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Bexar County

Lots of mail ballot applications are being rejected now

This is a feature, not a bug.

Hundreds of Texans seeking to vote by mail in the upcoming March primary elections are seeing their applications for ballots rejected by local election offices trying to comply with stricter voting rules enacted by Texas Republicans last year.

Election officials in some of the state’s largest counties are rejecting an alarming number of mail-in applications because they don’t meet the state’s new identification requirements. Some applications are being rejected because of a mismatch between the new identification requirements and the data the state has on file to verify voters.

Under Texas’ new voting law, absentee voters must include their driver’s license number or state ID number or, if they don’t have one, the last four digits of their Social Security number on their applications. If they don’t have those IDs, voters can indicate they have not been issued that identification. Counties must match those numbers against the information in an individual’s voter file to approve them for a mail-in ballot.

In Harris County, 208 applications — roughly 16% of the 1,276 applications received so far — have been rejected based on the new rules. That includes 137 applications on which voters had not filled out the new ID requirements and 71 applications that included an ID number that wasn’t in the voter’s record.

In Travis County, officials said they’ve rejected about half of the roughly 700 applications they’ve received so far, with the “vast majority” of rejections based on the new voting law.

In Bexar County, officials have rejected 200 applications on which the ID section was not filled out. Another 125 were rejected because the voter had provided their driver’s license number on the application, but that number was not in their voter record.

“It’s disturbing that our senior citizens who have relished and embraced voting by mail are now having to jump through some hoops, and it’s upsetting when we have to send a rejection letter [when] we can see they’ve voted with us by mail for years,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County election administrator.

[…]

Throughout last year’s protracted debate over the new voting law, state lawmakers were warned about potential issues that could arise from the new ID matching requirements, in part because the state does not have both a driver’s license and Social Security number for all of the roughly 17 million Texans on the voter rolls. Voters are not required to provide both numbers when they register to vote.

Last summer, the Texas secretary of state’s office indicated that 2,045,419 registered voters lacked one of the two numbers in their voter file despite the office’s efforts to backfill that information in the state’s voter rolls. Another 266,661 voters didn’t have either number on file.

Those numbers have since dropped. As of Dec. 20, 702,257 voters had only one number on file, while 106,911 didn’t have either, according to updated figures provided by the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Meanwhile, 493,823 registered voters didn’t have a driver’s license on file, which is the first number voters are asked to provide on both applications to register to vote and applications to vote by mail.

The new law is also tripping up voters who may be unaware of the new ID requirements. Callanen said she had to reject 30 voters who submitted an outdated application form that didn’t include the new ID field. Election officials in Williamson County, which has processed a total of 305 applications to vote by mail, said the same issue plagued a chunk of the applications that they rejected.

The sources of the outdated applications are unclear. While the Legislature banned county election officials from proactively sending out applications to vote by mail, even to voters who automatically qualify, voters can still receive unsolicited applications from campaigns and political parties.

This was both easily predictable and widely predicted. Since this election is a primary, and people have to request a specific party’s ballot, it would be very interesting to know how many rejections came from each party, and what percentage of the total number of requests for each party were rejected. Most likely it’s more or less evenly split, but you never know. Unintended consequences are everywhere.

I want to extend a little bit of grace to the employees of the Secretary of State’s office, who have had to do a massive update of their guidance for elections officials in a very short time. The fault lies entirely with the Republicans that shoved this travesty through, and with the raving lunatic former occupant of the White House, whose narcissism and dishonesty compelled his minions to pass such laws. But the lion’s share of the grace goes to the various elections administrators, who are on the business end of this mess. If you want a mail ballot, make sure you fill out the current form correctly, and get your request in ASAP.

Some commentary from Twitter:

That last one is more of a general comment, but you get the idea. In the meantime, Common Cause tells you how to take some control of the situation:

Voters who have applied for a mail ballot can check their status online at https://teamrv-mvp.sos.texas.gov/BallotTrackerApp/#/login. Voters who do not have internet access can call their county clerk’s office for information.

For voters planning to vote by mail in the March 1 primary election, the deadline for mail ballot applications to be received by the county’s Early Voting Clerk is Friday, February 18, 2022.

There’s more, so read the rest. Campos has more.

From the “Keeping track of all these lawsuits is hard” department

Spotted on Democracy Docket:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Today, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied a motion to dismiss Vote.org v. Callanen. The case, filed earlier this summer, challenges Texas’ “wet signature” law that requires individuals who submit their registration applications electronically or through fax to also provide a copy of their application with their signature — meaning signed with pen on paper. The complaint argues that this law unduly burdens the right to vote and targets voting advocacy groups such as Vote.org in violation of the First and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and asks the court to prohibit its enforcement. The court already rejected one attempt to dismiss the case earlier this fall.

The court also rejected a motion to dismiss the case filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) that was joined by two county elections administrators. The motion claimed that Vote.org did not have standing to bring this case and that its complaint was insufficient. The court held that Vote.org had sufficiently shown that the wet signature law would cause harm to the organization’s efforts to register voters and the court may be able to provide the requested relief. The court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that there was no private right of action to sue and the plaintiffs’ claim fails because they did not allege any racial discrimination, finding that neither argument was supported by precedent. The case will move forward and all claims will be litigated to determine if the wet signature law is constitutional and in line with federal law.

My first reaction when I see something like this is to search through my archives for any past blog posts about it. Usually there is something, even in cases where I don’t immediately recognize the issue. I know I’ve heard of this lawsuit before, and sure enough I land on this post, about a federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio by a group including Vote.org over the state of Texas’ rejection of voter registration applications that did not include an “original signature” but instead an electronic one. But that lawsuit was filed in January of 2020, and this one was filed earlier this summer, in response to a bill passed during the regular session. I can’t find any further posts about the January 2020 lawsuit, and I seem to not have blogged about the one from this July. Oops.

My best guess here is that the initial lawsuit was dismissed for some reason – I can’t find any reference to it on the Democracy Docket webpage – and the July one was filed partly in response to the reasons the original one was tossed. I note that the first lawsuit had several other plaintiffs (the DCCC, the DSCC, and the TDP), while this one just has Vote.org associated with it. Or maybe it was withdrawn for some reason, with the same logic behind Lawsuit #2. If somehow that first lawsuit were still in existence, I would assume that it has been or will be combined with this one. Since I don’t see that on the lawsuit webpage (where you can see the original complaint plus two followup documents), I go back to my first assumption, that the 2020 lawsuit is no more. If someone reading this knows how to search for these things in the federal court system, please let me know if I’m mistaken in that.

Anyway. The point here is that allowing electronic signatures, which are common in all kinds of other legal transactions, would make it a lot easier to do voter registration. Which, of course, the state of Texas does not want. Note that the bill in question was a large one that did a lot of things – the initial text is all about recounts, and at first I thought this must have been the wrong legislation – but the “original signature” provision is in there later on. It was passed with bipartisan support, and I will just have to ask someone about it, because there must have been some good things in there for that to have happened. Be that as it may, we’ll see where this lawsuit goes.

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

Bexar mask mandate back on

Abbott and Paxton take another L.

A temporary order that allows the City of San Antonio and Bexar County to require masks in their buildings will stay in place until a lawsuit challenging an executive order goes to trial in December, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday.

In another blow to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled Wednesday in Austin that the ban on mask mandates in schools violates the Americans with Disabilities Act — freeing local officials to again create their own rules, according to The Texas Tribune.

After San Antonio and Bexar County sued Abbott over his July executive order that prohibited local governments from issuing mask mandates, a Bexar County district judge issued a temporary injunction in August. That temporary injunction gave the city and county the ability to require masks inside city- and county-owned facilities as well as in public schools that teach pre-kindergarten through 12th grade.

The 4th Court of Appeals had already upheld the temporary injunction after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the trial court’s decision and argued that his appeal automatically blocked the city and county’s mask mandate. That decision made in August was temporary until the appellate court could take up the matter and issue a more final decision, which occurred Wednesday, said Larry Roberson, civil division chief of the Bexar County District Attorney’s office.

“This is the opinion on the temporary injunction,” he said. “The earlier issues were just procedural.”

The city and county argued that the governor’s executive order exceeded his scope of authority by blocking local governments from creating public health prevention measures. They also argued that by not having the ability to enforce their own public health measures, coronavirus transmission would be more widespread without masks and cause irreparable harm.

Their arguments were enough to validate the need for a temporary injunction, three judges on the 4th Court of Appeals found.

“We conclude that the City and County have pled sufficient facts to establish that their injuries are ‘likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” Chief Justice Rebeca C. Martinez wrote in the appellate court’s opinion issued Wednesday.

See here for the previous update and here for the court’s opinion. I will note that this is still a temporary restraining order and that the merits of the case will be heard at trial on December 13. That said, I will also note these sentences from the opinion, which addresses the question of whether Abbott had the power to forbid local governments from issuing mask mandates with the emergency powers granted to him under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975:

We hold Section 418.016(a) does not provide the Governor with the authority he claims to suspend statutes that concern local control over public health matters or to prohibit local restrictions on face coverings.

[…]

Applying the plain language of the Act, we conclude the City and County demonstrated a probable right to relief that the Governor’s power to suspend laws, orders, and rules under section 418.016(a) does not include the power to prohibit face-covering mandates that local governments may adopt to respond to public-health conditions or the power to suspend public-health statutes authorizing local governments to act for the benefit of public health.

[…]

Because the Governor possesses no inherent authority to suspend statutes under the Texas Constitution and he exceeded the scope of statutory authority granted to him by the Legislature, his actions in issuing Executive Order GA-38 were done without authority.

In between is a bunch of technical legal stuff that will make your eyes glaze over, but the bottom line is that this directly addresses the claim that the Governor’s emergency powers allow for him to suspend local orders that are intended to mitigate the disaster in question, an authority that would seem to contradict the whole purpose of a “Disaster Act”. We’ve discussed that several times here, and while that question will surely come up again in the trial court hearing and later on appeal, it’s good to see this basic idea affirmed here by the appellate court. May such common sense continue to prevail as this moves on to the trial stage. The Current has more.

SCOTx hears Chick-Fil-A case

Missed this last week.

The Supreme Court of Texas heard oral arguments Thursday in the now two-year-old case involving the exclusion of Chick-fil-A city contract in the San Antonio International Airport.

[…]

San Antonio has always maintained that the law should not apply to the contract because it was not the law then and is not retroactive.

“The Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio correctly held that the plaintiffs cannot convert Chapter 2400 of the Texas Government Code into a retroactive statute,” said Laura Mayes, spokesperson for the city.

Plaintiffs lawyer Jonathan Mitchell argued to Texas Supreme Court justices that while they agree the contract vote took place prior to the law, several of the city’s actions took place afterwards.

“Anything the city did to put a different vendor in that spot that would have gone to Chick-fil-A is an action to exclude Chick-fil-A from a property — all of that falls under adverse action,” he explained.

Mitchell argued anything as mundane as an email could be considered as an adverse action and qualify as an “allegation” of the new law, which would waive the city’s “governmental immunity.”

The issue for the city’s lawyer, James Daniel McNeel “Neel” Lane, was that plaintiffs never alleged a specific violation; they only now argue that it would be impossible for the city to not have taken an adverse action.

“There has to be an allegation, factual allegation of a violation of the act. There is not here,” he said.

See here for some background; there’s video from the arguments in the story. I know I’m biased here, but the plaintiffs’ argument just sounds stupid to me. But as noted, this case has a connection to the litigation over SB8, as the plaintiffs in this case don’t have an actual loss or injury to claim, just that if there had been a Chick-Fil-A at the airport they would have patronized it. If SCOTx rules on the question of standing, you can see how it might apply to SB8. I figure we’ll know about this one sometime next year.

Elections of interest elsewhere in Texas

Early voting has started for the special election runoff in HD118.

Frank Ramirez

Early voting began Monday in San Antonio to see who will replace former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, a two-term Democrat who resigned from Texas’ 118th district in August to teach public administration at San Antonio College.

The special election to replace Pacheco has produced two runoff candidates who continue to campaign against each other ahead of election day on Nov. 2, Democrat Frank Ramirez and Republican John Lujan.

Ramirez told the Signal he’s running to represent the community he grew up in and bring more infrastructure and education dollars to the region.

“I’m from the district through and through,” Ramirez said. “I grew up in the southside of San Antonio and I went to elementary, middle, and high school in the Harlandale Independent School District.”

After graduating from the University of Texas in 2016, Ramirez served as the chief of staff and legislative director to former state Rep. Tomas Uresti, a Democrat who briefly occupied the seat for one term during the 2017 session, the infamous bathroom bill session.

“Recognizing that our state has a lot of work to do to catch up educationally, to catch up in terms of business and property taxes and infrastructure. That was the motivating factor for me,” Ramirez said of running.

“And even though I saw a lot of bad things happen in the 2017 session, we also saw a number of good things happen,” Ramirez said. “85% of the bills that are filled in the Texas House of Representatives are bills that fit within the scope of an individual’s districts, and they’re doing good for as many Texans as possible.”

Ramirez then spent almost four years serving as the zoning and planning director of San Antonio City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval before departing in August to run for district 118.

The south San Antonio district has traditionally voted for Democrats. In 2020, Pacheco defeated his Republican opponent by almost 17 percentage points, a similar margin to Pacheco’s 2018 victory over Republican John Lujan.

I’ve covered this before, and there’s not much to add. It would be very nice to win this race, if only because the discourse that would follow a loss will be annoying as hell. It will still be the case that the outcome will have basically no effect on anything the Lege does at this point, even if there is another special session, and it will also be the case that the incumbent will have to run in a more normal environment next year in a district that still leans Democratic; it was made less Democratic by redistricting, but the trends remain in Dems’ favor. Frank Ramirez would become the youngest member of the House if he wins, and that’s cool.

Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a contentious ballot proposition to deal with.

Early voting for the November 2021 election starts Monday and there are two Austin propositions on the ballot.

The most controversial is Proposition A. If approved by voters, it would increase Austin police staffing to two officers per 1,000 citizens, increase yearly training and increase minority hiring and community engagement.

The City said it would cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million per year for the next five years, which is added on top of the department’s budget of $443 million city council approved for this fiscal year.

The Austin firefighter and Austin-Travis County EMS unions, as well as the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee Voting are against Prop A.

“This unfunded mandate that is on the ballot will cause severe layoffs, and it will also put a burden on the taxpayers,” said AFSCME Business Manager Carol Guthrie.

On the other side, the driving force behind Prop A, Save Austin Now, said the city has enough money to implement the initiative without hurting other departments.

“We know we need 300 to 350 more,” said president of Save Austin Now Matt Mackowiak.” We don’t believe that will happen in one year, but we should try.”

Mackowiak is either the current or a recent past Chair of the Travis County Republican Party (I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up), and if you follow Scott Braddock on Twitter, you know he’s also a thin-skinned twerp. Prop A is yet another response to the recent actions by the Austin City Council to try to effect some modest reforms on policing and their police budget, and as with the Legislature it’s over the top and would hamstring the city’s budget for the foreseeable future. See these posts from Grits for Breakfast and this one from Keep Austin Wonky that cast doubt on the pro-Prop A cost estimates. I probably don’t have to tell those of you who live in Austin and read this blog to vote against Prop A, but I’m going to anyway. KUT has more.

Comings and goings

Rep. Lloyd Doggett will run in a new district again.

Rep. Lloyd Doggett

Longtime U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, has decided to run for reelection in Texas’ 37th Congressional District, opting to vie for one of Texas’ two new congressional districts — a bright-blue seat concentrated in Austin — rather than his current district, which reaches down to San Antonio.

Doggett announced the decision Sunday in an email to supporters and then shared it in person Monday outside Bryker Woods Elementary School in Austin.

“Nobody, me included, has any entitlement to public office, but Bryker Woods does issue reports cards,” Doggett said, “and I’m ready for my neighbors to grade my service in Congress and my devotion to the families of this city.”

Doggett currently represents the 35th Congressional District, which runs from Austin down along Interstate 35 to San Antonio. The proposed 37th District is far more compact, contained almost entirely within Travis County, home to Austin. Both are currently safely Democratic districts — and likely to remain so after redistricting.

[…]

Doggett also survived the last round of redistricting by switching districts, changing to the 35th District, which was new at the time. It was drawn to be a Hispanic-majority district, and Doggett faced a primary against then state Rep. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio. But Castro ultimately ran for the San Antonio-based 20th Congressional District after its Democratic incumbent, Charlie Gonzalez, announced his retirement.

Doggett’s chances of reelection in the new district are high. He has served in Congress since 1995 and a built a massive campaign war chest, totaling $5.4 million as of Sept. 30.

Doggett’s decision to run in CD-37 means there will be an open seat in CD-35.

Potential Democratic candidates for the 37th District have included state Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin and Wendy Davis, the former Fort Worth state senator and 2014 gubernatorial nominee who unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Austin, last year.

Doggett was first elected in what was then CD10. In the DeLay re-redistricting of 2003, he moved to what was then CD25, then into CD35 as noted. I’m just going to leave this here:

Someone needs to start a project to track down everyone who has been continuously represented by Lloyd Doggett since 1995.

Rep. Doggett may or may not get some real competition for CD37. I’d make him a heavy favorite against pretty much anyone. As for CD35, that will likely draw a crowd.

Progressive firebrand and Austin City Council Member Greg Casar is likely to run for Congress in Texas’s 35th District, he told the Texas Observer in an interview.

“It’s very likely that I’m running,” says Casar, who has formed an exploratory committee to examine a run for the district that runs from Austin to San Antonio. “The maps haven’t been signed into law yet, but shortly after they are, I will make things much more official.”

[…]

The prospect of a newly open seat in a heavily Democratic majority-minority district sets the stage for a potential primary battle.

State Representative Eddie Rodriguez, who’s served in the Legislature since 2003, is reportedly “taking a hard look” at a run for the 35th; his southeast Austin state House district sits almost entirely within the new 35th boundaries. Also, longtime San Antonio Representative Trey Martinez Fischer requested that lawmakers draw him into the 35th, indicating that he may also run. Claudia Zapata, a progressive activist in Austin, is currently the only officially declared candidate. Casar’s home and his north-central council district are in the 37th, right along the border with the 35th.

That story is all about CM Casar, and you can read it if you want to know more about him. I’m mostly interested in the name game at this point.

Moving along, we will have a new open State House seat in Bexar County.

State Rep. Lyle Larson, R-San Antonio, who bucked his party on a number of major issues this year, announced Wednesday he will not seek reelection.

In an email to constituents, Larson said he was following through on legislation he has repeatedly introduced that imposes a term limit of 12 years on any elected official at the state level.

“As a strong proponent of term limits, will follow the limits we previously proposed in this legislation,” Larson wrote.

Larson was first elected in 2010 to represent House District 122 in the San Antonio area.

He had been increasingly expected to pass on a 2022 reelection campaign as he grew disillusioned with his party and potential GOP candidates lined up for his seat. Larson was the only Republican to oppose the GOP’s priority elections bill that led House Democrats to break quorum this summer. He also was the only Republican to vote against legislation that Republican supporters argued would crack down on the teaching of critical race theory in Texas classrooms. More recently, he filed a long-shot bill during the current special session to provide rape and incest exemptions for Texas’ new near-total abortion ban, despite previously voting for it.

Rep. Larson, who had been targeted by Greg Abbott in the 2018 primary, was sure to draw challengers this primary as well. He’s also now got his 12 years in, which means he’s fully vested in the pension. That’s always a propitious time to pull the plug. As noted before the current HD122, which began the decade as the most Republican district in Bexar County, has moved sharply towards Democrats. It was also significantly changed in redistricting, and was made more red than it had been in 2020, but could still be competitive in the near future. Maybe if a more wingnutty Republican wins, that timetable could move up.

Also moving districts due to the new map:

State Rep. James Talarico, D-Round Rock, announced Wednesday he is moving to run for reelection in a different House district because his current district is being redrawn to be more favorable to Republicans.

Talarico said he would run in nearby House District 50, where the Democratic incumbent, Celia Israel, is not seeking reelection as she prepares to run for Austin mayor. He announced the new campaign with the support of the biggest names in Democratic politics in Texas, including Beto O’Rourke, Wendy Davis and Joaquin Castro.

Talarico currently represents House District 52, which is set to become redder in redistricting — going from a district that President Joe Biden won by 10 percentage points to one that Donald Trump would have carried by 4. HD-50, meanwhile, is likely to remain solidly blue after redistricting.

[…]

Whether Talarico can avoid a competitive primary for HD-50 is an open question. Earlier Wednesday, Pflugerville City Councilman Rudy Metayer announced he was exploring a run for the seat. Metayer is also the president of the Texas Black Caucus Foundation, and he released a list of supporters topped by two of the state’s most prominent Black politicians, state Sens. Borris Miles of Houston and Royce West of Dallas.

HD-50 is more diverse than the district Talarico, who is white, currently represents. In a series of tweets announcing his new campaign, Talarico prominently highlighted how he “call[s] out White supremacy on the floor,” a reference to his outspoken advocacy against Republican legislation aiming to restrict the teaching of “critical race theory” in Texas classrooms.

Talarico was part of the over 50 House Democrats who broke quorum this summer in protest of the GOP’s priority elections bill, though he was part of the first several to return, causing friction with some in his own party.

See here for more on Rep. Israel. I have to think that HD52 will still be attractive to someone on the Democratic side; that person may have a harder time of it than Rep. Talarico, but a 4-point Trump district is hardly insurmountable, and I’d bet on further change in a Dem direction. As for Talarico, I’ll be very interested to see how big a deal his coming back in the first wave from the quorum break is in his primary. I’m sure the subject will come up.

Closer to home:

State Rep. Dan Huberty, R-Houston, announced Tuesday he will not seek another term to the Texas House.

Huberty, who has represented House District 127 since 2011, said in a statement that “it is time for new opportunities in life.”

“I have thought long and hard about this decision,” Huberty said. “It’s been an honor to represent the people and communities of District 127 at the Texas Capitol, and I’m proud of the work our team has accomplished.”

During the 2019 legislative session, Huberty helped spearhead reforms to the state’s school finance system, which included $6.5 billion to improve public education in the state and pay teachers, plus $5.1 billion to lower school district taxes.

Huberty said Tuesday that his “interest in and passion for public education remains at my core” and said he believed that the school finance reform legislation from 2019 “will have a lasting impact for the school children of Texas for a long time to come.”

Another fully-vested-in-the-pension guy. Funny how those things work out. Rep. Huberty, like several of his colleagues, is one of those increasingly rare serious-about-policy types, who has done some good work with public education. As his district remains pretty solidly Republican, at least in the foreseeable future, the best we can hope for is someone who isn’t a total clown emerging from the Republican primary. Say a few Hail Marys and toss some salt over your shoulder.

And speaking of Republicans with policy chops, this was not unexpected but is still bad.

Amarillo state Sen. Kel Seliger, a Republican who often butted heads with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and was known to be a key swing vote for his party, will not seek reelection.

“After thoughtful consideration and with the reassurance of my family, including my new very vocal granddaughter, I have decided not to be a candidate for re-election to the Texas Senate,” Seliger said in a statement. “I am forever grateful for my family, supporters, staff, and those who. have worked on my behalf since 2004. Thank you for placing your trust in me as your Texas State Senator.”

Seliger said he will serve out the remainder of his term, which ends in January 2023. He has represented Senate District 31, which covers the Panhandle, South Plains and the Permian Basin, since 2005. Prior to that, he served four terms as mayor of Amarillo.

In the Legislature, Seliger was known as an advocate issues of public education, higher education and local control. He led the Senate Higher Education Committee for three sessions between 2013 and 2017. But as parts of the Republican Party in Texas shifted toward support of private school vouchers and against policies passed in Democrat-leaning municipalities, Seliger was often criticized for not supporting those stances and derided as a “liberal.”

[…]

As recently as Monday, Seliger was still breaking with Republican leadership in what he said was deference to his constituents. He was one of the only Republicans in office who openly opposed legislation to ban employers from requiring COVID-19 vaccines, saying the proposal, pushed by Gov. Greg Abbott, was “anti-business.” Earlier in the 30-day special session, Seliger was the sole GOP vote in the Senate against a bill that would clear the way for party officials to trigger election audits. Seliger reportedly said he opposed the legislation because it is an “unfunded mandate of the counties, and I’m opposed to big government.”

His maverick streak led to frequent conflict with Patrick, a conservative firebrand who presides over the Senate. In 2017, Seliger voted against two of Patrick’s legislative priorities: a bill restricting local governments’ abilities to raise property tax revenues and another one providing private school vouchers. The next session, Patrick stripped Seliger of his chairmanship of the Higher Education Committee prompting a back and forth with Patrick’s office that escalated to Seliger issuing a recommendation that a top Patrick adviser kiss his “back end.” (Seliger ultimately apologized, but only for directing the comment at the adviser and not at Patrick himself.)

There used to be a lot of Kel Seligers in the State Senate, and in the Republican Party. Now they run the gamut from Joan Huffman to Bob Hall, and the next person to be elected in SD31 is almost certainly going to be on the Bob Hall end of that spectrum. We sure better hope we can beat Dan Patrick next year.

Finally, here’s a non-legislative vacancy that may have an effect on the House delegation in 2023.

The race for Bexar County judge is wide open as the 2022 election approaches.

Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff confirmed last week that he would not seek reelection next year. Wolff has served as the county’s leader since 2001. Local political scientists say they expect a packed Democratic primary, though the number of officially declared candidates currently sits at zero.

So far, only state Rep. Ina Minjarez has publicly announced interest in the seat; she tweeted that she was exploring a run after Wolff announced his decision not to run again.

“I’ve received countless calls from community members for me to consider running for Bexar County Judge; with today’s news I’ve decided to form an exploratory committee,” she wrote on Oct. 6.

Rep. Minjarez was the only legislator mentioned in that story, but County Judge is a pretty good gig, so others may check this out. Being a County Judge is also a decent stepping stone to higher office, if that’s on one’s path. I will keep an eye on that.

With the mapmaking done, I expect we’ll start to hear about more people getting in, getting out, and moving over. And the January finance reports are going to tell us a lot. Stay tuned.

Chick-Fil-A and the “heartbeat” lawsuits

I’d forgotten all about this.

A case that’s before the Texas Supreme Court this fall could have strong implications for the future of the state’s newly adopted abortion ban, the most prohibitive in the nation.

The suit relates to a 2019 law that, like the abortion law, was authored by state Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola.

Known as the “Save Chick-fil-A” law, it allows anyone to sue when they believe a governmental entity has taken “adverse actions” against a person or company based on its support for a religious organization, as Republican lawmakers believed the city of San Antonio did when excluding the fast-food restaurant from its airport.

Civilian enforcement is also the key to the new state law that effectively bans abortion, Senate Bill 8 — a provision that has so far allowed it to survive a legal challenge based on Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court case establishing women’s right to abortions. At issue in both cases: Can a state law grant private citizens standing to sue?

“The standing issue in the case is essentially the same,” said Jason Steed, a Dallas-based appellate lawyer and court watcher who is not involved in the case. “That’s what’s interesting about it is that the court could decide that standing issue and whatever they decide about that issue would have direct implications for SB 8.”

[…]

The city council’s decision to ban the restaurant had animated conservatives who saw it as discrimination against the company because its owner had given money to Christian groups that oppose same-sex marriage.

Gov. Greg Abbott, surrounded by Republican lawmakers, each with a Chick-fil-A styrofoam cup in hand, signed Hughes’ bill in July 2019, and celebrated it as a victory for religious freedom.

The suit before the Texas Supreme Court was brought on Sept. 5, 2019, by five Chick-fil-A supporters who said they were harmed because they would have been customers of the restaurant had it opened in the city-owned airport.

Still, they note in the suit that the law does not require them to prove damages and purports to give standing to anyone who alleges a violation. They are seeking a court order to stop the city from excluding the fast-foot chain from this project and potential ones with the city in the future.

It’s unclear whether the company wants into the airport. In September 2020, San Antonio was forced to offer Chick-Fil-A its spot back as part of an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Civil Rights under the Trump administration. The settlement helped the airport avoid penalties that could have jeopardized millions of dollars in funding from the agency.

But Chick-Fil-A declined, and the city has since given the spot to Whataburger, which is slated to open by next spring.

In August of 2020, the Fourth Court of Appeals in San Antonio sided with the city and reversed a lower court’s decision, ruling that the city had sovereign immunity, a legal principle that protects governments and their agencies from lawsuits.

See here, here, and here for some background. Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit in July of 2019, before the five busybodies filed theirs. The easy way out for SCOTx is to uphold the Fourth Court’s ruling, which would allow them to not address the question of standing, which as noted is at the center of SB8. The city of San Antonio argued that the plaintiffs did not have standing, and as of today there’s no adjudication on that matter. Sooner or later, one way or another, we’ll get some kind of answer to that.

SCOTx puts San Antonio ISD’s vaccine mandate on pause

Ken Paxton finally gets what he wants.

The Texas Supreme Court temporarily halted San Antonio Independent School District’s staff vaccine mandate on Thursday, a day before the deadline for all employees to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The ruling comes two weeks after a Bexar County judge denied the state’s request for a temporary injunction to stop the staff vaccine mandate. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office appealed that decision to the 4th Court of Appeals and also requested the court temporarily block the mandate while it considers Paxton’s appeal.

The 4th Court of Appeals denied the attorney general’s request to temporarily block the vaccine mandate. Paxton then requested the Texas Supreme Court step in and halt the mandate, which it did Thursday while stating the court’s decision is not a reflection “on the merits of the state’s claims.” The appeals court still has to rule on the state’s appeal of the temporary injunction that was denied by the Bexar County judge on Oct. 1.

[…]

While the Supreme Court’s ruling means SAISD must pause its vaccine mandate, the district said in a statement that it will continue to work with health care providers to offer vaccines to any employees, students, and families who want them.

“This is especially important as we anticipate the availability of the Pfizer vaccine for 5-11-year-old children in the next month. We remain committed to believing it’s the right thing to do,” the district said in the statement. “We are extremely proud of our efforts in providing abundant access to this life-saving protocol to all of our employees and the broader SAISD community. Based on the science, we continue to feel strongly that these vaccines help us keep our staff and students as healthy as possible and in the classroom, where learning happens best, and in giving our families stability.”

See here, here, and here for the background. Next up would be a hearing in district court on the merits of the state’s request for an injunction, followed by another round of appeals. The hope remains that in this time, whether the mandate is allowed to be enforced or not, some number of SAISD employees get vaccinated who wouldn’t have done so otherwise. If that happens, it was all worth it. The Trib has more.

Runoff coming in HD118

You’ll be hearing more about this soon enough.

Leo Pacheco

Republican John Lujan and Democrat Frank Ramirez are advancing to a special election runoff to fill the seat of former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, a seat the GOP is eager to flip as it looks to gain new ground in South Texas.

With all vote centers reporting Tuesday night, Lujan was getting 42% of the vote, while Ramirez was receiving 20%, according to unofficial returns. Democrat Desi Martinez, a lawyer, was in third with 18%, followed by Democrat Katie Farias, a local school board member, at 12%. The other Republican on the ballot — Adam Salyer, the 2020 nominee for the seat — finished last at 9%.

The district, anchored in the South Side of San Antonio, is Democratic-friendly, though Republicans believe they have a shot at capturing it as they seek to capitalize on President Joe Biden’s underperformance across South Texas last year.

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party urged party unity for the runoff — and wasted little time painting a contrast with Lujan.

“While Frank has proven himself as a committed voice for working people across San Antonio, our opponent John Lujan has consistently shown that he will toe the party line of the Texas GOP — even as Texas Republicans throw San Antonio in harm’s way,” party chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “We cannot afford another state rep who will be complicit in Greg Abbott’s attacks.”

Lujan has run three times before in the district, the first time in a 2016 special election where he flipped the seat before losing the regular general election months later. Lujan was backed by Gov. Greg Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and a number of deep-pocketed GOP groups, which have helped him raise more than double what the Democratic candidates combined raised.

Still, Lujan campaigned with a bipartisan appeal, leaning on his business experience and law enforcement background. He even said he supported Medicaid expansion, though he clearly lined up with his party on issues like abortion and gun rights.

Pacheco endorsed Ramirez to succeed him, as did Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff.

Ramirez is the former zoning and planning director for a San Antonio City Council member and before that, he was chief of staff to Pacheco’s predecessor in the seat, Tomas Uresti. At 27, Ramirez ran on the generational change he would bring to the seat and his already considerable experience in government.

For the record, Bexar County is not South Texas. Dems overall made gains across the board in Bexar County, though HD118 was on the low end of that. It would be slightly more Republican under the proposed new State House map, but still Democratic. It would be nice to not have a repeat of the 2016 runoff here, but in the end I expect this will be a Democratic seat when the 2023 Lege gavels in. Until then, look for a lot of money to be spent on this race. The Current has more.

More on the San Antonio ISD vaccination mandate litigation

I’m a little confused at this point, but I’ll cope.

Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court denied the state of Texas’ request for a temporary injunction Friday, allowing the San Antonio Independent School District to continue requiring its employees to be vaccinated against the coronavirus.

Former SAISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez, who has since left the district to take a job in Chicago, issued the vaccine mandate on Aug. 16, requiring all staff members to be vaccinated by Oct. 15. SAISD board President Christina Martinez said Thursday that about 90% of SAISD staff has been vaccinated.

Alvarez’s decision came after a hearing on the state’s request for temporary relief against the vaccine mandate was delayed. Another state district judge denied the school district’s challenge on Sept. 23 that the state and Gov. Greg Abbott did not have jurisdiction to sue. SAISD then appealed that ruling, pushing back the original hearing for the state’s lawsuit; the appeal was dropped earlier this week.

After Alvarez’s ruling, the state’s legal team said they planned to appeal. A trial for the lawsuit is set for Jan. 19, 2022.

[…]

Attorney Steve Chiscano, who represented SAISD, dismissed the state’s lawsuit as a political ploy.

“We are sitting in an injunction hearing that the AG is hoping to win so he can spin off another press release on how proud he is that he beat up on this district,” Chiscano said. “It is so obvious and so clear that this is happening that I believe at the end of the day, you’ll see that what the governor is doing is not supported by any law.”

See here and here for the background. I’ve decided that we had a motion by SAISD to dismiss the lawsuit, which was denied, and then the state asked for a temporary restraining order against SAISD, which was also denied. The source of my initial confusion was the change in judges between the two, but I think that may just be how Bexar County rolls. In any event, true to form and as the story notes, Paxton – who was not present for the hearing – did indeed tweet about it and how he’s fighting for the freedom of people who want to get sick and die and take others with them. Ultimately, this judge did not buy the state’s argument that the Abbott executive order was enough on its own to prevent SAISD from responding to the pandemic in this fashion. A higher court may intervene before the hearing for an injunction, but in the meantime I sure hope that SAISD is making progress in getting shots into arms. That is what really matters. The Current has more.

The proposed State House map is out

The last of the bunch.

Texas House members on Thursday released the first proposal for a new map redrawing the chamber’s 150-member districts. The initial draft would both increase Republicans’ strength across the state and the number of districts in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters.

House Bill 1, authored by Corpus Christi Rep. Todd Hunter, the GOP chair of the House Redistricting Committee, is just the first draft, and it will likely change as it makes its way through the legislative process before it’s signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott.

The Texas Legislature is in the midst of its third special session. This one is dedicated to redrawing political maps based on the latest census data that showed people of color fueled 95% of Texas’ population growth over the past decade. The percent of Hispanics is now nearly equal to white people in Texas.

But, the new map creates fewer districts where Black and Hispanic people make up a majority of eligible voters. Black and Hispanic Texans make up two racial groups that along with Asian Texans outpaced the growth of white residents in the state over the last decade.

Currently 83 of the chamber’s 150 districts are areas in which white residents make up a majority of eligible voters; 33 are districts where Hispanic voters make up the majority, while Black residents are the majority of eligible voters in seven districts.

Under the new proposal, the map adds six more districts where white residents make up the majority of eligible voters while the number of Hispanic and Black districts would each drop by three.

The proposed map would also change the partisan breakdown among the 150 districts, tilting the scale toward Republicans.

Currently, there are 76 districts that went to former President Donald Trump during the 2020 general election while 74 went to President Joe Biden. Among those, 50 districts voted 60% or more for Trump, — indicating the district is safely Republican — while 40 districts had more than 60% support for Biden — indicating strong Democratic support. Under the proposed new map, 86 districts would have gone for Trump, while 64 would have went for Biden. The number of districts that voted 60% or more for Trump or Biden would be tied at 46.

All the data for this plan is here, and the current State House map is here. I wrote about the other maps here: SBOE, State Senate (updated), Congress. For a good initial look at the partisan breakdowns and who is getting paired with whom, see Patrick Svitek and Derek Ryan. Note that Ryan uses a different formula to calculate the partisan strength of a district; by hit metric, Dems would be favored in 65, not 64 of them.

Couple of thoughts and observations:

– Harris County remains with 24 districts, not 25 as it had in 2001-2011. El Paso goes from having five full districts to four full districts plus a piece of HD74. Fort Bend gains a district, Travis gains a piece of the very Republican HD19; that district number used to be in east Texas, held by Rep. James White who is going for a promotion, and is now split into multiple other districts. Denton goes from four full districts to four plus a partial, while Collin goes from four plus a partial to five plus a partial; HD57 moves from east Texas to Denton, HD60 moves from west-ish Texas to Collin. HD76 moves from El Paso to Fort Bend.

– Rep. Erin Zwiener, whose HD45 had been Hays plus Blanco counties, is now shown in the very Republican HD73, which is Comal plus a piece of Hays; the new HD45, shown as having no incumbent at this time, is the rest of Hays. It’s also pretty Democratic, and I’d guess Rep. Zwiener will be househunting soon, if there are no changes to this piece of the map.

– Rep. Ryan Guillen’s HD31 was already the most Trumpy Dem-held district, and it’s the most Republican district held by a Dem, followed by Rep. James Talarico’s HD52. There’s one Republican-held district that now shows as clearly blue, and that’s Rep. Jeff Cason’s HD92 in Tarrant County. Not sure what he did to anger the redistricting gods.

– On a personal note, the Heights has been reunited in one district, HD145, after a decade of being split between HDs 145 and 148. I need to check this for the Senate map as well, to see if the SD06/SD15 dichotomy is still there.

– I’m sure there will be changes to this map, and as the story notes there are some unhappy Republicans; it’s nearly impossible to satisfy everyone, and the needs of the many etc etc etc. For what it’s worth, using Derek Ryan’s metrics, there are 18 districts where the Republican vote is between 40 and 50 percent, and 31 districts with the Republican vote between 50 and 60 percent. Nearly all of the latter are in the places that have been trending Democratic – Harris, Dallas, Bexar, Collin, Denton, etc. A few of the former include South Texas districts that went the other way in 2020, but most of the rest are like the first group. I’ve said many times that the Republicans had to decide what their risk appetite was, and they have. If the current trends don’t at least slow down for them, this could really blow up on them.

I’m sure they’re aware of that, and they have a plan, or at least a hope, to hold on to enough of what they have to stave off disaster. All of this is without addressing the obvious racial inequities in the map, of which I’m sure we’ll hear plenty as the lawsuits begin to get filed. It’s never boring at this time of the decade, that’s for sure.

How the “heartbeat” lawsuits may proceed

The recent “Amicus” podcast from Slate had a bonus segment on the many lawsuits that have been filed in relation to and challenge to SB8, the so-called “heartbeat” bill. For all the normal people out there who don’t follow this sort of thing obsessively, here’s their guide to keeping track of them all.

Dahlia Lithwick: I think the question you and I have probably received the most in the last two weeks is: “How do I even watch SB 8 unfold?” I think there was a collective sigh when Dr. Alan Braid admitted in the pages of the Washington Post that he had in fact performed an illegal—under SB 8—termination of a pregnancy, inviting litigation. Two helpful litigants, both out of state, came forward to sue him.

I think there are a lot of lanes here and folks are confused about timing. So let’s walk through it:

-We’ve still got the ongoing challenge by the providers that the Supreme Court refused to enjoin. That’s going to be heard in December at the Fifth Circuit.

-We have the Biden Administration—the Justice Department has brought a suit that has not resulted in immediate injunction. That is to be heard next week.

-We have a new suit, filed Thursday night by the same group of providers who filed the Fifth Circuit case, saying they’re seeking this extraordinary relief, a petition for cert before judgment.

-We have these two civil suits against Dr. Braid.

-And then after all, we have Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Mark, can you please draw a map of the world of SB8 and what is going to happen first, if you can, and what, if anything, is going to happen before Dobbs?

Mark Joseph Stern: Sure. So let’s start with the state lawsuits. Two different out-of-state lawyers have filed suits in Texas state court against Dr. Alan Braid, who wrote a piece in the Washington Post acknowledging that he performed an abortion after six weeks in Texas in violation of SB8. Those cases are now going to be litigated in Texas state courts, and the doctor is going to raise as a defense, among other things, the fact that Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land. And so it is just not constitutionally permissible for him to be punished for performing an abortion that is legal under binding Supreme Court precedent.

Let’s assume that both of these state courts are on the level and are going to acknowledge Roe as binding precedent. In that case, they will presumably throw out the lawsuits, but that doesn’t mean that SB 8 is over or that it’s enjoined. Because the way this law is written, it’s essentially impossible for any Texas state court to block it across the state. It has to be litigated in each individual case. And so no matter the outcome of these particular Texas lawsuits, SB 8 will still be in effect.

This particular doctor may be off the hook because he’ll raise the constitutional right to an abortion as a defense, but everybody else in Texas will still be under the thumb of SB8. It will continue to work its way through the Texas court system, probably very slowly.

Then we have the Justice Department lawsuit. The Justice Department lawsuit, I think, is one of the stronger suits we’ve seen, because the Justice Department representing the United States can sue Texas directly. It can say “We are filing suit against the state of Texas, including all of its agents,” which would presumably encompass anyone who sued under SB8. That’s something a private plaintiff can’t do. Only the United States gets to sue an individual state because the Supreme Court has said sovereign immunity is not a problem in this context. And so that case is currently sitting before a federal judge in Texas, and that judge will soon hold a hearing on whether or not to issue a preliminary injunction blocking SB 8 throughout the entire state of Texas by issuing a decision directly against Texas. But we have to sit on our hands and wait for that because the federal judge is not rushing it. The Justice Department asked him to rush it, but he said, ‘No, I’m going to take my time on this.” And so we’re all waiting for early October, when that case will move forward.

Then we have the petition before the Supreme Court, which is really part of the same case that we all freaked out about in early September. This is the same lawsuit that was filed against state court judges and clerks in Texas. That was the first bite at the apple, the first effort by abortion providers to block SB8. As you recall, they went to a federal judge, the same judge who’s hearing the DOJ suit, and they said, “Please block this law.” The Fifth Circuit swooped in before the judge could do anything and prevented him from doing anything. The providers went to the Supreme Court and by a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court threw up its hands and said, “We can’t do anything later.” A couple weeks later, the Fifth Circuit issued a decision saying, “Well, we really think you sued the wrong people. We don’t think that you can sue state judges and state court clerks. And so we are going to hold onto this case and will decide this question formally in a couple of months.”

So now, the providers have gone back up to the Supreme Court and said, “Look, we get that you ruled against us last time and we’re not asking for ruling on the merits. We’re not asking you to issue a shadow docket decision just saying up-or-down vote, whether SB8 can be blocked and should be blocked. All we’re saying, all we’re asking is for you to say that we sued the right people, that some of the folks we sued can be sued, and thus bring this case back down to the original federal judge who was hearing it in the first place and clear away all of these obstacles so that he can decide on the merits, whether to issue an injunction.”

That’s the lay of the land for SB8 and all the while, we’ve got Dobbs in the background, which is a completely different case, not directly related to the Texas case at all. That’s a challenge to Mississippi’s 15 week abortion ban. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in that case on Dec. 1 and probably issue a decision in June of 2022.

Couple of things. In re: the courts that will hear the two lawsuits against Dr. Braid, both lawsuits were filed in Bexar County. One is known to have been assigned to a Democratic judge, the other filing didn’t have a court assigned to it at the time of my posting. I don’t feel like checking the partisan label on every Bexar County civil district court judge, but I can say confidently that the odds are that judge is also a Democrat. They still have to follow the law, of course, but if Dr. Braid’s defense is “this law is unconstitutional and cannot be enforced” as we expect, they can make that ruling. They may be limited in how much of SB8 can be struck down, however, based on the way the law was written and a related case currently before SCOTx, as noted in the comments to that post. Someone more versed in civil procedure than I will have to explain what happens from there if that is the result in at least one of these cases. As a reminder, both of the plaintiffs have expressed some level of opposition to SB8.

There are also the various state court lawsuits against specific parties, in which groups like Planned Parenthood have sought (and so far gotten) temporary restraining orders preventing those parties from filing SB8 lawsuits. These actions are very limited in scope and will not affect the long-term future of SB8, they will just potentially create some obstacles to the lawsuits against the people that SB8 targets.

As noted later, the Fifth Circuit will get another chance to stick its nose in once Judge Pitman makes a ruling in the Justice Department lawsuit. I think we can all take a guess as to why they might do. That’s down the line, and we have plenty to occupy ourselves with until then. Hope this clarifies things. You can listen to that episode of “Amicus” at the link above, but you need to be a Slate Plus member to hear this segment.

First “heartbeat” lawsuit filed

Didn’t take long.

A San Antonio physician is facing a lawsuit after he admitted performing an abortion considered illegal under Texas’ new law.

Why it matters: The civil suit, filed by a convicted felon in Arkansas, against Alan Braid is the first such suit under the law that allows private citizens to sue anyone who helps a pregnant person obtain an abortion after six weeks.

What he’s saying: Braid said he acted “because she has a fundamental right to receive this care.”

  • “I fully understood that there could be legal consequences — but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested,” he wrote in a column in the Washington Post.

Driving the news: Oscar Stilley, a former lawyer from Arkansas who was convicted of tax fraud in 2010, said he does not personally oppose abortion but decided to file the suit to test the Texas law’s constitutionality.

  • “If the law is no good, why should we have to go through a long, drawn-out process to find out if it’s garbage?” Stilley after filing the complaint in state court in Bexar County, Texas, according to the Post.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. Oscar Stilley is certainly the plaintiff the forced birth crowd deserves. If I’m reading his comment correctly – the WaPo article is paywalled, so I’m somewhat limited in what I can see – it sounds like he wants to give SB8 opponents a chance to get it thrown out. There’s nothing funny about any of this, but for the first lawsuit under this atrocity to be an utter farce would be entirely fitting.

One other angle, which I noticed in the stamp of the Bexar County District Clerk. This lawsuit was assigned to the 438th Civil Court in Bexar County, whose judge is a Democrat. Judges are compelled to follow the law, of course, but to whatever extent she has discretion, I would think she might not be terribly inclined to give any such plaintiff the benefit of the doubt. Do keep in mind, this law enables the bounty hunters to file their garbage lawsuits in any state court in Texas. For sure, the reason for that was to allow all of the greedy little fortune seekers the opportunity to file in Republican counties, where they can expect a higher level of service. I don’t think any of this was according to the plan these jackals had in mind, but it’s still chaos and attention for them, and I’m sure they’ll take it. Best wishes, and I hope a good supply of Advil and Maalox, to the judge. CBS News and NBC News have more.

UPDATE: Per the Trib, there are actually now two lawsuits against Dr. Braid.

At least two lawsuits have been filed against Braid, both by disbarred attorneys. One was filed by Illinois resident Felipe N. Gomez, who identified himself as a “Pro Choice Plaintiff” and aligns himself with Braid in the lawsuit, KSAT reported. Gomez does not ask for monetary damages in the suit, but asks “the Court to declare that the Act is Unconstitutional, and in violation of Roe v Wade,” according to the TV station.

There’s more in there about Oscar Stilley, whose motivations are all over the place. Gomez’s lawsuit was also filed in Bexar County, but the copy that was included in that KSAT story did not indicate which court. The lawsuit is also one page long and it’s not clear to me it meets the legal definition of a “lawsuit”. I guess the lucky judge will get to make that call. As they say, play stupid games, win stupid prizes.

Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

No Roe roundup

I don’t have a good title for this post, but I do have a collection of stories.

Planned Parenthood files restraining order against Texas Right to Life.

Right there with them

Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas and its affiliates filed a temporary restraining order with a Texas district court Thursday night against Texas Right to Life to stop the anti-abortion organization from suing abortion providers under a new law that all but bans abortions in the state.

[…]

Planned Parenthood, which has stopped providing abortion services in San Antonio but continues elsewhere in the state, refers to SB 8 as the “sue thy neighbor law.”

“Anti-abortion activists are already staking out our health centers, surveilling our providers, and threatening our patients,” said Helene Krasnoff, vice president for public policy litigation and law for Planned Parenthood Federation of America, in a news release. “The physicians, nurses, and clinic staff at Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas — and at abortion providers statewide — deserve to come to work without fear of harassment or frivolous lawsuits.”

This unprecedented enforcement framework essentially circumvents traditional judicial review. Typically, individuals or groups would legally challenge the state as the enforcer — but this law removes the state from the equation. In order for the Supreme Court to review the law, someone will have to sue someone who performed or assisted an illegal abortion; only then it can be challenged.

If the district court grants the restraining order, it would only apply to Planned Parenthood, its affiliates, and an individual Planned Parenthood Houston physician, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, who joined the order. This means other providers would likely still be subject to the law.

Texas Right to Life, which helped write the bill, set up a “whistleblower” tip line so people can report violations to the anti-abortion organization. An email seeking the organization’s comment on the restraining order was not returned Friday morning.

The Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES) said on Twitter that it will defy the law.

“The ban on abortion in Texas is an abomination,” the nonprofit tweeted. “We want to send a very clear message: RAICES will not obey this archaic and sexist law. We’ve funded & supported access to abortions for immigrants in Texas for years and will continue to do so. Some laws are meant to be broken.”

You can see a copy of the lawsuit, which asks for a temporary restraining order as well as temporary and permanent injunctions against the defendants, “>here. The suit includes 100 “John Doe” defendants as “those individuals or entities who have expressed to other Defendants, whether by words or actions, their intention to enforce S.B. 8 against Plaintiffs”. I’m not exactly sure how that works, but I guess we’ll find out. It seems to me that in addition to the federal lawsuit, which is still ongoing despite the Supreme Court’s cowardly and corrupt ruling that allowed SB8 to take effect in the interim, every stakeholder who could reasonably foresee themselves as being on the wrong side of one of these nuisance vigilante actions should do the same thing and file their own pre-emptive lawsuit. We’ve already established that anyone can sue anyone over this, so who needs standing? KVUE has more.

On the subject of that federal litigation, it’s hard to say what comes next.

“This is all uncharted territory,” said Caroline Mala Corbin, a professor at the University of Miami School of Law. “So it’s really hard to say definitively what’s going to happen.”

What makes the law so unusual is its private enforcement, allowing nearly anyone to sue a doctor or other person who helps provide an abortion after six weeks, a point at which many women don’t yet realize they’re pregnant. Because the ban is not enforced by state officials, it’s difficult to know who abortion clinics can sue to challenge the law’s constitutionality.

The court’s conservative majority did not rule Wednesday on the law itself, and in fact acknowledged that abortion providers had raised “serious questions” about its constitutionality.

But the justices also expressed doubt about their ability to intervene in a privately enforced law such as the Texas law, Senate Bill 8, and experts said abortion proponents may have to think through other ways to get the issue before the court.

“The federal route is not dead, but the problem with it is it’s going to take some creativity on the part of federal courts to figure out why SB 8 and laws that may be like it are a real problem,” said Seth Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston School of Law.

“If SB 8 is OK, there’s nothing to stop Texas from passing a law that creates $10,000 private bounties for newspaper reporters who write things that are critical of the governor,” Chandler said. “Or for California to pass laws that may create a private bounty against people who own handguns in their home.”

Maya Manian, a visiting professor at the American University Washington College of Law, said the court could have at least temporarily intervened to allow for more time to review the claims.

“There is no question the Supreme Court could have found a way to overcome these procedural hurdles,” Manian said. “Yet they’re using this procedural cover to covertly overrule Roe v. Wade,” referring to the 1973 decision that established a constitutional right to abortion.

There’s no question that SCOTUS’ refusal to issue a stay against SB8 was an appalling and wholly political abandonment of their duty. Maybe the outcry that is now occurring will be enough to actually spur some federal action, both in terms of passing a law to enshrine Roe as the standard, and also to put some restraints on the increasingly overreaching Supreme Court. Just its abuse of the shadow docket is sufficient cause to reel them in. I’ll believe it when I see it happen, unfortunately. Beyond that, SB8 is so vague as well as unprecedented that no one really knows what its scope is. I suspect that was a feature of this abomination.

Back to the Chron story:

Several legal experts said the fastest way to challenge the law may be to openly defy it, a move Planned Parenthood and other providers have so far been reluctant to do.

“There will be someone mad enough to violate the law and happily serve as a test subject,” Mala Corbin said. “Because the women of Texas are not going to take this without a fight. This is their right to control their body at stake.”

Miriam Camero, vice president of social programs at RAICES, a group that gives legal aid to immigrants, said it was prepared to help women access abortion regardless of the law. Camero noted that the ban especially harms immigrants who already have a difficult time traveling to abortion clinics or out of state given their legal status.

“We will continue to assist clients, whether it be in Texas or Louisiana or Arkansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico,” Camero said.

It appears RAICES has already taken that step. We’ll see if they get hit with one of those lawsuits, in which case perhaps there will be a route to swifter action.

Doctors are also very unhappy with this new law.

The Texas Medical Association slammed the state Legislature on Friday, calling its passage of two anti-abortion bills “unconstitutional” and an interference with the fundamental patient-physician relationship.

“Enough,” the organization wrote in a statement. “The Texas Medical Association supports our physicians specializing in women’s health and opposes legislation in Senate Bill 8 of Texas’ 87th legislative session and Senate Bill 4 of this special session. SB 4 contains language that criminalizes the practice of medicine. Both bills interfere with the patient-physician relationship.”

[…]

On Wednesday, SB 8, which bans abortion after six weeks, including in instances of rape and incest, went into effect. The new law is a near-total ban on abortion and one of the strictest such measures in the country.

Hours before that, the Texas House passed Senate Bill 4, which would reduce access to abortion-inducing pills, the most common method for patients terminating a pregnancy. As sent to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk, the bill would prevent physicians or providers from prescribing these medications to patients more than seven weeks pregnant.

Current Texas laws allow, and FDA guidelines suggest, practitioners to give these pills to patients who are up to 10 weeks pregnant.

“SB 8 and SB 4 go too far. Clearly these provisions are unconstitutional, in our opinion. TMA stands for the health care of all Texans and our profession. Enough is enough,” the statement continued.

[…]

“SB 8 allows for a bounty that encourages practically any citizen to file a cause of action against physicians, other health care professionals, and anyone who ‘aids or abets,’ based on a suspicion. If permitted to proceed, this law will be precedent-setting and could normalize vigilante interference in the patient-physician relationship in other complex, controversial medical or ethical situations.”

Meanwhile, the bill that was passed in the Texas House this week, SB 4, which limits access to abortion-inducing pills, would make it a criminal act for physicians to give these medications to patients more than seven weeks into a pregnancy.

“The physicians of Texas never thought the day would come when the performance of our oath would create a private cause of action for persons not connected to or harmed by the action. Yet, that day has sadly arrived in the state we love,” the TMA wrote.

Very heartfelt, and it’s easy to understand their outrage, but last I checked the TMA has been pretty supportive of Republican politicians, mostly because of tort “reform”. You want to convince me that you’re actually mad and not just having a minor snit, there’s an easy way to put your literal money where your figurative mouths are.

Finally, I mentioned the Texas Right to Life snitch site. As you may have heard, it has attracted some attention from folks who intend to disrupt it.

The Texas Right to Life organization created a website for those reports. But instead of citizens reporting on, say, the Uber driver who brought a woman to a clinic, critics of the law are spamming it with a barrage of fake information. Gov. Greg Abbott and Marvel’s Avengers are among those being reported receiving abortions, according to the New York Times.

Part of the flood of false info sent to the website appears to be aided by an activist and developer who posts under the social media alias Sean Black. In a viral TikTok first reported by Motherboard at Vice, Black explained that he wrote a script that anyone can access, which automates the process of letting them file fake reports. Each time they access Black’s script, new information is generated, theoretically making it harder for the Right to Life group to parse and ban people who are submitting fake reports.

As of September 2, not even 24 hours after the Supreme Court refused to halt the implementation of the law, Black told Vice the script had been clicked over 4,000 times.

Go get ’em, Sean Black.

UPDATE: One more story to add: Uber And Lyft Have Pledged To Cover Their Drivers’ Legal Fees If They Get Sued Under The Texas Abortion Law. Kudos to them for that.

UPDATE: TRO granted to Planned Parenthood. A hearing for an injunction will be September 13. No word yet about an appeal of the TRO.

Bexar mask mandate put on hold again

SCOTx has entered the chat, again.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked San Antonio and Bexar County’s mask mandate, marking the latest update in a flurry of court battles over mask requirements statewide.

The decision comes after an appellate court earlier this month allowed the local mask mandate to stand, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public entities from instituting such requirements. The new ruling is a win for the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had asked the high court earlier this week to step in and stop local officials.

[…]

In the order, the high court noted that the lawsuit does not consider whether people should wear masks or whether government officials should compel them to do so. Rather, the justices said, the case concerns which levels of government can make those decisions.

“The status quo, for many months, has been gubernatorial oversight of such decisions at both the state and local levels,” they wrote. “That status quo should remain in place while the court of appeals, and potentially this court, examine the parties’ merits arguments to determine whether plaintiffs have demonstrated a probable right to the relief sought.”

The court has yet to make a final decision on the matter, which could take weeks or months. Several similar but separate lawsuits, including two in Dallas and Houston, are also currently being litigated.

See here, here, and here for some background. This only affects the Bexar County case – the litigation in Harris and Dallas and other places have not yet been taken to the Supreme Court. It seems likely that they would go the same way, but as noted so far SCOTx is not inclined to let Abbott and Paxton jump the line on this, so they have to go through the process first. Also, this is a stay of the temporary restraining order, which means that if and when the judge in Bexar County issues a temporary injunction, as the judge in Dallas County just did, the SCOTx stay will become moot and Abbott and Paxton will have to go through the process again, to get another stay while that ruling is appealed. Isn’t this fun?

Also, as a friendly reminder, never believe a thing Ken Paxton says:

I know you didn’t need to be told that, but it never hurts to say. The Trib and the Current have more.

Back to SCOTx for the mask mandate ban

Brace yourselves.

Following an unfavorable outcome at an appellate court, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the mask mandate in San Antonio and Bexar County.

A Bexar County district judge issued a temporary order on Aug. 16 allowing the city and county to require masks in city and county buildings and public schools. That order keeps the mask mandates in place until December, when a trial is set for the case. Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the state, appealed that order immediately to the 4th Court of Appeals, but a panel of judges upheld the local mask mandate last Thursday.

Paxton took that decision to the Texas Supreme Court on Monday, arguing in the filing that the 4th Court of Appeals’ ruling adds to the confusion over mask requirements in Texas, and asked for “urgent” action.

Paxton wrote that the 4th Court’s action “upends, rather than preserves, the status quo. The court of appeals’ decision thereby compounds the widespread confusion over mask mandates in Texas and frustrates the state’s ability to cohesively address the pandemic.”

The 4th Court of Appeals had judged keeping a local mask mandate maintains the status quo, as a previous temporary restraining order granted on Aug. 10 first put the mandates in place in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Paxton also argued that the state’s high court must take quick action because other cities and counties are being granted their own temporary orders allowing them to require masks despite the governor’s executive order prohibiting that.

See here and here for some background. The 4th Court of Appeals issued its order denying the request for a stay on the same day that the Supreme Court batted back the request it had received in the Harris County case. They could act quickly or they could sit on this and wait for action from other courts, because Lord knows there’s a ton of litigation out there.

Speaking of other litigation

A Dallas County judge today will decide whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has the authority to prevent local officials from imposing public health measures like mask mandates. It’s the latest in a dramatic and fast-moving court battle over the issue in the state.

At today’s hearing, the judge will likely hear evidence and testimony about the pandemic’s impact and the efficacy of mask-wearing to stop the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant as well as legal arguments about the Texas Disaster Act.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and his legal team, who are requesting a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order, say mask-wearing is the best way to save lives and slow the pandemic while they wait for people to get the vaccine. They’ll also argue that Jenkins, the county’s chief administrator who has emergency management powers, has the legal authority to issue executive orders to mandate such rules.

“We need protection for citizens in Dallas County, we need protection for the economy of Dallas County,” Charla Aldous, one of Jenkins’ attorneys, said at the hearing Tuesday morning. “The bottom line: We are here because Judge Jenkins wants to do his job.”

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton say the governor’s executive order, GA-38 — which bans mask mandates — is legal because the Texas Disaster Act gives him the power to ban Jenkins and other local officials like school districts from requiring masks.

Benjamin Dower, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said the state would produce no witnesses and that the testimony from Jenkins’ witnesses weren’t relevant to temporary injunction hearing.

“None of this is actually relevant to the matter the court has to decide,” Dower said. “This is really a question of law, not fact.”

Judge Tonya Parker, of the 116th Civil District Court, will decide today whether to grant a temporary injunction barring the governor’s order. She previously granted a temporary restraining order doing just that.

The restraining order hearing was to prove whether there would be harm if Abbott’s ban were enforced. The temporary injunction hearing scheduled for this morning is to decide whether the decision should be more permanent. The judge will hear evidence on the matter, but Jenkins’ legal team must still prove immediate harm from Abbott’s order.

See here and here for some background; yes, all of this litigation is hard to keep track of. This post is likely to be already out of date by the time it publishes in the morning. I’ll update it then. Hold onto your butts in the meantime.

UPDATE: No news on the Dallas case yet. Maybe by this time tomorrow.

The status of the mask mandate lawsuits

The Chron does a roundup.

Texas courtrooms have become a busy place this August, with Attorney General Ken Paxton battling school districts, cities, counties and nonprofits to defend Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Tracking the status of lawsuits can be dizzying.

“The way I like to think about it is there are four big buckets of cases and then there are some little minor cases out there,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, whose county has sued both Paxton and Abbott over the ban on mask orders.

Those buckets include Harris County’s lawsuit; one brought by a group of school districts; one from Bexar County and San Antonio; and one from Dallas County. Those cases are the furthest along in the legal process, Menefee said, and he expects a final decision on Abbott’s mask order rules to come from one of those cases.

Harris County’s lawsuit and the school districts’ are proceeding along the same track, Menefee said. Local officials cheered a ruling late Thursday by the state Supreme Court, on a procedural question, that allowed the county’s mask mandate to stay in place for now.

The all-Republican high court could have ruled on the merits of the question, but chose not to, instead punting it to a lower court. This signals that the court isn’t yet prepared to offer a final decision on whether or not mask mandates across the state will be allowed to remain in place, he said.

“They could rule whenever. The fact that they haven’t issued a ruling I think is encouraging because I think that means they’re thinking about it,” Menefee said. “If they do that, that’s going to be the law of the land for Texas,” applying to all cases.

[…]

In Bexar County and San Antonio’s case, local officials won a temporary injunction from an appeal, allowing their mask mandates to remain in place while their case is pending. A trial is scheduled for December. Paxton’s office is likely to appeal that to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Dallas County is fighting for a temporary restraining order to allow it to keep the mask mandate in place for the short term, a step that precedes arguments over a temporary injunction. That decision would last longer, months rather than weeks.

The stragglers, as Menefee described them, include a Fort Bend County case and a lawsuit from the Southern Center for Child Advocacy over many of the same issues.

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county a temporary injunction it its legal challenge to Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. County Judge KP George said it “removed the hurdles that have prevented our municipalities and school districts from taking the same action to protect their communities and the children…”

Thursday’s ruling should remain in place until the issue goes to trial in at least 45 days. Or Paxton could appeal the lower court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, as he has others, leaving it up to them to decide.

Hope that helps a little. And as a reminder of the legal questions, Erica Greider talks to an expert.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School at Law, reckons that local officials still face an uphill battle in their legal battles.

The Supreme Court of Texas, he explained, didn’t side against the state on the substantive question. It simply concluded that Paxton had skipped a step in the legal process, meaning that the statewide restraining order against Abbott’s executive order remains in effect while Paxton retraces his steps.

The TEA guidance on masks, similarly, isn’t a policy change on the agency’s part; rather, it’s a recognition that a temporary restraining order issued by Travis County District Judge Jan Soife blocking the enforcement of Abbott’s latest executive order remains in effect, while litigation is pending.

“The real bottom line is that Judge Soifer’s TROs are still in effect today, but they may not be tomorrow,” Vladeck said.

Vladeck thinks it’s more likely than not that the state’s highest court will eventually side with Abbott; after all, he noted, it previously issued stays against local mask mandates issued in Dallas and Bexar County — that’s “more than nothing, when it comes to reading tea leaves.”

At the heart of the case, Vladeck continued, are genuine substantive questions about the scope of the governor’s powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

“I think we can safely say they’re broad,” Vladeck said. “The problem is they’re surely not limitless.”

Judge Soifer, you may recall, ruled in both the Harris County case and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy case. As we have seen, there is a range of opinion on this litigation from the legal community. I tend to think Vladeck is right about what will happen – however subtle some of the legal questions are, there’s also the politics of it, and the Supreme Court is much more likely to give Greg Abbott what he wants than not – but it’s not an obvious question to answer. We should know more pretty quickly.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

This was for the Harris County litigation, which included Austin and several South Texas school districts. As such, Harris County’s mask mandate is still in effect. This is a procedural ruling, just telling Ken Paxton he needs to follow the law and go through the appellate courts first, and as such it buys some time. Given how accommodating SCOTx has generally been, it’s nice that they’re not fast-tracking any of this. I doubt it makes much difference in the end, but it matters now.

By the way, if you heard that Greg Abbott was dropping enforcement of school mask mandate bans, that simply isn’t so. Abbott and Paxton can go via the appellate courts as before and as they should have here, and the case will eventually make its way back to SCOTx, where they will likely give the state what it wants. Everything is temporary and in a state of flux right now.

Speaking of the appellate courts:

After Gov. Greg Abbott appealed a temporary order that allowed for mask mandates in schools and city- and county-owned buildings, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the order still stands.

On Monday, Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction, allowing the mask mandates in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools to continue until a trial is held. The city and county sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to issue mask mandates.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district court’s ruling on behalf of Abbott, arguing that his appeal automatically blocked the San Antonio and Bexar County mask mandate. While city attorneys disagreed, they still asked the 4th Court of Appeals on Tuesday to officially uphold the temporary injunction.

In an order issued Thursday, the 4th Court of Appeals reasoned that allowing local governments to have policies to protect public health maintained the status quo, while Abbott actually changed it with his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from mandating masks.

The court also cited testimony given during the Monday hearing from Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh. Both said that requiring masks will help slow the spread of the delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains. They also pointed to the vulnerability of schoolchildren under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“Based on the temporary injunction order and the evidence attached to the emergency motion, the City and County have demonstrated that reinstating the trial court’s temporary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm and preserve their rights during the pendency of this accelerated appeal,” the appellate judges wrote. “The circumstances of this case are unique and, quite frankly, unprecedented.”

See here for the background. This ruling means that the Bexar County mandate can remain in place until the hearing for the temporary injunction, which will be December 13. Except, of course, that Abbott and Paxton can appeal this ruling to SCOTx, and having gone through the proper channels this time, the same reason to reject the other TRO will not be in effect. Expect this to get a ruling from SCOTx in the next couple of days.

In the meantime:

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county’s application for a temporary injunction, siding with local officials in their fight against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Judge J. Christian Becerra of the 434th District Court approved the county’s application for the temporary injunction following a day’s worth of testimony in his courtroom.

The Fort Bend County public health director and a local hospital administrator testified to the healthcare emergency currently facing the Southeast Texas region. Both said they believe mask mandates would help mitigate the spread.

Fort Bend ISD had not gone along with implementing a mask mandate initially. This may change that, we’ll see. This was a late-breaking story, there will be more details to come.

And finally, just to show that you can’t keep Ken Paxton down:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday after its superintendent said he’ll require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before an October 15 deadline.

The suit, filed in Bexar County District Court and shared by Courthouse News Service, argues that a July 29 order by Gov. Greg Abbott bars any public entity in the state from mandating that people take the vaccine. That order supersedes SAISD’s ability to require inoculations of its staff, the state claims.

“Defendants challenge the policy choices made by the state’s commander in chief during times of disaster,” according to the petition.

SAISD is believed to be the first large Texas school district to make vaccines mandatory. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s demand comes during a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases as children too young to be vaccinated head back for a new school year.

“For us, it is about safety and stability in our classrooms,” Martinez told the Express-News this week. “We cannot afford to have threats to those two goals.”

Martinez also told the daily that the legal implications of his order weren’t a consideration.

A mask mandate is one thing, a vaccine mandate is another, at least in terms of waving a red flag in front of Abbott and Paxton. I expect Paxton to prevail, though we’ll see if he gets his restraining order from the district court judge or if he has to go up the ladder.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about that SCOTx refusal to put a stay on the Travis County judge’s rulings, and here’s the Chron story. There’s so much damn news these days I just go with what’s in front of me when I’m ready to start writing, and circle back as needed.

Using the dress code to skirt the ban on mask mandates

Brilliant!

The Paris school district found a loophole in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order preventing mask mandates across the state.

Paris ISD’s board of trustees voted to alter the district’s dress code to include masks, according to its website.

The school district, which is located about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, has nearly 4,000 students across eight campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” Paris ISD said in a release posted on its website. “Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”

[…]

“The Board of Trustees is concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees,” the Paris ISD release says. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees.”

Pretty damn clever, if you ask me. I’m sure Ken Paxton will file a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court to stop them, and who knows what happens after that, but I hope other school districts are looking at this and thinking about it. By the way, Paris TX is in Lamar County, which voted about 80% for Trump in 2020. Not exactly a big liberal city taking this action here, is what I’m saying.

And sigh speaking of Paxton:

Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday to overrule a Travis County judge who over the weekend allowed mask mandates to proceed in any school district in the state.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.”

[…]

“The ongoing disregard of the law by certain local officials is causing mass confusion in Texas, necessitating intervention by this Court to provide clarity and statewide uniformity,” Paxton’s office wrote to Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

Abbott and Paxton have had some legal victories — albeit short-lived ones. The high court sided with Abbott and Paxton on Sunday and temporarily shut down mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. But the court allowed legal challenges to continue playing out.

If I’m reading this correctly, this filing goes after both the Harris County temporary restraining order and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy TRO, both of which were handed down by Judge Soifer. As the story notes, while SCOTx has obliged the request to stay the TROs, it has not as yet put a halt to any of the lawsuits that have been filed, which Paxton has been asking for. As such, with one exception in Fort Worth no school district that has put forth a mask mandate has been barred from doing so, at least so far.

In the meantime, school districts are doing what they can do to keep the kids safe, which means keeping masks on.

Houston ISD is among those taking a hardline approach to enforcing their mask mandates, with threats of being sent home and disciplinary action for students who refuse to cover their faces. Other districts said they have no such plans and are hopeful that all students and staff members will abide by the face covering requirement without stirring up drama.

Keyhla Calderon-Lugo, a spokeswoman for Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, said the only students who showed up on campus without masks on Monday, the first day of school, did so by accident.

“We have surveyed our parents and have been in continuous communication with them,” Calderon-Lugo said. “For us, our community has been cooperating greatly with the guidelines and safety protocols established by the district.”

\Many school administrators think mask-reluctant children may just need a nudge. Almost across the board, districts with mandates in place have provided schools with extra masks and instructed staff to offer them to students who show up on campus without a face covering.

“We’re assuming that they didn’t have one, not that they don’t want to wear one,” said Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD. “Our hope is that we keep students in class. Our goal is not to send them home. We’ve worked really hard to get all 67,000 of our students back to in-person learning.”

Where school districts diverge is when students refuse to wear masks after being offered one.

North of Austin, Pflugerville ISD is “certainly not denying any student access to school,” said spokeswoman Tamra Spence, who added that she was “not aware of any specific instances where a resolution hasn’t been reached” with children who have arrived unmasked since classes resumed Monday.

Some districts say they will segregate the unmasked students from those with masks.

At Houston ISD schools, students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Those who continue to refuse will be told to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning, according to district guidance.

Dallas ISD, meanwhile, is working with its schools to provide separate rooms where students who decline to follow the mask mandate will continue to receive instruction, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said Sunday. He described Dallas ISD’s approach to enforcing its mask requirement as “nice but firm,” and noted that the district had not had any problems since its mandate took effect Aug. 10.

“We’re going to be benevolent. We’re going to work with people. We’re going to offer masks,” Hinojosa said. “But we’re going to be firm. We have to protect the health and safety of our students.”

This could all be a lot simpler, and we could genuinely be doing our best to keep kids and teachers and staffers safe, if Greg Abbott would allow it. He is the reason for the confusion, and he deserves all of the defiance he is getting.

There actually is still a court order that allows for mask mandates in place

Hey, remember that other lawsuit filed against Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy? I noted it in passing in this post, and then like you I forgot about it. And then on Sunday afternoon, this happened:

As of Monday morning, I had not seen any news coverage of this. As discussed before, that Supreme Court ruling only applied to Dallas and Bexar counties, and the affected school districts in those counties appeared to be interpreting it in a way that said it didn’t apply to them. Other jurisdictions like Harris County and Austin were not covered, so their mandates were also not affected.

Later in the day, there was this story:

After the Texas Supreme Court’s decision, several Dallas County school districts started backtracking, making masks optional once again, though Dallas ISD held firm.

But that same evening, a Travis County judge granted a new restraining order that temporarily blocks Gov. Greg Abbott from prohibiting mask mandates in Texas public schools.

The restraining order was granted in a case involving The Southern Center for Child Advocacy. Officials from the center did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Monday but noted on the group’s Facebook page that the restraining order — issued by Judge Jan Soifer in the 345th Judicial District — was in effect statewide.

“It was not one of the TROs blocked by the Texas Supreme Court yesterday afternoon,” the group wrote.

Richardson [ISD] Superintendent Jeannie Stone said the order allowed her district to keep a mask mandate in place as the school year is set to start on Tuesday.

“This ruling, at least temporarily, puts this decision where it should be — at the local level,” Stone said in a video announcement. In an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Stone said Richardson is committed to following the law and would adapt its decision making if the law changes.

The restraining order essentially allows individual districts the leeway to set their own mandates independent from their counties. Officials with the attorney general’s office asked the Supreme Court of Texas to block this order as well. The Texas Supreme Court did not grant the attorney general’s request on Monday for an immediate block based on the day before’s decision.

Attorney General Ken Paxton wrote to the Southern Center for Child Advocacy on Monday, asking the group to acknowledge on Monday that their temporary restraining order is “void and of no effect” because of the Texas Supreme Court decision.

Henry Green Bostwick II, an attorney representing the center, countered that he would withdraw the lawsuit against the state if Gov. Abbott altered his order to allow school districts to enforce mask mandates.

Paxton has vowed to take all school districts that violate Abbott’s mask mandate ban to court. Paxton falsely claimed Sunday evening that the Supreme Court’s decision ordered Dallas County and Dallas ISD to follow the governor’s order.

However, the decision did not mention Dallas ISD. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment on whether the attorney general planned to sue DISD over its mask requirement.

“Until there’s an official order of the court that applies to the Dallas Independent School District, we will continue to have the mask mandate,” Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said late Sunday.

[…]

Other school districts are signaling their intentions to jump into the legal fray, too.

DeSoto ISD trustees are scheduled to meet tonight to discuss authorizing their legal counsel to file a lawsuit against Abbott in order to allow the districts “to make local decisions regarding the health and safety of its students and employees,” according to the board’s agenda. Arlington ISD is expected to take up a similar vote later this week.

So, safe to say that for now, as of Monday afternoon, school districts that wanted to keep a mask mandate in place could do so. And then there’s this:

Here’s the DMN story if you can read it. Again I ask: Who is actually bound by that Supreme Court order? Far as I can tell, no one is paying it any heed, and now there’s the second court order that would seem to invalidate it, or at least contradict it. I can’t see this as anything but a temporary situation, and yet here we are. Until something else happens, it’s what the counties and school districts are saying that is in effect. I for one prefer it that way.

Bexar County mask mandate back on

And in an update to the original mask mandate lawsuit story, the district court that issues the temporary restraining order that was later stayed by the Supreme Court has now issued a temporary injunction, barring the state from forbidding San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks. Confused? Keep reading.

Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.

“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”

The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.

Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.

In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed … and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community relay on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.

The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.

“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”

See here for the previous report, which noted that the plaintiffs had not exactly been eager to comply with the SCOTx ruling in the first place. This is all separate from the other lawsuit that resulted in a statewide restraining order on Sunday night. As I, a noted non-lawyer, understand it, the purpose of the initial restraining order that was granted was to address claims by the plaintiffs that they are suffering harm right now as a result of the thing they’re suing over – the TRO is to mitigate that harm until there’s an evidentiary hearing. That TRO is what was lifted by SCOTx, who said in effect that any such harm was either insignificant or irrelevant, and no mitigation needed to be in place at this time. The purpose of the injunction is to say that the plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to suggest that they will prevail on the merits, and thus they can get what they are asking for until a final ruling is made. This too can and surely will be appealed, and I would be surprised if it is not stayed, but as before until such time the plaintiffs have gotten what they wanted.

The San Antonio Report adds on.

Arteaga said that like her decision to grant a temporary restraining order last week, the choice to grant a temporary injunction was not made lightly. She acknowledged the testimony of Bexar County resident Michelle Means, who told the court Monday that she did not want to send her youngest child to school with a face mask and was disappointed by the sudden mask mandate issued last week.

“I just wanted to apologize to all those parents, school administrators, the superheroes that we call teachers, for what someone called the equivalent to a legal tug-of-war,” Arteaga said. “Unfortunately, … our children are right in the middle.”

Arteaga’s ruling on Monday is only a temporary extension; the mask mandate will not be permanently in place until the case goes to trial. Once appealed, the 4th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court would also have to rule in the city and county’s favor.

[…]

The city and county must now set a trial date with the state over a permanent injunction.

Arteaga heard from five witnesses during a hearing Monday, with four testifying on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County and one for the state. During the hearing, local officials testified about rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and said the need to require masks in schools was urgent as more of them opened their doors to students.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, making them more vulnerable, said Dr. Junda Woo, who testified in her capacity as the public health authority for San Antonio and Bexar County. She also serves as the medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Though children generally have better health outcomes if they contract the virus, they can still bring it home to older, more vulnerable adults.

“People are out and about more and we have a large number of people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “And the delta variant is more contagious than the earlier version of COVID, where every person who had COVID will infect one or two people. With the delta variant, every person infects eight to nine people.”

Woo also cited rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the area. Those increases are now accompanied by smaller staff numbers at area hospitals compared to previous surges, Woo said.

“As a physician, I really worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “The level of burnout, of anger that I see among health care providers who I have known for years, is at levels I have never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

We’ll see how long it takes for this to get back before SCOTx, and how long it takes them to give Greg Abbott everything he wants. In case you’re wondering, the temporary injunction hearing for the Dallas lawsuit is August 24, so depending on where we are it’s possible we’ll go through this again in that court.

The Trib reports that the general reaction so far to all this is confusion and a mess of differing local actions.

Colleges in Travis County must require masks — but not two hours south in Bexar County. There, officials decided to keep the mandate just to K-12 — a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.

“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

[…]

Amid the legal disarray, many school districts have walked back plans to require masks.

​​Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio imposed a mask order after Bexar County officials convinced a judge to pause Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. But after Sunday’s Supreme Court ruling, the district scuttled its plans.

The same goes for Fort Bend ISD — another district that was set to require masks, but changed course in defiance of Fort Bend County Judge KP George’s mask order for the county, which includes public schools.

Some districts aren’t waiting for the state to challenge local mask orders to reverse course. In Travis County, Eanes Independent School District pulled back its mask mandate after the state Supreme Court decision — even though the decision didn’t apply to Travis County and the county mask mandate remains in effect.

“We will follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match,” the school district posted on Twitter.

Others have stuck with their mandates through the chaos. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio ISDs will continue to require masks despite the Supreme Court order.

In parts of the state where masking orders remain untouched by the legal crossfire, officials are weighing the possibility of expanding the mandate beyond schools and colleges.

Plenty of businesses in Austin have adopted their own masking requirements without a local mandate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. But he hasn’t ruled out mandating masks for private businesses if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals continues to rise — though Adler doesn’t relish the idea.

“We’re all just trying to keep people safe and to keep the economy open,” he said.

It’s a mess, it’s Greg Abbott’s fault, and there should be more resistance to his nonsense. Thank you for attending my TED talk.

And in the meantime, a new player has entered the fight.

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said he would allow exceptions to the mandate, which he plans to make effective Wednesday morning, but did not specify them. He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

[…]

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

“Tonight” was Monday night – as far as I could tell late Monday there were no news stories confirming that such a suit had been filed. I’ll keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

UPDATE: The latest version of the Yallitics podcast does a nice job explaining all the legal mumbo jumbo, in case you still need some help understanding it all.

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Texas.

The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties across the state defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates. On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools. Shortly after, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins that required masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.

Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.

“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.

See here and here for the background. Abbott’s tweet is pathetic in its misrepresentation of the issue. Masking only works if the people who are sick – whether they know it or not – are in compliance. That means that the people who are most likely to be sick – unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, which is all children under the age of 12 – especially need to be masked, and as we very well know, that first group and their children are not ever going to do that voluntarily. My mask doesn’t protect me from you (unless I’m wearing an N-95), it protects you from me. If you’re not reciprocating, it’s not doing us any good. The problem with Greg Abbott is not that he doesn’t understand this, it’s that he values the opinion of the largely unvaccinated and completely indifferent Republican primary voters more than anything else. And so here we are.

As for Paxton, he’s wrong in two ways. First:

And second:

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown last week required face coverings to be worn inside public schools and government buildings to deal with a surge in local COVID-19 infections. Both insisted the orders remained in effect because Sunday’s court action did not involve local rules.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

[…]

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

The Chron story makes the same point. To be sure, Paxton can pursue the same kind of writ against Harris and Austin and those other school districts – several others that have as far as I know not been involved in litigation yet have implemented mask mandates – and when SCOTx issues a final ruling it can and likely will encompass all of the other jurisdictions in its order. But until then, no one other than Dallas and Bexar Counties are directly affected. And for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me what would happen if they just decide to tell Abbott and Paxton and SCOTx to go pound sand. They haven’t yet, and they may never, but don’t throw out the possibility. The San Antonio Report has more.

UPDATE: Interesting:

I mean, he’s not wrong. And this is what I’m saying about the state’s ability to enforce this. As above, Paxton could go after DISD and make them comply. But until and unless he does, what’s stopping them from continuing on as they had planned?

UPDATE: This too:

At this point it’s not clear to me that anyone truly feels bound by this SCOTx order.

And it’s off to SCOTx for the mandate stuff

It’s where it was always headed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is taking the mask mandate battle to the state Supreme Court after the state was defeated in its attempts to overturn such mandates in San Antonio and other municipalities.

Paxton made the announcement late Friday night in a tweet that read, “We have taken this mask mandate to the Texas Supreme Court. The Rule of Law will decide. — AGPaxton.”

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Court of Appeals denied Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to overturn a temporary restraining order granted Tuesday that blocked Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and allowed the city to order masks in schools and government buildings.

“After considering the petition and the motion, this court concludes (the state) is not entitled to the relief sought,” Justices Luz Elena Chapa, Irene Rios and Beth Watkins wrote in their Friday ruling.

That same day, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas also denied the state’s bid to overturn a mask order by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. And in Travis County, a judge granted similar restraining orders against Abbott to Harris County and the South Texas school districts of Brownsville, La Joya and Edinburg, allowing them to keep mask mandates in place.

See here for some background, and here for a story about the Dallas appellate verdict. As far as I can tell, this hearing will review both of those rulings, and thus will obviously affect the other litigation going on. To that end, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has submitted an amicus brief in support of Dallas and Bexar. I have no particular reason to believe that the Supreme Court will do anything other than offer the usual room service to the state, but I have to hope, because what else is there to do? I assume we will know shortly what they think. KXAN and the Trib have more.

Harris County gets its restraining order against Abbott

Step one.

A judge in Travis County on Friday granted Harris County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision by Judge Jan Soifer of the 345th Civil District Court provides legal cover for the county health department, which Thursday issued a mask mandate for schools and day care centers at the direction of County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“While this decision is temporary, it’s a victory for residents in Harris County who are concerned about this public health crisis,” County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “We need every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of COVID-19, including masks and other measures that are proven to slow the spread.”

A handful of area school districts, including the Houston, Spring, Aldine, Galena Park and Galveston Independent School Districts, have issued mask mandates. Others said they were waiting to see how the legal battles between the state and local officials are resolved.

[…]

[Harris County Judge Lina] Hidalgo on Aug. 5 moved the county to its highest pandemic threat level, which urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. She said masks are particularly important in schools because children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, which health officials agree is the best defense against COVID-19.

Harris County’s order also requires schools to notify parents when a student comes into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus; the Texas Education Agency advises but does not mandate this.

“At this point, public health interventions like masking, contact tracing and notifications in schools remain (children’s) only protection against the virus,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents Tuesday.

In his lawsuit, Menefee said the governor had exceeded the authority given to him by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which, he argued, allows Abbott to suspend laws only in certain circumstances.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was also named in the suit, are almost certain to appeal. The pair pledged in a joint statement Wednesday to sue any “school district, public university or local government official” who violates the governor’s executive order.

Randall Erben, a professor of the University of Texas School of Law, said Abbott has broad powers under the Disaster Act. This situation is unique, said Southern Methodist University law professor Nathan Cortez, because the governor is attempting to limit, rather than enhance, the government’s response to a disaster.

See here for the background, and here for a story about what other area ISDs are doing. I can’t blame any of them for waiting to see how the litigation winds up before changing course, though I would strongly encourage them to be as forcefully on the side of protecting their students and teachers and staff as much as possible.

As noted before, Abbott and Paxton are now appealing the lower court orders that allowed for the mask mandates to go forward for now. So far that isn’t going well for them, either, though that comes with an asterisk:

Yeah, we know that’s where this is going, and there’s no particular reason to be optimistic. It should also be noted that a district court judge in Tarrant County issued a TRO blocking the Fort Worth ISD’s mask mandate in response to a suit filed by some parents. That was a Republican judge, though there was more to the case than just the executive order. It’s not hard to see the partisan split, though. Still, every loss Greg Abbott suffers, even if transitory, is worth it.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

Fort Bend joins the lawsuit parade

Come on in, the water’s fine.

As the Delta variant drives a pandemic surge, Fort Bend County officials on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government from implementing public health mandates.

“I’ll do all I can to protect the public health, and the people of Fort Bend County,” Judge KP George tweeted. “I hope others will join me in following the science and listening to local doctors and the CDC to act swiftly and decisively.”

The county filed a lawsuit in district court requesting a temporary restraining order to challenge the Republican governor’s order. George, a Democrat, and other county leaders had scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon.

County commissioners met in a closed special session at 3 p.m. Wednesday to deliberate with an attorney and discuss potential responses to rising COVID-19 infections, according to the meeting agenda.

The story has no further detail, so I will just assume this is along similar lines as the others so far.

We now have our first official response from the powers that be, and as one might expect, it’s arrogant and jerky.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he plans to appeal a pair of rulings by judges in Dallas and San Antonio that allow local officials in those cities to issue mask mandates, with possible decisions from the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the week.

The temporary rulings override Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that bars local officials from requiring face coverings. They came in response to legal challenges from top elected officials in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, who argued Abbott overstepped his emergency powers by preventing the local mandates. The rulings also pointed to a rapid ongoing rise in COVID hospitalizations across the state, particularly in large cities.

Paxton said Wednesday he expects a quick ruling in his favor from the state’s top civil court.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the week or at least early next week we’ll have a response from the Texas Supreme Court,” Paxton told conservative radio host Dana Loesch. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m pretty confident we’re going to win that.”

[…]

Paxton argued on the talk show Wednesday that the Texas Legislature had granted Abbott the power to ban local COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, through the sweeping Texas Disaster Act of 1975. He also downplayed the early court win by Jenkins.

“The reality is, he’s going to lose,” Paxton said. “He may get a liberal judge in Dallas County to rule in his favor, but ultimately I think we have a Texas Supreme Court that will follow the law. They have in the past.”

We’ll see about that. For what it’s worth, there was one Republican district court judge in Fort Bend who wasn’t challenged in 2018, so there’s at least a chance that he could preside over this case. The crux of the argument here is that it’s Greg Abbott who isn’t following the law. I agree with Paxton that the Supreme Court is going to be very inclined to see it Abbott’s way, but I’d like to think they’ll at least take the plaintiffs’ arguments into account.

Later in the day, we got the first words from Abbott as well.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Yeah, that’s what has gotten us to this situation in the first place. I will confess that I’m surprised it has taken this long for Abbott to speak up. He’s never been shy about quashing dissent, and as this story notes the right wing scream machine has been fulminating about his lack of action. Those days are clearly now over.

We got another peek at the state’s response in this story about the larger revolt by cities and school districts against Abbott’s mask mandate ban.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before state District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a city attorney argued that Abbott had exceeded the bounds of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which the governor cited in suspending local authority to impose COVID restrictions.

“The Texas Legislature has given cities and counties broad authority within the Texas Health and Safety Act,” said Assistant City Attorney Bill Christian. “Only the Legislature has the authority to suspend laws.”

Kimberly Gdula, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an appellate court ruling last November that upheld Abbott’s ban on local business restrictions. She also argued that the city and county were asking the court to improperly “throw out” parts of the Disaster Act.

Interesting, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. When there are some actual opinions and not just temporary restraining orders pending the injunction hearings, we’ll know more.

It’s possible there may be another avenue to explore in all this.

President Joe Biden says the White House is “checking” on whether he has the power to intervene in states like Texas where Republican leaders have banned mask mandates.

Asked whether he has the power to step in, Biden responded: “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

“I think that people should understand, seeing little kids — I mean, four, five, six years old — in hospitals, on ventilators, and some of them passing — not many, but some of them passing — it’s almost, I mean, it’s just — well, I should not characterize beyond that,” Biden said.

[…]

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is “looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs.” She said those include efforts to “keep students safe and keep students in school” and that the U.S. Department of Education “and others” are working on it.

Insert shrug emoji here. I don’t know what this might look like, but I believe they will be creative in looking for a possible point of leverage.

Finally, on a side note, Fort Worth ISD implemented a mask mandate on Tuesday. We are still waiting for HISD to vote on the request by Superintendent Millard House to implement one for our district. The Board meeting is today, I expect this to be done with little fuss from the trustees.

More lawsuits against Abbott’s ban on mask mandates

From Dallas County:

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins filed a legal challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates Monday, the North Texas official said on Twitter.

Jenkins said he’s asking for a court to rule that Abbott’s prohibition on local officials requiring people to wear masks — part of the governor’s July 29 executive order regarding the pandemic — is unenforceable.

Jenkins filed his request as part of an ongoing lawsuit between himself and Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch, according to The Dallas Morning News. That paper, which first obtained a copy of the court filing, reported that Jenkins is asking to be allowed to require mask wearing.

[…]

“The enemy is the virus and we must all do all that we can to protect public health,” Jenkins said in a tweet late Monday. “School districts and government closest to the people should make decisions on how best to keep students and others safe.”

Koch sued Jenkins Thursday after the county judge ordered the commissioner to be removed from a public meeting where Jenkins mandated mask wearing, according to The News.

This joins the lawsuit filed in Travis County seeking a broader injunction against Abbott’s anti-mask order. Commissioner Koch was denied a temporary restraining order in his action against Judge Jenkins on the ground that being made to wear a mask did not cause him any injury; a hearing for an injunction is still to come. One can only hope it’s that easy for Jenkins in this litigation. The legal hair that is being split here, as far as my not-lawyer self can tell, is that while Abbott clearly has the power to impose a mask mandate during an emergency, the statute does not allow him to forbid other entities from imposing their own mandates. WFAA appears to confirm my guesses.

The court document cites the Disaster Act, which delegates authority to county judges to declare local disasters and to seek to mitigate the disaster. It says that the Delta variant is increasingly affecting the city.

It also mentions how Jenkins tried to require face masks in commissioners’ court but there were threats from Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton.

Last week, Dallas County Commissioner J.J. Koch was escorted out of the commissioner’s meeting after refusing to wear a face mask.

“Such injunctive relief is necessary because there is immediate and irreparable harm that will befall Dallas County – and others outside Dallas County – if they cannot require the public health-advancing mitigation measure of mandatory face coverings in public,” the court document says.

It also says that Abbott is attempting to prevent Jenkins from protecting citizens, which threatens lives.

“The Disaster Act does not provide any authority to the Governor to limit the local county judge’s actions,” the document says.

I figure there should be a quick ruling on whether there can be a temporary restraining order or not, and after that we’ll see. I don’t know the text of the statute in question, and I don’t know if coming from a county, which is essentially a subsidiary of the state, versus a home-rule city or school district or third party makes a difference.

In the meantime, Bexar County and San Antonio joined in the fun.

The city and county joined other governmental entities Tuesday in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s July executive order prohibiting them from issuing mask mandates. This is not the first lawsuit over Abbott’s order; Dallas County sued on Monday night. Dallas Independent School District and Austin Independent School District also announced Monday that they would be requiring masks in schools despite Abbott’s executive order.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said that the lawsuit was to challenge Abbott’s authority to suspend local emergency orders during the pandemic. Find a copy of the lawsuit here.

“Ironically, the governor is taking a state law meant to facilitate local action during an emergency and using it to prohibit local response to the emergency that he himself declared,” he said in a news release.

A temporary restraining order is necessary as San Antonio and Bexar County face “imminent irreparable harm,” from transmission of the coronavirus, plaintiffs wrote.

If the city and county are able to secure a temporary restraining order against the governor, the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District intends to immediately require masks in public schools and unvaccinated students to quarantine if they come in “close contact” with someone that tested positive for COVID-19.

[…]

The city and county argued in its filing that Abbott exceeded his authority, as Texas law “gives the governor authority to suspend statutes and regulations governing state officials and agencies, but not the statutes giving local governments the authority to manage public health within their own jurisdictions,” city and county representatives wrote in the lawsuit filed Tuesday. Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff reiterated that point during a county commissioners meeting Tuesday morning.

And just like that

A Texas district judge granted the city of San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s restriction on localities imposing mask mandates.

On Tuesday, Judge Antonia Arteaga made the ruling following almost an hour of arguments from attorneys. Arteaga said she did not take her decision lightly, citing the start of the school year and public guidance given by Dr. Junda Woo, medical director of San Antonio’s Metropolitan Health District, concerning the need for masks in public schools as the highly contagious delta variant contributes to a surge in coronavirus cases across the state.

The decision is temporary, pending a hearing on Monday.

We’re a long way from actual victory here – even if the plaintiffs win on Monday, we all know the state will appeal, and who knows what happens from there. The legal argument sounds reasonable to me, but what matters is what the law says, and whether the appeals courts/Supreme Court want to find a way to accommodate Abbott regardless of what the law says. But at least we’re off to a good start.

UPDATE: Score one for Dallas, too.

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Greg Abbott will blame you if you get sick

He will take no responsibility at all.

With COVID-19 hospitalizations soaring past 5,000 statewide for the first time in nearly five months, state officials are stepping up vaccination outreach programs and promotional campaigns but Gov. Greg Abbott insists that the state won’t impose any new mandates on Texans.

State officials announced Wednesday that Texas has 5,292 people hospitalized with lab-confirmed COVID-19 — the highest number since March 2, the day Abbott announced he was ending all state mask mandates and restrictions on businesses.

At that time, Abbott called for “personal diligence” and said statewide mandates are no longer needed.

Though 10,000 new COVID infections were reported statewide on Wednesday, the most since February, he has not changed his messaging.

“The time for government mask mandates is over — now is the time for personal responsibility,” Abbott wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Every Texan has the right to choose whether they will wear a mask or have their children wear masks.”

His latest comments came as the president of the Texas State Teachers Association publicly called on Abbott to allow schools to require masks, particularly since vaccines have not been approved for children under 12.

“If Gov. Abbott really cares about the health and safety of Texas students, educators and their communities, he will give local school officials and health experts the option of requiring masks in their schools,” Texas State Teachers Association President Ovidia Molina said on Tuesday.

I mean, I think we know the answer to that hypothetical.

Meanwhile, statewide hospitalizations from the virus have doubled in the last two weeks and more than tripled since the start of July, when Abbott re-issued a disaster declaration to deal with COVID-19.

“COVID-19 hospitalizations are rising and new variants of the virus are spreading quickly in our communities,” said Dr. John Hellerstedt, commissioner of the Texas Department of State Health Services in a statement Wednesday.

While Texas still appears to have more 9,100 available hospital beds statewide, there are areas around Beaumont, College Station and Killeen reporting that few intensive care beds are available for additional chronic patients.

The College Station region reported no more available ICU beds on Wednesday and Laredo officials were down to just 1 available ICU bed.

Killeen is a city in Bell County, which has one of the worst vaccination rates in the state, according to state data. Just 33.5 percent of that county’s population over 12 years of age have been fully vaccinated compared to over 54 percent in Harris County and 56 percent in Bexar.

“It is clear that increasing vaccinations is still our best strategy to navigate through this pandemic and get to closure,” Bell County Judge David Blackburn said in a recent news release.

Statewide, just 52 percent of Texans 12 and older have been vaccinated.

Here’s the Thursday update.

Across Texas, 5,662 people were hospitalized for the virus as of Thursday, the highest number recorded by DSHS since Feb. 28 and a massive increase since its low point of 1,428 on June 27.

It’s bad, y’all. And it’s getting worse. There’s a bit of a vaccination push now, but as you know it takes time to get fully protected, and we don’t have any. Abbott’s lifting of the mask mandate when he did was premature, and his mulish resistance to any possible leeway for local officials is harmful in the extreme, but let’s be clear that his biggest sin is not doing everything he could to get more Texans vaccinated. Masks at least would do something now, and even if it is too late for this surge to ramp up vaccinations, that’s still by far the best thing to do. So what is Abbott doing?

Vaccinations > masks, but thanks to Abbott’s utter lack of leadership, we have neither. And so thousands more people are getting sick, and some number of them – more than it should be – will end up in the hospital or a grave. And all of that is on Greg Abbott.

“Universal masking” for school children recommended

Seems like a sensible idea, especially given that children under the age of 12 can’t get the vaccine yet.

The American Academy of Pediatrics on Monday recommended that all children over the age of 2 wear masks when returning to school this year, regardless of vaccination status.

The AAP, which said its important for children to return to in-person learning this year, recommends that school staff also wear masks. The AAP is calling the new guidance a “layered approach.”

“We need to prioritize getting children back into schools alongside their friends and their teachers — and we all play a role in making sure it happens safely,” said Sonja O’Leary, chair of the AAP Council on School Health. “Combining layers of protection that include vaccinations, masking and clean hands hygiene will make in-person learning safe and possible for everyone.”

The AAP said universal masking is necessary because much of the student population is not vaccinated, and it’s hard for schools to determine who is as new variants emerge that might spread more easily among children.

Children 12 and over are eligible for Covid-19 vaccinations in the U.S. And the FDA said last week that emergency authorization for vaccines for children under 12 could come in early to midwinter.

[…]

Universal masking will also protect students and staff from other respiratory illnesses that could keep kids out of school, the AAP said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended this month that vaccinated students do not have to wear masks in classrooms.

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, said on MSNBC that the CDC may have been trying to be a little more lenient, allowing people to make judgment calls “depending on the circumstances in your school and your community.”

But he said he understands where the AAP is coming from.

“They will not be popular amongst parents and kids who are sick of masks, but you know what? The virus doesn’t care that we’re sick of masks,” Collins said. “The virus is having another version of its wonderful party for itself. And to the degree that we can squash that by doing something that maybe is a little uncomfortable, a little inconvenient … if it looks like it’s going to help, put the mask back on for a while.”

That was from last week. Yesterday, the CDC caught up.

To prevent further spread of the Delta variant, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its mask guidance on Tuesday to recommend that fully vaccinated people wear masks indoors when in areas with “substantial” and “high” transmission of Covid-19, which includes nearly two-thirds of all US counties.

“In recent days I have seen new scientific data from recent outbreak investigations showing that the Delta variant behaves uniquely differently from past strains of the virus that cause Covid-19,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky told a media briefing on Tuesday.

“This new science is worrisome and unfortunately warrants an update to our recommendations,” she said. “This is not a decision that we or CDC has made lightly.”

[…]

Earlier this month, the CDC’s Covid-19 school guidance noted that fully vaccinated people do not need to wear masks, and then about a week later the American Academy of Pediatrics issued stricter guidance recommending that everyone older than 2 wear a mask in schools, regardless of vaccination their status.

Now the updated CDC guidance recommends everyone in schools wear masks.

“CDC recommends that everyone in K through 12 schools wear a mask indoors, including teachers, staff, students and visitors, regardless of vaccination status. Children should return to full-time, in-person learning in the fall with proper prevention strategies in place,” Walensky said. “Finally, CDC recommends community leaders encourage vaccination and universal masking to prevent further outbreaks in areas of substantial and high transmission. With the Delta variant, vaccinating more Americans now is more urgent than ever.”

The updated CDC guidance makes “excellent sense,” Dr. David Weber, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine in Chapel Hill and board member of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiology, told CNN on Tuesday.

“Breakthrough disease clearly occurs, and for those cases, we know they’re much more mild in vaccinated people, but we don’t know how infectious vaccinated people are,” he said. “But clearly, if you want to protect your children under 12 or grandchildren, or protect immunocompromised people, as well as protect your own health — from even mild disease — then you should be wearing a mask, particularly in areas of high transmission when indoors.”

My kids have been vaccinated, but they’re still regular mask-wearers, especially the younger one. I fully expect them to continue to do so in school, at least for the fall. I’ve been wearing a mask again for indoor spaces as well. I will admit it’s kind of annoying, as we have been vaccinated for months now and have been pretty damn careful all along, but it is what it is. That said, I have a lot of sympathy for this position:

Some of that is happening in other states, but who knows, maybe we’ll get it for federal buildings and air travel, too. And who knows, maybe this will work.

As leaders in other parts of the country require government employees to get COVID-19 vaccinations, San Antonio and Bexar County are considering following suit, the Express-News reports.

Such a step would come as vaccination rates plateau and the highly contagious delta variant leads to a rise in infections, hospitalizations and deaths in Texas. California and New York City this week said they will make employees get the vaccine or submit to weekly coronavirus tests. Veterans Affairs became the first federal agency to mandate COVID vaccinations for frontline staff.

“We are supportive of the efforts of New York and California,” San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff said in a joint statement supplied to Express-News. “We will be reviewing the legalities and practicalities of requiring a COVID-19 vaccine and/or weekly testing in conformity with CDC guidelines in order to protect the health and well-being of city/county workforce.”

A city and county vaccine mandate would apply to roughly 18,000 workers, according to the daily, which reports that both Nirenberg and Wolff are unsure whether the requirement would be allowable under state law.

I think we can say with extreme confidence that the state would bring all its fight against such a move. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth the effort, but it’s not a move to be made lightly. Be prepared to hire a bunch of expensive lawyers, and have a solid communication strategy in place, that would be my advice.

As for masks in schools, well…

What did you expect? Greg Abbott has already said there won’t be any mask mandate in schools, and it’s impossible to imagine him changing his mind. It’s all up to the parents and school staff. I would not feel safe having my not-yet-vaccinated kids in school without a full-mask situation, which by the way is what we did in this past spring semester. I don’t even know what the argument against is. Doesn’t much matter when the power is on that side. The Trib and Daily Kos have more.