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“Motor voter” lawsuit 2.0

Try, try again, this time hopefully addressing the cause of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ rejection of the first lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The first time former English professor Jarrod Stringer was told he couldn’t vote in a Texas election, he sued. A federal appeals court tossed his case on a technicality, but one of the judges ended up admonishing state officials to not let it happen again.

Yet it did, and now Stringer and other frustrated Texans are taking the state back to federal court.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, they are arguing anew that the state continues to disenfranchise an unknown number of voters by violating the motor voter law, a federal requirement that people be allowed to complete voter registration when they get a driver’s license. Stringer is the lead plaintiff in the second legal chapter of a fight over Texas’ resistance to online voter registration.

The state allows driver’s licenses applicants to complete their voter registration when they physically appear at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, but does not allow the same result when residents update or renew licenses online. At least 1.5 million Texans use the state’s online driver’s license portal a year, according to Stringer’s lawyers, though it’s unclear how many also attempt to re-register.

Stringer first encountered the prohibition after moving back to his hometown of San Antonio in 2014. He updated his driver’s license and mistakenly thought he had re-registered to vote at the same time. But after standing in line at an early voting polling place set up on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he discovered he was not on the voter roll.

“Having the option to vote was something that I have taken seriously,” Stringer said in an interview. “Voting is just a fundamental act of expression of citizenship.”

[…]

In their new lawsuit, Stringer, two other voters, along with two nonprofits that work to register Texans to vote, have revived the arguments from the first lawsuit, pressing virtually the same legal claims that prompted Garcia’s initial favorable ruling.

This time, to avoid the legal pitfall over standing to sue, Stringer and the other voters in the case are filing their legal challenge while remaining off the voter rolls in the counties where they now live, and Stringer has noted that he has plans to move in 2020 — a point at which he will again run into the limitations of the online DPS system.

But while they’re working to address the issues found by the 5th Circuit last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t plan to ask the plaintiffs to sit out the upcoming election. With the three individual voters in the case expected to reregister before the Feb. 3 deadline for the March primaries, the lawsuit could ultimately serve as a test case of what sacrifices a voter must make at the ballot box to challenge a system that they see as impeding their access to it.

In the interest of not quoting the whole story I cut out a bunch in the middle that recapped the first lawsuit and why it was dismissed – you can read this post for my own link-filled “previously on…” segment. This story reminded me that the Fifth Circuit wasn’t necessarily hostile to the first lawsuit, perhaps just overly pedantic. If that’s the case, and this isn’t a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football” situation, then maybe we can get a different result. There’s every reason to believe that the district court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs again. The question is what happens after that. With any luck, we’ll find out soon.

Meet your Board of Managers wannabes

Lots of people want that gig.

[Frank] North is one of nearly 250 people who applied for positions on the prospective replacement board, which Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath plans to install in the coming months. Morath announced in November 2019 his intention to temporarily oust the elected school board, citing Wheatley High School’s seventh consecutive failing grade and multiple findings of misconduct involving current trustees, though a preliminary injunction issued last week and ongoing litigation could threaten those plans.

The applicants, according to a list provided by the TEA, represent a broad cross-section of the district, home to about 210,000 students from wide-ranging economic, ethnic, racial and social backgrounds. They include Houston ISD employees, former political candidates, business professionals, higher education staffers and advocates with children attending district schools.

Several candidates are well-known in civic and education circles, but most come with little to no public profile. Higher-visibility applicants include former HISD trustee Cathy Mincberg, former Houston Police Department interim chief Martha Montalvo, League of United Latin American Citizens leader Hugo Mojica and former HISD police chief Robert Mock.

[…]

State leaders will spend the next several weeks winnowing the list down to nine potential board members, conducting at least three rounds of interviews. Agency officials have said they want an ethnically, racially, geographically and socioeconomically diverse board of Houston residents with multiple skill sets. State law grants Morath the final authority on board selections.

The list released by state officials only includes first and last names of those who applied. The candidates’ work histories, educational backgrounds and personally identifiable information were not disclosed. TEA officials did not respond to questions about what information will be released as the screening process continues.

TEA officials wanted to install the board as early as this spring, but last week’s preliminary injunction blocks Morath from installing a replacement board while a lawsuit filed by HISD trustees seeking to stop their ouster is ongoing. Lawyers for the TEA immediately appealed the injunction ruling. A trial is set for late June.

As noted, the timetable here depends on the outcome of the litigation. The article contains more information about and quotes from a number of the applicants, presumably ones the Chron could identify either from their names or public statements they’ve made. I can understand limiting the data available about them for now, but we deserve full transparency going forward.

More heat on Abbott over his anti-refugee action

Good. Keep it up.

“This is not a Democrat versus Republican issue. It’s not an immigrant versus native-born issue … it is not a religious versus secular issue,” said Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo during a press conference with elected officials and leaders of refugee resettlement organizations. “We cannot turn our backs to the most vulnerable facing the most difficult conditions imaginable.”

[…]

On Tuesday, Harris County Precinct 2 Commissioner Adrian Garcia said Abbott was wrongly conflating refugee resettlement, which involves an extensive State Department vetting process that can last three years, and migrants coming across the southern border to ask for asylum.

Both numbers have dropped dramatically and this year only about 2,000 refugees were expected in Texas, compared to 7,800 admitted during the last year of President Barack Obama’s administration in 2016.

Garcia noted that the federal government fully funds the initial resettlement of refugees and that the state pays no direct costs.

“This is a reprehensible decision,” Garcia said.

State Rep. Gene Wu, a Democrat who represents southwest Houston where many refugees are initially housed, said the governor’s choice went against his Catholic faith.

“Gov. Abbott had the choice to live as a Christian and follow what Christ said and commanded and he chose the opposite,” he said.

Opting out of the federal program means funding won’t be given to local organizations to resettle refugees in Texas, said Kimberly Haynes, a regional refugee coordinator with the South Texas Office of Refugees.

She said Abbott’s decision does not prevent refugees from moving here later, but meant the state would no longer receiving funding to help them integrate, including to find jobs and learn English. Most refugees coming to Houston are joining relatives likely will continue to come here no matter where they are settled, Haynes said.

“If someone is resettled here and the next day they want to come to this great state, they can take the bus and come to Texas,” said Ali Al Sudani, who came here as a refugee from Iraq a decade ago and is now senior vice president for programs at Interfaith Ministries for Greater Houston.

See here, here, and here for the background. I don’t believe for a minute any of this will affect Abbott – he doesn’t talk to the public, so why would he ever listen to the public? – but it’s still the right thing to do, and maybe there is some level of heat that Abbott might feel. In the meantime, this whole fight may be moot.

A federal judge temporarily blocked a Trump administration policy that would have allowed governors, like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and other local leaders to prevent refugees from resettling in those areas.

The Wednesday decision from Maryland-based Judge Peter J. Messitte comes just days after Abbott became the first and only state leader to opt out of the program. Officials had until Jan. 21 to inform the State Department whether they would participate in the program after the Trump administration imposed the deadline in a September executive order. At least 42 governors, including Republicans, have said they would accept refugees.

“By giving States and Local governments the power to veto where refugees maybe settled – in the face of clear statutory text and structure, purpose, Congressional intent, executive practice, judicial holdings, and Constitutional doctrine to the contrary – [the order] does not appear to serve the overall public interest,” Messitte said in his ruling.

You can see a copy of the ruling here. I assume this will be appealed by the Trump administration, and as the original lawsuit was not filed in the Fifth Circuit there’s a chance this ruling could be upheld. For now at least, the madness has been stopped. NPR, Daily Kos, and the Texas Signal have more.

Flynn officially on HD138 primary ballot

Score two for formerly-booted candidates.

Josh Flynn

In mediation last Friday, [candidate Josh Flynn and the Harris County Republican Party] agreed that Flynn would appear on the upcoming primary ballot [for HD138].

[HCRP Chair Paul] Simpson said in a statement that he challenged Flynn’s eligibility to “protect the integrity of the ballot,” and continued to dispute that Flynn should be allowed to run.

“As Texas law also requires, we agreed that Mr. Flynn’s name will remain on the primary ballot, even though he is ineligible to run,” Simpson said.

An attorney for Simpson and the party echoed that.

“We’ve left (Flynn) on the ballot because the law requires us to do so, but unless a judge rules otherwise, he’s still ineligible,” said Trey Trainor, an Austin-based attorney.

Regardless of the outcome of the primary, lingering ambiguity about Flynn’s eligibility could be bad for the Republican Party, Rice University political science Professor Mark Jones said.

If Flynn wins the primary, Jones said, his Democratic opponent in the general election could seek to have him declared ineligible. And they would be able to use the Republican Party’s own words to bolster that claim.

The Texas Supreme Court then would need to rule on whether Flynn was allowed to run, and clarify what is or is not a “lucrative office.”

If such a decision goes against Flynn, local precinct chairs would appoint a replacement candidate, which Jones said could be seen as a subversion of the voters’ will.

Even if a court sides with Flynn, Jones said, the legal dispute could cost valuable time, money and resources in the race for House District 138, which GOP Rep. Dwayne Bohac won by only 47 votes in 2018. Bohac announced late last year that he would not seek reelection.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have much else to add – I thought Flynn had the stronger case, and I think the Lege ought to clarify this situation. How much any of this matters, in March and in November, I have no idea. If the district is still on the razor’s edge, then every little bit does count, but given the way things have been going, maybe it’s all academic. As with all the other races of interest, let’s see what the finance reports tell us.

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

Texas Education Agency officials said they filed an appeal Thursday to overturn an injunction by a Travis County judge blocking it from replacing Houston ISD’s trustees with a state-appointed board of managers.

The appeal was sent to the Austin-based Third Court of Appeals, and if a panel of judges sides with the agency, it could resume its work to strip Houston ISD’s board of power.

If the injunction is upheld, the TEA would not be able to move forward until a lawsuit by the Houston ISD board of trustees has been decided. Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy on Wednesday set a hearing date for June 22.

[…]

Shepherd ISD, a small school district just south of Lake Livingston also is targeted for a board takeover by the TEA. That district also sought a temporary injunction this year to stop the education agency takeover. On Thursday, Travis County District Judge Karin Crump denied that application for an injunction.

HB 1842 was not the TEA’s only potential option to replace Houston ISD’s board. It could sanction the district over the state investigation. State law also allows the TEA to take over the board if a district has had a TEA conservator for two or more years.

HISD attorneys argue that the TEA’s investigation was biased and that because the TEA conservator was assigned to one campus, and not the district as a whole, her presence would not trigger a takeover.

The injunction by Judge Mauzy also blocks the TEA from acting under either of those rules.

See here for the background. The conventional wisdom seems to be that while the Third Court of Appeals may uphold the injunction, the all-Republican Supreme Court may be more favorable to the TEA. Make of that what you will. Time could be a factor, depending on how long it takes each court to hear and rule on the appeals. Honestly, I hope this gets decided on the merits in a timely fashion. Whatever the outcome, having some extra clarity on the law would be a good thing.

Judge Powell back on the ballot

So be it.

Judge George Powell

A civil court judge Wednesday ordered that sitting criminal district Judge George Powell be included on the March primary ballot after the Harris County Democratic Party denied his application for candidacy last month.

Party officials had to accept Powell’s application within 24 hours, and he needs to appear as a choice for voters during the election, Judge Lauren Reeder ordered. But the ruling is technically temporary and could be subject to appeal by the party or Powell’s primary opponent, who was a third-party “intervener” in Powell’s suit against the party.

“I’m very happy that the judge granted our request for an injunction and that he gets the chance to run again,” said Kent Schaffer, Powell’s attorney. “Ultimately, it’s the voters who should decide who the candidate’s going to be, and not a select few people who feel like it’s their right.”

During a Tuesday court hearing, the local chapter of the Democratic Party sought to justify its decision in leaving Powell off the ballot, urging him to take responsibility for his application’s failure. A statement party officials issued after Wednesday’s ruling made little mention of the outcome, however, and pointed to issues with the election code.

Party leaders weren’t able to approve Powell’s candidacy because state rules prevented it, they said. The judge paid an insufficient filing fee too close to the filing deadline, meaning his application was denied and the problem couldn’t be fixed without breaking state rules, party chair Lillie Schechter testified Tuesday.

“The Harris County Democratic Party regrets the situation Judge Powell found himself in,” party officials said in a statement. “Without question, we believe all eligible candidates should have access to the ballot.”

See here for the background, and here for a pre-hearing version of the story, which was also covered by Texas Lawyer. On the one hand, I agree with the HCDP: The rules are easy to understand. He could have filed earlier than the very last minute, when there was no time to fix this easily-corrected mistake. The party doesn’t have much discretion according to the law. On the other hand, I hate seeing people bumped from the ballot for nit-picky reasons. The law in question should be amended to allow a post-deadline grace period to correct technical errors like this (though again, if you know you’re going to run, file at least a day before the deadline and save yourself the trouble).

This is probably the end of the story. The HCDP does not plan to appeal, and intervenor/primary opponent Natalia Cornelio does not appear to be appealing, either. Fine by me, let’s get on to the campaign. One more thing first:

Powell’s lawyers hinted in Tuesday’s injunction hearing that the party might have an interest in keeping the judge from running for re-election, even though paying the incorrect amount might have been no more than a convenient mistake. Schaffer clarified afterward that he believes Ellis is pulling strings in the local Democratic Party, and wants his employee to run unopposed for the 351st state judicial district.

Ellis and Cornelio both helped draft a landmark settlement over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail system, which a federal judge said was unconstitutional and discriminated against poor defendants.

Powell was one of 11 current and former judges in the area who were admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct in 2019 related to complaints that they instructed hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to indigent defendants. That admonishment has since been retracted for unknown reasons.

Randle called the claims “ludicrous,” and Cornelio’s attorney, Mynor E. Rodriguez, said he hadn’t heard those accusations.

Yeah, that admonishment, whatever happened to it. I wasn’t inclined to vote for Powell before any of this happened. I’m less inclined to vote for him now.

HISD gets another injunction

In state court this time.

A state judge Wednesday evening immediately blocked Texas from taking over the Houston Independent School District until she issues a final ruling on the case, complicating the state’s plan to oust the district’s school board by March.

In doing so, Travis County District Judge Catherine Mauzy preliminarily sided with Houston ISD, the state’s largest school district, in a legal battle that will ultimately determine whether Texas can indefinitely seize power from its elected school board. At a hearing Tuesday morning, lawyers for Houston ISD argued that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority in nearly every step in the process of deciding on a takeover.

[…]

Mauzy also denied Morath the ability to strike down the injunction on appeal. The trial is set for the morning of June 22, months after the state intended to seat a board of managers.

In the ruling, she said Houston ISD proved it needed the injunction because once Morath takes action to remove power from the elected board, the district would then have no recourse.

At Tuesday’s court hearing, Houston ISD’s lawyers challenged Morath’s reasons for the planned takeover, accusing him of inaccurately interpreting state law and skipping procedural steps to get the results he wanted.

“They don’t get to ignore the law and take over the district just because they think [the Texas Education Agency] could do a better job,” said lawyer David Campbell.

See here for the previous update, when a federal judge denied HISD’s request to halt the takeover but said they could file in state court. I’m still not betting on HISD prevailing, but they haven’t lost yet. Now the TEA needs to figure out how this affects their plans. Check back in June, this is going to be interesting. The Chron has more.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

Flynn stays on GOP primary ballot for now

There’s still litigation to come, but I think he’s got a good case and will probably win.

Josh Flynn

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has weighed in on a lawsuit accusing the Harris County Republican Party of improperly declaring a candidate for the Texas legislature ineligible because he previously held a “lucrative office.”

At issue in the suit is the candidacy of Josh Flynn, a Republican who is running for House District 38 and who, until earlier this month, had been a trustee for the Harris County Department of Education.

Though trustees earn just $6 per meeting, the Texas Supreme Court has ruled that “an office is lucrative if the officeholder receives any compensation, no matter how small.”

Flynn was previously declared ineligible for the race by county GOP Chairman Paul Simpson, who said that Flynn had submitted his resignation as a trustee to the wrong person at the county education board.

Flynn sought a temporary restraining order that was granted this week by a district court judge.

In a separate filing, Paxton stopped short of siding with Flynn, but wrote that “the law in Texas is clear that a candidate who effectively resigns from the conflicting office may be a candidate for the legislature.”

[…]

Flynn, meanwhile, will have to wait until their next scheduled court date in January to move forward with his candidacy — though his attorney, former Harris County Republican Party Chairman Jared Woodfill, said he is confident that Flynn will prevail.

See here for the previous update. I don’t think anyone is questioning that Flynn had to resign – if that were the issue here, I’d be fully in support of Paul Simpson’s position – it’s basically a question of whether he handed in his resignation letter properly. That to me is too thin a reason to disqualify him, and even though it gives me a rash to agree with Jared Woodfill, I think he’s right about how the case will go.

On the broader resign-to-run question, I am generally in favor of reforming the system we have now, which requires some officeholders – mostly county officeholders, like sheriff and commissioner and constable – to resign to run for other offices, with some legacy variations in there for obscure offices like HCDE Trustee. Because only some people have to do it and not others – like state legislators, for example – it provides an advantage to one class of incumbents, and that feels wrong to me. On balance, I think letting most officeholders serve while running for something else would be better. I doubt the Lege will address this – the current system benefits them, after all – but I would be in favor if they did.

Federal lawsuit filed against Precinct 2 Constable over campaign practices

Hoo boy.

Chris Diaz

Nearly a dozen former employees and high-ranking officials are suing Precinct 2 Constable Chris Diaz, alleging that the elected Harris County lawman required deputies and command staff to help with his reelection campaign and retaliated against them with demotions and terminations if they refused.

The wide-ranging accusations in the 33-page federal suit paint a picture of a troubled office, where campaign donors were allegedly given preference in promotions, and anyone who cooperated with state investigators could expect to be punished.

“He’s just running Precinct 2 like it was his own campaign,” said attorney Scott Poerschke, who is representing the former employees. “He’s conditioning employment upon service of his campaign and any time that is challenged in any way, then those employees are retaliated against.”

Poerschke said the plaintiffs fall into two main categories: people who supported election challenger Jerry Garcia and people who helped out with a Texas Rangers probe into overtime claims and the possible misappropriation of Hurricane Harvey donations.

Neither Diaz nor his wife – Jacinto City Mayor Ana Diaz, who the plaintiffs accused of helping with her husband’s retaliation efforts – responded Tuesday to the Chronicle’s request for comment. A spokesman for the Harris County Attorney’s Office said the office was aware of and reviewing the litigation, but did not offer comment on it.

Even before the latest lawsuit, the constable was already the target of a whistleblower claim filed earlier this year in state court earlier. But last week, his reelection efforts landed in the news over a different concern, after one challenger accused him of putting up a relative of the same name – another Jerry Garcia – as a ploy to confuse voters.

See here for the “two Jerry Garcias” story, which I would have blogged about separately had it not been subsumed by this story. You can read the Chron article for details; I’m going to wait to see what happens at trial before making any firm conclusions, since I was not aware of any of this before now. On a broader level, is it maybe time to think about getting rid of the elected office of Constable all together? We have a pretty damn spotty record with Constables in Harris County, from Perry Wooten to Jack Abercia to Victor Trevino to Ron Hickman, and maybe allegedly now Chris Diaz. Someone make the case that elected Constables are still a good idea in the 21st century, as opposed to just absorbing the office into the Sheriff’s department. I’m going to need to hear it, because I’m not sure I see it. Campos has more.

City wins water rights lawsuit

A bit of pre-holiday good news.

A Travis County state district judge on Friday tossed a state law that would force the city of Houston to sell its water rights in a proposed reservoir west of Simonton.

The law, which breezed through the Legislature last session and was signed into law by Gov. Greg Abbott, requires the city to sell its rights in the proposed Allens Creek Reservoir by the end of the year for up to $23 million.

The city sued the state and the Brazos River Authority in July, claiming the law was unconstitutional in part because it violates prohibitions on retroactive laws and on forced sales of municipal property that have a public use.

In a ruling issued Friday evening, state district Judge Karin Crump of the 250th District Court agreed with the city’s interpretation, finding the law violates several provisions of the Texas Constitution and Local Government Code.

Crump ruled that the law constitutes a forced sale and “changes the legal consequences of acts completed before the bill’s effective date without sufficient findings to justify passage” of the bill.

See here for the background, and see here for a statement from Mayor Turner on the ruling. I don’t see any other coverage, so I have no idea if there will be an appeal, but I agreed with the lawsuit and I’m glad to see this outcome. Let’s hope it sticks.

District B runoff lawsuit hearing set

Let’s hope for a quick verdict.

Cynthia Bailey

The stalled runoff in Houston city council District B likely will have to wait until May, if not longer, leaving north Houston neighborhoods without a new representative for months after the council convenes in January.

The election has been mired in a lawsuit that county officials said forced them to pull the race from the Dec. 14 ballot, when the dozen other city runoffs were decided. It then also missed the deadline to make the Jan. 28 ballot, when the county was holding a special election for a vacant seat in the Texas House of Representatives.

While the lawsuit inched a bit closer to a resolution Friday, with set of a trial date on Jan. 24, county officials said the runoff could not be held on March 3, when a slew of primary contests will be decided. Texas law states that “no other election may be held on the date of a primary election.”

County officials said the next scheduled election would be May 2, when smaller cities and school districts typically hold municipal and board elections, though a judge could have discretion on whether to schedule a special election. Harris County Special Assistant Attorney Douglas Ray said the County Clerk’s office would need about seven weeks notice to conduct a special election.

[…]

Presiding Judge Susan Brown set the Jan. 24 trial date Friday and tapped former Harris County Judge Grant Dorfman to be the special judge on the case.

The appointment is required by state law, which calls for a special judge whose judicial district does not include any territory covered by the election and who does not live in the territory.

See here and here for the background. At this point, there are three possible outcomes:

1. A final ruling from a court. That doesn’t mean it has to go all the way to the Supreme Court, just that the higher courts refuse to hear an appeal. The ideal situation here is for this to happen in time for the May election. I don’t even want to think about how much longer this could get dragged out if there isn’t a final resolution by mid-March, which would be the legal deadline for this election to happen in May.

2. Renee Jefferson Smith quits pursuing the case. Maybe that happens after the district court rules, or maybe she just decides at some point it’s no longer worth it to her. The first possibility could happen, the second seems extremely unlikely.

3. Cynthia Bailey could choose to withdraw from the runoff and concede the election to Tarsha Jackson. In theory, if she did that today, Tarsha Jackson would be sworn in with the other Council members in January. I say “in theory” because Jefferson Smith could continue to litigate, with the claim that Bailey shouldn’t have been on the ballot at all, so either the whole election should be done over or there should be a Jackson-Jefferson Smith runoff for the seat. I don’t think that argument would get very far in a court, but she might be allowed to make it, in which case we’d still be on hold till that was resolved. I also think it’s highly unlikely that Bailey would throw in the towel – she’s come this far, she’s making a principled stand on a righteous position, she’s not the one holding everything up – but it’s a thing that could happen.

Add it up, and the the best case scenario is likely the May 2 election. Hope for the best, that’s all I can say.

Meanwhile, in other Council race news:

With that, the District H race is settled. Congratulations to Karla Cisneros for her victory, and my sincere thanks to Isabel Longoria for running a strong and engaging race.

UPDATE: Stace has more.

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

Ugh.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

HISD attempt to stop TEA takeover denied

Possibly only a temporary setback, however.

A federal judge on Wednesday denied Houston ISD’s request for a preliminary injunction and dismissed its lawsuit aimed at stopping the Texas Education Agency from replacing the district’s elected board, delivering a temporary victory to state officials.

However, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled that HISD could still argue parts of the lawsuit in state court and did not reject a Voting Rights Act violation claim brought by the district’s largest teachers union, keeping the possibility of legal intervention alive.

In a 13-page ruling issued late Wednesday, Yeakel found that HISD officials could not legally bring federal due process and voting rights claims against the Texas Education Agency, and that allegations of First Amendment rights violations by the agency did not warrant issuing a preliminary injunction.

[…]

Yeakel, based in Austin, said claims that Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath exceeded his authority on multiple occasions prior to deciding to replace HISD trustees could be heard in a Travis County court, where he remanded the case.

See here for the previous update; as promised, this was a quick ruling from Judge Yeakel. HISD could now pursue this in a state court, where I don’t think they’re any more likely to get a favorable ruling, but in for a penny and all that. In addition, Judge Yeakel wrote that his initial approval of the Houston Federation of Teachers joining the lawsuit was in error, because they have separate claims from the ones HISD was bringing. He said they should file their own separate lawsuit, which centers on Voting Rights Act claims; as the story indicates, that is what they plan to do. Again, based on the North Forest experience, I don’t think this is going to win the day, but there’s no harm in trying. So, while this was a win for the state, it’s not over yet. The Trib has more.

Army Corps held liable for Harvey reservoir flooding

A big deal.

Thousands of Houston area residents and property owners landed a historic win against the U.S. government on Tuesday when a federal judge found that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is liable for damage caused when it used homes and businesses to retain floodwater upstream of the Addicks and Barker reservoirs during Hurricane Harvey.

The judge ruled the government’s actions led to a violation of civilians’ rights, finding that officials intentionally stored rising floodwaters on private property. He determined — based on complicated data, testimony, evidence and an in-person tour of test properties — that people whose homes and businesses flooded should be permitted to seek compensation for what happened. The residents and business owners successfully made the case that the government knew for decades that the reservoirs would likely not retain floodwaters in a deluge and they did nothing to prevent it.

“We are extraordinarily pleased for the upstream flood victims and honored that the court found that the government was liable for the damage they suffered,” said Daniel Charest, one of the lead lawyers for the group of flood victims. “While we have a lot of work to do for damages this is a massive step toward making these victims whole.”

[…]

Property owners may file suit for six years from the time of the flooding.

Charest said he encourages people in the upstream area who haven’t submitted a claim to do so.

“The window remains open for people the join the litigation and I encourage them to do so to bring justice to the flood victims,” he said.

According to the Trib, there’s a second lawsuit that is still in litigation; this may refer to it, I’m not 100% sure. Be that as it may, this could represent a lot of money to the affected homeowners, which would be a very big deal for them. There’s no indication at this time if this ruling will be appealed, but it’s hard to imagine otherwise.

We have a filing failure

In typical fashion, it’s bizarre.

Judge George Powell

One of the more bizarre things to happen during the recent filing period: Judge George Powell had his filing rejected because of a filing fee mistake. So he sued.

Powell filed on the last day, and according to the suit, he was told by a party person incorrectly that the fee is $1500, when it was $2500. However, the party would not allow him to correct the mistake, so the lawsuit was filed. They did not have to go far.

Powell and his lawyer, the venerable Kent Schaffer, had a TRO hearing today. After one judge recused, another did conduct a hearing, they were granted a TRO.

Full hearing in early January.

If Judge Powell is not allowed back on the Democratic primary ballot, his challenger [Natalia Cornelio] (who currently works for Comm. Rodney Ellis) would become the de facto Dem. nominee.

That’s from Miya Shay’s Facebook page – as of Tuesday morning, I didn’t see any news stories on this. Stace notes that Judge Powell, who was elected in 2016, should have known the rules, which have not changed any time recently. (That filing fee is not mandatory, by the way. You can collect 750 petition signatures – attend any Dem event in the months before the filing period and you will have multiple opportunities to sign judicial candidate petitions for this – and pay no fee, or collect 250 and pay the $2,500.) To be sure, he should have been given the correct information by whoever processed his filing at the HCDP, and they should do a review to see what went wrong. But in the end, this reinforces two things that I and others say over and over again:

1) The rules for filing for office are well-known and easy to learn. Any marginally competent campaign professional can properly advise you on how to comply with them. There’s really no excuse for this kind of failure.

2) Don’t wait to file till the very last minute if you can help it. Had Judge Powell filed a day earlier, he would have had the time to get this fixed. As it is, his fate is in the hands of another judge. If you someday decide you might want to run for office, don’t let this happen to you. Give yourself some extra time when you file.

(FWIW, Judge Powell was admonished by the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, along with several other felony court judges, for violating state law by ordering hearing officers to deny no-cost bail to thousands of poor defendants. I was inclined to support a primary opponent in his race anyway, so whether he makes it back onto the ballot or not is of no great interest to me. There were two other incumbent judges who received that sanction, Herb Ritchie (who is stepping down) and Hazel Jones, who did not get a primary opponent.)

UPDATE: On a not-really-related note, HCDE Trustee Josh Flynn has been disqualified from the Republican primary ballot for HD138. He would have had to resign to have been allowed on the ballot.

We continue to wait on the District B runoff

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

Any hope for a speedy resolution to a lawsuit that is holding up the runoff for Houston’s District B city council seat evaporated Wednesday when the presiding judge for the Houston region said she would not assign a special judge to take over the lawsuit until the state Supreme Court weighs in on a related case.

“Once that happens, she will make an assignment if necessary,” said Rebecca Brite, assistant for Presiding Judge Susan Brown. “We do not know when that will be.”

Brown is the presiding judge for the 11th Administrative Judicial Region of Texas, which includes Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend, Brazoria, Wharton and Matagorda counties.

Attorneys on both sides of the dispute had expected Brown to make an assignment in the contentious case by Wednesday.

[…]

Two days after the election, Jefferson-Smith asked a judge for an emergency order declaring Bailey ineligible. Judge Dedra Davis denied that request, as did the First Court of Appeals. The attorneys now are submitting arguments to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Jefferson-Smith filed a separate lawsuit on Nov. 15, formally contesting the election results and renewing the argument about Bailey’s eligibility.

[…]

“We are waiting for the complete appellate process to conclude,” Brite said.

Nicole Bates, who represents Jefferson-Smith, had said earlier this week she expected an assignment by Wednesday “at the latest.”

“I think (the appeal) clears the path to address those issues concerning eligibility, that the election contest will not,” Bates said after Brown’s announcement.

Bailey’s lawyer, Oliver Brown — no relation to the presiding judge — said the appeal would not resolve the election contest that county officials say is holding up the runoff.

“It should’ve happened already,” Brown said of the judicial assignment.

See here for the previous update. I assume that Jefferson Smith had filed a writ of mandamus, which is now with the Supreme Court, to request that Bailey be removed from the ballot. That was the mechanism that the HERO haters used to get their referendum on the ballot in 2015. The Supreme Court moves on its own timeline, though perhaps the exigent circumstances in this case will motivate them to shake a leg. But whatever the case, we’re waiting on them for the second lawsuit to be assigned and heard. I wasn’t optimistic before, and I’m less so now. I truly have no idea how long this will take.

District B runoff lawsuit moved to another court

Still up in the air.

Cynthia Bailey

A Harris County judge on Monday referred the lawsuit stalling a runoff in Houston city council District B to another court, casting more uncertainty about when the contentious case will be resolved and when voters will choose a new council member.

[…]

Monday’s hearing in the case did not address the central claims of the lawsuit. [Plaintiff Renee] Jefferson-Smith has contested the Nov. 5 results and argues that [candidate Cynthia] Bailey’s felony conviction makes her ineligible for office.

Instead, the hearing focused on legal procedure. Attorneys for Bailey and Jackson argued Jefferson-Smith’s lawsuit did not constitute a proper election contest because she did not dispute the results. They asked the court to dismiss the case.

Judge Cory Don Sepolio declined, referring the case instead to the regional authority tasked with assigning a special judge. He cited a state law that says judges in the county where an election took place can’t hear a contest in that election.

Nicole Bates, attorney for Jefferson-Smith, said she expects the judicial assignment to be made in the next couple days. She hailed the move as a win.

“We are happy with this decision and look forward to pursuing the election contest, and hopefully we can give the voters a true choice on a candidate that can actually be seated,” she said.

[Candidate Tarsha] Jackson called the decision “disappointing.”

“The people of District B should be voting right now with the rest of Houston,” Jackson said. “We need to get on the ballot as soon as possible — in January — and I’m going to keep fighting to make sure people can exercise their right to vote.”

The lawsuit is the second case Jefferson-Smith has filed. In the first, a judge declined her request for an order declaring Bailey ineligible. Jefferson-Smith is currently asking the Texas Supreme Court to review that decision.

See here, here, and here for the background. I just want this to be over in a timely fashion, so that the people can finally get to vote. This is such a mess.

HISD lawsuit to stop TEA takeover has its day in court

We’ll see how it goes.

As Houston Independent School District fights for its independence, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel gave little indication Thursday of whether he would tap the brakes on the state’s plans to strip power from the elected trustees and install a new governing board.

However, Yeakel complimented the district on a “well-presented” case and said he plans to rule quickly on HISD’s request for a preliminary injunction. An injunction would stop the state from making moves to upend management at the state’s largest school district until the court hears and decides the full case.

David Campbell, an attorney arguing on behalf of HISD, said the state’s attempt to appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district is like “bringing an elephant gun to shoot a mouse.”

[…]

“This case starts and ends with Wheatley High School,” said Emily Ardolino, assistant attorney general in the state’s general ligation division. She said the commissioner has a mandate to take action and much of what the state is challenging is not reviewable by the courts under state law.

Yeakel questioned whether the decision to take over the entire governing body of the school district was an overreaction to the failing performance of one in more than 280 schools.

“Texas law provides for this,” Ardolino said, adding government intervention is mandated by state law. She argued the current board has been characterized as “dysfunctional” by one of its members and said disarray in meetings has exposed racial tensions. She pointed to a state investigation that found HISD trustees were unilaterally taking actions that required board approval. The appointed board would serve for a matter of years, not indefinitely, according to the state’s defense.

See here, here, and here for the background. You know my opinion of this, so let me just say I appreciate that Judge Yeakel will give a ruling quickly. Whatever happens, best we know it soon. The Trib has more.

It could be March before District B gets to vote in their runoff

And honestly, by the same calculations, it could go later than that.

Cynthia Bailey

The Houston City Council District B runoff could be delayed until March if a lawsuit contesting last month’s election result is not resolved by Monday, the Harris County Attorney’s office said.

The third-place finisher in the race filed the contest, arguing that second-place finisher Cynthia Bailey’s felony conviction bars her from holding public office.

Meanwhile, incumbent District B Councilman Jerry Davis said he intends to hold the seat until a successor is elected, while Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said the runoff should not have been delayed.

“There’s a lot of people out there that are angry,” Ellis said at this week’s Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday. “And to be honest with you, I’m angry as well.”

Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray said Dec. 9 is the deadline to place District B on the Jan. 28 ballot, which also will feature the runoff for the vacant District 148 seat in the Texas House of Representatives. The county will begin sending mail ballots for that election next week, Ray said.

“We don’t want to have to run another election in addition to the ones that we’re already doing,” Ray said.

A hearing on the election contest has been scheduled for Friday.

See here for the previous update. According to the Secretary of State, the deadline to send out the mail ballots for the March primary election is January 18th. That means that if we don’t have a resolution by the 9th, we have a bit less than six weeks to get resolution in time to have the election in March. Otherwise, the next opportunity is May. Isn’t this fun?

The District B race was a topic of discussion at Commissioners Court, where Ellis questioned whether the county should have yanked the runoff from the ballot. He suggested the county attorney could have sought to quickly dismiss Jefferson-Smith’s suit so the runoff could proceed as scheduled.

Ellis said the county’s decision sets a dangerous precedent where any disgruntled party could cause delays to an election.

“We’re going to be the laughingstock of the country if there’s some last-minute challenge, and then somehow we’re going to affect the presidential primary on Super Tuesday,” Ellis said.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo suggested the county attorney’s office develop a strategy to more quickly resolve election challenges in the future.

To be fair, the fact that the state law in question is ambiguous and has not been resolved by a court is part of the problem. Short of declaring Bailey ineligible when she filed, I’m not sure what the County Attorney can do or could have done. That said, I Am Not An Attorney, and they are (it’s right there in the name), so maybe they can think of something. Whatever they do think of, getting that law fixed needs to be a priority as well.

City and county leaders have said they support keeping Davis on council until his replacement is named.

“Although his term will expire on January 2, 2020, the City expects Council Member Jerry Davis to serve on a holdover basis (if necessary) until his successor is elected and qualified for office,” said Alan Bernstein, communications director for Mayor Sylvester Turner.

While some question whether that may run afoul of the city’s term limits, Davis and county officials said the Texas Constitution allows him to stay.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” Article XVI of the Constitution says.

I’m fine with this as well, but we all know this is another lawsuit waiting to happen, right? Lord help us if Davis is on the winning side of a 9-8 vote in Council in 2020. It sure would be nice if we get a verdict by Monday.

Another District B update

This whole situation is so unfortunate, and more than a little infuriating.

Cynthia Bailey

The two candidates who qualified for a stalled runoff in Houston City Council’s District B joined hands in unity on the steps of City Hall Friday, condemning the lawsuit filed by the third-place finisher that led officials to remove the race from the Dec. 14 ballot.

“We want to vote! We want to vote!” Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey chanted with about 40 others from the Texas Organizing Project, which has endorsed Jackson in the race and advocated for Bailey to remain on the ballot.

The candidates at the center of the contested election have taken the dispute from the courtroom to the community as they wait for legal proceedings to resume.

“I’m not going to throw a rock and hide,” Renee Jefferson-Smith, who narrowly missed the runoff and filed the lawsuit, said Thursday night at a meeting of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council.

“It makes no sense to have a candidate on the ballot (if) her votes do not count,” Jefferson-Smith said. “If (Bailey) were to win in the runoff, she would not be able to take the seat. That’s what the law says. I didn’t write it, but that’s unfair.”

[…]

Jefferson-Smith initially asked a state district court judge to declare Bailey ineligible. When Judge Dedra Davis denied that request last Friday, Jefferson-Smith’s attorney filed three additional motions: an appeal of the ruling, a “mandamus” appeal seeking to replace Bailey with Jefferson-Smith on the runoff ballot, and a separate lawsuit contesting the election results.

The First Court of Appeals denied the mandamus appeal early Friday, but the ruling did not affect Jefferson-Smith’s motion contesting the election. That lawsuit triggered a portion of state law that county officials said forced them to put off the race until the suit is resolved.

Bailey’s attorney hailed the denial of the appeal as a second court victory in the saga, while Jefferson-Smith’s lawyers said it was expected after the county postponed the runoff.

See here, here, and here for the background. I have no idea what the courts will do, and I have no idea how long it may take them to do it. If we’re very lucky, we may get this race on the ballot in January, at the same time as the HD148 runoff. If not, well, who knows how long this may take.

Jefferson-Smith has said she didn’t pursue the lawsuits out of any animus toward Bailey, but the law wouldn’t allow her to take the seat, which she thinks is a disservice to voters. Her lawyers have cited a case in Galveston from 2006, in which a candidate was elected to city council despite a well-known felony conviction and then was removed from office.

“It makes no sense to have a candidate on the ballot (if) her votes do not count,” Jefferson-Smith said at a neighborhood meeting earlier this week. “If (Bailey) were to win in the runoff, she would not be able to take the seat. That’s what the law says. I didn’t write it, but that’s unfair.”

[…]

[State Rep. Jarvis] Johnson, a former District B councilman himself, said he would file a bill in the next legislative session to clarify the state law at the center of the litigation.

“The fact is if you have the right to vote, then that means you should have the right to run for office,” Johnson said.

The simplest scenario is we get the runoff, maybe on January 28 and maybe later, we get a winner and that person takes office and we’re done. We could get a runoff at some point, and after a Bailey victory another lawsuit is filed that removes her from office, in which case a whole new election has to be held. We could get what amounts to a do-over in B, in which Bailey is declared ineligible to be on the ballot but the judge refuses to declare that this means Jefferson-Smith gets to replace her so we start over. I have a hard time imagining a judge booting Bailey and putting Jefferson-Smith on the ballot in her place, but this whole thing is so crazy I hesitate to insist that anything is impossible. I applaud Rep. Johnson for pursuing a legislative fix for this mess, but since we all know the right answer is to allow full rights to felons who complete their sentences and we also know that Republicans will not support that bill, I don’t expect anything to get fixed. I don’t know what else to say.

Judge officially approves final Harris County bail settlement

It’s officially finally final and official.

A federal judge has signed off on a historic bail reform agreement for Harris County, setting in place new protections for people accused of minor offenses in the country’s third largest criminal justice system.

The sweeping agreement and consent decree, officially approved Thursday by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal, seeks to level the playing field for the thousands of people arrested each year on misdemeanor charges. For years, judges jailed poor people by default while they awaited trial, while those with money to cover bail could walk free and return to their families and livelihoods.

[…]

Rosenthal wrote that her ruling was rooted in extensive legal findings over the past three years.

“No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are released on personal bonds — rich or poor — will appear for hearings or trial, or that they will commit no crimes on release,” Rosenthal said in a 55-page opinion. “No system can guarantee that all those accused of misdemeanors who are detained pending trial — rich or poor — should have been detained. But Harris County … can stop systematically depriving indigent misdemeanor defendants of their constitutionally-protected rights by detaining them simply because they cannot afford to post money bail.”

Her opinion acknowledged the objections brought up by “amici,” or friends of the court, including the state Attorney General’s Office, District Attorney Kim Ogg and County Commissioner Steve Radack, who voiced concerns at the final hearing that the deal limited judicial discretion and did not do enough to ensure the safety of communities.

“The court does not question the amici and objectors’ good faith,” she wrote. “The public safety and public resource concerns they raise are important.

“The proposed consent decree and settlement agreement are approved because these concerns are fully recognized and addressed,” the opinion said.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo issued a statement following the judge’s decision, saying it “puts to rest the arguments used to instill fear regarding the impact of bail reform.”

“We do not have to choose between protecting the constitutional rights of defendants and protecting public safety,” she said. “In fact, by reforming our broken bail system, we are taking a step toward rebuilding trust between our system of justice and the residents it serves.”

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said: “After decades of harmful injustice and three years of a legal battle waged in defense of our core principles of liberty, equal treatment and due process for all — no matter how much money you have or the color of your skin — Harris County’s oppressive and discriminatory misdemeanor cash bail practices are ending.”

You know the story by now. At this point, we need to focus on making this work as it is supposed to, to ensuring that we are making adjustments to the risk assessment tool as needed, and just generally measuring everything so a year from now we can present some metrics to show how it all has gone. There are still political fights to be had – just ask the people running against Vince Ryan and Kim Ogg, for starters, and the Lege still needs to address bail reform in a meaningful way – and there are still legal fights to be had – the second bail lawsuit, which is about felony defendants, and the Dallas County bail lawsuit, among others – but this was a huge step forward. A copy of the consent decree is here, and a copy of the settlement agreement is here. Kudos to everyone who helped make this happen.

District B runoff still up in the air

Hoo boy.

Cynthia Bailey

The runoff in the contested District B race for Houston city council almost certainly will be decided with a special election, due to an election contest filed by the third-place finisher, officials said Wednesday.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, who missed the runoff by 168 votes, filed the contest in district court last Friday, essentially forcing election officials to hold off on the runoff, according to Assistant County Attorney Douglas Ray.

The Texas Election Code says a contested runoff cannot be held until there’s a final judgment in the matter.

“It’s as clear as any law I’ve seen,” Ray said.

The county, which has to send out mail ballots for the runoffs Thursday, is printing them Wednesday without the District B race. There are 12 other city council runoffs, set to be decided Dec. 14.

See here and here for the background. As the story says, Jefferson Smith has appealed the dismissal of her lawsuit from last week, which is why this is still ongoing. The law in question reads as follows:

Sec. 232.007. RUNOFF NOT HELD UNTIL FINAL JUDGMENT. (a) A runoff election for a contested office may not be held until the judgment in the contest becomes final.

(b) This section does not affect the conduct of a regularly scheduled runoff for another office that was voted on at the same election as the contested office or at an election held jointly with the election in which the contested office was voted on.

That is indeed quite clear, and I have since received a notification from the County Clerk’s office that:

“Due to a legal challenge, the City of Houston Council Member District B race will not appear on the December 14, 2019 Runoff ballot. This will not affect any of the other races or the election procedures the Harris County Clerk’s Office carries out.”

So to sum up, we have the city of Houston/HISD/HCC runoffs minus District B on December 14, we have the HD148 special election runoff on January 28, we have the 2020 primaries on March 3, and somewhere in there we will also have a stand-alone runoff in District B. As Tommy Lee Jones said in The Fugitive, What. A. Mess.

A later version of the story has a few more details.

Jay Aiyer, a public policy consultant and former political science professor at Texas Southern University, called the delay unprecedented.

“You’ve never had anything where a runoff election itself is just left off,” he said.

City taxpayers will have to foot the bill for the additional election, according to the mayor’s office. Both Ray and Nicole Bates, an attorney for Jefferson-Smith, said it is possible the special election could be held Jan. 28, when a runoff for the open House District 148 seat is scheduled to take place, if the lawsuit is resolved by then.

Alan Bernstein, Mayor Sylvester Turner’s director of communications, said the city would hold the special election on Jan. 28, but would support an earlier date if the suit contesting the election is resolved before then.

[…]

Oliver Brown, Bailey’s attorney, said Jefferson-Smith is arguing the same case in a different forum because she did not like the earlier judge’s ruling.

“The problem is, they’re not doing an actual contest. They’re still just trying to challenge (Bailey’s) eligibility,” he said.

Tarsha Jackson, the first-place finisher who also is in the runoff, has said voters knew about Bailey’s criminal past and said she should be able to continue in the race. Jackson said Wednesday she was disappointed in the delay.

“What’s happening right now is just a prime example of what’s been happening to District B forever. We’re a marginalized and disenfranchised community,” Jackson said. “We have been left behind in this election. The people should be able to go out and vote on the 14th.”

While Jackson and Bailey seemed entrenched in the runoff after the initial court ruling, Aiyer said it is possible that could change in the continuing lawsuit.

“The one thing that seems to be unclear is when you have a special election, who will be the participants in the election,” Aiyer said. “I don’t know if, for example, Bailey is declared ineligible, that doesn’t really presuppose that (Jefferson-Smith) should be in the runoff.”

The delay also calls into question who — if anyone — will represent District B between when Jerry Davis’ term ends on Dec. 31 and the election is held.

While I agree with the interpretation of the law here, I’m still bothered by the way this has all played out. I will say again, the right time to have filed this lawsuit was in September, after the filing deadline passed and before mail ballots were printed. Courts are often reluctant to get involved in electoral disputes before the election, but this was a straightforward question on the law, and no one can claim that waiting till after the election was less messy or controversial. To add onto what Jay Aiyer says at the end here, I’m also bothered by the idea that Renee Jefferson Smith could benefit now from Cynthia Bailey being kicked out of the runoff. We have no way of knowing what might have happened in the November election if Bailey had not been on the ballot. Who’s to say that Alvin Byrd (1,630 votes to Jefferson Snith’s 2,137) or Karen Kossie-Chernyshev (1,408 votes) would not have benefited more from Bailey’s absence? We should have resolved this before any votes were cast. That’s not an option any more, and it’s not fair to any of the candidates involved, never mind the voters themselves. If nothing else, I hope we clarify the law in question in 2021. KUHF has more.

HFT may join lawsuit to block TEA takeover

That’s a lot of acronyms, so just read this.

Houston ISD’s largest teachers union is considering whether to join a lawsuit filed by the district’s school board that aims to stop the expected ouster of elected trustees by the Texas Education Agency.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Zeph Capo said the union is expected to decide this week whether to take part in the lawsuit, which claims TEA officials do not have legal authority to replace the district’s school board and would violate the federal Voting Rights Act in doing so. Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath announced earlier this month that he plans to temporarily strip power from HISD’s elected trustees and install an appointed board, citing three reasons: chronically low academic performance at Wheatley High School; a state investigation that substantiated several allegations of misconduct by trustees; and the continued presence of a state-appointed conservator monitoring HISD.

“We do not feel the students and teachers are anyone’s first interest at this particular point,” Capo said. “We’re having our legal specialist looking at the Voting Rights Act and a few other things, to determine whether we could actually intervene in HISD’s lawsuit. I suspect that’s the way we would go.”

[…]

Legal experts have expressed skepticism about whether the state is violating the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in the administration of elections. They noted all voters in HISD — not just black and Hispanic residents — would be impacted by the ouster of their elected officials.

The HFT likely would not have legal standing to fight the state’s authority to install an appointed board because the union cannot represent Houston ISD in court. However, the union’s lawyers could have legal standing to argue the TEA would violate the rights of voters in Houston, as long as a plaintiff resides within one of HISD’s nine single-member voting districts.

“We’re going to take care of that,” Capo said. “There will be voters. I’m making sure there’s one for every district.”

HISD trustees voted 4-1 in June to hire an outside counsel to represent the board for the purposes of the state’s investigation into potential trustee misconduct, which included allegations of Open Meetings Act violations and interfering with vendor contracts. At the time, HISD Board President Diana Dávila said trustees wanted legal clarification on aspects of the state law.

In subsequent months, the legal firm’s scope of work dramatically expanded, without another vote from trustees. The board’s lawyers now are seeing temporary and permanent injunctions that would stop state intervention. A hearing date for the temporary injunction request is scheduled for Dec. 5 in Austin.

See here for the background. There was another lawsuit filed in August as well, and at this point it’s not clear to me if these are two separate and active legal challenges, if they have been combined into one, or if the first one has been dropped or dismissed. It’s the same law firm representing HISD in this action, for what that’s worth. As I said before, I don’t expect this to be successful, but it’s not an unreasonable thing to try. I’ll be very interested to see what the HFT decides to do, and what happens at that hearing in December.

UPDATE: They have joined the lawsuit, and the state has filed a motion to dismiss.

Cynthia Bailey remains on District B runoff ballot

For now, at least.

Cynthia Bailey

A felon may remain on the runoff ballot in the Houston City Council District B race, a Harris County judge ruled on Friday, despite state law that may bar residents with felony convictions from seeking public office.

On Election Day, Cynthia Bailey qualified for the second and final runoff spot in District B, edging third-place finisher Renee Jefferson-Smith by 168 votes. Jefferson-Smith last week sued to remove Bailey from the ballot, arguing her 2007 conviction for theft of more than $200,000 made her ineligible to run.

Harris County 270th District Court Judge Dedra Davis on Friday denied Jefferson-Smith’s request to remove Bailey from the ballot, which would allow her a place in the runoff, said Oliver Brown, Bailey’s attorney.

The Texas Election Code is unclear on whether a felon may run for office. It bars candidates who have been “finally convicted” of a felony or who have not been “pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” though the law does not define these disabilities.

Brown said Bailey’s conviction is well known to voters, who can make an informed decision about whether this disqualifies her. He said District B residents can open the door to other felons to run for office if they elect Bailey.

“They can send a message to the city and state, that regardless of a candidate’s past, they believe in the redemption of citizens after they’ve been released by the Department of Corrections.”

See here for the background. Renee Jefferson Smith did not comment in the story, so we don’t know if she intends to appeal or let this be. Neither her campaign nor personal Facebook pages say anything about it, and her campaign hasn’t tweeted since May. We’re less than two weeks out from the start of early voting, and I presume mail ballots are being sent out as well, so it’s not clear to me that she could get a change now regardless. What happens after the election should Cynthia Bailey win is a matter we’ll address if and when it happens. In the meantime, the lesson I take from this is file the lawsuit after the August deadline and hope the issue gets decided then. And for Pete’s sake, let’s lobby the Lege to clean this up. I say that felons who complete their sentences should be free to vote and run for office as they see fit, but that notion will take a lot of work to pass. Better to start on that sooner than later.

Fifth Circuit overturns “motor voter” lawsuit verdict

Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.

In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.

The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.

[…]

Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.

But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.

The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.

I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.

The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.

Lawsuit filed over District B candidate eligibility

All right then.

Cynthia Bailey

Renee Jefferson-Smith, who trailed Cynthia Bailey by 168 votes in unofficial returns, sued the city of Houston and Harris County Thursday, contending that Bailey’s 2007 conviction for forging a $14,500 check makes her ineligible to appear on the ballot.

The Texas Election Code says candidates are eligible to run for office if they have not been “finally convicted” of a felony from which they have “not been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” though the law does not define “resulting disabilities.”

In the state district court lawsuit, which seeks an injunction and temporary restraining order to bar Bailey from appearing on the ballot, Jefferson-Smith also argued that Bailey may have committed perjury by affirming in her candidacy application that she had not been convicted of a felony.

Though the law appears to prohibit convicted felons from seeking office, candidates with felony records successfully have reached the ballot in HoustonAustin and San Antonio, and the law has yet to be thoroughly tested in court.

For now, Bailey is set to face Tarsha Jackson in the District B runoff. The district, which covers several north Houston neighborhoods including Fifth Ward and Acres Homes, currently is represented by term-limited Councilman Jerry Davis. Jackson finished atop the 14-candidate field with 20.8 percent of the vote in Tuesday’s election.

[…]

In the petition filed Thursday, Jefferson-Smith also contended that Bailey’s criminal record “will guarantee a victory for the other runoff candidate and deny voters in District B a real choice.”

Replacing Bailey in the runoff, Jefferson-Smith argued, would give voters “the opportunity to choose between two eligible candidates for the position of Council member for District B, thus ensuring that District B voters are not disenfranchised.”

Jefferson-Smith declined to comment through a spokesperson, though she posted about the lawsuit on Facebook Thursday.

“I had a decision to make, and believe me it was extremely tough, so please understand; this lawsuit and fight is not about me, it’s about the people in District B,” she wrote.

Jackson said she was disappointed Jefferson-Smith filed the lawsuit, and argued that Bailey should not be kept off the ballot.

“I’ve spent my whole life fighting for criminal justice reform and fighting for people to have a second chance. All the candidates knew she had a criminal record when the story came out,” Jackson said, referring to a Chronicle story published last month. “She finished second despite the story, and I think she should be able to finish the race.”

As you well know, I Am Not A Lawyer, so I have no idea what the courts will make of this. I expect we will get a quick decision, likely followed by a quick appeal to the 1st or 14th Court of Appeals, which in turn will either rule or refuse to take up the matter in short order.

Bailey’s status was reported by the Chron in October in a story that was primarily about residency requirements. You will note that three other candidates who were on the ballot were in the same boat, though none of them came close to advancing. You may also recall that former Geto Boy Willie D decided not to file in District B over concerns about his own status. I wonder what he’s thinking right now.

I don’t have a problem with the filing of the lawsuit, especially if one believes that Bailey would be prevented from taking office in the event she won because of her status. We don’t know that would happen, but it could and it seems likely that someone would take legal action to force the question. I would have preferred to adjudicate the question before the actual election, precisely to avoid issues like this, but the courts in their wisdom prefer to only get involved after elections. I’d also prefer for people like Bailey and Willie D to be able to run for office after they finish serving their sentences, but at the very least the law in Texas is unclear on that. I’ll keep an eye on this and we’ll see what the courts have to say.

TEA announces its takeover intent

Here it comes.

In a move that is unprecedented in scope, Texas state officials announced Wednesday they plan on taking over the state’s largest school district, yanking power from Houston Independent School District’s elected school board members to “prevent imminent and substantial harm to the welfare of the district’s students.”

Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath sent a letter to Houston ISD Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan and Board President Diana Davila giving two principal reasons for the decision: the school board’s “failure of governance” and the repeated low academic performance of Wheatley High School, which received its seventh failing rating this year. In addition to appointing a board of governance to replace the elected school board, Morath will also appoint a superintendent to lead the district. The timeline of the takeover action is unclear.

“Given the inability of the board of trustees to govern the district, these sanctions are necessary to protect the best interests of the district’s current and future students,” he wrote. The decision means the state will be taking over its largest public school district, which contains more than 270 schools and educates more than 200,000 students.

Houston ISD officials still have a slim chance at averting the takeover and have two weeks to request a formal review challenging it, according to a Texas Education Agency spokesperson.

[…]

During its temporary replacement of the elected board, a board of managers has all the same powers and duties to oversee the school district. Once the state determines it has fixed the specific problems it is charged with, Morath will gradually transfer power back to the elected board.

See here and here for the background. You can see Morath’s letter to HISD here. If for some reason you want to serve on that Board of Managers, the application is here. This decision came a day after the denial of the Wheatley appeal, which was not a surprise. There is the lawsuit filed by HISD to stop the TEA from taking over, which still feels like a longshot to me but which could slow things down. Be that as it may, you can see where this is going.

I’ll just say this much. Despite the problems the Board has had, HISD is overall a pretty good-performing school district. There are problems, of course, as there always are with large, diverse urban districts that serve a population that is mostly low-income and that has a large number of non-native English speakers. I won’t defend the current Board, though after Tuesday’s elections I’d argue it’s already improved, but I’m not at all convinced that the TEA can do a better job with academic performance at schools like Wheatley than the Board has done. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong about that – I hope all of the schools improve while the TEA is in charge – but if I’m right, I don’t know what there is to be done about it. The Chron has more.

Lawsuit filed over bill banning temporary voting locations

Of interest.

Worried about the suppression of young voters in 2020, national and Texas Democrats are suing the state over a newly implemented election measure that’s triggered the shuttering of early voting places, including on college campuses, in various parts of the state.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in Austin, the Texas Democratic Party — joined by the Democratic campaign arms for the U.S. House and Senate — alleges that the state’s move to effectively end the use of what were known as temporary or mobile early voting sites is unconstitutional because it discriminates against young voters by shrinking their access to the ballot box.

Republican lawmakers pushed the law, introduced during the last legislative session as House Bill 1888, to curb what they saw as abuse in school bond elections by requiring voting sites to remain open for all 12 days of early voting. Despite warnings from local election officials, HB 1888 was crafted broadly enough to outlaw the long-established practice of moving polling places during the early voting period to reach as many voters as possible near where they live, work or go to school.

As a result, both young and rural voters are losing access to early voting sites that were legitimately used to offer a day or two of early voting to places in places where it wasn’t practical or cost-efficient to maintain a site open for all of early voting.

“HB 1888 now mandates that, based on where they live, some voters will enjoy the same consistent access to early voting they had previously, but voters who live near now defunct temporary voting sites, especially young voters, will suffer reduced or eliminated access to the franchise,” the Democrats claimed in the lawsuit.

Citing violations of the First, 14th and 26th Amendments, the Democrats are asking a federal judge to block the state from implementing HB 1888.

See this Observer story and this earlier Trib story for the background. I mentioned this new law, along with a link to the Observer story, in a post that was more about the likely effects of no straight ticket voting. I’m always happy to see a pro-voting rights lawsuit, and I have zero doubt that the intent of this law was primarily to make it harder for students to vote, but I’m just not going to be optimistic about any voting rights litigation in federal court at this time. The Fifth Circuit, and SCOTUS if it comes to that, are just too hostile to voting rights. We are just going to have to add this to the ever-growing to do list for the next Democratic government in Texas, however long that may take. Yes, yes, I Am Not A Lawyer, and maybe this is a slam dunk case. It’s not the law or the Constitution I’m evaluating here, it’s the courts and the justices. Believe me, I wish I could be more optimistic and less cynical about this, but not on this kind of case. A statement from the TDP about the lawsuit is here.

City wins final judgment in revenue cap lawsuit

Wow, is this ever a blast from the past.

The city of Houston has prevailed in a lawsuit challenging the amount it can collect in property taxes, ending 14 years of litigation over a set of measures approved by voters in 2004.

At issue in the suit were two ballot measures from 2004, specifically Proposition 1, which limited the annual increases in property tax and utility revenues to the combined increases in population and inflation for Houston, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

Prop 1 was approved by voters in 2004, as was was another measure, Proposition 2, that further limited the city’s ability to collect revenue. The city, under then-Mayor Bill White, abided by the first measure because of a directive in it that stated whichever cap received more votes would be the one adopted.

Individuals from a conservative group then filed suit, accusing the city of violating the caps by not also adopting Proposition 2.

After years of court battles, a state district judge has ruled that the city has “fully complied” with Proposition 1.

See here for the city’s statement. The most recent update I can find in my own archives is from 2008 (!!), though it is likely there has been more action on the lawsuit that either wasn’t reported or went unremarked upon by me. However you look at it, this is some old, old business, and now it is done. Think of it as an alternate thing the city of Houston can celebrate now that the World Series didn’t work out the way we’d hoped.

TEA recommends HISD takeover

Not finalized yet, but you can see the way it’s going to go.

The Texas Education Agency is recommending that the state take over Houston Independent School District — the state’s largest public school system — due to its elected school board’s “demonstrated inability to appropriately govern,” according to a 318-page final investigative report sent to lawmakers Wednesday.

TEA’s Special Investigations Unit Director Jason Hewitt found that school board members violated state open meetings law by discussing district business without notifying the public of their discussions, attempted to influence how contracts were awarded, and took action on district issues individually without consulting other board members. It substantiates most of the allegations made in a preliminary August report.

District officials and board members, whose responses are included in the final report, dispute many of the agency’s conclusions and argued the allegations were not investigated properly. The Texas Tribune obtained a copy of the report, which is public, late Wednesday. TEA officials confirmed that they had sent it to legislators.

Hewitt recommended Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath appoint a board of managers to oversee the school district, replacing the elected school board.

[…]

Houston ISD received a B from the state this year, largely based on student test scores, but Wheatley High School failed in August for the seventh year in a row. The TEA is separately considering penalizing the district because of Wheatley’s repeated low performance.

The findings in the report are final and cannot be appealed. Morath will make the final determination on whether to replace Houston ISD’s board.

See here for the background. Remember that this is about the ethics investigation – this is the final version of the August report, which means this version was written after HISD had a chance to respond to the initial report, which also recommended a takeover. The accountability ratings issue is still pending, with the Wheatley rating being half-heartedly appealed, and that decision by Morath – a decision between replacing the Board and closing Wheatley, the latter of which everyone expects will not happen – is not due till early next year. I presume Morath has more discretion in this matter, but given that a takeover is basically inevitable at this point I’m not sure how much it matters. I suppose it may make a difference in terms of how long it may take HISD to get back in control of its own governance, and what it needs to do to get there, but in the short term it’s a distinction without much difference.

In the meantime, there’s this.

Lawyers for Houston ISD’s school board have asked a federal judge to preemptively stop the Texas Education Agency from stripping power from the district’s elected trustees and allow board members to select a permanent superintendent, the latest maneuver in a growing legal battle between the district and state.

In a motion filed Tuesday, the HISD board’s lawyers argued agency officials have discriminated against voters in predominantly black and Hispanic cities, overstepped their authority in suspending the district’s superintendent search and misinterpreted a new state law that requires dramatic intervention in districts with long-struggling schools.

[…]

In their motion for a preliminary injunction, HISD’s lawyers said Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath is attempting to “unlawfully supplant the democratically-elected board of trustees” and replace it with a state-appointed governance team. The district’s lawyers noted that 10 districts subject to major state intervention in recent years all serve large majorities of black and Hispanic students, illustrating discrimination under the Voting Rights Act.

“You could argue that it’s a coincidence. I think it’s not,” Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer for HISD trustees, said Wednesday.

In addition to discrimination claims, HISD’s lawyers argued that a state-appointed conservator overseeing the district’s operations of long-struggling Kashmere High School overstepped her legal authority in suspending HISD’s superintendent search last March. HISD has been without a permanent superintendent since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City’s public schools.

HISD’s lawyers claim the conservator, former Aldine ISD administrator Doris Delaney, only had the power to dictate matters related to Kashmere.

“Delaney was appointed to be a campus-level conservator over the performance of one of (HISD’s) schools, and was to implement and ensure compliance with getting the resources necessary to extract it from its low-performing status,” O’Hanlon said.

However, state law grants broad authority to conservators, including the ability to “direct an action to be taken” by a district’s board of trustees.

I Am Not A Lawyer, but let’s just say I have my doubts about the likelihood of success here. It’s worth a shot, but I wouldn’t go betting the rent on it. We’ll see how this goes, and how long it takes – would anyone be surprised if this is still in the courts when the TEA is handing power back to HISD? I don’t think it’s likely to go anywhere, but that’s just my guess at this time.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Another ReBuild Houston lawsuit

Gotta say, this puzzles me.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

A pair of Houston residents filed a lawsuit against Mayor Sylvester Turner and city council Monday, accusing them of failing to follow the will of voters who approved a charter amendment last year for funding drainage and street repairs.

The lawsuit accuses city leaders of shortchanging the dedicated drainage fund by failing to transfer the full amount required by last year’s ballot proposition.

The proposition, which essentially was a “do-over” vote on the city’s 2010 street and drainage repair program known as Rebuild Houston, requires the city to dedicate 11.8 cents of its property tax rate to the street and drainage fund. The city, under former mayor Annise Parker and Turner, has transferred less than the full amount generated by the 11.8 cents for the last five years.

The plaintiffs allege a roughly $44 million discrepancy in what the city currently has budgeted compared to the amount generated by 11.8 cents of property tax rate. Over 10 years, the funding shortfall could exceed $500 million, the plaintiffs say.

Turner’s office issued a statement disagreeing with the premise of the lawsuit, saying that transferring the full amount generated by 11.8 cents of tax rate would require moving some $50 million more annually and would “cripple” city services.

“That would mean cuts to essential services like police, fire, solid waste, and other services,” the statement said. “Mayor Turner doesn’t support that.”

The plaintiffs, Allen Watson and Bob Jones, are engineers who were part of the campaign that put the program, then known as ReNew Houston, on the 2010 ballot. It later was renamed Rebuild Houston.

They said they were suing because the city had failed to meet the expectations outlined in Proposition A, which 74 percent of voters approved last year. They are seeking a court order to force the city to direct more money and “to fund the things they said they were going to fund,” Jones said.

“Houstonians spoke loud and clear just one year ago when they voted to create a fund to fix our streets and drainage,” Jones said in a later statement. “…We are undertaking this suit to ensure that the law is upheld, that the promised funding is protected so that our street and drainage infrastructure receives the investment necessary to repair, replace and upgrade our street and drainage systems throughout the city over the next 20-30 years.”

Here’s what I wrote in 2018 about the ReBuild re-vote. You can click the links to the Chron stories, but there’s nothing in either of them that mentioned a percentage of property taxes. The story mentions this was a part of the original mix of funding for ReBuild Houston, and here I have to confess I don’t remember that. There was so much noise and drama about the drainage fee that anything and everything else got overpowered. If this is what’s supposed to happen, then the consequences will be unpleasant. On the plus side, maybe it’ll take another decade to get settled via the courts.