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The SD10 redistricting lawsuit gets off to a rousing start

I did not see this coming.

Sen. Beverly Powell

In a sworn declaration submitted as part of an ongoing federal court challenge, a senior Republican state senator with redistricting experience said he believes his party violated federal voting laws when it drew new boundaries for state Senate District 10 in the Fort Worth area.

“Having participated in the 2011 and 2013 Senate Select Redistricting Committee proceedings, and having read the prior federal court decision regarding SD10, it was obvious to me that the renewed effort to dismantle SD 10 violated the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitution,” state Sen. Kel Seliger said in a declaration signed in November.

The statement from the Amarillo Republican emerged this week as part of a dayslong hearing before a three-judge panel considering a lawsuit that claims the district was intentionally reconfigured to discriminate against voters of color in Tarrant County.

[…]

Seliger chaired the Senate’s redistricting committee last decade, redrawing the state’s maps following the 2010 census when a similar attempt to reshape the district was found to be discriminatory. A federal court in Washington, D.C., ruled in 2012 that lawmakers had discriminated against voters of color in dismantling the district and cracking apart their communities. As a result, the Legislature went back to restore the district’s configuration.

Seliger affirmed his declaration in a video deposition taken earlier this month — portions of which were played in open court in El Paso this week — during which he also said that “pretextual reasons” were given for how political boundaries were decided during the 2021 redistricting process.

Seliger pointed to the redrawing of his own district in the Texas Panhandle as an example. The district was reconfigured so that it lost several counties from the region while picking up about a dozen on the southern end of the district, closer to Midland, from where Seliger had picked up a primary challenger. He ultimately decided against seeking reelection.

[…]

On Wednesday, Seliger told The Texas Tribune that his statement about the illegality of SD-10 was “more of a concern than it was an assertion” of whether there was a violation.

“When you draw a map that essentially takes out minorities or, in what was more the point, take out the chance that there would ever be a Democrat elected there, was there a violation?” Seliger said. “It’s not an assertion on my part because I’m not a constitutional lawyer, but that was my concern about Sen. Powell’s district — to take that district and completely change it and it still marginalized minorities in that district.”

He added that there was a “context” surrounding the drawing of SD-10 — even as Huffman asserted she had not paid any attention to racial data in drawing its boundaries — that requires lawmakers to consider race.

“The Voting Rights Act says if you can create a district in which a historically marginalized minority can elect a candidate of their choice, you must draw that district,” Seliger said. “You start with that principle in every single district.”

See here for the background. Basically, he’s saying that the Republicans did the same things that they did ten years ago that were cited as illegal under the Voting Rights Act by a federal court in 2012. That’s a strong argument that the district as drawn now is also illegal, though it’s hardly conclusive. The previous lawsuit was settled rather than taken to a verdict, so the state will probably just argue now that they shouldn’t have settled then. It’s a good and unexpected (for me, anyway) start for the plaintiffs, who for now are just trying to get something like the old district restored for the 2022 election, but we haven’t heard from the state yet.

More from the hearing:

Two of Tarrant County’s local elected officials testified Tuesday that new political maps passed by Republicans in the Texas Legislature will dilute the voting power of minority voters in a Fort Worth state senate district.

The testimony from Tarrant County Justice of the Peace Sergio Leon and County Commissioner Charles Brooks came during a hearing in El Paso in one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.

And although this week’s hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.

[…]

During testimony Tuesday in El Paso, De Leon said much of his Precinct 5 was originally in Senate District 10 before redistricting. But now, the Senate District has been split in two. This has shifted some Black and Hispanic voters — formerly in the northern part of his precinct — into a Senate District with more Anglo voters. Meanwhile, Black and Hispanic voters in the southern part of his precinct are grouped with rural white voters.

“They’ll have zero impact” on upcoming races, DeLeon said.

Brooks, who was first elected as a county commissioner in 2004, said redistricting has grouped Black and Hispanic voters with Anglo residents who do not share the same values.

“Their voices will be greatly diminished to the point of not being heard and effective in getting their points of view across,” he said, adding that his precinct is about 60% Democrats and 40% Republicans. But Tarrant County generally tends to vote Republican, he said.

Not quite as much any more. If these plaintiffs can get a favorable ruling, then that is probably a good sign for the others, though of course there are no guarantees and SCOTUS remains hostile to voting rights. If these plaintiffs can’t get anywhere, it’s hard to see how any of the others will fare better. If nothing else, we should have an answer quickly. Spectrum News has more.

Is it time to ditch At Large seats on Houston City Council?

Here’s one argument for it.

The lack of Latinos on the City Council undermines the legitimacy of Houston’s government, experts say, and is something that a prominent Hispanic organization is pushing to change with a lawsuit and ballot proposition.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the largest Hispanic civil rights organizations in the country, is tackling what they characterize as a gross underrepresentation of Latinos in one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. by proposing that the five at-large positions on council elected citywide be replaced with four seats in heavily Hispanic districts.

Currently, just one Hispanic — Robert Gallegos — holds a seat on the 16-member body. By contrast, 45 percent of Houston residents are Hispanic.

“The most serious threat to the legitimacy of Houston city government is this idea that you can have half of the population of the city represented by 6 percent of the council,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “Imagine if we flipped things around and there’s only one African American on the Houston City Council, or there’s only one Anglo, or there’s only one woman … It would be seen as a national travesty of democracy; it would be the subject of constant outcry.”

The city is expected to look at redistricting prior to its 2023 election, and could redraw the 11 districts if they are deemed unbalanced at that point. But LULAC said replacing at-large seats with more single-district seats would reduce barriers that undercut Latino representation.

“If we had parity, half of this council would be Latino,” said local LULAC leader Sergio Lira, co-chair of a new Houston taskforce created under the direction of the organization’s national President, Domingo García, who launched the effort in a meeting with local leaders last week.

García, a lawyer with offices statewide, said the effort includes a push to bring a charter amendment with the proposition to citizens to vote on and to file a lawsuit against the city.

Houston has the worst Hispanic representation in city councils among all Texas cities with populations over 500,000, all of which have eliminated at-large positions in their governments, according to census and government data.

“Houston is the outlier in Texas when it comes to Latino representation and is the only large city with at-large seats,” García said.

Those cities — San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, and El Paso — all have councils that look much more similar to their cities’ Hispanic populations. Dallas, which is 42 percent Hispanic, has the next-lowest Hispanic representation on council with 29 percent Hispanics.

It’s tough to get elected to Houston’s at-large seats, García said.

“They are very difficult for Latinos to win because of the amount of money, coalitions and logistics it takes to win,” he said. “It’s like running for mayor.”

There’s a lot to say here, and I’ll try to get to the main points, but let me start by saying it’s a little more complex than what Garcia and Lira are arguing. There are multiple districts that have are at least plurality Latino – H, J, F, and A. H, currently held by CM Karla Cisneros, had reliably elected Latinos before Cisneros and likely will again; none of the others have elected Latinos. There is of course a big difference between “population”, “voting-age population” and “citizen voting-age population”, and that’s before we take into account voter registration and who generally turns out to vote in our odd-year elections, where 20% turnout is on the higher end. We could elect more Latinos with the map we have now, at least in theory. It very much hasn’t worked out that way in practice, and I doubt you’d find anyone who would argue that the current map is conducive to having more than two Latinos get elected from the current districts.

It’s also true that Latinos have been shut out from the At Large seats since the days of Orlando Sanchez and Gracie Saenz twenty years ago. We also haven’t had a lot of strong Latino contenders for At Large seats lately. In 2015, no Latinos ran for At Large #3 or #5, and the only one in At Large #1 was perennial candidate James Partsch-Galvan. There were Latinos in all the At Large races in 2019, but none of them raised any money. That’s what Garcia and Lira are saying, and others have said it before them, but it just doesn’t take as much money to run a credible At Large campaign as it does to run for Mayor. Mayoral candidates need well over a million bucks, but the big money candidates for At Large raise in the $200-400K range. Not nothing, but not a huge pile of money either. It’s a bit of a vicious circle – people who might want to run are discouraged because it’s hard for them to raise money and the recent record of citywide Latino candidates is brutal, which leads to a paucity of such candidates for anyone to support.

I can’t leave this point without bringing up, once again, the 2007 At Large #5 runoff, in which Jolanda Jones defeated Joe Trevino in a race where about 25K total votes were cast. Jones had run citywide before (in At Large #3) and was better known, and the other runoffs on the ballot were City Council District D and HISD District II, both of which favored Jones’ candidacy. Trevino was a longshot no matter how you looked at it, but still. This was the clearest shot to get a Latino elected citywide, and he got bupkus in terms of financial support, including from the folks who had been threatening to sue to force City Council redistricting prior to the 2010 Census. Public support of campaigns and candidates is a complicated and nuanced thing that is more often solicited than given, I get that. I’m just saying, none of the folks who were lamenting the lack of Latino representation on Houston City Council were moved to write Joe Trevino a $100 check. Make of that what you will.

(There was also the Michael Kubosh-Roy Morales runoff of 2013. The politics of that one are different, for obvious reasons. I went back and looked, and Roy Morales actually raised about $50K for that runoff, which isn’t too shabby. There were only a couple of Latino names among his donors, though. Again, make of that what you will.)

Moving on. I have generally been supportive of having the hybrid district/At Large Council that we have. At least if you have a sub-par Council person in your district, you still have five At Large members you can turn to for support if you need it, and I think there’s value in having people who need to have a broader perspective. That said, I’d bet that most of the At Large members we have had over the past 20 or so years have come from a limited geographical distribution – this was very much the problem with Austin’s at large system, where nearly everyone on their Council came from the same part of town – and let’s just say that some of our At Large members are better than others and leave it at that. All in all, I don’t think it would be a great loss to change to an all-district system, and I would be inclined to support it if and when it comes to a vote. I’d like to see the proposal first – there are, as we well know, good and not-so-good ways to draw maps – but as a concept, I support it.

Knowing it is a long shot, LULAC decided to initiate a drive to collect 20,000 signatures in February in favor of their proposition, as the early voting for the state primaries begins. The number is the minimum needed to force the inclusion of a charter amendment in the ballot, bypassing the approval of City Council, which would only decide when it should be put for a citizens’ vote.

LULAC is simultaneously preparing a lawsuit it plans to file in court by March to eliminate all at-large positions in favor of single districts.

We’ll see how that goes. Petition drives have been pretty successful in recent years, even if they don’t always get their referenda on the next available ballot. There are already two items scheduled for the ballot in 2023, and with an open seat Mayoral race that will make it a very busy cycle. An item like this could get a bit lost in the noise, or it could be a big issue, as surely the various Mayoral candidates will need to weigh in on it. I’ll be very interested to see how the petition drive and the litigation go.

SD10 lawsuit gets its hearing

The last possible obstacle to a March primary, and the first redistricting lawsuit to get a merits hearing.

Sen. Beverly Powell

A federal district judge in El Paso on Tuesday will preside over one of several challenges against the state of Texas and Gov. Greg Abbott after the Republican-led Texas Legislature redrew political maps following the 2020 U.S. Census.

And although this week’s hearing is limited in scope — it pertains to one state senate district in North Texas — attorneys said testimony could foretell what is to come later this year when a slew of other redistricting challenges are heard in a consolidated redistricting lawsuit.

U.S. District Judge David Guaderrama will hear a challenge to the redrawn political boundaries for Fort Worth’s state Senate District 10, currently represented by Democrat Beverly Powell. Powell and six Tarrant County residents filed the lawsuit in early November, alleging the new map purposely dilutes the voting strength of minorities.

“In each decennial redistricting cycle in modern history, Texas has enacted plans that federal courts have ruled to be racially discriminatory in intent and/or effect. Like clockwork, Texas has done so again,” the lawsuit asserts. “Remarkably, Texas has enacted the same racially discriminatory scheme to dismantle Senate District 10.”

[…]

Attorney Mark P. Gaber, who represents Powell and the other plaintiffs, said their case is scheduled ahead of the others this fall because they asked the judge to make a decision in time for the November 2022 General Election.

“The claims are that the drawing of the senate district was intentionally discriminatory by cracking apart Black and Latino voters. What we are asking the court to do is enter relief in time to affect the November 22 election,” he said. “So, we would put the district that exists now back in place and that would require some changes to the surrounding districts as well.”

Graber said this week’s hearing could foreshadow what to expect later this year.

“I imagine for one thing there is going to be testimony and that doesn’t go away. And that could be relevant to other claims as well,” he said. “We’ll probably get some legal ruling from the court that will affect issues beyond Senate District 10 in terms of what the court determines are the facts of law.”

See here for the background. The DMN has more details.

Of the federal redistricting complaints, Powell’s alone seeks an injunction and changes to the maps ahead of the March 1 primary elections. A panel of three federal judges set a September trial start date in the consolidated redistricting case. There’s also a challenge in Texas state court.

“A crucial fight is underway to preserve District 10 as a Tarrant County-based diverse district where minority voters and Anglos unite to elect their candidate of choice,” said Powell, who is suing as a private citizen and not in her official capacity, when she filed for reelection last month.

The previously Fort Worth-centric seat that had been contained inside Tarrant County grew at least tenfold in geographic size and added part of Parker County and all of Johnson, Palo Pinto, Stephens, Shackelford, Callahan and Brown counties.

It previously favored President Joe Biden by eight points, according to election returns. But the redrawn district would have gone for Donald Trump by 16 points, a 24-point swing that likely dooms Powell’s hopes for reelection.

Republicans say the maps are legal and fair. Lawyers for the state argued the Legislature acted according to partisan motivations, not racial ones, and warned that blocking the map would disrupt the 2022 elections already in motion.

“This case is about politics, not race,” state lawyers responded in a filing that was blunt about the GOP majority’s approach. “Their goal, as always, was to design to elect a Republican. And they succeeded, at least on paper.”

Texas argued the Tarrant County citizens’ claims fail because “the Legislature simply did not consider race for purposes of redrawing” District 10 except for compliance with applicable law.

[…]

To lock things in place until the lawsuit is resolved, Powell’s legal team asked the federal court to block the map, with respect to District 10, from being used in elections and to restore the district’s previous boundaries. The plaintiffs also asked the court to delay primary elections affected by that change, noting that lawmakers already approved a back-up primary schedule.

[…]

It’s unclear, if the court rules in favor of the plaintiffs on District 10, which other primaries would be delayed. The goal is to restore the seat with as few changes as possible to the rest of the map, said Matt Angle, founder and director of the progressive Lone Star Project.

I noted this hearing in yesterday’s post about the state of the state lawsuits, as those now will be held later (if they are not tossed by SCOTx) and will not have an effect on this year’s primaries. I don’t expect there to be any delays in the primaries this year. It’s possible that the three-judge panel, which has one Trump judge, one Obama judge, and the ever-present Jerry Smith, could issue an injunction, but I doubt that the Fifth Circuit would let it stand, and if somehow that happened then SCOTUS would intervene SCOTUS would get to have a say as well. (Yes, maybe I’m being cynical, but how is that a losing proposition these days?) Whatever does happen, it will have to happen quickly – we’ve already passed the deadline for mail ballots to be sent to military and overseas voters, and early in person voting for the primaries starts in less than three weeks. I’ll be keeping a close eye on this.

UPDATE: Made a correction to note that the appeals process from this three-judge panel goes to SCOTUS, not the Fifth Circuit.

Supreme Court to hear whether state redistricting lawsuit can proceed

Here’s the update I’ve been waiting for. Not what I was hoping for, but it is what it is.

The state’s bid to toss a legal challenge arguing last year’s GOP-led redistricting effort violated the Texas Constitution is headed to the state Supreme Court, which accepted the case Friday.

The all-Republican Supreme Court set oral arguments on March 23, well after the March 1 primary election.

The Legislature’s GOP mapmakers last fall approved new political lines that could cement Republicans’ grip on power for the next decade and blunt the voting strength of nonwhite voters who fueled Texas’ population surge.

As federal lawsuits over the new maps pile up, some Democrats are focusing on fights in state court. In two combined cases, a group of mostly Democratic, Latino lawmakers from both chambers challenged the constitutionality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.

After two days of oral arguments in December, a three-judge state district court ruled against temporarily blocking the new legislative maps, but set a trial for January. Texas then appealed the court’s denial of its motions to dismiss the case, putting the trial on hold.

The lawmakers’ attorneys said they don’t seek to overturn the maps for the 2022 election cycle but argued for expedited resolution of the appeal “to allow sufficient time for the parties to litigate the merits before the 2023 legislative session.”

“For decades, MALC has defended the freedom to vote and equal access to the ballot box. We are not surprised that (Texas Attorney General) Ken Paxton would attempt to undermine our members and the millions of Texas voices they represent,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the challengers against the maps.

[…]

The consolidated case was assigned to a special three-judge panel of Democrat Karin Crump and Republicans Emily Miskel and Ken Wise. If the state Supreme Court affirms the lower court’s decision, “the parties need sufficient time to return to the special three-judge district court, obtain a final judgment, and complete any appeal from that judgment,” the challengers said in a filing.

See here for the previous update. I’ve been scouring the news for the past two weeks because I knew that proposed trial date was coming up. I had not seen an item about the state’s appeal, so the lack of news about the trial was confusing to me – was this really not being covered, or was there a delay of some kind. Turns out it was the latter. Maybe if I’d spent more time on Twitter I might have seen something to that effect, but too much time on Twitter is its own hazard. Point is, this litigation will not derail the March primaries. Like the litigation over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting, it may eventually end with a ruling that will force a change to the new maps, but it cannot and will not affect this election.

Anyway, so SCOTx will decide whether to toss the two combined lawsuits or to allow the trial to proceed. Hopefully they will do this in a timely manner, so that we might have a resolution in time for the 2023 legislature to address any remaining questions. Which, let’s be clear, could be a double-edged sword, though at least on the county line question it’s more likely to be good for Democrats if the plaintiffs win and the districts in Cameron County need to be redrawn. And speaking of timing, SCOTx accepted this appeal on the same day that they also accepted the SB8 litigation from the Fifth Circuit. Thanks, I hate it.

One more thing, on a side note:

That’s the Sen. Powell lawsuit. So there is still one thing that could throw a kink into the March primaries. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Paxton thumbs his nose at open records demand

Water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Ken Paxton DGAF about government, ethics, accountability or any of that other namby-pamby stuff.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the Travis County district attorney’s determination that Paxton violated open records laws by withholding information related to his trip to Washington D.C. on the day of the Capitol insurrection was “meritless” and that his office had fulfilled its obligation under the law.

Last week, the district attorney’s office gave Paxton four days to turn over communications requested by the state’s leading newspapers relating to his trip or face a lawsuit.

On Friday, Austin Kinghorn, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, dismissed the district attorney’s findings, saying the office had provided no provisions under the state’s open records law that had been violated and implied that the newspapers had made the requests to publish stories about them.

“In each instance, complainant’ allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA and its requirements,” Kinghorn wrote. “Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following ‘numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,’ complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office’s authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants’ media outlets.”

[…]

In the letter, the attorney general’s office said the newspaper editors base their complaint on an “awareness of a small number of inconsequential documents they believe should have been produced” in public records requests and “baselessly speculate” that Paxton is failing to comply with the open records law.

Kinghorn said the “inconsequential documents” include a text message sent to Paxton’s personal cell phone by a Dallas Morning News reporter and two “spam” emails and an internal email that announced the temporary closure of an office parking garage.

See here for the background and here for a copy of Paxton’s response. This was of course the most predictable event imaginable, and basically serves as the pregame warmup for whatever comes next. Which will be a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court, and after that a million legal maneuvers by Paxton to delay, obstruct, and as feasible ignore the whole process. It will end with a final ruling from the Supreme Court sometime between now and the heat death of the universe. If somehow Ken Paxton is still in office when this is ultimately resolved, it will be incontrovertible proof that we are indeed in the darkest timeline. Adjust your expectations, is what I’m trying to say here. The Chron has more.

SB8 litigation will stay with SCOTx

Another game of Calvinball, same result.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied on Thursday abortion providers’ latest request to intervene in the ongoing legal challenge against Texas’ restrictive abortion law, cutting off one of their few remaining paths to a speedy victory.

The case is currently before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the Texas Supreme Court. That is expected to add months to the legal proceedings.

Abortion providers were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would direct the 5th Circuit to send the case to federal district court, where a judge previously blocked the law.

[…]

“It breaks my heart every time our clinic staff are forced to deny pregnant people care and turn them away,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four Texas abortion clinics. “This law is cruel and unconstitutional, and I am deeply disappointed that our judicial system has done very little to stop it.”

The fix is in. The law means nothing. It’s about to get worse. Have a nice day.

You (probably) still have to get vaxxed if you work in Houston

I’m glad to see this, but there’s a huge question that this story doesn’t address, much less answer.

Local companies say they will maintain their vaccination policies despite last week’s Supreme Court ruling that struck down the Biden administration’s vaccination mandate for firms with more than 100 employees.

The Houston software company Hewlett Packard Enterprises, for example, said vaccinations are still required for employees to enter offices, work at clients’ sites, travel for business, or required for team members to enter work sites, work at third-party sites, and to travel or attend events on business. Those who decline to be vaccinated are required to work from home.

More than 90 percent of the company’s workforce is vaccinated, a company spokesperson said. The company has not yet decided whether to require booster shots.

[…]

The Houston chemical company LyondellBasell and CenterPoint, the Houston utility company, have not adopted vaccine mandates. They said they have COVID protocols in place and will continue to monitor them.

Corporate vaccine requirement increased the rate of vaccination among employees by 20 percent, according to a recent survey by the National Safety Council. The survey found 95 percent of workers at businesses with vaccine mandates were inoculated, compared to 75 percent among those at businesses without requirements.

At BakerRipley, employees are required to get vaccinated or tested weekly, the Houston charity said. Nearly 90 percent of its 1,200 employees are fully vaccinated.

Camden Property Trust, a national real estate company headquartered in Houston, put in vaccine requirements over the summer before Biden announced the mandate. Of its 746 Texas employees, 718, or about 96 percent, are vaccinated, said Ric Campo, CEO of Camden Property Trust said.

“We just had this discussion about safety and it’s about keeping teammates safe. We’ve done all the analysis and that’s what we think,” Campo said, “And once people had a rational discussion, and it wasn’t political, and it wasn’t ‘You do this or else’ people chose to vaccinate.”

The few who aren’t vaccinated must wear masks at work, Campo said.

Whether to require vaccinations is now in the hands of companies, said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center. It’s unlikely that Congress would pass new laws to give OSHA the authority that the Supreme Court says it now lacks to impose workplace vaccination requirements.

The story is about the effect of the SCOTUS ruling that blocked the Biden employer vaccination mandate. I’m happy that employers are mostly moving forward with whatever vaccine policies they already had in the works, but I have to ask: What about the state ban on such mandates? The original story line was that employers would be caught between conflicting orders, but that’s no longer the case. The thought that these employers are ignoring Abbott or have found a way around him is delightful, but how is it possible? What are their legal risks here? Is there a lawsuit against the Abbott’s order?

So I did some googling. While Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee urged businesses to sue Abbott over this order, as far as I can tell none have done so yet. Maybe they were waiting to see what happened with the federal mandate first. On the question of what Abbott’s order actually means, I found some interesting writing. For example:

The Order provides enforcement via fines. Specifically, non-compliant entities may be fined up to $1,000 per offense, while jail time is specifically excluded as a penalty. The Order’s language makes no exception for health-care providers such as hospitals and other related entities.

The Order also contemplates its own sunset upon the passage of overlapping legislation. Specifically, in the Order, Governor Abbot states that he is “adding this issue to the agenda” for an upcoming session of the Texas legislature, and that he “will rescind this [Order] upon the effective date of such legislation[.]”

Notably, the Order contradicts both the Governor’s own statements on the rights of private businesses within the state, and legal consensus regarding the ability of employers to mandate vaccinations in most cases. For example, in August, Governor Abbot issued an executive order banning public and governmental entities from enacting vaccine mandates, but explicitly left private entities to make their own decisions regarding the matter. At that time, a spokesman for the Governor’s office also commented that private businesses would be left to make their own decisions regarding the matter. The Order essentially closes that loophole.

The Order also contravenes existing legal precedent within the state regarding employer vaccine mandates. For example, in June 2021, the Federal District Court for the Southern District of Texas dismissed a lawsuit by 117 employees of Houston Methodist Hospital; who claimed Methodist’s policy requiring employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 amounted to wrongful termination under the law, because the vaccine(s) are “experimental and dangerous.” Bridges v. Houston Methodist Hosp., CV H-21-1774, 2021 WL 2399994, at *1 (S.D. Tex. June 12, 2021). In no uncertain terms, the Order squarely contradicts the holding in Bridges.

[…]

The immediate impact of the Order on businesses who implemented vaccine mandates is unclear—especially in light of conflicting Federal mandates. For example, Texas-based Southwest Airlines and American Airlines have stated publicly that—regardless of the Order—they will continue to implement plans requiring employees be vaccinated, citing federal mandates for contractors and the forthcoming OSHA rule for private business with 100 or more employees. While nothing is certain, it is somewhat likely that OSHA rules and regulations would preempt the Order. But Texas businesses with fewer than 100 employees would still be subject to the Order, or future, related State legislation.

Regardless, in light of the Order’s language, any Texas business entity that previously required employees or customers be vaccinated should seek counsel and reexamine its accompanying policies or risk non-compliance with the Order. At a minimum, Texas businesses should—for now—consider adding exemption language to vaccine policies that mimic the Order’s “personal conscience” and “prior recovery from COVID-19” carve outs.

The fact that the order only calls for what appears to be a modest fine (though that may depend on how an “offense” is counted; if it’s per employee, that would quickly add up) and conflicts with an existing federal court ruling may be the reason for the lack of action on it. Here’s more:

Additional questions loom, such as whether the governor’s Order exceeds his authority – his prior Executive Orders regarding vaccinations and so-called vaccine passports governed only public employers and private companies who were receiving state funds. Additional uncertainties include likely legal challenges to the Order; possible conflicts with federal law; and how and to what extent EO-40 will be enforced. It is also unclear to what extent, if any, the State will actually enforce EO-40, which provides for fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

Companies with employees in Texas who have already begun requiring vaccinations can take a relatively low risk approach to dealing with the governor’s Order by modifying their policies to provide accommodations to employees who object to being vaccinated on the basis of “personal conscience” (which is not defined in EO-40) and for “prior recovery from COVID-19.” These practices can be modified as new federal rules are issued and/or legal challenges play out. Other options for responding the Order are discussed in more detail below.

[…]

EO-40 departs from the governor’s prior orders in other ways. The Vaccine Passport Ban prohibits state agencies from adopting policies or requiring proof of vaccination as a condition of receiving services. In a notable contrast, EO-40 does not expressly forbid proof of vaccination as a condition of employment. Instead, it specifically forbids an entity from “compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccine.” By aiming squarely on the act of receiving a vaccination as opposed to policies requiring proof of vaccination, the Order gives rise to more ambiguity. In other words, employers may argue that they are not “compelling receipt” of a vaccine so long as that they do not intend to strap an employee down to a chair and force a vaccine needle into a worker’s arm, which they do not. Instead, that worker always has a choice: they can refuse to get vaccinated, but the consequence is that they will lose their job. Thus, another question is whether employer policies requiring vaccination as a condition of employment would be considered coercive enough to be deemed a violation of EO-40’s bar on compelling receipt of a COVID-19 vaccination.

In a larger context, considering the Texas’ at-will employment environment and the narrow availability of a “wrongful termination” cause of action in Texas, it is not clear that an employer “compels” an individual to be vaccinated by making it a condition of employment.

That last bit was a key component of that Methodist vaccine lawsuit. My interpretation of all this – and you lawyers out there, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong – is that businesses that want to get their employees vaccinated see a way forward, and so far the state hasn’t tried to make an example out of anyone. Abbott’s order was primarily about politics and his need to appear maximally troglodytic for the primary. If he scares a few businesses into abandoning any pro-vaccination plans, so much the better, but the point was to make the order. Optics come first, and on that score Abbott got what he wanted. The details don’t matter. Very much on brand for him, in other words.

SB8 lawsuit moves to SCOTx

Like I said, the fix was always in.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday sent the legal challenge to Texas’ restrictive abortion law to the state’s Supreme Court, a move that is expected to significantly delay the case and that abortion opponents had hoped would occur.

“This decision now keeps the case in limbo — and abortion after 6 weeks in the nation’s second-largest state — a dead-letter, indefinitely,” wrote Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, on Twitter.

The U.S. Supreme Court has largely declined to intervene in the Texas case three times, most recently in December when justices kept the ban in effect while allowing a legal challenge to move through a lower state court.

[…]

A divided Supreme Court found that most challenges against the Texas law should be dismissed, except for one filed against medical licensing officials. That case was sent that to the 5th Circuit, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, rather than a federal district court as abortion providers and supporters had hoped.

The three-judge federal panel, based in New Orleans, wrote in their 2-1 decision Monday that the Texas Supreme Court must certify the case and decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in allowing a challenge to proceed against the licensing officials. Circuit Judges Edith H. Jones and Stuart Kyle Duncan, both appointed by Republicans, said the state’s highest court should determine whether the Texas attorney general, the Texas Medical Board and other licensing officials can enforce the law if it is violated.

Judge Stephen A. Higginson, a Democratic appointee, argued the U.S. Supreme Court had already decided that matter.

“This further, second-guessing redundancy, without time limit, deepens my concern that justice delayed is justice denied, here impeding relief ordered by the Supreme Court,” he wrote in his dissent.

State supreme courts do not have to take up cases that are sent to them by federal courts, but it’s likely Texas will this time. Lawyers said it’s unusual to ask the Texas Supreme Court to make this decision after the U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in.

See here, here, and here for the background. I still don’t have anything to say that I haven’t said before. I’m fresh out of invective. The following is part of a longer thread, but these two tweets sum it up nicely:

SCOTUS doesn’t even care about the insult to their authority, because in the end it serves their larger goal. Burn it all down. The Chron has more.

“Unprecedented” meddling in the Census

They weren’t subtle about it.

A newly disclosed memorandum citing “unprecedented” meddling by the Trump administration in the 2020 census and circulated among top Census Bureau officials indicates how strongly they sought to resist efforts by the administration to manipulate the count for Republican political gain.

The document was shared among three senior executives including Ron S. Jarmin, a deputy director and the agency’s day-to-day head. It was written in September 2020 as the administration was pressing the bureau to end the count weeks early so that if President Donald J. Trump lost the election in November, he could receive population estimates used to reapportion the House of Representatives before leaving office.

The memo laid out a string of instances of political interference that senior census officials planned to raise with Wilbur Ross, who was then the secretary of the Commerce Department, which oversees the bureau. The issues involved crucial technical aspects of the count, including the privacy of census respondents, the use of estimates to fill in missing population data, pressure to take shortcuts to produce population totals quickly and political pressure on a crash program that was seeking to identify and count unauthorized immigrants.

Most of those issues directly affected the population estimates used for reapportionment. In particular, the administration was adamant that — for the first time ever — the bureau separately tally the number of undocumented immigrants in each state. Mr. Trump had ordered the tally in a July 2020 presidential memorandum, saying he wanted to subtract them from House reapportionment population estimates.

The census officials’ memorandum pushed back especially forcefully, complaining of “direct engagement” by political appointees with the methods that experts were using to find and count unauthorized noncitizens.

“While the presidential memorandum may be a statement of the administration’s policy,” the memo stated, “the Census Bureau views the development of the methodology and processes as its responsibility as an independent statistical agency.”

[…]

Kenneth Prewitt, a Columbia University public-affairs scholar who ran the Census Bureau from 1998 to 2001, said in an interview that the careful bureaucratic language belied an extraordinary pushback against political interference.

“This was a very, very strong commitment to independence on their part,” he said. “They said, ‘We’re going to run the technical matters in the way we think we ought to.’”

The officials’ objections, he said, only underscored the need for legislation to shield the Census Bureau from political interference well before the 2030 census gets underway. “I’m very worried about that,” he said.

See here and here for some background; I wrote about Census-related topics and shenanigans a lot while it was happening. We got lucky this time around, but there’s no reason to believe our luck will hold. My advice would be to put some criminal penalties in for the various forms of interference and intimidation that the Trump thugs used, and don’t require proof of intent for the crime to have occurred. My advice would also be to prioritize democracy and good governance over ant-democratic Senate trivia, but what do I know? Texas Public Radio and Mother Jones have more.

Former Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton sues a blogger

Obviously, a story like this is going to attract my attention.

Ryan Sitton

A former Texas oil and gas regulator has accused a blogger of helping derail his 2020 reelection campaign by falsely claiming he had an extramarital affair.

In a lawsuit filed last month in Galveston, Ryan Sitton said the blogger, Joshua Matthew Pierce, had claimed in two online posts that Sitton sought to engage in “racial fantasies” with an unnamed Jamaican woman. The piece also included a supposed picture of them together, though the photo was later shown to be a generic, unrelated image used on several websites, according to the suit.

The second post alleged that Sitton had referred to fellow Texas Railroad Commissioner Christi Craddick with an ethnic slur. Both were published during early voting in the 2020 primary, which Sitton lost in a huge upset to fellow Republican Jim Wright.

“He published a hit piece, containing salacious lies about an upstanding businessman and public official,” the lawsuit says. “Unfortunately, his silly and false story gained some traction, and influenced an election.”

The complaint also suggests Pierce may have been working for Wright’s campaign at the time, though it does not present any clear evidence.

Pierce responded to the lawsuit over the weekend in a series of tweets, saying, “And to think that little old blogger down here in #CorpusChristi, #Texas could influence an election.”

“Lets get this right out of the way—you can deny, deny but the proof of the “infactual basis” is on plaintiff,” he wrote.

Sitton is seeking $10 million in damages. I went looking on Twitter to see if there was any commentary on this. Didn’t find anything, but I did come across this Yahoo News story that added a couple of details as well as a link to the lawsuit. The main thing I learned there is that Sitton is represented by Tony Buzbee, because of course he is.

My very basic take on all this is as follows: I have no trouble believing that this “blogger” printed false information. I have no idea whether someone who was a public figure has a chance at collecting from a person who while probably not a “journalist” from a legal perspective was nonetheless engaging in political speech, however crappy it was. I also have some real doubts about how much this “blogger” might have affected the election. How big an audience did that guy have? How much were his claims being amplified and repeated, in a way that Texas GOP primary voters might have seen or heard it? I’m not exactly plugged into that world, but if it had gotten real traction there might have been some reporting or even gossip about it in places I could have seen. Maybe it was there for me to see and I just missed it. All I’m saying is, you’re going to need to show me some data to convince me that this effort moved votes, especially enough votes to knock Sitton out. Not saying that can’t be done, just that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. If that exists, I can’t wait to see it. I just won’t be expecting to see it.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paxton asks Supreme Court to toss that pesky whistleblower lawsuit

Same argument, different court. Either Ken Paxton can be held accountable, or he gets a free pass to do whatever he wants.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss out a whistleblower lawsuit by four former officials who say they were improperly fired after accusing Paxton of accepting bribes and taking other improper acts.

Paxton told the court that his agency “enjoys … the right to fire its employees — especially employees whose political appointments require they act on behalf of the duly elected Attorney General — at will.”

Paxton also argued that he can’t be sued because the Texas Whistleblower Act was intended to protect government employees from on-the-job retaliation by another public employee.

“The Attorney General is not a ‘public employee,'” said the appeal, filed Wednesday and made public Thursday. “Like the Governor, the Lieutenant Governor, and members of this Court, he is an elected officer, chosen by the people of Texas to exercise sovereign authority on their behalf.”

Paxton made similar arguments before the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, but that court allowed the lawsuit to continue, ruling in October that the whistleblower act protects government workers from being fired for making “a good-faith report of illegal conduct … by the employer.”

Interpreting the act to exclude elected officials as employers would create a substantial loophole that runs counter to the law’s purpose of improving transparency and accountability, the 3rd Court ruled.

[…]

In his appeal to the Texas Supreme Court, Paxton characterized the complaints as matters involving policy disagreements — not a good-faith report of potential crimes as required by the whistleblower act.

“Plaintiffs were political appointees of the Attorney General who were dismissed from their posts following several policy disagreements. These disagreements each regarded duties well within the Attorney General’s authority, such as whether to retain outside counsel, issue a legal opinion, investigate potentially criminal acts and intervene in pending litigation,” the appeal said.

Paxton urged the all-Republican Supreme Court to reject the whistleblowers’ “vague, conclusory and speculative allegations,” saying they do not constitute a good-faith report of wrongdoing.

Lawyers for the whistleblowers will have the opportunity to respond to Paxton’s appeal in the coming weeks.

See here for the previous update. Paxton made the same argument to the Third Court, while also arguing that none of the whistleblowers had actually accused him of a crime, which meant they weren’t really blowing the whistle. I’m sure the plaintiffs will mostly repeat their earlier arguments as well. As for what the Supreme Court will do, or when they might do it – I for one will not be shocked if they wait until after the election – your guess is as good as mine. Reform Austin and KVUE have more.

It would seem that the San Marcos Police Department has some major problems

Geez.

The city of San Marcos admits in new court documents to text exchanges among its police officers about the Joe Biden bus incident in October 2020.

But it denies what it calls a “characterization” of the exchanges by the original complainants.

In documents filed in federal court Dec. 30, attorneys for the defendants denied almost all of the 173 allegations laid out in the original complaint. The defendants include the city’s public safety director, Chase Stapp; an assistant police chief, Brandon Winkenwerder; a police corporal, Matthew Daenzer; and the City of San Marcos.

In the lawsuit, which originally was filed in June 2021 by campaign staffers and volunteers for then-presidential candidate Joe Biden, the plaintiffs say the Police Department refused to provide a police escort or assistance for their campaign bus after it was surrounded by a pro-Trump caravan on Interstate 35 in October 2020.

The lawsuit alleges that Biden staffers called 911 and “begged” for help from police, but the police “privately laughed and joked about the victims and their distress, including by calling them ‘tards,’ making fun of a campaign staffer’s ‘hard’ breathing, and retorting that they should just ‘drive defensively’ or ‘leave the train.’”

Attorneys for the campaign staffers and volunteers obtained text messages via a public records request between Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and other police officers that they said showed the officials mocking and laughing at the bus occupants.

In the defendants’ response to the complaint filed last week, attorneys for Stapp, Winkenwerder, Daenzer and the city denied almost all the allegations in the lawsuit or said that they did not have enough “knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief” about them.

They did admit that the text exchanges occurred, but they denied the “characterization of the communication” contained in the complaint.

In one text exchange, an officer asked “did Kamala show?” — a reference to Biden’s vice presidential running mate, Kamala Harris — and another officer answered, “no, just a couple other yards,” which the plaintiffs’ lawyers claim was a misspelling of his intended word, “tards.” Lawyers for the city denied that characterization.

In another text, Stapp said: “from what I gather, the Biden bus never even exited I-35 thanks to the Trump escort.” Lawyers for Stapp and the city admitted that text was factual.

See here and here for the background. I have nothing against the city of San Marcos, but they have a real problem on their hands, and they need to do something about it. The trial is scheduled for November. I’ll be rooting very hard for the plaintiffs. The Current has more.

Fifth Circuit gets set to put the final nail in SB8 legal challenges

The fix was always in.

In a contentious hearing Friday, a federal appeals court indicated it is likely to send Texas’ restrictive abortion law to the state supreme court, a move that could add months or longer before the case is resolved.

Since Sept. 1, abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy have been banned in Texas through a novel law that empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” in a prohibited procedure. The law explicitly removes enforcement authority from state officials, making it extremely difficult to challenge in court.

In December, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out most challenges to the law and left only state medical licensing officials as possible lawsuit targets because they can revoke a doctor, nurse or pharmacist’s license if they violated the law.

On Friday, a three-judge panel from the New Orleans-based 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments about where the case goes next. Judges Edith H. Jones and Stuart Kyle Duncan indicated they believe there are state law questions that must first be resolved by the Texas Supreme Court, while Judge Stephen A. Higginson strongly disagreed, arguing the case should be remanded to federal district court.

In a move that surprised court watchers, Jones also raised the idea of taking no action on the case for months, until the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on a Mississippi abortion case that could overturn the constitutional protection for the procedure.

Lawyers for the abortion providers believe the federal district court route is the best hope to getting the law, originally passed as Senate Bill 8, struck down. If the case is sent to the Texas Supreme Court, it could take months to return to the federal level, leaving the law in effect.

This is exactly what abortion opponents are hoping for.

See here and here for the background. There’s nothing I can say that I haven’t already said. The only way forward is winning more elections, both to change the laws in Texas and to get some court reform at the federal level. I wish I had something more hopeful, but this is all I’ve got. The 19th and the Chron have more.

Another lawsuit filed over Commissioners Court redistricting

What a bunch of crybabies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three comments about three vaccine mandate news stories

Item one:

A U.S. district judge in North Texas has blocked a mask mandate and vaccine requirement for staff and students in the Head Start program that was issued by President Joe Biden.

Head Start is a federal school readiness program for young kids in low-income families that is administered nationally by the federal Health and Human Services department, but run locally by nonprofits or schools. Biden previously ordered that staff running Head Start programs must be vaccinated and all students over the age of 2 had to wear masks. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and Lubbock ISD sued the Biden administration to stop enforcement of that order.

U.S. District Judge James Wesley Hendrix, a 2019 appointee of Republican President Donald Trump, ruled Friday that the Biden administration could not enforce its mask and vaccine mandates for the Head Start program in Texas, although the mandates would continue in other states.

Hendrix wrote that the process by which the Biden administration implemented the mask and vaccine rules was in violation of federal law because such rules could only be put in place through a detailed process or with the authorization of Congress. The order applies until the judge holds a trial and issues a final decision on the full merits of the case, or if it is lifted by a higher court.

Item two:

In the state’s latest push against federal vaccine mandates, Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced plans to sue the Biden administration for requiring Texas National Guard members to get vaccinated against COVID-19.

The suit would be the latest in what has been a slew of litigation against federal vaccine mandates that Texas has either brought forth or taken part in during the pandemic.

In a letter issued Tuesday to Maj. Gen. Tracy R. Norris, the adjutant general of the Texas National Guard, Abbott claimed authority to exempt Texas guard members from receiving the vaccine.

Item three:

A federal judge in Fort Worth granted an injunction Monday against the Department of Defense and the Biden Administration that temporarily halted the U.S. Navy’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate.

The mandate is challenged by a group of U.S. Navy SEALs and other Naval special warfare personnel who say the mandate violates their religious freedom and they have been denied religious exemptions from receiving the vaccine.

U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor of the Northern District of Texas signed the injunction order after hearing testimony from several Navy SEALs in December as part of the group’s lawsuit. The suit is against President Joe Biden, the Department of Defense, the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro.

My comments:

1. It is impossible to overstate how much Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton are on the side of the COVID virus. They themselves are vaccinated, because they are not stupid and want to stay alive, but they absolutely do not care how many people die as a result of COVID. They see only political advantage in making the pandemic worse.

2. They will always be able to find Trumpy judges to plead their cases to, and will generally get favorable rulings from them as a result.

3. The only way to stop the state of Texas from filing these lawsuits is to elect a Democrat as Attorney General. Electing Beto O’Rourke as Governor would also help, as he would be less likely to impose pro-COVID executive orders.

Any questions?

SB8 plaintiffs want their lawsuit moved back to district court

As is usually the case, the lawless Fifth Circuit is the problem, with a generous assist from SCOTUS.

With the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals set to hear arguments about Texas’ restrictive new abortion law Friday, abortion providers have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to again intervene and instead send the case to a lower court.

Abortion providers filed the request Monday, along with a motion to expedite the high court’s ruling on the matter ahead of Friday’s hearing. Lawyers for the providers argue that the 5th Circuit should send the case to district court, which in October temporarily blocked enforcement of the law.

[…]

In December, the Supreme Court threw out most of the providers’ challenges to the law and allowed only one narrow challenge, against medical licensing officials, to proceed. The court also allowed the restrictions on the procedure to remain in place.

Then, in an additional blow to abortion providers, the Supreme Court sent that one remaining challenge to be reargued before the 5th Circuit, considered one of the most politically conservative circuit courts in the nation. Providers had been expecting it to be sent to the district court, which was seen as a more favorable venue. They argued in Monday’s filing that district court is the proper venue for the case to proceed.

“It’s unconscionable that the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is defying the Supreme Court’s ruling last month by refusing to send our case back to the district court so that we can continue fighting Texas’ six-week abortion ban,” Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court must step in to prevent the appeals court from needlessly delaying our lawsuit against Texas’ bounty-hunting scheme and compounding the harm this ban has already inflicted on Texans.”

Rather than remanding the case to the district court, though, the 5th Circuit decided in a split decision to hear arguments in the case on Friday and will consider whether the case should be sent to the Texas Supreme Court to proceed. Legal experts say certifying a case to the state supreme court can extend the appeals process by months, if not years.

Circuit Judge Stephen A. Higginson dissented from the majority, arguing that the Supreme Court’s ruling does not require reargument before the 5th Circuit and should not be sent to the Texas Supreme Court. Higginson also wrote that he believes the Supreme Court ruling indicates that the medical licensing officials should be blocked from enforcing the law.

But Higginson noted that he had been “unpersuasive,” and unless the Supreme Court weighs in before Friday, the case is likely to proceed at the 5th Circuit. Abortion providers argue that this delay is harming women seeking abortions.

See here for the background. The plaintiffs had also asked the Fifth Circuit to just send this back to the district court, but they declined and instead scheduled this hearing, which is not a thing that appellate courts normally do. It’s clear that the purpose of this is to just flat-out delay if not deny sending the case back to the district court judge, who will surely enjoin it for the duration of the lawsuit, and wait for SCOTUS to officially throw out Roe v Wade in the Mississippi case. The Fifth Circuit is rogue and lawless and needs to be gutted. Simply calling it some variation of “very conservative” does not accurately describe it. The news media needs to wake up and get with the program. The 19th has more.

What does “race blind” redistricting even mean?

Good question.

In states like Texas and North Carolina, Republican lawmakers in charge of redrawing the political maps for the next decade say that the new plans are “race blind.” Their opponents in court say that the claim is implausible and one that, in some situations, is at odds with the Voting Rights Act.

Several lawsuits, including from the Justice Department, allege that the maps drawn after the 2020 census discriminate against voters of color.

Between a 2013 Supreme Court decision that scaled back the federal government’s role in monitoring redistricting and a 2019 ruling that said partisan gerrymanders could not be challenged in federal court, voting rights advocates have been left with fewer tools to address what they say are unfair and illegal redistricting plans.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in the states where the redistricting legal fights have been most pitched have adopted an approach that claims that racial data played no role as they drew the maps for the next 10 years. Legislators say they’re avoiding the use of race data after decades of litigation where they’ve been accused of unconstitutionally relying on race to gerrymander.

“I don’t view this as a serious legal defense, but more of a PR defense,” said Thomas Saenz, the president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is suing Texas lawmakers over their new maps.

Challengers to the maps say that such an assertion of “race blind” maps is dubious as well as a betrayal of states’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination in redistricting. The law requires that in some circumstances, map-makers must draw plans in a way that creates minority-majority districts where voters can elect the candidates of their choice. In lawsuits alleging a failure to comply with the law, states like Texas have been accused of drawing maps that instead dilute the votes of communities of color.

Legislators may be trying to “immunize” themselves from most of the claims that are used in court to strike down redistricting maps, according to Nate Persily, a Stanford Law School professor and redistricting expert.

“By saying race was not in the minds of the people who drew the lines, you potentially get out of those constitutional causes action that you are intentionally diluting the vote of racial minorities or that race was the predominant factor in the construction of a district,” Persily told CNN, adding that such an approach doesn’t shield map-drawers from cases alleging Voting Rights Act violations.

Lawmakers’ description of maps as “race blind” is both “political rhetoric” and “test case rhetoric,” said Ben Ginsberg, a former Republican redistricting lawyer who is not involved in the current lawsuits. “But still, the standard is you can’t dilute minority voting power and minority opportunity to vote for their candidates of choice. And by not using race data they run the risk of being found to have diluted minority voting strength from what’s in the current map.”

[…]

In tension with legislators’ obligations under the Voting Rights Act are the limits the Constitution — under Supreme Court precedent — put on the use of race in redistricting.

The Supreme Court has said, via the 1993 decision in Shaw v. Reno, that use of race as a sole factor in drawing districts unconstitutional in most circumstances. However, the Voting Rights Act presents the sort of compelling government interest that allows for race to be considered.

Jason Torchinsky — a Republican election lawyer who has defended North Carolina legislators in redistricting cases in the past, but is not involved in the current cases in North Carolina or Texas– told CNN that map-drawers have to walk the line between their VRA obligations and not running afoul of the Constitution.

“Legislatures have to use very localized data to determine if they are required to draw [Voting Rights Act] Section 2 districts,” Torchinsky said. “If they are, then they have to consider race in those parts of the states because they’re required to under the Voting Rights Act.” But when states aren’t required to draw VRA districts, Torchinsky said, the use of race could pose a potential Constitutional problem.

I mean, if SCOTUS hadn’t killed preclearance back in 2013, we wouldn’t be having most of this debate right now, because none of these extreme maps would have seen the light of day. The claim at the time that we didn’t need preclearance any more because racial discrimination was a thing of the past was ludicrous then and is beyond obscene now. The 2019 ruling that said SCOTUS was unable to deal with partisan gerrymandering claims, even as the lower courts had no trouble adjudicating them, was cowardly and shameful. Of course, we do have what could be a pretty good answer to all that sitting on the Senate agenda, if we can somehow manage to convince two loathsome Senators that American democracy is a bigger concern than arcane and anti-democratic Senate rules. Until then, the only thing you can count on is that something is legal if SCOTUS says it is, no more and no less. And down the rabbit hole we go.

Law firm representing Spring Branch ISD withdraws from redistricting lawsuit

Interesting.

The law firm Thompson & Horton LLP has represented Spring Branch ISD in multiple legal matters since 2005.

While Thompson & Horton were originally representing SBISD in the Voting Rights Act lawsuit that Virginia Elizondo filed against the district and its trustees, the firm announced earlier this month that it would be withdrawing as counsel on the case.

“All I can really say is that Thompson & Horton requested to withdraw because we believe it to be in the best interest of the school district,” said lead attorney Chris Gilbert. “And that we believe the issues in the lawsuit are too important for the focus to be on who is legal counsel as opposed to the lawsuit itself.”

Gilbert would not give more details, citing attorney-client privilege.

The only statement from the district expressed similar ideas, saying, “On December 3, 2021, Thompson & Horton informed the Spring Branch ISD Board of Trustees of their desire to withdraw as counsel in Elizondo v. SBISD. Thompson & Horton believes this request is in the district’s best interests. The firm also believes the issues surrounding this lawsuit are very important and should be the focus of the community rather than who is legal counsel. SBISD is grateful to Thompson & Horton for their legal representation and their integrity in ensuring SBISD’s interests are best represented.”

As of Dec. 22, the district had not announced new counsel.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, attorney Gilbert filed a response to the lawsuit on August 20, so whatever has come up to cause this change likely happened after that. I don’t want to speculate because I have no basis for it, but this feels a little weird to me. Maybe it’s nothing, maybe it has no practical effect even if it’s not nothing. Maybe we’ll find out more at a later date. For now, noting it for the record.

Lawsuit over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting tossed

Missed this over the holidays.

A Harris County Judge on Wednesday tossed a lawsuit from Republican commissioners and voters over new county maps that favor Democrats.

Judge Dedra Davis ruled in favor of Harris County, finding that Republican commissioners Jack Cagle and Tom Ramsey and three voters did not have jurisdiction to sue.

The Republicans’ attorney, Andy Taylor, indicated that he planned to appeal the ruling.

Cagle, Ramsey and the three voters filed the lawsuit against Democratic County Judge Lina Hidalgo and against Harris County last month. The suit alleged that the redistricting map proposed by Democratic Commissioner Rodney Ellis, known as the Ellis 3 plan, amounts to an unconstitutional gerrymander that would deprive more than 1.1 million voters of their right to vote.

Texas election law staggers county precinct elections every two years. All county commissioners serve four-year terms, but commissioners in even-numbered precincts and those in odd-numbered precincts take place at two-year intervals.

The next election for even-numbered precincts is in 2022. The lawsuit alleges that the Ellis 3 plan shifts more than 1.1 million voters from even-numbered precincts to odd-numbered precincts, depriving them of their right to vote until 2024.

“Plaintiffs submit that there is a very simple explanation for why this occurred,” the lawsuit reads. “Commissioner Ellis wanted to do whatever it would take to draw a new map that would create three…Democratic seats. Thus, the Ellis 3 Plan does just that.”

See here for the background. The lawsuit seemed pretty flimsy on its face, and it was dismissed without comment by District Court Judge Dedra Davis. The plaintiffs, which include Commissioners Cagle and Ramsey, and fan favorite attorney Andy Taylor, have filed a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court in a last ditch effort to stop the new map from taking effect. The mandamus, which you can see here, makes the following claims:

  • The 2020 census revealed population changes among districts that required redistricting.
  • It was possible to comply with the “one man, one vote” rule by transferring 4% of the county’s population.
  • But Hidalgo, Ellis and Garcia chose a plan that moved 48% and overstepped their authority.
  • That plan will deprive 1.1 million people of their right to vote for commissioner in the next election and likely tip the result from Republican to Democrat in one precinct, creating a 4-1 supermajority for Democrats.

As soon as I saw that “moved 48%” of voters claim, I said to myself, where have I seen a statistic like that before? Right here:

The initial Republican proposal for redrawing Texas congressional maps calls for Harris County to once again be split into nine districts, but with major alterations to protect the region’s endangered GOP incumbents.

The shifts mean more than a million voters who live west of downtown Houston would have a different member of Congress representing them.

Ultimately, Democratic-held districts now represented by U.S. Reps. Sylvia Garcia, Sheila Jackson Lee, Al Green and Lizzie Fletcher would all become more heavily blue under the proposed map released Monday by the Texas Senate. Under the proposal, Republican U.S. Reps. Dan Crenshaw and Troy Nehls would get more like-minded voters in their districts, too.

The proposal adds a completely new congressional district in west Harris County — District 38 — designed to favor a Republican, stitched together by cutting into four existing districts.

A little back of the envelope math here, we have “more than” a million voters, in a county with just under 2.5 million registered voters, that’s over 40% of voters being put into new districts, for the express purpose of creating a new Republican district in the county and bolstering the Republican caucus in Washington. So, yeah. Cry me a river, fellas.

Preliminary injunction sought against mail ballot restrictions

Of interest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those challenges are awaiting a summer trial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another look at the Aguirre/Hotze debacle

Man, do I ever want this to be the end of Steven Hotze as a political force.

A well-funded far-right group—that made inroads with Stop The Steal organizations, paid a former police captain more than $200,000 to hunt ballots, and became entangled in a roadside stickup—was making war plans for Election Day 2020 months ahead of time, documents reveal.

The fringe group, the Liberty Center for God and Country (LCGC), led a lucrative fundraising blitz in the run-up to the election and quietly networked with now-notorious election denialists. Their work came to light in October of that year when former Houston Police captain Mark Aguirre allegedly rammed his SUV into a man’s truck, forced the man onto the ground at gunpoint, and accused him of transporting 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre’s claims were baseless—his victim was an innocent air conditioner technician—and no widespread voter fraud has been found in the 2020 election. Aguirre was indicted this week for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

The criminal charges outed the LCGC, which had quietly moved hundreds of thousands of dollars in the name of preventing voter fraud in the months before the election, launching a website and fundraisers in the months before Nov. 3.

In the fall of 2020, as Donald Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls, Republican activists sought ways to sow doubt in the event of a possible Trump loss. Aguirre and LCGC were among them.

Aguirre’s description of himself as a “retired” police captain (he’d actually been fired for a disastrous raid) was the least of the fundraiser’s lies. Although the fundraiser shed little light on Aguirre’s “team,” the fundraiser was launched one day after Aguirre signed an affidavit in a lawsuit accusing Houston-area Democrats of widespread voter fraud.

The lawsuit, filed by Republican activist Steven Hotze, accused Texas Democrats of a plot to defraud voters, in part by offering early voting and more voting locations. Some of its claims rested on supposed evidence collected by Aguirre and a former FBI agent who, like Aguirre, later became a private investigator.

“Based on interviews, review of documents, and other information, I have identified the individuals in charge of the ballot harvesting scheme,” Aguirre wrote. Aguirre’s involvement with Hotze went deeper than the lawsuit suggested. In late August, according to business records, Hotze formed the LCGC. The group’s earliest web presence called on Trump to designate three days “for national repentance, fasting, and prayer.”

[…]

In order to crack down on alleged fraud pre-election, the LCGC allegedly hired Aguirre to investigate people it suspected of running fake ballot rings. According to charging documents, Aguirre admitted to surveilling the home of air-conditioning technician David Lopez-Zuniga, on the suspicion that the Houston man was running a scheme to force children to sign 750,000 fraudulent ballots. Aguirre allegedly rammed Lopez-Zuniga’s car off the road, forced him onto the ground at gunpoint, and knelt on his back before an actual police officer was able to intervene. The day after the incident, the LCGC sent $211,400 to Aguirre’s bank account.

The LCGC was pulling in big money, its fundraisers suggest. In addition to Aguirre’s GoFundMe, which earned at least $2,600, the group operated its own GoFundMe, which raised nearly $70,000 from mid-October to mid-December.

The LCGC also registered as a nonprofit—a status that would be useful when networking with a burgeoning movement of voter fraud hoaxers.

See here, here, and here for a bit of background; there’s more if you go looking for the bogus and universally losing lawsuits Hotze filed in 2020. The Washington Post did a deep dive on this about a year ago, and I’m glad to see others are continuing that quest. The possible key to ending this little piece of madness is the lawsuit filed by AC repairman David Lopez, which has survived a motion to dismiss and will surely provide a lot more evidence of wrongdoings as it proceeds. All I want for Christmas for the next 20 years or so is for a verdict to come down that absolutely bankrupts Steven Hotze. Link via Daily Kos.

How’s that online voter registration thing going?

Pretty well, it seems. So well, perhaps, that the state of Texas doesn’t want to tell you how well.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Since a federal judge forced Texas nearly a year and a half ago to offer limited online voter registration, 1.5 million Texans have used the option, according to new state data.

The August 2020 ruling, which found Texas in violation of the National Voter Registration Act, required state officials to give residents the opportunity to register when they renew their driver’s license online. The system was in place a month later.

Advocates say the new data speaks to the success of online registration — and is evidence that Texas, one of just a few states that does not offer an online option for every registrant, should implement the program statewide. Republican leaders in state government have resisted such change, instead pursuing new voting restrictions in the name of election security.

“The very best thing you can do is have systems where the government is seamlessly integrating voter registration into other processes,” said Mimi Marziani, the president of the Texas Civil Rights Project, which represented the plaintiffs in the case that spurred the creation of the online system.

[…]

“Getting registered to vote is not something that many people necessarily remember,” said Joshua Blank, the research director of the Texas Politics Project. “And in the process of moving, it’s very likely that this would not be on the top of their list of things to address, like changing their electricity, gas providers and forwarding all their mail.”

Without more granular data on first-time voter registrations filed online, it’s difficult to determine whether the option has had a significant impact on Texas’ overall registration numbers, Blank added. More than 17 million people are registered to vote in Texas.

Still, it’s doubtful that GOP leaders would embrace an expansion of online registration in Texas, which has some of the nation’s strictest voting laws. Republicans have long declined to allow any online voter registration, saying it would lead to an increase in election fraud — even as 63 percent of Texas voters would support such a system, according to an October 2020 poll by the Texas Politics Project.

The availability of online registration “flies in the face” of Texas’ current approach to voting policies, Blank said. The GOP-led Legislature spent months earlier this year campaigning for a sweeping elections bill that, in part, restricted voting hours in some parts of the state, prohibited drive-thru and overnight voting, and introduced new ID requirements for mail-in ballot applications.

“Texas has been at the forefront recently of enacting strict voting laws, and, in truth, has been at the forefront of enacting strict voting laws for much of the last decade,” Blank said. “Even in an area like this, where I think a majority of voters … say that we should expand online voter registration, it’s unlikely that you’d see something like this move in Texas.”

But advocates say they’ll continue to push for a extensive online registration system — and, if possible, automatic voter registration. Both changes would not only facilitate access to the ballot box, but also address longstanding racial inequities in Texas’ voter rolls, said Marziani of the Texas Civil Rights Project.

See here and here for some background. As the story notes, the state would not break down the data by new voters versus existing voters who are updating their address. My guess is that it’s overwhelmingly the latter, but that’s also a big deal because it keeps those folks from getting caught in the various voter purges that the state and some counties engage in. There is of course no justification for not allowing people to handle voter registration matters online – any legal security measure can be done just as readily – it’s just that the Republicans who are in control don’t want it. Here, for once, they had no choice. Now imagine what it would be like if we had a more robust federal voting rights law to force them on some other matters.

The state of the state redistricting lawsuits

A good update, and a reminder that not all of the action is in federal court.

In two cases heard [December 14 and 15], a group of mostly Democratic, Hispanic lawmakers from both chambers challenged the legality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.

“All we’re asking is for Republicans, who claim to be constitutionalists, to start acting like it, and follow the plain meaning and reading of the Constitution,” said Roland Gutierrez, one of two Democratic state senators who are suing Texas.

Focusing on the timing are Gutierrez and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, who sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. Also at issue are rules for keeping counties intact when drawing Texas House districts.

Similar to a suit they filed in federal court before redrawing began, the senators’ attorneys argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

That makes the newly drawn state House and state Senate plans invalid, argued the legal team for Gutierrez and Eckhardt, of San Antonio and Austin, respectively.

The senators’ lawyers pointed to a provision in the state Constitution that requires the redistricting process to start in the first regular session after the decennial Census has been published, asking the court to block the new plans from being used.

State lawyers argued the provision does not prohibit apportionment at other times, and warned that blocking the map will disrupt the 2022 election process that is already in motion.

“The Legislature … is perfectly free to redistrict whenever it wants,” Will Thompson, the attorney general’s deputy chief for special litigation, said at the Dec. 15 hearing in district court in Travis County.

[…]

The senators’ legal team also argued the new state House map violated the “county line rule” of the Texas Constitution, which requires that counties with sufficient population be kept intact in drawing Texas House districts.

The second challenge, mounted by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, made a similar case that the rule was broken, arguing it was designed to ensure people have local representation.

As lawmakers this fall debated the new House lines late into the night, they narrowly adopted a major change in South Texas. House District 37 was redrawn from a seat President Joe Biden won by 17 percentage points, to a seat the president won by only two points over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

That amendment, developed by Kingsville Republican Rep. J.M. Lozano, was denounced by some Valley lawmakers. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, called the change a “disingenuous, last-minute attempt to do a grab.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team argued the county line rule requires that two districts be wholly contained within Cameron County. Yet Lozano’s tweaks give Cameron County just one wholly contained district, with two that connect to adjoining counties.

The state’s lawyers argued the new boundaries do not dilute votes in Cameron County, and that Cameron got the number of districts it was constitutionally entitled to. The plaintiffs’ attorney rejected that interpretation of the rules.

“There is no doubt that to whatever extent Cameron County voters are a cohesive group … they get to elect the candidates of their choice,” said Thompson, one of the state’s lawyers.

District 37 Democratic candidate Ruben Cortez Jr. joined the senators’ suit, along with political organization Tejano Democrats. The new version of the district was joined with adjacent Willacy County.

“This Republican redistricting scheme is robbing the voice of Cameron County voters,” Cortez, also a member of the Texas State Board of Education, said in a news release.

The caucus’ complaint asked the court to block the Texas House map from being used in upcoming elections and allow for the creation of alternative boundaries.

Both sides discussed a full trial beginning Jan. 10.

It’s unclear, if the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs on the county line rule, whether they would delay Texas House primary elections just for South Texas, or the entire state. The plaintiffs’ legal team asked the court to delay the primary to May 24.

Thompson, the state lawyer, said he expects the 2023 Legislature to have to revisit the maps.

The Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit was originally filed in federal court, but at a hearing in October it was agreed that the plaintiffs would first pursue the matter in state court. The state lawsuit was filed on November 22, judging from the stamp on the document. The lawsuit over HD37 and Cameron County was one of two lawsuits filed by MALC, with the other being a broader federal lawsuit. I was not aware until this story that they had been combined, as the federal lawsuits (with the exception of the federal version of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit) have been.

The cases are being heard by an interesting three-judge panel: Karin Crump, a Democrat and district court judge in Travis County, who is presiding; Ken Wise, a Republican was was re-elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2020; and Emily Miskel, a Republican district court judge from Collin County who is running for the 5th Court of Appeals in 2022. I assume this is the work of the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, though that name is not mentioned in the story. Funny how once you become aware of something new you begin to see it everywhere.

As for the cases, with the standard I Am Not A Lawyer proviso, both of them seem pretty straightforward. Either the Lege is only allowed to embark on the decennial redistricting process in a regular session that follows the Census or it’s not, and either the county line rule means that a county with sufficient population to have more than one State House district in it has only one partial district in it, with the other(s) being fully within that county. Looking at the district viewer, I don’t see any other example of a county that has one complete district and more than one partial districts in it. There are no such examples in the current map, either – Cameron has all of HDs 37 and 38 and part of 35. It seems likely to me that previous legislatures didn’t think this was something they could do. And as for whether Cameron County voters get to elect the candidate of their choice, that’s nice and all but it’s not the question that was asked, nor is it relevant to the county line rule.

As for the claim that the Lege is free to redistrict whenever it wants, then it could in theory redraw new lines after every election. (The 2003 DeLay re-redistricting was only for Congress, which is outside the scope of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit. That same claim was made about “mid-decade” Congressional redistricting, and I don’t believe there was ever a federal ruling on that question.) Surely there are some limits on what the majority party can do.

The weakness of the state’s arguments suggests to me the possibility the plaintiffs could prevail, but we are getting way ahead of ourselves. I do think the state can reasonably claim it wasn’t their fault that the Census data was late, and that it’s less disruptive to redistrict in a special session so new maps can be in place for the intended election than to wait an entire cycle. The counter to that would be that this is what the Legislative Redistricting Board is for, though here I would say it’s not clear to me that the outcome would be any more favorable to the plaintiffs unless the LRB is restricted to just tweaking districts to equalize population. In other words, can the LRB draw whole new maps, in which case I’d expect them to come up with something exactly like what was adopted by the Lege, or must they use the existing maps and make only the minimal changes necessary to fix population imbalances? The Gutierrez/Eckhardt plaintiffs might “win” but not achieve anything, depending on how the court views that question. Someone with real legal experience should probably step in at this point and stop me from digging this hole any deeper.

Anyway. We might at least get an initial answer to these questions before voting begins, which would be nice. We might also get a split primary for at least part of the state, which is more than a little chaotic. Isn’t this fun?

Our year in COVID

It was bad. How it is next year is at least partially up to us.

Speaks for itself (Source: DSHS)

Texas recorded a 35 percent increase in COVID-19 deaths in 2021, compared to the first year of the pandemic, even though vaccines have been available for all adults since March.

The climbing toll, public health experts said, is almost entirely driven by people who are unvaccinated. From mid-January through October, just 8 percent of Texas virus deaths were among inoculated residents.

Memorial Hermann Chief Physician Dr. James McCarthy said it makes sense there would be more virus deaths in 2021, the first full year of the pandemic, though the highly transmissible delta variant coupled with a low vaccination rate and the decline of safe practices made fatalities worse than they otherwise would have been. And as the ultra-contagious omicron variant spreads rapidly in Houston, the pattern could continue.

“The real reason it’s worse this year is we stopped all the mask-wearing protection activities we had with a large portion of the population still unvaccinated and vulnerable to infection, hospitalization and death,” McCarthy said.

Texas this year had recorded 42,100 virus deaths through Dec. 13, according to data from the state health department, compared to 31,309 in 2020. The pandemic was declared in March 2020.

The share of fully vaccinated Texans is 56 percent, the 29th-highest rate in the country. Its large population means Texas has more unvaccinated residents — 12.8 million — than any state except California.

Four of the six deadliest months of the pandemic in Texas were in 2021. The most populous cities and counties have had the most virus deaths.

[…]

At this pace, Texas would not reach 70 percent until late May of 2022, the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention projects.

Harris County is outperforming the state average vaccine rate. Through Dec. 16, 59 percent of county residents were fully inoculated.

In other words, there’s still a lot of room for the next surge to rip through and infect, hospitalize, and kill unvaccinated people. Vaccinated people will also get sick, but they will be far less likely to get sick enough to be in danger.

We’re not going to get any help from the state government. The federal government is making more tests available and has ordered vaccine mandates, which really will do a lot to improve things, but of course our state leaders are fighting them as if they had stock in COVID itself. I don’t have anything original to say, but do go read the Department of State Health Services report that provided a lot of these numbers. And do what you need to do to protect yourself and your family.

The “prison gerrymandering” lawsuit

Of the many lawsuits filed so far over Texas redistricting, this is the one I know the least about.

Nearly a quarter of a million people were incarcerated in Texas when the Census was taken last year. When lawmakers redrew the state’s voting maps this fall, these inmates were counted in the prison towns where they were locked up, rather than where they lived beforehand.

A Dallas Morning News analysis of Census and prison data found this practice, which opponents call “prison gerrymandering,” inflates the political power of Republican districts while draining clout from Democratic strongholds. It also makes more conservative, rural areas of the state look larger and more diverse than they truly are.

Republicans say the maps are legal and fair. They argue there isn’t a viable alternative for counting prisoners, and changing that won’t shift the balance of power in Texas to Democrats.

But The News found the state’s new legislative maps would look significantly different if Texas stopped this practice. Reallocating prisoners to the place where they were charged would cause nearly one in five counties — most of which went for Donald Trump last year — to lose population to more urban, liberal areas. Not counting prisoners at all would throw more than two dozen House districts out of population boundaries, making them subject to court challenge.

Experts say The News’ findings raise questions about diluting the minority vote, fair representation and the principle of “one person, one vote.” Incarcerated people in effect become ghost constituents, they said, unwittingly boosting the power of prison towns, and helping Republicans stay in power, while largely lacking the right to vote.

[…]

Including jails, federal and state prisons and detention centers, Texas incarcerated more people than any other state, last year’s Census data show.

Counting these people at their place of confinement helped Republicans, The News analysis found. It’s impossible to know how these incarcerated people would vote. But while many inmates in state prisons were charged in urban areas, and most are not white, the vast majority were drawn into GOP districts.

According to The News’ analysis, Republicans in the state Legislature will represent two-thirds of incarcerated people under the newly redrawn maps. The number is even higher for the U.S. Congress: 76% of people incarcerated at Census time were drawn into districts represented by a Republican in Washington.

Two state lawmakers saw their district numbers inflated most by the count of incarcerated people: Rep. Kyle Kacal of College Station and Cody Harris of Palestine, both Republicans. One in 10 people in Kacal’s district, where death row and the prisons department headquarters is located, is behind bars.

In Harris’ district, which includes Tennessee Colony in Anderson County and all or part of three other counties in East Texas, nearly 8% are incarcerated.

The News analyzed how the state’s new electoral maps would be affected if incarcerated people were counted differently. We used data on more than 140,000 inmates incarcerated in state-run jails and prisons when the Census was taken. This analysis does not include the effect of moving federal inmates or those housed in local jails or ICE detention centers.

Of the 232 counties that went for Donald Trump in the 2020 election, 46 would shrink in population if incarcerated people were counted in the county where they were charged. This is the best measure The News could use for previous residence, since state and federal prison agencies declined to release comprehensive data on inmates’ previous home addresses.

The 46 counties would lose more than 104,000 people, The News’ analysis shows. When added together, pro-Trump counties would lose nearly 52,000 people. Nearly all of them — 49,667 people — would be reallocated back to one of the state’s five largest counties, which all went for President Joe Biden last year, with more than 11,000 going to Dallas County.

The News analysis also found counting incarcerated people at their prison address hurts GOP counties without lockups. McLennan, Smith and Montgomery Counties, all of which went for Trump in 2020, would gain more than 2,500 people each if incarcerated people were moved back to the county where they were charged.

If prisoners were excluded from population counts altogether, The News found that 29 state House districts might need to be redrawn. This is because every Texas legislative district is meant to represent roughly the same amount of people, and there should be no more than a 10% difference in population between the smallest and largest districts.

Those that don’t meet this requirement could be challenged in court; they are about equally split between Democrats and Republicans.

[…]

Experts acknowledge that Texas won’t suddenly turn blue if “prison gerrymandering” is banned.

In a state of 29 million, incarcerated people account for less than 1% of the population. Plus, as the party in power, Republicans could simply tweak district boundary lines to make up for a few thousand prisoners here or there.

But critics note it’s one of several tools the GOP uses to maintain power in a rapidly changing state. While they are a fraction of the population, there are more incarcerated people than needed for an entire House district and nearly one-third of a congressional district.

“The dynamics just described obviously favor white, rural Texas,” said Rep. Chris Turner of Grand Prairie, chairman of the Texas House Democratic Caucus. “[It] real questions of fairness.”

Rory Kramer, an associate professor at Villanova University who is completing a nationwide analysis of incarceration and redistricting, said The News’ findings did not surprise him.

“As your analysis demonstrates, this harms equal representation for people who live in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates,” Kramer said. “There’s no reason why living near a prison should mean some Texans have greater voices in the state legislature than other Texans.”

Mike Wessler, communications director for criminal justice advocacy group the Prison Policy Initiative, echoed Kramer’s concern: “It distorts political representation at all levels of government.”

This is related to the lawsuit that I mentioned here filed by inmate Damon James Wilson. This Courthouse News story is still the only writeup I have found about it. The key factor here in terms of drawing legislative districts, especially State House districts where the county line rule makes it harder for rural areas to dip into urban counties for help filling out district populations, is that there would just be fewer people in rural counties, and the net effect might be to force one or more fewer districts that are entirely or mostly within those counties. Add enough people back into Harris County and maybe you have to give it a 25th district again, as it had up to the 2011 reapportionment. West Texas lost a legislative district at that same time because the region didn’t have enough people to justify the higher number. Counting prison inmates in their home counties instead of where they are incarcerated might change the partisan balance by a district or two – it’s really hard to say, and the story doesn’t try – but in the end it’s more a matter of counting them where they consider their home to be, which by the way is the standard for residency and voter registration.

The other point, which I didn’t include in my excerpt, is that while inmates like Wilson are counted in the rural counties where they are locked up for the purposes of drawing legislative maps, they are not counted as residents of those counties when it comes to county-level redistricting.

Just as state lawmakers are in charge of legislative and congressional maps, local officials draw new county districts for positions like commissioners court, justices of the peace and constables after each Census. Many smaller, conservative counties with large inmate populations have long chosen to exclude incarcerated people when redrawing local maps because prisoners would skew their demographics.

Anderson County Judge Robert Johnston said counting the local 13,344 prisoners as constituents would inflate his actual population and result in one of his four commissioners representing only a handful of people outside the prison walls.

“[Prisoners are] not out roaming the streets, spending money in my county,” he said.

Mighty convenient, no? Just for the sake of consistency, there ought to be one standard. Perhaps as a result of this lawsuit there will be. Daily Kos has more.

From the “Keeping track of all these lawsuits is hard” department

Spotted on Democracy Docket:

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Today, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas denied a motion to dismiss Vote.org v. Callanen. The case, filed earlier this summer, challenges Texas’ “wet signature” law that requires individuals who submit their registration applications electronically or through fax to also provide a copy of their application with their signature — meaning signed with pen on paper. The complaint argues that this law unduly burdens the right to vote and targets voting advocacy groups such as Vote.org in violation of the First and 14th Amendments and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and asks the court to prohibit its enforcement. The court already rejected one attempt to dismiss the case earlier this fall.

The court also rejected a motion to dismiss the case filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (R) that was joined by two county elections administrators. The motion claimed that Vote.org did not have standing to bring this case and that its complaint was insufficient. The court held that Vote.org had sufficiently shown that the wet signature law would cause harm to the organization’s efforts to register voters and the court may be able to provide the requested relief. The court also rejected the defendants’ arguments that there was no private right of action to sue and the plaintiffs’ claim fails because they did not allege any racial discrimination, finding that neither argument was supported by precedent. The case will move forward and all claims will be litigated to determine if the wet signature law is constitutional and in line with federal law.

My first reaction when I see something like this is to search through my archives for any past blog posts about it. Usually there is something, even in cases where I don’t immediately recognize the issue. I know I’ve heard of this lawsuit before, and sure enough I land on this post, about a federal lawsuit filed in San Antonio by a group including Vote.org over the state of Texas’ rejection of voter registration applications that did not include an “original signature” but instead an electronic one. But that lawsuit was filed in January of 2020, and this one was filed earlier this summer, in response to a bill passed during the regular session. I can’t find any further posts about the January 2020 lawsuit, and I seem to not have blogged about the one from this July. Oops.

My best guess here is that the initial lawsuit was dismissed for some reason – I can’t find any reference to it on the Democracy Docket webpage – and the July one was filed partly in response to the reasons the original one was tossed. I note that the first lawsuit had several other plaintiffs (the DCCC, the DSCC, and the TDP), while this one just has Vote.org associated with it. Or maybe it was withdrawn for some reason, with the same logic behind Lawsuit #2. If somehow that first lawsuit were still in existence, I would assume that it has been or will be combined with this one. Since I don’t see that on the lawsuit webpage (where you can see the original complaint plus two followup documents), I go back to my first assumption, that the 2020 lawsuit is no more. If someone reading this knows how to search for these things in the federal court system, please let me know if I’m mistaken in that.

Anyway. The point here is that allowing electronic signatures, which are common in all kinds of other legal transactions, would make it a lot easier to do voter registration. Which, of course, the state of Texas does not want. Note that the bill in question was a large one that did a lot of things – the initial text is all about recounts, and at first I thought this must have been the wrong legislation – but the “original signature” provision is in there later on. It was passed with bipartisan support, and I will just have to ask someone about it, because there must have been some good things in there for that to have happened. Be that as it may, we’ll see where this lawsuit goes.

Apparently, we’re still litigating whether Texas Central is a railroad

I admit, I’m a bit confused by this.

The Texas attorney general’s office has put its weight behind a landowner’s case against the companies developing a controversial Dallas-Houston bullet train, arguing they can’t force people to sell parcels needed for the high-speed rail project.

Weighing in on the matter at the invitation of the Texas Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office offered the latest twist in the nearly decade-long fight over a 240-mile line that would connect Dallas and Houston. While the project has picked up support from leaders of urban areas, it’s encountered hard resistance from residents of the rural counties on its proposed path.

One of those residents, Leon County landowner James Miles, sued Texas Central after the private company sought permission to survey his 600-acre property in 2015 as part of its efforts to examine the land for the project. Miles asked the courts to declare that the company did not have the right to enter his property because it does not have the eminent domain authority granted to railroad companies.

He won at a trial court, but the legal dispute reached the Texas Supreme Court after a state appellate court in Corpus Christi sided with Texas Central and a related company.

In a legal brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court on Friday, deputies for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued the high court should reverse that appellate decision and rule in Miles’ favor because the companies fall short of the Texas Constitution’s definition of a rail company.

“The [companies] may only make preliminary examinations and surveys of private landowners’ properties for the purpose of constructing and operating a bullet train if they are either railroad companies or interurban electric railway companies,” the state wrote in its brief. “In the State’s view, the [companies] are neither.”

That leaves them with “no authority to enter, examine, survey or condemn Miles’ land,” the state wrote.

I am confused because at last report, the Supreme Court had declined to review that 13th Court of Appeals’ verdict. I Am Not A Lawyer, but right there in the story that I blogged about was the clear suggestion that this was the end of the road for that case. However, now that I see this story, a bit of googling shows that the Supreme Court granted a motion for a rehearing, which you can see here. It doesn’t seem to me that any new issues were raised by the Miles plaintiff, but what do I know? In any event, this explains why the AG brief says it is in response to “the Court’s letter of October 15, 2021 inviting the Solicitor General to express the views of the State of Texas”. Oral arguments for this are set for January 11. If any of you lawyers out there want to shed some extra light on this, by all means please be my guest.

The botched “non-citizen” voter purge continues

At some point we need to recognize the fact that our Secretary of State’s office is completely, and maybe maliciously, inept at doing this.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas’ last attempt to scour its voting rolls for noncitizens two years ago quickly devolved into a calamity.

The state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship checks and set them up for possible criminal investigation based on flawed data that didn’t account for immigrants who gained citizenship. After it became clear it was jeopardizing legitimate voter registrations, it was pulled into three federal lawsuits challenging its process. Former Secretary of State David Whitley lost his job amid the fallout. And the court battle ultimately forced the state to abandon the effort and rethink its approach to ensure naturalized citizens weren’t targeted.

This fall, the state began rolling out a new, scaled-down approach. But again, the county officials responsible for carrying it out are encountering what appear to be faults in the system.

Scores of citizens are still being marked for review — and possible removal from the rolls. Registrars in some of the state’s largest counties have found that a sizable number of voters labeled possible noncitizens actually filled out their voter registration cards at their naturalization ceremonies. In at least a few cases, the state flagged voters who were born in the U.S.

The secretary of state’s office says it is following the settlement agreement it entered in 2019 — an arrangement that limited its screening of voters to those who registered to vote and later indicated to the Texas Department of Public Safety that they are not citizens. Flagged voters can provide documentation of their citizenship in order to keep their registrations, officials have pointed out.

But the issues tied to the new effort are significant enough that they’ve renewed worries among the civil rights groups that forced the state to change its practices. They are questioning Texas’ compliance with the legal settlement that halted the last review. And for some attorneys, the persisting problems underscore their concerns that the state is needlessly putting the registrations of eligible voters at risk.

“We’re trying to get a grasp of the scale, but obviously there’s still a problem, which I think we always said would be the case,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, an attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which was involved in the 2019 litigation. “It’s definitely something we were concerned would happen if they tried to restart this process.”

[…]

Texas’ voter citizenship review has persisted through the tenure of multiple secretaries of state and has been backed by state Republican leaders who have touted the broader review effort as a way to ensure the integrity of the voter rolls, though there is no evidence that large numbers of noncitizens are registered to vote.

The current iteration was formally initiated in early September before the appointment of the state’s new secretary of state, John Scott, who helped former President Donald Trump challenge the 2020 presidential election results in Pennsylvania.

That’s when the state sent counties 11,737 records of registered voters who were deemed “possible non-U.S. citizens.” It was a much smaller list than the one it produced in 2019, when it did not account for people who became naturalized citizens in between renewing driver’s licenses or ID cards they initially obtained as noncitizens.

But when Bexar County received its list of 641 flagged voters, county workers quickly determined that 109 of them — 17% of the total — had actually registered at naturalization ceremonies. The county is able to track the origin of those applications because of an internal labeling system it made up years ago when staff began attending the ceremonies, said Jacque Callanen, the county’s administrator.

Election officials in Travis County said they were similarly able to identify that applications for 60 voters on the county’s list of 408 flagged voters — roughly 15% of the total — had been filled out at naturalization ceremonies.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, another group that sued the state in 2019, is still assessing the extent to which the state’s new attempt to review the rolls may be defective. But those figures alone should give everyone pause, ACLU staff attorney Thomas Buser-Clancy said after The Texas Tribune provided him those tallies.

“What we do know is that every time the secretary of state tries to do something like this it fails and that these efforts, which inevitably ensnare eligible voters, should not be happening,” Buser-Clancy said.

In an advisory announcing the revised process, the secretary of state’s office told counties that they should first attempt to “investigate” a voter’s eligibility. If they are unable to verify citizenship, the county must then send out “notices of examination” that start a 30-day clock for the voter to submit proof of citizenship to retain their registration. Voters who don’t respond with proof within 30 days are removed from the rolls — though they can be reinstated if they later prove their citizenship, including at a polling place.

Beyond the figures from Bexar and Travis counties, local election officials in other counties, including Cameron and Williamson, confirmed they’ve heard back from flagged voters who are naturalized citizens. After mailing 2,796 notices, officials in Harris County said 167 voters had provided them with documentation proving their citizenship. In Fort Bend, officials received proof of citizenship from at least 87 voters on their list of 515 “possible noncitizens.” Last week, Texas Monthly reported on two cases of citizens in Cameron County who were flagged as possible noncitizens.

See here, here, and here for not nearly enough background on this. The simple fact is that if the SOS process is generating such high error rates, especially for things that should be easily checked and thus avoided, the process itself is clearly and fatally flawed. Some of this is because, as anyone who works with databases can tell you, data is hard and messy and it’s easy to make mistakes when trying to figure out if two different text values are actually the same thing. And some of it is clearly because the SOS and the Republicans pushing this don’t care at all if there’s some collateral damage. That’s a feature and not a bug to them. If it’s not time to go back to the courts and get another stick to whack them with, it will be soon. Reform Austin has more.

Rep. Martinez-Fischer sues over CD35

One more federal redistricting lawsuit to add to the pile.

Texas State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer filed a lawsuit today challenging boundaries of the recently redrawn U.S. House District 35.

In the lawsuit, Fischer claims that the redrawn map violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and that is discriminates against Latino voters.

“Redistricting is a political process, but it impacts the people who live in our community personally. Our representation in Congress determines not only the resources we receive, but also how quickly our needs are addressed and how they are prioritized,” Fischer said. “By denying Latinos in CD-35 the opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice, Texas has shortchanged our community of the representation it deserves and has willfully committed a Section 2 violation.

Congressional District 35 spans the I-35 corridor from Austin to San Antonio. The redrawn maps were approved by Governor Greg Abbott on October 25.

“The nature of redistricting is creating winners and losers. District lines change, incumbents gain new constituents, and communities are divided. This is inevitable. What should not be inevitable is the intentional discrimination against Latino, Black, and AAPI voters that we have come to expect from Texas Republicans in redistricting. That is why I am challenging the state of Texas over the loss of a Latino opportunity district in Texas Congressional District 35, in direct violation of Section 2 of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

A copy of the lawsuit is here. It is focused entirely on CD35, with the main thrust being that this district went from one that was majority Latino and had more population in Bexar County to one that is not majority Latino and has more population in Travis County. The complaint is fairly straightforward and not too long, so go read it.

As noted by Democracy Docket, this lawsuit has been combined with the others, including the Justice Department lawsuit filed earlier this month. While TMF originally asked for there to be “a permanent injunction prohibiting Defendants implementing any future elections held pursuant to SB 6”, the combined plaintiffs have since agreed (with one exception) to not ask for preliminary injunctions that would prevent the 2022 primaries for taking place, per the Brennan Center. Per Michael Li, the plaintiffs are asking for an October 2022 trial date, with the state of Texas asking for November. The exception are the plaintiffs in the Sen. Powell lawsuit over SD10 (known as the “Brooks plaintiffs”, as the first person listed is Roy Charles Brooks), who are asking for a preliminary injunction that would at least delay the 2022 primaries, since Sen. Powell will almost certainly be voted out next year under the current lines. I think that covers everything for now. Texas Public Radio has more.

Federal complaint filed over I-45 project

Missed this in the barrage of news from the last few days.

Critics of the plan to remake Interstate 45 north of downtown Houston filed a nearly 100-page complaint to federal officials Thursday, urging even greater scrutiny of the project’s effects on minority communities, an analysis they say state highway officials consistently have avoided.

In the complaint, filed with the Federal Highway Administration, opponents of the current project accuse the Texas Department of Transportation of spending years promoting and designing a project that residents consistently told them would tear the fabric of nearby neighborhoods. Many of those neighborhoods are majority Black and Latino communities, the complaint notes, which TxDOT failed to adequately consider.

“Throughout the… planning process, which has gone on for almost 20 years, less-discriminatory alternatives have been raised by multiple stakeholders, but TxDOT has repeatedly rejected those alternatives and clung to a project that imposes highly disproportionate and adverse effects on Black and Hispanic/Latinx neighborhoods, compounding its previous discriminatory actions and the disproportionate effects of bulldozing highways through these neighborhoods originally,” the complaint stated.

The complaint was filed by Air Alliance Houston, LINK Houston, Stop TxDOT I-45, Texas Housers and Texas Appleseed. All have been active with residents in opposing the I-45 project, estimated to cost at least $10 billion.

In a statement, TxDOT Chief Communications Officer Bob Kaufman said officials were “continuing to work with FHWA to resolve any areas of concern that they may have.”

“That said,” Kaufman continued in an emailed statement, “most people who have been following this project know that the I-45 improvement project will create major safety and operational improvements to an old and congested corridor along with quality of life enhancements for residents, businesses and others.”

In addition to halting the project and asking for reconsideration of many of TxDOT’s findings and proposals to remedy the environmental effects of the project — including its effect on minority communities — the complaint asks for the Department of Justice to “play an active role in coordinating this federal investigation and any enforcement actions.”

See here and here for some background, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had wondered what the purpose of this was, given that the FHWA is already doing an investigation, and my questions were answered in the press release.

This additional complaint is necessary because TxDOT has continued to discriminate on the basis of race, color, and national origin — even after FHWA initiated a Title VI investigation — and has retaliated against persons and groups for filing previous civil rights complaints by threatening to remove funding from the Houston-Galveston region altogether if the agency is not allowed to construct its preferred version of the NHHIP.

“TxDOT has known for more than a decade that this project would severely and disproportionately harm Black and Hispanic-Latinx communities,” said Madison Sloan, Director of Disaster Recovery and Fair Housing at Texas Appleseed, “yet it has deliberately continued to approve this discriminatory project over and over. Now TxDOT is threatening to reallocate billions of dollars because local communities dared to push back.”

TxDOT’s planned expansion will demolish thousands of homes and businesses, and displace thousands of families. “It’s racially unjust,” said Susan Graham, co-founder of Stop TxDOT I-45. “Families have worked for generations to own their homes, and TxDOT is just going to strip away the wealth they worked so hard for. You can’t find affordable housing in Houston as it is. Where are people going to go?”

“The health impact of increased traffic air pollution will last for generations,” Harrison Humphreys, Transportation Program Manager with Air Alliance Houston, said. “Children are particularly vulnerable to negative health effects like asthma, and the expansion of I-45 will increase the number of cars on the road while moving the highway closer to schools and day care centers. In addition to deeply affecting the lived environment of adjacent communities, TxDOT’s designs are antithetical to the City’s and the country’s climate change mitigation goals.”

Those are some serious allegations. I have no idea how this will be handled, what the timeline might be, whether there have been similar complaints lodged against transportation agencies with other projects, or how this may affect this project. It sure would be nice to know more about those and other questions.

SCOTUS finds another way to screw abortion rights

Surely you’re not surprised.

The Supreme Court has formally returned a lawsuit over Texas’ six-week abortion ban to a federal appeals court that has twice allowed the law to stay in effect, rather than to a district judge who sought to block it.

Justice Neil Gorsuch on Thursday signed the court’s order that granted the request of abortion clinics for the court to act speedily. But the clinics wanted the case sent directly to U.S. Judge Robert Pitman, who had previously though briefly blocked enforcement of the Texas abortion ban known as S.B. 8.

When Pitman ordered the law blocked in early October, the appeals court countermanded his order two days later.

Texas has said it will seek to keep the case bottled up at the appeals court for the foreseeable future.

Marc Hearron, the Center for Reproductive Rights lawyer who represented the clinics at the high court, said, “The Supreme Court left only a small sliver of our case intact, and it’s clear that this part of the case will not block vigilante lawsuits from being filed. It’s also clear that Texas is determined to stop the plaintiffs from getting any relief in even the sliver of the case that is left.”

[…]

In last week’s majority opinion written by Gorsuch, the Supreme Court limited who can be sued by the clinics in their effort to win a court order preventing the law’s enforcement and allowing them to resume providing abortions without severe financial risks.

The court held that only state licensing officials can be sued, an outcome the clinics said would not stave off the filing of lawsuits against providers if abortions were to resume.

Gorsuch wrote that “it appears” the licensing officials can be sued. “Of course, Texas courts and not this one are the final arbiters of the meaning of state statutory directions,” he wrote.

The state told the justices it plans to ask the appeals court to, in turn, seek a definitive ruling from the Texas Supreme Court over the role the licensing officials play in enforcing the abortion ban.

The appeals court would decide whether to involve the state high court, which would put the case on hold.

See here for the background. I’m going to outsource the commentary, as it’s hard for me to form the right words here.

I suppose it’s possible that the Fifth Circuit will do the right thing and hand this back to the district court so the process can play out. And I suppose that if they try to hand it to SCOTx that they will refuse to take it, on the grounds that they don’t like having to deal with messy political questions. Or either the Fifth Circuit and/or SCOTx just sits on the ball until SCOTUS officially drives a spike through Roe v Wade and moots the whole thing. I’m going to go scream into a pillow now. The Trib has more.

Biden employer vaccine mandate back on

For now, at least.

A federal appeals court panel on Friday allowed President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for larger private employers to move ahead, reversing a previous decision on a requirement that could affect some 84 million U.S workers.

The 2-1 decision by a panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati overrules a decision by a federal judge in a separate court that had paused the mandate nationwide.

The mandate from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration was to take effect Jan. 4. With Friday’s ruling, it’s not clear when the requirement might be put in place, but the White House said in a statement that it will protect workers: “Especially as the U.S. faces the highly transmissible Omicron variant, it’s critical we move forward with vaccination requirements and protections for workers with the urgency needed in this moment.”

[…]

“Given OSHA’s clear and exercised authority to regulate viruses, OSHA necessarily has the authority to regulate infectious diseases that are not unique to the workplace,” Judge Julia Smith Gibbons, who was nominated to the court by former President George W. Bush, a Republican, wrote in her majority opinion.

“Vaccination and medical examinations are both tools that OSHA historically employed to contain illness in the workplace,” she wrote.

Gibbons noted that the agency’s authority extends beyond just regulating “hard hats and safety goggles.” She said the vaccine requirement “is not a novel expansion of OSHA’s power; it is an existing application of authority to a novel and dangerous worldwide pandemic.”

She was joined in the majority decision by Judge Jane Branstetter Stranch, an appointee of former President Barrack Obama, a Democrat.

The case was consolidated in the 6th circuit, which is dominated by Republican-appointed judges. Earlier this week, the circuit’s active judges rejected a move to have the entire panel consider the case, on an 8-8 vote.

The dissent in Friday’s ruling came from Judge Joan Larsen, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, who said Congress did not authorize OSHA to make this sort of rule and that it did not qualify as a necessity to use the emergency procedures the agency followed to put it in place.

Larsen also argued that vaccinated workers “do not face ‘grave danger’ from working with those who are not vaccinated.”

Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, a Republican, said she would ask the U.S. Supreme Court to block the order. At least two conservative advocacy groups said they had already appealed to the nation’s highest court.

“The Sixth Circuit’s decision is extremely disappointing for Arkansans because it will force them to get the shot or lose their jobs,” Rutledge said.

See here, here, and here for the background. Who even knew that it was possible to get a decent result from an appeals court? It appears the Sixth Circuit, or at least the two justices in the majority opinion, were perhaps not all that impressed by the ruling handed down by their Fifth Circuit colleagues.

Spicy. As noted, in the story, the death eaters among the Attorneys General, including our own, will be appealing to SCOTUS, so keep a firm grip on your expectations. For now at least, there’s a bit of sanity. Happy holidays and all that. Slate has more.

Settlement in Larry Nassar abuse case

Good.

The legal wrangling between USA Gymnastics and the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse by former national team doctor Larry Nassar, among others, is over after a $380 million settlement was reached.

The fight for substantive change within the sport’s national governing body is just beginning.

A federal bankruptcy court in Indianapolis on Monday approved the agreement between USA Gymnastics and the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee and the more than 500 victims, ending one aspect of the fallout of the largest sexual abuse scandal in the history of the U.S. Olympic movement.

Over 90% of the victims voted in favor of the tentative settlement reached in September. That agreement called for $425 million in damages, but a modified settlement of $380 million was conditionally approved by the court. More than 300 victims were abused by Nassar, with the remaining victims abused by individuals affiliated with USA Gymnastics in some capacity.

The financial reckoning is just one part of the equation. A series of nonmonetary provisions will make the victims stakeholders at USA Gymnastics going forward. The provisions include a dedicated seat on the organization’s Safe Sport Committee, Athlete Health and Wellness Council and board of directors, as well as a thorough look at the culture and practices within USA Gymnastics that allowed abusers like Nassar to run unchecked for years.

[…]

Rachael Denhollander, who in the fall of 2016 was the first woman to come forward to detail sexual abuse at the hands of Nassar, said the provisions were a pivotal part of the mediation process.

“It’s not about money, it’s about change,” Denhollander told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “It’s about an accurate assessment of what went wrong so that it is safer for the next generation.”

Denhollander has been one of the most outspoken Nassar victims from the outset of the scandal. She said it was important to move past the legal proceedings so women can move forward with their lives and get the help they need.

“The frank reality is the longer this goes on, the more difficult it is for survivors,” she said. “So many of these women, they can’t access medical care without a settlement. We had to balance that reality with the length of time it was taking. We felt it was in the best interest of everyone to accept this settlement … so that survivors would receive some semblance of justice.”

Denhollander pointed out some of the medical care required is not covered by certain types of insurance. The settlement will ease part of the financial burden.

The settlement comes nearly four years after an emotional sentencing hearing in Michigan in which hundreds of women detailed their experiences with Nassar and the toll it took on their lives.

This story has Texas connections, in part because Simone Biles is one of the plaintiffs, and in part because a lot of that abuse took place at the Karolyi Ranch. I’m glad these women will be getting the money, and I hope it helps them with whatever treatment and healing they need. I also hope those changes to the structure of USA Gymnastics brings about real change in that organization, and real accountability for it going forward. What happened here was horrible enough. Anything less than a full effort to make sure it never happens again is not enough.