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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

SCOTUS will hear SB8 appeals

Both of them, on November 1. The law remains annoyingly in effect until then.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to fast-track two Texas cases involving the state’s near-total ban on abortion, but refused to halt the law from being enforced.

The high court has scheduled oral arguments for Nov. 1.

The court will take up the cases brought forward by abortion providers and the U.S. Department of Justice against the ban, according to a court opinion from Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday. It will review the procedural merits of both cases, rather than the constitutionality of abortion, while enforcement of Senate Bill 8 remains in effect.

In her opinion, Sotomayor offered a partial dissent of the Supreme Court’s decision to keep the law in place while the court deliberates over the two cases.

“By delaying any remedy, the Court enables continued and irreparable harm to women seeking abortion care and providers of such care in Texas—exactly as S. B. 8’s architects intended,” Sotomayor wrote.

The court’s decision to expedite its involvement was a rare move, brought upon by a law that has garnered national attention because of its extensive limits on abortions and its particular mechanisms of enforcement: not by state officials but by private citizens who are empowered to sue those who may help someone receive an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected.

“The last time [the Supreme Court] moved this quickly was Bush v. Gore,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston whose expertise includes constitutional law.

[…]

Normally, the Supreme Court considers getting involved in a case only after an appeals court has had a chance to make a decision on it. But abortion providers filed a request called a “certiorari before judgment,” a rarely used procedure in which the high court immediately reviews a district court’s ruling without waiting on an appellate court to take action.

One of the abortion providers included in the challenge is Whole Woman’s Health, a provider with four clinics in Texas. Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said Friday’s decision will mean Texans will continue to be denied safe and accessible abortion care.

“The legal limbo is excruciating for both patients and our clinic staff,” Miller said in a statement. “Lack of access to safe abortion care is harming our families and communities and will have lasting effects on Texas for decades to come.”

See here. here, here, and here for some background. The 19th adds some details.

The court will not specifically examine the constitutionality of a six-week ban. Rather, the justices will be looking at the legality of Texas’ private enforcement setup, as well as whether the Justice Department has the right to challenge the law. But regardless of the specific questions at play, a decision in favor of Texas could still signal to other anti-abortion lawmakers that a ban like Texas’ is a viable path to pursue.

The law has virtually eliminated access to the procedure in Texas. Many clinics have stopped providing abortions altogether. Those who can afford the journey and are past six weeks of pregnancy are seeking abortions in surrounding states, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Kansas. But many others — particularly those without the time off, financial resources or child care to travel out of state — may end up carrying unwanted pregnancies to term.

Abortions are now virtually unavailable for minors in Texas, who are required to either get parental consent or go through a special judicial approval process that makes it very difficult to meet the six-week deadline. Undocumented teens who are seeking abortions have been sent to immigration facilities in other states, because most of them already past six weeks when they discover they are pregnant.

And Slate tries to read some tea leaves.

The plaintiffs got half a loaf on Friday, or maybe less. SCOTUS will hear both cases, holding oral arguments in just 10 days. (With these orders, the court acted at breakneck speed, which is nearly unprecedented in modern times; the closest analogue is Bush v. Gore.) But SCOTUS restricted the scope of its review in a curious and confusing way. The court will not consider the Justice Department’s request to rule on the merits of S.B. 8. Instead, it will ask only whether the United States may sue the state of Texas, as well as all “state officials” and “private parties,” to “prohibit S.B. 8 from being enforced.” The abortion providers’ application likewise focuses on procedural issues, asking the court to decide “whether a state can insulate from federal-court review a law that prohibits the exercise of a constitutional right” by delegating enforcement to the public.

Neither of these questions squarely presents the constitutionality of a six-week abortion ban to the Supreme Court. The justices could interpret the abortion providers’ request as an invitation to consider the merits by declaring that the court must decide whether abortion is “a constitutional right” before determining “whether a state can insulate” S.B. 8 from review. (If there’s no right to abortion, there’s no clear constitutional flaw in S.B. 8.) But that seems unlikely; after all, the justices took pains to avoid confronting this question in the Justice Department’s case, where it is directly presented. They also ignored Texas’ request to recast these cases as a direct challenge to Roe. It appears, rather, that the court is committed to deciding only whether private plaintiffs or the federal government can sue a state when it makes an end run around the Constitution, as Texas did with S.B. 8.

Several aspects of the court’s orders suggest that at least one justice has not made up their mind about this question. If a majority believed Texas’ scheme is permissible and federal courts cannot stop it, why would it rush to hear these cases? It could have let them languish on the shadow docket, or decline to intervene at this early stage, just as it did last time around. Conversely, if a majority believed Texas’ scheme is impermissible and federal courts can stop it, why would it let S.B. 8 remain in effect? Why not halt the law while the court prepares a formal ruling?

Friday’s orders thus read like a compromise. But for whom? Chief Justice John Roberts and the three liberals have already said they want to pause the law. No one seriously argues that the overtly anti-Roe justices—Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito, or Neil Gorsuch—would lift a finger to stop S.B. 8. That leaves Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who probably want to overturn Roe but may want to move slower than their hard-right colleagues. It appears either Kavanaugh, Barrett, or both aren’t yet sure which way they’ll vote in the Texas litigation. Now they’ve preserved every option.

I don’t have anything to add to that. Hold your breath and hope for the best.

Texas takes its shot at Roe v Wade

We were always headed in this direction. It was just a matter of when we were going to get there.

Texas on Thursday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to keep in place a law that imposes a near-total ban on abortion and urged the justices that if they quickly take up a legal challenge brought by President Joe Biden’s administration they should overturn the landmark ruling that legalized the procedure nationwide.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a legal filing responded to the U.S. Justice Department’s request that the Supreme Court quickly block the Republican-backed state law while litigation over its legality goes forward.

The Justice Department on Monday suggested that the justices could bypass the lower courts already considering the matter and hear arguments in the case themselves. Paxton’s filing said that if the justices do that, they should overturn Supreme Court precedents including Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that recognized a woman’s right under the U.S. Constitution to terminate a pregnancy.

“Properly understood, the Constitution does not protect a right to elective abortion,” Paxton’s filing said, adding that the state law furthers “Texas’s interest in protecting unborn life, which exists from the outset of pregnancy.”

[…]

Paxton on Thursday also asked the Supreme Court to reject a bid by the abortion providers to have the justices immediately hear their case.

See here, here, and here for some background. The forced-birth fanatics on SCOTUS already have an opportunity to overturn or functionally eviscerate Roe in December with that Mississippi case, so this may at least tell us how screwed we all are. Just remember all this in 2022 when we get to vote out some of the zealots that got us here, starting with our felonious Attorney General. The Trib and CNBC have more.

Justice Department officially asks SCOTUS to halt SB8

The stakes are clear. Now we get to see if SCOTUS has any respect for the law.

The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to take up abortion providers’ challenge to Texas’ near-total abortion ban sooner than the high court usually would hear arguments.

While the clinics’ lawsuit has not been heard by a federal appellate court, the Supreme Court agreed Monday afternoon to expedite the request from several clinics and providers that the high court instead consider the case. Texas must respond by noon Thursday.

The move came just hours after the Biden administration — in a separate challenge to Texas’ Senate Bill 8 — asked the high court to halt the near-total abortion ban while the Justice Department’s legal challenge to the new restrictions goes through the courts.

In its request filed Monday, the Justice Department argued that allowing the law to stand would “perpetuate the ongoing irreparable injury to the thousands of Texas women who are being denied their constitutional rights,” it added. The Supreme Court previously declined to block the law from taking effect in a separate lawsuit, though it did not weigh in on Senate Bill 8’s constitutionality.

The U.S. Justice Department’s request comes after a series of federal court decisions flip-flopped on whether the law should remain in effect as its constitutionality is being challenged.

[…]

Texas, the Justice Department argued in its filing, crafted an “unprecedented” structure to thwart the courts. Senate Bill 8, which bans abortions as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, before many people know they are pregnant, has made abortion “effectively unavailable” after that time period, according to the Justice Department.

“Texas has, in short, successfully nullified this Court’s decisions within its borders,” the Justice Department wrote.

You can see the Justice Department filing here. The Justice Department had announced their intention to appeal late last week, so this was the actual filing and the request for relief from the ridiculous and lawless Fifth Circuit. The original lawsuit filed by the providers was in July, and we know what happened after that. Not really much to add here – even SCOTUS seemed to understand that SB8 had all kinds of questions surrounding it back when they first declined to step in. Now that we have seen the harm, not to mention the damage SCOTUS has done to its own standing, you’d think they would understand the need to do the normal thing and put that highly questionable law on the shelf while the courts do their thing. They have one chance to be seen as legitimate. I hope they take it. The Chron has more.

Justice Department goes to SCOTUS over SB8

As expected.

The Biden administration will ask the U.S. Supreme Court to stop enforcement of Texas’ near-total abortion ban, according to a Friday statement from a U.S. Department of Justice spokesperson.

Courts have pingponged back and forth on the law’s enforceability over several weeks. The Justice Department’s move comes after a panel of federal appellate judges ordered late Thursday that the ban will remain in place while its constitutionality is decided.

[…]

“The Supreme Court needs to step in and stop this madness. It’s unconscionable that the Fifth Circuit stayed such a well-reasoned decision that allowed constitutionally protected services to return in Texas,” Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

When Texas abortion providers originally made an emergency appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court before the law went into effect, the court denied their request to stop the law’s enforcement in a 5-4 vote.

Abortion advocates remain unsure of what the Supreme Court will do and if it will ultimately uphold the precedent of Roe v. Wade’s landmark decision in a case out of Mississippi that the court will begin hearing Dec. 1.

See here for the previous update. Not much to add here, either SCOTUS does the right thing or we continue to be screwed by a bunch of partisan hacks in robes who will always arrive at their preferred outcome regardless of the facts. What do you think all those references to the Fifth Circuit’s super-duper conservatism are telling us, anyway? And yes, the Fifth Circuit’s opinion here is highly questionable:

Click over to read the rest. The Current has more.

Fifth Circuit does the expected with the SB8 appeal

Was it ever in doubt?

Texas’ near-total abortion ban can continue to be enforced while the law’s constitutionality is decided, a panel of federal appellate judges ordered late Thursday.

The three justices of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — considered perhaps the most conservative appellate court in the nation — also agreed to hear oral arguments in the underlying lawsuit the Biden administration filed against Texas over the law.

A U.S. district court previously blocked enforcement of the law for two days before the 5th Circuit initially froze the order. The panel of 5th Circuit justices agreed in a 2-1 decision Thursday to let the law remain in effect until it considers the U.S. Department of Justice’s challenge. Judge Carl Stewart dissented.

The decision means the appellate court will take over the legal challenge to Senate Bill 8 that was being overseen by U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman.

Oral arguments before the 5th Circuit have not yet been scheduled, but it could be months before they take place.

[…]

The 5th Circuit already issued an emergency stay in late August to stop district court proceedings and cancel a hearing in another lawsuit challenging Texas’ abortion law. That case was brought on by abortion providers and also overseen by Pitman. The 5th Circuit is set to hear oral arguments in the abortion providers’ case no earlier than December.

The same panel of 5th Circuit judges will consider both cases.

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for a copy of the order. This was what we all expected – I mean, just look at who comprised the panel, if you know who these justices are – but it still sucks. The next logical step is an emergency appeal to SCOTUS, because it’s offensive and ridiculous to continue to allow this travesty of a law to remain in effect. No guarantees there, of course, but at least there’s a chance. This one was never really in question.

Justice Department files its brief with the Fifth Circuit

Good luck. They’re going to need a lot of it.

Right there with them

The Biden administration urged the courts again to step in and suspend a new Texas law that has banned most abortions since early September, as clinics hundreds of miles away remain busy with Texas patients making long journeys to get care.

The latest attempt Monday night comes three days after the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the nation’s most restrictive abortion law after a brief 48-hour window last week in which Texas abortion providers — following a blistering ruling by a lower court — had rushed to bring in patients again.

The days ahead could now be key in determining the immediate future of the law known as Senate Bill 8, including whether there is another attempt to have the U.S. Supreme Court weigh in.

[…]

“If Texas’s scheme is permissible, no constitutional right is safe from state-sanctioned sabotage of this kind,” the Justice Department told the appeals court.

In wording that seemed to be a message to the Supreme Court, the Justice Department raised the specter that if allowed to stand, the legal structure created in enacting the law could be used to circumvent even the Supreme Court’s rulings in 2008 and 2010 on gun rights and campaign financing.

It is not clear when the 5th Circuit court will decide whether to extend what is currently a temporary order allowing the Texas law to stand.

See here and here for the background. Yesterday was the deadline for the briefs to be filed for the Fifth Court to consider whether to allow the restraining order put in place by Judge Pitman to remain or to continue to stay it and thus allow the extremely unconstitutional SB8 to be enforceable. You know my opinion of the Fifth Circuit. I figure they only bothered to ask for briefs so they’d know how to customize their order allowing SB8 to stay in place. We have to go through the motions regardless. Whatever they do, this will go to SCOTUS next. In the meantime, maybe the court should consider and address the state’s true motives, for then at least we might have some clarity. Axios has more.

We wait until at least Tuesday for a chance at justice with SB8

In case you missed it.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late Friday temporarily allowed Texas’ near-total abortion ban — the strictest in the nation — to again be enforced after freezing a federal judge’s temporary block of the law. The state appealed the order just two days after it was issued.

A panel of 5th Circuit justices restored enforcement of the law hours after Texas asked the court to step into a lawsuit that the U.S. Justice Department filed against the state. Enforcement of the law will be allowed to continue until at least Tuesday, when a response from the Justice Department is due. After the court considers arguments from both sides, the court can decide whether to continue allowing enforcement of the law or allow a lower court to once again temporarily block it.

The court would not be determining the overall case’s outcome at this point — but it would decide whether the law could continue to stand while court proceedings unfold.

[…]

The abortion law allows for retroactive enforcement — meaning those who helped someone get an abortion while the law was blocked for two days can now be sued.

A day after Pitman’s order, at least one major provider in the state — Whole Woman’s Health — had quickly begun performing abortions that Texas lawmakers sought to outlaw. It appears the clinics and doctors who performed abortions outlawed by the statute would now be vulnerable to lawsuits after Friday’s order.

“We do understand that it does open us up to some risk. We have to wait and see,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health. “We have a lot of lawyers on speed dial these days.”

Miller said her organization and physicians in her clinics are on edge.

“But not for a second do we question that it was the right thing to do,” she said. “People need our help, and they shouldn’t be put through this.”

The organization will comply with the law once again, she said. Already several appointments had been made for Monday, so clinics will have to cancel them.

“Unfortunately, there’s going to be a lot of phone calls we have to make,” she said.

See here for the previous entry, which had an update at the end for the Fifth Circuit action. The Justice Department may wait for a ruling from the Fifth Circuit before it appeals (because we all know what the lawless Fifth Circuit is going to do) to SCOTUS, or it may just file an emergency petition with SCOTUS and hope for a faster ruling. SCOTUS has a Mississippi abortion case on its docket this term, so one way or another it’s going to be dealing with the larger issues. It’s just a question of whether they want to allow for a de facto overturning of Roe v Wade before they rule in that case or not. Maybe take a closer look a those approval numbers, guys.

In the meantime, there’s a real danger that it won’t much matter anyway what happens.

Abortion providers have said they are hoping they get more permanent relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.

The nation’s highest court was asked to intervene when the law was first going into effect, but justices declined. Since the law has been in effect, abortion providers have petitioned the court, again. So far, the court has not responded.

Abortion providers have said one of the longer-term concerns is what will happen to their clinics if the law continues to stay in effect. Hagstrom Miller said providers are facing serious financial strains as they turn away the majority of people seeking an abortion.

She said access to abortion in the state could be permanently altered if the law isn’t blocked as the legal challenges move through the courts.

“If clinics close because SB 8 is enforced long enough,” Hagstrom Miller said, “the damage will be done, even if it’s eventually struck down.”

Abortion providers have been begging for relief from this ludicrously unconstitutional law, to no avail so far. The danger that they’ll be forced out of business for financial reasons while they wait is real, and is exactly what happened with the TRAP law that was struck down in a few years ago. Fully half of all clinics went under in the interim, and I guarantee you that was no accident. If it happens again, we may never recover. And again, that was the plan all along.

State appeals SB8 restraining order to Fifth Circuit

I’m sure they expect the usual room service from the appeals court. It’s just a matter of how quickly they can get it.

Texas asked a federal appeals court Friday to step in “as soon as possible” to restore the state’s near-total abortion ban.

The state filed its emergency request for an appeal two days after U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman temporarily blocked the new abortion law in response to a lawsuit brought by the Biden administration. The state quickly filed a notice of its intent to appeal after Pitman’s order on Wednesday night.

In Friday’s request, state attorneys argue that Pitman’s order to temporarily block the law at the United States’ request “violates the separation of powers at every turn.” They ask the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — considered to be perhaps the nation’s most conservative appellate court — to stop Pitman’s order.

State attorneys argued the U.S. overstepped by suing the state since it will never be subject to one of the lawsuits allowed by the law and since the state does not enforce the law directly.

“This Court’s immediate intervention is necessary to vindicate Texas’s sovereign interest in preventing a single federal district court from superintending every Texas court,” attorneys wrote in Friday’s request.

[…]

“I think there is a very good chance the court grants a stay [to block Pitman’s order],” Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said in an email. He said Pitman already faced many barriers to issuing his temporary order.

“Congress never authorized the United States to sue a state in this context,” Blackman explained. “And there is no history of previous suits by the federal government against an allegedly unconstitutional law. The federal government lacks a ‘cause of action’ to sue Texas.”

See here for the background. I dunno, I figure if a law can be passed to take away a right in such a way that it’s basically impossible to challenge it in court, then it wasn’t actually a right to begin with. And if a state can take away a federal right like that, it sure seems like a design flaw in the system. I don’t expect the Fifth Circuit to give a damn about that, but someone had to say it. By the way, even with this initial court ruling, the right that was taken away still hasn’t really been restored, and who knows when it might be. Like I said, if that can happen to someone’s rights, then was there ever really such a thing as “rights”?

UPDATE: Room service indeed.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit granted a temporary emergency stay in the United States v. Texas, the federal government’s suit against the state. As a result of the 5th Circuit’s ruling, a preliminary injunction — which halted the SB 8 from being enforced — no longer stands, and the vast majority of all abortions are once again banned in Texas.

The 5th Circuit has given the federal Justice Department until 5 p.m. CT on Tuesday to respond to Friday night’s action. The Justice Department will need to prepare its argument to counter Texas’ request that such a stay be a permanent one.

When I said that the Fifth Circuit already had an order printed and ready to go staying Judge Pitman’s order? I was only half-joking. Next, we’ll get to see if SCOTUS meant what they said about “procedurally proper challenges” maybe being more successful. The Chron has more.

Federal judge blocks SB8

Some justice for now, but we’ll see how long it lasts.

A federal judge temporarily blocked Texas’ near-total abortion ban Wednesday as part of a lawsuit the Biden administration launched against the state over its new law that bars abortions as early as six weeks of pregnancy.

But it’s unclear how U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman’s order may affect access to abortions in the state — or if it will at all. The state of Texas quickly filed a notice of appeal and will almost definitely seek an emergency stay of Pitman’s order in the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which is known as perhaps the nation’s most conservative appellate court.

In a press release, the ACLU of Texas pointed to the uncertainty on how Wednesday’s order and the state’s appeal will affect procedures in the state.

“Though the court’s ruling offers a sigh of relief, the threat of Texas’ abortion ban still looms over the state as cases continue to move through the courts. We already know the politicians behind this law will stop at nothing until they’ve banned abortion entirely,” Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project said in a statement. “This fight is far from over, and we’re ready to do everything we can to make sure every person can get the abortion care they need regardless of where they live or how much they make.”

Until Pitman’s order, Texas’ new law successfully flouted the constitutional right to have an abortion before fetal viability established by Roe v. Wade in 1973 and subsequent rulings. That’s because it leaves enforcement of the new restrictions not to state officials but instead to private citizens filing lawsuits through the civil court system.

The order from Pitman — a 2014 Obama nominee — forbids state court judges and court clerks from accepting lawsuits that the law allows. Pitman ordered the state to publish his order on all “public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public that S.B. 8 lawsuits will not be accepted by Texas courts.”

He called the case “exceptional” and ordered that the state and “any other persons or entities acting on its behalf” be blocked from enforcing the statute. He acknowledged that his order could be appealed in another court and added: “this Court will not sanction one more day of this offensive deprivation of such an important right.”

[…]

Pitman gave a scathing response to Texas’ request that the court allow it to seek an appeal prior to blocking the law’s enforcement.

“The State has forfeited the right to any such accommodation by pursuing an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right,” Pitman wrote in his order. “From the moment S.B. 8 went into effect, women have been unlawfully prevented from exercising control over their lives in ways that are protected by the Constitution.”

Despite the threat of retroactive lawsuits, the Center for Reproductive Rights said the clinics and doctors it represents “hope to resume full abortion services as soon as they are able.” The organization acknowledged that the order is temporary and expected the state would appeal — but called the ruling a “critical first step.”

“For 36 days, patients have been living in a state of panic, not knowing where or when they’d be able to get abortion care,” Nancy Northup, president & CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement Wednesday. “The cruelty of this law is endless.”

Whole Woman’s Health said it was making plans “as soon as possible” to resume abortions outlawed under Texas’ law.

“This is AMAZING. It’s the justice we have been seeking for weeks,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said in a statement.

See here for the previous update. We didn’t have to wait long for this ruling, but it will be likely even less time before the rogue Fifth Circuit steps in and does its damage. After that, we’ll see if SCOTUS still claims to be confused by this issue, or if they have decided to care about the constitution.

Slate provides some highlights from Judge Pitman’s opinion.

The DOJ’s bet that agents of the state could be subject to suit paid off, particularly in the face of mounting evidence that pregnant Texans had been materially harmed as a result of the law. Pitman’s decision has moments of powerful rhetoric, but it is largely devoted to the “complex and novel” threshold issues the majority of the Supreme Court was too exhausted to probe when they allowed the law to stand. “There can be no doubt that S.B. 8 was a deliberate attempt by lawmakers,” he wrote, to “preclude review by federal courts that have the obligation to safeguard the very rights the statute likely violates.” This effort failed, he noted, because the United States has standing to represent its citizens in their effort “to vindicate federal rights.” On behalf of these citizens, it also has authority to enforce the 14th Amendment against a state attempting to “supersede” it. As Pitman put it, “when the machinations of the state effectively cut off private access to the federal courts,” the scheme warrants “equitable action by the United States.”

Because the DOJ clears these hurdles, Pitman wrote, it had properly challenged S.B. 8. And on the merits, there is no question as to foundational facts: Texas’ law plainly violates Roe because it outlaws abortions well before fetal viability. In order to block the law, Pitman crafted an injunction to “halt existing S.B. lawsuits and prevent new suits from being maintained by the state judiciary.” He forbade state judges and clerks from “accepting or docketing” these cases, and, for good measure, barred “private individuals who act on behalf of the state” from filing them. Finally, he ordered Texas to “publish this preliminary injunction on all of its public-facing court websites with a visible, easy-to-understand instruction to the public that S.B. 8 lawsuits will not be accepted by Texas courts.”

Notably, Pitman denied Texas’ request for an immediate stay of his decision. “The State has forfeited the right to any such accommodation by pursuing an unprecedented and aggressive scheme to deprive its citizens of a significant and well-established constitutional right,” he explained. To be clear, this hardly means Texas clinics will begin providing constitutionally protected abortions services tomorrow. If Pitman’s decision is eventually overturned, doctors who perform abortions in the interim can still be sued. But at least for now, the playing field tilts against the states too-clever-by-half effort to harm women while skirting judicial review.

I’ll be shocked if the Fifth Circuit allows this to stand going into the weekend, but for now we’re in a better place. Daily Kos, The 19th, the Chron, and the Trib have more.

If in Texas you can’t get justice…

Try somewhere else.

An abortion provider in Texas took the unusual step Tuesday of asking a federal judge in another state to declare unconstitutional the six-week-ban on the procedure that took effect last month in Texas.

Lawyers for Dr. Alan Braid, a San Antonio physician who acknowledged performing an abortion after the state’s legal limit, wants a judge in Illinois to block three lawsuits filed against him under the ban, which has halted almost all abortions in the nation’s second-most-populous state.

Abortion providers and advocates say they are in “legal limbo,” after twice asking the Supreme Court to intervene to block enforcement of the law, which bars abortion as early as six weeks into pregnancy with no exception for rape or incest.

They are awaiting action in the three lawsuits against Braid, as well as word from a federal judge in Austin, who could rule at any time on the Justice Department’s request for an injunction to restore abortion access in Texas.

“Dr. Braid filed suit today to stop the vigilante plaintiffs and get this extreme abortion ban declared unconstitutional once and for all,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a statement.

“He should never have had to put himself at legal risk to provide constitutionally protected abortion care. This legal limbo has gone on long enough and needs to be stopped.”

[…]

Braid came forward last month, announcing in a Washington Post column that he had performed an abortion past the legal limit and essentially inviting a lawsuit so he could directly challenge the constitutionality of the ban.

Three individuals — one in Arkansas, one in Texas and another in Illinois — quickly filed lawsuits against Braid in state court in Texas.

The Center for Reproductive Rights, representing Braid, now wants to consolidate the “competing claims” in those cases in federal court in Illinois.

Braid’s lawyers say they can take this step because three different people in three different states have filed similar claims to an award of at least $10,000.

“The likelihood of strangers filing multiple, overlapping lawsuits against a provider is a feature of SB8, and not an accident,” the court filing states, making reference to the law, which was formally classified as Senate Bill 8.

Braid said that none of the individuals has a right to damages because the law is unconstitutional under the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to abortion before viability, usually around 22 to 24 weeks.

Braid also has a right, the filing states, “to avoid wasteful, vexatious and duplicative litigation and potentially conflicting rulings.”

See here, here, and here for some background. I knew about the Arkansas and Illinois lawsuits against Dr. Braid, but had not been aware of the third one. Looking at the defendants named in the filing, it appears that the third litigant is one of the frequent commenters here. I’ll let him explain himself about that.

These lawsuits are all in state court. There is also the bottleneck imposed by the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel (supported by the Supreme Court) on lawsuits by providers to get injunctions against other potential litigants, but from my read of the lawsuit that does not appear to be at issue here. The larger point is that not just Dr. Braid but every abortion patient and provider and clinic employee and volunteer and many other people have a right to their day in court, and to have a clearly unconstitutional law be put on hold while legal questions surrounding it are being decided. That’s what is being asked for here, and that is what has been denied all these people by SCOTUS, the Fifth Circuit, and the Supreme Court of Texas. If this is what it takes to finally bring a (temporary) halt to this travesty then so be it, but it should never have come to this in the first place.

UPDATE: Late in the day yesterday, the judge in the federal lawsuit filed by the Justice Department against the state of Texas issued a temporary restraining order that blocks any SB8 lawsuits from being filed. We all know that the Fifth Circuit already has an order ready to block that, but for now that would seem to moot this action. I’ll post about this ruling tomorrow.

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.

Trying again to get SCOTUS to stop SB8

Good luck.

A coalition of Texas abortion providers went back to the Supreme Court Thursday, asking the justices to expedite a review of the state law that bars abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.

The law has been in effect for 23 days, but the federal appeals court hearing the challenge has only set a tentative hearing schedule for December. The providers are asking the justices to — in effect — step in and decide a key issue in the case now, instead of waiting for a federal appeals court to rule on the issue.

The new court papers mark the latest furious attempt on behalf of providers to stop a law that bars most abortions before a woman even knows she is pregnant. The law, which challengers say was drafted with the specific intent to evade judicial review, is now being challenged by providers in federal and state courts, as well as by the Department of Justice.

In the new brief, the providers say the law is written in a way that makes it almost impossible to challenge because it bars Texas officials from enforcing it and instead allows private individuals to bring suit against anyone who may assist in helping a person obtain an abortion performed after six weeks. The clinics are asking the Supreme Court to decide “whether a State can insulate from federal-court review a law that prohibits the exercise of a constitutional right by delegating to the general public the authority to enforce that prohibition through civil actions.”

Separately, they have filed papers asking the court to put their request on a fast track. Under normal circumstances supporters of the law would have had about 30 days to respond, and the process could drag into the winter months. Instead, the clinics want the justices to consider the case October 29 and hear oral arguments in December.

That timing would coincide with the Supreme Court hearing another, completely separate challenge to a Mississippi law that bars most abortions after 15 weeks. Mississippi is asking the court to overturn Roe v. Wade and the court has set arguments for December 1.

If the court were to grant the request from the Texas providers, it could hear the two challenges in the same month.

[…]

In making the unusual request, the clinics noted that providers in neighboring states have reported increases of patients traveling across state lines and other states have begun to push copycat laws.

The clinics had previously asked the justices to block the law before it went into effect, but the high court declined to do so on September 1.

Back then, in an unsigned 5-4 order, the majority wrote that while the clinics had raised “serious questions regarding the constitutionality of the Texas law,” they had not met a burden that would allow the court to block it due to “complex” and “novel” procedural questions. Chief Justice John Roberts joined the three liberal justices in dissent.

Just as a reminder, as this is another one of those situations where there’s so many lawsuits it’s hard to keep track, these are the plaintiffs who had originally sued in July and had to appeal to SCOTUS in late August after some serious shenanigans from the Fifth Circuit. This time they’re asking the court to rule on constitutional grounds, not just allow for a temporary restraining order. I have no idea what their odds of success are, but it can hardly hurt. Maybe now that SCOTUS has seen the sharp downturn in the public’s opinion of them following their cretinous and cowardly refusal to block SB8 in the first place they’ll have a bit of a rethink. We’ll see. Reuters and The 19th have more.

The tab for voter ID

Impressive.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas remains responsible for nearly $6.8 million in legal fees and costs owed to the collection of parties who sued over its voter ID law.

Though the state ultimately won the long-winding fight to keep the voter ID law on the books, a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday upheld a lower court ruling that found the state is on the hook for that sum — the last vestige of the legal battle over the 2011 restrictions the state set on what forms of photo identification are accepted at the polls.

The Texas attorney general’s office had appealed that lower court ruling, which found the plaintiffs in the litigation — Democratic U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey of Fort Worth, individual voters, voting and civil rights groups, the NAACP-Texas and the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus, among others — were the “prevailing parties.”

“It seems obvious that they are,” the 5th Circuit judges on Friday. “Plaintiffs successfully challenged the Texas photo ID requirement before our en banc court, and used that victory to secure a court order permanently preventing its enforcement during the elections in 2016 and 2017.”

Just a quick recap, the original voter ID law that was passed in 2011 was ruled to have had discriminatory intent by a district court judge in 2014, but the Fifth Circuit allowed it to stand while the appeal was made. Both the three-judge panel and the full Fifth Circuit ultimately upheld the district court ruling, but as it was close to the 2016 election by then, a modified version of the law that mitigated some of the harm was implemented. After the 2017 Lege codified those changes, the law was challenged again, and despite another ruling by the same district court judge that the law was still discriminatory, this time the Fifth Circuit ruled in favor of the state, and here we are now. (Yes, SCOTUS was involved in both of these cases, but this has gone on long enough.) The state may press on again with this appeal, but at this point it would seem unlikely they’d win. Perhaps by now we have had more than enough money spent on this cursed thing.

The “heartbeat” bill is about to become law

There’s nothing standing in the way.

Right there with them

A Texas law that would ban abortions after as early as six weeks is poised to take effect Wednesday, after a federal appellate court’s rulings stymied efforts to block the law.

On Friday night, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals canceled a hearing planned for Monday, at which more than 20 abortion providers had hoped to persuade a federal district court in Austin to block the law from taking effect.

Providers have sued to overturn the law, which they say is the nation’s strictest and would create what they call a “bounty hunting scheme” in allowing members of the general public to sue those who might have violated the law. The law, Senate Bill 8, would prohibit abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected without specifying a time frame, before many women know they are pregnant.

Late on Saturday, provider groups, including Planned Parenthood Center for Choice and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, filed emergency motions with the 5th Circuit, essentially asking it to send the case back to district court or for the appellate court itself to issue a stay that would temporarily block the law’s enforcement.

The 5th Circuit denied the emergency motions Sunday afternoon.

“If this law is not blocked by September 1, abortion access in Texas will come to an abrupt stop,” Marc Hearron, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which represents providers, said in a statement. The state’s strategy, he said, has been to “circumvent the court system and the constitution itself,” he said, in order to “push abortion out of reach for as many Texans as possible.”

[…]

Abortion providers and supporters have braced for SB 8 for months. Texas women could completely lose access to abortions for a time, warned Helene Krasnoff, vice president of public policy litigation and law at Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

“It’s quite possible that it could create chaos and problems on the ground, including the closing of health centers,” Krasnoff said.

Even if clinics stay open, the law could affect most of the abortions now being performed in Texas. Whole Woman’s Health, which also provides gynecological care for women, said in a press release that 90% of the abortions they perform are after the six-week mark.

“To be clear: our health centers remain open, and Planned Parenthood providers will see as many patients as they can, as long as they can within the law. But without the courts stepping in, on Wednesday, Texans will be denied their constitutional right to abortion in violation of fifty years of precedent,” said Julie Murray, senior staff attorney for Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

Marva Sadler, one of the named plaintiffs in the abortion providers’ lawsuit and senior director of clinical services for Whole Woman’s Health, said the appellate decisions make it much more likely SB 8 will go into effect Sept. 1.

On Sunday, she said she was rushing to her organization’s clinic in Fort Worth, where at least eight patients were seeking abortions before they become illegal.

Cancellation of the hearing “was definitely a surprise,” Sadler said.

“I’ve been really focused on how things will look on Wednesday, when we have to start turning most patients away,” she said.

See here and here for the background. I confess, I don’t understand the machinations of the appellate court canceling a district court hearing. I figured we’d get the usual procession of the lower court issuing a restraining order and then the Fifth Circuit tossing it aside. The plaintiffs have now petitioned SCOTUS to step in on the grounds that the Fifth Circuit canceling the hearing was an abuse of their discretion. It’s the only card they have to play, but I would not get my hopes up. I wish I had something optimistic to say here, but I don’t. We need to vote these people out, there’s no other way forward at this time. The Chron, the 19th, and Slate have more.

UPDATE: Here’s a Trib story about the SCOTUS appeal. Let’s see if I have to update this draft again before it publishes in the morning…

UPDATE:

In other words, we won’t hear anything from SCOTUS until the last minute tonight at the earliest.

Final settlement in Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

From Democracy Docket:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Last Friday, individual Texan voters, the Texas Democratic Party, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) settled a five-year long lawsuit with Texas over its noncompliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA). The settlement outlines the state’s plans to permanently offer simultaneous voter registration when an eligible voter renews or updates his or her driver’s licenses or ID cards online — an option not offered before this litigation.

The lawsuit, filed in March 2016 by the Texas Civil Rights Project on behalf of individual Texas voters, challenged the state’s misleading practice of providing the option to register to vote when completing online transactions with the transportation agency. Notably, checking this option did not actually register someone to vote, which violated the NVRA’s requirement that states offer voter registration or the ability to update registrations when an eligible voter obtains, renews or updates his or her driver’s license. The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas found that this practice violated the NVRA and 14th Amendment and struck the law down, but after the voters updated their registration, the court found that they no longer had standing to sue. The Texas Democratic Party, DSCC and DCCC successfully intervened in the case to expand this victory. The court ordered the state to comply with the NVRA in August 2020 and since then, over one million Texans have registered to vote while completing an online driver’s license transaction. The settlement makes the court-ordered compliance permanent throughout the state.

Read the key filings from the case here.

See here and here for some background; there are more links at that second post. This KUT story, referenced above, came out a day or so before the final settlement agreement.

After a lengthy court battle, the Texas Department of Safety has started allowing voters to update their voter information at the same time they update their driver’s license information online.

The Texas Civil Rights Project filed a federal lawsuit against the state on behalf of three voters in Texas who thought they had updated their addresses on their voter registration through the DPS website. They later found out that never happened because online voter registration is illegal in Texas.

The plaintiffs in the case were Jarrod Stringer, Nayeli Gomez and John Harms, as well as two organizations, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas.

The lawsuit claimed Texas was violating the National Voter Registration Act — which includes federal motor voter laws — and the U.S. Constitution. The Texas Civil Rights Project first sued the state five years ago, but the lawsuit was thrown out on a technicality. The group sued again shortly after.

A federal judge sided with the Texas Civil Rights Project and ordered the state to change its practices last year, forcing Texas to “create the first-ever opportunity for some Texans to register to vote online” starting in September, the group said in a press release.

Mimi Marziani, president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, told KUT that DPS data shows that about a million voter registration transactions have occurred in the past ten months.

“That means that’s an average of a 100,000 Texans per month are now registering to vote — or updating their voter registration — with their online drivers’ transaction,” she said. “That’s a lot of people.”

Here’s a Twitter thread from the TCRP that breaks this down by month since last November. Note the qualification “or updating their voter registration”. That means that anyone who updated their drivers license information – name change, address change, etc – are counted in this total, as they were then able to update their voter registration information at the same time. That’s a big deal and a much-needed bit of convenience for Texans who now don’t have to do that same transaction twice, but it is not one million new voters registered. I don’t want to downplay this because it is a big deal, but I also don’t want to overstate it.

Marziani told KUT that this should prompt the state to expand online voter registration to all eligible Texans, not just those updating their drivers’ license information. Currently, 42 states and D.C. have online voter registration. Texas is among the small minority of states that doesn’t.

Marziani said Texas now has “absolutely no practical reason” not to expand and implement full online voter legislation.

“Now with the state implementing this online voter registration with driver’s license transactions, the state completely has the backend infrastructure to roll out online voter registration,” she said.

Absolutely, and it remains a disgrace that Texas doesn’t have online voter registration. But we all know why, and we know what is going to be needed to make it happen. This is a step in the right direction, but the rest of the way is up to us winning more elections.

Methodist anti-vaxxers officially fired

I have three things to say about this.

More than 150 Houston Methodist Hospital employees resigned or have been fired as of Tuesday over a recent policy that required hospital employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday.

All told, 153 people are no longer employees of the Houston health care chain, Methodist spokesperson Patti Muck said. The hospital has about 25,000 employees, nearly all of whom have abided by the policy, Methodist leaders have said previously.

The firings follow a contentious few weeks in which hospital employees staged protests and filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming the policy, announced in April, violated their rights. Methodist was one of the first large health care providers in the country to announce vaccine requirements.

“I’m so happy and relieved,” Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said Tuesday. “I don’t want any part of Methodist.”

Earlier this month, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit filed by more than 100 Methodist employees, most of whom were not doctors or nurses. In it, the plaintiffs argued Methodist’s policy violated the Nuremberg Codes, a World War II-era agreement that bans involuntary participation in medical trials.

Bridges said Tuesday that she and others planned to protest outside Methodist on Saturday, and that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will be in attendance.

See here and here for the background. My three things:

1. I strongly suspect Methodist would say that the feeling is mutual, Jennifer.

2. Inviting Alex Jones to your protest really makes one question the previous statements made about how these folks are not anti-vaccine, just super cautious about this particular vaccine.

3. As Methodist cardiovascular technician Deedee Mattoa says in this story, the real surprise here is not that Methodist followed through, but that Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, which have made public promises to require COVID-19 vaccines but have not set deadlines for when staff will need the shots, have not yet followed suit. What are you guys waiting for? The Trib has more.

Methodist anti-vaxxers appeal lawsuit dismissal

As expected.

A group of Houston Methodist employees who sued the hospital system over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement have appealed a ruling dismissing the case.

Over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes tossed the lawsuit, calling it “reprehensible” to compare the vaccine requirement to Nazi Germany’s medical experiments.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

[…]

Although the lower court judge thought the case had no merit, Woodfill could get traction from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country. On several recent occasions, the 5th Circuit has dealt blows to Hughes, a historically stubborn 79-year-old Reagan appointee.

The appeals court ordered him to re-sentence a defendant in a terrorism case who was accused of supporting ISIS overseas. After Hughes re-sentenced the man to the same abbreviated sentence, 18 months, which did not consider a sentencing enhancement, the government appealed and the 5th circuit removed the sentencing from Hughes’ court.

The 5th circuit also admonished Hughes for remarks he made on the record about female employees of the federal government. Hughes later barred the Houston prosecutor from appearing at the jury trial involved in that case.

More than half of frontline medical workers nationwide have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. But as of April, nearly one in five said they did not plan on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

See here for the previous entry. It’s true that Judge Hughes can be a crank, but I kind of doubt that any of those previous instances will weigh on this case. For some analysis of the lawsuit and subsequent dismissal, this WaPo story has some good information.

Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, called the decision “another step in demonstrating the legality of these mandates, particularly in a health crisis like this.”

“There isn’t much there to rely on to argue these mandates should be illegal,” she said.

[…]

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, characterized the lawsuit’s claims as “absurd” in recent remarks to The Washington Post, noting that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials. The suit also repeats misinformation circulated widely online about the shots altering DNA.

The inoculations are seen as key to a return to normalcy, yet most employers have shied away from mandating them, concerned about the thorny politics and previously untested legal issues. Colleges and universities, along with Houston Methodist and a handful of other health-care institutions, are the exception.

Koch said the ruling shows “employer mandates of the covid-19 vaccine, particularly in the health care arena, are absolutely legal.” She said she expects to see more legal battles around vaccination mandates but noted she has “always predicted that they have very thin legal legs to stand on.”

There is precedent for vaccine requirements, she said, such as when health-care institutions require vaccinations during particularly bad flu seasons. Koch said she was “encouraged by the fact that this was dismissed as quickly and expeditiously as it was.”

Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling is based on employment law in Texas, so the extent to which it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions is not clear.

“At least here in Texas, under this ruling, it’s pretty clear employers can require employees to get vaccinated,” she said.

Yeah, I don’t think it should be a surprise that Texas employment laws are much more favorable to employers than to employees. As Reuters notes, Judge Hughes wrote that “Texas law only protected employees from being fired for refusing to commit an illegal act and that the requirement is consistent with public policy.” I’ll be more than a little surprised if the Fifth Circuit decides that this is the place to take a stand in favor of the workers.

Republican bail reform bill passes House

Meh.

Rep. Andrew Murr

The Texas House on Tuesday passed a bill to alter the way criminal defendants can be released from jail before trial. The priority legislation would, in part, require judicial officers to use a risk assessment tool when making bail decisions and ban cashless release for those accused of some violent or sexual crimes.

House members approved House Bill 20 after significant changes — largely by the bill’s author — were made on the floor Monday.

“The goal today is to strike a balance in which we provide … credible information to our trained magistrates so that they can determine that those that are low risk have a chance to get out while those who are higher risk, with a violent offense or a violent criminal history, they don’t easily pay and immediately walk on the street the next day and do something else that harms us,” state Rep. Andrew Murr, the Junction Republican who authored the bill, said Monday.

Named the Damon Allen Act after a slain state trooper, HB 20 was deemed an emergency item by Gov. Greg Abbott at the beginning of the legislative session after similar legislation failed in 2019. The suspect in Allen’s shooting death during a 2017 traffic stop was out of jail on cash bail at the time.

After tentatively approving the bill Monday, the House finally passed HB 20 on a 98-to-46 vote Tuesday. It is now headed to the Senate — where its future is uncertain. Last month, the Senate passed a competing priority bail bill which varies significantly from the House’s measure. Senate Bill 21 since has stalled in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee.

When making bail decisions, courts decide what restrictions are needed to release from jail a defendant who is legally presumed innocent while ensuring the person comes back to court and does not present a threat to public safety. Most often in Texas, that decision is currently based on a dollar amount.

The cash-reliant system has long prompted criticisms from bail reform advocates who argue it unfairly keeps poor people locked up while similar defendants with cash walk free. And federal courts have found bail practices in Texas’ two most populous counties unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

See here for the background. As this Chron editorial notes, HB20 is better than SB21 but still falls short because of its prioritization of cash bail. A fair and just system does not determine who gets to go home and who gets to stay locked up for weeks or months before even going on trial based on ability to pay. As Grits noted a month ago, any bail-related bill that has Greg Abbott’s support is highly unlikely to be upheld by the federal courts going forward. As such, the best move is to vote against HB20 and SB21, and wait for further direction from the Fifth Circuit.

Dave Wilson censure lawsuit goes to SCOTUS

We live in strange times.

Dave Wilson

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear a case involving former Houston Community College trustee Dave Wilson who alleges in a lawsuit that the school violated his constitutional rights.

Wilson, who served on HCC’s board as a District II trustee for several years, filed a lawsuit in 2018 claiming the college violated his 1st and 14th Amendment rights after his fellow board members voted to censure him.

Board members said Wilson publicly criticized his colleagues’ votes and showed a lack of respect in the board’s decision-making process.

[…]

A U.S District Court judge dismissed the case in March 2019. Wilson later appealed in the 5th Circuit Court, which reversed the court’s original judgment in July 2020.

The Houston Community College System then filed a petition in December 2020 seeking the Supreme Court’s review of the district court’s decision, “arguing that a censure is a traditional form of government speech, an important tool of self-governance, and that the First Amendment does not protect an elected official from criticism,” HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado said in a written statement. The high court granted the petition Monday .

“It is our hope the Supreme Court will preserve the long-standing tool of censure because of its national importance to government institutions,” Maldonado said.

[…]

Shaundra Kellam Lewis, a law professor at Texas Southern University, said the Supreme Court decision to review the circuit court’s ruling when it only takes on about 100 cases a year is interesting but not surprising considering the conflict among circuit courts regarding the claim.

While the 5th Circuit ruled Wilson has a viable 1st Amendment claim, arguing that the board’s censorship went beyond disapproval of his conduct, a 10th Circuit ruling would state that the board’s censuring of Wilson was not a violation, Lewis said.

“We’re coming out of the Trump administration, when there was rancor and vitriol in political speech and what the conservatives called ‘cancel culture,’ where people are penalized for unfavorable speech,” Lewis said.

Josh Blackman, constitutional law professor at the South Texas College of Law Houston, said the free speech case is unique in that it involves people who were elected by the community. While government employees, like public service officials, are somewhat restricted by the government on what they can say, elected employees, like HCC board members, “have more free speech rights, which are not subject to review by colleagues, but by the electorate — the people,” Blackman added.

Both Lewis and Blackman predicted, however, that HCC will likely win the case.

Blackman said history shows that the Supreme Court typically reverses the decision of the lower court in the case of a petition. And Lewis said the Supreme Court will side with a majority of the other circuit court decisions that have addressed similar free speech cases.

See here for the previous update. I was a little surprised when I first read this, as I had not been aware that the Fifth Circuit reinstated the lawsuit. You know how I feel about Dave Wilson, so you know what outcome I’m rooting for.

Deportation freeze still on hold

Grrrrrrrr.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has put an indefinite halt to President Joe Biden’s 100-day ban on deportations after issuing a preliminary injunction late Tuesday.

The ruling by Judge Drew Tipton comes after he had already temporarily paused the moratorium twice. The ban is nationwide and is in place as the case continues to play out in courts.

The ruling is a victory for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued to block Biden’s order three days into the Biden administration. Paxton’s office argued the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released into the state because of costs associated with health care and education, and said the moratorium would also lure others to come to Texas.

Tipton, a Trump appointee to the federal bench, wrote in his order that Texas would also incur costs for detaining immigrants within its state. “Texas claimed injury from unanticipated detention costs is sufficiently concrete and imminent. The harm is concrete or de facto because Texas incurs real financial costs in detaining criminal aliens,” he wrote.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Texas’ federal benches.

See here, here, and here for the background. This continues to be a load of crap, though as noted before one that seems to have a fairly limited impact. I don’t know what the argument is for not appealing. You can find a copy of the order here.

Planned Parenthood not booted from Medicaid yet

A (likely very) temporary reprieve.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Responding to an emergency lawsuit filed hours earlier, a Travis County judge issued an order Wednesday blocking Texas from removing Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid health care provider beginning Thursday.

The 14-day temporary restraining order, granted by state District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble after a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon, allows Planned Parenthood to continue providing health care to about 8,000 low-income Texans.

The judge also set a Feb. 17 hearing to determine whether a temporary injunction should be issued to keep Planned Parenthood in Medicaid.

In its lawsuit, Planned Parenthood argued that state officials did not follow the legally mandated process for kicking its health clinics out of Medicaid. Wednesday was supposed to be the final day Planned Parenthood clinics could receive Medicaid reimbursement for care that can include contraceptives, cancer screening and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, but not abortions.

[…]

Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit argued that the termination letter did not comply with state law, including requirements that reasonable notice, and an opportunity for a hearing, be given.

The organization is seeking a court order blocking its removal until it exhausts all available administrative protests and appeals.

Texas officials, however, have argued that Planned Parenthood’s attack on the Jan. 4 notice of termination was misguided because a notice sent in January 2016 — kicking off years of litigation — complied with all necessary state laws and Medicaid regulations.

As the story notes, this has been going on since 2015. The state officially gave notice to Planned Parenthood patients that they needed to find a new doctor on January 5. I didn’t blog about it then because it was too depressing, and we know what else was going on at that time. It was a Fifth Circuit ruling that allowed the state to take the final steps in this process, so I don’t expect there to be much future to this litigation. Even the argument being made is just to buy time, as there are no questions of law remaining. You know my mantra: until we start electing different people to office, nothing is going to change. The Trib and the Chron have more.

District court judges to be removed from the felony bail lawsuit case

Hopefully, this brings us a step closer to settling the case.

Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.

The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.

Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.

See here for the background. If as that previous story suggests Ken Paxton and the AG’s office are also removed from the case, that should further the likelihood of a settlement. It also may mean I don’t have to be mad at the district court judges who were being represented by Paxton, though that will depend on how things go from here. And for those of you who insist that changing the existing policies will lead to mayhem in the streets, I will remind you that many of the US Capitol insurrectionists, who actually caused mayhem in the streets and elsewhere, as well as three-time murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, are now out on bail. It’s not a question of “safety”, it’s a question of who has privilege and who does not.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

SCOTUS rejects TDP petition on vote by mail

Back to the lower court, I think.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Democratic bid to force universal vote-by-mail in Texas, leaving intact a state law that lets people cast no-excuse absentee ballots only if they are 65 or older.

The Texas Democratic Party and its allies argued unsuccessfully that the law violates the Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”

Voting by mail became a sharply partisan issue amid President Donald Trump’s unsupported contentions that the practice led to widespread fraud in the November election. Texas’s Republican governor and attorney general urged the Supreme Court to reject the Democratic appeal.

A divided federal appeals court in September rejected the 26th Amendment claim, saying the Texas law didn’t make it more difficult for anyone to vote. The panel left open the possibility the law could be challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court also rejected Texas Democrats in June, when the justices refused to reinstate a trial judge’s order that would have let any voter request an absentee ballot to avoid the risk of contracting Covid-19. That order, which was blocked by the appeals court, was designed to govern the 2020 election and might have boosted Democrats’ prospects.

See here for the last update, which was a petition for review of the Fifth Circuit ruling that kept intact the existing law on vote by mail in Texas as the original lawsuit that claimed the existing law violated the 26th Amendment is litigated. If I understand this correctly, the original case needs to be re-argued, with guidance from that Fifth Circuit ruling, and then once there is a ruling on the merits, we’ll go through the appeals process again. Or maybe not, if Congress and President Biden can pass a new Voting Rights Act that would allow for this nationally. I don’t see that particular provision in there now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or wouldn’t be there. Anyway, it’s kind of a non-starter now, since the effort was to make that happen in 2020, but it’s never too late to make it easier to vote. Just don’t expect anything to happen in the short term, outside of what Congress may do. Reuters has more.

TDP asks SCOTUS to review age discrimination claim in mail voting

From the inbox:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party and voters filed their final brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking its review of the case filed last Spring which challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s law that limits voting by mail, without excuse, to voters age 65 and older. The 26th Amendment prohibits “denying or abridging” the right to vote based on age, which Texas law does. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in September that so long as all voters can vote in person, it does not abridge the right to vote if the state provides some voters with additional voting options. The Texas Democratic Party and voters argue this ruling runs contrary to the 26th Amendment and is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to confer regarding this case on January 8, 2021. On January 11, 2021, at 10:00 am ET, the Court will issue its orders list for the 2021 term. At that point, the Court may grant review of the case, deny review, or hold the case over for further consideration at a later time. If the Court grants review, the case could be heard this term, with a decision before Summer or it could decide to hear the case in its term beginning Fall of 2021. If the court denies review of the case, it will return to the U.S. District Court in San Antonio, where it will proceed to the final trial and, thereafter, potentially go back through the appeals process.

See here for my last update on this case, and here for a copy of the filing, which in fancy lawyer-speak is a “petition for a writ of certiori”. SCOTUSblog has a concise summary of the case so far. The brief makes three arguments, of which the first two are technical and boring to non-lawyers, but the third is a straightforward claim that the Fifth Circuit erred in its ruling:

The error in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning was powerfully illustrated by the statement respondents’ counsel made at oral argument: “[I]f a state were to pass a law saying that White people must vote by personal appearance but Black people can vote by personal appearance or by mail-in balloting, …. the Fifteenth Amendment would not prohibit that law because that law does not deny or abridge the right to vote within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.” Or. Arg. Rec. at 41:27-42:07. To state that position is to show its indefensibility.

1. The Fifth Circuit treated “abridge” as solely a temporal restriction: In its view, a state’s law does not “abridge” the right to vote when it adds voting opportunities for some, so long as one manner of voting remains in place for those not given the new voting opportunity. See BIO App. 38a. That holding is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents that the concept of abridgement “necessarily entails a comparison” of “what the right to vote ought to be.” Reno v. Bossier Par. Sch. Bd., 528 U.S. 320, 334 (2000).

Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s arid resort to dictionary definitions of “abridgment,” BIO App. 33a34a, the proper baseline under the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments is given in the text of those amendments themselves. Those amendments provide that the right to vote shall not be abridged “on account of” or “by reason of” specific characteristics: “race,” “sex,” taxpaying status, or “age.” By their plain terms, those amendments call for a comparison between the law’s treatment of voters of different races, sexes, taxpaying statuses, or ages—not between the scope of the right a particular voter enjoyed yesterday and the scope of the right he or she enjoys today. It cannot be that the Fifteenth Amendment would have nothing to say if a jurisdiction gave white voters an early voting period, as long as it left untouched a preexisting ability for Black voters to cast a ballot in person on election day. But that perverse consequence is exactly what the Fifth Circuit’s logic commands.

The reason why the voting amendments use the word “abridge” is not to create a temporal comparison, but to make clear that any race-, sex-, taxpaying-, or age-based suffrage rule, and not only categorical denial of the right to vote, is covered. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, illustrates this point. While Section 5, the provision at issue in Bossier Parish involved a statute with language explicitly requiring a temporal comparison, Section 2 echoes the Fifteenth Amendment text and requires an inter-voter comparison. Section 2(a) prohibits practices that result “in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote on account of race or color or membership in a specified language minority. 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a). Section 2(b) declares that a violation of that prohibition occurs, among other things, when the plaintiff group has “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” 52 U.S.C. § 10301(b) (emphasis added). That understanding of abridgment is also, as the petition explains, more consistent with this Court’s decision in Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965). See Pet. 20-22.

Basically, the Fifth Circuit said that giving one set of voters (in this case, voters over the age of 65) something extra (no-excuses absentee ballots) was fine and not a form of discrimination against other voters, who were still able to vote. The TDP argues that the correct interpretation of the 26th and other amendments to the constitution is that not giving the under-65 voters the same benefit as the 65-and-older crowd is an abridgement of their rights, and thus unconstitutional. I think the plaintiffs have a solid argument, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, and also this particular Supreme Court is nobody’s friend when it comes to voting rights. We’ll know in January if we’ll get a short-term resolution or if this goes back to the trial court for a do-over.

No Walmart liquor stores

Some non-election litigation news of interest.

Texans still won’t be able to purchase liquor at Walmart, after the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a bid by the retail giant that would have allowed the booze to be sold at stores in the state.

Texas is the only state in the nation that does not allow publicly traded companies, like Walmart Inc., to obtain liquor permits — but they are allowed to sell beer and wine.

Walmart claims the law is discriminatory and has argued that 98% of liquor stores in the state are owned by Texans.

Turned away by the nation’s highest court, Walmart will now have to prove intentional discrimination before a federal trial court.

Lawyers for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission said the law is in place to make liquor less readily available and curb its consumption.

“The law precludes large corporations from using their economies of scale to lower liquor prices and increase the density of liquor outlets in the State. This approach has served Texas well — it has consistently ranked among the States with the lowest per capita liquor consumption,” lawyers for the commission stated.

Not sure I buy the cause-and-effect logic there, but whatever. Walmart, which at the time still had a hyphen in its name, originally sued in 2015 in federal court in Travis County. They got a favorable ruling in 2018, which was remanded back to the district court by the Fifth Circuit (opinion here). Walmart had appealed this ruling to SCOTUS, so the denial means they have to go back to the district court and try again under the tougher guidelines set out by the Fifth Circuit. We’ll see if they proceed, or if they decide it might be faster and cheaper to try to elect a bunch of legislators who will pass a bill to do what they want. I’m no fan of Walmart, but I really don’t see the point of this state regulation. Everything we do with alcohol in this state is weird and anachronistic.

Felony bail reform lawsuit moves forward

Pending the next appeal, anyway.

A federal judge ruled Tuesday that the case challenging Harris County’s felony bail system should proceed to trial. Nineteen felony judges represented by state Attorney General Ken Paxton immediately gave notice they planned to appeal to the 5th U.S. Circuit

[…]

The defendants include Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who does not oppose the litigation, and 23 Harris County felony district judges, who have split into a larger group represented by Paxton, who opposes the lawsuit, and a smaller faction represented by attorney Allan Van Fleet, who represented the judges in the misdemeanor bail case.

In a 65-page opinion, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal denied the state and felony judges’ motions to dismiss the case, finding that the evidence involved “vigorously disputed factual allegations that must be developed further to resolve the legal issues the parties present.”

Lawyers for Abbott and 19 Democratic district judges argued in October the judges were protected by immunity, the federal courts do not have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees do not have standing to sue.

Rosenthal found the court had standing and thousands of indigent arrestees, even though the individuals changed over time, had grounds, as a group, to sue.

See here, here, and here for the background. This was a motion to dismiss on largely procedural grounds, so there’s plenty of room for the Fifth Circuit to step in and throw this out without the merits of the case ever getting litigated. Obviously, I hope that does not happen.

This is the first I’d heard of the judicial plaintiffs being in two different groups; I need to understand what that means going forward. You know where I stand on this, and I plan to make a Big Deal out of which judges are on the right side of this issue, and which are actively obstructing it. So far, that standard hasn’t been met, but if the Fifth Circuit upholds this ruling then I will look very sideways at further appeals.

Hollins calls on Secretary of State to defend drive through voting

Good.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins is seeking assurance from Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs that her office is “committed to defending the votes” cast at the county’s drive-thru voting sites, the subject of two lawsuits currently before the state Supreme Court.

In a letter sent to Hughs Tuesday, Hollins cited prior support from state election officials, including Elections Director Keith Ingram, for the legality of drive-thru voting. He asked Hughs to confirm by noon Wednesday that the office stands by those statements.

By noon, Hollins had not received a response from Hughs, according to a spokeswoman for the clerk’s office.

A spokesman for Hughs said the office had received Hollins’ letter, but he declined to say whether Hughs or anyone from her office planned to respond. He also did not say whether Hollins had accurately characterized the position of state elections officials on drive-thru voting.

[…]

In his letter to Hughs, Hollins wrote, “Your office has repeatedly expressed that drive-thru voting fit the definitions and requirements for a polling place provided in the Texas Election Code for both Early Voting and Election Day.” During a court proceeding, Hollins wrote, Ingram called drive-thru voting “a creative approach that is probably okay legally.”

Last Friday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton issued a guidance letter in which he suggested Harris County’s use of curbside voting does not pass legal muster. He wrote that state law “makes no provision for polling places located outdoors, in parking lots, or in parking structures.” The state election code also does not allow “‘drive-thru’ voting centers at which any voter may cast a ballot from his or her vehicle regardless of physical condition,” Paxton wrote.

“Curbside voting is not, as some have asserted contrary to Texas law, an option for any and all voters who simply wish to vote from the comfort of their cars when they are physically able to enter the polling place,” Paxton wrote.

You can see a video call with Hollins about this here, his official statement here, and further coverage from Chron reporter Jasper Scherer here. The concern at this point is not just that the Supreme Court might put a halt to what Harris County has been doing, but that they might invalidate the 70K+ votes that have been cast by drive-through voting. The contempt for voters that this would display, at this super late hour, is breathtaking. I can’t even begin to wrap my head around that. I don’t know what else to say.

I don’t know when the Supreme Court might rule on this facially ridiculous challenge, but I will note that not only was it filed after early voting had begun, it’s now been a week since it was filed with SCOTX. They’re taking their sweet time about this. I hope that means that they’re not willing to stick a knife in this, but all I have is hope. Again, what this writ represents is plain and simple contempt for voters. There’s no other principle here.

On a side note, we also have this:

That is of course in reference to this turd of a Fifth Circuit ruling, and it’s exactly what we’d expect from the Clerk’s office. Every other election administrator in this state should follow their example.

More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

Abbott moves to stop mail ballot dropoff locations

I don’t know about you, but this reeks of fear to me.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Thursday declared that counties can designate only one location to collect completed mail ballots from voters, forcing Harris County to abandon 11 sites set up for that purpose.

Abbott’s proclamation said counties must also allow poll watchers to “observe any activity conducted at the early voting clerk’s office” related to the delivery of marked ballots. He said the measure was designed to improve ballot security.

“The state of Texas has a duty to voters to maintain the integrity of our election,” Abbott said in a statement. “These enhanced security protocols will ensure greater transparency and will help stop attempts at illegal voting.”

Abbott did not cite any examples of voter fraud, which election law experts say is exceedingly rare.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins had set up 12 locations — 11 of them county clerk annex offices — throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collet mail ballots. The county now will only be able to accept ballots only at its election headquarters at NRG Arena.

This new executive order is here. This is of a piece with the Hotze mandamus to limit mail ballot dropoffs to Election Day itself. It’s telling that Abbott is just now issuing orders about the use of multiple locations for mail ballot dropoffs, because County Clerk Chris Hollins announced his intention to use the 11 County Clerk Annex offices for this purpose in mid-July, which is to say two and a half months ago. And Abbott is just now taking action? I mean, come on.

It’s really hard to escape the conclusion that this is a desperation move by Abbott, in part to try to curb Democratic voting, and in part to quell the wingnut rebellion that’s been brewing against him. And let’s be clear, the Texas GOP as recently as the runup to the 2018 election would have laughed at the Dems’ efforts to get their voters out. “Oh, the Dems think they can boost their turnout and win some elections, aren’t they adorable.” They’re taking it all quite seriously now, that much is for sure.

It’s transparent and it’s ridiculous, and it makes no sense as anything but a pure partisan power move.

Now to be sure, people don’t have to use a dropoff location. They can just use the mail as always, and now there’s a nifty mail ballot tracker to ensure that your ballot gets received and processed. I feel reasonably confident saying that most people were planning to vote by mail as they had done before. But that’s not the point. The point is that this was a simple and innovative way to make voting easier for people, something Chris Hollins has excelled at in his brief time as County Clerk. Greg Abbott’s move is the exact opposite of that, and it serves no good purpose.

And I remind you, it was done at the last minute, after weeks and weeks of people being told they could use these annex locations. What have Texas Republicans had to say about last-minute changes to the voting process?

I hope they have a lawsuit filed before I get to publish this post. (Per the Trib, one may indeed be filed today, perhaps more than one.) And I can’t wait to see how the Fifth Circuit applies its own jurisprudence to this question.

(On a side note, I will note that while I have heaped all kinds of scorn and contempt on the multitudinous Hotze vote-suppression lawsuits, I have also repeatedly agreed that there is a serious debate to have about the extent of Abbott’s executive powers and the proper role of our extremely part-time Legislature in all this. Because Hotze and company are a bunch of rancid clowns, they are a terrible vehicle for posing those questions. Perhaps by opening this war on a second front, Abbott will finally have a worthy opponent putting them before a judge.)

For a bit of variety, and to provide a summary of all this, here’s a press release from All on the Line, a national campaign to restore fairness to our democracy and ensure every American has an equal say in our government.

“This last minute order is another link in a very long chain of voter suppression and intimidation in Texas,” said Genevieve Van Cleve, All On The Line state director. “Governor Greg Abbott is working to make it harder for grandparents to vote and allowing so-called poll watchers to glower at them while they do it.”

In preparation for the November general election, counties with large populations including Harris and Travis have designated and staffed satellite drop off locations to make it easier for those not comfortable sending their completed ballots through the mail.

Texas has 254 counties. Loving County has a population of 160 people. Harris County has a population of 4,713,000 people. Governor Abbott’s order allows each county, regardless of size, the same number of drop off locations for mail-in ballots: one. Further, he has sanctioned citizens to “observe” people delivering their ballots.

Gov. Abbott’s order is meant to suppress turnout and intimidate voters. Those most likely to be impacted are seniors and Texans living with disabilities who rely on mail-in-ballots. The very same people who are most vulnerable to the COVID-19 virus.

Further, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled days before Gov. Abbott’s order that reinstating straight ticket voting was impossible due largely to the close proximity to the election. Yet, he’s changing the rules of the election with just days to go.

“These last minute changes to the rules will not deter Texas voters from casting their ballots, despite the Governor’s intentions. Texans are energized, well-informed, and will demand that their voices be heard and respected at the ballot box,” Van Cleve said.

Early Vote begins in Texas on October 13th. The last day to register to vote in Texas is October 5th. Mail-in Ballots that are not postmarked must be received by 7pm on Election Day; Mail-in Ballots postmarked by 7pm on Election Day must be received by 5pm the day after Election Day.

Next stop, the litigation. I’m sure I’ll have a post about it tomorrow. The Statesman, the Current, and Reform Austin have more.

And straight ticket voting is off again

No surprise, but boy are we all getting whiplash over here.

Texas voters will not be able to select every candidate of a major political party with one punch, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday, upholding a 2017 state law that ends the popular practice of straight-ticket voting for this year’s general election.

The Texas Legislature years ago acted to end straight-ticket voting in time for the 2020 presidential contest, but a federal judge earlier this month reinstated the practice, citing complications to the voting process caused by the pandemic.

A three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned that decision on Wednesday, ruling that the law ending the one-punch option should go into effect even as voters and election administrators contend with the coronavirus pandemic, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s “emphasis that courts should not alter election rules on the eve of an election.”

“The Texas Legislature passed HB 25 in 2017, and state election officials have planned for this election accordingly. The state election machinery is already well in motion,” the judges wrote. Upholding the law and eliminating straight ticket voting, they wrote, “will minimize confusion among both voters and trained election officials.”

[…]

The opinion, which was not signed, came from a panel of three appointees of George W. Bush: U.S. Circuit Judges Edith Clement, Catharina Haynes and Jennifer Walker Elrod. The court had already paused the lower court’s ruling with a brief administrative stay, but Wednesday’s eight-page decision is a firmer word on the matter.

See here and here for the background. I don’t agree that this ruling would have been disruptive of confusing to voters, who had been used to being able to vote straight ticket, but I thought the original ruling against the plaintiffs was correct, so I’m not going to get too exercised over this. I will say, now that SCOTUS is again on everyone’s mind, that this case is a reminder that many cases get resolved well before they get to SCOTUS, or to SCOTX if we’re talking about state litigation. It’s clear that the courts we have are not going to save us. The route we need to take to fix our ridiculous voting laws is winning enough state elections to pass new and better voting laws. Whatever happens with SCOTUS, we should be plenty of motivated to do that.

Of course the Fifth Circuit paused the straight ticket voting ruling

Water is wet, the sky is blue, the Fifth Circuit gives Ken Paxton whatever he asks.

Best mugshot ever

A federal appeals court on Monday put a temporary hold on a lower court’s ruling last week that reinstated the practice of straight-ticket voting, again casting into uncertainty whether Texas voters will have the option in the Nov. 3 election to vote for every candidate of a political party with one punch. A final ruling is expected after the court weighs the arguments more thoroughly.

[…]

Early voting is set to start Oct. 13, leaving election administrators little time to make major changes to voting procedures.

U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo wrote that ending straight-ticket voting would “cause important delays at polling places, place Texan voters at increased risk of catching a deadly virus, and discourage voters, particularly those most vulnerable to the disease or under significant economic pressure, from exercising their rights on election day.”

The three-judge panel of the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals put a momentary pause on that decision Monday while it considers the case. It set quick deadlines for both sides to submit their arguments.

The case was brought by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans and Democratic groups.

No matter the end result, the litigation has meant hours of chaos for scores of election administrators scrambling to ready their polling places for a Texas election unlike any other.

See here and here for the background. This is what I expected, so I’m not surprised, just appropriately cynical. The court has ordered a briefing to be held on Wednesday, so at least this should be resolved quickly one way or the other. You can see why I suggested we be deliberate about discussing this. Until we get a final ruling for this election, please pour one out for the state’s elections administrators, as they chug Maalox and chain smoke while the courts meddle with their perfectly nice election. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

Paxton appeals stright ticket voting ruling

Letting no moss grow.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office filed an appeal and motion to stay Saturday following a federal judge’s order to reinstate straight ticket voting ahead of the November general election.

Lawyers representing the Texas Secretary of State argued that U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo erred when she ruled Friday that the elimination of straight ticket voting this year would illegally impede the ability of Texas residents to vote by causing long lines at the polls amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Attorney General’s office also argued the ruling came too late for elections officials to properly alter ballots.

“Eighteen days before in-person voting begins is insufficient time for election administrators in 254 counties and their vendors to meticulously re-program, re-proof, and re-test thousands of different ballot styles,” state officials wrote in their motion to stay.

[…]

Some county elections officials have issued warnings that Marmolejo’s ruling came too late in the planning process. Marmolejo found that only in-person ballots must have a straight-ticket voting option.

It is not immediately clear how quickly the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals will act or when Marmolejo might rule on the motion to stay.

See here for the background. This was of course completely expected, and if the Fifth Circuit doesn’t break records issuing a stay of Judge Marmolejo’s order I’ll be shocked, but here we are for now. Gotta admit, Paxton complaining about the timing after his official support of reinstating Green Party candidates within a week of the supposed deadline for printing absentee ballots is a nice touch. You have to respect the dedication to his craft.

I have to admit, I’m a bit hesitant to even talk about this litigation. I don’t want to start telling people “Hey, it turns out you can vote a straight party ticket like you did before”, only to have to retract that following the inevitable Fifth Circuit action and tell people again that they need to vote in each race. I’d just like to know what the rules are so we can prepare for them. Allowing straight ticket voting again, even at this late hour, isn’t confusing, it’s what people are used to. Not having it isn’t great, but we have a message for that. Taking it away, then giving it back, then taking it away again, that’s what would suck. So for now, don’t go sharing this stuff all over social media. Wait till we know what’s for real first.

Straight ticket voting reinstated (for now)

That was unexpected.

Less than three weeks before early voting begins in Texas, a U.S. district judge has blocked the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting as an option for people who go to the polls this November.

In a ruling issued late Friday, U.S. District Judge Marina Garcia Marmolejo cited the coronavirus pandemic, saying the elimination of the voting practice would “cause irreparable injury” to voters “by creating mass lines at the polls and increasing the amount of time voters are exposed to COVID-19.”

Marmolejo also found that the GOP-backed law would “impose a discriminatory burden” on black and Hispanic voters and “create comparatively less opportunities for these voters to participate in the political process.”

She acknowledged the burden the decision could put on local and state election officials, who will have to recalibrate voting machines or reprint ballots. But she reasoned that the potential harm for those suing, including the Texas Association for Retired Americans, was “outweighed by the inconveniences resulting.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party joined other Democratic groups and candidates in suing the state in March to overturn the law, but Marmolejo dismissed the case. Another suit was then filed, but with the Texas Association for Retired Americans added as plaintiffs and the state party removed. Nonetheless, Democrats celebrated the judge’s order Friday.

“Time and time again Republican leadership has tried to make it harder to vote and time and time again federal courts strike it down,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement after the ruling. “Texas Democrats will have to continue to win at the ballot box to protect the right vote. Until the new Texas majority wipes out these out-of-touch Republicans, Texas Democrats will never stop fighting for Texans in court.”

See here and here for the background. This was a Democracy Docket case, and so they have a copy of the original complaint and the judge’s order. The complaint wasn’t any different the second time around, but the set of plaintiffs was. Beyond that, the main difference was the extent of the pandemic since the original case was dismissed in late June. The judge cites how much worse the spread of the virus has gotten, as well as the difficulties counties had running the primary runoffs in July – fewer voting locations, harder time getting poll workers – as justification for reversing her original dismissal. She also noted the extra time it takes to vote Texas’ long ballots; I’m guessing this opinion was written a few days ago, because that recent Harris County study was not cited.

I presume this will be appealed to the Fifth Circuit before the weekend is out, and I expect they will put a stay on the order pending whatever review they’re going to do. Or maybe not, I don’t know, we’re getting awfully close to “we really need to finalize the ballot and configure the voting machines” time. The judge also noted in the ruling that it would be less confusing to the voters to restore straight ticket voting at this late time than to not have it, since we have not had such an election yet. I think the real danger of confusion is having everyone talk about this ruling for a few days and then have it blocked by the appeals court, but that’s just me. For now, we’ll be voting like it’s 2018 again. For now. The Chron has more.