Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Ken Paxton

Abortion clinics say “ban’s over, we’re back”

I’m sure this will be left alone.

Right there with them

Texas clinics resumed offering abortions Wednesday after a strict bar on nonessential medical procedures was loosened at midnight.

The ban on nearly all abortions in Texas has been the subject of weeks of litigation — starting in late March when the governor postponed all surgeries not “immediately medically necessary” to preserve medical resources for coronavirus patients. Attorney General Ken Paxton said the ban extends to abortions, and the politically conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has largely sided with state officials.

The legal fight is ongoing. Abortion providers have accused state officials of political opportunism, saying abortions rarely result in hospitalization and require little or no protective equipment.

A new order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that took effect Wednesday allows more procedures to resume in health care facilities that agree to reserve a certain number of beds for coronavirus patients and to refrain from seeking scarce protective equipment from public sources.

Abbott demurred when asked last week if abortions could proceed under his latest directive, saying it was a decision for the courts and “not part of this order.”

But abortion providers said Wednesday that they meet the criteria he laid out.

See here and here for the background. I assume this will wind up in court again, and the main question will be what ridiculous justifications the Fifth Circuit will come up with to agree with the state’s position. Until then, this is where we are today.

UPDATE: It appears that the state has agreed that the expiration of the order means that there is no further restriction on abortions. So that’s a relief.

How do you conduct an election in a pandemic?

We’re about to find out, one way or another.

There will be an election in Texas in mid-July, apparently with polling sites, election workers and voting machines in place so people can cast their ballots in person. How many voters might be willing to risk a trip to the polls during a pandemic, though, remains unknown.

As Texas Republicans work to block the expansion of mail-in balloting during the new coronavirus crisis, local election administrators across the state are deciphering how to safely host voters for the July 14 primary runoff elections — and eventually the November general election — under circumstances unseen by even the most veteran among them.

Looking to expand curbside voting, some election officials are considering re-tooling parking garages or shuttered banks with drive-thru lanes. Rethinking contact during a process that requires close proximity, others are toying with the idea of buying hundreds of thousands of pencils that voters would take home after using the eraser end to mark their ballots on touch screen voting machines.

Many are scrambling to add sanitizing and protective gear to the long list of equipment needed to pull off a safe election. Plexiglass or plastic shields, like those now common at grocery store registers, could make an appearance at polling place check-in stations.

One huge unknown hangs over all the planning — whether there will be a surge of mail-in voting that creates a whole new sphere of logistical challenges.

“It’s almost like you’re preparing for two elections rather than one,” said Lisa Wise, the elections administrator in El Paso County. “That’s just part of what we’re in right now.”

[…]

Operating polling places during a pandemic creates another set of safety challenges as voters must check in, sign poll books and stand in lines.

Election administrators recently shared among themselves a poll that offered insight into how people feel about voting in person during a pandemic — 66% of Americans said they would feel uncomfortable going to a polling place now.

In Aransas County, elections administrator Michele Carew is considering whether she should establish a pop-up voting center in a tent in a parking lot. Because the county is small, her office warehouse typically serves as the only early voting site in the county. But with social distancing rules in place, she’d only be able to fit five voting machines instead of the 10 that normally run. That would be particularly unworkable for the high turnout expected for the November election, she said.

Other election administrations are exchanging messages about whether reducing polling locations would allow them to get a better handle on the situation; others are responding with suggestions about doubling the number of locations so they can space out voters and machines.

But those conversations often dovetail into another crucial consideration — there’s no way to know if they’ll have enough poll workers to staff their voting sites.

“Sixty percent of my election officials are over 65 so obviously they need to be replaced or a vast majority of them need to be replaced,” said Jacque Callanen, the Bexar County elections administrator. She’s considering turning to a pool of county workers who she can train up for the election, but the coronavirus will also get in the way of that.

Typically, she’d be able to cram 80 people into her training room, but she’ll be down to 20 at a time with social distancing requirements.

At this point, though, Callanen isn’t even certain how many poll workers she’ll need. A majority of the county’s polling sites would be propped up in public schools, but she’s not sure if they’ll be able to open up those sites to the public during an outbreak.

This is all a big fricking mess, with the huge uncertainties of where we will be with the virus, whether or not expanded vote-by-mail will be allowed, what sites will be available and practical to use, who will be willing to staff them, and so on and so forth. It’s on thing to say “this is the way it is and these are the parameters you have to work with” and ask election officials to plan for that, and another entirely to say “we have no idea what the conditions will be so plan for every possible scenario”, which is where we are right now. We could at least try to settle the vote by mail question, but as is so often the case our wishy-washy Governor has yet to articulate a position on the matter, leaving it up to the courts and his nihilistic Attorney General to sort it out. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that the July primary runoffs, plus the SD14 special election, are going to be pretty low turnout overall. As such, we can probably cobble together something that will more or less work. November is an entirely different story. Remember those pictures from Wisconsin? As the Fort Bend elections administrator says, if we don’t figure this out we’re gonna be Wisconsin times ten. The clock is ticking.

Fifth Circuit flips off abortion rights again

I’m so sick of this shit.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court has again banned most abortions in Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic, though the ruling will only be in effect for two days.

The ruling on Monday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibits medication and surgical abortions for nearly all women except those nearing the state’s 22-week legal gestational limit to obtain one. The court had ruled last week that medication abortions could proceed.

But the court’s ruling will expire Tuesday night.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new order loosening restrictions on nonessential surgical procedures — presumably including abortions — starting Wednesday, though neither he nor Attorney General Ken Paxton have clarified how abortions will be impacted.

Abbott’s original order restricted procedures to only those that require “immediate” response to protect a life or serious adverse medical outcome. The new order replaces “immediate” with “timely.” Physicians are left to determine whether the criteria is met.

Paxton has no plans to clarify how the new order applies to abortions, according to a spokeswoman. He has previously threatened criminal action against doctors who perform them during the ban.

In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit said medication abortions use masks and other critical protective gear needed for frontline doctors to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Abortion providers are required to meet with patients before and after providing them pills to terminate a pregnancy, the court wrote, and should be wearing protective gear during those visits.

“The question, then, is not whether medication abortions consume (personal protective equipment) in normal times, but whether they consume PPE during a public health emergency involving a spreading contagion that places severe strains on medical resources,” it wrote.

It was one week ago that the court allowed medical abortions to continue, so if you’re feeling some whiplash, you’re not alone. It boggles my mind that restrictions could be re-imposed by the court at a time when they are being eased up by the state, but that’s Fifth Circuit logic for you. What happens tomorrow when this order expires? Who the hell knows? It’s been bullshit from beginning to end. If we ever want to get off this demonic roller coaster, it’s going to require a new Governor and a new Attorney General, at the very least. The Trib has more.

Abbott and Paxton continue to play politics with abortion

This is exactly the problem with that Fifth Circuit ruling.

Right there with them

Though Gov. Greg Abbott loosened a ban on nonessential surgeries, he said Friday it would be up to courts to decide if his order restores access to abortions — the subject of a weekslong legal brawl — as the state continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ultimately, obviously that will be a decision for courts to make,” Abbott said, adding, that an allowance for abortion is “not part of this order. The way that the order is written is in terms of what doctors write about the type of treatment that is provided.”

The Republican governor issued an order last month barring medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary” to preserve protective equipment and hospital beds for coronavirus patients. His directive extends through April 21 and Abbott said Friday the restrictions would be relaxed starting April 22.

But Attorney General Ken Paxton has declared Abbott’s first order applies to all abortions except those needed to protect the life or health of the woman. The near-total ban prompted a lawsuit from abortion providers, who accused state officials of political opportunism and argued the procedure does not usually require hospitalization nor extensive protective gear.

See here for the last entry. This is exactly what I meant when I said that if all it takes is a declaration of an emergency for the state to shutter abortion clinics, then there is no right to abortion in Texas and the law as it now exists is a sham. Abbott is on the one hand saying that we can start easing up on shutdown orders and we have plenty of hospital capacity (not that abortion has anything but a negligible effect on that), but hey, it’s not up to him to decide whether any of this means that reproductive health care can go back to its usual business even if other medical services that are deemed “non-essential” can resume. It’s cynical and chickenshit on his part, and it again shows that there has to be some kind of consistency. And it again shows why the Fifth Circuit sucks.

Here’s the official order in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit

Round One went to the plaintiffs. From there, who knows.

A Texas state district judge on Friday issued an order allowing voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail for as long as the pandemic lasts — an early victory for the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups seeking to expand mail-in voting, though the ruling is almost certain to be quickly appealed by the state.

Judge Tim Sulak’s temporary injunction says the state can’t stop voters from voting by mail based on disability “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and it stops the state from “taking actions” preventing county elections officials from accepting and counting mail-in ballots from those voters.

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

Democrats and voting rights groups, who have sued in both state and federal court, argued the disability clause should cover voters who are worried about showing up to a polling place during a pandemic. But Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has said fear of the coronavirus is not an acceptable excuse to claim disability to vote by mail.

The order was expected after Sulak said during a court hearing earlier this week he was inclined to issue it.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the order. I don’t believe an appeal has been filed or even formally announced yet, but it’s 100% there will be one, and this won’t be settled as a matter of state litigation till the Supreme Court rules. As noted, there is also a federal lawsuit out there, so all sorts of things can happen. Also, so far this ruling just affects the primary runoffs in July. There will be another hearing in August on the merits of the case to determine whether this should be extended to the November election. Assuming that other rulings haven’t made this all moot by then, of course.

In the meantime, here’s another look from Vox’s Ian Millhiser, who had done an earlier analysis that outlined the cruz of the dispute. This article in Slate also provides a useful way of thinking about this case.

The election law in question says a person can only vote by mail if the would-be voter “has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” On one hand, Paxton’s claim that being sick means actually being physically ill is plausible. The rule, he says, is about sick people who can’t get to the polls because they are sick, or who might get sicker if they had to vote in person. It is not about non-sick people afraid of getting sick if they go to the polls.

As the ACLU stated it in its motion in the case, though, it’s arguable that everyone now has a “physical condition” that increases the “likelihood” that going to the polls might “injure[] the voter’s health.” (New Hampshire has interpreted its analogous “physical disability” provision in precisely this way) Paxton’s construction of the statute, meanwhile, also might mean that someone who actually tests positive for COVID-19 but is asymptomatic may not qualify for an absentee ballot, which seems absurd. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser wrote: “Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate.”

This is where Texas’ judges should turn to the so-called “democracy canon,” a method of interpreting statutes that is tailor-made for cases like this one. In his 2009 Stanford Law Review article about the method, University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen offered a case citation that perfectly captures the heart of the democracy canon: “[a]ll statutes tending to limit the citizen in his exercise of [the right of suffrage] should be liberally construed in his favor.” In other words, when there is a “tie” in how to interpret the statute, the tie goes to the voter.

The case Hasen cited—Owens v. State ex rel. Jennett—was, in fact, a Texas Supreme Court case. Indeed, Texas historically adopted a fairly strong version of what Hasen called the democracy canon. In one appeals court case from the 1950s on the very subject of absentee ballots, Sanchez v. Bravo, a Texas court established a “clear statement” rule regarding restrictions on the right to vote. If a state is going to prevent someone from voting, the court ruled, they have to say so in “clear and unmistakable terms.” Otherwise, courts must read the law in a way that promotes “the right of the citizen to cast his ballot and thus participate in the selection of those who control his government.”

Finally, there is a related issue about the good faith of the voters who’ve decided they want to vote absentee by mail. If the Texas Supreme Court eventually comes down on the side of a narrow reading of the law—turning its back on the democracy canon and an older body of the court’s own jurisprudence—this could be made up by voting officials and lower courts generously construing on a case-by-case basis voters’ reasons why they chose to vote absentee. It is here that Paxton’s veiled warning in the letter that those who obtain ballots by “false pretenses” can be prosecuted sounds a sour note. It is one thing to proclaim a general election rule regarding sickness and disability. It is a separate and more ominous thing for the state of Texas to threaten voters who understandably want to have it both ways: to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic and exercise their right to vote.

Again, nothing really matters in this lawsuit except what five or more members of the state Supreme Court say, but it’s good to have a way to make a coherent argument for the plaintiffs. And by the way, if you’d like to see that ambiguous language in the state law replaced by something that unambiguously allows for more people to vote by mail, that starts with electing more Democrats to office, most especially in the Attorney General’s office.

What’s weird in all of this is that voting by mail has long been a Republican asset, though admittedly in this state for a very small number of voters. I agree with Campos, Republican voters themselves like voting by mail. I’m old enough to remember that vote by mail is exempt from the state’s ridiculously strict voter ID law, in large part because the Republicans who passed our voter ID law recognized that vote by mail was their bread and butter. That appears to have been replaced by a larger fear of anything that might make voting easier for the general public, which for sure is what everyone from Trump on down is trumpeting. But be careful what you wish for, because the recent Wisconsin experience suggests that Democrats may be better equipped to overcome barriers to voting than Republicans are, since Democrats by now have so much more experience in having to overcome obstacles. Maybe – I know this is crazy talk, but hear me out – if the Republicans spent a bit more time persuading people to vote for them rather than making it harder for anyone to vote, they might be better off in the end.

Hotze sues Abbott and Paxton

Just another day at the office for this guy.

A group of conservative activists and pastors that’s challenging Harris County’s stay-at-home order is now also suing Gov. Greg Abbott, claiming his recent executive order to stem the spread of Covid-19 infringes on their constitutional rights.

In a suit filed in Travis County on Thursday, Steve Hotze , a longtime conservative activist, and multiple Houston-area pastors accuse the governor of “imposing draconian, unconstitutional requirements” on Texans. Attorney General Ken Paxton is also a defendant in the suit.

“Once government and its constituents start operating on the basis of fear rather than facts, they are willing to take whatever medicine is prescribed, no matter how harmful the side effects may be,” the suit says. “Churches and small businesses are shut down, and Texans right to move about freely is restricted. For all practical purposes, the governor’s executive orders constitutes a ‘lock-down.’”

[…]

Multiple legal experts said that the order struck a fine balance between public health concerns and religious liberties, and many congregations said they would continue meeting online .

Jared Woodfill, the former Harris County GOP chairman who is representing the plaintiffs, said that Abbott’s order did not go far enough.

“I don’t think the governor has a right to say when people can worship or the manner in which they can worship,” Woodfill said.

The new suit also challenges the authority granted to Texas governors or local authorities under the state’s disaster act. Woodfill accused Abbott and local leaders of “suspending” laws and thus setting a poor precedent for future disasters.

“Think about the authority that this one statute gives to so many individuals,” Woodfill said. “…They can effectively do what they’ve done: Destroy an economy.”

See here and here for the background. The first couple of pages of the lawsuit can be seen in this Jasper Scherer tweet, but it’s all preamble and background, and cuts off before it gets to the actual allegations about what actions or laws they claim are illegal. I Am Not A Lawyer, but it is my understanding that governors in general do have fairly broad powers in times of emergency, as we saw recently following Hurricane Harvey. This particular emergency/disaster is quantitatively different than the usual weather-based disasters we’re used to, and as such we’ve never seen an invocation of powers like this before. For sure, there has been overstep by Abbott, with the backdoor abortion ban (that was somewhat curtailed) and the assault on bail reform, which remains unsettled. I’m certainly open to the idea that these powers are perhaps too broad, that they have been applied in inconsistent or unjust ways, and that there needs to be some check on them to ensure that “emergencies” are not declared on a whim or extended well past reasonable deadlines.

That said, this is not a good faith attempt to define reasonable limits or find a better balance between public safety and executive authority. The only thing Steven Hotze cares about is himself, and the only principle at stake here is his own belief that “your laws don’t apply to me”. Hotze’s argument is that he and people like him represent a special protected class that gets to do what they want without legal constraint, and without any concern about the effect on the health, safety, or rights of anyone else. I’m sure you can tell from my description how I feel about this, but I really want to underline how corrosive this is to society as a whole, especially in times of crisis. The only tool we have right now for mitigating this virus is collective action that puts the health and wellbeing of others ahead of our own personal interests. Your actions benefit everyone else, and everyone else’s actions benefit you. We don’t need to do this forever, but the better we are about doing it now, the sooner we can get back to behaving normally. The main threat to this is exactly what Hotze is doing, elevating his own interests and actions above everyone else’s, because if that guy gets to do whatever he wants to do, why can’t the rest of us? It’s a short step from there to back where we were in early March, when the baseline “if we do nothing” models for coronavirus predicted upwards of two million deaths. I know we all have short attention spans, but I’d hope we still remember that.

In the meantime, we’ll see what the courts make of this. I’ll be very interested to see what kind of response Abbott and Paxton make to this complaint. I don’t expect Hotze to get a favorable ruling at the district court level, but I do expect him to push this all the way to the Supreme Court, no matter how long it takes. Any lawyers out there who have an opinion on the merits of this petition, please leave a comment.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fifth Circuit allows medical abortions to proceed

Well, this is a pleasant surprise.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing a ban on medication-induced abortions as part of the state’s curbs on certain medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result of fast-moving litigation over Texas’s abortion restrictions, women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy may do so through the use of medicine, but only women nearing their 22nd week of pregnancy may undergo a surgical abortion.

In its Monday ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said it sided against Texas because it was unclear if the state’s public health order halting nonessential medical procedures applied to medication-induced abortions.

“[Abortion providers] argue that medication abortions are not covered by [the order] because neither dispensing medication nor ancillary diagnostic elements, such as a physical examination or ultrasound, qualify as ‘procedures,’” the three-judge panel wrote.

“Given the ambiguity in the record, we conclude on the briefing and record before us that [Texas officials] have not made the requisite strong showing [necessary for] relief,” the panel said.

The panel’s decision partially reinstates a lower court ruling that limited the Texas health order’s impact on abortions.

Following the 5th Circuit’s ruling, abortion providers on Tuesday withdrew an application submitted to the Supreme Court over the weekend that had asked the justices to intervene.

See here and here for the background. It’s still far less than great, in that it accepts the premise that abortions aren’t essential health care and can be routinely delayed for political reasons, but at least it recognizes that dispensing medication is in no way a threat to the supply of PPEs. From this godforsaken court, that counts as a ringing victory. SCOTUSBlog and the Trib have more.

And so we go to SCOTUS

Pardon me while I gird my loins for whatever happens next.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers have taken a back-and-forth legal battle with the state of Texas over its temporary ban on the procedure to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The groups on Saturday requested an emergency stay from the high court, asking that it overturn a federal appeals court decision and allow medication-induced abortion services, and surgical abortions in limited circumstances, while the case proceeds.

The request comes amid the longest period that women in the state have ever been without access to abortion since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized the procedure, as the more than two-weeklong legal saga continues.

The battle began when Gov. Greg Abbott on March 22 banned elective surgeries during the coronavirus state of disaster in a move intended to conserve personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic, and the groups quickly filed suit. The Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is representing the state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The state has argued that personal protective equipment would still be needed with medication abortions and that those could even require hospitalizations if complications followed. Paxton said in an interview with CBS on Wednesday that he figured that the case would rise to the nation’s highest court.

Legal battles are brewing in several other states where abortion rights groups have sued over similar bans, including Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma, but Texas’ case is the first to reach the Supreme Court.

See here for the previous update. It’s possible that SCOTUS will react the way they did following the recent Louisiana case where that state passed an anti-abortion law nearly identical to the one SCOTUS had struck down from Texas in the Whole Women’s Health decision, with the message going to the Fifth Circuit that “you don’t get to overturn Roe v Wade, only we get to do that” (hat tip to Dahlia Lithwick for the concept). If that’s the case, they’ll allow the hold on the executive order to stay in place until they can rule on the issue, in which case they have whatever rein they want to restrict abortions. I mean, let’s be clear, if all it takes to shut down clinics across the state is for the governor to declare a state of emergency, then what’s stopping him from declaring a permanent state of emergency? Or at least saying that until there’s a broad-based coronavirus vaccine that meets whatever arbitrary standard of effectiveness that Texas would choose, all such restrictions must stay in place? A right is not a right if it can be revoked on a whim, and there has to be some clear and compelling reason for it to be restricted in the first place. We’ll see what SCOTUS makes of this, but we need to be prepared for some bad news.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I need to tell you that the Fifth Circuit did it again?

I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s what happened.

Right there with them

In the latest turn of a whiplash-inducing federal court battle over Texas GOP officials’ near-total ban on abortion during the novel coronavirus outbreak, a federal appeals court on Friday once again lent support to state officials and prohibited the procedure under all but a few narrow circumstances.

For now, the higher court said, the only patients who may terminate their pregnancies in Texas are those who would pass the legal gestational limit for abortions while a gubernatorial emergency order barring elective medical procedures remains in place. The news comes just a day after a federal district judge in Austin ordered that those patients, as well as others planning to undergo “medication abortions,” which involve ingesting pills, should be permitted to terminate their pregnancies as planned.

Texans bans abortions starting 22 weeks after a patient’s last menstrual period, meaning some patients would have been unable to terminate their pregnancies at all.

Providers said the newest order from the federal appeals court makes abortion “largely inaccessible” and said they will weigh every legal option — including seeking emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court is unjustifiably forcing women to wait until the 11th hour to get the time-sensitive, essential healthcare that they are constitutionally guaranteed,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We will pursue all legal options to ensure no women are left behind.”

Already, hundreds of patients have seen their planned abortions disrupted, and providers have been thrust into uncertainty as the legal status of the procedures they perform has changed as many as three times during a single week.

The litigation is far from complete, with deadlines as soon this weekend for attorneys on both sides of the case to make more arguments before the court.

See here for the previous update. Someone whose galaxy brain is bigger than mine is going to have to explain to me the rationale for banning medication abortions, since as far as I can tell that imposes no burden on the healthcare system. I don’t know what else there is to say. The Chron has more.

Ridiculous Hotze lawsuit now in district court

We are all dumber by the mere existence of this.

The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Harris County’s stay-at-home order, though the legal fight is set to continue in state district court.

The Wednesday ruling came at the request of the suit’s plaintiffs, including longtime conservative activist Steve Hotze and the pastors of three Houston-area churches.

Earlier this week, Jared Woodfill, the group’s attorney, filed a new case in Harris County that similarly claims County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights because it allegedly continues to restrict church services even after Hidalgo revised it to align with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order deeming churches “essential businesses.”

The governor’s March 31 directive, akin to the stay-at-home orders issued by counties across Texas, came one day after anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez filed a petition arguing that Harris County’s order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The four original plaintiffs remain on the new lawsuit, and they are joined by Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader who represented a district in the Houston area until 2006. The plaintiffs also have challenged Montgomery County’s stay-at-home order in a different state district court.

[…]

Last Friday, Hidalgo revised her order to “permit in-person religious services that comply with the CDC’s guidelines,” according to a court filing by the county attorney’s office. The plaintiffs are continuing to challenge Hidalgo’s order in state district court, Woodfill said, in part because it imposes penalties — up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine — that Abbott’s does not.

Hidalgo’s amended order says: “Per the Texas Attorney General’s guidance on this topic, if religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, then religious services may be conducted in churches, congregations and houses of worship.”

Woodfill said he interprets that language to bar most churches from meeting in person, because most are capable of holding services remotely.

“Just about every church has the ability to do that,” Woodfill said. “Maybe there are some small churches that don’t. That doesn’t mean your parishioners have internet or the ability to access the service. We think that’s clearly government coming in to the church and issuing edicts and mandates that are an infringement on religious liberties.”

See here for the background. All this and Tom DeLay, too, because you can’t spell “stupid, evil, and corrupt” without Tom DeLay. Bear in mind, Hotze got what he wanted from Abbott’s executive order. It’s just that he’s special, so very special, and the rules of law and man don’t apply to him. I could sit here and spew invective at him all day, but what’s the point? He’s a sociopath, and this is what he does. If you get hurt as a result, that’s not his problem.

Abortion ban partially lifted

Here we go again.

Right there with them

In a second rebuke to Texas GOP officials who have said a ban on nearly all abortions is essential as the state battles the novel coronavirus, a federal judge in Austin ruled Thursday that some abortions may proceed.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel narrowed Texas’ prohibition to allow certain abortions to proceed while a gubernatorial emergency order barring medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary” still stands. The ruling will allow Texas abortion providers to proceed with medication abortions — which involve patients ingesting pills and do not consume scarce medical protective equipment — as well as procedural abortions for patients who risk meeting the state’s gestational age cutoff for abortions before Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order is lifted.

[…]

Abbott’s emergency order is set to expire later this month, but it may be extended as the state prepares for a peak in coronavirus cases that may not come for weeks. In Texas, abortions are prohibited starting 22 weeks after a patient’s last menstrual period — meaning even if Abbott’s order lifts in April, patients who wait might not have the opportunity to obtain a legal abortion in Texas at all.

U.S. 5th Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan had said the order was best understood not as an “absolute ban” but as a “temporary postponement” in line with delays for many medical procedures, like colonoscopies. But Yeakel argued that because abortions, unlike colonoscopies, are time-limited, “to women in these categories, the executive order is an absolute ban on abortion.”

See here for the last update. If you’re feeling a little whiplashed, I understand. I also caution you to hold on, because this revised restraining order is headed right back to the Fifth Circuit, where we will see if this is what they had in mind, or if they move the goalposts again. I’m not making any predictions. The Chron has more.

The Fifth Circuit sticks the shiv the rest of the way in

The worst court in the country does its thing again.

Right there with them

A New Orleans-based federal appeals court will, for now, allow Texas to enforce a ban on almost all abortions as the state battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Overturning the decision of a lower court, a three-judge panel on the politically conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state may continue to prohibit all abortions except those for patients whose pregnancies threaten their lives or health — a restriction GOP state officials have insisted is necessary for preserving scarce hospital resources for COVID-19 patients.

Citing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that “individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis, but … Rights could be reasonably restricted during those times.”

“When faced with a society-threatening epidemic, a state may implement emergency measures that curtail constitutional rights so long as the measures have at least some ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis and are not ‘beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law,’” he wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judge James Dennis, appointed to the court by Bill Clinton, dissented.

Abortion providers have characterized the state’s lawsuit as political opportunism. Most abortions do not take place in hospitals, and according to providers, they generally do not require extensive personal protective equipment, like the masks and gloves in short supply for doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19.

[…]

Duncan said Yeakel was wrong to characterize Abbott’s order as an outright ban on abortions.

“Properly understood,” he wrote, the executive order is a “temporary postponement” of many procedures, like colonoscopies.

But Texas bans abortions after 20 weeks, meaning prohibiting the procedure for any length of time leaves many patients unable to terminate their pregnancies at all. Abbott’s order is set to expire April 21 but can be extended.

The case now heads back to federal court in Austin, where a hearing is scheduled next week. The 5th Circuit had already paused Yeakel’s order blocking the ban, but Tuesday’s opinion threw it out entirely.

Further litigation is all but guaranteed. States including Ohio, Oklahoma and Alabama have imposed bans similar to Texas’, and similar lawsuits are playing out across the country.

See here for the background. I don’t know why there’s any pretense that the Fifth Circuit is an unbiased arbiter of the law. They rubber-stamp these appeals on the flimsiest of pretexts. I don’t know if they honestly believe there’s no difference between an abortion and a colonoscopy or if they just think we’re too stupid to understand the difference. The sheer arrogance of it is breathtaking. If Democrats manage to beat Trump and take the Senate in November, I’d be in favor of appointing about a hundred new judges to this court, to ensure as best as possible there’s never another Republican majority on any three-judge panel. This crap cannot continue.

The Fifth Circuit does what the Fifth Circuit always does

The fix, as ever, is in.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily reinstated Texas’s ban on abortions amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying it needs time to review arguments about its impact.

The ruling is the latest in a ricocheting legal battle that began last week after the governor postponed non-essential surgeries, and the attorney general declared abortions to be included.

The Republican-led state is one of several that have moved to block abortions, arguing that providers are draining critical medical supplies that could be used to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two of the conservative justices on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling, and gave both sides until Friday to respond, meaning the ban will remain in effect at least through this week.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge James Dennis noted that a federal judge in Austin had declared a day earlier that “irreparable harm would flow from allowing the (governor’s) order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

See here for the background. I wish these predictions weren’t so easy to make, but this is literally what the Fifth Circuit does. I’m going to go walk my dog and hurl curses in their direction. You go read Mark Joseph Stern and Mother Jones for more details about this.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latest abortion ban halted for now

We follow the script.

Right there with them

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions, a prohibition state officials said was necessary to preserve medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling came less than a week after Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all procedures deemed to be not medically necessary should be interpreted to include abortions.

The court granted the abortion providers’ motion to temporarily block the state from enforcing the order, which was set to expire April 21, as it relates to abortions. The temporary restraining order will expire April 13.

“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “There can be no outright ban on such a procedure.”

Yeakel also wrote that people seeking abortions would “suffer serious and irreparable harm” if the ban were allowed and that temporarily blocking the executive order “will not disserve the public interest.”

“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable,” Yeakel wrote.

See here for the background. The next page of this script is the state appealing to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit inventing some reason to give the state what it asked for. After that it gets a little murky, but by then it almost doesn’t matter because the state gets to do what it wants in the interim. In theory, once the emergency order is lifted then the justification for this ban goes away, but if you don’t think there’s some way that Abbott and Paxton might try to work around that, you’re not thinking hard enough. The Current and Slate have more.

Of course he thinks that’s “essential”

Doesn’t get any more on-brand than this.

Best mugshot ever

Gun stores are essential business and should be allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday.

Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.

“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.

Many cities and counties had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the fire arms businesses.

“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.

The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.

That’s because this process normally requires research and inquiry, and leave open the possibility of an answer that doesn’t conform to one’s initial inclinations. Couldn’t take any chances on that here, obviously. People need to be able to defend themselves against that virus. I recommend very small-caliber bullets.

AG opinions are not binding, of course, so a city or county could go ahead and impose a ban on gun stores anyway if they wanted to. That would leave it up to a court to decide; there’s a fight over this already happening in California, where gun stores were (also not surprisingly) not classified as “essential”. I rather doubt any Texas municipality would want to expend that kind of effort when there are more important things to do, but they could if they chose to. The whole thing is ridiculous, but here we are.

Abortion providers file suit over Abbott executive order

You can’t let crass opportunism go unchallenged.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging an executive order earlier this week that included abortion in a ban of all procedures that are deemed to not be medically necessary.

In a press conference Wednesday, national and state abortion rights groups said they are seeking a temporary restraining order, with hopes of a more permanent injunction to follow. They are representing various abortion providers in the state, including Austin Women’s Health Center and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center.

The ban, which Attorney General Ken Paxton later clarified applies to abortion clinics as well, was enacted to ensure the state maintains health care capacity as it prepares for an influx of COVID-19 patients. But abortion clinics and activists in the state pushed back almost immediately, with Planned Parenthood President Alexis McGill Johnson calling it an “exploitation” of the current crisis.

Sealy Massingill, the chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, took politicians to task for “playing politics” at a critical time. Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas still plans to keep clinics open, though he said the organization is bracing for further developments.

“I find it extremely distressing … that we are trying to respond to a purely political fight that [Gov. Greg Abbott] started. Patients who need abortions are on a time-sensitive deadline,” Massingill said.

Providers have already had to turn away patients, Massingill added, and delays of even a few weeks could render some abortions impossible if the patients’ pregnancies extend past legal deadlines.

Here’s the Trib story about the executive order. I didn’t get around to blogging about it because there’s just too much these days. It should be obvious that a “medically necessary” procedure is one that simply cannot be put off, at least not for a significant length of time, and that by that definition, abortion clearly fits. To claim otherwise, as the state of Ohio has also done, is sophistry at best and a straight up lie otherwise. In a rational world, this would get stopped in a hot second by any court. In a world that includes the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, your guess is as good as mine. Given that Abbott has declined to issue a statewide stay-at-home order, preferring to leave that to the locals, who have not seen fit to order clinics to stop providing abortions, the case for this is even flimsier. I feel confident that a district court judge will issue a temporary restraining order, but after that who knows. The Chron has more.

Ken Paxton does Ken Paxton thing

Film at 11.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is not defending a state agency that is being sued for punishing a judge who refuses to officiate gay marriages.

It’s the most recent in a handful of cases in which Paxton, a Republican, has stepped away from one of the basic requirements of his job because the state’s actions conflict with his views of the Constitution.

Just days after the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Paxton issued a legal opinion arguing that Texas clerks and judges with religious objections could not be forced to officiate those marriages or process the paperwork. In the nonbinding opinion, Paxton, also pledged to “be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”

That argument will be tested in Texas courts for the first time after Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley of Waco sued the Commission on Judicial Conduct for issuing her a warning last year. Since 2015, the general practice in Texas has been that judges either perform all types of marriages or none, if they have religious objections to same-sex marriages. But Hensley argued she could continue officiating straight marriages while referring same-sex couples to others because of the conflict with her religious beliefs.

The attorney general would have been expected to represent the commission as part of his charge to defend state agencies, putting Paxton in the awkward position of arguing against his 2015 opinion.

Instead, the attorney general’s office is not representing the agency.

“We believe judges retain their right to religious liberty when they take the bench,” spokesman Marc Rylander said in a statement.

Jacqueline Habersham, interim executive director of the Judicial Commission, has so far acted as counsel for the commission in the case. Habersham declined to comment.

See here and here for the background. The Trib notes another dimension to this.

Paxton declined to defend a different state agency, the Texas Ethics Commission, in a lawsuit filed years ago by Empower Texans, a hardline conservative group that has been an important political ally to him. And he has opted not to defend state laws, like the Texas Advance Directives Act, when they conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Hensley is represented in the case by the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm with deep ties to Paxton’s office that reach back to the earliest days of his political career. Hensley’s lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former solicitor general of Texas. And Paxton and the First Liberty Institute have often been allies in religious liberty fights in Texas, collaborating on a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio after it banned Chick-fil-A from opening a location in its airport. Jeff Mateer, now Paxton’s top aide, worked as the firm’s general counsel before joining the attorney general’s office.

Kelly Shackelford, the group’s president and CEO, has endorsed Paxton and contributed to a legal defense fund Paxton has used to fight off a four-year-old criminal indictment for securities fraud.

Nothing ol’ Kenny won’t do to help his buddies. In this sense, it’s just as well that he’s peaced out of the litigation, because literally any alternate arrangement for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, whether they represent themselves or hire an outside firm, would be better than having an attorney that’s biased against you as your advocate. The solution here is the same as it’s ever been – we need a better AG. We tried in 2018, we’ll need to finish the job in 2022. He’s not going to change, we have to swap him out.

Anti-gay Waco JP sues for the right to be an anti-gay JP

Ugh.

A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.

The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.

“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said in a statement.

Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

[…]

Ricardo Martinez, Equality Texas CEO, said in a statement that as a justice of the peace, Hensley took an oath “to serve all Texans.”

“These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans. This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials,” Martinez said. “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”

See here for the background. Look, if Judge Hensley had “politely referred” mixed-race couples to other JPs because her religious beliefs were that only people of the same race should get married, no one would take her seriously. If she were a clerk at the DMV who refused to process drivers license applications from women because her religious beliefs were that women should not drive, she’d be fired on the spot. As a public servant, she serves the whole public, not just the public she approves of. That means she can perform weddings for anyone who comes before her, she can perform no weddings as she had originally chosen, or she can find another line of work. It’s that simple.

This was filed in a state court, as the allegation is that the “public warning” violated a state law. I feel like this will eventually wind up as a federal case, especially if she wins. It’s an open question at this point whether the AG’s office will represent the defense, or the State Commission (which is authorized to defend itself) will do it. All things considered, I’d prefer the latter. This case is going to be a hot mess, so buckle up for it. The Waco Tribune has more.

Will the Paxton case move back to Collin County?

Team Paxton is asking for that to happen.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge said Tuesday he will rule by the end of next month on Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to move his felony securities fraud case back to his home county.

Judge Robert Johnson avoided getting into other issues raised in the case until he decides whether to send it back to Collin County, where it originated nearly four years ago.

Special prosecutor Kent Schaffer — who opposed Paxton’s motion to move the case — said after Tuesday’s hearing that he thinks Johnson “will make the right decision” and that he believes “with a high degree of certainty” that Paxton will go to trial by spring 2020.

[…]

The case has been delayed for nearly four years now for reasons ranging from the change of venue request to courtroom damage due to Hurricane Harvey to an ongoing disagreement between Collin County officials and special prosecutors over what they ought to be paid for their work.

It was Paxton’s political influence in Collin County that led a judge to move the case to Harris County in the first place. In 2017, Judge George Gallagher sided with prosecutors who argued that Paxton could not receive a fair trial in the county where many of his friends and political allies live and hold positions of power.

The Collin County District Attorney, for example, recused himself from the case because of a friendship with Paxton, a former state legislator.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that Gallagher exceeded his authority in changing the venue in the first place because his temporary assignment to the case had expired months before he made the decision.

They’ve also said that public attention on Paxton’s indictment has waned since 2016 when the case was the talk of “blogs, media and Facebook posts.” Plus, Collin County is better-equipped to take the case as well, they say, because the Harris County court system is already overburdened.

See here, here, and here for the background. Paxton’s argument seems pretty self-serving here, but in some sense it doesn’t matter. We all know Judge Johnson’s ruling will get appealed, all the way to the CCA, and that whole rigamarole will take a couple more years. We’re all going to be old and gray before this case is resolved.

The extraordinary danger of being pregnant and uninsured in Texas

So utterly appalling.

Right there with them

From 2012 through 2015, at least 382 pregnant women and new mothers died in Texas from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, according to the most recent data available from the Department of State Health Services; since then, hundreds more have likely perished. While their cases reflect the problems that contribute to maternal mortality across the United States — gross medical errors, deeply entrenched racism, structural deficiencies in how care is delivered — another Texas-size factor often plays a significant role: the state’s vast, and growing, problem with health insurance access.

About one in six Texans — just over 5 million people — had no health insurance last year. That’s almost a sixth of all uninsured Americans, more than the entire population of neighboring Louisiana. After trending lower for several years, the Texas rate has been rising again — to 17.7% in 2018, or about twice the national average.

The numbers for women are even worse. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured women of reproductive age in the country; a third were without health coverage in 2018, according to a DSHS survey. In some counties, mainly along the Mexico border, that estimate approaches 40%.

Public health experts have long warned that such gaps can have profound consequences for women’s health across their lifespans and are a critical factor in why the U.S. has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the developed world. Texas’ maternal mortality numbers have been notably troubling, even as errors in key data have complicated efforts to understand what’s going on and led skeptics, including the governorto question whether there’s really a crisis.

Hardly anyone outside the policy world has taken a deep look at how these insurance gaps play out for women in the second-largest state in the U.S. — at how, in the worst-case scenarios, lack of access to medical care endangers the lives of pregnant women, new mothers and babies.

ProPublica and Vox have spent the last eight months doing just that — combing through government data and reports, medical records and research studies, and talking with scores of women, health care providers, policymakers and families of lost mothers around the state. We learned about Rosa Diaz and dozens of others, mostly women of color, by scouring medical examiner’s databases for sudden, “natural” deaths, then inspecting investigator and autopsy reports for clues about what went wrong.

The picture that emerges is of a system of staggering complexity, riddled with obstacles and cracks, that prioritizes babies over mothers, thwarts women at every turn, frustrates doctors and midwives, and incentivizes substandard care. It’s “the extreme example of a fragmented system that cares about women much more in the context of delivering a healthy baby than the mother’s health in and of itself,” said Eugene Declercq, professor of community health sciences at Boston University School of Public Health.

Most of the mothers whose cases we examined were covered by Medicaid for low-income pregnant women, a state-federal health insurance program that pays for 53% of the births in Texas, more than 200,000 a year, and 43% of all births nationwide. In Texas, the program covers OB-GYN visits, medications, testing and nonobstetric care, from endocrinologists to eye exams.

But the application process is so cumbersome that women in the state have the latest entry to prenatal care in the country, ProPublica and Vox found. It can take months to be seen by regular providers and even longer to access specialists. This poses the greatest danger for high-risk mothers-to-be — as many women on Medicaid are, having had no medical care for significant parts of their lives. Then, roughly two months after delivery, pregnancy Medicaid comes to an end, and the safety net gives way to a cliff. For many new mothers, the result is a medical, emotional and financial disaster.

More than half of all maternal deaths in the U.S. now occur following delivery, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with as many as 24% happening six or more weeks after a woman gives birth. In Texas, the proportion of late-postpartum deaths is closer to 40%, with black women bearing the greatest risk. “To lose health care coverage really has a tremendous potential to worsen outcomes,” said Dr. Lisa Hollier, chief medical officer for obstetrics and gynecology for Texas Children’s Health Plan and chair of the state’s maternal mortality review committee.

This is a long excerpt, but there’s a lot more to the story, so please read the whole thing. There are numerous policy decisions at fault here – not expanding Medicaid, low Medicaid reimbursements, cutting off Planned Parenthood and substituting in wholly inadequate alternatives, and more – and all of them can be laid at the feet of the state’s Republican leadership. Whoever runs against Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton in 2022 should loudly and repeatedly assert that every maternal death in Texas is their fault. I keep saying this, and it keeps being true: Nothing will change until we have different, and better, government in this state. There’s no other way to do it.

The next bathroom bill

You can see it coming from here.

The Texas House LGBTQ Caucus is counting on Democrats flipping the Republican-held House to keep another possible ‘bathroom bill’ off the table during the 2021 legislative session.

Texas Republicans last week rallied around a child custody case of a Dallas 7-year-old whose mother says is transgender, pledging to intervene against children’s gender transition. Members of the caucus, who fought the controversial “Chick-fil-A bill”, said flipping the House will be key to winning the brewing battle over the care of transgender children.

“The only way we’re going to avoid that is by flipping the House,” Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, said at a caucus town hall at the University of Texas LBJ School of Public Affairs. “We are nine seats away from controlling the flow of legislation in the House so that we don’t feed that beast anymore.”

[…]

Rep. Julie Johnson, a freshman Dallas Democrat, said the government has no right to intervene in the “personal decision” for children to transition. The child lives in Johnson’s district.

She agreed that winning the House is the best strategy to combat bills such as the one promised by Rep. Matt Krause to ban puberty blockers for children to transition. Johnson noted that the Fort Worth Republican also authored the “Chick-fil-A bill” banning governments from taking “adverse action” against someone based on affiliation to a religious organization.

LGBTQ advocates say the law, which gained traction after San Antonio’s city council booted Chick-fil-A from its airport for its donations to Christian organizations that oppose expanding LGBTQ rights, gives a license to discriminate.

“He’s going to be filing those bills, so hopefully if Democrats are in charge those bills won’t get a hearing,” Johnson said.

See here for the background. I agree with Reps. Israel and Johnson, and I daresay Republicans also believe that whether a bill targeting trans kids gets a House hearing or not depends very much on which party has a majority. There’s not really anything else to say at this time, so let me encourage you to read this Twitter thread, and reflect on the fact that Greg Abbott et al would consider that man to be an abusive parent.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

Abbott and Paxton threaten transgender child

I’m utterly speechless.

Top Texas Republicans have directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate whether a mother who supports her 7-year-old child’s gender transition is committing “child abuse” — a move that has alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared via tweet Wednesday that two state agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are looking into a dispute between divorced North Texas parents who disagree on whether their child should continue the process of transitioning from male to female, a path that could culminate, when the child is years older, in medical interventions.

In a letter Thursday to the state’s child welfare agency, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer declared that the child — who identifies as a girl, according to testimony from a counselor and pediatrician — is “in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

“We ask that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible and act pursuant to your emergency powers to protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother,” Mateer wrote, repeatedly referring to the 7-year-old as a boy. Mateer’s nomination to the federal bench was withdrawn in 2017 after revelations that he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”

A spokesman for DFPS said the agency’s “review of the allegations is already underway.”

The case’s path to public discourse began with the child’s father, Jeff Younger, whose blog has generated a maelstrom of right-wing outrage, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the child “a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Younger, who also appeared at a rally at the Capitol this spring, does not agree with his ex-wife that his child is transgender. In blog posts, he has claimed his child could face “chemical castration.”

In reality, experts say, the transition process for prepubescent children does not involve medical intervention; instead, it consists of social affirmations like allowing children to wear the clothes they like, employ the names and pronouns they prefer, and paint their nails if they choose. During puberty, a transgender child might, with the consultation of a doctor, begin to take puberty blockers, reversible drugs that can stop puberty and the gender markers that come with it, like a deepening voice, the development of breasts or starting a period. Later on, experts say, transgender young adults might explore the option of surgery.

In a court ruling Thursday that granted the parents joint custody, Dallas Judge Kim Cooks noted that there was never a court order for the child to undergo medical treatment, according to The Dallas Morning News. Indeed, the mother, Anne Georgulas, had requested that Cooks require mutual consent before the child underwent any treatment, the Morning News reported.

So yes, this is Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz and the rest getting involved in a marital dispute. Am I the only one who remembers when Republicans claimed to be about getting government out of people’s lives? However true that may have been once, it sure isn’t the case now.

This is nothing short of an authoritarian move by Abbott. The governor appoints the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services. How much faith are you going to have in the outcome of that investigation? Or the investigation by the AG’s office, under Jeff “transgender people are satan’s spawn” Mateer, for that matter? Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that they made the child’s name public, so everyone who agrees with them can force their own opinion on her as well. How lovely.

And all because they disagree with this child’s mother about what the child is allowed to wear, and they had the power to stick their noses in. They won’t stop this child from being transgender, any more than they could stop her from being left-handed or allergic to peanuts. They will cause a lot of damage trying, though. We cannot vote them out of office soon enough.

One thing our state loves spending money on

Defending unconstitutional anti-abortion laws in the courts.

As Texas defends abortion laws in federal court that mandate fetal burials and seek to outlaw certain medical procedures, the state has been ordered to pay pro-abortion attorneys $2.5 million — fortifying women’s reproductive rights groups that have repeatedly sued over restrictions passed by the state Legislature.

The August order from a federal judge in Austin is seemingly the final decision in a high-profile battle over a 2013 Texas abortion law the U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down as medically unnecessary and thus unconstitutional. The law, which was in effect for three years, required abortion providers to comply with all the regulations for ambulatory surgical centers, forcing many to undergo expensive renovations, and required their physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The judge’s order brings the state’s total cost for defending those now-defunct pieces of the law to an estimated $3.6 million.

“Passing regulations that are blatantly unconstitutional, and then wasting people’s resources to fight them, costs money and precious resources and time. And people are harmed in the process,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider and lead plaintiff in the case who notes that half of the state’s abortion clinics closed before the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling. “That is a precious resource of Texans’ dollars being used toward that.”

Because the state lost the case, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled it must pay the plaintiffs $2,297,860 attorney’s fees, $170,142 in nontaxable expenses and $95,873 in other costs. The amount represents nearly half of the $4.7 million in costs the plaintiffs say they incurred preparing and trying the case. The Texas attorney general’s office did not contest the judge’s ruling.

The award for the opposing attorneys is more than double the nearly $1.1 million the attorney general’s office reported spending on its own attorney’s salary, overhead, travel expenses and other costs associated with defending the law, according to open records obtained by the Texas Tribune in 2016.

Hardly the first time – that 2016 SCOTUS ruling cost the state even more – and until we get a different government, hardly the last time. The AG’s office declined to comment for the story, but we both know that Ken Paxton would gladly spend down the entire Rainy Day Fund in defense of these laws. It’s not really a cost, as far as they’re concerned. It’s an investment.

On a related note:

[Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life which advocates for stiffer abortion regulations,] said anti-abortion advocates need to think long-term if they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established legal precedent protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. The long-time activist said he is not confident the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court is favorable to overturning Roe v. Wade — but it could be in a few years.

“We are telling our people that they need to stay focused on re-electing President Donald Trump because he has a track record of nominating justices who are possibly willing to take an honest look at Roe v. Wade,” said Pojman.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and people who voted for Jill Stein in 2016 have ridiculed the notion of judicial appointments as an electoral issue. Joe Pojman would like to thank them for their dedication to their principles.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

The Harris County bail lawsuit effect on Dallas County

The Trib looks to see if the recent Harris County bail lawsuit settlement might affect the bail lawsuit in Dallas County.

“Anytime one county settles, it could possibly provide a roadmap for another county, but I can’t say that it will,” said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, whose county’s bail practices have also been slammed by a federal judge. “The landscape of this lawsuit is different.”

A big piece of that is because Dallas’ lawsuit, like another in Harris and one in Galveston, targets bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants, but for felony cases, too.

[…]

“I’ve been studying very closely what’s happening in Harris County, and I think that it’s a step in the right direction and something that we should … modify or use as a blueprint for felony cases,” said State District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham, a Democrat and defendant in Dallas’ lawsuit. He was especially interested in the idea of an open-hours court.

Adding felonies to the lawsuit against bail practices in Dallas brought a new complication, however. The judges work for the state, not the county, and are being represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, which claims they have no jurisdiction over early bail decisions. County officials, who are largely Democratic, have said the attorney general’s office, run by Republican Ken Paxton, has stalled settlement talks and reform efforts.

“The fact that felony judges are part of the lawsuit complicates resolution,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “The AG office’s public positions on criminal justice reform and bail reform are not the same as the Commissioners Court or most of our elected judges.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing last month, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote that the Dallas lawsuit goes too far by including felony judges. He said bail decisions are set by county judicial officers before felony judges assume jurisdiction over criminal matters.

“Despite tens of thousands of words spilled in this case so far, [the plaintiff] has yet to articulate just what she expects the felony judges to do, going forward, to remedy her alleged harm,” Hawkins wrote.

But things appear to be moving toward resolution. Two district judges, including Birmingham, recently began conducting their own bail hearings every morning and hired a lawyer to represent them instead of the attorney general. Jenkins and Creuzot confirmed that the parties are now headed to mediation to hopefully come up with a settlement proposal or consent decree.

See here for more on the second Harris County lawsuit, the one involving felony cases. It was filed in January and I haven’t seen any updates as yet, nor do I know if the AG’s office has gotten involved. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the underlying principle is the same, and should be viewed through a similar lens by the federal court. This time, Harris will follow behind Dallas, so we’ll see where they lead us.

Paxton wants to move his case back to Collin County

Of course they do.

Best mugshot ever

Paxton’s defense team has asked that the case be moved back to his hometown of Collin County, years after it was moved from there to Harris County. The case was moved hundreds of miles southeast after the prosecutors claimed that Paxton, a Republican who is well connected in that region and once represented it in the Texas Legislature, would not get a fair trial there.

But Paxton’s defense team argued this week that the judge who moved the case to Harris County two years ago didn’t have the authority to do so, as his term overseeing the case had elapsed.

[…]

That leaves [Judge Robert] Johnson, a Democratic judge overseeing the case, with several issues to mull before Paxton faces a jury. Johnson has not yet responded to either side’s motion.

On Monday, Paxton’s defense attorneys argued that if there is a hearing on the prosecutors’ fees, they should also be present — and asked that the judge rule on changing the venue before the pay issue.

The Team Paxton motions were in response to the prosecutors’ motion to confer with Judge Johnson – just them, Team Paxton is not invited – regarding their pay. I can understand that motion, but as the Observer notes, the argument to move the case back to Collin County is a rehash of the same arguments they made when the case was originally moved. That was seen at the time as a win for Paxton, since his team had moved to boot the original judge from the case. It seems unlikely to me that Judge Johnson will agree to just hand the case back to Collin County, but it’s a lead pipe cinch that Team Paxton will appeal that ruling and thus accomplish their main goal, which is delaying this trial from now until the heat death of the universe. Either way, they get something they want. The DMN has more.

We return once again to the Paxton prosecutor pay fight

This is an interesting argument.

Best mugshot ever

The prosecutors appointed years ago to take Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to trial will continue to fight over their pay rate, lengthening a dispute that has already delayed the case for well over a year.

[…]

Prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer had signaled they might withdraw from the case if they could not be paid. Instead, they are now asking a Harris County judge for a private, “ex parte” hearing over their fees — a meeting that would not include Paxton’s defense team. In a filing this week, they asked Judge Robert Johnson to “issue a new order for payment of fees.”

“The Attorneys Pro Tem’s payment is now an administrative matter for the trial court to decide,” an attorney for Wice and Schaffer wrote. “The Court of Criminal Appeals’ decision provides the court with the parameters necessary for the court to use its discretion in discharging its administrative duties.”

They added that “there is no authority suggesting that an adversarial hearing regarding the payment of fees … should be held” — arguing that Paxton’s defense lawyers should not be present for the hearing.

The judge has not yet responded to the request. A spokesman for Paxton did not return a request for comment.

See here for the last update. I’m glad they waited till after the legislative session to advance this argument, as I can easily imagine a hastily-written bill to cut this off at the knees getting rammed through. I’ve no idea if this brief, let alone the assertion that there doesn’t need to be a response from Team Paxton, has any merit or has ever been tried before. But it sure isn’t boring, and I can’t wait to see how Judge Johnson rules. The DMN has more.

The Fifth Circuit Obamacare hearing

Remember, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to die. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the left was Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of Jimmy Carter; on the right sat Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a nominee of Donald Trump, and in the center sat Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, the George W. Bush appointee expected to represent the critical swing vote on a three-judge panel now charged with deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

It was that perhaps fitting seating arrangement that greeted attorneys for Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the state and its allies asked this three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the sweeping health law known as “Obamacare,” a legal means to a political end that has eluded conservatives for the better part of a decade.

Texas won a major victory in its bid to end the law in December, when a federal district judge in North Texas sided with the state, declaring that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety after Congress in 2017 gutted one of its important provisions, a tax penalty for individuals who chose to remain uninsured. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has declined to defend the law.

A California-led coalition of blue states that has stepped in to oppose Texas in the lawsuit quibbles with that question of “severability,” arguing that even if one slice of the law must fall as unconstitutional, its other hundreds of provisions — including a host of popular patient protections — should stand. The question of how much of the law may rightly be salvaged was a focal point of court discussions on Tuesday.

Texas’ odds of total vindication remain in question after nearly two hours of questions before the three judges.

Most of the unusually-large courtroom audience of journalists and interested but unaffiliated attorneys focused on Elrod at the center. By far the most vocal judge of the three, Elrod probed both sides on the issue of standing — whether they have the right to participate in the lawsuit at all. And she seemed highly focused on her court’s options for ordering a remedy, seeming to weigh options for sending the case back to a lower court for further consideration.

Engelhardt, who is among the newest appointees to the court, was harsh and occasionally sarcastic, asking more questions of the blue state coalition than he did of the Texas-led team. He seemed skeptical of the standing of both the California-led coalition and the Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened in the case although the Republican-majority U.S. Senate did not.

The Senate, Engelhardt remarked, “is sort of the 800 lb. gorilla that’s not in the room.”

King, meanwhile, did not speak at all.

See here and here for the background. The legal basis of this lawsuit is so ridiculous that anything short of tossing it and its lawyers out of court is insufficient, but given where we are I could find a way to live with the idea of sending it back to the idiot district court judge for reconsideration. I fear we’ll get some kind of split-the-baby decision that strikes down parts of the law but leaves some crippled skeleton of it intact, which dumbass pundits will then call a “moderate compromise”, in the same way that the midpoint between “I murder you and burn down your house” and “I leave you alone” is a moderate compromise. Not much to do at this point but wait and work your ass off voting these morons out in 2020. NBC News, CNN, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Think Progress have more.

The lawsuit to kill Obamacare has its hearing at the Fifth Circuit today

Brace yourselves.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Last year, after a federal judge in Texas declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, throwing into question millions of Americans’ health coverage, the state’s Republican leaders promised they would come up with a plan to replace it.

But on Tuesday, after a legislative session that seemed to have no room for issues other than property tax reform and school finance, Texas will ask a federal appeals court in New Orleans to end the law in its entirety — without offering a replacement plan.

The conservative crusade against portions of the act, known as Obamacare, has spanned a decade. But Texas’ latest lawsuit, filed in February 2018, became an existential threat to the law after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in December that it is unconstitutional in its entirety. At stake: the subsidized health coverage of roughly 1 million Texans, sweeping protections for patients with preexisting conditions, young adults staying on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 and a host of low-cost benefits available to all people with health insurance, including those covered through their employers.

Texas already has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

In a highly unusual — if not entirely surprising — move, the U.S. Department of Justice has declined to defend the federal law, leaving a California-led coalition of blue states to protect it. As the case proceeds, Obamacare has remained in place, and likely will until the litigation is finally resolved.

Attorneys for the state of Texas argue the health law cannot stand since the Republican-led Congress in 2017 zeroed out Obamacare’s individual mandate — a penalty imposed on people who chose to remain uninsured. Democrats had favored the penalty as a way to induce more people to purchase health insurance, with the goal of reaching near-universal coverage. Without it, Texas argues, the whole law must fall.

But the state’s Republican leaders have offered few ideas about what should replace Obamacare, a law that touches practically every aspect of health care regulations and includes several popular protections for patients. Gov. Greg Abbott — a vocal critic of the law — pledged in December that if the law remained struck down on appeal, “Texas will be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Since then, he’s been quiet on the issue, including during this year’s 140-day Texas legislative session. Abbott did not respond to questions for this story.

See here for the background. And of course Greg Abbott doesn’t have a single thing to say about reducing the extremely high uninsured rate in Texas. That’s because Abbott’s plan to reduce the uninsured in Texas, supported by Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and the rest of the Republicans, is for more of them to die. Just as a reminder, Republicans have been in complete control of Texas government since 2003. Not once during that time have they taken any steps to improve access to health care in the state. Indeed, on multiple occasions, beginning in 2003 with the savage cuts to CHIP and continuing through their assault on women’s health via attacks on Planned Parenthood, they have time and time again make accessing health care harder. That’s what is at stake here. The only fix, regardless of the ruling in this case, is to vote them out. The WaPo, the Chron, and Think Progress have more.