was announced Friday as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges brought by more than a dozen naturalized citizens and voting rights groups against the state. The groups alleged that the voter citizenship review, which was launched in late January, was unconstitutional and violated federal protections for voters of color.

Secretary of State David Whitley — who has yet to be confirmed by the Texas Senate amid the fallout over the review — agreed to scrap the lists of registered voters his office had sent to county voter registrars for examination. Whitley’s office will instruct local officials to take no further action on the names of people it had classified as “possible non-U.S citizens,” and county officials will be charged with notifying voters who received letters demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

The state is also on the hook for $450,000 in costs and attorney fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The agreement must still be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, and the state will have five days after the judge dismisses the plaintiffs’ legal claims to officially rescind the list. But the settlement amounts to a profound defeat for the state leaders who had defended the review even though it had jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens.

“Today’s agreement accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens,” Whitley said in a statement Friday. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders in the election community to ensure this process is conducted in a manner that holds my office accountable and protects the voting rights of eligible Texans.”

See here for the background. I thought at the time that this was a resounding defeat for the state of Texas, and I very much still think that. Honestly, I’m stunned that the state gave up like this instead of taking their chances with the ever-pliable Fifth Circuit. Did they think their case was such a loser that even the Fifth Circuit wouldn’t bail them out? It’s mind-boggling. Anyway, here are the statements from the various plaintiffs in the suit, courtesy of the ACLU’s press release:

“After months of litigation, the state has finally agreed to do what we’ve demanded from the start — a complete withdrawal of the flawed and discriminatory voter purge list, bringing this failed experiment in voter suppression to an end,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “The right to vote is sacrosanct, and no eligible voter should have to worry about losing that right. We are glad that the state has agreed to give up this misguided effort to eliminate people from the voter rolls, and we will continue to monitor any future voter purge attempt by the state to ensure that no eligible Texan loses their voice in our democracy.”

“Three months after the state released a discriminatory and flawed voter purge list, they have finally agreed to completely withdraw the advisory that risked throwing tens of thousands of potentially eligible voters off the rolls,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “State officials have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and struck fear and confusion into thousands of voters in order to pursue their voter suppression agenda. We are glad that this particular effort was stopped in its tracks and we will remain vigilant to ensure that not one single voter loses their right to vote due to the actions of state officials.”

“While we are glad to see this program scrapped, it’s important to remember that the state not only began to disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters, but also threatened them with criminal prosecution,” said Brendan Downes, associate counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project. “Naturalized citizens are, by definition, Americans. It’s time for the state to start treating them that way.”

“Secretary Whitley’s agreement to scrap what the court called a ‘ham-handed’ process and implement these common sense changes will go a long way to protecting eligible naturalized citizens from being improperly purged from the rolls,” said Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We will continue to monitor the secretary and counties to protect eligible Texas voters from discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.”

“This settlement acknowledges that naturalized Americans have full and equal voting rights — they cannot be singled out and purged from the rolls due to their status,” said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos. “The settlement is a victory for our clients and all in Texas who were wrongfully deemed ineligible to vote. The secretary’s actions were reckless and misguided, and we hope that other states will take note and avoid similar unlawful actions.”

“The League regrets that it took a lawsuit to remind our state officials that naturalized citizens have a right to vote and to fully participate in our democracy,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. “We are hopeful that new procedures will prevent naturalized citizens from being treated as second class citizens. We will continue to work with the secretary of state, as the chief election officer for Texas, to protect all citizens’ right to vote.”

“When the secretary of state tried to discriminate against eligible voters in a dangerous voter purge, we stood up to challenge this egregious act of voter suppression. Today, we won,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas Civic Fund. “Young naturalized citizens no longer have to worry about this reckless voter purge impacting their constitutional right to vote. We will continue to fight for all young voters across the state.”

The whole thing is also visible at the Texas Civil Rights Project webpage. The Secretary of State – who by the way still needs to be someone other than the deeply incompetent David Whitley – will still conduct reviews of voter rolls to look for non-citizens, it will just need to be done under this new framework. The one remaining question is what will happen with the voters whose names were referred to AG Ken Paxton for possible criminal investigation. We’ll just have to see what Paxton does – I can’t imagine him turning down an opportunity to grandstand, but he may be just smart enough to decline to pursue cases that will be tough to win given the questionableness of the evidence. With him, it could go either way. The Chron, the Dallas Observer, and Slate have more.

Injunction granted against Texas anti-Israel boycott law

From the inbox:

A federal court today ruled that a Texas law that requires government contractors to certify that they are not engaged in boycotts of Israel or companies that do business with Israel is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that the law, HB 89, which went into effect in 2017 violates the First Amendment’s protection against government intrusion into political speech and expression.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free speech rights of all Texans,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, who argued the motion to block the law in court. “The right to boycott is deeply ingrained in American tradition, from our nation’s founding to today. The state cannot dictate the views of its own citizens on the Israel/Palestine conflict – or any issue – by preventing them from exercising their First Amendment right to boycott.”

“We applaud this decision, though nothing about it surprises us; in its decision the court has affirmed its understanding that this law was intended to chill the expression of personal opinion,” stated Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “By any name, that’s free speech and free speech is the north star of our democracy. It’s foundational, and this decision underlines that no issue of importance can be addressed if the speech about it is stymied, or worse, silenced.”

The ACLU of Texas filed its lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of four Texans who were forced to choose between signing away their right to boycott or forgoing job opportunities and losing income. Those plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU Speech Privacy & Technology Project, and Kevin Dubose of Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP in Houston.

“I’m very happy that the judge has decided to support our right to hold our own political beliefs and express them as we see fit,” said John Pluecker, a plaintiff in the ACLU of Texas lawsuit. “This ruling goes beyond just the plaintiffs – this law needed to be challenged for everyone. People in Texas need to know that our ability to earn our livelihoods won’t be threatened by the state because of our political positions.”

More information on the case is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/en/press-releases/aclu-texas-files-first-amendment-challenge-anti-boycott-law

A copy of today’s decision is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/4-25-19_bds_order.pdf

The first paragraph in that press release is inaccurate. This was not a final ruling, it was a ruling on a motion for a temporary injunction, as well as a ruling on motions to dismiss by the defendants. The court granted the motion for the injunction and enjoined the state from enforcing HB89, while denying the motions to dismiss. I noted this lawsuit in passing in this post about the Texas-versus-AirBnB matter. This NYT profile of plaintiff Bahia Amawi has some good information if you want more. A law like this just seems unconstitutional on its face – it restricts speech in a clear and direct manner – but as we know by now, the federal courts can be a strange place. Just keep this law in mind the next time you hear Greg Abbott or someone like him prattle on about supposed efforts to curb “free speech” on college campuses. See the Chron and the Trib for more.

LULAC settles its SOS lawsuit

Good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The state of Texas is ending a program to purge voters it claimed were noncitizens in order to settle lawsuits brought by civil rights groups over the plan.

The deal was reached following a meeting Monday in San Antonio between acting Secretary of State David Whitley and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs.

The groups brought three separate lawsuits — filed in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston — alleging the program illegally targeted immigrant voters and resulted in voter intimidation. The suits were consolidated into one in San Antonio with the lead case, which was filed by LULAC and Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

As part of the deal, Whitley and his staff will tell county voter registrars and local election administrators to take no further action on any data files the state had sent them in late January, but may start a new program that won’t demand voters prove their U.S. citizenship.

[…]

As part of the settlement, the state will scrap the data it used for the first program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

The state will also work with LULAC and the other plaintiffs groups on the plan by sharing the methodology and data used.

The process will enable the state to remove voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, while being the least disruptive to those who are U.S. citizens, LULAC said.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As noted, both of the other two lawsuits were joined with this one, so what happens here is going to be the final word. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I was not able to find a copy of the settlement, but this sure looks like a big win for the plaintiffs. Honestly, just the fact that the state is settling and not taking its chances with the Fifth Circuit tells you something. Kudos to the plaintiffs for forcing some accountability into this mess.

UPDATE: It’s not fully done, but it’s close.

A deal was about “99 percent” done Monday, after Secretary of State David Whitley met in San Antonio with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs, said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel.

As part of the tentative agreement discussed Monday, the state would scrap the data it used for the first voter purge program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” Vera said. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

The parties were to return to the table Tuesday to hammer out additional terms before taking the final deal to a judge for review.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the secretary of state, said that while there is no official settlement yet, progress was made Monday.

“We are encouraged by the positive and constructive progress we have made with the plaintiffs, and we remain committed to our goal of maintaining accurate voter rolls while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on eligible Texas voters,” Taylor said.

Stay tuned.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Civil rights groups push back on bogus SOS letter

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lawyers with 13 organizations — including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — are demanding that the state rescind an advisory sent to local election officials regarding the individuals whose citizenship status the state says the counties should consider checking. In a letter sent Monday, the groups requested a response by Jan. 30, claiming that the state’s data was flawed and demanding more information about the methodology it used.

Some of the groups are considering litigation against the state, said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The letter comes three days after the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who had provided the Texas Department of Safety some form of documentation, such as a green card or a work visa, that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or an ID cards.

“Using such a data set to review the current citizenship status of anyone is inherently flawed because it fails to account for individuals who became naturalized citizens and registered to vote at any point after having obtained their driver license or personal identification card,” the lawyers wrote.

In their letter, the groups point to efforts in Florida that used similar methodology to create a list of approximately 180,000 registered voters that officials claimed were noncitizens based on records used when they obtained driver’s licenses. That fight ended up in federal court after more than 2,600 were mistakenly removed from the rolls after being classified as noncitizens. About 85 voters “ultimately proved actionable,” the lawyers wrote.

See here for the background. The letter to the SOS is here, and the letter they sent to all 254 county election administrators is here. The latter is both a public information request for “all records relating to the Advisory, including but not limited to the list of all individuals identified by the Secretary of State or Department of Public Safety as potential non-citizens, the Voter Unique Identifier for each of those individuals, and all communications and correspondence with the Secretary of State concerning the Advisory”, and a plea to not take any action “unless and until the Secretary of State has provided greater transparency on its procedures and ensured there are adequate safeguards for not identifying lawfully registered naturalized citizens.” The letter to the SOS lays out their demands for more information, and drops a little math on them:

Given that Texas Driver Licenses and ID Cards do not expire for a full six years after they are issued, the odds are quite high that this list of purported non-citizens includes tens of thousands of people who are now US citizens entitled to vote. Indeed, each year, between 52,000-63,000 Texans become naturalized citizens (roughly the same number of potential non-citizens you claim have voted in Texas elections over a 22-year period).1 Given that newly naturalized citizens have voter registration rates around 50%,2 it is reasonable to conclude that at least 25,000 newly naturalized Texans are lawfully registering to vote each year. Even if one assumes that not all naturalized citizens previously obtained driver licenses, and not all registered naturalized citizens registered immediately, it is easy to see how this would result in your office obtaining over 90,000 incorrectly identified matches.

Read them both. Given that Ken Paxton was sending out email earlier the same day screaming about thousands of illegal voters, I think the odds are very high this will wind up in court.

Bail lawsuit continues in Galveston County

Good.

A lawsuit alleging that Galveston County’s cash bail system favors wealthier defendants will continue after a recent ruling by a U.S. district court judge.

On Jan. 10, Judge George Hanks Jr. upheld Magistrate Judge Andrew Edison’s denial of the county’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

The ACLU of Texas and the Arnold & Porter law firm filed the suit in April 2018 on behalf of Aaron Booth, 37, of Galveston, who was arrested on felony drug possession charges but couldn’t afford to post his $20,000 bail — the minimum permitted under the county’s bail schedule for that charge.

The suit accuses county officials, including local judges and magistrates as well as District Attorney Jack Roady, of operating an arbitrary, two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the constitutional right to counsel, the right to due process and equal protection under the law.

In addition to keeping the suit alive, Hanks agreed that the ACLU sufficiently argued that under the Constitution’s 6th Amendment, Booth and all defendants are guaranteed a right to counsel at any bail hearing.

Hanks also agreed that Roady, who controls the county’s bail schedule, was liable for his role in perpetuating a wealth-based detention system. Magistrate Edison had ruled that magistrate judges “always strictly adhere” to the bail amounts recommended by Roady.

[…]

A preliminary injunction hearing scheduled for Tuesday will give the ACLU the opportunity to present evidence that Galveston County has not done enough to reform its bail system.

“It’s still our burden to show that the facts are what we’ve alleged,” [Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas] said. “So we are presenting evidence that actually shows that an injunction is necessary.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said he hoped Tuesday’s hearing would be the “end or beginning of the end” to the lawsuit. Henry said the litigation has hindered the county’s bail reform efforts, and said he was pleased to see individual magistrate judges and district judges dismissed as defendants.

“We’ve been trying to get these things done for years,” Henry said. “Government moves notoriously slow, I think we’ve been about as fast as we can be.”

See here for the background. It should be clear to everyone where this is going, given the rulings in the Harris County case. One presumes it’s just a matter of how long it takes to get there.

ACLU reminds counties to provide voting materials in Spanish

From the inbox:

With weeks to go before the November 6 election, the ACLU of Texas has sent advisal letters to 36 counties across Texas that may be in violation of the Voting Rights Act. The letters urge the identified counties to comply with a provision in the law that requires any information about voting or elections to be provided in English and Spanish in counties where more than 10,000 or more than 5% of all voting age citizens are Spanish-speakers with low English proficiency.

“Counties need to ensure that they are providing all citizens with information that will enable them to vote,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “The obligation to provide information in Spanish is a simple but important requirement which helps to remove barriers to voting in the state with the largest number of counties needing foreign language voting materials.”

ACLU of Texas attorneys reviewed county election websites and looked at whether pertinent information was made available in Spanish, including voter identification information, key voting dates, voter registration information, and applications for ballot by mail and absentee voting. The preliminary research determined that 36 counties had inadequate or inaccessible information in Spanish, had poor or misleading translations, or offered no voting information in Spanish at all. For example, one county’s use of an automated translation service translated the term “runoff election” as “election water leak” or “election drainage.”

Several counties have already responded positively to the letters, agreeing to comply with the Voting Rights Act and include Spanish language voting information on their websites.

Click over to see the list of counties. If one of them is yours, maybe make a call yourself to your local elections administrator. It’s a little hard to believe that any county could still have problems with this after all this time, but here we are.

Dallas County gets the Harris County treatment in its bail lawsuit

We have a precedent, even if everything is still a work in progress.

Taking a cue from the rulings on Harris County’s bail-setting practices, a U.S. district judge in Dallas issued a temporary order Thursday evening saying the county’s post-arrest procedures routinely violate inmates’ constitutional rights. The judge gave the county 30 days to change its ways.

U.S. District Judge David Godbey in Dallas said that the county has to stop the practice of imposing pre-set bail bond amounts, which often keep poor defendants locked up for days or weeks while letting wealthier ones go free, without individual consideration if arrestees claim they can’t afford it. He sided with the plaintiffs’ allegation that the county uses “wealth-based detention.”

“Wealthy arrestees — regardless of the crime they are accused of — who are offered secured bail can pay the requested amount and leave,” Godbey wrote. “Indigent arrestees in the same position cannot.”

[…]

Godbey relied heavily on Harris County rulings from the federal district court and the appellate court. He said the cases had the “same roots” — despite Dallas’ lawsuit also including felony defendants whereas Harris only involves those accused of misdemeanors — and concluded that doing anything other than what the appellate court ruled in Harris would “put the Court in direct conflict with binding precedent.”

“Broadly, those procedures include ‘notice, an opportunity to be heard and submit evidence within 48 hours of arrest, and a reasoned decision by an impartial decision-maker,’ he wrote, quoting the higher court’s ruling.

See here for some background, and here for an earlier story on how bail hearings have been done in Dallas. You know where I stand on this, and we both know that Dallas County has Democratic leadership, and thus I hope more than enough incentive to find a settlement. Some long overdue change is coming, and it is in everyone’s best interests to embrace it. The Chron and the Observer have more.

ACLU sues Galveston County over bail practices

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, the ACLU and Arnold & Porter filed a federal class-action lawsuit today against Galveston County, Texas, for violating the constitutional rights of people arrested for misdemeanors and felonies.

The lawsuit was brought against the County itself, as well as each of the County’s judges who hear felonies and misdemeanors, the County magistrates, and the District Attorney. This is the first filing by the ACLU to include the District Attorney as a defendant in bail reform litigation. It seeks an immediate and permanent change to an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against people who are financially strapped.

Those who cannot afford to pay money bail amounts determined by the county’s bail schedule are detained for a week or longer, while those who face the same charges but can afford to pay the money bail amounts are freed until trial. Galveston County’s district attorneys are involved in setting bail amounts for felony charges, often recommending bail amounts even higher than what the bail schedule suggests.

“A system that requires people to buy their freedom is not a system interested in dispensing justice,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Our client is seeking one thing: a fair hearing. Rich or poor, everyone should have a meaningful chance for a judge to hear them out before they are locked in a jail cell – but that’s not what’s happening in Galveston County.”

The lawsuit argues that Galveston County’s system of money bail violates the Constitution because it keeps people in jail if they can’t afford bail, while allowing those who can pay to go home to their families, jobs, and communities. With each day in jail, the person’s chances for a fair trial diminish as evidence and witnesses disappear, and many who are innocent nonetheless plead guilty simply to end the ordeal.

“A person’s wealth should never decide their freedom, but that’s exactly what’s happening in Texas and across the country,” said Brandon Buskey, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “Galveston’s bail system disregards the presumption of innocence, destroys families, and negatively affects jobs, and homes.”

The suit, filed on behalf of one plaintiff representing a class in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, accuses county officials of operating a two-tiered system of justice based on wealth, in violation of the right to counsel, the right to due process, and equal protection under the law.

“Studies consistently show that individuals who are held in jail until trial are more likely to be convicted, and more likely to be sentenced to prison, than those who are released pending trial,” said Christopher Odell, an attorney with Arnold & Porter. “Our goal is to ensure that the criminal justice system is fair to everyone in Galveston County, whether they’re rich or poor or somewhere in between.”

The plaintiff Aaron Booth, age 36, was arrested on April 8 for drug possession. He cannot afford the $20,000 money bail required by the court’s bail schedule. Mr. Booth fears losing his job because he is in jail; a job he needs to help his mother afford her monthly expenses.

Galveston’s system of wealth-based detention is arbitrary, the lawsuit argues. Each offense has an assigned dollar amount. If a person can arrange to pay the full amount to the sheriff in cash or property, or can arrange for payment through a bail bond company or another third party, the sheriff releases that person automatically.

Those who cannot pay the pre-determined bail amount must remain in jail indefinitely.

The lawsuit against Galveston County is a continuation of efforts from the ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice to end wealth-based bail detention in Texas and across the nation. This January, a related lawsuit aimed at ending Dallas County’s disciriminatory, wealth based bail practices was filed by the ACLU of Texas, the American Civil Liberties Union, Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

The ACLU Campaign for Smart Justice — an unprecedented effort to reduce the U.S. jail and prison population by 50 percent and to combat racial disparities in the criminal justice system — is focused on bolstering the movement to end money bail and eliminate wealth-based pretrial detention through legislative advocacy, voter education, and litigation. Thirty-seven ACLU state affiliates are spearheading efforts to end this unjust system.

The complaint can be found here. The Chron adds a few details.

The Galveston County Commissioner’s Court issued a resolution in September supporting an immediate end to pretrial detention for misdemeanor and state jail cell arrests and committing a minimum of $2 million to those efforts.

The county also voted in December to approve a contract with the Council of State Governments to help implement reforms to the county’s jail system.

But Trigilio said that the county has not committed to large-scale changes to its bail system in an appropriate timeframe. The ACLU drafted a standing order proposal outlining steps that needed to be taken to create a model pretrial system and requesting that the county come up with its own detailed plan. Their requests were ignored, with only one judge, Lonnie Cox of the 56th District Court, reviewing the standing order in November.

“We’re very open to collaborative solutions with policymakers, in fact, that’s what we prefer,” Trigilio said. “But it’s important to act with the urgency that the situation merits, and when they’re locking hundreds of people away every day just because they’re poor, that’s not something we can tolerate while we work out the nuances of a system that might be in place any year from now.”

Galveston County Judge Mark Henry said on Monday that he had not had a chance to look at the lawsuit yet but that the county has been working with the ACLU “for nine months or so” to implement their suggested reforms to the bail system.

“We are certainly trying, yes,” he said, adding that he had not yet seen the suit but that the county was “absolutely committed” to making the changes already discussed.

“It’s not necessarily in our control,” he said. “There are about 15 other elected officials that have to agree and implement their part of it.”

Those of us in Harris County can relate to that complaint. You know where I stand on this, so let me just say that I hope other counties are looking at their own practices and taking proactive steps to get in line so they don’t have to be sued as well. But if suing them is what it takes, then so be it. Think Progress and KUHF have more.

Fifth Circuit lets most of SB4 remain in place

Ugh.

A panel of three U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals judges ruled Tuesday that most of the state’s immigration enforcement legislation, Senate Bill 4, can remain in effect while the case plays out, handing a victory to Gov. Greg Abbott and Republican supporters of the legislation.

As passed, Senate Bill 4 allows local law enforcement officers to question the immigration status of people they detain or arrest and punishes local government department heads and elected officials who don’t cooperate with federal immigration “detainers” — requests by agents to turn over immigrants subject to possible deportation — in the form of jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

The one part of SB 4 that is still on hold is a provision that punishes local officials from “adopting, enforcing or endorsing” policies that specifically prohibit or limit enforcement of immigration laws. The judges kept that injunction in place, but said it only applies to the word “endorse.” The bill, as passed and signed, would have made elected and appointed officials subject to a fine, jail time and possible removal from office for violating all or parts of the legislation.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which represents some of the plaintiffs in the SB 4 case, said it was considering how to move forward.

“The court made clear that we remain free to challenge the manner in which the law is implemented, so we will be monitoring the situation on the ground closely,” said Lee Gelernt, deputy director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

See here, here, and here for the background. This one is destined for the Supreme Court, but in the meantime it can’t hurt to ask for an en banc review, as this wasn’t the friendliest three judge panel. This is still the injunction phase, not the trial on the merits, so no matter what there’s still a long road ahead. A copy of the ruling is here, and Texas Monthly has more.

ACLU goes after Judge McSpadden

As well they should.

The ACLU of Texas is asking Harris County’s longest serving felony court judge to resign after making a statement to the Houston Chronicle on his views about black men’s attitudes toward the criminal justice system.

The civil rights group also is asking that the judge be automatically recused from cases involving African-American defendants until an investigation into potential racial bias occurs, according to a news release Tuesday.

[…]

“If there remained any doubt that the deck is stacked against people of color in our criminal justice system, Michael McSpadden just dispelled it,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “When a sitting judge feels comfortable enough to admit openly and on the record that he uses bail orders to jail black defendants on the assumption they can’t be trusted, it’s time to take action. This kind of flagrant racism has no place in our justice system.”

She said, “The Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct needs to take the first step toward rooting it out, and Judge McSpadden should voluntarily step down.”

McSpadden could not be immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday. His court staff said he was on the bench hearing cases.

The civil rights organization said McSpadden’s comments violate the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct and could merit removal from office.

“Judge McSpadden’s remarks are inexcusable, but not at all surprising for those of us who know the justice system well,” said former death row inmate Anthony Graves, who runs a criminal justice initiative for the ACLU of Texas.

See here for the background. Perhaps there’s some context Judge McSpadden can add to his comments, or perhaps he could just admit that was a dumb and offensive thing to say and offer an apology for it. People may or may not accept either action, but at least it would be something. In the absence of any such followup, one is left to conclude that he has nothing further to say on the matter. Whatever one may have thought of Judge McSpadden before now, that’s not a good look. And as a reminder, Judge McSpadden is up for election this fall. For all the griping some people do about partisan judicial elections, they do at least give the voters the chance to correct errors on the bench.

On a side note, two of Judge McSpadden’s colleagues on the misdemeanor courts are again urging the county to settle the bail lawsuit.

“The most conservative appellate court in this country, strict constitutional conservatives, have said that this practice that we are doing is unconstitutional,” said Judge Darrell Jordan, one of the defendants in the lawsuit.

Jordan told County Judge Ed Emmett and county commissioners that fighting the suit had already cost Harris County $6 million in legal fees. “I’m asking that you all cut this last check, fire these $6 million lawyers, let the County Attorney’s office come, and we all sit down and work out a settlement.”

Jordan’s co-defendant, Judge Mike Fields, urged Emmett and the commissioners to “use every tool in your arsenal to help us settle this lawsuit.” Fields added, “Our county needs to settle this for financial reasons, and our public needs it settled for reasons of good governance and confidence in the criminal justice system.”

Judge Emmett said he’s willing to settle on the basis of the 5th Circuit’s ruling, but said plaintiffs haven’t responded to offers to talk.

Judge Jordan, the lone Democrat on these benches, and Judge Fields have been the lone voices from those courts for sanity. Unfortunately, their colleagues remain uninterested in such matters as the cost of the litigation and the fact that they’ve lost at every step and looked bad in doing so. And they’re all up for election this November. See my comments above on that.

Lawsuit filed over Dallas County bail practices

Bring it on, I say.

On the heels of a federal ruling slamming Harris County for its bail practices, civil rights lawyers have now set their sights on a county with a similar system: Dallas.

Six indigent misdemeanor and felony defendants arrested this week and held in the Dallas County Jail filed suit against the county on Sunday night, claiming the bail system unconstitutionally discriminates against them by holding them in jail for days or weeks while letting similar defendants with cash walk free. One plaintiff, Shannon Daves, is a 47-year-old homeless and jobless transgender woman arrested on a misdemeanor theft charge. She has been kept in solitary confinement in the men’s unit since Wednesday under a $500 misdemeanor bond she can’t afford, the lawsuit claims.

“This system is really devastating for the people who can’t afford to purchase their freedom,” said Trisha Trigilio, a senior attorney at the ACLU of Texas, one of the legal groups representing the inmates. Lawyers with the Civil Rights Corps and the Texas Fair Defense Project are also leading the lawsuits in both Dallas and Harris counties.

[…]

In Dallas County, the plaintiffs state that judicial magistrates set money bail based on the alleged crime and prior convictions without considering an inmate’s ability to pay or determining if non-monetary conditions of release, like an ankle monitor or cab fare voucher, could ensure the defendant shows up to court. Texas law requires officials to consider financial ability when setting bail.

Instead, poor inmates who have yet to be convicted usually stay in jail because they can’t afford the bail, sometimes causing them to lose their jobs or housing, the lawsuit said. The lawsuit also argues that the threat of lengthy jail stays while awaiting trial encourages defendants to plead guilty.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins said Sunday that he wouldn’t comment on a pending lawsuit, but said the county is working to improve the system.

“I support bail reform because some low-risk suspects that don’t need to be there are held in Texas jails at taxpayer expense simply because they can’t afford to bond out,” he said.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price also pointed to the county’s efforts to reform its bail system, touting a decrease in the county jail population. As of December, there were about 5,000 inmates in the jail, which has a capacity for about 8,700, according to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards.

You can see a copy of the complaint here. There are differences between the Dallas and Houston cases – the Dallas one involves felons as well as misdemeanants, and as noted their jail population had already declined by a significant amount. And, not to make too fine a point of it, Dallas County is ruled by Democrats, not Republicans. I would hope that means they’ll be much more amenable to finding a settlement rather than draw this out. (As this story reminds us, the Harris County case hasn’t even been heard yet – Judge Rosenthal’s ruling was an injunction, not on the merits.) We’ll see what happens. The ACLU’s statement on the suit is beneath the fold.

(more…)

The First Amendment remains in effect in Fort Bend

For now, at least.

Karen Fonseca, the owner of a white truck at the center of a social media dispute with Fort Bend County Sheriff Troy Nehls, is considering a civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff’s office.

Fonseca’s attorney, Brian Middleton, made the announcement during a press conference on Monday. Middleton added that the American Civil Liberties Union has also expressed interest in a possible lawsuit.

“We should not allow Sheriff Nehls to intimidate people into silence,” Middleton said. “This is wrong and we will not let it stand.”

The threat of legal action stems from controversy over a Facebook post Nehls made on Wednesday, Nov. 15, regarding Fonseca’s truck, which bears a sticker that reads “F— Trump and f— you for voting for him.”

Nehls threatened to charge Fonseca with disorderly conduct over the sticker. A day later, Fonseca was arrested on a pre-existing fraud warrant out of the Rosenberg Police Department.

Middleton and State Rep. Ron Reynolds allege that Nehls’ public dispute with Fonseca is a politically-motivated attack designed to gain attention as Nehls considers a campaign against Rep. Pete Olson, who represents the 22nd District of Texas.

“I demand an apology from Sheriff Nehls for targeting (Fonseca) and making her life and her family’s life a living nightmare,” Reynolds said in a statement.

Fonseca has since added a new sticker that reads “F— Troy Nehls and f— you for voting for him.”

I hadn’t covered this before now, but I’m sure you’ve seen the stories; some earlier Chron articles are here and here. To be perfectly honest, I don’t much care for the Fonseca’s bumper stickers. They’re tacky, and as a parent I have sympathy for anyone who would prefer their kids not see that. But clearly, they have a right to decorate their truck in that fashion, and Sheriff Nehls has grossly abused his office by arresting Karen Fonseca, against the advice of the Fort Bend County District Attorney. He deserves to get his hat handed to him in court for this. Pull up a chair and enjoy the show, this ought to be good.

Federal court bars enforcement if city’s ban on homeless encampments

Score one for the law’s opponents.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A federal court on Tuesday temporarily blocked Houston from enforcing its fledgling ban on public encampments, dealing a blow to city efforts to manage escalating tensions between homeless people and the neighborhoods their camps abut.

The city’s three-month-old law – passed under intense pressure from residents and council members – bars the unauthorized use of temporary structures for “human habitation” and empowers police officers to arrest violators if they refuse medical treatment or social services.

Enforcing that prohibition may, U.S. District Judge Kenneth M. Hoyt wrote, violate the homeless plaintiffs’ Eighth Amendment protections against cruel and unusual punishment.

“The plaintiffs have demonstrated that they are subject to a credible threat of being arrested, booked, prosecuted and jailed for violating the City of Houston’s ban on sheltering in public,” Hoyt said. “The evidence is conclusive that they are involuntarily in public, harmlessly attempting to shelter themselves – an act they cannot realistically forgo, and that is integral to their status as unsheltered homeless individuals.”

[…]

The city ordinance “was not designed to punish homeless people. Rather, it was passed to stop the accumulation of property in these encampments,” Marc Eichenbaum, special assistant to the mayor for homeless initiatives, said in an affidavit filed last week.

Hoyt’s order, however, focuses on the law rather than the city’s approach to enforcing it.

“The fact that the governmental entity has not fully enforced the alleged unconstitutional conduct does not bar a suit for injunctive relief where the alleged unconstitutional conduct is imminent or is in process,” he wrote.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the restraining order. It should be noted that in the complaint filed by the plaintiffs, they also asked for an injunction prohibiting “Enforcement of Houston City Code Section 28-46 (Aggressive panhandling) and Section 40-27(b) (Impeding the use of a roadway)”, but that request was not granted. The city had been lightly enforcing the enjoined provision, which suggests there had been concerns about it from the beginning. I get where the Mayor and Council are coming from, but they need to take this as a sign that they chose an unwise path. I do not want to wake up one day and read that the city is shelling out $500 an hour to some fancypants law firm to defend this thing in court. Find a way to fix this in a way that everyone can live with and move on.

The “run over a protester” bill

This was from a day or two after the racist violence in Charlottesville, which included the vehicular murder of a counterprotester.

Rep. Pat Fallon

Last month, Rep. Pat Fallon filed legislation to protect motorists who hit demonstrators “blocking traffic in a public right-of-way” if the driver exercises “due care.” House Bill 250 would protect drivers against civil liability only but would not lessen criminal penalties for deadly hit-and-runs, a second-degree felony in Texas.

Fallon’s bill has no chance of passing this summer. Lawmakers are scheduled to gavel out the month-long summer special session on Wednesday without even holding a hearing on the measure.

Nevertheless, by Monday morning, the Frisco Republican said he’d received “hundreds” of angry responses from people upset over the events this weekend in Virginia, especially the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old protester struck and killed by a driver who also injured at least 19 other people.

James Alex Fields, a 20-year-old Ohio man who rallied with white supremacist groups on Saturday, has been charged with her murder as well as malicious wounding and failing to stop at a crash site that resulted in a death. Fallon said his legislation would not have protected someone like Fields from criminal charges. He blasted the white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.

“Any jackass that thinks they’re going to be cool because they’re a Nazi, are you serious?” Fallon told The Dallas Morning News. “There’s no room for that,” he added, calling Heyer’s death “horrific.”

Fallon added he was “incredibly offended” that people tied his bill to Fields and those like him.

[…]

Representatives with the ACLU in Texas and North Carolina, where similar legislation is being debated, said Fallon’s bill was intended to discourage free speech and assembly.

“The flavor and tenor of this is to quell protest,” said Karen Anderson, executive director of the ACLU of North Carolina. “It is to essentially set up a structure where you protest at your own risk (and) there is a shield for motorists who choose, which happened just recently, to use their vehicle as a literal bludgeon.”

She expressed concern over why the proposal does not define “due care,” and questioned how protesters could prove they were hit intentionally if there was no video footage of the incident, like there was in Charlottesville.

Matt Simpson, a police specialist with the ACLU of Texas, acknowledged Fallon’s bill would not lessen criminal penalties for drivers who intentionally kill pedestrian protesters. But he said the bill would be difficult to implement if it became law and would send “a terrible message” to Texans.

“This is obviously more symbolic than meaningful,” said Simpson. He said he was unaware of anyone who had sued a Texas driver who accidentally hit protesters. “This seems like a solution in search of a problem.”

Seems like there’s a lot of that these days. Rep. Fallon pitched a fit when people pointed out his bill and the potential it had for making life easier for someone who might feel the need to dish out a little four-wheeled havoc. Maybe don’t file such morally vacant bills in the future? Just a thought. All I can say is that if he files the same thing in 2019, he’ll definitely have learned nothing from this experience.

ACLU seeks information about state’s compliance with Trump election commission

From the inbox:

Today the ACLU of Texas filed an open records request with the Texas Secretary of State seeking documentation related to the State’s compliance with the federal Election Integrity Commission, which had asked states to submit voters’ full names, the last four digits of their social security numbers, their voting histories and information regarding felony convictions. The ACLU’s request seeks all communications between the Texas Secretary of State and the Election Integrity Commission, including records relating to the “views and recommendations” Texas submitted at the Commission’s request.

“The true threat to electoral integrity is voter suppression, not voter fraud,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “This nonsense of voter fraud is a lie peddled by politicians complicit in a corrupt scheme to rig elections by keeping minority and low-income Americans away from the polls. We are demanding this information of state officials to ensure they are doing everything they can to advance the right to vote, not threaten it.”

The ACLU of Texas’s request comes days after the ACLU national office sued the Trump administration over the Commission’s failure to comply with the Federal Advisory Committee Act, a law that guarantees transparency and public accountability of advisory committees.

“The President’s Election Integrity Commission is a voter suppression machine, pure and simple” said Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “It threatens our right to privacy, endangers the foundations of our democracy, and its mission is based on a lie. No wonder it conducts its business behind closed doors.”

The Commission’s vice chairman Kris Kobach, who requested the sensitive voter information, was recently fined $1,000 by a federal magistrate judge in a voting-related lawsuit for “deceptive conduct and lack of candor.” The judge said that Kobach and his legal team had “made patently misleading representations to the court.”

The ACLU of Texas is not requesting any information related to private voter information or voter roll data.

See here for a copy of the open records request, and here for a copy of the ACLU’s lawsuit against the Trump Commission, which is one of seven that have been filed so far around the country. This phony commission is all about suppressing the vote. It needs to be resisted on every front.

City of El Paso joins in on SB4

Add one more to the list.

The city of El Paso voted on Tuesday to join the growing list of local governments that have filed a legal challenge in hopes of stopping Texas’ new immigration enforcement law from going into effect.

The city council’s vote to join El Paso County and the cities of Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston to halt the legislation, Senate Bill 4, means Fort Worth is the only major Texas city that hasn’t registered its opposition to the bill. Maverick and Bexar counties and the border city of El Cenizo are original plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which was filed in a federal court in San Antonio in May, just one day after Gov. Greg Abbott signed the bill.

[…]

In a statement, the city council said even though El Paso is not considered a “sanctuary city,” they voted to join the effort because local leaders are “concerned with provisions in SB 4 that raise questions related to the compliance and integration of the proposed bill in current law enforcement operations.”

“The unfunded mandate is expected to put additional strain on the El Paso Police Department, as SB 4 will add an extra requirement on the workforce that is already seeing a shortage in staff,” the statement continues. “The City of El Paso has a long successful history of working alongside our federal law enforcement partners, to add additional mandates on local resources will only limit officers from performing their public safety responsibilities.”

As you know, the hearing for a temporary injunction was Monday, but there’s a long way to go to get to the arguments on the merits, so it is far from too late for any entity to join in. I had previously listed El Paso as a plaintiff in the litigation, but it was El Paso County; I had assumed the city was in there as well, which was my mistake. No big deal, they’re in there now. I hope they and the other plaintiffs have a lot more company by the time this gets to the main event.