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Harris County Attorney

SCOTx allows provisional votes to be counted

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that Harris County can include about 2,100 ballots cast during an extra hour of Election Day voting when officials certify the midterm results. But the state’s highest civil court also ordered Harris County to determine whether those late-cast ballots would affect the outcome of any races — and kept alive Attorney General Ken Paxton’s challenge to counting them.

It’s a win, at least temporarily, for Harris County officials in a fight against Paxton’s attempt to discard thousands of midterm ballots as election results are set to be certified Tuesday.

In an interview Tuesday, Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee said that about 2,100 provisional ballots cast after 7 p.m. Election Day should be counted. Those ballots were cast after a district court judge ordered Harris County polling places to remain open an extra hour because many locations had opened late that morning.

“The votes that were cast during that time period pursuant to a court order are still perfectly legal. And there’s nothing in the law that prohibits them from being counted,” Menefee said. “So our perspective is that those provisional ballots are no different than any other provisional ballots — they are to be counted.”

Harris County officials argued as much in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday. That came one day after Paxton petitioned the Supreme Court to toss the late-cast ballots.

[…]

In at least one race, the provisional ballots could impact the outcome. After provisional and mail-in ballots were counted, the incumbent for Harris County’s 180th Criminal State District Court, DaSean Jones, went from trailing Republican Tami Pierce to leading by less than 500 votes, the Houston Chronicle reported.

See here for the background and here for the court’s order. It’s just one page long, and the gist of it is this:

In this mandamus proceeding, which challenges Harris County election officials’ processing of the “later cast votes,” we grant the following temporary relief under Rule of Appellate Procedure 52.10(b):

  • Respondents are directed to conduct the canvass of the November 2022 election as required by the Election Code.
  • As part of the canvass, respondents are ordered to separately identify in the vote tabulations the number of “later cast votes” for each candidate in each race and for or against each proposition, so that candidates, the parties, and this Court may ascertain whether the “later cast votes” would be outcome-determinative and so that the parties can assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.
  • Respondents are ordered to provide the Court with a copy of the canvass results, including the separately tabulated “later cast votes,” as soon as they are available.

The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.

I presume that last line is there in the event the provisional ballots have an effect on the 180th Criminal District Court race, in which event (again, I presume) the merits of the arguments will have to be addressed. Lawyers, please feel free to correct me as needed. The only other race that is close enough to be even theoretically affected by the provisional ballots is the County Criminal Court #3 race, where Porsha Brown trails by the even smaller margin of 267 votes. However, given that the provisional votes cast on Election Day favored Democrats, it’s even less likely for that race to be affected, and it would be impossible for both of them to be in a position to change.

I maintain as I said yesterday that it is highly unlikely that the 180th Court will be affected. If you throw out all of the Election Day provisional ballots, DaSean Jones still leads by 89 votes. There are apparently 2,100 provisional Election Day ballots in question, out of 2,555 total E-Day provisionals and 2,420 that included a vote in this race. The odds that Jones could lose the entire 360 vote net he got from the E-Day provisionals plus another 90 votes in this subset of the total ballots just strike me as extremely remote. I wish the stories that have been published about this would go into more detail about this as I have done – yes, I know, math is hard, but you could at least use “highly unlikely” language to offer some context. By the time this runs in the morning we’ll know what the official canvass says, and from there we’ll see if an election challenge will follow.

The Chron story, from a bit later in the day, has more details.

While the provisional ballots are included in the official count certified by Commissioners Court, the Supreme Court also is ordering the county to include in the final canvassed results a separate report that details the votes of the “later cast votes for each candidate in each race.” That way, candidates can determine whether this group of ballots would change the outcome of their race and “assess the extent to which further litigation is warranted.”

Given that Harris County voters cast more than 1.1 million ballots overall, the 2,000 provisional ballots have little chance of changing most election outcomes. However, a handful of candidates in tight races may consider legal challenges over election results.

“At this point, we do not anticipate that it impacts the outcome of any races,” Harris County First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne said. “Of course the [Texas Supreme Court] proceedings remain pending and the court could rule on something. And of course there can always be election contests. Many of those races were close, and it wouldn’t surprise us to see candidates filing election contests.”

[…]

On Election Night, the Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and ACLU of Texas obtained a court order from a judge requiring all Harris County polling locations to extend voting hours until 8 p.m. after the groups argued in a lawsuit that late openings at some polling locations prevented some residents from voting.

Voters who were in line by 7 p.m. were able to vote normally, while those who arrived between 7 and 8 p.m. were allowed to cast provisional ballots.

That evening, in quick succession, Paxton’s office filed its writ of mandamus asking the Texas Supreme Court to vacate or reverse the court order, and the Supreme Court responded by staying that order, saying votes cast after 7 p.m. “should be segregated,” without specifying whether they must be excluded from the final count.

Because the proceedings are still ongoing, it is too soon to know whether the ability to extend voting hours in the future could be impacted.

“The court hasn’t specified whether or not that’s legal,” Fombonne said. “The proceedings are pending. There may be an opinion in the future that addresses that question.”

Hani Mirza, legal director of the Texas Civil Rights Project’s voting rights program, was part of the team that sought the court order extending voting hours this year. The group also filed a lawsuit in 2018 obtaining a similar court order in Harris County. Mirza said in the case four years ago, Paxton’s office did not ask the Texas Supreme Court to intervene.

Nor did Paxton’s office intervene this year when voting hours were also extended by one hour in Bell County because of early morning glitches with check-in systems. The Bell County attorney confirmed last week that a court order there had not been challenged by the Attorney General’s Office or another party.

“It doesn’t make any sense outside of, obviously, cynical partisanship and these targeted actions against Harris County, the most diverse county in the state” Mirza said.

That sort of addresses my question above about the last line in the SCOTx order. We’ll just have to keep an eye on that. The election has been certified by Commissioners Court, which if nothing else avoids the drama of any further delays. As to who might file a contest, again we’ll have to see. Seems like a lot of fuss for something that is unlikely to go anywhere, but who knows.

Paxton sues to prevent some provisional votes from being counted

On brand. Always, always on brand.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s office is attempting a last-minute intervention to toss out 2,000 provisional ballots before a Harris County Commissioners Court meeting Tuesday to certify the November election.

The ballots in question were cast during a one-hour period on Nov. 8.

“Although the ballots were processed, Harris County now intends to include them in the final vote canvass,” Christopher Hilton, chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division said Monday. “We have never agreed that these ballots can be part of the final election results, and this afternoon we’re going to ask that the Texas Supreme Court rule that these late-cast votes should be excluded as Texas law requires.”

The petition was filed Monday afternoon. Hilton declined to comment on why the office did not ask for the ruling sooner.

“A court of law ordered Harris County to keep the polls to open for an additional hour on Election Day and people across our county cast their ballots during that time,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “My office is going to do everything we can to protect every single vote that was cast. Republican, Democrat, or Independent — no eligible voter should have their ballot thrown out because the Attorney General can’t accept the results of Harris County elections.”

[…]

According to emails shared with Chronicle, parties including the Texas Attorney General’s office, Harris County Attorney’s office, Texas Civil Rights Project, Harris County Republican Party and Harris County Democratic Party all signed off an agreement on Nov. 11 for processing the provisional ballots.

First Assistant County Attorney Jonathan Fombonne wrote the Harris County Attorney’s office was approving the agreement “based on the understanding that the Texas Supreme Court’s order does not prohibit the tabulating of those votes as long as the ballots themselves remain segregated.”

Kimberly Gdula, deputy chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division, signed off on the agreement in an email: “The State is good with this.”

However, Sunday evening, two days before the commissioner’s court meeting to certify the election results, Hilton, the chief of the Attorney General’s office general litigation division, sent an email to the parties questioning the legal basis for including the provisional ballots cast after 7 p,m. in the final count and seeking clarification “so that the parties can pursue any legal remedies, if necessary.”

In a statement Monday, Harris County Attorney’s office spokesperson Roxanne Werner said: “Representatives from the Attorney General’s office and the Harris County Republican Party asked for the language describing that process to be removed from the agreed order, leaving Harris County to process and count the late ballots as they would other provisional ballots while ensuring they were kept segregated. All parties were put on notice that the votes would be counted.”

“This 11th-hour ask to throw those votes away should not be tolerated, especially considering the State rejected the County’s offer to hold off on counting these votes while it sought clarification from the Supreme Court,” Werner added.

See here and here for some background about the litigation that allowed polling locations to remain open until 8 PM. As the story notes, Bell County had similar issues with some polling locations and also got a court order allowing locations to remain open until 8 PM, which the AG’s office has not opposed. The main takeaway here is that not only can you not trust anything Paxton says, you also can’t trust anything his office says, even if they sign their names to it. No wonder he’s having a hard time retaining staff.

As a reminder, and as you can see from the report released by the Elections Office on the 18th, DaSean Jones netted 360 votes from the provisional ballots cast on Election Day. However, he is leading by 449 votes, so if you threw out all of the E-Day provisionals, he would still be ahead by 89 votes in his race. He had already overcome the 165-vote deficit he had in earlier reports thanks to the counting of cured mail ballots, which had gained him 259 votes.

It’s actually not clear from the story how many ballots we’re talking about. The story refers to “2,000 provisional ballots”. I can’t tell if this is just using a round number because exact figures are confusing or if this is the exact figure. There were 2,555 provisional ballots cast on Election Day, of which 2,420 included a vote in the DaSean Jones – Tami Pierce race. I guess it’s theoretically possible that of the provisional E-Day ballots that were specifically cast by people who got in line after 7 PM (because if you were already in line you were always allowed to vote), Jones had a net advantage of at least 450 over Pierce. To say the least, that would be an extraordinary circumstance. (*)

I point this out to say that barring something truly weird, Paxton’s bad faith filing will not – can not – have any effect on any race. That doesn’t change the fact that his filing is trash and should be rejected by SCOTx on the grounds that these people deserve to have their votes counted. The remedy for having to vote late because of voting location problems is to extend voting hours to accommodate those that were affected. Just like what happened in Bell County (won by Greg Abbott 59.04% to 39.52%, in case you were curious), which the AG has accepted as fact. I for one don’t see any difference between the two.

(*) I did search on the Supreme Court webpage for Paxton’s mandamus filing, which might have been more specific and thus answered my questions. Looking on the Electronic Filings search, I think this case is number 22-1044. However, the hyperlink for that case didn’t work when I tried it, and searching for the case via that number returned no results. If you can do better than I did, or if the webpage eventually fixes itself, let me know.

UPDATE: The Trib story also references “2,000 ballots”, which does not help clear up my confusion. They also refer to the overall total of about 4,000 provisional ballots – the actual overall total is 4,333, of which 1,778 were cast early and are clearly not at issue. So, until I hear otherwise, it is my contention that these provisional ballots are not enough to alter any race’s result, and also that this doesn’t matter because all of the ballots should be counted. We’ll see what the Court says.

At least one local voter purge effort has been thwarted

For now, at least. Like flies to garbage, though, you know they’ll be back for more.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s Office received a flood of affidavits this summer challenging the eligibility of thousands of registered voters throughout the county, accusing them of not living at the addresses listed on registration records.

None of the affidavits led to county elections officials removing any names from the voter rolls.

The affidavits are linked to efforts by a conservative grass-roots organization called the Texas Election Network, which earlier this year attempted to get Sunnyside residents to sign forms verifying the identities of registered voters living at their addresses.

Each affidavit alleges that numerous registered voters in Harris County “do not reside at the addresses listed on their voter registration records,” as required by state election law. Upon receiving a sworn statement challenging a voter’s residence, election officials must send a “Notice of Address Confirmation” to the voter in question.

The challenges were first reported by The New York Times, which found the affidavits disputed the eligibility of more than 6,000 voters.

In all, the Elections Administrator’s Office received 115 affidavits, according to Leah Shah, a spokesperson for the elections office.

Of those, Shah said, 66 were rejected because they “did not meet statutory requirements and contained incomplete information.”

Another 49 challenges came in after Aug. 10, the 90th day before the election. The National Voter Registration Act of 1993, known as the “motor voter act,” bars election officials from performing most voter roll maintenance activities within 90 days of a federal election. The restriction applies to any program intended to “systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official list of eligible voters,” including “general mailings and door to door canvasses,” according to the Justice Department.

Each of the forms submitted by various Harris County residents cited voter registration data retrieved by the Texas Election Network, along with the residents’ own canvassing efforts.

“I have personally been told by persons actually residing at these addresses that the challenged voter does not reside at that address and is not only temporarily absent from that address with an intent to return,” the affidavits read. “I am requesting that the Harris County Elections Administrator take the actions required by the Texas Election Code.”

Shah said the office “will work in coordination with the county attorney’s office to review and determine the validity of all challenges on a case-by-case basis” after the midterm election.

When the Texas Election Network’s canvassing efforts in Sunnyside came to light in early July, County Attorney Christian Menefee’s office said it was “investigating this issue and exploring legal options to protect residents and prevent this from happening again.”

Asked about the status of the investigation this week, county attorney spokesperson Roxanne Werner said, “Although we have not found any further activity by this group, we are continuing to monitor the situation and will take action if appropriate. We won’t allow any group to engage in illegal conduct to try and remove registered voters off the rolls.”

See here (scroll down) for the background. I do hope the County Attorney’s Office keeps an eye on this activity, because we know it’s ill-intentioned bullshit and it deserves to be closely scrutinized. Don’t ever give them an inch.

Republican Commissioners abscond again

Cowards.

Republicans Tom Ramsey of Precinct 3 and Jack Cagle of Precinct 4 skipped Tuesday’s Commissioners Court meeting as part of an ongoing battle of political wills that could extend until the deadline for approving a tax rate passes at the end of October.

The decision prompted the three Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court to go into an executive session to discuss with the county attorney’s office whether they have legal options to compel the two missing commissioners to attend. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had little to report after the session but said the county attorney’s office is researching options.

The court will consider the tax rate again at its next meeting on Oct. 11, potentially forcing the two Republican commissioners to make a similar decision next month if they have not reached a compromise by then.

Hidalgo opened the meeting alternately lambasting Ramsey and Cagle’s absence and lamenting the potential impacts of the county’s inability to approve its proposed tax rate.

“Our hospital system will operate at a $45 million deficit,” Hidalgo said. “A cadet class will be at risk.”

State law requires four members of the court be present to set the property tax rate.

See here and here for the background. There’s apparently some talk of a compromise, which would need to happen soon, but I’ll believe it when I see it. Giving this much power to a governing minority is the problem here. I don’t know what legal options the majority has, but I do know that the Speaker of the House has the authority to call upon the Texas Rangers to round up legislative quorum-busters, which is why they always flee the state. Maybe Judge Hidalgo can call on the Sheriff to pick up the wayward Commissioners and haul them into the meeting room so that the legal requirement of at least four members being present can be met? I suppose if this happens the next thing we’ll hear about is Angela Paxton driving them away, probably as they hunch down in the back seat of her SUV, for the safety of the suburbs. Just for the comedy value, I’d like to see this scenario play out. I won’t hold my breath for it.

Paxton issues deranged opinion on access to ballots

This is utterly chaotic. And completely out of the blue.

Best mugshot ever

A legal opinion released by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week will almost certainly throw county elections offices into chaos after November, experts say, exposing election clerks to possible criminal charges and materially reducing the security of every ballot cast in the state.

Federal and state law require that ballots be kept secure for 22 months after an election to allow for recounts and challenges — a time frame Texas counties have had set in place for decades. Paxton’s opinion, which doesn’t stem from any change to state law, theoretically permits anyone — an aggrieved voter, activist or out-of-state entity — to request access to ballots as soon as the day after they are counted. Such requests have been used by activists all over the country as a way to “audit” election results.

The opinion from Paxton doesn’t carry the force of law, but experts say it will almost certainly serve as the basis for a lawsuit by right-wing activists. The opinion has already impacted elections administrators across the state, who told Votebeat that they’ve seen an onslaught of requests since Paxton released it.

“[Paxton’s office wants] to throw a monkey wrench into the operations of vote counting, especially if they think they might lose, and Paxton is in a close race as far as I can tell,” said Linda Eads, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law and a former deputy attorney general for litigation for the state of Texas. She said she was “shocked” by the opinion.

[…]

Paxton’s office sought input from the secretary of state’s office prior to issuing the decision, which was requested by state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans. In no uncertain terms, the secretary of state’s office  — which is run by a Republican appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott — recommended keeping the current waiting period.

“The voted ballots are the core of the election process and the prohibition on disturbing the ballots (except in limited circumstances as permitted by the Election Code) preserves the integrity of the election itself,” wrote Adam Bitter, general counsel for the office, in a letter obtained by Votebeat through a public records request. “Handling of the voted ballots themselves opens up the possibility of accidental or intentional damage or misplacement that could call into question the election after the fact.”

Paxton’s office did not respond to specific questions about why he disagreed with Bitter’s conclusion, nor did he respond to requests for comment.

For months, election administrators in Texas and across the country have been fielding records requests from activists intent on re-examining every ballot cast in every election since November 2020 — or, in some cases, even earlier. In Tarrant County, volunteers with a conservative group occupied a room in the elections office for weeks this summer, examining 300,000 ballots from the March 2020 primary, which were made available by the county 22 months after the election.

Ballots are kept in secure lock boxes for 60 days, and then transferred to another secure facility for the remainder of the waiting period in order to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1960, a federal law which, in part, requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months. In 2017, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature even amended state law to specify “22 months,” updating state standards to mirror federal requirements.

In the letter to the attorney general’s office, Bitter, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, wrote that an election clerk may effectively have to break state law in order to comply with a request for ballots so soon after an election.

Texas law says that if the ballots’ legal custodian, typically a local election official, “makes unauthorized entry into the secure container containing the voting ballots during the preservation period, or fails to prevent another person from making an unauthorized entry, the custodian has committed a Class A misdemeanor,” Bitter wrote.

Paxton’s opinion, experts say, does not appropriately address the potential criminal exposure.

Matthew Masterson, who previously served as the Trump administration’s top election security official and now is Microsoft’s director of information integrity, said that Paxton’s opinion will make it impossible for election administrators to appropriately ensure that ballots are kept secure. The security controls exist for a good reason, he said, and undermining them has serious implications.

“If you open up the floodgates and give anyone access to the ballots throughout that process, you have broken that chain of custody to the point where you would not be able to prove that this was the ballot a given voter cast,” Masterson said.

The opinion itself provides little guidance as to how long or for what reasons election administrators can block access to such ballots, leaving administrators across the state concerned about their ability to appropriately comply.

“If I read this literally as a layman, I think I’m required to provide ballots the day after an election before the results have even been canvassed,” said Chris Davis, elections director in Williamson County, who said such a release would make it impossible for counties to confidently conduct recounts that would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“I don’t know if the drafters of this opinion have a firm grasp on how ballot security and ballot processing is done at the county level,” he said.

There’s more, go read the whole thing, and add on this tweet thread from story author Jessica Huseman. There’s absolutely no justification for this – state and federal law are clear, and nothing has changed about them. It’s just chaos intended to give a boost to Big Lie enthusiasts, and as the story notes later on, it’s potentially a conflict of interest for Paxton since he himself is on the ballot this year, and everyone agrees it’s likely to be a close race.

County election officials around the state are already reporting getting a bunch of requests, some of which appear to be part of a coordinated effort. I think Harris County has the right response here.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says the county is not releasing the ballots, arguing the opinion Paxton issued in the name of election integrity last week runs afoul of the law.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton is distorting the law to fuel conspiracy theories, encouraging reckless behavior that erodes public trust in our democratic process,” Menefee said in a statement. “The law is clear that these voted ballots are confidential and it’s a crime for anyone to access them unless authorized by law.”

Menefee said Harris County had received more than three dozen requests to inspect ballots since Paxton issued his opinion. The county attorney’s office did not respond to a request for more information about the requests, including who submitted them.

[…]

Federal and state laws requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months after an election, in part to preserve them for recounts or challenges to election results. Menefee said Paxton’s opinion “directly contradicts” a separate opinion his office issued last month, as well as an opinion issued by the AG’s office more than 30 years ago, which both concluded that ballots are confidential for 22 months following an election.

“Our election workers should not have to fear being criminally prosecuted because the attorney general wants to play politics and try to rewrite laws,” Menefee said. “Everyone who has closely read the law agrees the ballots are confidential: the Secretary of State’s Office, counties across the state, and his own office just a month ago. Harris County will continue to follow Texas law, not the Attorney General’s ‘opinion.’”

That’s what I, a non-lawyer who has no responsibilities in these matters, would have done. It is highly likely that a lawsuit will result. No one wants that, but sometimes having the fight is the most straightforward way to resolve the dispute. If that’s what we have to do, then so be it.

New bail bond rule survives again

On to the appeals.

A judge rejected a second attempt by a bail bonding business to put an end to a Harris County rule requiring defendants accused of violent offenses to pay a minimum 10 percent fee to secure their release from jail, officials said Monday.

55th District Court Judge Latosha Payne ruled Aug. 9 against a temporary injunction stemmed from civil litigation lodged in April against the Harris County Bail Bond Board that attempted to prevent the premium policy from taking effect. A judge blocked the initial attempt as well.

All About Bail Bonds owner and plaintiff Sunya Claiborne argued in the lawsuit that the policy jeopardizes her business — calling the minimum fee requirement “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation.” The lawyer for the plaintiff, Kevin Pennell, said he plans this week to appeal the judge’s order.

Without the minimum fee, Claiborne planned to “offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” according to court documents.

The Harris County Attorney’s Office — whose attorneys were unaware of the judge’s ruling until the order was uploaded Monday to the Harris County District Clerk’s Office — defended the Bail Bond Board against the lawsuit. The policy was prompted by a Commissioners Court resolution urging the board members to adopt rules regulating the minimum fee that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release on violent charges.

“People accused of violent crimes should not get any discounts while they await trial,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia, who proposed the fee minimum to county commissioners, said in a statement. “This affects no one accused of the most minor, nonviolent offenses who would be stuck in jail because they aren’t able to pay.”

See here and here for some background. The original hearing was in the 269th Civil Court, and the second hearing was to have been on May 6. I don’t know why the change of court and I don’t know if the second hearing was delayed or if it just took that long for a ruling, but here we are. I thought the “price fixing” argument was weak and as such I’m not surprised at this outcome. I don’t see the appeals being successful, but maybe there’s some technical point of law on which they can get a rehearing. Given the speed of the appellate process, expect it to be a long time before the next update.

EPA to investigate TCEQ over concrete plant permits

Well, this ought to be interesting.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is the subject of an investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency following complaints that the state agency violated civil rights laws in its permitting of concrete batch plants.

The Harris County Attorney and Lone Star Legal Aid, a nonprofit law group, alleged that the state environmental agency discriminated against racial and ethnic minorities and those with limited English proficiency through a revised permitting process to build new concrete batch plants.

Their complaints, filed with the EPA earlier this year, said TCEQ failed to provide information in Spanish and insufficiently protected communities of color who live in areas where concrete facilities are predominantly located.

The concrete plants are subject to permits that aim to limit pollution in the form of particulate matter and crystalline silica — which have been linked to respiratory diseases and cancer — but independent testing of concrete facilities by the complaint’s authors indicate that pollution levels exceed health-based limits.

Last year, TCEQ approved an amendment that included exemptions for emission limitations for concrete batch plants, in response to an application to construct a plant by a Fort Worth concrete company. Area residents had fought the company’s application, which was rejected on the grounds that it didn’t adequately study the impacts of pollutants. TCEQ later passed the amendment and approved the company’s application after what it called a “clerical error.”

The EPA’s civil rights compliance arm announced the investigation last Wednesday. The investigation will focus on whether the adoption of the amendment — and the permitting process — is discriminatory, and whether the state agency failed to seek meaningful public comment.

The Chron adds some more details.

County Attorney Christian Menefee and Lone Star lawyers alleged in separate complaints to the EPA earlier this year that the state agency discriminated against Black and Latino residents when they didn’t adequately ensure communities would be protected and didn’t appropriately seek input from people who aren’t fluent in English.

Local, state and federal leaders celebrated the EPA’s decision to look at the discrimination claims Tuesday. They saw it as a chance to win long-sought relief for people who have suffered from batch plants. Facility operators say the plants are safe and need to be close to construction sites. People near them, concerned for their health, plead for them to go far away.

“Time and again, the TCEQ has approved permits for additional plants in these very same neighborhoods, and failed to ensure that the pollution that comes out of these plants does not harm human health and the environment,” Menefee said. “We’re here today because the TCEQ failed to address these issues when it had the chance.”

[…]

Applications are frequently submitted to start up concrete batch plants in the Houston area. They elicit strong backlash from residents who often already know what it’s like to live by one. Residents in Aldine recently packed a room to tell TCEQ not to approve another new plant — only to find out that the deadline had already passed to ask the state agency to escalate the dispute to the next level.

EPA stepping in signaled a shift in that fight for residents who have little more than emotional appeals on their side, and what help they can get from frustrated government representatives.

“This is important to us,” said Huey German-Wilson, president of the Trinity and Houston Gardens Super Neighborhood, “and now we have someone to hear us loud and clear, for the small Black and brown voices in communities that have not been heard.”

Politicians at the news conference slammed the state environmental agency for valuing the needs of industry over the health of people. They said that it took President Joe Biden — a fellow Democrat — winning the White House for federal regulators to put pressure on this issue in the conservative Lone Star State. Recent bills proposed in the state legislature largely floundered.

Neighborhoods with batch plants lack deed restrictions and zoning to protect them, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee said. And facilities are often in communities of color — not wealthy, white River Oaks — making what has been happening clear environmental racism, state Sen. Borris Miles said.

Menefee’s office asked the EPA to stop any new standard concrete batch plant permits from being issued until the investigation is finished, he said. A public meeting has been scheduled later this month for residents to weigh in on a plant that’s been proposed in Simonton, a small city west of Houston in rural Fort Bend County.

This isn’t a lawsuit, it’s an investigation. I have no context to guess how long it may take, though I’d expect that if the state doesn’t like what the EPA says we’ll get a lawsuit afterwards. Until then, we wait. Here’s a Twitter thread from Chron reporter Emily Foxhall with more quotes.

If the only choices are “take it or leave it”, well…

Leave it doesn’t sound so bad given the alternative.

One year ago, opponents of the state’s plan to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston criticized the “take it or leave it” option state officials offered regarding amending plans for the mega-project.

Tuesday, as part of a public hearing on the state’s long-range plans, opponents opted for leave it, telling the Texas Department of Transportation to drop the 1-45 widening off its list.

“Adding huge swaths of concrete is the opposite of what Houston needs,” Houstonian Joy Fairchild said during a public hearing for TxDOT’s Unified Transportation Program.

The latest UTP, updated annually by the Texas Department, outlines a record $85.1 billion in transportation spending across the state from 2023 to 2032. Though not a guarantee of funding or a commitment to build the projects listed, it details what the state plans to do.

The Texas Transportation Commission is scheduled to approve the UTP at its Aug. 30 meeting. All public comments received by Aug. 8 will be submitted to the commission, including comments from Tuesday’s midday virtual public hearing. People also can comment online, via phone or at local TxDOT offices.

For Houston, more than $6 billion of the plan’s spending centers on I-45, masking it nearly half of the $12.5 billion Houston’s TxDOT district has to spend over the next decade. Estimated to cost at least $9.7 billion, the project would rebuild I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, adding two managed lanes in each direction. Some of the project’s cost comes from other non-TxDOT sources, while some of the money dedicated on the project will not be spent until later parts of the construction, likely to stretch beyond 2032.

Though planned for nearly 20 years, concerns intensified five years ago, when groups such as Air Alliance Houston, LINKHouston and Stop TxDOT I-45 organized to argue highway officials should focus more on improving transit and avoid any additional freeway widening.

As the story notes, the I-45 project is on pause while a complaint filed with the Federal Highway Administration over the projects effects on communities of color are investigated. As far as this goes, I don’t think anyone is making any new arguments, and there continues to be a large gap between what activists and local governments want out of the project and what TxDOT is willing to give. I don’t think TxDOT will pull I-45 widening off their list, and if I’m right then I still don’t know what happens next. As things stand now, a whole lot of people will be mad at the outcome, whatever it is.

The continued Republican threat to voting

They cannot be satisfied.

Not satisfied with the new voting restrictions put in place less than a year ago, the Texas Republican Party is plowing ahead with yet new measures that would reduce the number of early voting days and end the practice of allowing any senior to vote by mail without an excuse.

At the same time, party leaders are threatening GOP state lawmakers who control the Texas Legislature with increased sanctions if they don’t support the platform, including potentially spending tens of thousands of dollars directly to oppose them in future primaries.

“We made a good step the last time, but we are not there yet,” State Sen. Bob Hall, a Republican from Edgewood, said about last year’s election reforms packages that reduced early voting hours in places like Harris County and put new restrictions on mail-in voting.

The push to further restrict early voting and mail-in ballots is rooted in former President Donald Trump’s continued claim without evidence that the 2020 election was stolen from him largely because of mail-in balloting. At the same convention where the state GOP adopted the new legislative priorities, more than 8,000 delegates also approved a resolution rejecting the “certified results of the 2020 Presidential election” and declaring “that acting President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was not legitimately elected by the people of the United States.”

“Texas Republicans rightly have no faith in the 2020 election results and we don’t care how many times the elites tell us we have to,” said Republican Party of Texas Chairman Matt Rinaldi, who was elected the leader of the party with no opposition.

What’s more, the Republican Party of Texas membership voted overwhelmingly at its statewide convention in June to make more election reforms its No. 1 priority for the next legislative session that begins in January. That would include increasing penalties for those who violate election laws even inadvertently, reducing early voting days and restricting mail-in balloting to only the military, the disabled and people who will be out of the county during the entirety of early voting.

Texas has allowed voters 65 and older to vote absentee without needing an excuse since 1975. If the GOP succeeds, that would end. More than 1 million Texans used vote-by-mail during the 2020 presidential election and more than 850,000 of those ballots came from people 65 and older, according to the Texas Division of Elections.

“There’s no reason, just because you’ve turned 65, that you can’t show up to vote,” Hall said in promoting the changes during the June GOP Convention in Houston.

[…]

Texas was a pioneer of in-person early voting. It created a 20-day window of early voting in the late 1980s and expanded it dramatically in the early 1990s to include more locations like shopping malls and grocery stores. Currently, Texas has two weeks of early voting before elections, though in 2020 Gov. Greg Abbott expanded early voting for an additional week to allow more people concerned about COVID-19 to vote before Election Day.

If the state cut early voting to just one week, as Hall has proposed, it would affect up to 6.5 million Texans — that’s how many voted in the first two weeks in 2020.

Look, there’s no point in deploying things like “logic” to point out that they seem to have no problems with the elections that they won, or that doing this would hurt their voters, too. It doesn’t need to make sense. It also doesn’t matter whether the “regular” Republicans support this madness or not. Once it has a foothold, the momentum only goes in one direction. Either we win enough power to hold them off, or we are left with nothing but the hope that the likes of Bryan Hughes is unwilling to go that far.

Also of interest:

The Harris County Attorney’s office on Thursday said it is looking into allegations a grass-roots group knocked on doors in Sunnyside and attempted to get residents to sign affidavits verifying the identities of registered voters living at their addresses.

The county attorney’s probe is based on a complaint from at least one Sunnyside resident who said two men came to her home and asked questions they said were to confirm the identities of registered voters who live at that address. The men gave her an official-looking affidavit form and asked her to sign it attesting to the residents at the address “under penalty of perjury.”

“We are investigating this issue and exploring legal options to protect residents and prevent this from happening again,” the County Attorney’s office said in a statement, adding it is working closely with the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office to fully understand what happened.

In a Wednesday evening news release, the elections office warned residents against “scammers” it said pretended to be from the county elections and voter registration offices and attempted to collect sensitive personal information from voters.

The County Attorney’s office, however, said it had no information that anyone had attempted to misrepresent themselves as public employees, which would be illegal.

The two men, according to doorbell camera video footage recorded by a Sunnyside resident, wore badges identifying themselves as members of Texas Election Network, a conservative grass-roots organization formed in 2021.

[…]

In video footage recorded Sunday and reviewed by the Houston Chronicle Thursday, a man carrying the clipboard explains to the resident: “What they told us to do is get a yes or no to confirm whether everybody is here. If not, we’ll take the ones off that are not, and then they update their records.”

The Texas Election Network website — which has minimal information about the organization and does not disclose its leadership — lists five objectives, including clean voter rolls and fraud-free absentee ballots.

In its release, the county elections office said it does request the information being asked on the form used by men and added that voters are not required to sign them.

“In the event that the Harris County Elections Office ever needs to contact you directly, our staff will have county ID badges to prove their identity, and/or paperwork with the logo or official seal of the office included,” the release states.

James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, said for the average voter, the organization’s name, badge and paperwork could convey a sense of an official visit by the government without explicitly doing so.

“I’m sure they’ll say they’re just a bland nonprofit, but to a voter who does not have a law degree, who does not have a background in law enforcement, you are a lot more likely to believe that this is some kind of quasi-official visit,” Slattery said.

“This is one of the precise situations I have been most worried about this election — people in shadowy volunteer groups who suggest in one way or another that they are acting under official authority questioning the eligibility of voters directly by knocking on their doors,” Slattery said.

I’m sure this group is totally on the up-and-up and will spend an equivalent amount of time canvassing in Baytown and Kingwood and the Villages.

Harris County GOP drops its lawsuit over election night vote dropoffs

It wasn’t getting anywhere, anyway.

The Harris County GOP on Friday dropped its lawsuit, filed on the day of last month’s primary runoff election, challenging the county’s plan for counting ballots.

Local Republican party officials argued the county’s ballot transport protocol violated state election law. The lawsuit, filed just hours before polls closed on Election Day, could have caused serious delays in counting ballots on May 24 had the Texas Supreme Court agreed with the Harris County GOP that the plan was unlawful. Instead, the court did not issue an opinion and election night ballot counting proceeded uneventfully at NRG Arena.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office debuted the plan in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s central counting station.

Traditionally, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station on election night has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process.

The Harris County GOP pushed back on the county’s plan, arguing only election judges are allowed to transport ballots and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots themselves. The Election Administrator’s office notified Republican election judges they could “opt in” to the county’s plan if they wished, and at least 31 of them did so.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee, Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria argued the county’s ballot delivery plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

Keith Ingram, the secretary of state’s director of elections, told lawmakers in the hearing he disagreed with that interpretation and believed Harris County’s plan violated the law.

See here for the background. As noted recently, the Supreme Court never responded to the initial writ, so I assume this was just a matter of the local GOP deciding it wasn’t worth the effort to continue. With a new election administrator about to come on board, we can revisit the matter and see if there’s a consensus to be had. From what I’ve gathered from talking to people, the multiple-dropoff-locations idea, which had been Diane Trautman’s original plan, is probably the best way to go. But we’ll see what happens.

The election night experience

Let me start off by saying that my heart breaks for everyone in Uvalde. I cannot begin to fathom the pain and loss they are experiencing. I don’t know when we as a society will act to protect people from gun violence, but we cannot act quickly enough. We certainly didn’t for Uvalde, or Santa Fe, or El Paso, or any of too many other places to name.

For the subject that I wanted to be thinking about yesterday, we start with this.

Harris County voters are in for a long election night, with full election results in primary runoff races not expected until well into Wednesday. The night also could be politically turbulent as a dispute plays out over one line in the state’s election code.

One reason for the expected slow count Tuesday is the Harris County Republican Party’s decision to break with the county’s ballot delivery plan, according to Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. After closing the polls, election judges will hand off ballots to law enforcement officers and deputized county staffers, who will drive the equipment to the central counting station at NRG Arena on the judges’ behalf. The Harris County GOP argues the plan violates state law, so they are advising their party’s election judges to drive the ballots to NRG themselves. The Texas Secretary of State’s office agrees with the GOP’s assessment.

An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process. In the past, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station has fallen to these election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day.

Despite the GOP’s criticism, at least 40 Republican judges are choosing to participate in the county’s plan.

The dispute seems to be more about politics than the law, Martin Renteria, a Republican election judge in Harris County, said. He has no problem trusting a law enforcement officer to deliver the ballots, especially in a primary election where a Republican candidate is going to win no matter what.

“A Republican is going to win during the primary election. It’s going to be Republican versus Republican,” Renteria said. “It’s just illogical to me, and this is a part of the story that nobody talks about.”

[…]

Under state law, ballots should be delivered by either the election judge or an election clerk designated by that judge.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee to address delayed election results, Longoria argued the plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

“The election code does not speak to the delivery other than the presiding judge must turn over those election records to our election office. So it doesn’t speak to who has to drive to meet the other person to do so,” Longoria said.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office has disagreed with her interpretation and urged the county to change its plan.

“Harris County’s decision to allow volunteers to transport election records — including voted ballots — to the county’s Central Count location on Election Night is incompatible with the Texas Election Code and violates well-established chain of custody protocols spelled out under Texas law,” Texas Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor said in a statement on Friday.

However, Gerald Birnberg, an elections attorney and General Counsel to the Harris County Democratic Party, questioned the Secretary of State’s logic, pointing out that its own office deputizes others to perform certain duties.

“The same way that the Secretary of State is deputizing these people in his office to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State on statutory matters, to perform his statutory duties, the elections administrator is deputizing individuals to carry out duties and responsibilities and functions that are otherwise prescribed to be discharged by the elections administrator,” Birnberg said.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office maintains the Secretary of State’s office knew about the strategy and raised no objections when they implemented the ballot delivery plan during the May 7 election.

In a statement, Longoria said: “In April, the EA’s Office discussed the May 7 law enforcement and county driver program with the Secretary of State’s Office’s Managing Attorney of the Elections Division, specifically requesting guidance and recommendations. The SOS raised no concerns, legal or otherwise, with the program. Further, the EA’s Office discussed the plan for both May elections with both political parties as early as April 7. Both parties had the opportunity to ask questions, review the chain of custody document, and raise issues. Neither party raised concerns.

In fact, the first time any concerns were raised occurred during a public meeting May 11 at the Election Committee Hearing by the Secretary of State’s Office. One week later, just six days from election day, the Harris County Republican Party notified us that its judges would not participate in the program.”

See here for the background. Later in the day, we got this.

With voters walking into polling places and ballots set to arrive at NRG Arena in a few hours, Harris County’s Republican Party has challenged the process election officials will use to transfer ballots from locations to the central counting center, citing concerns with handing the machines over to anyone but precinct judges.

In the 18-page filing to the Texas Supreme Court around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the local Republican party says despite assurances that election officials have it under control, state election law and past experience make them wary to hand over ballots to emissaries so they can ferry to a central location.

Cindy Siegel, chairwoman of the Harris County GOP, said officials are impeding on the democratic process.

“They are trying to make it as difficult as possible, and talking people out (of driving ballots themselves) by warning them there will be long lines,” Siegel said. “They are scaring people into creating this system that isn’t even legal.”

Lawyers for the GOP argue the county is ignoring state election laws and breaking the mandatory chain of custody for ballots.

“An essential component of the central counting station is the physical delivery of sealed ballot boxes and access to the central counting station is necessary (for) that process to take place,” the filing states.

The petition asks the high court to order Harris County to allow election judges to drive their own precinct ballots to the central counting center at NRG Park.

The request drew a fast rebuke from Democratic Party leaders and Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee.

“Their leadership has known about the County’s election day plans for some time, yet they waited until 6 hours before the polls close to now ask a court to throw the plans out the window and put residents’ votes at risk,” Menefee said in a statement. “And in their lawsuit, they flat out misrepresent the county’s plans to the court, making several statements that they know are demonstrably false.”

[…]

“(Longoria’s) office successfully used constables in the May 7 election, and the GOP had no problem at that time,” said Odus Evbagharu, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “Now, someone wakes up on Election Day and suddenly thinks law enforcement officials and deputized election officers are an issue?”

Siegel said that is precisely why the GOP is suing.

It is the May 7 election, and widespread problems that day, that prompted the concerns in the first place. She said Republican judges only learned the day before that election that they would have to hand ballots over at polling sites, rather than drive them downtown themselves. In a handful of cases, no one came to pick up the ballots — leading the election judge to take them home — or couriers failed to drop them off in a timely manner. As a result, the county did not complete its count until Sunday morning, even though fewer than 115,000 ballots had been cast.

Again, I didn’t have a problem with the May 7 reporting. There’s clearly a difference of interpretation of the law here, and if that can’t be resolved on its own then a courtroom is the proper venue. I have a hard time believing that this couldn’t have been litigated before Tuesday afternoon, however. I started writing this post at 8 PM, and as of that time there had been no ruling from SCOTx. I don’t know when they plan on ruling, but at some point it just doesn’t matter.

UPDATE: It’s 10:30 PM, more than a third of the Tuesday votes have been counted, and I see nothing on Twitter or in my inbox to indicate that SCOTx has issued a ruling. So let’s think about this instead:

Well said. Good night.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story about the GOP’s lawsuit over the results delivery process. I still don’t see any mention of a decision being handed down. And for all of the fuss, final results were posted at 1:26 AM, which seems pretty damn reasonable to me. The midnight update had about 98% of ballots counted on the Dem side and about 95% on the GOP side – 70,016 of 72,796 Dem votes and 105,486 of 116,100 GOP votes. Seriously, this was a fine performance by the Elections Office.

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

New bail bond rules survive initial court challenge

There are a couple of stories all rolled into this, so my apologies for any confusion.

A ruling by a Harris County judge Friday will allow a recently-approved policy requiring bail bond agents to charge some defendants a 10 percent minimum to start Saturday after a last-minute lawsuit tried to stop it from happening.

Court records filed Friday showed a bail bondsman sued Harris County as an attempt to stop the new rule, which would require agents like her to charge defendants jailed on violent offenses a 10 percent minimum to secure their freedom after an arrest. But in court over Zoom late Friday afternoon, Judge Cory Don Sepolio rejected a temporary restraining order request, allowing the rule to take effect.

“The Bail Bond Board adopted this rule after hearing directly from the families of victims of violent crimes, community organizers, and law enforcement. Their decision was supported by Harris County Commissioners Court and leaders of both political parties,” a statement from Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee read. “I’m pleased with the court’s decision today to reject the request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked this rule from being implemented.”

Regarding the temporary restraining order request getting rejected, Kevin Pennell — the plaintiff’s lawyer — said in an email Friday he had no comment.

The lawsuit follows the approval by the Harris County Bail Bond Board to require bondsmen to take in 10 percent or more of the surety bond minimum — set by a judge or magistrate — to make it more difficult for violent offenders to leave jail and go on to commit more crime. The proposed rule stemmed from concerns that defendants were being released on bail fees lower than the 10 percent and then being forced into payment plans.

[…]

The bail board, as the lawsuit points out, is designed to oversee the bonding business in Harris County. Up until March, the board primarily approved and renewed bail bondsman licenses. The Harris County Attorney’s Office determined that the board can do more than that and Commissioners Court passed a resolution urging its members to adopt rules regulating the minimum that a bondsman must collect to secure a defendant’s release from jail.

The board passed the rule April 13 after a failed vote the month prior.

I didn’t write about the initial failure of the board to pass a rule requiring that bail bond companies must charge a minimum of ten percent of whatever bail had been set. Bail band companies had been lowering that percentage from what had once been seen as a de facto standard of ten percent because of the misdemeanor bail reform. With fewer people needing bail bonds because fewer people were being assessed bail, bail bond companies saw their revenues decline and so they looked for new customers by lowering their fees so as to entice those who were still being required to pay bail but couldn’t afford their fees. It’s a complicated story. The Harris County Bail Bond Board, on its second attempt, passed a rule that made the ten percent minimum a requirement, and in response a bail bond company owner filed a lawsuit to stop it.

All About Bail Bonds owner Sunya Claiborne, plaintiff in the lawsuit, contends that her business is at stake because the minimum charge requirement is “classic price fixing and a per se antitrust violation without any grant of state authority to displace competition,” according to court documents. The county and Claiborne’s lawyers are expected later on Friday to debate whether a temporary restraining order and injunction should be granted.

“She reasonably fears that, unless she complies with these unlawful rules, her license will be suspended or revoked,” the lawsuit reads. “But if she does comply with them, she will be participating in an illegal price fixing scheme and violating her customers’ privacy rights.”

[…]

The new rule is at odds with how Claiborne, whose license the board renewed ahead of the most-recent vote, plans to conduct her business, according to the court documents.

“She intends to offer competitive pricing of less than 10% of the face amount of the bond to consumers who desire to purchase a bail bond for themselves, or their loved ones charged with a designated offense and qualify for reduced payment terms,” the lawsuit continued.

As a bail agent for the corporate surety Allegheny Casualty Co., she also worries that the new rule will put her at odds with the insurance company — which she fears could violate customer privacy. Part of the new rule requires that bail bondsmen have to report the premium amount collected ahead of the defendant’s release. The bondsmen would also have to report how the premium was paid and who paid it.

Premiums are, in some cases, documented in the public record. Affidavits of surety to surrender principal often list the premium and are filed by bail agents as an attempt to cut ties with a defendant’s bond, usually after a new charge. In filing the form, bail agents ask deputies to take the defendant into custody, while they keep the defendant’s bail deposit and stop being responsible for the person in the eyes of the court.

I’m pretty sure this is not what antitrust law was intended for, but what do I know? The initial request for a temporary restraining order was denied on Friday, and there will be a hearing for a temporary injunction on May 6. I don’t expect that to be any more successful, but we’ll see.

State wants feds to un-pause I-45

We all want things.

State highway officials held fast to their plans for rebuilding Interstate 45 in Houston on Thursday, offering a litany of benefits the project will bring and pressing federal officials to lift a 12-month-and-counting pause on development.

Members of the Texas Transportation Commission, however, stopped short of imposing a deadline or considering shelving the project, as they have in the past when removing the $9 billion plan from the state’s short-range plan was a possibility.

Instead, commissioners complained Thursday that the lack of progress is having undue effects on their ability to remedy what almost everyone in Houston agrees is an outdated, congested, dangerous freeway corridor.

“We have had their lives in limbo for a year,” Commissioner Laura Ryan said of Houston-area drivers.

[…]

Opponents argue the project’s design further divides communities it crosses, exacerbating decades of freeway expansion that has worsened air quality and safe street access for those neighborhoods in order to deliver faster car and truck trips for suburban commuters.

Those against the project often note it will result in the demolition of more than 1,000 residences, nearly 350 businesses and a handful of schools and churches.

While remaining supportive of parts of the project, Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner and city staff have suggested several changes to the project to eliminate some frontage road lanes, re-stitch neighborhoods divided by the freeway with better bike and pedestrian access, and increase commitments to community housing and flood control.

Turner sent a proposed agreement, in the form of a memorandum of understanding, to Bugg last August.

TxDOT officials and supporters of the project, however, counter that benefits are built into the project that will mitigate the losses and leave many communities better off.

In Independence Heights, the first city incorporated by Black residents in Texas, the project proposes drainage improvements to alleviate persistent flooding in the area. That, coupled with $27 million in affordable housing assistance TxDOT must provide to make up for lost apartments and homes, will allow many residents to stay in the area despite risk of gentrification, said Tanya DeBose, executive director of the Independence Heights Redevelopment Council, in a video about the project produced by TxDOT.

As the project has lingered, and faced opposition, some have argued it is forcing TxDOT to take a harder line, jeopardizing some of the gains. That has led some community leaders, such as activist and urban planner Abdul Muhammad, to urge federal officials and local opponents to work to find solutions and not reasons to stop the project.

“Somebody has to be in the kitchen, or else we’re all on the menu,” he said during a Dec. 8 panel discussion with federal highway officials and local opponents.

Just to review the timeline a bit, the federal order to halt I-45 construction did indeed come one year ago, a couple of weeks after Harris County sued TxDOT over many of the previously expressed concerns about the project. (That lawsuit is now on hold as negotiations continue.) The feds later asked TxDOT to pause other work on the project as well. The Texas Transportation Commission kept I-45 in its funding plans a few months ago, and some design work was allowed to continue, but now there’s another federal complaint filed against the project by various opponents. I don’t see a quick path to a resolution here.

What would I like to see happen at this point? I’d like to see enough of the concerns raised by the plan opponents be addressed in a way that they’re willing to let the project move forward. I’d like to see a whole lot more money spent on non-highway expansion – transit, sidewalks and bike trails, flood mitigation, that sort of thing – and a whole lot more effort and resources put into designing and building urban and suburban environments where people can live closer to where the work and shop and eat and go to school so that highway driving is less necessary. I really don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Fifth Circuit asks SCOTx for help on some SB1 issues

The Twitter summary:

To recap the history here, back in September a group of plaintiffs including Isabel Longoria filed one of many lawsuits against SB1, the voter suppression law from the special sessions. In December, a motion was filed to get a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. A federal district judge granted the motion, which would have applied to the primaries, and I’m willing to bet would have helped ease the confusion that led to all of those rejected mail ballots, but the Fifth Circuit, as is their wont, put a hold on the injunction.

It’s not clear to me where things are procedurally with this litigation – and remember, there are a bunch of other cases as well – but in this matter the Fifth Circuit wanted to get some clarity on state law before doing whatever it has on its docket to do. Let me just show you what that second linked file says:

The case underlying these certified questions is a pre-enforcement challenge to two recently enacted provisions of the Texas Election Code: section 276.016(a) (the anti-solicitation provision) and section 31.129 (the civil-liability provision) as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. The anti-solicitation provision makes it unlawful for a “public official or election official” while “acting in an official capacity” to “knowingly . . . solicit[] the submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application.” The civil-liability provision creates a civil penalty for an election official who is employed by or an office of the state and who violates a provision of the election code.

Isabel Longoria, the Harris County Elections Administrator, and Cathy Morgan, a Volunteer Deputy Registrar serving in Williams and Travis counties, sued the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, to enjoin enforcement of the civil liability provision, as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. And in response to the recent Court of Criminal Appeals case holding that the Texas Attorney General has no independent authority to prosecute criminal offenses created in the Election Code, they also sued the Harris, Travis, and Williamson County district attorneys to challenge the criminal penalties imposed by the anti-solicitation provision. The plaintiffs argue that the provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the risk of criminal and civil liability chills speech that “encourage[s] voters to lawfully vote by mail.

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, enjoining the defendants from enforcing and prosecuting under the provisions. Paxton and one of the district attorneys (Shawn Dick of Williamson County) appealed. Because the Harris and Travis County district attorneys did not appeal, only Longoria’s challenge to the civil penalty permitted by the civil-liability provision and the Volunteer Deputy Registrar’s challenge to the criminal liability imposed under the anti-solicitation provision were at issue in the appeal.

On its own motion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has certified the following questions to the Court:

(1) Whether Volunteer Deputy Registrars are “public officials” under the Texas Election Code;

(2) Whether the speech Plaintiffs allege that they intend to engage in constitutes “solicitation” within the context of Texas Election Code § 276.016(a)(1). For example, is the definition narrowly limited to seeking application for violative mail-in ballots? Is it limited to demanding submission of an application for mail-in ballots (whether or not the applicant qualifies) or does it broadly cover the kinds of comments Plaintiffs stated that they wish to make: telling those who are elderly or disabled, for example, that they have the opportunity to apply for mail-in ballots?; and

(3) Whether the Texas Attorney General is a proper official to enforce Texas Election Code § 31.129.

The Court accepted the certified questions and set oral argument for May 11, 2022.

You now know everything I know. Let’s see what happens in May.

Of course the Fifth Circuit put a hold on the SB1 injunction

There is nothing more reliable in this world than the Fifth Circuit giving Republicans everything they ask for.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has put a temporary hold on a preliminary injunction that had blocked enforcement of a rule that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots, according to Harris County officials.

U.S. District Judge Xavier Rodriguez last week halted enforcement of a provision of Senate Bill 1 that made it a crime for election officials to solicit mail-in ballots. The judge said the law likely violates the First Amendment.

[…]

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee on Thursday expressed disappointment in the decision by the 5th Circuit, which has blocked a number of court challenges to conservative policies.

“I am disappointed that the Fifth Circuit has undone the preliminary injunction that protected Administrator (Isabel) Longoria’s First Amendment rights,” Menefee said in a written statement. “As the district court already determined, this law is unconstitutional and prevents election officials from encouraging people to vote by mail, including our seniors, our neighbors with disabilities, and our active-duty service members. One thing that’s clear from the high number of mail-in ballot applications being rejected is that our election officials should be empowered to explain the process and encourage folks to apply to vote by mail if eligible. Today’s decision allows the threat of criminal prosecution to loom over election officials trying to help voters.”

See here and here for the background. This court is a sham and a disgrace, and the only way forward is to pack it with judges that will actually apply the law. Don’t ask me when that is likely to happen.

Because I have nothing better to say, here are a couple of tweets from Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee:

Good luck with that. I wish I felt more optimistic, but it’s not like the Fifth Circuit will care.

Injunction granted in lawsuit over criminal penalties for election officials who encourage voting by mail

That’s a somewhat complicated headline for this.

A new Texas law that keeps local election officials from encouraging voters to request mail-in ballots likely violates the First Amendment, a federal judge ruled late Friday.

Following a testy three-hour hearing earlier in the day, Federal District Judge Xavier Rodriguez temporarily blocked the state from enforcing the rule against Harris County’s election administrator until the rest of a lawsuit plays out. Although the scope of Rodriguez’s preliminary injunction is limited, the judge dealt the first legal blow to new elections restrictions and voting changes Republican lawmakers enacted last year.

The injunction applies to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and local county prosecutors in Harris, Travis and Williamson counties.

The state is expected to quickly appeal the ruling. The lawsuit was brought by Harris County election administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who is appointed to help register voters in Travis and Williamson counties.

Feb. 18 is the last day for counties to receive applications for mail-in ballots for the March 1 primary.

Rodriguez previewed his order throughout a Friday morning hearing during which he repeatedly pressed the state’s attorneys — with increasing exasperation — to fill in what he cataloged as ambiguities in the new law. The challenged provision makes it a state jail felony for election officials to “solicit the submission” of an application to vote by mail if the voter did not request it.

Rodriguez took particular issue with the lack of a clear definition for what constitutes soliciting when talking to voters, even those 65 and older who automatically qualify to vote by mail under the state’s strict rules.

“It has a chilling effect,” Rodriguez said while questioning a state attorney Friday morning. “They don’t know when they’re going to run afoul of this vague [law].”

His comments followed testimony from Longoria and Morgan, who said they feared the civil and criminal penalties that could come from violating the broad prohibition.

Longoria said her office was now taking a “passive” approach to voter outreach in regard to voting by mail, with staffers “gingerly” weighing their words while answering voters’ questions about their options.

“When it comes to voting by mail, I have to be very careful with my words,” Longoria said from the witness stand. “I stop mid-sentence sometimes at town halls. … I’m tentative to overreach at the moment.”

Morgan testified that she was concerned the law applied even to volunteers like her, given that her role is formally certified by county election offices. She offered examples of voters she no longer felt she could help navigate the vote-by-mail process. That included an 88-year-old voter whom Morgan would typically call at the start of every year to remind her that she has to reapply for mail-in ballots.

State attorneys said that the law did not apply to volunteers like Morgan and argued the government can prohibit interactions between local election officials and voters without running afoul of the First Amendment.

[…]

And even the state’s witness — Keith Ingram, the Texas secretary of state’s director of elections — indicated the threat of prosecution loomed over election officials. While Ingram was on the stand, Rodriguez presented him with hypothetical interactions between Longoria and voters, asking if she could recommend voting by mail to someone who appeared to qualify.

“I would be very careful about that,” Ingram responded. “You wouldn’t want to recommend” voting by mail as an option “because you’d be worried about prosecution,” he said.

Throughout the hearing, Rodriguez also pressed for the reasoning behind the anti-solicitation provision, interrupting the state’s questioning of Ingram in search of an answer. Ingram said he didn’t know the purpose of the provision.

Eventually, Will Thompson of the Texas attorney general’s office told Rodriguez that the provision was meant to limit “official encouragement” of voting by mail, indicating the state preferred people vote in person even if they qualify to vote by mail.

“We’re not taking the position that the Legislature is opposed to voting by mail,” Thompson said. “That doesn’t mean the Legislature wants resources to be used toward nudging people toward voting by mail.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the ruling. The Statesman has a couple of key bits from the ruling:

In his order, Rodriguez rejected Paxton’s argument that the solicitation ban targets government speech, which isn’t protected by the First Amendment because the state is allowed to regulate how public employees perform official duties.

But, the judge noted, Longoria and Morgan do not work for the state. Longoria is employed by Harris County, and Morgan is a volunteer registrar.

Rodriguez also rejected Paxton’s claim that granting the injunction would interfere with the orderly operation of Texas elections. The judge said his order does not affect any voting procedures, change the vote-by-mail process or affect voting deadlines or eligibility.

“Nor does it require that election officials start soliciting applications to vote by mail — it simply prevents the imposition of criminal and civil penalties against officials for encouraging people to vote by mail if they are eligible to do so,” Rodriguez wrote.

None of that will stop the Fifth Circuit from doing what the Republicans ask them to do since that’s what they believe their job is, but at least he tried. For anyone who thinks that it’s hysterical to imagine Longoria or Morgan being prosecuted for these actions, Rob Icsezen and Dana DeBeauvoir would like to have a word with you.

Reporter Edward McKinley and plaintiffs’ attorney Sean Morales-Doyle have good Twitter threads with more details, so go check them out. The main argument was that this provision of SB1 criminalizes speech on the basis of its content and the viewpoint expressed, since Longoria could talk all day about not voting by mail but risked arrest if she said the opposite. This is a preliminary injunction, and whether it survives the Fifth Circuit or not there will be a trial on the merits later this year, and you can bank on it going all the way to SCOTUS. The Supreme Court is occasionally solicitous of the First Amendment, if it approves of the speech in question, so who knows what they might do. In the meantime, we have a small victory, for now, against SB1. There will be a lot more litigation over the rest of that law to come. The Chron has more.

Ken Paxton cannot be trusted to prosecute anyone

Scary story:

The article is paywalled, but I got to see a Google doc copy of it. This happened to Rob Icsezen, the host of the H-Town Progressive podcast and a Democratic appointee of the Early Voting Ballot Board and Signature Verification Committee for the 2020 election. I will summarize what happened:

– A Republican poll watcher showed up to observe what the EVBB and SVC were doing. Existing law said poll watchers were allowed at the former, but said nothing about the latter. Icsezen interpreted this to mean that they weren’t allowed to observe the SVC, checked his interpretation with the Harris County Attorney, which approved his decision, and turned the poll watcher away.

– The poll watcher complained to the Harris County GOP, who called the Secretary of State, who called Icsezen and said he was wrong, the poll watcher needed to be allowed in to observe the SVC. Icsezen did so. According to the story, this all took place within a few hours, and according to other members of both groups who the author spoke to, it was no big deal at the time.

– An investigator with the AG’s Election Integrity Unit spoke to Icsezen in December of 2020, and apparently concluded that this was basically a misunderstanding of an unclear law, and did not warrant further action.

– The Harris County GOP reacted angrily to this and sent a letter to Ken Paxton demanding he take action or else “we have no confidence that the Attorney General will uphold any of our election laws”.

– So Paxton, ever the coward, convened a grand jury in Montgomery County – not Harris, where this alleged “crime” took place, but the very friendly confines of Montgomery County – and presented his case. Which, despite this being Montgomery County, and despite it being entirely his show, declined to indict Icsezen on whatever charges Paxton had dreamed up.

– Note that Paxton had previously tried to indict Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir on similarly flimsy charges in 2020, but a grand jury in Williamson County – again, not where the alleged “crime” took place – declined to indict.

– The only reason we know any of this is because Paxton put out a whiny press release complaining about his inability to get a Montgomery County grand jury to give him what he wanted.

So yeah, this is the guy who wants unlimited power to prosecute “election fraud” – which, evidence would suggest he’s not very good at – and is now sending out the howler monkeys against the Court of Criminal Appeals in order to get his way. Doesn’t exactly fill you with pride and confidence in our justice system, does it?

Preliminary injunction sought against mail ballot restrictions

Of interest.

Today in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas, the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, Weil, Gotshal & Manges, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office moved for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton, their challenge to the provision in Texas’s restrictive voting law (S.B. 1) that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The Brennan Center, Weil, and the Harris County Attorney’s Office are seeking the injunction on behalf of Isabel Longoria, the Election Administrator for Harris County, Texas; and the Brennan Center and Weil are also representing Cathy Morgan, a volunteer election worker in Texas.

The motion filed today requests a preliminary injunction against the S.B. 1 provision no later than February 14, 2022. Texas has a primary election on March 1, 2022. To vote by mail in the primary, Texas voters must request mail ballot applications between January 1, 2022, and February 18, 2022.

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for me to do a critical part of my job, and it hurts the most vulnerable voters,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County Election Administrator. “As the highest-ranking election official in Harris County, I’m responsible for enabling the county’s millions of voters to exercise their right to cast a lawful ballot, many of whom face obstacles to voting in person due to illness, disability, or age. S.B. 1 subjects me to criminal prosecution for encouraging eligible voters to vote by mail so they may participate in our democracy –an option they have under Texas law.”

Under S.B. 1, Longoria, Morgan, and other election officials and election workers across Texas can be imprisoned for a minimum of six months and fined up to $10,000 if they encourage a voter to apply for a mail ballot application. As the motion filed today argues, this provision violates the First Amendment and undermines election officials’ and election workers’ ability to perform their duties.

“The right to free speech and the right to vote are vital to democracy, and S.B. 1 takes direct aim at both,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law. “Texas should be encouraging election officials to provide voters all the information they need to participate in elections. Instead, the legislature and the Governor have made it a crime to do so.”

Texas law allows voting by mail in certain circumstances, including when a voter is 65 years old or older, sick, or disabled, out of the country on election day, or confined in jail.

“This law was created to combat alleged voter fraud that we know does not exist, and instead hinders the ability to properly encourage seniors and voters with disabilities to exercise their right to vote by mail,” said Christian Menefee, the County Attorney for Harris County, Texas. “This anti-solicitation provision of SB 1 not only makes it harder for these folks vote, but it criminalizes the constitutionally protected free speech of the Harris County Elections Administrator and violates the First Amendment.”

“S.B. 1 makes it a crime for public officials or election officials to encourage voters to request a mail ballot application, even if the person would be eligible to vote by mail. By contrast, under Texas law, it is not a crime for a public official or election official to discourage eligible voters to vote by mail,” said Liz Ryan, partner at Weil, Gotshal & Manges. “There is no valid justification for such a one-sided restriction on speech.”

S.B. 1 went into effect on December 2, 2021. It is an omnibus law, containing the provision challenged in Longoria v. Paxton as well as restrictions on other aspects of voting and elections. The law has drawn multiple lawsuits in addition to Longoria v. Paxton. The Department of Justice has challenged S.B. 1 and, many other entities, including the Brennan Center (in LUPE v. Abbott), have also filed suit against various parts of the law.

The motion for a preliminary injunction in Longoria v. Paxton is here.

The complaint, and more background on Longoria v Paxton, is here.

The first lawsuits filed against SB1 were filed in September, with Isabel Longoria a plaintiff in a complaint filed by MALDEF on behalf of a large group. The Justice Department lawsuit was filed in November, and there were three others filed in between. This one was filed on December 10, and if there was any news coverage of it I am not able to find it. The amended complaint was filed on Monday, December 27. It’s the motion for preliminary injunction, filed on Tuesday the 28th, for which I received a press release from the Harris County Attorney’s office, which in turn led me to find the linked article from the Brennan Center (and this Twitter thread), that is trying to make something happen more quickly.

My read on this – I’ve sent some questions to the Harris County Attorney’s office to get clarification – is that Elections Admin Longoria would like a ruling from the court to settle the question of what exactly she is and is not allowed to do, given that as things stand right now saying the wrong thing could get her arrested. We have the primaries coming up real soon, which means mail ballots are going to be getting requested, and people will have questions about them. Raising this as a First Amendment issue makes sense to me, and maybe it will make sense to the courts as well. Hopefully, we’ll find out soon.

UPDATE: Later in the day I found this Statesman story, which added a few details.

The ban on sending unsolicited mail-voting applications was one of many provisions contained in Senate Bill 1, the sweeping GOP voting law that was passed Sept. 1 during the Legislature’s second special session.

Several other provisions of SB 1 have been challenged in a half-dozen lawsuits by civil rights groups and the Biden administration’s Justice Department, including bans on 24-hour and drive-thru voting, ID requirements for mail-in ballots and protections for partisan poll watchers.

Those challenges are awaiting a summer trial.

Longoria and Morgan, however, told U.S. District Judge Fred Biery of San Antonio that waiting until summer is not an option for a prohibition that will handcuff them in the weeks leading up to the March 1 Texas primaries.

“Longoria has planned to engage in speeches and hold voter-outreach events but has been unable to do so for fear of criminal prosecution and civil penalties,” said Tuesday’s filing, adding that Longoria also halted plans to promote mail-in voting with fliers and on social media.

Similarly, Morgan argued in the filing that her work as a voter registrar — particularly around the University of Texas in Austin — will be hampered if she “can no longer proactively suggest that eligible but unaware voters request an application to vote by mail … as she has in the past.”

They asked Biery to rule no later than Feb. 14, noting that to cast a mail-in ballot in the primaries, voters must fill out and return an application between Jan. 1 and Feb. 18.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has not yet filed a response to the lawsuit, though his office opposes the request for an injunction and will respond to that in the future, as well.

So there you have it. My guess is that the state’s response will be some combination of “you can’t sue us” and “neener neener neener”, secure in the belief that the Fifth Circuit will undo anything Judge Biery does. I will of course keep an eye on it.

Some I-45 work to resume

Just some design work, for now.

Federal officials have lifted their pause on a small piece of the planned Interstate 45 mega-project that will remake downtown Houston’s freeway system and has divided state transportation planners, community groups and local politicians.

Giving the go-ahead to two parts of the $10 billion-plus project — work along Interstate 69 and at Texas 288 to rebuild where the three freeways converge near Third Ward — staves off the possibility of state officials removing all of the project’s funding from Texas’ 10-year highway plan and provides a glimmer of hope that officials locally, in Austin and Washington can find some common ground.

“Things are moving in what seems to be a positive direction,” said J. Bruce Bugg, chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission.

[…]

After weeks of meetings between state and federal highway officials, the Texas Department of Transportation can proceed with “detailed design work” of the southernmost stretches of the project, portions of the downtown redesign called Segment 3, removing them from the development pause put in place by federal highway officials in June. In a Nov. 29 letter from FHWA Chief Counsel Andrew Rogers, federal officials said recent discussions represent “a good start” but set parameters for any design work to proceed.

Specifically, Rogers said FHWA “is not prepared at this time to allow TxDOT to resume any right-of-way acquisition in Segment 3.” TxDOT, he added, could acquire properties from owners who approach it on a case-by-case basis “rather than relying on eminent domain.”

See here and here for some background; the story also references the lawsuit filed by Harris County that has been temporarily paused to allow the discussion that led to this agreement. It seems like the intent was to keep I-45 on the TxDOT project list for at least a little longer, to see if an agreement among all the parties can be reached. I don’t know how likely that is, but it never hurts to talk.

Though there is concern about the project’s impacts in Midtown, Third Ward and Eado, the most vocal opposition to the project emanates from north of downtown where TxDOT proposes to add two managed lanes in each direction to I-45. That widening, which requires the destruction of hundreds of homes and businesses adjacent to the freeway, has drawn scorn and accusations that highway officials are perpetuating decades of carving freeways through low-income and minority communities to the detriment of those neighborhoods.

“Wider highways are not an appropriate or effective intervention to expand commerce opportunities, and they do not expand opportunities for those bearing the greatest burdens of the expansion,” more than 15 groups wrote in a letter to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, released Tuesday. “Highway construction and expansion interrupt lives, displace people from their homes and businesses, and decimate generational wealth, especially in communities of color.”

The letter, a response to a letter sent by seven Houston-area Congressman urging Buttigieg to not impede the project, was drafted by Stop TxDOT I-45, which formed to oppose the project, along with Air Alliance Houston and 14 environmental, community or left-leaning groups.

See here for more on that, and here for the response letter, which also observes that the people who want to get the I-45 project going don’t represent those who will be affected by it. I doubt there’s an agreement that satisfies everyone, but there are definitely options that do a better job of minimizing harm and promoting equity. That’s what we need to aim for.

Harris County to pause the I-45 lawsuit

Gonna give talking a try. You never know.

Harris County will pause its lawsuit against the Texas Department of Transportation over the proposed Interstate 45 widening in hopes that it leads to a consensus that has eluded them for more than four years.

The pause, approved unanimously by Commissioners Court at a special meeting Monday, instructs County Attorney Christian Menefee to seek a stay on the lawsuit in federal court as he negotiates with TxDOT to resolve differences between the changes the county seeks to the project and the current plan.

The project, estimated to cost at least $9 billion, would rebuild and widen I-45 from downtown Houston north to Beltway 8, including the freeway’s interchanges with Interstate 69, Interstate 10 and Loop 610 in Independence Heights.

The stay and pause, officials said, would give an opening to officials to work out details of the planned freeway widening without backing off their opposition to what TxDOT is proposing.

“I am willing to consider a pause,” Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said. “Not a dismissal, but I hope that will demonstrate our commitment.”

Menefee said he will ask the court for a stay of 30 days, and then potentially extend that for an additional 30 days if the discussions are “fruitful.”

“The pause is a show of good faith by the county to remind TxDOT that we’re in this to find solutions and address community concerns,” Menefee said in a statement. “We expect TxDOT to work alongside us to achieve the same. If that does not happen, the county will resume the suit and we’ll let the courts decide.”

[…]

Skepticism remains high among project opponents that TxDOT can be a willing participant. Jeff Peters, a member of the Stop TxDOT I-45, said backers consistently have bullied people into accepting their design with the threat of doing nothing if they do not get their way. He urged the county to proceed with the lawsuit, rather than relent.

“This is a critical piece of leverage that can bring TxDOT to the bargaining table,” Peters told Commissioners Court before it approved the pause.

Highway officials, however, have said since March that the federal review and lawsuit leave them no choice but to stop talking. At an Oct. 21 forum sponsored by Transportation Advocacy Group-Houston Chapter, Texas Transportation Commissioner Laura Ryan said the pause by the Federal Highway Administration and county lawsuit were more of an obstacle to open dialogue because they impede TxDOT from designing alternatives.

“We can’t spend money to design and we can’t spend money to do those things,” Ryan said at the forum, which drew criticism because it was for paying guests only at an event sponsored by various engineering, construction and planning firms.

See here for the background. As noted recently, there are other obstacles to the project, though perhaps if Harris County and TxDOT can settle their differences, those can be handled as well. I’m fine with this approach – if there’s a path to meeting the needs of the many people and groups that have been objecting to the design of this project, then sure, let’s go for it – but I wouldn’t get my hopes up too much. There’s already been a lot of time for talk, and I don’t know how much latitude TxDOT has to give. There’s some risk here for Harris County as well, as the opponents of this project aren’t likely to be happy with half a loaf. But hey, lawsuits are time- and resource-intensive, and they often end in settlements anyway, so why not give this a try. You never know.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

Again with the existential Constable question

Here’s a long and detailed story in the Chron about the history and purpose of the Constable office in Harris County, where they are bigger and do more than anywhere else in the state.

Constable Alan Rosen

The lawsuit’s allegations were stunning: Harris County Precinct 1 deputy constables assigned to fight human trafficking had been exploited and molested by their superiors during undercover “bachelor party” stings. Undercover deputies pretended to be partying, with the hope of convincing escorts to agree to sex for cash — so they could try to build cases against the women’s pimps. But female deputies said they received little training before being thrown into “booze-fueled playgrounds” in which their bosses groped them.

Precinct 1 Constable Alan Rosen defended his agency, saying internal investigators hadn’t found any violations of policy or law, but for many, the accusations against high-ranking officials of the department reignited a debate that has simmered in Houston for the last half century: What is the appropriate role of the constables? And why were deputy constables running undercover prostitution stings — far afield from their traditional roles of policing rural counties or working as process servers and protecting local justice of the peace courts?

Many constables’ offices elsewhere in Texas have just a few employees. But not in Harris County. For a half century, Houston-area constables have steadily accrued more power and more responsibility. Now, they occupy a position unlike any other in Texas. According to records from the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement, Harris County’s largest constable jurisdictions far outnumber any other constables’ offices elsewhere in the state. Harris County’s largest constable’s office, Precinct 4, mans 567 deputies and dispatchers and has a budget of $60 million, according to county records. The largest department outside of Harris County, the Montgomery County Precinct 3 Constable’s Office, has 65 employees, state records show, and a budget of about $6 million, according to Montgomery County records.

Critics say the offices are bloated and out of control, duplicating other law enforcement agencies and creating a two-tier system where wealthy neighborhoods pay for what amounts to a private security force. Defenders say constables provide badly needed backup to the region’s larger departments, while constables themselves say that because they are elected, they are more responsive to their constituents.

“Constables are first line on community policing,” said Matt Wylie, newly elected president of the Justices of the Peace and Constables Association and Constable of the Johnson County Precinct 1 Constable’s Office. “We are elected by smaller percentage of county, more accountable to people we serve.”

The story is based on the scandal in the Constable Precinct 1 office that we are still waiting to learn more about. It’s a long story and there’s way too much to excerpt, but let me address a couple of points. I do think there’s a lot of duplication of effort in what the Constables do versus what the Sheriff and HPD do, and I don’t think there’s any good way to address that. Ideally, there would be better communication and coordination between these organizations, but there isn’t the incentive for that to happen and no way to enforce it. We could of course just limit what the Constables do, so that they’re more like Constables in other counties, but given where we are now that would be a heavy lift.

I know that we have had this discussion before, probably circa 2012 when two different Constables got arrested for various bad acts. In poking around a bit, I see that there was a report by then-County Attorney Vince Ryan on the practices of the various Constable offices. Maybe an update to that report, which is now almost a decade old and was criticized for not being comprehensive enough, is in order. How much duplication of services is there? How much do the Constables fill in gaps in other law enforcement services? What return are we getting on those fancy task forces that several of them have set up? An outside view of all that might shed some light on things.

In the meantime, I just want to know more about what is going on with the Precinct 1 situation. I recognize that there’s only so much that can be said while there is pending litigation, but this is still a public office and we need to know what the scope and purpose of that “human trafficking” division is, and what they have actually accomplished. We needed to know that before all this crap hit the fan.

Harris County Attorney sues Juul

From the inbox:

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee filed a lawsuit Thursday in California state court against e-cigarette company JUUL and several of its executives. Harris County is the first governmental entity in Texas to join the nationwide fight to hold JUUL accountable for the deliberate and deceptive marketing of its highly addictive and destructive products to young people.

“JUUL took its marketing plan from the tobacco industry’s template by creating an image that would lure teenagers. JUUL’s vaping devices are designed to appear like a slick, high-tech gadget that’s attractive to young people. The brand even offers kid-friendly flavors like mango and cool mint,” said Harris County Attorney Menefee. “Cigarette companies were long ago barred from engaging in this type of marketing. Our youth do not deserve to be exploited by a company looking for a lifetime of profits. My office will hold JUUL accountable for its exploitative and negligent practices designed to create the next generation of nicotine users. Lawsuits were a major reason that federal regulators finally reined in cigarette industry, which has caused so much death in this country. I will continue that tradition by making sure JUUL doesn’t get away with the same behavior.”

The lawsuit contends JUUL targeted young people by using social media to showcase the product as a lifestyle brand. The company also adopted a “Make the Switch” campaign to mislead the public that e-cigarettes were benign smoking cessation devices, even though JUUL was never designed to break addictions.

In fact, JUUL’s e-cigarettes were designed to maximize addiction through its patented nicotine delivery mechanism. The CDC’s website warns of nicotine’s harmful effects on the developing brains of adolescents, and how JUUL’s products have also caused lung and cardiovascular injuries. JUUL also took advantage of the loose regulations for e-cigarettes, and made sure its products and advertising do not contain any health risk warnings.

As part of this lawsuit, the Harris County Attorney’s Office is also suing cigarette giant Altria, which owns 35% of JUUL and other companies like Philip Morris. Altria was instrumental in helping JUUL develop its marketing tactics, using its well-developed playbook.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here – it’s quite long. This was filed in California because that’s where Juul is based, but there’s more to it than that. There’s already a bunch of lawsuits against Juul over its marketing practices in California, and they are basically combined in what is known as a Judicial Council Coordinated Proceeding, their term for when there are multiple similar lawsuits across different judicial districts. This Law.com article, which is mostly paywalled, gives a bit of an outline of what that means. If you look at the Harris County filing, you’ll see that it’s also in this JCCP, in the same court that the Law.com story references.

As I understand it, these cases all have similar claims, some filed by government entities and some by private plaintiffs, and a subset of lawyers from them will lead the litigation. The idea is for Harris County to be among them. Harris is the first county in Texas to file this kind of lawsuit against Juul. The county needed to get permission from the Attorney General’s office to hire outside counsel for the suit, on a contingency basis, which it has received. Other state AGs have taken action themselves, including California and New York. It’s certainly possible that Texas will follow along that path – I’m old enough to remember the massive tobacco lawsuit settlement that Texas and then-AG Dan Morales got in the 90s – but that remains to be seen. If that does happen, the state can file its lawsuit here.

The only news story I found relating to this when I looked was from Click2Houston, which mostly recaps the press release. I’ll be keeping an eye on this.

Harris County sues TxDOT over I-45

This ought to be interesting.

Plans to rebuild Interstate 45 in Houston, which state officials say need to move forward as they work through concerns expressed by critics, took what could be a lengthy detour into federal court Thursday.

In a lawsuit filed in downtown Houston, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee asked the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas to require the Texas Department of Transportation to redo much of the environmental review of the project and delay any further development of the $7 billion rebuild. Menefee cited the obsolete nature of some of the studies used to assess environmental impact and the lack of adequate protections for the residents who will be forced from their homes by the freeway widening.

“The I-45 expansion will displace families in more than 1,000 homes,” Menefee said. “It will also displace businesses, reduce parkland, and significantly impact the quality of life for folks living nearby. We are not taking this lightly, and Harris County residents deserve a fair process that addresses these issues.”

TxDOT officials said they could not comment directly on the lawsuit, but fretted that the decision to go to court stymies efforts to solve the issues that remain.

[…]

Advocates, many of whom in the past five years have grown increasingly frustrated with what they have called TxDOT’s lack of interest in solving some of the problems in favor of moving closer to construction, applauded the county’s lawsuit.

“TxDOT has brought this upon themselves,” said Michael Skelly, an organizer of the Make I-45 Better Coalition. “For many years, organizations and individuals from across the city have been making suggestions to TxDOT that would improve the project, reduce flooding, save taxpayers money, minimize displacement and enhance safety. TxDOT has ignored everyone.

“When TxDOT looks for who to blame, the mirror would be a good place to start,” he said.

The lawsuit, a challenge to the Texas Department of Transportation’s approval of the final environmental review last month, asks that all development of the project halt until the state can better analyze and resolve critics’ concerns. TxDOT officials, under an agreement with the Federal Highway Administration, can self-approve their environmental reviews if they show they properly followed national rules.

See here for the previous update. As the story notes, if this drags on then the I-45 project risks losing the state funding that has been appropriated for it, as TxDOT will put other projects ahead of it in line. The draft environmental impact study is from 2017, so one could certainly argue that things are different now – you know, post-Harvey and all that. I have no idea what to think of the odds on this, but this is the kind of County Attorney that Christian Menefee said he’d be on the campaign trail.

UPDATE: Looks like there’s already a delay in the process, and it has nothing to do with the lawsuit.

We’ll see how long that takes, too.

Harris County considers its ERCOT responses

Maybe ERCOT isn’t right for us.

Commissioner Adrian Garcia

Harris County should consider leaving the state’s main power grid after it failed to prevent widespread blackouts for more than half of Houston-area residents last week, Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Monday.

Garcia has asked the Commissioners Court to explore what authority it has to sever ties with the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which oversees the grid that powers all of the state except for El Paso, parts of the Panhandle and a group of counties in East Texas.

“This agenda item is meant to explore how we in Harris County can take ownership of keeping residents safe, something the state has clearly shown it can’t be trusted to do itself,” Garcia said in a statement.

[…]

Liberty County, which borders Harris County to the east, is part of MISO. That grid also suffered outages during the storm, when demand for electricity overwhelmed supply, but they were less severe than those within ERCOT’s system.

What ability, if any, Harris County has to leave ERCOT is unclear. First Assistant County Attorney Jay Aiyer said such a move would almost certainly require approval by the Legislature. As subdivisions of state government, commissioners courts have few independent powers; they cannot even enact ordinances.

Aiyer said Harris County also will examine what actions, if any, the Legislature takes this session to reform ERCOT or the Public Utility Commission to prevent future blackouts.

The odds that the Lege would allow this are basically nil. Even if it made perfect sense on the merits, they’re just not going to allow it to happen. It’s still worth exploring and discussing, because everyone should be talking about potential options to improve our current situation. If nothing else, Harris County can clarify what it wants the Lege to do in response to last week’s fiasco.

The County Attorney has a role to play, too.

Harris County officials are launching an investigation into the events that led up to “Texas’ recent electricity disaster” and will be probing decisions made by the board that operates the state’s power grid, energy providers and the Public Utility Commission.

“Members of our community died in this disaster, and millions of Texans languished without power and water while suffering billions in property damage,” Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a Tuesday statement. “Harris County residents deserve to know what happened, who made which decisions, and whether this could have been avoided or mitigated.”

[…]

Menefee will request authorization to take legal action on behalf of Harris County during its Commissioner’s Court meeting Friday. He said he is willing to collaborate with independent state agencies’ investigations as well.

He said operators should have been prepared after 2011’s hard freeze that exposed weaknesses in Texas’ electrical grid system.

“There was nothing unpredictable about this last freeze, and everyone had plenty of notice it was coming,” he said. “But, the people running the grid were woefully unprepared and failed to take immediate action and warn folks of what could happen.”

See above about what everyone, in particular everyone in a position of authority, should be doing. This is what Menefee ran on, and it’s good to see him follow through. Again, what he may actually be able to do, beyond some amicus briefs, is unclear, but we won’t know till he has a good look. He won’t be alone – as the story notes, Rep. Trey Martinez-Fischer has called on the Travis County DA to investigate as well. I think civil action is more likely to be the proper course, but hey, all hands on deck. Both items will be discussed by Commissioners Court on Friday.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Precinct analysis: County Attorney 2020 and 2016

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney

The office of County Attorney gets less attention than District Attorney, but as we have seen it’s vitally important. Vince Ryan held the office for three terms before being ousted in the primary by Christian Menefee. Menefee’s overall performance was similar to Ryan’s in 2016 – I’ll get to that in a minute – but as we saw in the previous post that doesn’t mean there can’t be a fair bit of variance. Let’s see where that takes us. Here’s the 2020 breakdown:


Dist     Nation  Menefee  Nation% Menefee%
==========================================
CD02    178,265  154,520   53.57%   46.43%
CD07    149,139  151,213   49.65%   50.35%
CD08     25,809   14,986   63.27%   36.73%
CD09     37,016  119,594   23.64%   76.36%
CD10    102,438   59,410   63.29%   36.71%
CD18     58,121  179,867   24.42%   75.58%
CD22     21,591   20,074   51.82%   48.18%
CD29     48,935  100,744   32.69%   67.31%
CD36     82,457   48,040   63.19%   36.81%
				
SBOE4   104,688  334,552   23.83%   76.17%
SBOE6   380,793  351,322   52.01%   47.99%
SBOE8   218,290  162,575   57.31%   42.69%
				
SD04     55,522   22,733   70.95%   29.05%
SD06     56,939  117,097   32.72%   67.28%
SD07    235,108  171,376   57.84%   42.16%
SD11     76,866   46,710   62.20%   37.80%
SD13     36,807  159,259   18.77%   81.23%
SD15    112,115  194,216   36.60%   63.40%
SD17    115,210  125,384   47.89%   52.11%
SD18     15,204   11,676   56.56%   43.44%
				
HD126    38,751   33,320   53.77%   46.23%
HD127    53,950   35,101   60.58%   39.42%
HD128    48,046   21,796   68.79%   31.21%
HD129    47,571   35,152   57.51%   42.49%
HD130    69,976   32,109   68.55%   31.45%
HD131     9,822   44,446   18.10%   81.90%
HD132    50,540   47,980   51.30%   48.70%
HD133    49,624   36,901   57.35%   42.65%
HD134    46,775   58,410   44.47%   55.53%
HD135    36,489   36,696   49.86%   50.14%
HD137    10,191   20,871   32.81%   67.19%
HD138    31,535   30,924   50.49%   49.51%
HD139    15,325   44,753   25.51%   74.49%
HD140     9,241   21,586   29.98%   70.02%
HD141     6,943	  35,992   16.17%   83.83%
HD142    13,733   41,540   24.85%   75.15%
HD143    11,934   24,039   33.17%   66.83%
HD144    13,762   16,387   45.65%   54.35%
HD145    14,777   26,896   35.46%   64.54%
HD146    11,016   43,379   20.25%   79.75%
HD147    14,738   53,266   21.67%   78.33%
HD148    21,758   36,937   37.07%   62.93%
HD149    21,400   30,636   41.13%   58.87%
HD150    55,873   39,332   58.69%   41.31%
				
CC1      90,530  280,069   24.43%   75.57%
CC2     149,810  143,859   51.01%   48.99%
CC3     224,601  210,646   51.60%   48.40%
CC4     238,830  213,877   52.76%   47.24%
				
JP1      90,035  165,193   35.28%   64.72%
JP2      33,965   48,473   41.20%   58.80%
JP3      51,412   67,741   43.15%   56.85%
JP4     233,642  184,203   55.92%   44.08%
JP5     201,673  214,852   48.42%   51.58%
JP6       7,971   26,993   22.80%   77.20%
JP7      17,824  100,329   15.09%   84.91%
JP8      67,249   40,667   62.32%   37.68%

Menefee scored 54.66% of the vote, better than Ogg by almost a point, and better than Ryan’s 53.72% in 2016 by slightly more. Ryan was consistently an upper echelon performer in his three elections, and that was true in 2016 as well, as only Ogg, Hillary Clinton, and judicial candidate Kelly Johnson had more votes than his 685,075, with those three and Mike Engelhart being the only ones with a larger margin of victory than Ryan’s 95K. Menefee, who collected 848,451 total votes and won by a margin of 145K, was also top tier. His vote total trailed all of the statewide candidates except Chrysta Castaneda and Gisela Triana (one better than Kim Ogg), though his percentage was better than everyone except Joe Biden and Tina Clinton. He outpaced three of the four appellate court candidates (he trailed Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and all but four of the local judicial candidates. His margin of victory was eighth best, behind Biden, Castaneda, two statewide judicials, and three local judicials. (And Ed Gonzalez, but we’ll get to him next.)

Here’s my 2016 precinct analysis post for the County Attorney race, and here’s the relevant data from that year:


Dist    Leitner     Ryan  Leitner%   Ryan%
==========================================
CD02    158,149  113,363    58.25%  41.75%
CD07    135,129  116,091    53.79%  46.21%
CD09     25,714  106,728    19.42%  80.58%
CD10     80,244   36,703    68.62%  31.38%
CD18     46,062  154,354    22.98%  77.02%
CD29     35,312   93,732    27.36%  72.64%
				
SBOE6   331,484  269,022    55.20%  44.80%
				
HD126    34,999   25,571    57.78%  42.22%
HD127    47,719   24,876    65.73%  34.27%
HD128    40,809   17,464    70.03%  29.97%
HD129    41,206   26,677    60.70%  39.30%
HD130    58,268   21,630    72.93%  27.07%
HD131     6,719   39,011    14.69%  85.31%
HD132    37,294   30,571    54.95%  45.05%
HD133    46,509   28,002    62.42%  37.58%
HD134    42,937   44,634    49.03%  50.97%
HD135    31,651   27,468    53.54%  46.46%
HD137     8,661   17,869    32.65%  67.35%
HD138    26,893   23,486    53.38%  46.62%
HD139    11,874   39,721    23.01%  76.99%
HD140     6,316   20,762    23.33%  76.67%
HD141     4,969   32,887    13.13%  86.87%
HD142    10,179   34,249    22.91%  77.09%
HD143     8,745   23,486    27.13%  72.87%
HD144    10,725   16,024    40.09%  59.91%
HD145    10,858   22,921    32.14%  67.86%
HD146     9,532   38,323    19.92%  80.08%
HD147    11,719   45,087    20.63%  79.37%
HD148    17,529   29,206    37.51%  62.49%
HD149    15,405   27,290    36.08%  63.92%
HD150    48,085   26,950    64.08%  35.92%
				
CC1      70,740  240,579    22.72%  77.28%
CC2     123,739  124,368    49.87%  50.13%
CC3     188,415  160,213    54.04%  45.96%
CC4     206,707  158,990    56.52%  43.48%

Kim Ogg did slightly better in the districts in 2016 than Vince Ryan did (most notably in CD02, though Ryan outdid her in HD134), which is what you’d expect given her overall better performance. In a similar fashion, Menefee did slightly better in the districts than Ogg did, as expected given his superior totals. He won CD07 by a thousand more votes than Ogg did, and carried HD135 where Ogg did not. He lost CC2 by two points and 6K votes, while Ogg lost it by four points and 12K votes. His lead in CD29 was 6K smaller than Ryan’s was, while Ogg lost 10K off of her lead in CD29 from 2016.

Overall, Menefee improved on Ryan’s 2016 totals, and made larger gains than Ogg did over her 2016 numbers. Like Ogg, he lost ground in the Latino districts – CD29, HD140, HD143, HD144, CC2 – but not by as much. He had higher vote totals in the Latino State Rep districts, though by small amounts in HDs 140, 143, and 144, and increased the lead over what Ryan had achieved in HDs 145 and 148. Like Ogg, he also lost ground in HD149, going from a 12K lead to a 9K lead, and in HD128, going from a 23K deficit to a 27K deficit (Ogg went from down 21K to down 27K). He gained ground in HD127 (from down 23K to down 19K; Ogg stayed roughly the same) and lost only about a thousand net votes in HD130 as Ogg went from down 34K to down 39K. He posted strong gains in HD126 (down 9K to down 5K), HD133 (down 18K to down 13K), and HD150 (down 21K to down 16K).

On the whole, a very strong initial performance by Menefee. As I said, County Attorney is generally a lower-profile job than District Attorney and Sheriff, but between bail reform, the multiple election lawsuits, and the forthcoming Republican legislative assault on local control, there should be many chances for Menefee to make statements about what he does and can do. He’ll have a solid chance to build on what he did this year when he’s next up for election.

Do we still have to worry about the Elections Administrator’s office?

I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but…

Isabel Longoria

This year, Harris County began the process of consolidating the two offices that have historically handled elections — the county clerk and the tax assessor-collector’s office — under one roof.

Isabel Longoria, a special advisor on voting rights to the county clerk, was sworn in to lead the new office last month.

“Fundamentally the office is shifting from being reactive to proactive,” Longoria told the Signal. “Under the tax office and county clerk offices, since elections and voter registration were just one part of what they did, it was always kind of like, ‘oh shit elections are coming, now what’ or ‘oh shit, we’ve got to register voters, now what’ — now we have the capacity to say that this is our focus year-round.”

Harris County voters are already benefiting from some new practices, some they can see and some they can’t. Election results in the county are now updating every thirty minutes, and behind the scenes, election officials are working more closely together. For example, Longoria said the heads of both the voter registration and elections department were in the same room at NRG on election day.

[…]

Earlier this month, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sent a letter to Harris County informing them that Longoria’s newly created office did not exist. Paxton argued that the county violated Texas election code by creating the office without the proper timing and without appropriately informing the Texas Secretary of State. He gave the county two weeks to take “corrective action” before his office would intervene.

Harris County Commissioners Court was unmoved by the threat, the county attorney replied to Paxton detailing the paperwork, and nothing has come of it since. And business as usual has continued at the elections administrator’s office, Longoria said.

“I think he just wanted to make sure we filed our paperwork, and we did,” Longoria said. “That’s it. It’s one of those things where… yeah… nothing happened.”

That story was published on December 14, right after the District B runoff, which was the first election fully administered by the new office. It was also two weeks after Ken Paxton’s temper tantrum about the slow notification of the office’s creation and the appointment of Longoria as the chief. It’s now been four weeks since Paxton raised the possibility of taking Harris County to court if they didn’t take “corrective action” within two weeks. I guess Vince Ryan’s email to Paxton settled the matter, which suggests that maybe Paxton was making a much bigger deal over a minor boo-boo than he needed to make. Of course, he’s been a pretty busy man since then, what with being raided by the FBI and trying to overturn the election and all, so maybe he just hasn’t gotten back around to this. Sometimes these things just take longer than you think they will, you know?

The Harris County Election Security Task Force

I hadn’t realized that this was a thing, but it was and I’m glad it was.

A task force formed to ensure the security of the November election in Texas’ biggest county has found no evidence of wrongdoing after finishing its work.

The Harris County Election Security Task Force was made up of the Harris County Precinct 1 constable’s office, the district attorney’s office, the county attorney’s office and the county clerk’s office. In a report published Friday, the task force said it “received approximately 20 allegations of wrongdoing that needed to be elevated to the level of a formal investigation.”

“Despite claims, our thorough investigations found no proof of any election tampering, ballot harvesting, voter suppression, intimidation or any other type of foul play that might have impacted the legitimate cast or count of a ballot,” the report says.

[…]

The task force operated from Oct. 13 through Nov. 3, which was Election Day, according to the report. Undercover officers made 6,311 visits to 122 early voting and 806 Election Day polling sites. The task force responded to 77 calls for service. And it used four explosive-detecting K-9 units to to make 323 sweeps of polling locations, as well as “continual sweeps” while voters dropped off ballots at NRG Stadium on Election Day. (The task force found no explosives.)

“We all worked together to ensure our elections, which are the lifeblood of democracy, were free and fair and that any and all allegations were thoroughly investigated,” Ogg said.

The report is here, and it’s an easy read. This is good from a pragmatic perspective, in that it was good for the various law enforcement agencies to work together and coordinate efforts, and it was good from a transparency perspective, as each incident is detailed along with the response and resolution. You should read through the incident reports, which begin on page 8 and are the bulk of the document. Incident #2 was the subject of some fever-swamp “reporting” on right wing websites – a fellow Democrat who had come across one of those stories emailed me about it early on, and I noted in my reply to them the various ways in which it sounded like BS – while incident #22 was the Aguirre situation, which the report noted was referred to the DA’s office. The fact that in addition to responding to calls from the public, the task force made regular proactive checks on voting locations to ensure their safety was retroactively reassuring to me. It also had an actual, positive effect, unlike the fear-mongering and snipe hunting our state leaders engaged in. Put this down as another innovation from 2020 that we should keep on doing in the future.

Commissioners Court rejects Paxton allegation about Elections Administrator

Straight to the point.

Best mugshot ever

The Democrats on Harris County Commissioners Court on Tuesday rejected an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in which he said they illegally created an independent elections office and hired an administrator.

The move invites a potential lawsuit from the attorney general, which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was confident the county would win.

“This is another example of (Attorney) General Paxton using his office to attack the voting rights of Texans,” Ellis said.

He noted that Paxton sued to prevent counties from installing more than one drop box for mail-in ballots during this fall’s general election. The attorney general also convinced the Texas Supreme Court to block Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.5 million registered voters. Paxton also had issued an opinion suggesting the county’s drive-thru voting arrangements violated the state election code.

[…]

In a written response to Paxton Tuesday, [County Attorney Vince] Ryan acknowledged that Harris County had not promptly informed the state of those actions. He said, however, that Texas law says the delays do not change their validity.

Harris County joined more than 100 other Texas counties in creating an independent elections office, which combines the election management role of the county clerk with the voter registration duties of the tax assessor-collector.

The three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted in favor of the change, arguing it is more efficient. The two Republicans were opposed, saying it created an administrator who is unaccountable to voters.

The court was similarly divided in Tuesday afternoon’s discussion. Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo dismissed Paxton’s threat as a distraction and said Longoria must be able to do her job.

Precinct 4 Commissioner Jack Cagle, a Republican, said Ellis’s criticism of Paxton was unfounded. The attorney general has a duty to ensure the law is followed, he said.

“When Paxton says we didn’t follow the rules, I don’t think there is some evil intent,” Cagle said.

See here for the background, and let’s put aside for the moment the laughable idea that Ken Paxton has any moral authority when it comes to telling people to obey the rules. I dismissed Paxton’s threats as mere bluster, but I’m an Internet smartass. There are no real consequences when I’m wrong about something. I certainly hope Vince Ryan is right about this – and as a side matter, I hope incoming County Attorney Christian Menefee was consulted and is on board with this, because it will be his mess to clean up if Ryan and the rest of us are wrong. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if we’re about to be dragged into a prolonged court battle, or if this was indeed just hot air. The Texas Signal and the Chron’s Erica Greider have more.

Paxton has a tantrum about the Harris County Election Administrator

Someone is going to have to help me understand this, because I’m clearly missing something.

Best mugshot ever

Harris County failed to follow the Texas Election Code when it created an independent election administration office, rendering the office and the appointment of Isabel Longoria as administrator null and void, according to Attorney General Ken Paxton.

In a Nov. 25 letter to the county attorney’s office, Paxton said Harris County did not inform the secretary of state in a timely fashion, as required by law, when it created the new office in July and when an administrator was selected in October to run it.

“As a result, neither the Commissioners Court’s July 14, 2020 order nor the Election Commission’s October 30, 2020 appointment of (Isabel) Longoria to the position holds any legal weight,” Paxton wrote. “In short, the Harris County Office of Election Administrator does not exist.”

Longoria’s appointment should be rescinded, the attorney general said.

County Clerk Teneshia Hudspeth referred questions to County Judge Lina Hidalgo, who deferred to the County Attorney’s office. First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said all required documentation regarding the election administration office has been sent to the secretary of state.

“We feel confident that, after they review this, all misunderstandings will be cleared up,” Soard said.

Longoria said in a statement that the county attorney had advised her there were no procedural issues with the creation of her office; she will continue working.

[…]

The Election Code requires counties to inform the secretary of state within three days of creating an elections administration office. Within six days, it must inform the state of the appointment of an administrator.

Paxton said Harris County waited two weeks to inform the secretary of state it had created the elections administration office and three weeks to formally disclose the hiring of Longoria as administrator, a senior aide in the County Clerk’s Office.

Harris County must take “corrective action” within 14 days, the attorney general said, or the state may take the issue to court. Paxton did not respond to a question asking why his office did not address Harris County’s error in July.

County Attorney Vince Ryan placed an item on Tuesday’s Commissioners Court agenda to discuss the matter.

Here’s the relevant statutes relating to an Elections Administrator:

Sec. 31.031. CREATION OF POSITION. (a) The commissioners court by written order may create the position of county elections administrator for the county.

(b) The order must state the date the creation of the position of administrator is effective. The effective date may not be later than 12 months after the date the order is adopted.

(c) To facilitate the orderly transfer of duties on the effective date, the order may authorize the commissioners court to employ the administrator-designate not earlier than the 90th day before the effective date of the creation of the position, at a salary not to exceed that to be paid to the administrator.

(d) Not later than the third day after the date the order is adopted, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the order to:

(1) the secretary of state; and

(2) each member of the county election commission.

Sec. 31.032. APPOINTMENT OF ADMINISTRATOR; COUNTY ELECTION COMMISSION. (a) The position of county elections administrator is filled by appointment of the county election commission, which consists of:

(1) the county judge, as chair;

(2) the county clerk, as vice chair;

(3) the county tax assessor-collector, as secretary; and

(4) the county chair of each political party that made nominations by primary election for the last general election for state and county officers preceding the date of the meeting at which the appointment is made.

(b) The affirmative vote of a majority of the commission’s membership is necessary for the appointment of an administrator.

(c) Each appointment must be evidenced by a written resolution or order signed by the number of commission members necessary to make the appointment. Not later than the third day after the date an administrator is appointed, the officer who presided at the meeting shall file a signed copy of the resolution or order with the county clerk. Not later than the third day after the date the copy is filed, the county clerk shall deliver a certified copy of the resolution or order to the secretary of state.

(d) The initial appointment may be made at any time after the adoption of the order creating the position.

The relevant sections relating to timing are highlighted in bold. As was noted in the comments to the Chron story, there’s nothing in the laws to say what happens if a county, for whatever the reason, fails to do the paperwork in a timely fashion. Saying that the appointment is null and void for being a few days late is to be the equivalent of saying that because there were a couple of precincts in Wayne County that didn’t exactly balance we need to throw out every vote in the county. I may not be a lawyer, but I can tell when the remedy doesn’t fit the alleged infraction. And if we’re going to be super-technical about it, then let Commissioners Court rescind and re-appoint Longoria today, and notify the Secretary of State later in the day via email, fax, Fed Ex, town crier, and unfurling a giant poster with Isabel Longoria’s picture on it outside the SOS office tomorrow morning. Will that suffice?

This part puzzles me even more:

Republican State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, a frequent critic of local Democrats, urged Commissioners Court to revoke Longoria’s appointment.

“Appointing an administrator of elections in the nation’s third largest county should have been made by following the prescribed legal process to the letter,” Bettencourt said in a statement. “The attorney general’s letter is specific that the duties of that office should be returned to the elected county clerk and tax assessor-collector.”

The dispute is the latest in a series of disagreements between Texas leaders and Harris County officials over how the state’s largest county runs its elections. Paxton and state Elections Director Keith Ingram see their actions as reigning in rogue local leaders; Hidalgo and county officials view them as unnecessary micromanagement.

I mean, we’re aware that all of the election innovation that made Ken Paxton and Paul Bettencourt SO MAD last month was done by the County Clerk, right? Not a non-partisan official whose bosses include the Chair of the Harris County GOP? I’m trying real hard here, but I fail to see what they think they’d be gaining by putting Teneshia Hudspeth in charge of running elections. Do they think she wouldn’t keep doing what she did while Chris Hollins and Diane Trautman were in charge? Have they forgotten that she’s an elected Democrat? Seriously, what is their angle here? I mean, other than being little pettifoggers with a grievance. Like I said up front, someone help me understand this one.

Menefee and Fagan

I’m delighted about the election of Christian Menefee as Harris County Attorney, and look forward to his inauguration.

Christian Menefee

Christian Menefee, the youngest and first African-American elected Harris County attorney Tuesday evening, took little time to celebrate his historic victory.

By 9:30 a.m. Wednesday, he was meeting with the office’s first assistant, beginning the transition process so he can hit the ground running in January. During his campaign, the 32-year-old litigator had pitched himself as a progressive advocate eager to work on issues, including bail reform.

“I ran for this office because I saw that it has a real opportunity to impact life for everyday people,” Menefee said Wednesday. “In every issue, the way I will approach it is, ‘how does this affect the collective good of the people of Harris County?’”

With the full, unofficial results tallied, Menefee bested Republican John Nation by more than 141,000 votes. He defeated three-term incumbent Vince Ryan in the March primary.

Menefee, who has never held public office, told the Houston Chronicle editorial board he wants to aggressively pursue polluters and also be a strong advocate of local control. Harris and other large urban counties in the state, which are run by Democrats, have clashed repeatedly in recent years with Republican state leaders on issues such as the COVID-19 response, eviction policies and election procedures.

The County Attorney’s Office essentially serves as the in-house law firm for Harris County, representing the interests of residents and public officials in lawsuits. Menefee said he wants to immediately fill 15 vacancies among the 120 staff attorney corps, and look to create additional positions in the future.

He said he also wants to help attorneys develop expertise in certain areas, such as election law, so the county can rely less on outside lawyers when those issues arise.

“I want to get the office constituted in a way that best utilizes our resources and puts us in the position to aggressively fight for the things I want to fight for,” Menefee said.

As I have said repeatedly, I thought Vince Ryan was an exemplary County Attorney, and I salute him for his three successful terms in office. But it was clear to me that Menefee had the better vision for the office, and the right attitude to take in this time of increasing hostility from state Republicans towards the values that we vote for in Harris County. He’s the right person for the job, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

Fort Bend is now almost all Democratic at the countywide level (County Clerk, Treasurer, and a couple of County Courts at Law, all unopposed in 2018, are the exceptions), and they made some history with their new Sheriff.

Democrat Eric Fagan made history Tuesday night as Fort Bend County voters elected him to be the county’s first Black sheriff since Reconstruction.

The victory of Fagan, a retired Houston police officer, comes two years after a blue wave brought two other people of color to top jobs in the highly diverse county: Brian Middleton was elected the county’s first Black district attorney, and KP George became its first Indian-American judge.

“Fort Bend is changing. It’s the most diverse county, in not just the state, but in the nation,” Fagan, 60, said of the changing politics. “Its leadership should reflect it.”

Fagan received 53 percent against Nehls, the Precinct 4 constable seeking to succeed his twin brother Troy as sheriff. In a win for Republicans, Troy Nehls was elected to an open congressional seat on Tuesday.

Fagan ran on a progressive platform — promising body cameras for sheriff’s deputies, improved mental health training and better community policing.

County voters hadn’t elected a black sheriff since Reconstruction. In 1869, Walter Moses Burton, a freed slave, was elected sheriff during a brief period of biracial county government following the Civil War. Burton taught himself to read and write and later was elected state senator. In that role, he pushed through a bill that helped establish the Prairie View Normal School, now Prairie View A&M University, which is Fagan’s alma mater.

“He started my school that I graduated from, Prairie View A&M University,” said Fagan. “It’s very historic and very great. It shows that Fort Bend County is growing and they’re embracing the diversity.”

Fagan previously worked for 31 years in the Houston Police Department, including on Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner’s security detail.

Fagan has listed a number of goals, including modifying the county’s 911 dispatch system to allow the closest officer to respond to calls; strengthening relations between the sheriff’s office and the community by creating a citizens review board to review questionable actions; and using mediation more to resolve disputes.

Congratulations and best of luck to you, Sheriff-elect Eric Fagan.