Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Harris County

FBI seeks Astroworld info

Spill ’em if you got ’em.

The FBI has created a website that seeks information on the deadly Astroworld Festival, the Houston Police Department said Friday.

Members of the public can upload photos and video from the Nov. 5 event at NRG Park. Police said in a statement that they’re specifically looking for media from between 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. “of the main venue area,” which can be uploaded at fbi.gov/astroworld.

“HPD continues to lead this investigation and we appreciate the assistance from our federal partners at the FBI,” the statement read. The federal agency has previously offered to help with the investigation.

I genuinely have no idea how likely this is to result in usable, actionable information. For that matter, it’s not really clear to me what HPD might uncover in its investigation. I think we’re more likely to learn things from the county’s internal investigation and from the various lawsuits – whichever one gets to discovery first will probably be the main source of new information. But you never know.

Interview with Dylan Osborne

Dylan Osborne

This week I’m going to focus on the two executive offices in Harris County that are not County Judge that feature contested primaries. Both were won by Dems in the countywide sweep of 2018, and so both are held by first-termers. The incumbent Harris County Treasurer is Dylan Osborne, who knocked off longtime incumbent Orlando Sanchez after winning a three-way primary. You can hear the interview I did with him for that race here. Earlier this month, Treasurer Osborne announced a historic partnership with Unity Bank, one of the few Black-owned banks in the country, here in Harris County. The Harris County Treasurer’s office has fairly modest duties, with the main one being responsible for handling payments and moving funds. That wasn’t always the case, and we talked about what Osborne has done with the duties he has, and what else there is and could be to do with that office. You can listen to that discussion here:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Chris Watson

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Chris Watson

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

My name is Chris Watson and I am running for Harris County Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears community based issues such as small claims, evictions, and truancy.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I have been working for a better quality of life in this community for many years. This position will allow me to have an immediate impact on the people in our community. I feel this position offers me a great chance to touch lives and have immediate impact in this community in a positive way. For example, truancy cases, in particular, can give me the chance to positively touch the lives of our community youth, maybe before they are committed to lives of continuous crime. I would like to institute creative, positive ideas to deal with truant students and their parents.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Besides meeting all the stipulated legal qualifications for the Justice of the Peace in Texas, my experience as a licensed Texas mediator, legal researcher for more than 15 years and community activist in this community for more than 25 years, has uniquely prepared me to serve the people of this community as a Justice in our community court.

5. Why is this race important?

In these trying times of COVID and economy, the community court has and will continue to play a crucial role in helping this community navigate through these turbulent times. In helping people to keep their homes and reestablishing their quality of life, there will have to be a community court that is fair, creative and compassionate and the justice that is in this court needs to be one who is prepared to be creative and compassionate enough find ways of compromise, within the law, to keep to bring our community together for the common good.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

Chris Watson is the one to vote for because of his long time commitment to building the quality of life in this particular community. He has worked alongside many of the community leaders and has been endorsed by leaders who know his commitment to our community. State Representative Jarvis Johnson, State Representative Senfronia Thompson, Senator Borris Miles, State Representative Alma Allen, and many other local leaders and activists have attested to Chris Watson’s dedication to this community and endorsed his campaign. He will serve in fairness and compassion as the Justice of the Peace and will work every day to improve the quality of life in Precinct 1.

Bypass the GLO

Heck yeah.

All five members of Harris County Commissioners Court signed onto a letter Friday asking the local congressional delegation to ensure that future disaster relief bypasses the state government and goes directly to large counties.

The letter is the latest round of bipartisan outrage in Houston triggered by the Texas General Land Office’s decision last May to initially shut out the city and the county — the epicenter of flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey — from $1 billion in flood control dollars later awarded to Texas after the 2017 storm.

The letter suggests that Congress or a federal agency require future disaster relief go directly to counties with at least 500,000 residents, instead of being administered by state agencies.

The court’s two Republicans, Commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey, joined the court’s Democratic majority — County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Commissioners Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — in signing the letter. Cagle and Ramsey had been sharply critical of fellow Republican George P. Bush, who runs the GLO, after the agency declined to award any money to the city or county.

In the letter, the five court members wrote that a direct allocation of federal aid would “bypass potential bureaucratic delay caused by various Texas agencies and by other entities that will harm our ability to have quick and efficient implementation.”

They did not mention the GLO by name, though the letter was sent to Harris County’s nine-member congressional delegation one week after federal officials halted the distribution of nearly $2 billion in flood control funds to Texas because, they said, the GLO had failed to send in required paperwork detailing its plans to spend the money.

I mean, based on past experience, why would we want to do it any other way? The GLO isn’t just not adding value here, they’re actively reducing it. It’s not a surprise that even the Republican commissioners signed on to this.

On a more philosophical note, a lot of federal relief funds that are targeted at cities and counties and school districts and whatnot have had to go through the state first. For the most part, with COVID funds, the Lege mostly rubber stamped it without much fuss. I know there had been concerns with the pace at which Harvey recovery funds had been spent and homes were being repaired – indeed, there are still a lot of unrepaired homes after all this time – but it seems that a big part of that problem has been having multiple layers of government involved, which led to conflicts and delays and issues getting funds to the people who needed them the most. Indeed, that story also cites issues with the way the GLO interacted with the city of Houston. With COVID relief there were issues with unemployment funds having to go through rickety state systems, no direct way to get other relief funds to people who didn’t have bank accounts, and so forth. There are bigger issues, having to do with underlying infrastructure, that are a big part of this. But even factoring that out, putting states in charge of distributing federal relief funds to localities has been a problem. More so in some states than in others. I don’t know what we can do about that, given everything else going on right now. But we really should do something.

Lots of mail ballot applications are being rejected now

This is a feature, not a bug.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some commentary from Twitter:

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

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

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

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

Interviews and judicial Q&As through January 14

Updating from last week. This is to put all of the interviews and judicial Q&As in a single post for your convenience, in case you missed something. This past week was Commissioners Court Precinct 4. Starting Monday will be the County Treasurer and District Clerk races, and the week after that will be Senate District 15 and (I hope – it’s still in the works) Candis Houston from HD142. After that is CD38, and probably statewide candidates.

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

Interviews

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

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

Judicial Q&As

Judge Abigail Anastasio, 184th Criminal District Court
Lema Barazi, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Scott Dollinger, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Chris Morton, 230th Criminal District Court
Judge Tristan Longino, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Chip Wells, 312th Family District Court
Teresa Waldrop, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court>,

Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3
Judge Kelley Andrews, County Criminal Court At Law #6
Judge Andrew Wright, County Criminal Court At Law #7
Judge Michael Newman, County Probate Court #2

Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Herbert Alexander Sanchez, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

Interview with Clarence Miller

Clarence Miller

One last interview for Harris County Commissioners Court, Precinct 4. Next week I will have interviews for other county offices, and after that will visit with some more legislative and Congressional races. Today we speak with Clarence Miller, whom I had met in pre-COVID times and was running for this position well before the new map was drawn. Miller worked for the United States Postal Service for 29 years and served as Director of the Houston Post Credit Union, and was elected as Director of the Northwest Harris County Municipal Utility District #24. Here’s the interview:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Michael Newman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Michael Newman

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

My name is Michael Newman. I am the incumbent Judge of Harris County Probate Court Two. I have over 41 years of legal and trial experience. I have tried over 110 cases as a trial lawyer and judge. During my career, I have conducted thousands of contested hearings, represented thousands of clients in complex disputed matters including will contests, elder abuse and financial exploitation, common law marriage and child visitation disputes, contested guardianships and personal injury and insurance defense cases.

As a certified mediator, I have conducted over 500 mediations, settling over 80% of the cases that I mediated. I have been married to trial attorney Deborah Newman for over 36 years.

Our daughter Caitlin, 28, is a manager in the hospitality industry. We have two rescue dogs, Bridget and Chloe. I received my JD Degree from the University of Houston Law center in 1980, where I served as associate Editor of the Houston Law Review. I received a B.B.A in management with Honors from the University of Texas at Austin in 1977

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Probate Court 2 is a trial court. We try and hear contested cases involving will contests, challenging the validity of wills, the testamentary capacity of testators and undue influence and fraud; breach of fiduciary cases, elder abuse and financial exploitation, common law marriage disputes involving the characterization of community and separate property, contested guardianship cases, personal injury, medical malpractice and wrongful death and real estates and business disputes. The non-contested matters include the probate of wills, uncontested heirships, and guardianship cases.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

Since being elected, I have quadrupled the number of weekly ancillary dockets from one to four. Ancillary dockets are the ones where the judge handles disputed hearings. As a result of the increased dockets, the number of contested hearings have increased by over 100 percent and the waiting time for contested hearings has also been reduced for lawyers and litigants During my term, the number of trials conducted has increased by a factor of five.

I have significantly increased the diversity of the court staff over sixty percent of new court staff have been qualified minority candidates. I rule timely, rarely take cases under advisement since I read all paperwork filed prior to hearing and have not been reversed on appeal, as of yet.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I will continue to provide the public, lawyers, and their clients with equal and timely access to the courts, render prompt and correct rulings in accordance with the law in a fair and nondiscriminatory manner to avoid unnecessary costs and delay. I will continue to treat all people that appear in my court with the dignity and respect each deserve. I will continue to read all motions and paperwork in advance of all contested hearing and trials, as well as work as hard as I can serving the public in a just and fair manner and will proceed with my recruitment of additional qualified minority candidate for court staff positions.

5. Why is this race important?

Harris County Probate Court 2 is first and foremost a trial court. Trials are now set on Thursdays and Fridays in addition to Mondays because of the heavy volume of contested cases that are filed and to accommodate lawyers and their clients.

It is essential that the lawyer elected to serve as probate judge have the necessary trial experience and substantive knowledge of the many diverse areas of laws that this courts hears so that proper and time rulings can be made. The cases heard in probate court effect the lives including the emotional and financial wellbeing of the people that seek judicial relief. In addition to judicial temperament, the judge of probate court must have the substantive knowledge and necessary experience of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure, the Texas Rules of Evidence, the Texas Estates Code, the Texas Guardianship code, the Texas Family Code, the Texas Trust Code, among other codes and statutes.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I seek reelection because I am the candidate running for this court with the necessary years of experience in just the types of cases and issues that are litigated in probate court. I draw on that experience every day. Lawyers with minimal experience can and do run for judge, but a law license does not make one qualified to make the kind of decisions probate court judges make every day. As my literature states, “Experience matters”.

I have over 41 years of trial experience as a trial lawyer and trial judge. I have represented thousands of clients in disputed cases, I have conducted thousands of hearings and have tried over 110 trials as a lawyer & judge. I have conducted over 600 meditations as a lawyer and certified mediator. I have been committed and will continue to be committed to providing equal and timely access to the courts for hearings & trials in a fair, impartial and non-discriminatory manner.

Literally hundreds of lawyers that practice in my Probate Court 2 strongly support my reelection. They have seen my commitment to providing court access; they have observed my patience and preparedness; and observed my commitment to do the right thing. I know that rulings can greatly affect people’s lives, their families, finances and loved ones.

I have spent years arguing before judges; now lawyers argue before me in Probate Court 2. I know how hard they work and the stresses of their clients. I try to keep people at ease. My court has been present to serve those who need access. We are there because we are needed, and I make sure the staff keep that in mind.

I am a judge who likes and cares about people. That coupled with my experience, my record and my temperament are the reasons that people should vote for me in March. Because I wanted to serve in a way that all judges should. I have the experience to rule accurately, to follow the law and to understand the effects of rulings on peoples’ lives.

As a judge I am diligent, prepared, and attentive. I treat those who come to probate court 2 equally and with respect. My first tenure as a judge has been personally fulfilling. I have been a lawyer in court and know that it can be a difficult job. I respect the lawyers and their clients and give the time and attention required to make the best decisions I can, while following the law. I read what lawyers file; and I treat everyone with respect. My legal experience, knowledge and integrity are unmatched.

Interview with Lesley Briones

Lesley Briones

Next up for Harris County Commissioner Precinct 4 is Lesley Briones. Briones was appointed to be the Judge of County Civil Court at Law #4 in 2019 following the Bill McLeod accidental resignation saga; while she resigned her bench upon announcing her candidacy, she remains in place pending the appointment of a new judge, which should happen in January. A South Texas native and graduate of Harvard University, Briones worked at Vinson & Elkins and was General Counsel and Chief Operating Officer of the Laura & John Arnold Foundation prior to her appointment to the bench. Here’s what we talked about:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Andrew Wright

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Andrew Wright

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

My name is Andrew A. Wright, I am the Judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law Number Seven (#7).

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court is one of 16 Misdemeanor Criminal Courts in Harris County. This court handles primarily Class B and Class A Misdemeanors. The duties are to handle various criminal cases, typical in this court are Driving While Intoxicated cases, Burglary of Motor Vehicle cases, Thefts, Assault cases and various other cases. In addition to this, sometimes these Courts hear Class C (JP and Municipal Court) appeals. In addition to the above, there are various administrative duties of the position. This court can also hear Chapter 33 bypass hearings.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

My main accomplishment was when myself and my colleagues implemented misdemeanor bail reform in the County Criminal Courts at Law. We helped create the presumption of a pr bond in the vast majority of non-violent misdemeanor cases. In addition to this we created the Office of Managed Assigned Counsel to make sure that misdemeanor criminal appointments are done free from the Judge’s involvement. We want to make sure the Court Appointment system is raised to a higher bar than ever before, yet free from Judicial involvement.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

One of the things I hope to accomplish moving forward is to create a system of guidelines to keep cases from just laying stagnant for a long period of time. Something like a Docket Control Order, or scheduling order is one method I am contemplating for doing so. This will create clear and defined expectations to which all parties are aware of. There is a great deal of cases that cannot move forward because of issues that prolong this case without any clear expectations.

5. Why is this race important?

What happens in misdemeanor court affects peoples lives. I know plenty of people just look at it and thinks “its just a misdemeanor” or gives it less importance due to not being a felony court. But what we do each and every day in Court 7 affects many people’s lives. This race is important because those people need to have a judge that fairly, accurately and competently administers justice in their case. The judge needs to know what they are doing and knows the relevant law applicable to their case. The person on the bench needs to be able to step forward on January 2, 2023 and administer justice and not have a “on the job training.”

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

As above, this race is important as it affects people’s lives. The judge in this race needs to be able to have the relevant experience, knowledge and skill to effectively administer justice in a fair and non-biased way. I am that candidate. I have been a practicing attorney for 14 years and have tried many criminal cases. I am board certified in Criminal Law. I have the relevant experience, knowledge and knowhow to make sure that what happens in Criminal Court 7 is the right thing according to the laws of the State of Texas. This bench is a trial court bench, we try cases. Since taking the bench I have been at the top, if not the top of judges in trial. We do not have the time for this bench to be a learning curve or on the job training for a candidate that does not have the necessary experience to gain. I am the best and most qualified candidate for Harris County Criminal Court at Law Number Seven and I hope to continue to serve in that capacity. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Interview with Gina Calanni

Gina Calanni

As I’ve noted before, there are several current or recent elected officials in this primary for Harris County Commissioners Court, Precinct 4. One of them is Gina Calanni, who won an upset victory for HD132 in 2018. Unfortunately, the 2020 election was not as successful for her, but she got a lot done in that one term, passing eleven bills during the 2019 session. Calanni is a single mother of three and a published author, and I interviewed her before, in the primary for that 2018 race, which you can listen to here. You can listen to this interview here:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Chris Morton

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Chris Morton

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

I am Judge Chris Morton of the 230th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court hears Felony Criminal Cases.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

I have implemented policies and procedures that deal with bail and bond in a fairer more equitable way and in a way that more closely aligns with the constitutional laws of Texas.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I hope to implement a fairer system of appointing attorneys to indigent defendants and I hope to move bail and bond practices closer to a point were dangerous individuals are detained and others are released without bankrupting their families.

5. Why is this race important?

The first virtue of every social institution is justice. Neutral objective judges are crucial to justice. Judges cannot be prosecutors on the bench. They cannot trade away justice merely to create security. Judges are currently being attacked from every angle in an effort to make authoritarian security supersede the virtue of justice. I'll stand with the law and with justice.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I have a proven track record of standing firm against those who will use the law as a means of oppression and who would subvert judicial independence. I stood up to Governor Greg Abbot when his executive orders sought to strip the judiciary of independence and to strip people of substantive statutory and constitutional rights by finding his executive orders unconstitutional. I stood up to the legislature when they sought to create a constitutional crisis in issuing arrest warrants for their colleagues by accepting a writ of habeas corpus from one of those beleaguered law makers. I have not been intimidate nor swayed from applying the law in a fair and equitable fashion by attacks from right wing organizations or attacks in the media. I have not been swayed or intimidated by criticism from fellow Democrats or left wing activists. I stand solidly with the law and with justice.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

An email from Erica Davis

From the inbox, sent to Democratic precinct chairs:

Erica Davis

You elected me to serve as your Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education and I am very proud of what we have accomplished. I too believe in elevating voices, educating the uniformed and ensuring ethical leadership. I made a commitment to be a grassroots’ leader to our community.

Today I write to inform you in my most humble self, that I have filed to run for Harris County Judge. I have served Harris County residents for over a decade building relationships and working to keep people safe.

Every citizen deserves the same response time to safety, the elimination of wasteful spending, and bringing resources back to the Harris County residents. That is why I am running today, a native Houstonian with a purpose and passion for the residents of Harris County.

I’ll be giving you a call in the next week to speak with you. I’d like to share my vision for Harris County and invite you to discuss what matters to you. Thank you for your service and commitment to our community.

Emphasis in the original. Still no “why me and not Judge Hidalgo” statement, as previously noted, but there’s at least some mention of issues. Response times from law enforcement seems to me to be more of an HPD issue, but it could be a call for increasing the Sheriff’s budget, with maybe some more for the Constables as well. I find that a call to “eliminate wasteful spending” is in general sufficiently vague as to be meaningless. What is “wasteful” to you may be critical to me, and vice versa. If you can’t or won’t specify what you consider wasteful, we can’t have a real conversation about it. In other contexts, references to “wasteful” spending have usually meant an intent to cut spending overall. That would seem to be in conflict with a call for a bigger Sheriff’s budget, but 1) I’m drawing an inference here, and 2) we need specifics. As for “bringing resources back to the Harris County residents”, I guess talk to our legislative and Congressional delegations? I don’t know how to interpret this.

I should note that while I got that email on Monday, I got another one on Tuesday that contained this video, in which she restated her concerns about crime and “wasteful spending”, with additional concerns about property taxes and infrastructure. No ideas for improvements were mentioned – this was a brief introductory video – but again, it was the beginning of a critique of her opponent. How receptive a Democratic primary electorate that knows and likes Judge Hidalgo will be to this remains to be seen, but at least she’s saying something.

Good thing I’ll be getting a call to speak with Candidate Davis in the next week or so. As you may imagine, I have some questions.

Interview with Ann Williams

Ann Williams

We continue with our series of interviews for the Harris County Commissioner Precinct 4 primary race. Today’s candidate is Ann Williams, who has served on the Alief ISD Board of Trustees since 2007 and is currently serving as that Board’s President; she has held that position for the past seven years. Williams works in information technology and has an MBA to go along with a bachelor’s degree in IT. She also serves as the President of the Texas Caucus Black School Board Members. Please note, there were a couple of times when the Zoom session froze for a few seconds. I apologize for the glitches. Here’s the interview:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Kelley Andrews

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Kelley Andrews

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

My name is Kelley Andrews and I am the Presiding Judge of Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 6

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Court 6 is a misdemeanor court, so we hear cases that involve offenses that can potentially lead to county jail sentences. Assault, DWI, DWI 2nd, Assault Family Violence, Animal Cruelty, Criminal Mischief, Criminal Trespass, and Thefts up to $2500 are some examples of the cases that are heard in misdemeanor courts.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

Since being elected and taking the bench in January 2019 I, along with my colleagues, immediately began working on bail reform. The O’Donnell lawsuit that was costing the county excessive amounts of legal fees was dismissed, we worked, and continue to work, together to change and create local rules that affect bail reform, so that no one is left in custody, or feels forced to enter a plea, simply because they can not afford to get out of jail. I helped create and preside over the misdemeanor Mental Health Court and I represent the misdemeanor courts on the Harris County Mental Health Standing Committee. As presiding Judge of Court 6, I have focused on addressing the underlying conditions that factor into a person entering into the criminal justice system. Conditions such as mental health issues, substance abuse and addiction, housing and educational insecurity, and health care. I tailor conditions of bond and community supervision to the individual person, so that those conditions address the underlying issues that landed that person in criminal trouble in the first place. It has been my experience in the last 14 years that I have worked in the area of criminal law, as both an attorney and now a judge, that addressing these issues can truly help people to get out of the criminal justice system permanently. Every single person that comes into Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 6 is treated with respect, dignity and compassion.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I would like to continue with the work that I have started, begin to work with some of the other agencies and judges involved in the criminal justice system on developing some community outreach that shows people the courts can be places to get help and work to help put people in need of services in contact with those services, and I’d like to expand the Mental Health Court, so that I am able to help more people in this area.

5. Why is this race important?

Misdemeanor courts are one area of the criminal justice system where you have a real shot at helping someone to turn their life around because it is often the first time an adult ever has contact with the criminal justice system. Helping people work towards getting out of the criminal justice system helps the person, and it also helps the community. Judges need real experience in the area of law that their courts preside over in order to help people make these types of changes. Experience facilitates alternative dispositions in the criminal arena because with that experience comes a real time working knowledge of options available under the law, of resources currently available in Harris County, relationships with the attorneys, agencies, and departments that work within the criminal justice system and are necessary to help effectuate the desired outcome.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I truly care about my job and the people that find themselves in Harris County Criminal Court at Law No. 6. I believe in criminal justice reform and work every day with the goal of getting the people that find themselves in criminal trouble out of the criminal justice system permanently because helping them do that helps the entire community.

Feds halt Harvey relief funds over GLO error

The continuing saga.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development on Friday halted the distribution of $1.95 billion in aid awarded to Texas after Hurricane Harvey because it said the state has failed to send the federal agency required paperwork detailing its plans to spend it.

The delay is the latest in a series of hold-ups; almost four years after Congress approved $4.3 billion in HUD aid for Texas, about half of it remains unallocated.

HUD said in a statement its formal action gives the Texas General Land Office 45 days to submit the missing document, which the agency said is an analysis explaining how the state’s proposed list of disaster mitigation projects helps the most vulnerable residents.

“We look forward to receiving and reviewing Texas’s submission of the additional information needed for approval,” the HUD statement said. “We are hopeful that Texas will take the steps needed to begin much-needed, forward-looking mitigation projects in the state.”

The decision prevents Texas from distributing $1.2 billion in flood mitigation grants to local governments it had selected through a funding competition, as well as $750 million to Harris County, which was awarded nothing from that contest.

HUD in 2020 signed off on the GLO’s plan for the funding competition, which selected 81 projects, and said it welcomed the subsequent proposal for Harris County. The agency on Friday, however, said moving forward with those plans depends on whether GLO provides the missing report.

[…]

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said she looked forward to GLO completing the paperwork. She said county staff are prepared to answer any questions from HUD about how its planned projects will help vulnerable residents. Hidalgo still is hoping for additional aid.

“This $750 million is a start, but more is needed since Harris County and the city of Houston took over 50 percent of the damage from Hurricane Harvey, and because millions of residents remain vulnerable to natural disasters,” Hidalgo said.

Mayor Sylvester Turner raised the same point about the unequal distribution of aid. He said he was pleased with HUD’s action Friday, and awaits the response from the Land Office.

We’ve been down this road before. The reason this is a problem for the GLO, and why they reacted so bitterly to HUD’s letter, is that they don’t have a good explanation for why they did the funding formula that they did. It was designed to screw the big Democratic cities and counties in favor of the rural Republican counties. That’s not the explanation HUD is looking for, so here we are. Tune in later in February to see how they try to wriggle out of it.

Back to Code Red

Hopefully not for too long.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Monday moved the county again to its highest COVID-19 threat level, her office said.

The announcement should be old hat for Hidalgo, who has moved to Level Red each of the past three calendar years.

“Unfortunately, today we find ourselves crossing a threshold we don’t want to cross,” Hidalgo said at Booker Elementary School in Spring ISD. “We are in the midst of another COVID-10 tsunami.”

She cited an explosion of new COVID-19 cases. She expounded on the dangers of the new Omicron variant. She pointed out that virus hospitalizations are increasing at a higher rate than ever.

Twenty-one months into the pandemic, a question looms: How many people are still listening?

Schools are back in session. Restaurants, bars, theatres and sports arenas are open to capacity. There are no county- or state-wide mask rules. Moving to Level Red does not change any of that; instead, it urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. The decree is not enforceable.

[…]

Hidalgo has made warning the public about COVID-19 central to her messaging since the pandemic reached Texas in March 2020. For more than a year, she and county public health officials have cajoled, implored, exhorted, implored, advised, recommended, begged and even bribed residents to get vaccinated.

Hidalgo tried to remain optimistic, reasoning that getting more residents inoculated is the way to retreat from Level Red and never return.

“We can break that habit,” Hidalgo said. “I don’t want this always to be bad news.”

Growth of the county’s rate of vaccinated residents has slowed significantly. It now stands at 59.8 percent, up just 3.3 percent since before Thanksgiving. At this rate, 70 percent county of county residents would not be vaccinated until July.

See here for the previous time the threat level was raised. It’s a fair question whether anyone is still listening. I never really stopped wearing masks for indoor things like grocery shopping and ordering at restaurants – I eat outside if at all possible – but now I’m wearing KN95s instead of cloth masks. In my observation, we’re nowhere close to the levels of mask wearing we had a year ago, and few places are doing much about it. I guess we’re going to got for a low-rent version of herd immunity, at least for the short term. Better hope that the “milder” part of this strain holds up. More here from the Chron.

Interview with Ben Chou

Ben Chou

This week I will focus on what may be the most important local race, for Commissioners Court in Precinct 4. As you know, in the new Commissioners Court map, Precinct 4 was redrawn as Democratic-leaning, which gives Dems the opportunity to unseat incumbent Commissioner Jack Cagle and take a 4-1 majority. There are seven candidates in the Democratic primary, and I have interviews lined up with five of them. We start today with Ben Chou, a Houston native and Rice graduate. Chou is an attorney who has worked in politics for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. More recently, he served as the Director of Innovation for the Harris County Clerk’s Office during the 2020 election, leading the team that pioneered drive-through voting. If you remember that preview of what Commissioners Court redistricting might look like from early last year, it was Chou who provided the maps. Here’s what we talked about:

As with the judicial Q&A’s, more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet. I will periodically round up the links to these posts as well.

Judicial Q&A: Teresa Waldrop

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Teresa Waldrop

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

I am Teresa Waldrop. I’ve been a resident of Harris County for 25 years. I am Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization and have practiced law for over 30 years. I am running as a Democratic candidate for the 312th Judicial District Court of Harris County, Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This Court hears divorce cases, suits affecting parent-child relationship, adoptions, name changes, and enforcements. This court also hears Child Protective Services cases.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I am running to unseat the incumbent. The incumbent ran for judicial office 4 times for 3 different family law benches over a span of 8 years. The blue wave landed him a bench in the 2018 election cycle. He has touted his experience, compassion and common-sense approach when responding previously in this blog to questions about seeking judicial office. He failed to mention shortcomings in the areas of professionalism, temperament and emotional outbursts. Over the course of my career, I have had my share of judges who did not like me, my client, my argument, or my side of a case. I have witnessed judges lose their cool. Getting dressed down by judicial bullies has been part of my job for 30 years. But what took place in my 3-day bench trial before the incumbent was new-level different. Not only do Harris County citizens and their lawyers doing business in this Court deserve to be treated with professionalism, dignity and respect, the judicial canons require it. I have the temperament, demeanor and experience to run a professional family law court, the type of court one would expect to encounter in Harris County, Texas.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for over 30 years. I have been Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization since 2009. Ninety-eight percent of my practice is devoted to family law matters. I have handled all phases of litigation from intake to trial, both jury and bench, and post-trial matters, including several appeals. My last jury trial lasted 12 days. My longest non-jury trial was 9 days. I have been the trial lawyer in three family law cases of first impression in the State of Texas. I am a graduate of Leadership Houston (Class XXII) and a Past President of the (Houston) Association of Women Attorneys. I have both the professional experience and leadership underpinnings needed to run this Court in a patient, dignified and courteous manner.

5. Why is this race important?

Because bullies don’t belong on the bench. Humiliation, sarcasm and snark are a judicial bully’s tools of oppression. Harris county citizens access this Court in times of crisis. Those citizens and their lawyers pay the salaries of our Harris County family law jurists. They deserve to interact with a judge who is patient, dignified and courteous when they find themselves in family law court. Every. Single. Courtroom. Day.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I am the most qualified candidate for this job. The incumbent has had a judicial term to demonstrate his experience, compassion and common-sense approach, and he’s come up short. Judicial incumbents who have shown themselves incapable of managing the job you gave them should now be returned to private practice. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, ‘when people show you who they are, believe them’.

The hospitals are getting slammed again

Take precautions, y’all.

Pandemic forecasters in Texas say the state’s current surge of omicron infections and hospitalizations is likely to get much worse before it gets better, with hospitalizations expected to continue climbing for at least three weeks if social behaviors don’t change and slow the trend.

Across the nation, hospitalizations are already on the verge of breaking new pandemic records. In Texas on Thursday, according to state data, about 9,200 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 — far short of the record 14,218 hospitalizations from Jan. 11, 2021.

But with current numbers climbing exponentially each week, hospitalizations of Texans with COVID are likely to follow national trends and surpass previous levels in the state before they start to decline, said Anass Bouchnita, a researcher at the University of Texas COVID-19 Modeling Consortium, which uses data and research to project the path of the pandemic nationally.

The number of Texans testing positive for the virus every day is already at an all-time high, reaching a seven-day average of almost 44,000 confirmed cases on Friday. The seven-day average of new confirmed cases during the peak of the delta surge back in September was over 15,000.

That trend is likely to continue for at least another week, Bouchnita said.

“The situation in Texas is that it probably won’t reach the peak [for cases] until the second half of January,” he said.

Experts say the extremely high case count is why so many people are showing up in the hospital even as medical evidence suggests that the omicron variant — responsible for most new and active cases in Texas — is less severe than the previously dominant delta variant.

Bouchnita talked to The Texas Tribune on Friday, the same day the UT consortium released a report with the research team’s latest calculations about omicron’s projected path nationally. The report, which looked at eight scenarios in which omicron had varying degrees of severity, infectiousness and resistance to immunity, suggests the nation could see its new cases of this more contagious but less severe strain peak by mid-January before decreasing by half in early February.

The report called the current surge the largest COVID-19 wave in the United States to date.

[…]

Intensive care units at more than 50 hospitals are at 100% capacity, according to state reports, and some regions of the state, including El Paso, are reporting no ICU beds available in the area.

Already, the state’s children’s hospitals have more patients with COVID-19 in their beds than at any other time in the pandemic — 351 statewide on Thursday, which is higher than the last peak during the delta variant surge of 345 in early September.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Frisco pediatrician Dr. Seth Kaplan, immediate past president of the Texas Pediatrics Society. “Our volume is way up.”

It’s mostly omicron now, very little delta in Texas, though there’s still a fair amount of delta in other parts of the US. It is true that omicron is less severe than delta, but it’s also true that it’s far more transmissible, and it’s affecting far more vaccinated people. Even with less severity, the sheer number of people being infected is driving the higher number of hospitalizations.

And while more vaccinated people are being infected by COVID, there’s still a big difference in outcomes between the vaxxed and the unvaxxed.

Omicron is sending a larger share of vaccinated people to the hospital that any previous COVID-19 variant, but unvaccinated people are still more likely to need critical care, according to Houston-area hospital officials.

Twenty-two of the 27 COVID patients in Harris Health System’s intensive care units are unvaccinated. At Houston Methodist, roughly 60 percent of the 80 COVID patients in the ICU are unvaccinated, and a high percentage of the remaining patients have underlying health conditions, said Dr. Faisal Masud, the hospital’s medical director of critical care.

It’s a similar story at St. Luke’s Health and Memorial Hermann Health System, both of which say 70 percent of ICU patients are unvaccinated.

“The vast majority of the people who are critically ill are either unvaccinated or have significant comorbidities,” said Dr. James McCarthy, chief physician executive at Memorial Hermann. “We are not seeing middle-aged, healthy, vaccinated individuals in the ICU like we did in the previous wave.”

[…]

Statewide, the number of patients in the ICU has been steadily rising since Christmas Eve, from 1,030 to 1,711 on Wednesday, according to the Texas Department of State Health Services. That’s about half of the patients in the ICU at the peak of the delta wave, but some Houston hospitals are already seeing ICU rates double over the last week.

The number of incoming ICU patients could exceed all previous peaks, said Dr. Esmaeil Porsa, president and CEO of Harris Health System. While the vaccines may not be as effective as they were initially, the current ICU population indicates that “they are still extremely effective against severe disease,” he said.

“More and more breakthrough infections are going to happen,” Porsa said. “We’re going to get a higher percentage of people who are vaccinated, but that number is never going to be a big number. It’s always going to be minority of people.”

Overall, doctors say omicron is not damaging the lungs as much as earlier strains. Fewer COVID patients in the Harris Health ICU require mechanical ventilation compared to delta, said Porsa, but other health issues like kidney and heart failure are becoming more common.

At Methodist, Masud has observed a similar pattern. A large portion of ICU patients Masud has treated ended up in the unit because the virus exacerbated an existing disease. The risk of facing such complications is higher for unvaccinated people, he said.

“This is eliciting an immune response, which is not only limited to lungs but which makes the patients sicker, with existing disease becoming much worse,” he said.

Masud said that now is a critical time to wear a well-fitted mask in public, especially for people who are not vaccinated.

It’s the same as before, in that the things you can do to mitigate your risk haven’t changed. Get vaxxed, and get your booster. Wear an N95 or KN95 mask when out with people. Avoid large indoor events and gatherings. Stay home if you’re not feeling well. This will pass, but how bad it gets before it passes is still up in the air. For more on the national picture, see TPM, Mother Jones, and Daily Kos.

Interviews and judicial Q&As through January 7

Putting these in one place for your convenience and mine. I’ll try to do this on a weekly basis so you don’t have to hunt for the previous engagements I’ve had with candidates. It’s going to be pretty much wall-to-wall through the primary period. Next week I’ll be running the Commissioners Court interviews, and the week after that will be the Treasurer and District Clerk interviews. After that will be SD15 and hopefully HD142, and I’m working on CD38 as well. After that, I will probably be reaching out to some statewide candidates.

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

Interviews

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

Judicial Q&As

Judge Abigail Anastasio, 184th Criminal District Court
Lema Barazi, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Scott Dollinger, 189th Civil District Court
Judge Tristan Longino, 245th Family District Court
Judge Hilary Unger, 248th Criminal District Court
Judge Chip Wells, 312th Family District Court
Judge Natalia Oakes, 313th Family District Court>,

Porscha Natasha Brown, County Criminal Court At Law #3

Judge Lucia Bates, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2
Herbert Alexander Sanchez, Justice of the Peace, Precinct 3 Place 2

Third Court of Appeals upholds Harris County mask mandate

Savor the win, for it’s off to SCOTx next.

A state appeals court on Thursday upheld a lower-court injunction that allowed Harris County to impose mask requirements despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning such mandates.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals rejected arguments by Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who claimed state law lets the governor overturn local health mandates imposed to mitigate the spread of a dangerous virus.

Abbott hasn’t budged:Texas parents pleaded for Gov. Abbott to allow mask mandates in schools

“The Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities or officials that contradict his executive orders,” said the opinion, written by Justice Chari Kelly.

The appeals court also said the disaster act does not allow, as Abbott and Paxton argued, the governor to suspend state public health laws that give local leaders the power to impose safety rules during declared emergencies.

“(The disaster act) does not give the governor carte blanche to issue executive orders empowering him to rule the state in any way he wishes during a disaster,” Kelly said in an opinion joined by Chief Justice Darlene Byrne and Justice Gisela Triana. All three justices are Democrats.

[…]

The appeal before the 3rd Court hinged on whether language in the Texas Disaster Act empowered Abbott to ban local rules enacted to protect public health.

Paxton and Abbott argued that the act:

• Designates the governor as “commander in chief” when addressing statewide disasters.

• Says local officials act as the governor’s designated agents during emergencies.

• States that executive orders issued under the act have the “force and effect of law.”

The appeals court, however, said Paxton and Abbott took the act’s provisions out of context.

The disaster law designates the governor as commander in chief of “state agencies, boards and commissions having emergency responsibilities” — not counties, Kelly wrote. In addition, nothing in the law limits the authority of county and local officials to respond to local disasters or public health crises, Kelly said.

“Even a statewide disaster may have distinct and disproportionate impacts in each of the state’s 254 counties and that, as a result, some measures for addressing a disaster in some counties may not be necessary or even appropriate in other counties,” Kelly wrote.

What’s more, she wrote, the disaster act lets the governor suspend “regulatory” laws that pertain to conducting state business. But Abbott sought to suspend a state law that lets local officials set public health rules in emergencies, and that law is not regulatory, the appeals court concluded.

“The Act empowers and recognizes that the Governor may issue statewide disaster declarations and that certain local officials may also issue local disaster declarations,” Kelly wrote.

“Nothing in the Act, however, suggests that these authorities are mutually exclusive,” she added.

As noted, the Third Court upheld a ruling issued in August by a Travis County district court. Note that there’s a second case, involving HISD and some other school districts, that was not part of this appeal. In this case, the three justices made the same points in the opinion that plenty of people, myself included, have been making all along about the Governor’s powers. Those judges are Democrats, and the judges on the Supreme Court are not, so we can’t just expect them to employ such thinking. Maybe they will, you never know, but you sure can’t assume it. For now, at least, the good guys have won. And even if SCOTx reverses this opinion, it’s still the case that Abbott and Paxton, by their own admission, don’t have the power to enforce Abbott’s no-mask mandate. Let’s not forget that.

Sheriff Gonzalez re-nominated for ICE

Take two.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez is still President Joe Biden’s pick to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, even after the Senate failed to confirm him last year.

Biden renominated Gonzalez for the ICE director on Tuesday. His initial nomination, from April, expired earlier this week.

Gonzalez still faces an uphill battle in the Senate, which is evenly split and has been moving through Biden’s nominees at a glacial pace amid Republican opposition. ICE — a particularly polarizing agency — has been without a permanent director for five years.

“He’s likely to face the same result in 2022 that he has in 2021,” said Rice University political science professor Mark Jones. “He’s received quite a bit of flak from the left and the right. The right has attacked him because of his because of his past criticism of ICE, but the left has attacked him because of his support for border security and the rule of law at the border.”

Gonzalez is one of many Biden nominees who Democrats have struggled to get confirmed, reflecting shifting norms in the Senate and the growing difficulty of confirming political appointees in recent years, said Max Stier, CEO of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonpartisan organization that promotes effective government.

See here for the background. With all due respect to Professor Jones, if Gonzalez lacked support from even one Democratic Senator, he’d be toast. There are progressive critics of his, though I’d say that criticism is more about ICE as an agency, but if that had been enough to sway any votes in the Senate, someone else would be getting nominated. As both this story and the previous one note, the main issue here is the extreme slowness in getting presidential nominees approved by the Senate, for a variety of reasons in that profoundly broken institution. Either Leader Schumer is able to get a floor vote for him on the calendar, without negatively affecting any higher priorities, or we face the same situation next year, possibly with a Republican-controlled Senate that will make the matter entirely moot. Good luck.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Abigail Anastasio

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Abigail Anastasio

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

I am Judge Abigail Anastasio, presiding of Judge of the 184 th District Court. I have nearly 20 years of experience in public service as a Judge, teacher,
defender, and prosecutor. You can find out more at JUDGEANASTASIO.COM.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

This court handles all felony prosecutions ranging from Capital Murders to state jail felonies. I have handled thousands of cases during my time on the bench, including charges of capital murder, child abuse, sex abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, weapons offenses, animal cruelty, and various financial crimes.

Felony courts also handle special misdemeanors that deal with official oppression. I handle post conviction writs and some appellate matters. Probation revocations, adjudications, and administrative law are also included within my jurisdiction.

The District Court Judges also handle extensive administrative duties. I am the Chair of both the Docket Management and Justice Technology Committees. I also serve in many capacities including development and staffing of backlog trial courts and developing procedures to aid other judges in running their dockets more efficiently. Under my leadership, the court clearance rates increased significantly to rates higher than those even prior to Hurricane Harvey. I also serve on the Special Projects Committee, Standing Committee, and Bail Bond Committee.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

I have accomplished many things during my time on the bench including the following: efficient court procedures leading to lowest backlog, lowest age of case, one the highest number of jury trials conducted, one of the highest successful probation completion rates, advancement of rehabilitative programs, creation of more courts… among many other things. I have been operating under emergency conditions the entirety of my time on the bench and have still been able to improve the court and successfully hold trials.

Additionally, and as simple as this may sound, the current felony court Judges had one guiding principle coming in: to ensure the law was followed. We have done that.

Many of my accomplishments are tangible. I (more often than not) have the lowest felony docket and backlog. I inherited a docket in the middle of then pack, but I worked hard to improve those numbers and to make things run efficiently despite Harvey and COVID-19.

My efficiency has led to the 184th having the lowest average age of case and one of the courts with the lowest number of individuals detained pretrial and on bond. The 184th also takes less actual number of court settings/appearances to resolve cases than nearly any of the Criminal District Courts.

I have presided over, to date, the most felony trials during the pandemic and have one of the highest number of felony cases tried during my 3 years on the bench. I was one of the first judges in Texas to implement safety procedures and try a felony case during the pandemic.

The key to public safety, overpopulation in jails, and access to justice for victims and the accused alike, is timely disposition (resolution) of cases. And you can do all of this while being fair and balanced. It takes a lot of hours and hard work, but, as I have proven over the past 3 years, it can be done.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

We hope to stay on the same trajectory, disposing of cases timely and getting people their day in court as quickly as possible. I’d like to continue to work with the other Judges to improve the efficiency of our dockets and create new courts. We would also like to focus on creating more therapeutic and rehabilitative programs to those suffering from addiction and for those without support systems. I would like to see a reduction in recidivism, which can only come by providing these services.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because it is essential that good, fair, qualified judges who have proven themselves remain on the bench. Consistency and knowledge of the cases is key. Now that we have experienced judges on the bench, it’s important to keep them there if they are doing a good job. I have extensive experience in my field and have kept the court functioning properly even during the seemingly impossible challenges of Covid. I encourage the voters to compare the experience levels, qualifications, and accomplishments of each candidate. I feel assured that the people will see that I am the right candidate to remain in this position.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I have kept my promises to the electorate and beyond.

Always a champion of the people, I dedicated my life to public service in Harris County early in my career. I have served close to twenty years as Judge, assistant district attorney, teacher, and defender for the indigent. I taught English at Cesar Chavez High School in Southeast Houston for seven years.

I spent most of my childhood overseas, mainly in the Middle East, with much travel through Europe and Northern Africa. This left a lasting appreciation for diverse communities and an affinity for the cultural and demographic wonder of Harris County.

I am a fighter and understand the value and necessity of hard work.

In 2004, I was diagnosed with cancer, specifically Hodgkins Lymphoma. I underwent chemotherapy and radiation, and beat it, going on to become a licensed white-water rafting guide on the Kennebec River in Maine, and eventually completing the Ironman race subsequent to my battle and recovery. I remain cancer free 18 years later.

While working full time, I graduated from the University of Houston, and while working as a teacher in HISD attended night classes part-time to earn my law degree from South Texas College of Law.

After graduating law school and passing the bar exam, I served as an Assistant District Attorney for Harris County, prosecuting thousands of cases at that post. I always held that helping everyone was key: both victims of crime as well as those deserving of a second chance.

With that noble mission in mind, I left the DAs office to work complex defense cases, representing with fervor and integrity the indigent and others who stood accused of crimes. I quickly made a name for myself in my practice, being chosen as a Texas Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2017 and 2018.

Serving from both sides of the aisle, and now on the bench, has given me a unique perspective as both prosecution and defense; attorney and judge. This gives me a paramount ability to be fair, balanced, and impartial when compared to those who have only served on the side prosecuting those who are innocent unless proven guilty.

I have served years on the bench; years representing the accused; and years advocating for those seeking justice.

Collectively, I have tried close to 100 jury trials and handled thousands of cases, including charges of capital murder, child abuse, sex abuse, domestic violence, human trafficking, weapons offenses, animal cruelty, and various financial crimes.

Of all the Criminal District Courts in Harris County, the 184th District Court, under my leadership, has the smallest backlog of cases. The court has one of the shortest dockets of individuals awaiting trial, and one of the shortest lists of people on bond. I consistently have one of the highest case clearance rates of all the Criminal District Courts (as of 12/20/2021) and have maintained the highest case clearance rate in over a decade for the 184th District Court. 

I treat every case individually and effectively and don’t waste your valuable tax dollars. My no-nonsense professionalism and efficient approach to case processing leads to wider access to justice for all, ensuring Harris County communities stay safer.

You, and those you love, can have faith that someone experienced and accountable is working swiftly to administer fair and unbiased justice on your behalf, all the while making sure due process and the rule of law remain.

Another lawsuit filed over Commissioners Court redistricting

What a bunch of crybabies.

A former county commissioner is suing Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, claiming Hidalgo and the county violated state law when they met to approve redistricting maps.

Former Commissioner Steve Radack argues the commissioners violated the Open Meetings Act because they did not make public the map that ultimately was approved within 72 hours of the meeting.

The lawsuit seeks to invalidate the court’s adoption of the new maps.

County Attorney Christian Menefee dismissed the suit as “meritless.” The Open Meetings Act requires governments to post public notices about meetings at least three days before they occur. Courts and attorneys general have said the notices have to be sufficiently specific to let the public know what will be addressed. It does not require them to post supporting documents, although governments sometimes do.

The county posted a timely notice of the meeting and met on Oct. 28 to take up redistricting. The lone item on the agenda said: “Request to receive public input regarding Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting plans, and consider and possibly adopt an order approving a new district/precinct plan for Harris County Commissioners Court, including any amendments thereto.”

This lawsuit was filed on December 31, just a few days after the first lawsuit was dismissed. Funny how this wasn’t an issue before then. This is another Andy Taylor joint, and how sweet it must be for him to get another ride on the ol’ gravy train. But seriously, cry me a river, fellas.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Hilary Unger

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Hilary Unger

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Judge Hilary D. Unger, 248th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Criminal – felony cases.

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

First and foremost, we kept the courthouse open during the continuing renovation and repairs from Hurricane Harvey through the once-in-a-lifetime pandemic. All of the judges went back to the Criminal Justice Center before the renovations were complete and each of us had to share a courtroom. When we finally were able to get back into our courtrooms, we were deep into the pandemic and I came to the courthouse every day, just trying to help keep the system afloat. When we were finally able to start trying cases, we had to contend with both Covid and building related issues. We have had to share jury rooms and we still have to deal with Covid related setbacks; I’ve had to stop two jury trials because of Covid exposure. None of us complained and we all did what we had to do.

Since I’ve been the judge for this court, the number of probationers who have successfully completed probation has doubled; people are no longer going to prison for minor technical violations.

Individuals who come before me, and who are proven to have committed serious and violent crimes, are punished appropriately under the law, and I have meted out very harsh sentences where called for. However, it is my belief that the community is protected, taxpayer costs are reduced, lives are salvaged and the community’s productivity improves when recidivism is diminished. In appropriate situations, I actively engage with social workers, organizations, and community leaders in an effort to find alternatives to incarceration, with an eye towards rehabilitation, and a reduction in recidivism, while emphasizing an increase in community safety. I try to steer these defendants into programs where they can better themselves, and become law abiding and positively contributing members of society.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

I stay very involved with the people whom I have sentenced to probation/deferred adjudication. I will continue those efforts if I am re-elected for a second term. I encourage probationers, and I offer guidance when needed. I also stress to them the importance of education and trade certificates, and I frequently offer incentives to probationers who complete such programs. I believe that my efforts have worked as measured by the fact that the number of people who have successfully completed probationary sentences has doubled in this court since I took the bench.

I also would like to expand my partnership with the various organizations who work with defendants pretrial; these organizations include psychiatric medication providers, substance abuse treatment providers, and counselling providers. I would continue to arrange emergency housing for individuals as well as emergency mental health treatment, when needed. I would continue to
request assistance from the social workers at the Re-Entry program, which is located at the Harris County Sherriff’s Office, in an effort to connect defendants with services. Finally, I would continue to reach out to community organizations and leaders who have offered to help provide support for young adults who appear before me.

5. Why is this race important?

All citizens of the US, the State of Texas and Harris County deserve fair, and equal treatment before the law. We do not want to head backwards, to a climate where abuses in the administration of justice, notably in the manner in which the criminal justice system treated some members of society differently than others, were accepted as the norm in the 248th District Court. We have made great strides in removing some of the inequities, but certain pundits have tried to conflate the nationwide rise in crime with Democratic judges’ insistence on the preservation of due process rights for all; this revival of soft-on-crime rhetoric ultimately serves to perpetuate the lie that the current Democratic judges are weak or bad and that we do not consider the safety of victims, or of society as a whole. These accusations are simply false.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

Since taking the bench in 2019, I have made it a priority to treat everyone who appears before me with respect and to ensure that due process rights are not forfeited for expediency’s sake. Yet, I am always mindful that public safety is of paramount importance.

I have criminal court experience as a DA and a defense attorney in two of America’s largest cities – Houston and New York. As a prosecutor, I prosecuted complex narcotics and conspiracy cases and as a defense attorney I represented clients in both state and federal courts. My experiences have enabled me to critically assess positions taken by both the State and the defense.

Although my primary practice area has been criminal law, the experiences that I’ve had handling CPS cases and civil involuntary commitment hearings have proven extremely useful in giving me perspective into how criminal cases affect families and children.

Through my work with civil involuntary commitment patients in mental health hospitals, I saw the devastating effects of mental illness and also how well medications help. I also learned about the unique challenges facing mental health patients. Given that the Harris County jail is the largest mental health provider in Texas, this experience has proven invaluable. Similarly, through my work with CPS parents and children, I saw firsthand, how addiction affects families and also about the long-term effects of trauma on the childhood brain.

All of these experiences have provided me with significant insights and extensive experience that my opponent does not have. These insights in turn allow me to better understand the needs and hurdles of those who appear before me as defendants as well as the particular circumstances, feelings, pain and loss of crime victims.

Erica Davis announces herself

Her timing is interesting.

Erica Davis

Former Precinct 1 Constable’s Office Chief of Staff Erica Davis announced her run for Harris County Judge on Wednesday, joining 11 other challengers in the race to unseat Lina Hidalgo.

Davis has worked as the Trustee for the Harris County Department of Education and comes from a family of educators. She has also served in the Precinct 1 Constable’s Office for more than a decade and grew up in Houston’s Sunnyside neighborhood.

“My work experience coupled with my education has prepared me to hold leaders accountable and implement policies that mirror the diverse county we serve,” Davis said in a statement announcing her run.

Davis is one of several women who reported she was sexually assaulted at a Houston-area Massage Heights location in 2019. Her lawsuit helped spark an investigation of the national chain and landed her assaulter — who also was charged in an assault on an undercover Precinct 1  officer during a sting — in jail.

That undercover officer and Davis later both sued the establishment for negligence. Davis agreed to a monetary settlement in the case.

I did not know that about Erica Davis. Respect to her for her courage and persistence.

I am curious about the seemingly slow pace of her campaign. She filed for Harris County Judge on December 13, which is now four weeks ago, but her impending candidacy was teasted on Twitter a week before that. As far as I can tell, this is her first official communication as a candidate for this office. The primary campaign season is pretty short to begin with, and she’s just now introducing herself to an audience that knows the incumbent very well. Her campaign webpage is still very bare-bones, with almost nothing other than a brief biography – the In the Community and “Erica in the News” sections have nothing. She does now have a campaign Facebook page, which is not linked on her campaign webpage and which appears to be her Facebook page from her 2020 campaign for HCDE renamed for this purpose – the last update is from November 4, 2020, which is to say Election Day.

Nowhere in the press release, the webpage, or the Facebook page is there any stated reason for why she is running. She talks about her life and experience, which would be fine if she were just now gearing up to take on a Republican incumbent in November, but sure seems like an omission in this context given that she’s asking Democratic voters to vote out someone who I daresay is quite popular and is frequently talked up as a future statewide candidate. I’m sure there are people who will vote for Erica Davis because they know her, and there are some people (yes, even Democrats) who will vote for her because they don’t like Judge Hidalgo, but there’s no way that’s enough to get her to a runoff, much less to fifty percent. The question is not “would Erica Davis make for a good County Judge”, it’s “would Erica Davis make for a better County Judge than Lina Hidalgo”, and so far Erica Davis has not attempted to answer that question. I have no idea what she’s waiting for.

(Yes, I know, I could try to schedule an interview with her and ask her that myself. I’m still trying to schedule an interview with Judge Hidalgo, and I’m not interested in talking to anyone else in that race until and unless I’m able to do that. Plus, not to put too fine a point on it, this sure seems like something she should be leading with. It shouldn’t be up to me, or anyone else, to have to get that information out of her.)

One more thing: The Chron persists in saying that there are three Democrats running against Judge Hidalgo when we all know there are five. I double-checked the SOS Qualified Candidates page just to make sure that Maria Garcia and Kevin Howard were still there and hadn’t been disqualified or something, but there they are. I mean, neither of these candidates will make any impression on the race, but they are there on the ballot and I have no idea why the Chronicle seems to be unable to accurately report that.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Lucia Bates

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Lucia Bates

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

I am the Presiding Judge of Justice of the Peace Precinct 3 Place 2. My court is located in Baytown. I was elected November 2018.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

I preside over a variety of cases including:

Small Claims and Debt Claims up to $20,000
Evictions
Only Court in Harris County handling the Driver’s License suspension dockets
Mental Health Docket
Magistration
Truancy
Jury Trials for Criminal Citations

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

o Cleared a backlog of 20,000 cases in 3 months
o Conducted Eviction Workshops with Houston Apartment Association to educate the Landlords and Tenants on procedures.
o Hosted Virtual Truancy Workshops via zoom due to the Pandemic. Facilitated by the Assistant. District Attorney, there were over 147 Triad officers in attendance.
o Streamlined court access to the public.
o Elected on the Harris County Juvenile Probate Board- Just re-appointed. (15 students graduated in the summer).
o Goose Creek CISD Communications Academy Advisory Board
o Partnered with Exxon Mobile to facilitate a Teen Summit to be held in Spring, 2022
o Established a very good relationship with the various School Districts, helping with youth initiatives.

Actively involved in the Precinct 3 Community

✓ Board Trustee for HCA Hospital -Southeast-just re-elected for 3 more years
✓ Galena Park ISD Community Leadership Council
✓ Membership Board Committee of the North Shore Rotary
✓ Nominating Board Committee of the North Channel Chamber of Commerce (Former Board Chairman)
✓ Top Ladies of Distinction-Baytown Chapter
✓ Vice President- Home Owners Association
✓ Collaborated on 6 Food Drives throughout the Community including 3 at the Courthouse Parking lot.
✓ Sponsored a Bicycle giveaway at Christmas
✓ Collaborated with the City of Baytown on many initiatives
✓ National Junior Honor Society Induction
✓ Member of Crosby/Huffman, Baytown and Highlands Chamber of Commerce.

Spoke to various groups:

▪ North Shore’s Annual Certification Day
▪ Friends of Crosby Library
▪ Baytown Lions Club
▪ Black History Program at Lee College
▪ Kiwanis Club
▪ Young Professional Council-Baytown Chamber of Commerce
▪ Baytown Optimist Club
▪ Northshore Senior Networking meeting.
▪ Highlands Elementary (guest speaker)
▪ Houston Chronicle “Lunch & Learn Guest” Celebrating Women’s History month.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

Continue to provide the best solutions to everyone who enters the Courtroom.
Continue to be fair in my rulings.
Complete the backlog of Jury trials, put on hold during the pandemic.
Continue to Educate myself by attending all classes pertinent to the Justice of the Peace Court.
Continue the positive relationship with my constituents and keep the Court “The People’s Court”.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because I am committed to this job and community. I still have initiatives to complete. The Community has trusted my judgement and fairness and I would love to continue to be the positive change agent at “The People’s Court”.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I am the only candidate in this race that has experience. I am successfully running an efficient court. In my 1st term, I have cleared over 20,000 backlog cases, made the court accessible to all citizens and I work hard every day to better the lives of those most in need.

I would like to continue advocating, leading and finding solutions for my community, whether it be Truancy, Evictions, Food distributions or educating the public on the numerous legislative changes.

Get ready for more construction in 2022

Happy New Year! Here are the places you’ll want to avoid driving in 2022.

Flush with green, Houston area transportation officials have a whiteboard full of highway and transit projects poised to start in 2022, but rolling out all that blacktop will mean drivers see many more orange cones and construction zones, leaving some feeling blue.

Texas Department of Transportation construction spending is expected to top $2.2 billion for the Houston region for fiscal 2022, which began Sept. 1, nearly double the 2021 total. The projects that money pays for are spread across the region, said James Koch, director of transportation planning and development for TxDOT in Houston, during a discussion with local transportation officials.

“(2022) is going to be a very big year for our region, for the contractors and whatnot,” Koch told members of the Houston-Galveston Council’s transportation advisory committee on Dec. 9. “You will see a lot of barrels and cones out.”

Among the major projects set to break ground in the year are new bridges across Texas 288 to remove many at-grade crossings from the highway and transition more of it to a freeway-like form. Across five different projects, TxDOT has teed up $135.6 million worth of work on overpasses in Brazoria County, along with a $70.9 million planned widening of Texas 36.

[…]

Upcoming construction, meanwhile, does not reflect work spurred by the recently approved federal infrastructure bill. The federal framework, which continues many of the same methods for funding highways and transit, is likely to jump-start a litany of other projects, officials said. Tapping those federal dollars, however, will mean as drivers see more construction zones, local and state officials — along with the engineering and planning firms they hire — will be preparing for even more work.

Much of that work is already planned for Metro, which received voter approval for $7.5 billion in new projects and upgrades in 2019, weeks before COVID changed commuting patterns worldwide. Since, Metro officials have prepped for many of the projects to proceed, with some of the earliest work likely unveiled this year.

Metro is likely to choose a preferred route and potential station locations for a planned busway along Interstate 10 in the next two or three months, allowing transit officials to get in line for federal transit money by mid-2022 as they continue design.

The project is the linchpin in Metro’s expansion of rapid transit from downtown west into Uptown, which is crucial to park-and-ride service in western and northwestern parts of Harris County, officials said.

“The benefits extend beyond those seven miles,” said Amma Cobbinah, a senior transit planner with Metro overseeing the project, noting how the lanes connect downtown to the Northwest Transit Center at I-10 and Loop 610, a major stop for park and buses.

Now past the transit center, those commuter routes crawl along I-10 with car and truck traffic to and from downtown, making them far less efficient and timely.

Provided the project stays on pace, officials said they hope to begin construction by late 2023 and start service in 2027.

Work on the so-called Inner Katy is just one of two major bus rapid transit projects Metro is moving forward on in 2022. Transit officials in December unveiled an online open house outlining plans for the University Corridor project, a 25-mile BRT line planned from the Tidwell Transit Center north of Kashmere Gardens, south through Fifth Ward and the Eastside. The line then turns west through Third Ward and Midtown and then through Greenway Plaza and south of Uptown where it connects to the Silver Line that runs along Post Oak.

Eventually, the University Corridor will connect to the Westchase Park and Ride near Westpark and Beltway 8.

And all this also includes the ongoing projects like the 610/59 interchange and I-10 widening out west around Brookshire, not to mention some non-freeway zones. I’m excited about the two BRT projects, both of which will be with us for a couple of years. If we can live through it all, the end results should be well worth it. Drive safe, y’all.

Judicial Q&A: Glenda Duru

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Glenda Duru

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

My name is Glenda Duru. I was born and raised in Houston, Texas and am a proud Houstonian. I am honored to run for judgeship for the 313th Juvenile District Court of Harris County Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The 313th Juvenile District Court hears both criminal (juvenile delinquency) and civil (family child protection) cases.

3. Why are you running for this bench?

I am running for this bench because I have a passion for children, youth, and families. I believe that Harris County continues to need representation in the judiciary, particularly when it comes to the juvenile courts. I believe that there is a need for change in the 313th District Court. The change I seek to bring will balance fairness, impartiality, and protection of the community.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I bring a wealth of professional experience in social work, child welfare, and the law that will serve me well in this position. I am a graduate of the University of Houston’s Masters of Social Work program as well as a graduate of Thurgood Marshall Law School. Earning my degrees from both of these outstanding Houston institutions prepared me for both theoretical and practical application of the practice of youth and family services, social work, and the law. For more than 10 years I have worked on the ground to support thriving families through social work and legal advocacy. For the last 4 years I have been particularly focused on child welfare law. As an experienced trial attorney, with over 250 trials, I have developed an expertise in advocating on behalf of a child or family, in service of the best interest of my client. In gaining this practical experience, I now impart this knowledge onto students as a trial advocacy professor at Thurgood Law School. I continue to be an avid learner of the law and committed to upholding the principles that govern our courts – to use the letter and spirit of the law for the greater good.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important to me because I have civilly prosecuted in 313th since 2018, and in my years in the court I have witnessed many things that have led me to see a need for change. There is a need to remove bias and prejudice that can so easily remove objectivity from the court’s ruling. Too often I have witnessed how the current court’s judgement has left the permanency of children in limbo. The court must be fair and make judgements based on the law. Too often I see that children have been made to be voiceless despite knowing that they are our future. The court is held to the highest levels of accountability to make sure that both children and families are protected by all means within the law.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I am an advocate who seeks to bring change to the court that will support those who have been made most marginalized. Harris County citizens deserve a judge that is familiar with and a representation of the community; one who is fair, objective, and experienced. I will bring my years of experience to the bench to make impartial judgements that put the best interest of the children, youth, and families in my court first. Additionally, my work will not only be limited to the court room. I will continue to serve the community on the frontlines of education, community engagement and child protection. A vote for me, is a vote for the right Candidate.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Tristan Longino

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates. Much more information about Democratic primary candidates, including links to the interviews and judicial Q&As, can be found on Erik Manning’s spreadsheet.

Judge Tristan Longino

1. Who are you and in which court do you preside?

Tristan Harris Longino, 245th District Court.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

Family law (Divorce, Parent-Child Relationship, Protective Orders where court has continuing, exclusive jurisdiction over a child or dominant jurisdiction through a pending divorce).

3. What have been your main accomplishments during your time on this bench?

a. First family court to implement online scheduling (created myself as the county did not yet have any pilot program available) to allow litigants and counsel to conveniently pick settings that worked with their schedules and free up staff time (otherwise spent on the phone and e-mail responding to scheduling requests) for other responsibilities to increase court efficiency.

b. Eliminated trial dockets which were an inefficient use of court’s resources and litigants’ money and attorneys’ time (sitting through large dockets being called to hear other’s announcements without knowing if the court could have time to reach you if you were ready for trial).

c. Implemented a number of policies, such as prove-up of agreed divorces/orders by affidavit or unsworn declaration without the need to appear in person (saved litigants time & money), creating a submission docket where non-evidentiary matters were required set by submission (increasing court availability for evidentiary hearings like temporary orders and trial settings), etc. A number of these policies were adopted by the other family courts at the outset of the pandemic as they allowed cases to progress while the family bar/litigants/the courts ibecame familiar with Zoom for remote hearings.

d. Second highest rated presiding judge on 2021 evaluation by our local bar association (https://www.hba.org/docDownload/1871299).

e. Highest clearance rate in 2021 and second lowest docket size in family division (excluding the 507th as that is a more recently created court with a smaller docket as a consequence of having fewer post-judgment cases) (https://www.justex.net/dashboard/Family).

f. Have continued to conduct many proceedings by Zoom due to efficiencies created by medium (reduced travel time means less time off work and elimination of unproductive billing time for travel, increased participation in the process by parents navigating protective service cases, etc.) combined with increased safety for participants involved during multiple waves of ongoing pandemic while continuing to ensure the court remains open to the public by streaming proceedings.

g. Coordinated with two other family courts in the county (who also implemented online scheduling) to adopt joint policies to try and move toward simplifying practice by attorneys in Harris County by having shared policies between those three courts.

4. What do you hope to accomplish in your courtroom going forward?

Continue to look for opportunities to innovate to increase efficiency and access to the court to ensure litigants can have their disputes disposed of timely.

5. Why is this race important?

To quote my predecessor, the Hon. Roy Moore, from our endorsement interview with the Houston Chronicle in 2018, family courts have “power over property, people, and liberty.” I think anyone would agree it’s important to have a jurist on the bench who knows the law, will apply it fairly to the facts, and work diligently to get matters heard and out of litigation so litigants are not kept hostage in an expensive and emotionally toxic process longer than necessary.

6. Why should people vote for you in March?

I’m experienced (I’m a board certified family lawyer and will have four years on the bench) and have brought innovation to the courts that have increased efficiency while reducing barriers to access. Read more about what I’ve done and why I’m running again at www.longinoforjudge.com.

Fraudit fizzling

Who could have ever predicted this would be a big ol’ nothingburger?

The Texas secretary of state’s office has released the first batch of results from its review into the 2020 general election, finding few issues despite repeated, unsubstantiated claims by GOP leaders casting doubts on the integrity of the electoral system.

The first phase of the review, released New Year’s Eve, highlighted election data from four counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant and Collin — that showed few discrepancies between electronic and hand counts of ballots in a sample of voting precincts. Those partial manual counts made up a significant portion of the results produced by the secretary of state, which largely focused on routine voter roll maintenance and post-election processes that were already in place before the state launched what it has labeled as a “full forensic audit.”

On Friday, Samuel Taylor, a spokesperson with the secretary of state’s office, said the review was needed “to provide clarity on what issues need to be resolved for the next elections.”

But Remi Garza, president of the Texas Association of Election Administrators, said there wasn’t anything in the review’s first set of results that raised any alarms for him.

“There doesn’t seem to be anything too far out of the ordinary with respect to the information that’s provided,” said Garza, who serves as the election administrator in Cameron County. “… I hope nobody draws any strong conclusions one way or the other with respect to the information that’s been provided. I think it’s just very straightforward, very factual and will ultimately play a part in the final conclusions that are drawn once the second phase is completed.”

According to the state’s review of the counties’ partial manual counts, which they are already required to conduct under state law, there were few differences between electronic and manual ballot tallies — and counties were able to justify those inconsistencies.

See here for the previous update. Boy, nothing says “we want people to see this news” like putting out a press release on the Friday afternoon of a holiday weekend. In each case cited here, there was a literal handful of vote count differences, and the reason each of the tiny discrepancies was already known. And this is in four counties that totaled over four million ballots cast in 2020. It’s hard to imagine a cleaner or clearer result.

The state’s progress report for phase one of its audit also included data related to regular maintenance of the state’s massive list of registered voters — it surpassed 16.9 million in November 2020 — that goes beyond its four-county review. But some of the figures highlighted by the state either appear to be faulty or remain unverified.

For example, the secretary of state’s office noted it had sent counties a list of 11,737 records of registered voters it deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” But the Tribune previously reported that scores of citizens, including many who registered to vote at their naturalization ceremonies, were marked for review.

Although it has yet to finish investigating the records, the state also included an unverified figure of 509 voter records — about 0.0045% of the 11.3 million votes cast in November 2020 — in which a voter may have cast a vote in Texas and another state or jurisdiction. The state said the work of reviewing those records to eliminate those that were “erroneously matched” because of data issues wouldn’t be completed until January.

The state also highlighted the investigation of 67 votes — about 0.0006% of the votes cast in the 2020 general election — cast by “potentially deceased voters.” This review also has not been completed.

In its report, the secretary of state emphasized that the removal of ineligible or deceased voters from the voter rolls “in and of itself does not indicate that any illegal votes were cast.”

What they almost always find in the latter case is that the voter died after their vote had been cast. In a state with millions of people, that sort of thing happens. I would expect that in most of the former cases, closer inspection shows that the votes in question were actually cast by different people. Accurate name-matching is a tricky business. As for the “non-citizen voter purges” the state regularly tries and fails to do with any accuracy, well, just keep that in mind whenever the state of Texas or any of its officials make claims about voting irregularities. The motivation to find bad things blinds them to such a degree that any bad things they find are inherently tainted by the nature of their search. Only by removing that motivation, and thus enforcing a careful and deliberate process, can any claims be considered credible.

Still no Metro redistricting

Check again in 2031.

Growth in western Harris County outside Houston’s boundaries was not enough to tip Metro’s board to 11 members during the 2020 Census, transit officials said

“It didn’t occur, so we have the same board composition,” said Carrin Patman, chair of the Metropolitan Transit Authority board.

Metro’s board seats are set by state law. Houston appoints five members to the board no matter the size of the board. As the area outside Houston grows, members are added. Currently, Harris County appoints two members, and the 14 smaller cities that are part of Metro appoint two members.

[…]

When 75 percent of the county population not covered by Houston is in Metro’s coverage area, then the county is entitled to another seat on the transit agency board. Also at that time, the rules shift from Houston’s mayor appointing the chairperson, to the ten-member board — five by the city, three county appointees and the two smaller city designees — picking an 11th member to act as chair.

Using 2020 Census population data, transit agency staff and consultants concluded 2.4 million people live outside Houston in Harris County, with 1.6 million of those within the Metro service area.

The story pegs that at 66.3% for the ratio, so assume there’s some rounding in the total population numbers given. I was pretty sure that I had blogged about this topic before, and sure enough, I did. If anything, the “portion of non-Houston Harris County that is within Metro’s service area” has declined at bit since 2011; at best, it stayed about the same as before. Harris County is growing faster than the city of Houston, but apparently more of that growth is in the non-Metro parts of the county.

I noted back in 2019 that Harris County provides some transit services for the non-Metro parts of the county. This is a subject I feel like I want to know more about, and one that I feel deserves more attention. I realize that right now is not a great time for any transit agency, but we will eventually get past that. To me, all of Harris County should be part of Metro’s service area, including the cities like Pasadena that have not wanted to be included in the past. Indeed, and I have mentioned this before, the longer term goal should be to expand Metro out into Fort Bend and Montgomery and other places where there’s a need, or failing that to ensure better integration between the differing transit agencies and their services. Given the number of governments that would need to be involved, including the Legislature if we want to change what Metro covers, that’s a huge and unwieldy task. All I’m saying here is that the greater region would be much better served with more comprehensive access to transit. Whatever the best way is to get there, let’s start moving in that direction.