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DraftKings lawsuit tossed

Score one for the Astros.

Did not age well

A federal judge in New York mixed technical points of law with humor and theatrical flourishes in delivering a rousing defeat Friday to a group of baseball daily fantasy players who sued the Astros, Red Sox and Major League Baseball, claiming they were defrauded by the sport’s electronic sign-stealing scandal.

U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff’s 32-page opinion in the case, filed by fantasy players from Massachusetts, California, Texas, Florida and California, begins by quoting from the 1956 film “High Society” and then dismantles the plaintiffs’ case while delivering a brief scolding to the Astros and Red Sox for their misdeeds.

While Rakoff, according to a 2014 magazine profile, is a Yankees fan who keeps a baseball autographed by Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera on his desk, he nonetheless dismissed the fantasy players’ complaint as “verbose, rhetorical and conclusory” — conclusory referring to a conclusion that is unsupported by facts — in dropping the case against two teams that are hardly on any list of Yankees fans’ favorites.

Rakoff began by noting that baseball celebrates stealing, if only of a base, and noted that it also can “lead our heroes to employ forbidden substances on their (spit) balls, their (corked) bats or even their (steroid-consuming) selves.

“But as Frank Sinatra famously said to Grace Kelly in the 1956 movie musical ‘High Society,’ ‘There are rules about such things,’” the judge wrote. “One of these rules forbids the use of electronic devices in aid of the players’ inevitable efforts to steal the opposing catcher’s signs.

“In 2017, and thereafter, the Houston Astros, and somewhat less blatantly the Boston Red Sox, shamelessly broke that rule, and thereby broke the hearts of all true baseball fans. But did the initial efforts of those teams, and supposedly of Major League Baseball itself, to conceal these foul deeds from the simple sports bettors who wagered on fantasy baseball create a cognizable legal claim?

“On the allegations here made,” the judge concluded, “the answer is no.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the judge’s ruling is embedded in the story. There are still other lawsuits out there for the Astros to contend with as a result of the sign stealing scandal, but this one is done for now. We’ll see if the plaintiffs try to appeal. ESPN has more.

SOS moves towards increasing vote by mail

How about that?

Texas is opening the door to an expansion of mail-in voting during the coronavirus outbreak, though the state is unlikely to heed calls to have every voter cast ballots by mail to avoid exposure to COVID-19 at polling places.

The state’s director of elections on Thursday sent guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties telling them that voters can ask for mail-in ballots if they are worried that showing up to a polling place could be a danger to their health. The guidance also suggests that counties be more lenient with curbside voting and says counties should consider recruiting and training more poll workers this year.

[…]

The guidance isn’t a mandate. The secretary of state’s office says it can only advise counties on how to work within existing election law. But it offers a green light to county officials to take a lenient approach in approving requests for mail-in ballots.

“This is a big step in the right direction,” said Bay Scoggin, director of Texas Public Interest Research Group, one of dozens of groups that have urged the state to expand mail-in voting as at least one option for this year’s elections. “While we still want a more concrete expansion of vote by mail, this plan gives guidance to counties on a number of important issues.”

Texas is one of the few states that still require voters younger than 65 to have an excuse to cast a ballot by mail. Fewer than 7 percent of Texas voters mailed in ballots in 2018.

The guidance notes that the election code currently includes a “disability” clause that allows voters to apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.” It suggests counties can get a court order to temporarily expand eligibility for mail-in voting — especially in areas under quarantine.

Advocates say while it appears to allow anyone with concerns about the coronavirus to get a mail-in ballot, the state still needs to be more clear. Democrats say it doesn’t go far enough.

“In the middle of this public health crisis, we must all be working together to keep people safe and healthy, while also keeping our democracy moving forward,” said U.S. Rep. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat. “This should include a statewide no-excuse vote-by-mail program that will give every eligible Texan the opportunity to make their voice heard in this year’s electoral process and guarantee their well-being.”

Every Texas Democrat in Congress wrote a letter to Abbott this week urging an expansion of voting by mail, pointing out that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests shifting that way for 2020 elections.

This was also covered in that Trib story about the May elections being postponed. As noted, there was a lawsuit filed to force this issue, and I have to say, I’m more than a little surprised to see the state take the idea seriously rather than dig in their heels as usual. It isn’t everything that activists have demanded, but it’s a lot, and it’s not clear that “everything” would be possible to do in time for November. If this were the basis of a settlement agreement in that lawsuit, I’d be happy with it. Let’s put a bow on this so we can get down to the practical issues that would need to be addressed to make this much happen.

Won’t you join our lawsuit?

This is going to keep giving me content for years.

Did not age well

After filing two sign stealing-related lawsuits against the Astros on behalf of Houston season-ticket holders, a Corpus Christi law firm is asking Dodgers and Yankees fans who attended 2017 postseason games in Houston if they, too, are interested in suing the ballclub.

The websites yankees-astros-scandal.qualified-case.com and dodgers-astros-scandal.qualified-case.com were launched by the firm Hilliard Martinez Gonzales. Both sites were advertised on Facebook in an effort to contact fans of the teams that traveled to Houston for playoff games in 2017, when the Astros beat the Yankees and Dodgers en route to the World Series title.

“We’re trying to find people who traveled to Minute Maid Park, Yankees or Dodgers fans, who spent money in flights, hotel rooms, rental cars, to watch a game that was not fair,” said John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm.

“They didn’t get their money’s worth, and we wanted to see if any of those potential clients want to get compensated.”

The Yankees website asks, “Are you a Yankees fan that traveled to Houston for the ALCS in 2017?” The Dodgers site asks, “Were you a Dodger ticket season holder during the 2017 season?”

Both sites note that the Astros were penalized by Major League Baseball for using electronic methods to steal catcher’s signs and adds, “This is unfair to paying Yankees (or Dodgers) fans and compensation should be demanded.”

Any potential suits on behalf of Dodgers or Yankees fans would be filed in Texas state court or in federal court in California or New York, Duff said. He declined to estimate how many answers the firm had received in response to the inquiries.

“There was confirmed cheating during the ALCS and World Series, and those tickets are more expensive and the damage model is higher,” Duff said.

See here and here for the background. As this story notes, the three Harris County lawsuits have all now been consolidated and moved into one court, the 152nd Civil Court. I don’t have anything to add, I just look forward to the next chapter in this highly entertaining story.

That was a statewide stay-at-home order

And we’re under it now, even if you don’t want to call it that.

Be like Hank, except inside

Gov. Greg Abbott released a new video Wednesday clarifying that his executive order issued on Tuesday “requires all Texans to stay at home” except for essential activities.

“Now, I know this is a great sacrifice but we must respond to this challenge with strength and with resolve,” Abbott said in the 48-second video.

Abbott’s order goes into effect at midnight on Thursday morning.

With that, Texas now joins 37 other states that have enacted statewide stay-at-home orders. Mississippi, Georgia and Florida were among those to join that list on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, Abbott intentionally avoided using the phrase “stay at home” during a briefing while describing his executive order, leading some to believe he had stopped short of ordering Texans to stay at home.

“In short, what this provides is that Texans are expected to limit personal interactions that could lead to the spread of COVID-19, while also still having the freedom to conduct daily activities such as going to the grocery store, so long as you are following the presidential standard of good distance practices,” Abbott said Tuesday.

Abbott also said on Tuesday he didn’t want to call his order a “stay at home strategy” because he thought that would mean you cannot leave your home under any circumstances.

But on Wednesday he issued a press statement just after 4 p.m. directing the media to the video that makes clear his order requires Texans to stay at home except for essential activities. His executive order makes clear those who don’t follow his decree face up to 180 days in jail and a fine of $1,000.

People are allowed out for basic exercise like running, bicycling or hunting, but must maintain distancing guidelines. The public can also go to grocery stores, pharmacies, hardware stores and the like.

See here for the background and here for the video, which is also embedded in the Chron story. As noted before, this order explicitly exempts churches from the restrictions, to appease sociopathic nihilists like Steven Hotze. Who, by the way, in addition to filing that writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court is also planning to file lawsuits in district courts in Montgomery and Galveston counties to challenge the stay-at-home orders there. Because this is exactly the type of person we need to be appeasing right now. Be that as it may, stay home. If we’re all diligent about this, we can truly hope for a different story in May. The Observer has more.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘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.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

Another lawsuit the Astros want tossed

It was the first one filed against them relating to the banging scheme.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked a Los Angeles Superior Court judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed against the team, owner Jim Crane and baseball operations employee Derek Vigoa by former Blue Jays pitcher Mike Bolsinger, who says his career was ruined by the Astros’ 2017-18 sign-stealing scheme.

The motion, filed by Los Angeles attorney John C. Hueston, says the case is “utterly devoid of merit.” More critically, however, it says California is not the proper venue and that Bolsinger’s suit should be dismissed or stayed until it can be resolved by a court in Texas.

[…]

While asking that the case be dismissed, the Astros’ attorneys say that Texas is the proper forum, if the case proceeds, because the Astros are based in Texas and Bolsinger resides in Texas, They add that Texas would be a more cost-efficient venue because virtually all witnesses and documents are in Texas and because the sign-stealing occurred in Texas.

In addition, attorneys say, California has little to no stake in the matter because no allegedly harmful activity occurred in California and no California residents claim to have been harmed.

They also say the case would clog California’s already-overburdened court system and that forcing the Astros to defend the case in California in a case “with such limited connections to California” could dissuade other out-of-state businesses from doing business in California.

“Texas courts are well-equipped to address the relief sought by (Bolsinger), and all private and public interest factors demonstrate that Texas is a far more convenient forum than California,” attorneys add.

In a separate filing, the Astros’ attorneys say California courts lack jurisdiction in the case because the defendants lack sufficient minimum contacts with California. The case, they add, is “objectively frivolous for a host of reasons.”

See here for the background. There will be a hearing on the motions on June 12. I tend to agree that this lawsuit is more or less without merit, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, so take that for what it’s worth.

The state of inmate releases

Harris County judges are going to follow the federal bail lawsuit settlement agreement and not Greg Abbott.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has moved to restrict the release of people in jail during the coronavirus pandemic — but Harris County’s misdemeanor judges aren’t abiding by his executive order. Instead, they’re following a federal court’s orders for their bail decisions.

And those tied to the court have again raised skepticism that Abbott’s order is even constitutional.

Instead of following Abbott’s recent executive order, a lawyer for the 16 criminal court judges that preside over low-level offenses in Texas’ largest county said in a Tuesday letter obtained by The Texas Tribune that the judges will continue to comply with practices solidified in a federal court agreement. That will allow for the automatic release of most misdemeanor defendants without collecting bail payment.

[…]

Abbott’s order, issued Sunday, suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes from being released on these personal bonds. But Abbott’s order only prohibits personal bonds, so those inmates could still walk free if they have access to cash.

In an interview with The Texas Tribune on Tuesday, Abbott said his order had nothing to do with bail reform efforts, which prompted Harris County’s lawsuit.

“Bail reform efforts, among other things, are focused on making sure that you’re not going to imprison someone just because they don’t have any money, and you’re not going to have a bifurcated system where the rich are gonna get to bail out and the poor are not,” he said. “So this doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed.”

A law professor overseeing the Harris County decree advised county officials this week that the federal court order supersedes the governor’s. And he also doubted the constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

“The Order is likely unconstitutional under state and federal law. But regardless of whether it is ultimately challenged and/or implemented, [it] does not affect any terms of the pre-existing … consent decree,” said Brandon Garrett of Duke University School of Law.

See here for the background. It’s still not clear to me what Abbott intended with this order and what if anything he’ll do in response to the courts’ actions. We do know what the plaintiffs in that bail lawsuit are doing, however.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some Texas jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic is being challenged in federal court. Civil rights attorneys filed a court motion Wednesday arguing the order unconstitutionally discriminates against poor defendants and also takes away judges’ power to make individual release decisions.

[…]

On Wednesday, in an ongoing federal lawsuit over Harris County’s felony court bail practices, attorneys representing inmates filed a motion for a temporary restraining order against Abbott’s order. The motion asks U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal to order Harris County judges to ignore Abbott’s order until a full hearing can be held.

“The text of the Order purports to block release of presumptively innocent individuals even if state judges conclude that there is no individualized basis for their pretrial detention — but only for those who cannot pay,” the motion said.

Abbott said Tuesday that his legal team and the attorney general’s office worked for days on the order to ensure it met “constitutional muster.” His order “doesn’t focus on how deep somebody’s pocketbook is. It has to do with how serious the crime they committed,” he said. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to questions about the court challenge Wednesday.

My guess is that Judge Rosenthal will not be impressed by Abbott’s order, but I expect we’ll know soon enough.

And then there’s this.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Judge Lina Hidalgo issued an order Wednesday directing the Harris County Jail to release some low-risk inmates to mitigate the spread of coronavirus.

It could take up to 32 hours for the relevant agencies to weigh in and allow eligible people to leave the downtown campus of the third largest jail in the country.

The order by Hidalgo — more than two weeks in the making — calls on Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to assemble a list of people accused of nonviolent offenses with no violent prior convictions. Murray Fogler, a lawyer for Gonzalez, estimated this initial list could include 1,000 to 1,200 people who fit the criteria.

The order cites the grave risk the disease poses to both the jail population and the whole Houston area.

“Without significant reductions in the current population, the lack of physical space, supplies, and staff to control an infectious outbreak in the Harris County Jail system is likely to spread to the greater Harris County region,” the order says. “These detainees spend significant time in communal spaces, including dormitories, eating areas, recreation rooms, bathrooms, and cells or holding areas, and are unable to choose to do otherwise. Further, detainees live in spaces with open toilets within a few feet from their beds, and unable to access a closed toilet that would not aerosolize bodily fluids into their living spaces.”

The order excludes anyone with three or more drunk-driving convictions, a conviction for burglary of a habitation or any pending temporary restraining orders.

See here and here for the background. The order, which is embedded in the Chron story, also takes into account inmates who have tested positive for COVID-19. The jail is going to be a huge vector for the virus, and the only thing we can do about it is to minimize the number of people who could be affected by it. Again, I wonder what if any resistance we’re going to get from the state.

Harris County stay-at-home order extended

Not a surprise.

Be like Hank, except inside

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Tuesday extended her stay-at-home order through April 30, as cases of novel coronavirus infections in the Houston area continue to rise, three county officials with knowledge of the plan said.

Hidalgo could further lengthen or shorten the duration of the order, depending on the success of efforts to combat the outbreak, the sources said.

[…]

The original stay-at-home measure, which closed most businesses and prohibits public gatherings of any kind, is set to expire Friday. Health experts say extending the restrictions to daily life are necessary to prevent a spike in cases that could overwhelm hospitals.

Hidalgo signaled at a news conference Monday that she would do so.

“It’s not a matter of if the stay-at-home order will be extended; it’s a question of for how long,” she said.

Violations of the order are punishable with fines or jail time, though Harris County Fire Marshal Laurie Christensen said authorities have yet to make any arrests. She said her investigators have answered about 2,500 calls from residents with questions and focused enforcement efforts on reminding businesses of the rules.

The rules are the most restrictive in a series of steps taken by local officials this month to limit interactions between people that can spread the highly communicable virus. Turner ordered the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo closed on March 11. Hidalgo closed bars and limited restaurants to takeout and delivery on March 16.

I know it feels like forever, but the Harris County stay-at-home order was issued eight days ago. HISD was closed beginning March 13, and I’d say most people who could work from home began doing so on the 16th, so we’re a bit more than two weeks into this. And speaking of the schools:

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday told Texans to stay at home for the next month unless they are taking part in essential services and activities, announcing a heightened statewide standard to stem the spread of the new coronavirus. He also announced that schools would remain closed until at least May 4.

During a news conference at the Texas Capitol, Abbott declined to call his latest executive order a shelter-in-place or stay-at-home order, arguing such labels leave the wrong impression and that he wants Texans to know, for example, they can still go to the grocery store. But in an interview afterward, he said “it’s a fact” that the executive order nonetheless brings Texas up to speed with states that have issued orders with those labels.

“States that have adopted stay-at-home policies or even some that use shelter in place are very close to ours, which is, if you had to put a label on it, it would be ‘essential service and activities only,'” Abbott said. “If you’re not engaged in an essential service or activity, then you need to be at home for the purpose of slowing the spread of COVID-19.”

The state has outlined a list of more than a dozen sectors that provide essential services that comply with Abbott’s order, which is largely aligned with federal guidance on the issue. Those include health care, energy, food and critical manufacturing. Texas’ list adds religious services, which are not included in federal guidance.

The order goes into effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday and lasts until April 30, aligning it with the new end date that President Donald Trump announced Monday for social-distancing guidelines.

The order supersedes one that Abbott issued March 19 that limited social gatherings to 10 people, among other things. The new order narrows that standard significantly, asking Texans to “minimize social gatherings and minimize in-person contact with people who are not in the same household.”

In using terms like “minimize,” the order’s language stops short of explicitly banning nonessential activity. But Abbott made clear he expects all Texans to adhere to the guidance or face criminal punishment — and that there is only wiggle room in the language to account for potential “exceptions to the rule.”

“You never know what the exception would be, like let’s say there’s some emergency where you have to go do something or whatever the case may be,” he said. “And you don’t want to get people subject to being in violation of a law for a lack of clarity.”

[…]

At the news conference, Abbott encouraged churches to conduct their services remotely but said that if they must meet in person, they should follow the federal social-distancing guidelines.

“I’m unaware of a church that would want its constituents, its parishioners, to be exposed to COVID-19, and I think there’s enough public information right now for them to be aware of the practices that are needed to make sure that their members don’t contract COVID-19,” Abbott said in the interview.

Still not a statewide shelter-in-place order, which the Texas Hospital Association and Texas Nurses Association are calling for, but it is what it is. As for that exception for religious services, we’ll see what that means.

Abbott said religious services should either be conducted remotely or in-person using social distancing guidelines. He added that “drive-up services,” where congregants would remain in their cars, which some churches plan to use this Easter, would “satisfy the criteria that we’re talking about.”

David Duncan, pastor of Houston’s Memorial Church of Christ, said he appreciates Abbott’s recognition of the “importance of religion.” But he added, “The second greatest command is to love our neighbors as ourselves. For me, at this moment, the way I love my neighbor is by giving them physical distance.”

Many congregations moved away from in-person gatherings prior to orders by local officials, including one by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo that banned gatherings. Hidalgo said Tuesday afternoon that the county was reviewing Abbott’s order.

“We will continue doing what we have been doing,” said Mike Miller, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Jacksonville. “Gathering crowds in any way that would make 6-foot separation impossible is not acting responsibly.”

[…]

Josh Ellis, head of Houston’s association of Southern Baptist churches, declined to comment on Abbott’s order.

Ellis did, however, advise churches to continue suspending in-person services. “Ministry is essential, and continues, while continuing to keep the most people safe,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, which suspended in-person services earlier this month, also said it is reviewing the governor’s order.

We’ll see if this has any effect on the Hotze death wish lawsuit. I still think the full-on ban was the correct move, mostly because assholes like Hotze have now demonstrated they don’t give a shit about anyone else, but if this avoids a nasty court ruling, I can accept it.

(By the way, has Dan Patrick been a little quieter than usual lately, or am I imagining it? Just wondering.)

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.

Steven Hotze’s death wish

I have three things to say about this.

A hardline conservative power broker and three area pastors filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court Monday arguing that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus, filed by anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez, contends Hidalgo’s order undercuts the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls. Pastors also may minister to congregants individually.

Hotze and the pastors argue the order also “severely infringes” on Second Amendment rights by closing gun stores. The order does not define gun shops as essential businesses, though Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion Friday that stay-at-home orders cannot force gun stores to close or otherwise restrict sales or transfers.

Hidalgo’s order, issued March 24, requires most businesses to close and directs residents to stay home unless they are getting groceries, running crucial errands, exercising or going to work at a business deemed essential. The directive is aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and it came a day after chief executives at the Texas Medical Center unanimously called for the county to implement a shelter-in-place order.

[…]

Hidalgo spokesman Rafael Lemaitre declined to address “the specifics of the litigation,” but said: “Public health and science must drive our response, and the science is clear: If we fail to take adequate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, people will die. We continue to urge folks to take this seriously.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said county officials view the order as “necessary to deal with the extraordinary crisis that Harris County, Texas and the country are facing as a result of the coronavirus.”

Soard said the order does not intend to close gun stores and “we’ve not advised any gun stores to close, as far as I’m aware.” He also said Paxton’s opinion makes clear that gun shops in Texas will remain open.

As for the First Amendment challenge, Soard said there is “nothing in the order that prevents churches from broadcasting” services. He said Hidalgo crafted the order “as precisely or narrowly as she could to allow people to worship as they choose.”

1. If Hotze and his band of idiots were only putting their own health and lives at risk, I wouldn’t care. Hell, I’d cheer them on, from a sufficiently safe distance. But as we’ve said many times, that’s not how viruses work. They would be putting many other people in jeopardy. They may not care about that, but they don’t get to make that kind of decision unilaterally.

2. Even if the courts stop them, Hotze is still working to put other people in danger:

In a video posted to YouTube late last month, Hotze advised that people take multivitamins and not worry about the virus, which he said is “all media hype” and “fake news.”

Hotze then compared the virus to the flu or dysentery, and accused democrats of having “weaponized the coronavirus” to hurt President Donald Trump.

Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist, called the lawsuit “disheartening” and “reckless,” and said it is “potentially endangering lives.”

I’m old enough to remember when behavior like that was considered to be un-Christian.

3. I’ll leave the last word to this guy:

‘Nuff said. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. The county should be filing its response today.

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.

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

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.

Former Bloomberg staffers sue him

Okay.

Four former workers for Michael Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in Texas are suing him for fraud, alleging that he went back on a promise to pay them through the November election.

In lawsuits filed Monday in Tarrant County, the former workers say the Democratic candidate promised that even if he dropped out — as he did earlier this month — he would continue to employ them through November “no matter what.” Each is seeking $42,000 in wages in addition to lost health insurance benefits, for a total capped at $75,000.

The lawsuits are apparently the first of their type in Texas against Bloomberg, the billionaire former mayor of New York City, who faces a growing uproar nationwide from former staffers. They also come as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread in Texas and across the country, an especially harrowing situation for the unemployed and for those without health insurance.

The former workers in Texas, who were all organizers, are Abdoulaye Gueye, Argunda Jefferson, Gregory Snow and Melinda Hamilton. All are from Tarrant County except for Snow, who resides in neighboring Parker County.

Each plaintiff says he or she agreed not to disparage Bloomberg while working for him or afterward. “If plaintiff knew that Mike Bloomberg would go back on his word much in the style of Donald Trump, he never would have agreed to not bad mouth Bloomberg,” the lawsuits say.

I think a lot of people would have made different decisions if they had known what Bloomberg was going to end up doing. I have a lot of sympathy for these folks, and I’d love to see the NDAs they all had to sign get thrown out, but I don’t expect this to go anywhere.

Astros move to dismiss season ticket holder lawsuits

How about some non-coronavirus baseball-related news? I got some for ya.

Did not age well

The Astros have asked Harris County district judges to dismiss the three lawsuits filed against the ballclub by ticketholders who claim they were defrauded by the sign-stealing scandal in 2017-18.

In each case, attorneys for the ballclub say ticketholders lack standing to file suit, that their claims against the team are barred by the statute of limitations and that plaintiffs have failed to state a claim upon which a court could grant a judgment against the Astros.

Each answer describes the Astros’ system of electronic sign-stealing as “a source of great disappointment to Astros fans as well as to the Astros organization” and notes that individual players and owner Jim Crane have offered apologies.

“There is, however, no legal standing for season ticket holders … to recover damages for their disappointment over the Astros’ performance for any of the seasons they may have been implicated in the controversy,” the filings add.

“As many courts have held, a ticket holder has only the right to enter a venue and to have a seat for the ticketed game, and cannot complain afterwards that the game should have been played differently.

“The plaintiffs here do not allege that they were deprived of those rights, and they were not. Therefore, defendants deny that the plaintiffs are entitled to any relief in a court of law.”

The Astros seek dismissal of all three lawsuits and ask that they be awarded costs for their defense.

See here for the background, and listen to this episode of Effectively Wild for actual legal analysis of these and other lawsuits related to the banging scheme. As noted in my previous post, each was filed in a different court in Harris County, which may possibly be a complicating factor. I still think these will all ultimately be dismissed, but you never know. The Astros and others still face the fantasy baseball lawsuit, which they have also moved to dismiss. Hey, I didn’t say this was baseball-content baseball news, just that it wasn’t coronavirus-related baseball news. Gotta take what you can get these days.

Harris County settles lawsuit about voter registration records

I’m not sure what to make of this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a victory for government transparency, Harris County officials settled a lawsuit Tuesday with a conservative voting rights group, agreeing to disclose records of foreign nationals who voted in Texas elections and records documenting their attempts to register.

The Indianapolis-based Public Interest Legal Foundation behind the lawsuit is headed by J. Christian Adams, a voting-fraud crusader. He served in the Justice Department during the administration of President George W. Bush and was later tapped to serve on the Trump administration’s election integrity commission, which set out to clean up voting rolls around the country and prevent non-citizens from casting ballots.

Critics said his organization was hunting for a problem that didn’t exist, targeting low-income, left-leaning localities with a string of lawsuits that sought personal documents related to voters.

Adams characterized the agreement as “the best possible outcome for clean elections in Texas” and said his group intends to use the data to catalog and provide stakeholders with information on problems that allow foreigners to get on voter rolls.

Adams’ group PILF targeted Harris County in a March 2018 voting-rights lawsuit based on testimony from former voter registrar Mike Sullivan, a Republican, before the Texas House of Representatives alleging that for nearly two decades, officials had refused to comply with the federal law mandating inspection. The group’s presumption, according to internal briefs, was “not if, but how many aliens are getting onto Texas rolls, and voting?”

As PILF’s general counsel, Adams participated in the negotiated settlement with the county’s Democratic voter registrar, Ann Harris Bennett, in which the county agreed to provide records of people taken off the voter roll due to ineligibility and names of those who received “notices of examination” where their eligibility was questioned by election officials. The county also agreed to provide records dating back to 2013, including copies of voter registration applications with blank or negative responses to questions about their citizenship.

The county also said it would provide lists of registrants who were stricken from rolls after they were disqualified from jury service due to their non-citizenship as well as all communications between the registrar’s office and law-enforcement entities regarding registrants who were ineligible to vote.

What the county refused to provide were responses to jury summons from people who said they weren’t citizens. Instead, the county would provide the conclusions of its own findings about who shouldn’t be on the rolls.

See here for the background. I wish this story provided more context, because J. Christian Adams is a major bad guy, whom Rick Hasen calls “one of the Four Horsemen of voter suppression”. I don’t see a blog pot by Hasen about this lawsuit at this time, but you can see a list of his previous mentions of PILF here. I actually reached out to Hasen to ask him his thoughts, but with all that is going on right now he said he had not followed this story and wasn’t read up on it.

It’s clear that large parts of this story were lifted directly from a press release from PILF (I swear, it’s hard not to giggle when reading that name), with a bunch of their puffery left in for no obvious reason. Note that the settlement is about voter registrations and not actual votes cast, which is what Adams claimed to be searching for but didn’t get. Later on, Doug Ray of the County Attorney’s office noted that the plaintiffs wanted unredacted information from them, but were not given that, either. So, it’s a little hard to take this all that seriously, and I haven’t seen any chatter about this on Facebook from local Dems. Commissioners Court will have to approve this settlement as well (it’s possible they already have, it’s not clear from the story and I haven’t gone scanning through recent Court agendas), so I hope to see some reaction from the likes of the HCDP and Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. Unless I begin to hear otherwise, I’d say this is much ado about nothing much.

TDP files lawsuit to expand vote by mail

All right, then.

Following fruitless negotiations over how to proceed with the upcoming primary runoff elections, Texas Democrats are looking to the courts to push for an expansion of voting by mail in the state.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court late Friday, the Democrats are asking a judge to declare that a portion of the Texas election code allowing voters to cast a mail-in ballot if they suffer from a disability applies to any voter in Texas “if they believe they should practice social distancing in order to hinder” the spread of the new coronavirus.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of the Texas Democratic Party and two individual voters who would seek to vote by mail given the state of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whatever happens from this moment forward with respect to the pandemic, numerous voters, including the two individual Plaintiffs herein, seek to avail themselves of the option of mail-in ballots,” the lawsuit reads. “Similarly, the Texas Democratic Party needs to know how state law permits local election officials to handle such ballots cast in the Texas Democratic Party Runoff Primary Election so the [party] can determine how it desires to proceed in selecting nominees who were facing a runoff.”

[…]

Election officials in Texas generally agreed that a traditional election for the runoffs is implausible if the current circumstances — including limits on public gatherings and the ongoing closures of locations that typically serve as polling sites — were still true in May.

But in conversations with the Texas Democratic Party this week, some local election officials said they opposed moving to universal voting by mail, under which all registered voters or all voters who participated in the March primaries would be automatically sent ballots, without a postponement to build up their capacity to take on that expansion.

The expansion Democrats are seeking would not result in all mail-in ballot election, and voters would still have to formally request mail ballots from their counties.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit. It’s basically the argument that we’ve discussed before about the law as written being sufficiently broad – or vague, if you prefer – as to allow anyone who believes they qualify for the disability provision due to health issues, especially in this time of coronavirus, to be able to vote by mail. Obviously, I believe this argument has merit, though I thought it would be more of a stealth application rather than formally litigating the question. There will need to be a quick ruling for this to be relevant to the runoff, so I expect we’ll have an idea of what the courts think shortly. We’ll see.

Another review of Judge Hidalgo’s first year

Though, oddly enough in a story about Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s first year in office, most of the text is about outgoing Commissioner Steve Radack and the two-year-long temper tantrum he’s been throwing.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

For many years, the Harris County Commissioners’ Court, which oversees the third most populous county in the country and one of its most diverse, had been a place of easy consensus. At the time of Radack’s outburst, four of the five members of the commissioners’ court were white Republican men. They included county judge Ed Emmett, a popular moderate in a party running out of them. Most sessions passed by with the placidity of a koi pond. By cheering activists who sued the county and asserting that commissioners were supporting a racist policy while simultaneously trying to join their ranks, [Commissioner Rodney] Ellis was cannonballing into the water.

Three years later, in July of 2019, Radack looked considerably more chastened when the newly elected Ellis and the rest of the commissioners’ court met to vote on a settlement to the lawsuit—a sweeping $100 million overhaul that largely abolished the practice of jailing misdemeanor defendants who can’t afford cash bail. Reformers across the country hailed it as a major step toward making the criminal justice system fundamentally more equitable. The settlement was possible only because, just eight months before, Harris County voters had handed control of the commissioners’ court to Democrats for the first time since 1990. Radack and Jack Cagle were now the only two Republicans left on the court. Most astonishingly, voters had seen fit to replace Emmett, the beating heart of the county’s political establishment for more than a decade, with Lina Hidalgo, a 27-year-old Latina who had moved back to Houston to run against the 69-year-old Emmett. She was the first woman and Latino to lead Harris County.

Now Hidalgo and the other two Democrats—Ellis and former Harris County sheriff Adrian Garcia—ran things. For years, meetings had rarely lasted an hour. Under the new management they felt like committee hearings in the state legislature, often going for more than five hours and sometimes as long as nine, as the new majority pushed to enact its agenda—criminal justice reform, bringing transparency to county government, and improving flood planning—while members of the public came to support, oppose, and debate.

At the July meeting, Hidalgo beamed as she introduced the bail-reform settlement to the court. “This is a proud beginning,” she said, in the fight to build a criminal justice system in which “fairness and justice are preeminent.” She quoted from Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 address on the National Mall. She exuded, as members of her generation would say, good vibes only.

Ellis, a political operator who served 27 years in the Texas Senate, spoke glowingly too, calling the settlement, somewhat hyperbolically, “just as big as” Brown v. Board of Education. But the most dramatic moment came when he moved closer to his mic and stared at the side of the room where Radack and Cagle sat. “A very oppressive system has existed for decades,” he said. “And I don’t point an accusative finger at anyone, but it did, I think, indicate a certain blind indifference to what was going on. I think it’s incumbent on us to admit that,” he said, slowing for emphasis.

When it was his turn to speak, Radack turned to address the packed chamber, where during the period of public comments, most had spoken in support of the settlement. He understood that there were racial injustices in the system, he said.

But then he began pounding his palms on the wood in front of him. “This is a public table,” he said, his voice rising to a shout. Issues such as bail reform were supposed to be discussed in public, “not [by] a few people from the commissioners’ offices and whomever, behind closed doors . . . sitting there and discussing what they’re going to do for all of us.” He stood up, getting angrier and flipping through the lengthy settlement for the audience. “Every single page says ‘Draft,’ ‘Confidential,’ ” he said. “I think that sucks!”

Hidalgo politely noted that the text of the settlement had been made available to the commissioners three days earlier. “And let’s be careful with the public table,” she said. Radack was learning something Ellis knew very well: It’s not fun to be in the minority in a lawmaking body. “There are consequences to elections,” Ellis added calmly. At the end of the year, Radack announced he was retiring, boosting Democrats’ chances of electing the fourth Democrat to the commissioners’ court this November—and giving them the same level of dominance Republicans enjoyed just a few years ago.

[…]

Now in the minority, Radack and his fellow Republicans have found other ways to show their displeasure. For one, they’ve made a lot of noise. At one meeting regarding transportation funding, Cagle brought copies of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 to distribute to the audience, accusing Hidalgo’s court of engaging in doublespeak.

But the most important scuffle came in October. The commissioners met to pass a tax hike that would increase the county’s revenue by 8 percent before an annual deadline, citing the need to raise money before new laws passed by the state legislature went into effect that would restrict their ability to do so in the future. Cagle and Radack didn’t show up—depriving the court of a quorum and preventing a vote. (State law requires that four of the five members of county commissioners’ courts be present to vote on tax increases.) Hidalgo says the consequences of that missing revenue will hurt the county in the long run. “You won’t see a huge difference from one year to the next,” she said, “but it will compound over time.”

That anti-majoritarian maneuver is one reason why many Republicans in Austin are closely watching what’s happening in Harris County. Never huge fans of cities and counties to begin with, GOP lawmakers, led by several Houston-area Republicans, cracked down hard on local government during the 2019 session.

Now imagine if the Democrats tighten their grip on Harris County, finally flip Fort Worth’s Tarrant County (the last urban Republican holdout), and take over quickly growing suburban counties like Hays (south of Austin) and Fort Bend (southwest of Houston). Then they draw new county commissioner precincts to solidify their control. In this dark future for conservatives, Republicans in the Legislature work even harder to rein in Hidalgo and her colleagues across the state.

If Democrats can pick up Radack’s seat, only one Republican would remain on the commissioners’ court, which would prevent that Republican from breaking the quorum again. But what if the Legislature, learning from Radack’s example, changed the law to require all five members of the commissioners’ court to be present? Many blue counties, even the big Democratic ones like Dallas and Travis, have at least one Republican commissioner who could, if the law were changed, nullify the wishes of the other four and hold one-person veto power over budgetary matters, with huge consequences for local governments across the board. “That would be a pretty major thing,” said Radack, who’s given the issue a good deal of thought. “Probably one of the most major pieces of legislation to come around in a long time.”

I should note, this story was written, and I wrote my draft post of it, before coronavirus took over all of our lives. It should be clear that every politician going forward will be judged on how they performed during this particular crisis. I think Judge Hidalgo is doing quite well on that score so far, but we still have a long way to go. Now here’s what I wrote when I first blogged about this.

Putting Radack’s jackassery aside, I’ve been thinking a lot about what might happen in the near future as Republicans continue to lose their grip on the larger counties and maybe possibly could lose control at the state level. We saw what they did on the way out the door in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, after all. Imagine if Dems do take over the State House this November. Would Greg Abbott call a special session to get one last shot at passing bills in a full-GOP-control environment? Maybe even take some action to clip a future Democratic Governor’s wings? He’d want to act now and not wait till his hypothetical loss in the 2022 election, because if there’s a Dem-majority House, he’s out of luck. For sure, the assault on cities and counties will be much harder to pull off without a Republican monopoly. The good news for us Dems is that it would be hard for Republicans here to make like their counterparts in WI and NC, but not impossible. We need to be thinking about this, and have some strategies prepared for just in case.

Anyway. To reiterate what I said before, I think Judge Hidalgo has done a very good job, and has positioned herself and the Court to do a lot more good this year. It’s not necessary to trade out Radack for a better model – that 3-2 majority is fine almost all the time – but it would help. And Lord knows, the man has had more than enough time in the spotlight. Move along, already.

(By the way, Fort Bend has already flipped. In the same way that Harris did, by Dems winning one Commissioner’s Court seat and the County Judge’s office, to go from 4-1 GOP to 3-2 Dem. And as with Harris, Fort Bend Dems have a chance to win a Republican-leaning set this year to get to 4-1 in their favor.)

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

The other TEA takeover

A preview of things to come, perhaps.

The Texas Education Agency announced a new appointed board and a new superintendent Friday for a tiny East Texas school district with two schools that had failed to perform well for years.

Although the state’s takeover of its largest school district, Houston Independent School District, is tied up in court, no such roadblocks existed preventing the takeover of Shepherd ISD, about 60 miles northeast. Shepherd ISD’s elementary and intermediate schools had failed to meet state academic standards for five years, which required the state to either close the schools or seize power from the school board, under Texas law.

“The Board of Managers is comprised of members of the Shepherd ISD community who are committed to service on behalf of the students of the district and the community,” Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath said in a letter Friday.

He also appointed Jason Hewitt, the director of the Texas Education Agency’s Special Investigations Unit, as superintendent over the district, replacing Rick Hartley, who had headed Shepherd ISD for just over three years.

[…]

The new appointed board — which includes a former Shepherd ISD school board president as well as members of the community — will have power to make hiring and budgetary decisions for the school district; the elected board will still be in place but will no longer have control over Shepherd’s schools. Eventually, the state will transition power back to the elected school board, once the schools improve.

Charles Minton, Shepherd’s mayor, heard the news late Friday afternoon. He has one child in the high school and another in the middle school, which is a target of the state’s intervention.

The tiny East Texas town has been split in half by the news, with some angry at the loss of local control and others open to giving the state a chance to turn the schools around, Minton said.

Shepherd ISD had also sued to stop the takeover, but they were not successful. The new Board of Managers was to be officially seated at a meeting on Monday. Their task in this small, rural ISD is going to be a lot different than it is in HISD, but it’s still in its way a test of how it might work (or not) here. The past track record of state takeovers isn’t great, but maybe this time there will be more focus and more resources and the results will reflect that. Or maybe it will be another idea that doesn’t actually address the real causes of the poor performance and we’ll find ourselves back where we started, with more kids having gone through the system in the meantime. Not much to do but see how it turns out.

UPDATE: Hold that takeover!

State officials planned Monday night to swear in a board of managers, appointed by the Texas Education Agency, that would take control of hiring, budgeting and operations — a penalty for years of poor academic performance in two schools. The elected school board would lose all its power, until the state decided otherwise.

Board members and community members strolled into the district administration building Monday night planning to watch the transfer of power. Instead, they were notified that a court order had come down in Austin that afternoon temporarily stopping the state from taking any action.

The news was a surprise to nearly everyone in the building Monday night. State education officials waited for guidance from their lawyers. District employees waited for guidance from state officials. And two sets of school boards stood in the entryway to the board room wondering which would be allowed to gavel in: the one elected by residents or the one appointed by state officials.

[…]

Back in November, Jeff Cottrill, the TEA’s representative in Shepherd, had gripped the edges of a wooden podium and explained to an audience of more than 100 people that a state takeover was a necessary and prudent result of prolonged failing ratings in multiple schools. He answered hours of questions about what the loss of local control would mean for students and teachers in the small community.

Shepherd ISD sued the state over its plans, but after a Travis County state district court judge denied the district’s request to temporarily stop the state takeover, the school board decided not to appeal that decision. Still, lawyers for the state appealed the suit to the Third Court of Appeals to try and prevent it from moving forward in a lower court.

But Shepherd ISD lawyers, though many people didn’t know it, had decided to continue the case pro bono. And on Monday, they informed the appeals court of a “current emergency” since the state planned on installing a board of managers that night, an action that would be legally irreversible.

“The Court must act now,” wrote David Campbell, who is also representing Houston ISD as it fights a pending state takeover.

The court agreed and temporarily stopped the state from installing its chosen board.

No one is exactly sure what’s happening in Shepherd ISD right now. I’ll keep an eye on it.

Meet your bail reform overseers

They’re where the buck will stop.

A federal judge Tuesday approved the choice of a Duke University law professor to oversee Harris County’s historic bail reform agreement that governs what happens to thousands of people arrested on low-level offenses.

Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal ordered Brandon L. Garrett, from Duke’s Center for Science and Justice, to serve as monitor for implementation of the seven-year consent decree. The judge also approved Sandra Guerra Thompson, a former New York prosecutor who teaches at University of Houston Law Center, as deputy monitor for the settlement.

[…]

Garrett has a background in criminal justice, policy-making and reform, according to a biography on Duke’s website. His research and teaching has focused on criminal justice outcomes, evidence and constitutional rights. He has also studied DNA exoneration, eyewitness identification and corporate crime.

Guerra Thompson, a native of Laredo, is an award-winning professor who directs the university’s Criminal Justice Institute for the UH law program, according to the UH website. Her scholarly work includes articles on wrongful convictions, eyewitness identification, forensic science, civil asset forfeiture, federal sentencing, discrimination in jury selection, prosecutorial ethics, police interrogations and immigration-related crimes.

She has played a key role in the transition to office for Mayor Sylvester Turner in 2016 and Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg in 2017. She was a founding board member for the Houston Forensic Science Center and was tapped in 2009 by Gov. Rick Perry to serve on the Timothy Cole Advisory Panel on Wrongful Convictions.

Sounds like two good people for the job. It’s not totally clear to me what exactly their responsibilities will be, but I assume if things are not going the way they should, we’ll hear about it from them.

Lawsuit filed over straight ticket voting ban

Lots of litigation lately.

In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday in Laredo, the Texas Democratic Party — joined by the chair of the Webb County Democratic Party and the Democratic campaign arms of the U.S. Senate and House — claims the elimination of straight-ticket voting is unconstitutional and intentionally discriminatory because the longer lines and waiting times it is expected to cause would be disproportionately felt at polling places that serve Hispanic and black voters.

“In ending a century-old voting practice that Texans have relied on to exercise their most fundamental and sacred rights — the rights to political participation and association — Texas has recklessly created a recipe for disaster at the polls in 2020,” the Democrats wrote in their lawsuit.

The popular practice allowed general-election voters to vote for all of the candidates of either party in an election by simply picking a straight-ticket option at the top of the ballot. But Texas Republican lawmakers championed a change to the law during the 2017 legislative session, arguing it would compel voters to make more-informed decisions because they would have to make a decision on every race on a ballot.

Most states don’t allow for one-punch voting, but its elimination in Texas met intense opposition from Democrats who fear the change will be most felt among voters of color and lead to voter dropoff, particularly in blue urban counties that have the longest ballots in the state.

[…]

Citing violations of the First and 14th Amendments and the federal Voting Rights Act, Democrats are asking a federal judge to block the state from eliminating straight-ticket voting ahead of the general election.

“The end of straight-ticket voting was yet another Republican attempt to suppress the vote, alter the electorate, and take away power from the rising Texas majority,” Texas Democratic Party Chair Gilberto Hinojosa said in a statement. “In minority-majority districts, lines to vote have already proven to be hours long.”

Courthouse News has the details of the lawsuit.

The Democrats say in the lawsuit that Texas’ longest polling-place lines are in its most populous counties, which have large concentrations of Democratic-leaning black and Latino voters.

The biggest counties also have the longest ballots, with voters wading through dozens of candidates, exacerbated by the fact Texas is one of a handful of states that selects judges in partisan elections.

For years, Texans could complete their civic duty in minutes by stepping into the voting booth and clicking one box to vote for all the Democratic or Republican candidates on the ticket — and millions of Texans chose that option.

“During Texas’s 2018 general election, approximately two-thirds of voters — more than 5.6 million Texans — cast their votes using STV [straight-ticket voting],” the lawsuit states. (Emphasis in original.)

But in 2017 the Republican-led Legislature passed House Bill 25 along party lines to end straight-ticket voting on Sept. 1, 2020 and Governor Greg Abbott, a Republican, signed it into law.

Texas Democrats brought a federal complaint Thursday against Secretary of State Ruth Hughs in Laredo, seeking an injunction to stop House Bill 25 from going on the books.

The party says in the lawsuit that HB 25 is a “recipe for disaster,” especially after Super Tuesday saw voters waiting more than two hours in Houston and Dallas to get to voting booths.

Well, the tie-in to the Super Tuesday mess is clever and timely, though how legally relevant it may be remains to be seen. As both stories note, there’s been quite the fusillade of voting rights lawsuits lately, from Motor Voter 2.0 to electronic signatures for voter registration to mobile voting locations. Some have more merit than others, though I remain skeptical that the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS would ever allow any of them to succeed. As has been the case before, I agree with the basic premise of this lawsuit – I remain a staunch defender of straight ticket voting, even as I doubt its loss will affect Dems more than it will affect Republicans – and I have no doubt that the 2017 bill was passed for the express purpose of making it harder on Democrats. I mean, no one in the GOP had any problems with straight ticket voting when it clearly benefited their side.

I also think the claim that eliminating it is weak, given that Texas was an anomaly by having straight ticket voting, and even if voluminous evidence exists to show that the bill outlawing it was racially motivated, such issues didn’t bother SCOTUS in the redistricting and voter ID litigation. I’m fine with this aggressive approach – it puts the Republicans on the defensive, there’s always the chance something juicy comes out during discovery, and who knows, one or more of these might actually win despite my skepticism. I’m just going to keep my expectations in check. The Chron has more.

City responds to busking lawsuit

And I’m not thrilled with it.

Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Lawyers argued in a motion to dismiss a federal lawsuit Friday that the city is beholden to keeping its streets and sidewalks safe, and that striking down the decades-old ordinance limiting where buskers — musicians who play in public places — can set up shop is not in its best interest. The law became the target of a lawsuit in January when Houston musician Anthony Barilla contended it violates the First Amendment.

While busking — the performing of music in public places — is mostly unrestricted in cities, such as Seattle, New York City, lawyers argue Houston is not that kind of town.

“Houstonians have a noted tendency to congregate in areas indoors, or even underground, to ‘avoid the heat of the summer, traffic, and inclement weather,’” the motion states.

Another worry to Houston is that loosening the ordinance would condone “unregulated competitors, obstructions of access, or objectionable noise.”

[…]

The city’s lengthy response to Barilla’s lawsuit goes as far to suggest how he could make money outside the Theater District — without soliciting tips, such as encouraginh pedestrians to “subscribe to his podcast or YouTube channel, asking them to purchase his music online, or asking them to attend upcoming concerts for which he will be compensated.”

See here for the background. The bit about “obstructions of access, or objectionable noise” I can understand, though surely those could be addressed by less-restrictive means. The rest, I don’t quite get what point the city’s attorneys are trying to make. For that matter, I don’t quite understand the principle that is being defended by the city here. What is the harm the city is trying to mitigate? I really don’t see how allowing street musicians to set up in non-downtown locations is going to cause chaos. Let’s please work towards a settlement and an amendment of that 1991 ordinance. We have better things to do than fight this.

ACLU sues the “abortion sanctuary cities”

This was expected.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against seven Texas cities on Tuesday for passing ordinances that aim to ban abortion by outlawing providers and advocates from doing business in their towns.

The suit, brought by the ACLU of Texas and ACLU National, contends the cities are violating the free speech of the eight banned groups, which include abortion providers and organizations that help people who need abortions. The ordinances label the groups “criminal organizations” and make it unlawful for them to operate within city limits.

“These ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Anjali Salvador, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Abortion is legal in every city and state in the country. Cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important work.”

The ordinances subject groups that would aid women seeking an abortion to illegal punishment without a fair trial, according to the lawsuit. The Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two of the eight groups banned from operating in the cities, are among the plaintiffs. Other banned organizations include Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

The ordinances make it unlawful for the organizations to offer services of any kind in the city, rent office space, purchase property or establish a physical presence. On the other hand, the ordinances acknowledge that cities cannot ban abortion under current law unless the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn abortion protections guaranteed in Roe v Wade.

[…]

Waskom, a small town on the Texas-Louisiana border, became the first city in the state to ban abortion this way, although it had no abortion clinics. City officials voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, fearful a Louisiana law banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected could push clinics to relocate in Texas. Six other small cities in East Texas have passed similar ordinances: Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary and Wells.

The ordinances make it illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion. They also offer families of an aborted fetus the ability to sue abortion providers.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. I haven’t blogged about most of these ordinances because there’s not much new to say for each, and so far all of the “cities” involved have been tiny towns that have no clinics in them. You’d think that just the provision making it “illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion” would be unconstitutional – would a city also be allowed to make it illegal to “provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on” gambling in Louisiana, or smoking weed in Colorado, or visiting the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, all things that are presumably also frowned upon by the people of Waskom? In theory, the Uber driver who takes you to the Greyhound station for a trip to Planned Parenthood in Houston would be guilty under this law, as would the driver of the Greyhound bus. You can’t stop someone from engaging in a perfectly legal pursuit.

As is always the case with this sort of thing, I agree completely with the intent of the lawsuit, and I’d love to see these towns get socked with large legal bills for their exercise in unconstitutional frivolity, that they may serve as grim examples for the next burg that might find itself tempted by the zealous anti-abortion grifters that sold them on it. But I admit to having some concerns as well. Do we really want to 1) provide another opportunity for Ken Paxton to grandstand (which, even though the state is not a party to the lawsuit, you know he will), 2) provide the Fifth Circuit with an opportunity to invent a reason why this is all hunky dory, and 3) provide SCOTUS with another opportunity to kneecap Roe v. Wade without explicitly overruling it? I shouldn’t have to feel this way – these ordinances are so obviously wrong there should be no cause for concern – but this is the world we live in. I just don’t love the risk/reward profile on this, and I hate myself for saying that. The Trib has more.

MLB, Astros, Red Sox respond to DraftKings lawsuit over sign stealing

It’s motion to dismiss time.

Did not age well

As baseball’s electronic sign-stealing case joins the long list of sports-related court cases, attorneys for the the Astros, Red Sox and Major League Baseball all say that while fantasy sports bettors may be angered by rules violations, that doesn’t mean they’re entitled to monetary damages as a result of cheating.

All three parties filed responses late last week in a proposed class action case filed in a New York City federal court against the two teams and MLB over purported damages resulting from the 2017-18 sign-stealing scandal.

The two cases filed in New York have effectively been rolled into one case as bettors have joined forces against the MLB entities.

All three responses to the lawsuit filed by DraftKings customers cite court decisions in such past brouhahas as the New England Patriots’ “Spygate” case in 2010, boxer Mike Tyson’s ear-biting assault upon Evander Holyfield in 1997 and the New Orleans Saints’ “Bountygate” scandal of 2009-11 in asking U.S. District Judge Jed S. Rakoff to dismiss this case.
“Every court that has been faced with similar claims by disappointed fans … has soundly rejected such a claim recognizing that these types of issues are best resolved on the field and not in the courtroom,” attorneys for MLB wrote. “The same result should obtain here.”

In similar fashion, attorneys for the Astros wrote that fans “have no express or implied right to an event free of penalties, undisclosed injuries, rules violations, cheating or similar conduct. … There is no legal claim for a violation of a sports league’s internal rules.”

See here for the background, and here for more sign-stealing-lawsuit stuff. A copy of the Astros’ motion to dismiss is in the story. I don’t have anything to add to this, but if you’d like to hear an actual lawyer give real lawyer-like opinions and analysis of the various sign-stealing lawsuits and their merits, I recommend you listen to this episode of Effectively Wild, which will give you a firm footing on the subject. Courthouse News and the Associated Press have more.

District B ruling appealed

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

The date of Houston’s stalled city council District B runoff is again in question after the third-place finisher in the race moved forward with an appeal of a court order earlier this month that the runoff go on without her.

The runoff, currently scheduled for May 2, could be delayed if a ruling is not final by March 9. The election was pulled from the Dec. 14 ballot, when a dozen other city runoffs were decided, because of the litigation.

Lawyers for Renee Jefferson-Smith previously indicated they had not decided whether to pursue an appeal of Visiting Judge Grant Dorfman’s ruling that the runoff between the top two vote-getters in the November election, Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey, should go forward.

On Thursday, however, Jefferson-Smith’s legal team filed what is called a docketing statement with the appeals court, indicating they were moving forward.

“We will request that the Court stay the City of Houston Election for City Council Member for District B pending appeal pursuant to” the Texas Election Code, the filing said. It listed a lawyer not previously involved in the case, Dorsey Carson, Jr., as lead attorney.

[…]

Jackson said she thinks Jefferson-Smith and her backers are just trying to delay the election at this point, and she called on leaders to do something to stop the delays.

“This appeal is not fair to the people of District B, it’s not fair to me and the other 12 candidates who ran to represent District B,” she said.

See here for the previous update. I suppose leaders could try to pressure Renee Jefferson-Smith into dropping the appeal, but you’d think if that might have worked she wouldn’t have filed it in the first place. At this point, a fast ruling from the court is the best bet. What a freaking mess this has been.

Cable franchise fees lawsuit heard

Rooting for the cities, because this is a mess.

Lawyers representing 59 cities, including Austin, Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, on Wednesday asked an Austin district court judge to temporarily block a Texas law passed last year that cuts government fees for telecommunications and cable companies.

Senate Bill 1152, which took effect Sept. 1 and started to apply to payments starting Jan. 1, allows companies that offer both cable and phone services over the same lines to only pay the lesser of the two charges to local governments for using their rights-of-way. No physical change is required to add new uses of a line.

C. Robert Heath, one of the attorneys who represents the cities, said the law amounts to an unconstitutional gift of public resources to private corporations and said estimates show it would cost cities at least $100 million a year.

The cities argue that the Texas Constitution forbids cities, counties and other political subdivisions from giving away public money or things of value to private groups or individuals. The companies are not required to pass on savings to consumers because the state can’t regulate cable rates.

“It’s like ‘buy one, get one free,’” Heath said. “So we’re saying, ‘No, no, you can’t do that. You’re giving away the use of the right-of-way.’”

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner had pushed legislators to oppose the measure and has said it cost the city about $17 million in annual revenue this year and has hurt its ability to offer services to residents.

“Given the fee would fluctuate with the number of cable customers, what is not changing is the significant impact this has had on our city budget,” Bill Kelly, Houston’s director of government relations, said Wednesday. “Anyone asking the cable companies why no one has lowered their bills?”

[…]

Assistant attorney general Drew Harris, who represents the state, argued that the reduced fee is not the same as a gift, making the analogy of toll roads that charge per car, not per passenger. Harris added that Texas law says the state owns rights-of-way, meaning the cost of using them is a matter for the Legislature to decide.

See here and here for the background. I must have missed the actual filing of the lawsuit, but never mind. We all know this will get to the Supreme Court eventually, and we know they love to rule in favor of businesses. The question is whether they’ll be overturning a lower court verdict or not. The judge has promised a quick ruling after the state files a response to a late plaintiffs’ motion, so we won’t have to wait too long to see where we start out.

More Astros lawsuits

This one was filed by a dissatisfied customer.

Did not age well

An Astros season ticket holder has filed suit in Harris County District Court against the ballclub, accusing the team of negligence, breach of contract and violations of the Texas Deceptive Trade Practices Act in conjunction with the 2017-18 electronic sign-stealing scandal.

The suit, filed Friday by Beaumont attorneys Mitchell A. Toups and Richard L. Coffman on behalf of season ticket holder Adam Wallach of Humble, seeks class action status for Astros full and partial season-ticket holders from 2017 through 2020 and damages in excess of a million dollars.

The Astros are accused of “deceptively overcharging (fans) for season tickets while defendants and their employees and representative knowingly and surreptitiously engaged in a sign stealing scheme … and secretly put a deficient product on the field that could result (and now has resulted) in severe penalties” from Major League Baseball.

As a result of the scheme, the lawsuit claims, season ticket holders are owed refunds of what attorneys say were inappropriate increases in ticket prices for the last four seasons. The suit also seeks treble damages for the Astros’ “knowing, willful, intentional, surreptitious, wrongful and unconscionable conduct.”

In addition, attorneys seek an order that would prevent the Astros from increasing season ticket prices for at least two years.

There were already two other lawsuits against the Astros over the whole sign stealing thing; this story notes yet another, a hand-written (!) lawsuit from a guy in Nevada who lost money in both 2017 and 2018 betting on the Dodgers to win the World Series. The day will come when this sort of story will end, but today is not that day. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I have my doubts that this will survive a motion to dismiss, but the Chron asked some actual lawyers, and maybe it can.

With three potential class action lawsuits pending against the Astros in Harris County courts, the scene is set for what attorneys say is a multi-layered, landmark legal battle that could test the wits and knowledge of lawyers, judges and jurors and perhaps extend beyond information disclosed in Major League Baseball’s report.

“This is a complicated mess,” said Talmage Boston, a Dallas attorney who has written two books on baseball’s history and is a member of the Texas Baseball Hall of Fame. “We have never seen anything like this before. There will be nothing easy about this case.”

Two additional lawsuits were filed against the ballclub Tuesday, bringing to at least seven the number of cases in state and federal court stemming from the electronic sign-stealing scheme in 2017-18 that resulted in Major League Baseball sanctions against the ballclub.

In the two latest suits, filed by the Hilliard Martinez Gonzales law firm in Corpus Christi, attorneys will seek authority to collect testimony that could go beyond details collected by the MLB probe that led to the firing of Astros manager A.J. Hinch and general manager Jeff Luhnow by team owner Jim Crane.

John Duff, an associate with the Hilliard firm, said attorneys for the ticket holders will attempt to question not only current and former Astros players and management but also MLB executives and players and managers from other teams, extending the boundaries of the MLB probe.

[…]

Sports-related lawsuits are not uncommon, with examples including the NFL’s “Spygate” affair with the New England Patriots and cases filed by disgruntled New Orleans Saints fans over officiating decisions that affected playoff games.

None of those cases proceeded to trial. Boston, however, said he believes the three Harris County cases, each of which seeks to represent season ticket holders who say they were defrauded by the Astros’ misdeeds, have a chance to proceed.

“The Astros will try to get them dismissed, but I think they will get teed up in front of a jury,” Boston said. “There are some compelling facts, and the evidence discovery will go deeper than anything we know in terms of what (MLB commissioner Rob Manfred) had in his investigation.

“It really is a can of worms.”

So who knows what might happen. Each case is in a different court, and there may be an effort to move them to federal court, which the plaintiffs will resist. I still have my doubts, but it sure would be interesting to see what the discovery process might uncover.

Endorsement watch: For Menefee

We have our first major endorsement against an incumbent as the Chron recommends Christian Menefee for County Attorney over Vince Ryan.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan’s decision to spend millions of dollars and waste precious legal resources to prolong the defense of an unconstitutional bail system raises serious questions about his judgment.

That Ryan still contends that the bail process was constitutional demands change.

This is a large part of why we recommend civil litigation attorney Christian Menefee in the March 3 Democratic primary for the job Ryan has held since 2008.

We were also impressed by promises made by Menefee, 31, to bring added energy and fresh perspective to the part of the job that goes beyond serving as a lawyer to county officials and judges. The county attorney also is responsible for using civil enforcement to protect neighborhoods, clean up the environment and shut down illegal enterprises.

“We need a relentless advocate who’s going to fight for the people of Harris County, all the people,” Menefee said in an interview with the Chronicle Editorial Board.

[…]

“I have great respect for Judge Rosenthal, but her finding of an unconstitutional system was, quite frankly, not something we agreed with,” Ryan told the Editorial Board, a stand that puts him in conflict with the courts and a growing body of legal reformers locally and across the country.

My interview with Vince Ryan is here, my interview with Christian Menefee is here, and my interview with Ben Rose is here. The Chron did endorse some challengers in judicial races, but this is a more significant decision. I’ve been saying for a long time that the bail lawsuit was going to be the main factor in this race, and however you feel about Vince Ryan – as I have said, I think he has been a pretty darned good County Attorney overall – Ryan has had to answer for this, and his answers have not been great. I don’t understand why the Chron didn’t stick to their position of strong support for bail reform in the primary between Judge George Powell and challenger Natalia Cornelio, but they are being consistent here. Again, I don’t know what the effect of the expected high turnout for the primary will be. I do expect that this issue has resonated with the Democratic electorate, but I don’t know how deep that goes.

What is happening in the CD22 primary?

Holy smokes.

Nyanza Moore

A state district judge on Wednesday barred Democratic congressional candidate Nyanza Moore from making domestic violence allegations against opponent Derrick Reed after the former Pearland councilman sued her for defamation.

Brazoria County Judge Patrick Sebesta issued a temporary restraining order after concluding that Reed would “suffer immediate and irreparable damage” to his integrity and reputation if Moore persisted with a series of social media posts implying that Reed “beats women.”

In a lawsuit filed Wednesday, Reed cited a handful of times in which Moore alleged or suggested that he had beaten his ex-wife or otherwise committed domestic violence. In one post, Moore indicated she possessed a protective order between Reed and his ex-wife.

In the court filing, Reed emphatically denied the allegations and said no protective order “exists between he and his ex-wife or any other woman.”

“Mr. Reed was with his ex-wife for approximately 20 years and has never beat or abused her,” the filing reads. “The police have never been called out to any of their residences for domestic violence or any physical altercation.”

In a statement, Reed’s ex-wife, Erin Reed, said, “The claim being made that my ex-husband, Derrick Reed, physically abused me during our marriage is false. This accusation is damaging and unfair to our young and impressionable children and is an untrue characterization of their father.”

The order prohibits Moore from making any allegations that Reed committed domestic violence, and instructs her to retract any prior statement “used to disseminate the defamatory statements.”

The lawsuit is embedded in the story, or you can see it here. There’s a high standard to meet to win in an action like this when you are a public figure and political speech is involved, as noted in the story. A hearing for the injunction will be held on February 25, after which there will be three more days of early voting. I think it’s safe to say that more people are now aware of this allegation than when it was first made.

We’re all more sensitive to claims about violence against women now, and we all know that just because such a claim was not decided in a courtroom doesn’t mean it was without merit. That said, there are two things about this particular case that stand out to me. One is Moore’s claim about that alleged protective order. She did’t say she heard that one existed, she said she had an actual copy of an actual order in her possession, which she has threatened to make public – “Keep it up and the Protective Order will see day light” was a response Moore made on one of the cited Facebook posts (see Exhibit B in the lawsuit). If you claim you have something like this, you better have it. If she doesn’t, that puts a big dent in her own credibility. Sooner or later in this process, she is going to be asked to produce that order.

The other thing is that if Reed is not being fully truthful, there is a chance someone else could come forward now that this has all been made public and provide their own evidence to back up Moore’s claim or make one of their own. We have certainly seen that dynamic play out in other cases. What we know for sure is that it cannot be the case that both of them are telling the truth. It could be the case that both of them are being less than fully honest, but at least one of them is wrong. We’ll see what happens in court.

One more thing, which isn’t relevant to the lawsuit but which I noticed in the document: Moore repeatedly referred to Reed as a Republican in the Facebook posts. The Erik Manning spreadsheet lists candidates’ primary voting history for the last four cycles. Derrick Reed did indeed vote in the Republican primary in 2016; he then voted in the Democratic primary in 2018. Nyanza Moore had no primary voting history shown. Make of that what you will.

Former MLB pitcher sues Astros

Good luck with that.

Did not age well

A pitcher who has not appeared in a major league game since getting shelled by the 2017 Houston Astros filed a civil lawsuit against the ballclub on Monday, according to USA Today.

In the filing made Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court, Mike Bolsinger accused the Astros of unfair business practices, along with negligence and intentional interference with contractual and economic relations, the report said. Bolsinger is seeking unspecified damages and wants the team to forfeit its 2017 playoff bonuses toward Los Angeles charities.

[…]

Toronto designated Bolsinger for assignment following its 16-7 loss that night. Bolsinger has not thrown a major league pitch since — ending a major league career that spanned 230 2/3 innings and three teams. He threw in the Japanese League in both 2018 and 2019.

Data compiled by Astros fan Tony Adams showed there were 54 bangs during the game in question — more than any other contest Adams charted.

See here for more on Tony Adams, and here for that USA Today story. Bolsinger was never a particularly good major leaguer, so it seems safe to call this a reach, but that doesn’t mean this will have no effect.

In other words, he could have company. Worth keeping an eye on, in any event.

Lawsuit filed over sign stealing effect on fantasy baseball

This ought to be interesting.

Major League Baseball (MLB) teams secretly distorted player statistics and deprived fans of an “honest fantasy baseball competition,” a lawsuit filed by a fan alleges in the fallout to a sign-stealing scandal involving the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox.

The lawsuit, which named MLB, the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox as defendants, was filed in a Manhattan federal court on behalf of all fans who participated in DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests, which plaintiff Kristopher Olson claimed were tainted by the sign-stealing scandal.

“At the very least, all of DraftKings’ fantasy baseball contests from early in the 2017 baseball season through the end of the 2018 regular season and into the 2019 season, were tainted by cheating and compromised, at the expense of DraftKings’ contestants,” according to the filing on Thursday.

DraftKings’ fantasy sports and betting operations are big business; it said in December it would go public this year in a deal putting its value at $3.3 billion.

The complaint claimed MLB has actively promoted fantasy baseball competition through its equity stake in fantasy sports and gambling company DraftKings.

CBS News and ClassAction.org have more details about the lawsuit if you want a deeper dive. I don’t play fantasy sports, but the basic idea is you draft a team, you designate which players “start” in a given game that is actually being played, and you get points based on the statistical performance of your players in those games. The idea here is that pitchers on fantasy teams who were designated to start against the Astros did worse than they would have because of the sign stealing, and since MLB knew about the sign stealing and didn’t do anything about it at the time, while they were also promoting and profiting from fantasy baseball, they were essentially defrauding the fantasy team owners. It seems a bit of a stretch to me, but there’s real money at stake. It’s also pretty clear that there’s more to the sign stealing story than what has been made public so far, and if this suit is allowed to proceed there’s a good chance we’ll learn a lot more about what really happened. So I’m very interested to see what happens.

The Jerry Davis situation

Someday, this is going to be taught in political science classes. And possibly law schools.

CM Jerry Davis

The ongoing election dispute in District B has put Jerry Davis in a peculiar position, seemingly caught between two provisions of the Texas Constitution as he challenges longtime incumbent state Rep. Harold Dutton in the March 3 Democratic primary.

And it is unlikely to change until the courts clear the way for voters to cast ballots in the long-delayed runoff for his council seat.

Until then, Davis is stuck in the council seat he was supposed to leave in January because of term limits.

[…]

With no new council member seated by the first of the year, Article XVI, Sec. 17 of the Texas Constitution kicked in, requiring Davis to remain in the District B seat until his successor can be elected and seated.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” the provision reads.

When Davis filed Dec. 9 to challenge Dutton for the District 142 seat in the Texas House, it raised another constitutional clause, this one found in Article III, Sec. 19.

That provision says no public official who holds a “lucrative office… shall during the term for which is he elected or appointed, be eligible to the Legislature.”

Texas Supreme Court rulings have held that any paid public office, no matter how small the compensation, is considered “lucrative.” Additionally, the high court has ruled that the eligibility requirement extends to one’s candidacy.

A Houston city council salary is around $63,000 a year.

To date, no one has challenged Davis’ eligibility.

The councilman said he believes he is in the clear because his elected term ended in January. Democratic Party officials, tasked with determining eligibility for primary candidates, say they believe he qualifies because his appointed term as a hold-over should end long before he would join the Legislature next January if he wins.

And Dutton has not lodged any complaints or challenges. That could change, should Davis prevail in the March election.

Buck Wood, an authority on Texas election law who has represented clients in landmark Supreme Court rulings on the subject, said the law holds that candidates have to be eligible while they are running for office, not just on the date they take it.

Since Davis still is on the council, someone could make the case that he is not eligible, he said.

“The problem is, the court has also held that you have to be eligible as of the date that you file,” Wood said.

The interaction of those two constitutional clauses is an open legal question, left unresolved for now by Texas judges.

“The courts have not ruled on that hold-over provision,” he said.

It gets deeper into the weeds from there, and I’ll leave it to you to read up. For now, all is well and legal and good. Until such time as someone files a lawsuit – either Dutton over Davis’ eligibility to be on the ballot (an irony that may wash us all into the sea), or a city resident alleging that some action Davis has taken since January 1 as Council member is invalid, or maybe some other claim I can’t envision right now – there are no problems. Maybe we’ll make it all the way to the (we hope) May runoff in District B and there will still be no problems. It can all come crashing down at any time, and if that happens it’ll tie up the legal system for years, but for now, make like Wile E. Coyote and keep on running. As far as you know, the end of that cliff has not yet arrived.

(Note: this story ran, and I drafted this post, before the ruling in the District B runoff lawsuit. The fundamentals are the same, as Davis will still be serving till we have a runoff winner.)