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Louisiana

Kemp’s ridley turtles making a comeback

We deserve a little good news.

For the first time in 75 years, hatchlings of the world’s smallest sea turtle species have been discovered on the Chandeleur Islands, a chain of barrier islands in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of New Orleans.

Wildlife experts at the Breton national wildlife refuge have documented more than 53 turtle crawls and two live hatchlings that were navigating towards the sea, Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority announced in a press statement this week.

The news was particularly uplifting for environmentalists because the hatchlings were Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, an endangered species that also happens to be the world’s smallest sea turtle. The turtles are predominantly found in the Gulf, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Their population flourished during the early 1900s as tens of thousands of females nested in Rancho Nuevo, Mexico. However, from the mid-1900s to the 1980s, their population dropped drastically, reaching a low of only several hundred females.

Some of the major threats Kemp’s ridleys face include being caught unintentionally by fishers, being harvested or having their eggs harvested, degradation of their nesting habitats, natural predators preying on their eggs and hatchlings, being struck by sea vessels, ocean pollution and climate change.

The recent discovery of the hatchlings in Louisiana is particularly significant as 95% of the nesting take place in Tamaulipas, Mexico.

“Louisiana was largely written off as a nesting spot for sea turtles decades ago, but this determination demonstrates why barrier island restoration is so important,” said the coastal authority’s chairman, Chip Kline.

He added: “As we develop and implement projects statewide, we are always keeping in mind what’s needed to preserve our communities and enhance wildlife habitat. Having this knowledge now allows us to make sure these turtles and other wildlife return to our shores year after year.”

Times were especially tough for the Kemp’s ridleys after the BP oils spill in 2010, as I noted here and here. This doesn’t mean that they’re out of trouble, but it is a very good sign of progress. That’s worth celebrating.

More on the seafaring abortion clinic

There were a couple of stories on that proposed abortion clinic on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, which will operate in federal waters and thus be outside state jurisdiction. The clinic is intended to serve women in the Gulf Coast states, all of whom are living in states that are hostile to abortion rights (though it is still legal in Florida for now), and as Dr. Meg Autry, the creator of the idea who is now busy fundraising for it, it would be a lot closer geographically for a lot of these women than other states with legal clinics would be.

All of that is in the two stories. I want to focus on what I fixated on in my original post, which is the security and legal threats to this idea. I’m just going to pull from those sections of the stories. We’ll start with NPR:

Autry and her nonprofit are also hesitant to provide too much detail about how people will be able to access the vessel, citing safety concerns. Without elaborating, she says she anticipates that her group will be a part of the many existing networks trying to coordinate abortion care for people who can’t get it in their state.

People seeking or providing an abortion could face prosecution or, Autry fears, violence. She calls security her group’s top concern.

And she says that while their team is secure in their understanding of the law, it’s bracing for potential legal challenges “along the way, all the time.” That’s in part because of ever-changing laws and lawsuits unfolding in restrictive states.

Amanda Allen, senior counsel and director at the Lawyering Project — which represents PRROWESS — tells NPR over email that there’s no doubt about the legality of providing abortions at sea, because states don’t have jurisdiction over the care provided in federal or international waters. She compares it to the way that an abortion provider in New York would care for a patient traveling from a restrictive state.

Still, she says their team is exploring the same questions that they would look at in the case of a provider looking to open a clinic in a state where abortions are not banned.

Those include whether there are rules governing the facility where the care is provided, and what kind of licensure and staffing is required. They’re also looking at the threats that could face abortion providers — floating or otherwise — who treat patients traveling from restrictive states.

“Given the climate of abortion access post-Dobbs, nothing is zero-risk,” Allen writes. “Because of that we are concerned about the same types of extraterritorial questions that are already creating chaos and legal uncertainty onshore. While a state’s criminal laws should not reach a provider at sea, a rogue prosecutor could choose to target PRROWESS, or a hostile state authority could open an investigation.”

And here’s Yahoo News.

So what does maritime law say about abortions at sea? “Maritime law, by its own force, doesn’t speak to abortions provided at sea,” Matthew Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College specializing in maritime law, tells Yahoo Life. “In theory, a maritime treaty could cover the subject, but I don’t know of one that would. Assuming the vessel is outside state territorial waters, a state’s laws would not apply. Outside of waters controlled by a state or nation, the ship’s flag determines the source of law. So the ship’s home country’s laws apply.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. While Steffey adds that it’s “entirely possible” an “aggressive” district attorney could “seek to bring charges to someone who travels from their jurisdiction to an offshore abortion provider,” he points out that “there is a very good chance that those charges would be ultimately dismissed as violating the U.S. Constitution. Otherwise, a local DA could prosecute anyone for conduct legal in the state where the conduct occurred — such as consuming cannabis, gambling, etc. — once they returned home.”

That said, Steffey notes that “someone who operates a tender vessel to take patients from shore to ship would be taking a great legal risk, as they’d be operating inside the state.”

Autry isn’t willing to share the details on how exactly patients would be ferried from shore to ship for security purposes, but she says, “What we’re most worried about are the patients. Our plan is that our vessel and the provider and the crew will never touch a restricted state. But obviously, the patients have to get there.”

It is one of the many logistical issues that abortion providers and abortion rights advocates are facing right now. “Abortion providers, policymakers and so many others across the country are dedicated to finding ways to ensure people can get the care they need,” Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. “But the court’s decision has unleashed legal chaos, and as more and more states ban abortion, we face a host of unknown questions about criminal liability, surveillance and potential prosecution.”

Borchelt adds: “We are all navigating a dangerous, appalling and rapidly evolving landscape to help people get care that should be legal, affordable and available but instead is criminalized.”

Slate had an interview with Dr. Autry a few days before those stories; it didn’t have anything to say about the security and legal stuff, so I hadn’t linked to it before now. That line about “the patients have to get there” is as I’ve said the single biggest point of vulnerability for this clinic and its patients. We’ve seen what Republican and other forced-birth fanatics in Texas are willing and planning to do. I believe they will push the legal envelope on this as far as they can, secure in the knowledge that even if SCOTUS eventually trims them back a bit, the Fifth Circuit will ensure that there won’t be an injunction against whatever crazy laws they pass while the matter is being litigated. I guarantee that SB8, the bounty hunter law, will be fully utilized. It’s going to be super duper ugly and expensive.

I don’t say any of this to be a bummer, but to be a realist. This is what we’re up against, and it will remain that way until we get 1) a federal law that can block at least some of this bullshit; 2) a different (which in any near-term context means “expanded”) SCOTUS that re-reverses itself; or 3) a Texas government that is able to undo all of this legislative harm. Of those three, that last one is guaranteed to not be in the cards in the near term. We can elect Beto and prevent further damage, but until we can also flip both the House and the Senate, we’re stuck with the laws we have. Maybe flipping the State Supreme Court might help as well, but that’s a minimum of two cycles at least. If we’re very lucky, we can get that federal law in 2023. Until then and otherwise, this is where we are.

Offshore wind farm proposed

Let’s do it.

The Gulf of Mexico’s first offshore wind farms will be developed off the coasts of Texas and Louisiana, the Biden administration announced Wednesday, and together they’re projected to produce enough energy to power around 3 million homes.

The wind farms likely will not be up and running for years, energy analysts and the state’s grid operator said, but the announcement from the U.S. Interior Department is the first step in ramping up offshore wind energy in the United States, which has lagged behind that of Europe and China. The only two operating offshore wind energy farms in the U.S. are off the coasts of Rhode Island and Virginia, which together produce 42 megawatts of electricity — enough to power fewer than 2,500 homes.

One of the new wind projects announced Wednesday will be developed 24 nautical miles off the coast of Galveston, covering a total of 546,645 acres — bigger than the city of Houston — with the potential to power 2.3 million homes, according to the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Ocean Energy Management. The other project will be developed near Port Arthur, about 56 nautical miles off the coast of Lake Charles, Louisiana, covering 188,023 acres with the potential to power 799,000 homes.

“It’s exciting to see offshore wind in the Gulf getting closer to reality,” said Luke Metzger, executive director of Environment Texas, an environmental protection group. “With strong winds in the evenings when we need energy the most, offshore wind in the Gulf of Mexico would greatly complement Texas’ onshore renewable energy resources, help bolster our shaky electric grid and help our environment.”

[…]

“Offshore wind has a great potential in Texas,” Brad Jones, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which manages Texas’ main power grid, told The Texas Tribune on Thursday. “It will take some time to develop, and that time will be based on how quickly we can put together port facilities, the specialized ships that are necessary and train our labor force to achieve this type of development. It is new for the U.S.”

I suppose it’s a sign of the times that when I read stories like this I go looking for the bit where Ken Paxton threatens to file a lawsuit to stop it. I may need therapy. No mention of any such action in this story, or in the Chron story that has a few more details.

The wind energy area proposal is still just a draft, the bureau said. Visitors to its website can comment on the plans, and the bureau will hold online public meetings Aug. 9 and 11 to discuss the proposals.

“Once the final wind energy area or areas have been identified, the next step is to propose a lease sale for public comment either later this year or early next year,” said John Filostrat, a spokesman for BOEM’s Gulf of Mexico office.

The bureau said state officials and wind developers would determine if electricity generated in the areas’ boundaries would flow to the Texas power grid or the neighboring East Coast grid system. The Coast Guard would determine if commercial or recreational boats — including commercial fishing and shrimping operations — could enter the waters near the wind turbines, bureau officials said, adding that they have held several meetings with fishing groups and associations this year.

As a result, they said they have already carved out parcels from the lease area to leave bare for shrimping operations to continue.

[…]

Wind power along the Gulf Coast tends to be strongest south of Corpus Christi, tapering off by the time it reaches Florida, according to a bureau study.

Even so, the Gulf of Mexico has a leg up on the competition, said Josh Kaplowitz, vice president of offshore wind for the American Clean Power Association. The region is home to an entire supply chain dedicated to offshore energy and a trained workforce. Already, he said, a massive wind turbine installation vessel is being built in Brownsville.

“The Gulf of Mexico has a head start, and we should be leveraging that,” he said. “Wind turbine technology is getting better. They’re getting larger, and as they get larger they can be built in a more economical way at lower wind speeds.”

One issue more pressing for Gulf turbines than those in other offshore areas is the potential for strong hurricanes. Kaplowitz said the turbines off Rhode Island and those designed for off the coast of North Carolina have been engineered to withstand hurricane-force winds. He said those built off the Texas coast would likely be designed to withstand winds of the strongest storms projected to hit that part of the coast.

Offshore wind turbines have yet to be tested in such a ferocious storm, Andy Swift, associate director of education with Texas Tech’s National Wind Institute, told the Chronicle in October. Turbines onshore have suffered catastrophic damage in tornadoes, he said, requiring companies to take out large insurance policies on them. That could also be the case in the Gulf, he said.

“The storm issue — it’s a big one. I think people are looking at building more hurricane-resistant turbines as much as they can to stand against the high winds continually buffering of equipment, with waves and winds gusting against it,” Swift said in October. “I think that’s a challenge for offshore.”

The BOEM’s press release about this is here, and it points you to this page for info about public meetings and providing feedback. This is likely the start of a ten-year process, so settle in and make yourself comfortable. Assuming there isn’t already a national injunction against it issued by some cretinous Trump judge in Lubbock or something. Did I mention that I need help?

UIL still nixes NIL

Sorry, Texas high school athletes. You’re still not getting paid.

Even if state lawmakers change legislation to allow high school athletes in Texas to profit off their name, image and likeness, the University Interscholastic League may not be ready to give the green light.

“Given what we’ve seen across the country at the NCAA level, given what we’ve seen in some of those states that have allowed it at the high school level, I’m not sure there’s going to be much of an appetite for it,” UIL deputy director Jamey Harrison said Sunday at the Texas High School Coaches Association Convention.

Texas is among 26 states that prohibit high school athletes from benefiting from NIL, according to endorsement platform Opendorse. There are 13 states that allow high school athletes to profit: Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota and Utah.

Any decision from the UIL’s legislative committee would have to wait until the Texas Legislature makes a change to current laws. Passed last summer, Senate Bill 1385 prohibits any individual or corporate entity to enter into any NIL arrangement with a student athlete “prior to their enrollment in an institution of higher education.”

“Until there is some movement there, there will be no change from the UIL,” Harrison said. “And even if there was movement there, we would have to see in what way it moves, what kind of guardrail they put around it.”

Guess the Quinn Ewers story didn’t move anyone. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, there’s plenty of money being made by other people, all adults, as a result of these athletes’ labor, and it seems logical that the athletes themselves should get a piece of that, as they now can in college. On the other hand, these high school athletes are for the most part still minors, and the potential for financial exploitation is higher. I would like to think there’s a regulatory scheme, with real enforcement powers, that could be put into place to allow at least some NIL payments to these athletes while still protecting their interests and not turning the whole enterprise into a free-for-all, I just have no idea what it might be. We could maybe check out what California is doing with NIL, if the thought of Texas emulating California in any way didn’t make some people’s heads explode. I dunno. I just don’t think that a blanket “No” is a sustainable answer, and the sooner we try to find something that is, the better.

A seafaring abortion clinic?

It could happen.

A California doctor has a plan to launch a floating reproductive health clinic in the Gulf of Mexico, where care will be regulated by federal — not state — law.

The plan — currently in the fundraising stage — hopes to make surgical abortions, contraception and other reproductive health services available to Gulf Coast patients living in states restricting such services.

“Those in the most southern parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas may be closer to the coast than to facilities in bordering states where abortion and reproductive health care are available,” reads the website for the ship, named PRROWESS — an acronym for Protecting Reproductive Rights of Women Endangered by State Statutes. It added that similar facilities “have been used by the military and relief organizations for years.”

The plan was first reported by San Francisco-based KCBS Radio, which said that the effort was being organized by a Bay Area Ob-Gyn, Meg Autry.

Autry, who is from the South, told the Chronicle that her inspiration traces back to a phenomenon popular along the Mississippi: riverboat casinos. The fact that different laws applied to gambling on land and on water led her to consult with lawyers about whether there may be a way to continue providing abortion access after the Supreme Court reversed the Roe vs. Wade decision that protected the procedure.

“We believe that patients should be able to make a choice,” she said.

The legal team of the PRROWESS now includes maritime lawyers and criminal attorneys, who have determined that a floating clinic in federal waters would be able to legally provide services that individual states may restrict, such as surgical abortions.

[…]

The PRROWESS would offer surgical abortions up to 14 weeks after conception, as well as contraception, vaccinations and on-site testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections. The ship would have a helicopter in addition to water shuttles so that patients could be quickly transported in case of emergencies.

Patients would be pre-screened and provided transportation arrangements onto the vessel, which would operate three weeks out of every month, to give it down time for maintenance and flexibility for weather conditions. Autry estimated that the clinic would be able to see 1,800 patients every six months, but said that number would increase if it acquired a larger ship.

Autry said the floating clinic would be an important resource for patients living near the Gulf who wanted a surgical abortion, since the proximity would make it easier for them to get to and require them to take less time off from work. It may also be less expensive than flying patients to states where abortion is legal.

I mean, it’s an interesting and creative idea, at a time when we need all the creative ideas we can get. It could work, but I think its main vulnerability, which was not at all addressed by the very basic website FAQ is that the only access to this ship will be from the shores of a state that is already hostile to abortion. Some part of this operation will have to physically exist in at least one of these states, and that will be the prime target. I guarantee you, the forced-birth radicals of the Texas Legislature will have a dozen or more bills aimed at this venture pre-filed before January. That’s not an admonition against doing this, it’s free advice to ensure those lawyers that PRROWESS says it is consulting had better do a lot of outside-the-box thinking, and be ready for all kinds of crazy stuff. Remember that the vigilante bounty-hunter law SB8 will definitely apply to anyone who helps transport a patient to that ship, and that will include harbor/marina/dock workers that touch any transport boats. They’re already threatening businesses with the 1925 law, with the promise of much more to come. Know your enemy really well, and don’t get caught flat-footed, that’s all I’m saying. NBC Bay Area has more.

Lawsuit filed over Texas trigger law implementation

One last fight before the curtain comes down.

Texas abortion providers are making a last-ditch effort to temporarily resume procedures by challenging a pre-Roe v. Wade abortion ban that has not been enforced for nearly a half-century, but that some abortion opponents argue could be enforced after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion.

The providers filed a lawsuit on Monday, and a Harris County judge will hear arguments on Tuesday for implementing a temporary restraining order to block enforcement of the old ban, which criminalized both performing abortions and assisting anyone who performs abortions in Texas.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, some Republican lawmakers and anti-abortion activists have argued that old state statutes banning abortion may have instantly gone back into effect following the Supreme Court’s announcement that it would overturn Roe v. Wade.

Texas abortion clinics stopped all procedures, and abortion funds ceased operating in the state after the Supreme Court ruled Friday to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that affirmed abortions as a constitutional right for nearly five decades. Some doctors had to halt procedures moments before they were set to perform them because of concerns that old state abortion laws that had been blocked by Roe could now once again be criminally enforced.

“We will fight to maintain access for as long as we can,” Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights — one of the plaintiffs challenging pre-Roe restrictions — said in a statement. “Every day, every hour that abortion remains legal in Texas is a chance for more people to get the care they need. The clinics we represent want to help as many patients as they can, down to the last minute.”

Last year, Texas passed a “trigger law” to ban abortions if the Supreme Court repealed Roe v. Wade. The law will go into effect 30 days after the court issues a judgment repealing Roe.

Though the court issued its opinion signaling its intention to overturn Roe on Friday, it’s unclear when the formal judgment will come. Paxton said the judgment could take a month. He said his office will announce the effective date for the trigger law as soon as possible.

However, laws predating Roe v. Wade in Texas that ban abortion are still on the books — leading some to argue they’re valid again and that there’s no need to wait for the trigger law to seek criminal penalties for performing abortions in the state. Paxton noted this on Friday, saying “some prosecutors may choose to immediately pursue criminal prosecutions.”

But a 2004 case in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals found that by passing abortion laws — such as regulations on the availability of abortions for minors and the practices of abortion clinics — the Texas Legislature repealed its old bans and replaced them with regulations that implied those statutes were no longer in effect. And because the Supreme Court has yet to issue its formal judgment, it’s unclear whether the pre-Roe statutes can be enforced until that happens.

[…]

The pre-Roe laws include more detailed provisions than Texas’ trigger ban, including the potential to charge anyone who “furnishes the means” for someone to obtain an abortion. The threat of criminal charges has been enough to chill both abortion procedures as well as funding for Texans to travel and obtain abortions outside the state.

“It’s going to be very difficult for anyone to take on the threat of criminal prosecution in order to test these theories because the harm inflicted by the criminal justice system is immediate,” said Elizabeth Myers, an attorney who represents abortion funds.

Some abortion providers have already said they will resume procedures if a court gives them the protection to do so before Texas’ trigger ban takes effect.

“If these laws are blocked, I plan to provide abortions for as long as I legally can,” Dr. Alan Braid, abortion provider and owner of Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said in a statement Monday. “I started my medical career before Roe v. Wade and never imagined our country would go back to criminalizing doctors and preventing us from helping women.”

A copy of the complaint is here, and a brief thread from the ACLU of Texas, representing the plaintiffs, is here. I’d find this all fascinating as an academic exercise if it weren’t so fucking depressing. The complaint is long and I didn’t read it, but the bottom line question is simple enough. That said, similar efforts in Louisiana and Utah have succeeded, at least for now, so that offers a bit of hope. I just wonder if SCOTx will let a TRO stand if they are asked to weigh in. The Chron has more.

A roundup of border and lawsuit stories

Too much news, not enough time…

New federal lawsuit seeks to halt Texas’ border trespassing arrests, give more than $5 million to illegally detained migrants.

In a new challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial border security crackdown, a lawsuit filed Wednesday is asking a federal court to shut down Texas’ system of arresting migrants en masse along the Texas-Mexico border, and make the state pay more than $5 million to men who were illegally imprisoned under the system.

The lawsuit comes nearly a year after Abbott first ordered Texas police to arrest men suspected of illegally crossing the border on misdemeanor trespassing charges. The practice skirts constitutional restrictions that bar states from enforcing federal immigration law, and the lawsuit claims it discriminatorily targets mostly Black and Latino migrant men, usurps federal authority and is carried out in a way that violates the detainees’ rights.

“Under the guise of state criminal trespass law but with the explicit, stated goal of punishing migrants based on their immigration status, Texas officials are targeting migrants,” the filing stated. “Hundreds of those arrested have waited in jail for weeks or months without a lawyer, or without charges, or without bond, or without a legitimate detention hold or without a court date.”

Abbott’s trespassing initiative has drawn numerous state and local court challenges since it began in July, but this appears to be the first time attorneys are opposing it in federal court and seeking compensation for migrants swept into the governor’s “catch-and-jail” system. State and federal Democratic lawmakers and civil rights groups have also called on the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene in the Republican governor’s operation, but the federal administration has not acted.

The lawsuit was filed in federal district court in Austin by three private attorneys on behalf of 15 individual migrants and is asking for a class certification to include everyone arrested under Abbott’s trespassing initiative. The migrants are suing Abbott, the directors of the Texas Department of Public Safety and the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, as well as Kinney County, a rural border county which accounts for the large majority of trespassing arrests, and its sheriff.

The complaint asks the court to find that the operation violates federal law and order the state to stop the arrests. It also argues each migrant illegally detained so far should be given $18,000 for each day they were imprisoned beyond what is allowed by state law. The attorneys said it is a typical amount awarded by courts in cases of over-detention. They estimated the total cost would be around $5,400,000.

Previously, state district judges have found that hundreds of men were detained illegally after trespassing arrests, locked in prison for more than a month without any charges filed against them in violation of state law. Lawyers have argued the practice is still occurring. Wednesday’s filing also alleges men have been held for days or weeks after they post bond, their charge is dropped or their sentence is complete.

This is one possible way to get this heinous activity stopped. I don’t know if it’s the most likely way to succeed, but it is the most direct.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sues Biden administration over asylum plan.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed his 11th immigration-related lawsuit against the Biden administration Thursday, asking a judge to block a plan to let asylum officers, rather than immigration judges, decide whether to grant some migrants’ asylum claims at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The new plan, scheduled to take effect May 31, “upends the entire adjudicatory system to the benefit of aliens,” the lawsuit says.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration finalized its plan to overhaul the process for migrants seeking asylum. The plan is supposed to reduce the average wait time for asylum-seekers to receive a decision in their case from five years to six months. As of March, immigration judges had nearly 1.7 million pending cases — the largest backlog in the country’s history, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University.

Under the new process, asylum-seekers could be released into the country pending the outcome of their cases instead of being held in custody. If a migrant apprehended at the border claims they could be persecuted or tortured if they return to their home country, the asylum officer would decide if they have a credible claim. If the officer declines an asylum claim, migrants could appeal to an immigration judge.

“The current system for handling asylum claims at our borders has long needed repair,” Alejandro Mayorkas, the Department of Homeland Security secretary, said in a statement in March when the plan was finalized. “Through this rule, we are building a more functional and sensible asylum system to ensure that individuals who are eligible will receive protection more swiftly, while those who are not eligible will be rapidly removed.”

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Amarillo overseen by Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk, also argues that the new plan violates the Constitution’s appointments clause because asylum officers are members of the general civil services and are not appointed like judges are.

[…]

Texas has filed nearly two dozen lawsuits in Texas-based federal courts, most of them led by Paxton, against the Biden administration over everything from federal mask mandates to the administration’s decision to halt the long-disputed Keystone XL pipeline. Trump-appointed judges have heard 16 of the cases and ruled in favor of Texas in seven. The other nine are pending as of March 15.

The state’s favorite targets have been Biden’s immigration policies, which have sparked seven of the 20 lawsuits in Texas courts. Paxton’s office has also sued the administration in Washington, D.C., federal courts and joined lawsuits led by attorneys general from other states.

Another day, another Trump judge. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what is likely to come next. There’s plenty that the Biden administration could and should have done differently with immigration policy, but nearly everything he has tried to do has run into this kind of legal obstacle. It would be nice if Congress were to act, but that’s just not in the cards.

Judge orders Biden administration to send Central American migrants to Mexico rather than their home countries.

A federal judge in Louisiana on Wednesday temporarily blocked the Biden administration from increasing the number of deportations of some Central Americans back to their home countries and ordered the administration to instead send them to Mexico under an emergency health order used to expel migrants from the country, including asylum-seekers.

The judge also set a May 13 hearing to decide whether to block the administration from canceling the health order, known as Title 42. The judge indicated in the order that he plans to block the Biden administration from lifting Title 42 altogether.

During a phone call with reporters on Tuesday, a Biden administration immigration official was asked about the Louisiana judge’s impending order and said the administration plans to comply with it but remarked, “We really disagree with the basic premise.”

The Biden administration had announced that it will stop expelling migrants under Title 42 starting May 23 and instead go back to detaining and deporting migrants who don’t qualify to enter and remain in the U.S.

On April 3, Arizona, Missouri and 19 other states filed a lawsuit in the Western District of Louisiana, asking District Judge Robert R. Summerhays, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, to stop the Biden administration from ending Title 42.

Then on April 20, Fox News reported that the Biden administration had stopped using Title 42 for some migrants from certain Central American countries and instead was deporting them to their home countries. The next day, Arizona’s lawyers asked Summerhays to block the Biden administration from deporting those migrants and instead expel them to Mexico.

“A major media outlet reported that ‘Border Patrol is not using the Title 42 public health order to remove many migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador,’” Arizona’s request to the judge says, quoting the Fox News article.

Immigration officials had stopped expelling some single adult migrants from those countries under Title 42 and instead processed them under Title 8, a law that allows agents to deport migrants to their home countries without a court hearing. Deportations to those countries had historically accounted for 5% of cases. After the move to process migrants under Title 8, those cases increased to 14%, and the judge has ordered the government to aim for a return to that lower historic rate.

“We’re in a strange world right now where Greg Abbott is giving free bus rides to migrants and [Arizona Attorney General] Mark Brnovich has forced [the Department of Homeland Security] to deport fewer people,” said Aaron Reichlin-Melnick, an analyst with the American Immigration Council, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for immigrants, referring to the Texas governor’s program that transports asylum-seeking migrants to the country’s capital.

See here for the background. I don’t even know what to say about this one. I do know that Texas filed its own lawsuit over Title 42. At least that makes sense to me.

U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments on whether Biden can toss Trump’s “remain in Mexico” policy.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday morning on whether the Biden administration can scrap a Trump-era policy that forces asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico as their cases make their way through U.S. immigration courts.

During two hours of arguments, the lawyers largely focused on a central question: Does the executive branch have the sole authority to set U.S. immigration policies?

The case reached the Supreme Court after a federal district judge in Texas last year ruled that the Biden administration violated immigration law by not detaining every immigrant attempting to enter the country. U.S. District Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk ordered the Biden administration to restart the Migrant Protections Protocols, also called “remain in Mexico,” which the Trump administration first implemented in January 2019 and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas canceled in June 2021.

That decision led Texas and Missouri to sue the Biden administration in April 2021, arguing that canceling MPP violated administrative law and that without the program, human trafficking would increase and force the states to expend resources on migrants — such as providing driver’s licenses, educating migrant children and providing hospital care.

The Biden administration argued it has the discretion to end the program and that it was not an effective way to deal with migrants seeking asylum.

[…]

The court’s liberal justices brought up the issue that the lower court’s decision has forced the White House to enter into a deal with Mexico — which has to agree to receive migrants sent over the border through MPP — when presidents historically have had broad authority on foreign policy issues.

“It puts the United States essentially at the mercy of Mexico,” Justice Elena Kagan said. “Mexico has all the leverage in the world to say, ‘Well, you want to do that, you want to comply with the court’s order? Here are 20 things that you need to do for us.’ Or maybe Mexico says, ‘No, we’d like to see you squirm and not be able to comply with the court’s order.’”

Elora Mukherjee, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Clinic at Columbia Law School, said the justices will have to wrestle with the fact that at any point Mexico could change its mind on whether it wants to continue to accept migrants expelled from the U.S. through the program.

“How can a court require the secretary for the Department of Homeland Security to dump busloads of people into Mexico if Mexico doesn’t comply?” she said.

Note that this is the same judge as in the second story. Do we let federal district court judges dictate foreign policy, which is what this is, or is that something Presidents are still allowed to do? I guess we’ll find out.

Gov. Greg Abbott asks for private donations to bus migrants to D.C. after criticism for using taxpayer money.

On Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott appeared on Fox News touting a program he’s been pushing for weeks — sending migrants who enter into Texas to Washington, D.C., by charter bus.

But this time, Abbott asked Texans to personally contribute their own money to pay for the trips.

The decision to crowdfund the free bus trips for migrants is a new development from when he initially announced on April 6 that it would be paid for by Texas taxpayers. At the time, Abbott proudly presented the trips as a tough-on-immigration act of defiance against the Biden administration.

But the shift to ask private donors to pay for the charter buses comes as his plan has been increasingly praised as an act of generosity by Democrats, immigration rights groups and even the migrants who rode the buses, while those further to Abbott’s right politically have panned it as a misuse of taxpayer dollars that incentivizes migrants to cross into Texas.

“Congratulations to Governor Abbott,” Texas Rep. Gene Wu said Tuesday in a tweet. “Word will be passed from community to community that if you can just get to Texas, the Governor there will pay for your transportation anywhere in the USA.”

[…]

Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University, said the governor may be trying to escape blowback.

“I think it’s a quiet way of protecting himself from criticism that he’s using taxpayer dollars to provide free transport for undocumented immigrants,” Jones said. “Many conservatives pounced on him as all hat and no cattle, in that he was talking tough but in the end all his busing was going to do was provide a free trip for undocumented migrants to the East Coast that they otherwise would have had to pay for or that liberal nonprofits would have had to pay for.”

Abbott’s office has said at least 10 buses have arrived in the nation’s capital, but his office has not provided costs for the trips or the total number of migrants who have been transported.

During the 30-some-hour coach bus ride, passengers were provided with meals, the migrants said. Many of the buses’ passengers said they had saved up thousands of dollars just to arrive at the border and had little money left by the time they arrived in Texas.

“We are very thankful for all the help that has been given to us,” Ordalis Heras, a 26-year-old Venezuelan asylum-seeker, said earlier this month to the Tribune, hours after arriving in Washington on Abbott’s first bus from Del Rio. Heras, like many other passengers, had intended to travel north of Texas anyway.

“Frankly, we did not have the money to get here otherwise, so we are very thankful for the help,” she said.

A picture is worth a thousand words.

And finally:

With the approval of Republican state leaders, Gov. Greg Abbott on Friday pulled nearly half a billion dollars from various state agency budgets to fund the swelling cost of deploying thousands of National Guard troops to the southern border.

The $495 million transfer comes weeks after Texas military leaders warned they would soon run out of money to fund the 10,000-member deployment under Abbott’s border initiative, known as Operation Lone Star. More than 6,000 National Guard soldiers are stationed along the border to help state troopers apprehend and jail migrants suspected of trespassing on private property.

State lawmakers last year allotted more than $400 million for the Texas Military Department to participate in the operation over the current two-year budget period, part of a $1.8 billion spending package that is also paying for a surge in Department of Public Safety troopers to the border region.

But in late January, facing funding shortfalls just several months into the fiscal year, Abbott and GOP state leaders shifted about $480 million from three state agencies to fund the National Guard deployment. The additional transfer Friday means it will cost Texas more than $1.3 billion to keep National Guard soldiers stationed along the border through the end of the fiscal year in August, more than triple the amount originally budgeted.

In all, Texas’ border security budget now stands at about $4 billion for the current two-year cycle, roughly five times the amount spent in 2019-2020. State leaders will need to drum up additional funds to keep National Guard soldiers stationed at the border beyond August.

Your tax dollars at work. You can do something about that this November.

Looks like Texas didn’t even have to sue to keep Title 42 from ending

A different Trump judge already put it in the bag for them.

A federal judge in Louisiana plans to temporarily block the Biden administration from ending Title 42, a pandemic-era health order used by federal immigration officials to expel migrants, including asylum-seekers, at the U.S.-Mexico border.

The temporary restraining order is expected in a lawsuit brought by Louisiana, Arizona and Missouri after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced it would let the order expire May 23. The details of such a restraining order were not available late Monday.

“The parties will confer regarding the specific terms to be contained in the Temporary Restraining Order and attempt to reach agreement,” according to minutes from a Monday status conference in the case.

See here for the background. Sure is convenient to have a Trump judge for all purposes, isn’t it? Daily Kos has more.

And more people are travelling for abortions

The number of abortions performed in Texas has declined greatly since the passage of SB8. But the number of Texans seeking abortions has remained the same, which is what abortion advocates have always said would be the case.

The number of women leaving Texas to obtain abortions has grown tenfold since lawmakers here banned the procedure after early pregnancy, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, coupled with a huge uptick in online orders for abortion pills, suggest that the state’s widespread crackdown has not yet led to a large decline in procedures. While abortions at Texas clinics did fall by about half after the new restrictions took effect in September, many women still sought out to end their unwanted pregnancies through other, often more challenging paths.

The law “has not reduced the need for abortion care in Texas. Rather it has reduced in-state access,” said Dr. Kari White, lead investigator at the university’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

More than 5,500 Texans traveled to abortion clinics in six surrounding states between September and December of last year, according to the study. That’s nearly 1,400 trips per month, up from about 130 per month in the same period in 2019. The latest tally is likely an undercount, since some clinics did not participate and the study did not include trips to states farther from Texas.

[…]

Abortion rights advocates are already preparing for states to cut access in more than two dozen states across the South and Midwest, and providers are rushing to build out clinic space in northern and coastal states more friendly to abortion rights.

The new findings from Texas may be an early picture of the scramble to come for women in other states. The vast majority of trips out of Texas were to Oklahoma and New Mexico, where clinics are on average several hundred miles from most Texans. Oklahoma has its own “trigger” abortion ban in place if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting the right to abortion until about 23 weeks of pregnancy.

Women interviewed in the study said they faced heavy obstacles in seeking out abortions since the law took effect, including delays at clinics in and out of Texas. One in four said they had visited crisis pregnancy centers, which often discourage women from getting abortions. Researchers interviewed 65 women in total.

See here for the TexPEP news release, and here for the full report. You can consider this a bookend to the other recent report about the increase in demand for abortion-inducing medication. It may seem like a bit of comfort that there are still options available, but one is much more time consuming and expensive, not to mention about to get more so as states like Oklahoma and Louisiana follow in Texas’ cursed footsteps, and the other is also heavily restricted under state law, with the great likelihood of further restrictions coming in future legislative sessions if Republicans remain in control. It’s just a matter of time before the emphasis changes from “ways to make abortion more illegal” to “ways to increase enforcement of anti-abortion laws and increase the penalties for violating them”. Do not think for a minute that locking up people who seek abortions, and the people who help them, is off the table. I guarantee you, it is not.

In the “I hate it when I’m right” department, later the same day that I wrote this, I saw this on Twitter:

Don’t ask how that could be legal, or how it could possibly be enforced. The terror of it is the point. Scare people into thinking they can be locked up for seeking a legal abortion elsewhere, and you’re done.

And on that cheery note, we have this update about the largely futile efforts so far to stop this travesty in the courts.

In its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court created a constitutional protection for abortion through viability, the point at which a fetus could likely survive outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks.

Since then, states, including Texas, have been stopped by the federal courts when they’ve tried to ban abortions before that point in pregnancy.

But Texas’ law has so far managed to evade a similar fate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the law from going into effect before Sept. 1, instead allowing lawyers for the abortion providers to bring a pre-enforcement challenge, which was heard in November.

The U.S. Department of Justice also tried to challenge the law, and succeeded in getting it temporarily enjoined by a federal district judge. That ruling was swiftly overturned by a higher court and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually threw out the DOJ’s challenge.

In December, the Supreme Court also threw out the vast majority of the abortion providers’ legal challenge, allowing only one narrow aspect to proceed. That remaining challenge is slowly wending its way through the courts, but even if it is granted, it would not allow abortion providers to resume providing the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.

Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the abortion providers, said Thursday that their challenge in federal court “no longer stands a chance” of stopping these lawsuits from being filed.

“The Supreme Court greenlit this law’s unprecedented vigilante scheme and essentially said that federal courts are powerless to stop it,” he said. “There is no end in sight to this nightmare.”

Abortion providers have had more luck in Texas courts, where state District Judge David Peeples ruled in December that the law is unconstitutional. His judgment did not block lawsuits from being filed under the law, and is currently being appealed.

[…]

Immediately after Texas’ latest abortion restrictions went into effect Sept. 1, one San Antonio doctor, Alan Braid, announced in a Washington Post op-ed that he had provided an abortion after cardiac activity was detected.

“I fully understood that there could be legal consequences,” Braid wrote, “but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”

Three people sued Braid, including two disbarred attorneys who indicated they were more interested in seeing the law tested and getting the money than actually taking a stand against abortion.

Hearron, who is also representing Braid, said Thursday that they have filed a countersuit in federal court against the three claimants, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional and the suits thrown out.

Beyond those initial three claims, no lawsuits have been brought against anyone for aiding or abetting in a prohibited abortion. But just last week, a group of anti-abortion lawyers asked a judge to allow them to depose the leaders of two abortion funding nonprofits to gather information for potential lawsuits.

So things are bad, and there’s no clear path to them being less bad. If you want something to happen at the federal level, we’re going to need to add at least two more Democratic Senators, which might give us enough to make changes to the filibuster, and we need to hold onto the House as well. If not, well, as the story says, there’s no end in sight.

For now, some Texas women can travel to other states for abortions

For now.

Right there with them

The new Texas abortion ban has spurred a flood of women traveling sometimes hundreds of miles to access the procedure in neighboring states.

The law, which prohibits abortion after six weeks of pregnancy and calls for lets private citizens to enforce it by filing lawsuits, has been in effect for just over a month. But already, clinics in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Colorado and New Mexico have said they’re being inundated with Texas patients.

“We haven’t seen numbers like this ever,” Dr. Rebecca Cohen, a Denver OB/GYN, told CBS News last month.

“An abortion can be painful, people can hurt,” Cohen said of the emotional toll. “But this is different. We are seeing patients who are traumatized when they arrive.”

In Louisiana, officials at Hope Medical Group for Women in Shreveport said they went from seeing no more than 20 percent of their patients from Texas to now over 50 percent. Some patients are driving from as far as McAllen in the Rio Grande Valley.

[…]

The Guttmacher Institute, which supports for abortion rights, estimates that Texans are now traveling an average of 14 times farther to get the procedure. In states such as Louisiana, they then have to go through mandatory waiting periods.

The law is likely to disproportionately impact women of color, many of whom lack the time and money needed to get out of state.

In affidavits last month, abortion providers said Texas patients were undergoing traumatic and sometimes daunting trips to neighboring states. One child who was allegedly raped by a relative traveled with her guardian from Galveston to Oklahoma to get an abortion, and another woman was reportedly selling some of her belongings to pay for the trip to an out-of-state abortion clinic, according to the filings, which are part of a pending federal lawsuit over the law.

I guess it’s a minor consolation that some people are still able to exercise their constitutional right, but not everyone can, and those who are able to are now massively inconvenienced and having to pay a lot more money for the privilege. States like Louisiana and Oklahoma have their own abortion restrictions, like waiting periods, so even those who can travel to get the care they need and deserve have to make an ordeal of it. And of course, all this is available only until Oklahoma and Louisiana pass their own version of SB8, which they are apparently free to do now. As writers like Dahlia Lithwick have observed, SCOTUS does not need to write the words “Roe v Wade is overturned” in an opinion in order to overturn Roe v Wade. It’s already happened here, and we’re just the beginning. We need to be voting a lot of people out of office for this if we ever want to get our rights back.

Another catastrophe averted, for us

Sooner or later our luck is going to run out.

If Hurricane Ida had veered west and hit Galveston, its 15-foot storm surge could have devastated the city and plowed up the Houston Ship Channel, smashing into residential communities and industrial facilities; its 150 mph winds could have left much of the Houston area without power for weeks, experts said.

The region dodged yet another bullet last Sunday when Ida made landfall in Louisiana, inflicting catastrophic damage on its residents, property and oil-driven economy.

But Houston’s streak of relatively good luck since Hurricane Harvey four years ago is unlikely to last as climate change is expected to bring about more destructive hurricanes and sea level rise. A Category 4 hurricane such as Ida — which brought a triple threat of wind, storm surge and torrential rainfall — would have wreaked havoc on the Bayou City.

Unlike New Orleans, which strengthened its levee system after Hurricane Katrina in 2007, Houston hasn’t completed any substantial projects to protect the region against surge from a major hurricane such as Ida. The stakes are high: The Houston area is home to 7.1 million residents, one of the busiest shipping ports in the country and the nation’s largest concentration of critical oil and gas facilities.

“We are sitting ducks right now for a storm,” said Bill Merrell, a Texas A&M University professor who began advocating for an “Ike Dike” coastal barrier system years ago that has yet to get congressional approval.

If Ida had hit Galveston instead of Port Fouchon, La., the hurricane could have caused devastating damage across the Houston region, meteorologists said.

Ida’s 15-foot storm surge would have been smaller than Hurricane Ike’s 22-foot storm surge, the worst of which hit Bolivar Peninsula and parts of Chambers County in 2008. The Port of Houston’s facilities, which are built 20 feet above sea level, likely would have survived.

[…]

Bob Stokes, president of the Galveston Bay Foundation, said hurricane mitigation efforts should go beyond the barrier project. While the Ike Dike could help stop an Ida-like storm surge, the barrier system isn’t designed to withstand winds from a Category 4 or 5 hurricane or prevent major flooding inland from rain. Harris County has undertaken a number of projects since Hurricane Harvey to increase storage capacity for and conveyance of rainfall; a separate Corps project looking at addressing rainfall is still in the planning phase.

Just as power plants should be ordered to weatherize their equipment for winter freezes, Houston leaders should be urging the oil and gas industry to shore up thousands of chemical storage tanks along the Gulf Coast, which are vulnerable to spills in the event of storm surge and extreme winds. And more homes along the Ship Channel should be bought out or elevated, Stokes said.

“Even if you think the coastal barrier is a great solution, it shouldn’t be the end solution,” Stokes said. “Even if you had all the money in hand, it will take decades to build. We can be doing more in the short term that could make a big difference.”

This story is an advertisement for building the Ike Dike, but as it and this other story make clear, there has to be more. The Ike Dike is necessary but not sufficient. We have done some things in the Houston area, with the 2018 referendum helping out even as it has had its problems, but as always there is more to do.

I tend to look at problems like this through a cybersecurity lens. Anyone in that business will tell you that you cannot fully eliminate your risk – indeed, in the context of a large business network, it’s guaranteed that you will experience breaches and infections – but there are many things you can do to mitigate them. No one thing covers all scenarios, but the various solutions overlap and complement each other, with the idea being that if one thing doesn’t work then something else will, and if all else fails you can detect and respond to the situation quickly. It’s called “defense in depth”, and it’s sturdier and more resilient than any single solution, because if you just rely on one thing to keep you safe and that one thing fails in some way, you’re hosed. We need the Ike Dike and we’ve needed it for a long time, but even as we finally move towards getting it, we will continue to need more than that. The more we can do right now to bolster and complement the future Ike Dike, the better off we will be.

It’s the quick intensification of the hurricanes for me

New things to keep you up at night.

It’s a nightmare scenario that keeps forecasters up at night: A tropical cyclone strengthens quickly over a 24-hour period.

It happened last year close to home with Hurricane Laura, which evolved from Category 1 to a more devastating Category 4 before striking near Lake Charles, La., sweeping buildings from foundations and killing seven people with surf and falling trees.

Researchers in the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change agree it’s likely that the tropical cyclones that formed over the past four decades increasingly went through such a period of rapid intensification. They also say a greater proportion of future hurricanes will very likely be Category 4 and 5.

Coastal communities need to prepare, experts say.

The trend toward a greater frequency of storms getting stronger fast may continue, according to Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon. Unexpected high winds and storm surges can cause disaster. Strong winds leave communities powerless and storm surges kill.

But evacuating vulnerable areas requires time; doing so too hastily can be dangerous.

“That’s really the nightmare scenario for forecasters and emergency managers,” said Robert Rogers, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who studies storm intensity changes. “Imagine a tropical storm that’s approaching landfall, maybe a 55 mph tropical storm, and it undergoes rapid intensification to become a 130 mph monster at landfall. That’s really what keeps the forecasters up at night. That’s really what a lot of our effort is going toward trying to better understand.”

[…]

Area residents may not have five or six days to prepare for and evacuate from a storm, said Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control district.

Three-quarters of storms that struck Texas developed and hit within 60 hours, he said. Rapid intensification can add pressure to that timeline. Hurricane Humberto in 2007 famously went from tropical depression to tropical storm to hurricane in 19 hours, hitting east of High Island.

Other memorable storms intensified rapidly too: Ike’s winds in 2008 went from tropical storm-level to Category 4 in a 24-hour period when it formed, according to satellite estimates, but weakened before hitting Galveston with deadly surge. Harvey in 2017 rapidly strengthened to a Category 4 before striking near Rockport and later drenching the Houston area, unleashing catastrophic flooding.

What terrifies environmental attorney and longtime climate advocate Jim Blackburn is the scenario where people feel equipped to handle what they think is coming and are caught off guard when it becomes something else. He worries about coastal residents dying because they prepare to ride out a small storm — and a much stronger one hits.

“People have assumed or have fallen into routines based on the past,” Blackburn said, “and that’s the whole point of climate change. You cannot depend on the past to predict the future.”

I don’t really have much to add to that. Have your emergency kit stocked and ready, know what your plan will be, and hope like heck forecasting ability continues to improve. And yeah, build the Ike Dike.

Actually, I do have one more thing, as I had drafted this a few days ago: Be ready to donate to Hurricane Ida relief funds. Louisiana will need all the help it can get.

It’s not vaccinated people that are dying

Numbers don’t lie. It’s the unvaccinated that die.

Of the 8,787 people who have died in Texas due to COVID-19 since early February, at least 43 were fully vaccinated, the Texas Department of State Health Services said.

That means 99.5% of people who died due to COVID-19 in Texas from Feb. 8 to July 14 were unvaccinated, while 0.5% were the result of “breakthrough infections,” which DSHS defines as people who contracted the virus two weeks after being fully vaccinated.

The agency said nearly 75% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were fighting a serious underlying condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer or chronic lung disease.

Additionally, it said 95% of the 43 vaccinated people who died were 60 or older, and that a majority of them were white and a majority were men.

DSHS noted that these are preliminary numbers, which could change because each case must be confirmed through public health investigations. Statewide, more than 50,000 people have died of COVID-19 since March 2020, but the rate of deaths has slowed dramatically since vaccines became widely available in April.

Dr. David Lakey, the chief medical officer of the University of Texas System, said people succumbing to the coronavirus despite being vaccinated was “not unexpected.”

“No vaccine is 100%,” said Lakey, who is also a member of the Texas Medical Association’s COVID-19 task force. “And we’ve known for a long while that the vaccines aren’t 100%, but they’re really really good at preventing severe disease and hospitalizations. … There will always be some individuals that will succumb to the illness in the absence of full herd immunity.”

He added that 0.5% is “a very low number of individuals in a state of 30 million. … In the grand perspective of everything, that’s not a large number that would call into question at all the use of this vaccine.”

I should note that some of those 43 vaccinated people who died may have had other comorbidities, we don’t have enough data on that. But still, we’re talking a tiny fraction. One out of two hundred. Which group would you rather be in?

Need more? Go look at these charts from the CDC, one of new COVID cases and one of COVID deaths. The spike in new cases is much higher than the increase in deaths, because vaccinated people who still get COVID get a much milder version of it. They don’t go to hospitals, and they don’t die. If more people were vaccinated, that first chart wouldn’t have that big uptick in it, either.

And one more thing:

Just three states are now driving the pandemic in the United States, as the divide between vaccinated and unvaccinated regions of the country becomes ever more stark, as the more transmissible Delta variant of the coronavirus spreads.

Forty percent of all new cases this week have been recorded in Florida, Texas and Missouri, White House pandemic response coordinator Jeff Zients revealed at a press briefing Thursday.

Florida alone accounts for 20 percent of all new cases nationally, Zients pointed out, a trend that has stretched into its second week.

Zients added that “virtually all” hospitalizations and deaths — a full 97 percent — are among unvaccinated people. “The threat is now predominantly only to the unvaccinated,” he said. A few vaccinated people do experience so-called breakthrough infections, but they tend to experience only mild COVID-19 illness, or no illness at all.

Encouragingly, Zients said the five states that have experienced the most significant rise in infections — Arkansas, Louisiana, Florida, Nevada and Missouri — all also saw vaccination rates beat the national average for a second week in a row. But because immunity takes two weeks to develop, and the Delta variant spreads so rapidly, the benefits of the increased uptake of vaccinations may not be evident right away.

Singling out the three states where infections are now spiking could have the effect of putting pressure on elected officials there to do more to encourage vaccinations.

One of those elected officials is Greg Abbott, and we know how much he cares. But maybe some other people are less resistant. The numbers don’t lie.

Where the outbreaks are the worst

We talk a lot about the vaccination rate in Texas, but that number by itself is misleading. Some parts of the state are very well vaccinated. Others, very much not so. That matters, because the Delta variant is just ripping through the unvaccinated population. There are breakthrough infections among folks who have had the shot – even the Pfizer and Moderna doses are not as effective against the Delta variant as they were against others – but the vast majority of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths are among the unvaxxed.

So with that in mind, here are the places to watch out for.

Five low-vaccinated clusters — including two in Texas — could put the entire country at risk for spreading new variants of COVID-19, according to a new analysis out of Georgetown University.

The areas with concentrations of unvaccinated residents 12 and older encompass Texas’ western Panhandle and eastern Piney Woods regions — and are a major cause for concern for health experts. Dallas County, where officials this week said herd immunity has been reached, is not in either.

Georgetown researchers, who have been tracking vaccination rates since December, found that there are about 30 clusters across the U.S. that have lower vaccination rates than the national average of 47.8%. The five they have identified as most vulnerable are scattered across eight states concentrated in the southeastern part of the country, touching Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Texas.

The two clusters in Texas together encompass around 141 counties out of 254, said Dr. Shweta Bansal, an associate professor of biology at Georgetown who headed the project. Although that’s a significant portion of the state, the clusters do not include many of the highest-density cities, which have had greater success with vaccination.

Texas’ overall vaccination rate does not paint an accurate picture of the state’s danger level, Bansal said. From a glance, Texas appears to be in good shape, with 50.4% of the population 12 and older — or 12 million people — reported as fully vaccinated, according to data provided by the Texas Department of State Health Services. And nearly 14 million people in Texas, or 58%, have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

But the Georgetown analysis raises a number of troubling concerns. For one, nearly all COVID-19 deaths in the country were people who weren’t vaccinated, according to The Associated Press.

And unvaccinated clusters pose greater threats because each interaction with an unvaccinated individual risks a new transmission of COVID-19, Bansal said. With every new case of the virus, there is another chance for a new variant to emerge. Already, the highly contagious delta variant that was first found in India in December has become the dominant strain in all new identified cases of the coronavirus in the U.S.

In other words, it’s no time to let our guard down, she cautioned.

If a new variant surfaces that is resistant to current vaccines, “it would mean rewinding the clock back to 2020 for all of us, even those of us that are vaccinated,” Bansal said.

Here’s another news link if you have trouble with that DMN story. I can’t find a copy of the actual report, but I was referred to this web page in my searches for it.

We’ve talked about this before, and I’m going to say this again: It doesn’t matter how bad the Delta variant is going to get, there is zero chance that the state of Texas under Greg Abbott takes any action to mitigate a future outbreak. There will be no mask mandates or limitations on businesses or crowds, and no allowance for local governments to impose them. The unvaccinated will be coddled and catered to in every way, and the rest of us, including and especially health care workers, can suck it. You’re on your own, and my advice to you is to not get too far out of the habit of wearing your face masks. You’ll be needing them again, probably in the winter.

Paxton the puppet

This is just pathetic.

Best mugshot ever

The long-shot lawsuit from Texas, which sought to invalidate the results in four swing states, was not drafted by Republican attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, but by Donald Trump’s own lawyers, revealed a new report.

The extensive New York Times report examined Mr Trump’s attempted coup to subvert the 2020 elections and the “77 democracy-bending days” when the former president propagated the voters fraud theory.

The efforts by Mr Trump’s campaign to help prevent alleged voters fraud were red-flagged by several Republican attorneys general and their senior staff lawyers, the report said.

Republican leaders were also concerned about Mr Trump’s problem in facing the reality of an electoral defeat.

The report revealed that Mr Paxton, who is said to have filed the Texas lawsuit, hired Lawrence Joseph as a special outside counsel through an “unusual contract” on 7 December.

Mr Joseph had earlier intervened in a US court to support Mr Trump’s efforts to block the release of his income-tax returns.

“The same day [7 Dec] the contract was signed, Mr Paxton filed his complaint with the Supreme Court. Mr Joseph was listed as a special counsel, but the brief did not disclose that it had been written by outside parties,” said the report.

Mr Paxton, however, was not the first choice for Trump’s team to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in swing states as he had criminal investigations going on against him.

An appeal was also made to Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeffrey M Landry, but he had declined.

“For every lawyer on Mr Trump’s team who quietly pulled back, there was one ready to push forward with propagandistic suits that skated the lines of legal ethics and reason,” the report said.

Which do you think is more embarrassing, that Paxton turned in someone else’s homework, or that Trump’s team didn’t want to go with Paxton initially because they were afraid his legal entanglements might make them look bad? No wonder no one in the Lege wants to talk about him.

Here comes the casino push

Expect this to get louder and louder, though whether it’s successful or not remains to be seen.

Casino1

When a big political player comes waltzing into Texas spending big money from out of state, it’s usually a good sign that he wants something from lawmakers. So when Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, spent $4.5 million to help Republicans keep control of the Texas House in 2020, heads turned.

While Adelson is known for cutting big checks—he’s one of the most powerful GOP mega-donors in the country—he doesn’t usually spend so lavishly on state-level politics. What did he want with Texas?

After the election, it became clear that Adelson was embarking on an all-out push to legalize casino gambling in Texas. In November, his corporation Las Vegas Sands started hiring some of the most powerful, well-connected lobbyists in Austin. The company declined to comment, though in early December, Andy Abboud, the company’s senior vice president for government relations, made the plans official. In an online panel at Texas Taxpayers and Research Association’s annual conference, he laid out the company’s hopes that Texas lawmakers would approve legislation lifting the casino ban, allowing for the establishment of a limited number of luxury destination casinos in the state’s major metro areas. “Texas is considered the biggest plum still waiting to be [picked],” Abboud said.

Gaming laws in Texas are among the most restrictive in the country, with bans on almost all gambling—including slots, table games, and sports betting—enshrined in the Texas Constitution since the Prohibition Era. Currently, gaming is restricted to wagers on dog and horse racing, charitable bingo, and the state lottery. The state’s three federally recognized Native American tribes are allowed to operate casinos with limited games, though the state has repeatedly contested their rights in the courts. Republican leaders like Governor Greg Abbott and U.S. Senator John Cornyn have aggressively resisted tribes’ attempts to expand gaming.

Abboud encouraged hesitant lawmakers to think “like you’re attracting Tesla or an Amazon facility or an entirely new industry to the state that’s going to create tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue and ancillary benefits of hotels and tourism.”

[…]

Adelson’s casino push comes as lawmakers head into a session facing deep revenue shortfalls spurred by the pandemic and resulting economic crisis. In past sessions, casino proponents have argued that the state’s gaming prohibition has allowed billions of dollars to abscond into Oklahoma and Louisiana, where casinos are conveniently located just across the border. But opponents say that promises of revenue windfalls are overblown and would not provide a sustainable new revenue stream.

Abboud argued that Las Vegas Sands’ model for casinos in Texas would build another economic pillar in the state, helping to ease the state’s dependence on the oil and gas industry. “Will they solve all economic problems? No. Will it stabilize the economy? Yes,” he said.

So far, the only casino gambling legislation filed is from state Representative Joe Deshotel, a Beaumont Democrat, whose bill would legalize casinos to fund insurance programs for those living in hurricane-prone areas along the Gulf Coast.

Who ends up authoring the Adelson camp’s bill in the Texas House and Senate will have big implications for its success. If an ally of Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick authors casino legislation in the Senate, that could be a sign that Patrick would allow it to get a vote on the floor, says Mark P. Jones, a political science professor at Rice University. “If Patrick is on board, it passes. If Patrick is not on board, it doesn’t. It’s about as simple as that,” Jones says. A signal of support from Patrick, a social conservative who has previously opposed gambling, could also sway House Republicans who would otherwise worry about primary challenges from the right, he adds.

This Chron story from early December is the reference for those Andy Abboud quotes. We go through something like this every two years, and the smart money has always been to bet against any expansion of gambling, including casinos. The financial arguments have some merit, though they are surely being overblown by the casino interests. The catch there is that Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick et al don’t see a lack of revenue as a problem but as an opportunity to cut costs. Maybe this time it’s different, I don’t know, though now that the revenue picture isn’t as bad as it once looked, whatever financial argument the casinos may have made has less heft.

The casino interests have certainly hired a bunch of expensive and well-connected Republican lobbyists, so I do expect they’ll be able to get some facetime and bend a few ears. Maybe this is a long-term play, as Jim Henson suggests, where the groundwork gets laid this session and ultimate success comes a few years down the road. Who knows?

I remain ambivalent on the whole thing – I don’t have a problem with gambling and generally think adults should be allowed to partake in it, but I don’t see casinos as a net positive, and I believe the economic benefits that get touted will be extremely limited to a small class of renters, and not much good to anyone else. If we do someday get to vote on it as a constitutional amendment, I’ll have to see what the specifics are before I decide. We’ll keep an eye on this because it’s likely a high tide year for gambling interests, but as always don’t expect much.

UPDATE: I drafted this over the weekend, and since then Sheldon Adelson has passed away. I don’t believe that changes the calculus in any way, but I’m sure someone would have noted that in the comments if I hadn’t, so here we are.

Two more polls of Texas

Trump is up two in this one.

Florida and Texas remain tight battlegrounds in the presidential election, according to CBS News Battleground Tracker polls released Sunday.

The current margin in both states is 2 percentage points, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden up by 2 in Florida and President Donald Trump up by 2 in Texas. Trump won both states in 2016; no Democratic presidential candidate has won Texas since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

In both cases, the leads were within the margins of error for the polls (3.7 points in Florida, 3.5 points in Texas). The polls were conducted by YouGov from Sept. 15-18 of 1,220 registered voters in Florida and 1,161 in Texas.

The Texas poll showed an unexpectedly close Senate race, with Republican Sen. John Cornyn ahead of Democratic challenger Mary “MJ“ Hegar by a mere 5 points, 46 to 41. That seat has not been high on the lists of ones most likely to flip.

The CBS News story for this poll is here. It’s about 95% focused on Florida, so, you know. CBS News and YouGov had polled Texas in July, and found Trump up by one, 46-45. Full poll data for Texas is here; for what it’s worth, this poll has Biden up among Latino voters 61-30.

And then there’s this:

The press release for that is here. The poll is a month old (taken August 20-25), and it includes results from the other Gulf Coast states. The Texas summary is here, and the numbers of interest are as follows:

Presidential race: Biden 48, Trump 44
Senate race: Cornyn 44, Hegar 42
Trump approval: 45 approve, 49 disapprove
Cornyn approval: 35 approve, 33 disapprove
Ted Cruz approval: 45 approve, 43 disapprove
Greg Abbott approval: 54 approve, 38 disapprove

Not much beyond the very high-level summaries, but there you have it. There are similar summaries for other states polled (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida), but they’re all returning 404 errors now, even though they worked when I first clicked on them. The link above gives the poll results. Most of the questions involved were about people’s opinions on energy and offshore drilling, and some of the Presidential results seem a bit too good to be true (Trump up in Alabama by four? In Louisiana by six?), but that’s what they report. Take them for what they’re worth.

The bullet we dodged

We can exhale now.

Following days of warnings and calls to take Laura seriously, Houston and Harris County awoke to a typical late August day Thursday, virtually unscathed by the category 4 hurricane’s overnight landfall in western Louisiana.

The city and county saw occasional wind gusts of about 20 miles per hour but did not experience any of Hurricane Laura’s more damaging effects, officials said.

The National Weather Service said it had no reports of storm damage in Houston as of 6:30 a.m. The only noticeable effect was the occasional wind, according to Janice Maldonado, a meteorologist with the agency.

Houston’s Office of Emergency Management, which activated to maximum readiness in advance of the storm, began sending workers home overnight as the storm passed.

“From my understanding, Houston was pretty much spared,” said Cory Stottlemyer, spokesman for the agency.

Jeff Lindner, meteorologist for the Harris County Flood Control District, said 90 miles made all the difference between unscathed Houston and hard-hit southwest Louisiana.

“We really dodged a bullet,” he said.

Yesterday was spent in a confusing melange of heavy relief and pervasive survivor’s guilt. We escaped completely unscathed, while much of Louisiana got leveled by the winds. It’s a complex set of feelings, but this is not the first time we’ve had them around here. It’s just a bit more intense this time, three years after Harvey and with a full appreciation of what a monster Laura was and how utterly devastating it would have been to us if it had tracked farther west. If you want to know what that all looked like, see here and here. When you’re done, go find some ways to help, and act accordingly.

Hope now, support relief efforts next

This is so, so bad. And it’s terrifying to realize how much worse it could have been.

With winds topping 150 mph, Hurricane Laura is approaching Category 5 status as it barrels toward the Texas-Louisiana border.

As of 7 p.m., the system was located about 120 miles southeast of Port Arthur, moving toward the coast at about 15 mph. It remains course to make landfall near the Texas-Louisiana border around midnight, according to the National Weather Service. A roughly 150-mile stretch of coastline from Sea Rim State Park, Texas, to Intracoastal City, Louisiana, is expected to take the brunt of the storm’s impact.

Wind speeds and water levels are currently rising along the northwest Gulf coast. Sustained winds of 39 mph were reported at 6 p.m. along the southern-most edge of the Louisiana coast. Heavy rains also are beginning to spread onshore. The hurricane center said “possible tornadoes” were sprouting from Laura’s outer bands at 7 p.m. over southeastern Louisiana and extreme southwestern Mississippi.

Regions directly in Hurricane Laura’s path and east of the storm face catastrophic consequences from what the National Hurricane Center called an “extremely dangerous” storm expected to ravage portions of the northwest Gulf coast with “unsurvivable” storm surge, extreme wind and widespread flash flooding.

A tornado watch is expected to last through 9 p.m. for areas east of the Houston area and most of the Louisiana coast. The pressure around the storm has dropped to about 940 mb. Outer swaths of rain have been whipping across inland areas, with gusty winds and downpours expected in Liberty and Chambers counties.

How bad is Hurricane Laura? This bad:

Never good to be grouped with Katrina and Rita. And as bad as this is, shift this thing 150 miles west for a direct hit on Houston, and, well, I don’t even want to think about it. There are plenty of articles out now about how bad that would be. We need the Ike Dike ASAP, but we need more than that, too. We’re sitting on dynamite and playing with matches until we take this seriously.

Here comes Laura

Be prepared.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo urged residents to prepare for a hurricane as the track and intensity of Tropical Storm Laura remains uncertain.

She said the greatest threat posed by Laura likely would be high winds and a storm surge, and urged the public not to make comparisons to historical storms.

“This is not Harvey, this is not Imelda, this is not Allison. This is Laura,” Hidalgo said. “Every storm is different, and we urge folks not to use any prior storm as a template for what could or will happen.”

Laura is expected to strengthen to a hurricane Tuesday, possibly as strong as Category 2, before making landfall in southeast Texas or southwest Louisiana on Wednesday, the National Weather Service predicted Monday afternoon.

Hidalgo said residents should prepare hurricane kits and check which evacuation zone they live in.

The mayor of Port Arthur ordered an evacuation beginning Tuesday morning for the 55,000 residents of that city on the Texas-Louisiana border. City of Galveston leaders issued a voluntary evacuation for residents in low-lying areas and on the west end of the seawall.

Houston and Harris County have no present plans to order an evacuation. Hidalgo said residents in coastal areas should be ready to leave at a moment’s notice, as an evacuation order likely would come sometime Tuesday.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said residents should be prepared for high traffic on freeways heading away from the coast. He asked residents to stay off the roads if possible to keep evacuation routes clear and secure anything outside their homes that could blow away in high winds.

Generally speaking, you run from flooding and you shelter from winds. Unless you’ve been told to evacuate, you should probably prepare to shelter in place. In the meantime, stay calm and check Space City Weather for the most up to date forecasts.

SCOTUS declines to outlaw abortion for now

You may have heard about this from the other day.

Right there with them

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Louisiana law Monday that would have curtailed access to abortions in the state and that was nearly identical to a measure the court overturned in Texas in 2016.

The ruling is a win for advocates of abortion access, who feared the case could quickly pave the way for states to impose greater restrictions on the procedure. But legal and legislative battles over the procedure are sure to continue, including in Texas, where there are more than 6 million women of reproductive age. More than 53,800 abortions were performed in Texas in 2017, including 1,1,74 for out-of-state residents, according to government data.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. joined the liberal justices in a 5-4 decision that struck down a Louisiana law that would have required doctors who perform abortions to have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital. Roberts had dissented in the 2016 decision that found Texas’ restrictions placed an undue burden on a woman’s constitutional right to an abortion. He did not agree with the liberal justices’ reasoning Monday, instead citing the precedent set by the previous case.

“The result in this case is controlled by our decision four years ago invalidating a nearly identical Texas law,” Roberts wrote.

[…]

While advocates for abortion access celebrated the ruling, they expressed worry about future fights over the procedure.

“We’re relieved that the Louisiana law has been blocked today, but we’re concerned about tomorrow,” said Nancy Northup, head of the Center for Reproductive Rights, a nonprofit that represented the Louisiana abortion providers. “Unfortunately, the court’s ruling today will not stop those hell bent on banning abortion.”

See here for a bit of background. I hate to be the party pooper, but after reading what Dahlia Lithwick has to say, I’m going to keep any celebrations of this ruling to the minimum.

Roberts’ concurrence is classic Roberts—cloak a major blow to the left in what appears to be a small victory for it. Four years ago in Whole Woman’s Health, the court struck down the Texas admitting privileges law by assessing that such a law would constitute an “undue burden” on a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy—a standard that in Justice Stephen Breyer’s formulation called for a careful balancing of the stated benefits of an abortion restriction against its burdens. Reading Roberts’ concurrence carefully, one sees that in June Medical, he managed to claw back that standard, replacing it with a much more deferential one that asks only whether the proposed regulation is unduly burdensome without requiring any consideration of the benefit. Not only that, he goes further and does essentially what he did in last year’s census case and last week’s challenge to the DACA rescission: He hints that essentially any old pretextual defense of an abortion law will serve; he just doesn’t like when lazy litigants offer up sloppy pretexts.

The problem for Roberts in June Medical is that the state of Louisiana offered up demonstrably bad reasons for insisting on admitting privileges for abortion providers at local hospitals, and then the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals offered up sloppy reasons for disturbing the findings of the trial court showing that two out of three clinics would close and women would be burdened. As was the case in the census litigation, and the DACA litigation, the outcome here is correct, but one can easily reverse-engineer the chief justice’s opinion to say, “Come back to me with the right road map and I’m all yours,” and in fact, he actually grabs your pencil, flips over the napkin, and sketches the map out at no extra cost.

As Mark Joseph Stern and I wrote this time last year, “Lie better next time” could easily be the holding of June Medical, and states seeking to restrict abortion rights can now do precisely that, without running afoul of this ruling, so long as they ground the laws in better pretextual arguments about maternal health and fetal life and women’s need to make better choices. Roberts has turned a substantive constitutional right into a paper-thin debate about regulatory justifications. His scrupulous review of the many abortion restrictions that were permitted in Casey is a useful reminder that nothing is truly an “undue burden” if it comes dressed in the right language of solicitude and benign concern for mothers’ healthy choices. After today, Roberts is telling states wanting to impose all sort of needless regulations that it doesn’t matter if they are utterly without health benefits, so long as the burdens on women are not that bad.

Mark Joseph Stern arrived at a similar conclusion earlier. It was correct to throw out this ridiculous Louisiana law, but the door is still very much open for a similar law to flip Roberts back to his natural inclination. It’s just a matter of time. Mother Jones has more.

More on coronavirus and meat processing

From the Trib:

To understand powerlessness in a pandemic, trace a northbound path from Amarillo up State Highway 87. Not too far shy of the border where Texas meets Oklahoma lies Moore County.

There are few easy ways to make a living in this country of feedlots and dryland cotton, but one of the hardest is at the JBS Beef meatpacking plant. Just about everything looks small on these vast flatlands until you get right up on it, but the 125-acre plant in the tiny town of Cactus is massive from any vantage point.

The steady billow of gray smoke from the plant’s stacks tells you it is still running full tilt. With the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, it’s considered essential to keep thousands of cattle running through the kill floor each day, headed for dinner tables across America.

Meat and poultry plants nationwide have emerged as incubators for coronavirus spread. More than a dozen have been forced to shut down temporarily as the number of cases and deaths tied to those facilities rose; others have scrambled to ramp up health and safety precautions in facilities where meatpackers often must work shoulder to shoulder.

State health investigators are tracking 159 coronavirus infections tied to the Cactus plant, including one death associated with the outbreak, and Moore County now has the highest reported infection rate in Texas. Yet about 3,000 workers, mostly immigrants from Mexico and Guatemala and refugees from Asia and Africa, still report there each day.

Meatpacking has always been brutal and dangerous work, but it pays relatively well. JBS jobs have drawn generations of immigrants to this rural community, so many that Hispanics make up more than half of Moore County’s nearly 22,000 residents, and one quarter of the population is immigrants.

But the people who prop up life here, the ones now getting sick or working in fear wondering when they will, have little power over what the coronavirus is doing to their lives, because they have little power here at all.

From the Observer:

Officials at Tyson’s poultry processing plant in Shelby County may have waited weeks to tell workers that an employee had tested positive for COVID-19, preventing other workers from taking action to prevent the spread of the virus inside the facility, plant employees told the Observer last week. The company waited even longer to implement rudimentary safeguards (such as breathing masks and plastic screens to separate workstations) as more workers fell ill, were hospitalized, and died, they say.

[…]

The Observer has changed Bennett’s name, as well as the two other employees named in this story, after employees expressed concern that Tyson might retaliate against them for speaking to a reporter. The story also omits some details of employees’ positions within the plant and their medical histories to make them less identifiable. The extent to which the Tyson outbreak has contributed to COVID cases in this rural region is still unclear, partially because of a lack of reliable state data on infection rates and testing. It is clear, however, that some workers feel as if Tyson put profits over worker safety as the virus spread through the facility this month. If the company had distributed protective equipment earlier, “it probably wouldn’t be as bad as it is now,” Bennett says.

The employees say that approximately three weeks ago, a plant supervisor told workers that at least one employee had tested positive. But they shouldn’t worry, the supervisor reportedly said—the case had occurred two weeks earlier, so other workers likely wouldn’t be threatened. The announcement hit the workers like a bombshell. “I don’t think it was fair to us as employees the way they waited until 14 days later to tell us,” says Denise Richardson, who has not contracted the virus. “If you’ve got paperwork confirming that someone has it, you let everybody know and give us all an opportunity to take proper precautions.” At the time, the company had just recently begun to start screening workers by checking their temperature, and masks had not been widely distributed to employees, Richardson says.

By the time Tyson alerted employees to the danger, the virus already appeared to be spreading. Bennett, after days of “feeling sicker and sicker, weaker and weaker” at work, was hospitalized shortly after the announcement. Bobby Dawson, another Tyson employee, tested positive for COVID-19 about the same time as Bennett. He says he informed plant supervisors about the positive test result the same day he learned of it. Dawson criticized the company for not telling him about the situation sooner, which would have allowed him to take precautionary measures to keep from getting sick, such as taking days off work or wearing protective equipment. “They hid it from us. They didn’t give us a choice to do anything,” Dawson told the Observer. “Their main concern is to get them chickens out, regardless of what their employees are going through. That’s why we all come up sick.”

The conditions of the plant lend themselves to the spread of disease, the workers say. Employees work “elbow to elbow” as they defeather, eviscerate, and debone thousands of birds a day. Even the most innocuous task—such as clocking in for a shift and clocking out at the end of the day—appears to present considerable risk, as hundreds of employees crowd the few functional terminals. “You got so many people trying to clock in at one time you can’t do nothing but catch it,” Richardson says. “We’re packed in there like a bunch of sardines.”

Richardson also notes that many of the plant’s workers cross the border each day from Shelby County’s adjacent parishes in Louisiana, a state that’s been ravaged by the virus. Shelby County shares a border with DeSoto Parish, where at least 180 confirmed cases and 10 deaths have been counted among a population of only 27,000.

See here for the background. These and other meat processing plants will continue to stay open due to federal order. I don’t have anything to add here, just that you should go read both of these stories.

Coronavirus and meat processing

In the Panhandle:

State health officials confirmed Tuesday that they are investigating an outbreak of the new coronavirus at the JBS Beef packing plant in the Texas Panhandle, part of ongoing efforts to monitor major meat processing plants as the pandemic continues to threaten food supply chains.

Earlier this month, the Department of State Health Services conducted an epidemiological investigation in Shelby County that identified a cluster of 14 coronavirus cases and two related deaths that were “in some manner” tied to employees of a Tyson Foods facility.

Now, a department spokeswoman said, an “environmental assessment team” is being sent to Moore County to advise on ways the massive meatpacking plant, which processes a significant portion of the nation’s beef, can curb the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of the coronavirus.

The investigation follows the shuttering of the company’s meat packing plants in other states because of local outbreaks. Moore County, near the Oklahoma border, has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in the state. (Some local leaders attribute it to rapid testing.)

After a call with Tyson Foods officials, the health department asked the company to enact additional protections for employees at its facility near the Louisiana border, including monitoring all individuals entering the facility for both fever and other COVID-19 related symptoms, and to increase its sanitizing as part of the transportation the company provides for workers.

And in East Texas:

The state health department is investigating cases at a Tyson poultry processing plant in Shelby County that may comprise a significant number of the county’s 69 confirmed cases. While meatpackers across the nation have been slammed with high numbers of coronavirus cases, leading to the deaths of workers and facility closures, this represents one of the first known outbreaks of the virus at a plant in Texas.

The Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) has offered few details of its investigation into the outbreak at the Tyson facility on the Texas-Louisiana border. But Dr. Florencio Singson, who operates a clinic in Center, the county seat, told the Observer that health officials said the outbreak represents a “majority” of the county’s cases. Meanwhile, Tyson posted on its Facebook page that it is closing the facility this week. The post made no mention of the apparent outbreak, saying only that the company was installing new equipment at the plant.

Shelby County, population 25,400, has one of the highest per capita rates of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Texas. It’s nearly four times that of the state overall, and the highest countywide rate outside the Panhandle. Cases ballooned in Louisiana and into East Texas in recent weeks, with coronavirus now confirmed in nearly every Texas county in the region, many of which are rural and have limited medical resources. Many also have large populations of African Americans, who are being infected with and dying of coronavirus at disproportionately high rates.

Public health experts say the spread of coronavirus in the region (and the state overall, which had nearly 20,200 confirmed COVID-19 cases as of Tuesday evening) is likely dramatically undercounted due to limited testing. “We know it’s underreported [in Shelby County],” Singson told the Observer. Texas has been slow to roll out widespread testing, resulting in among the fewest completed tests per capita of any state.

As the Observer story notes, COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at meat processing plants around the country, with the Smithfield outbreak in South Dakota being the worst so far. It’s not a surprise – workers are in close proximity, and there has been little done by their employers to keep them safe, which is typical for an industry that generally treats its employees terribly. Smithfield had the benefit of a union – you can listen to a short conversation with the local labor council president for Sioux Falls here if you want to learn more about that location – but it wasn’t enough. I can’t imagine the workers in Texas, at either location, having it any better. You want to know what’s in the future when and if we “reopen the economy” without a real plan and real resources for universal testing and worker protection, there you have it.

By the way, the city of Cactus, where the JBS plant is, is under an executive order requiring “everyone over the age of five” to “wear a covering over their mouth and nose when outside their home or vehicle”, with violators subject to a fine of up to $1,000. Sound familiar? Moore County voted 75% for Donald Trump in 2016. I’m just saying.

We still have no idea how many people have been infected

There’s just a real lack of testing being done.

Six times in three weeks, Marci Rosenberg and her ailing husband and teenage children tried to get tested for the new coronavirus — only to be turned away each time, either for not meeting narrow testing criteria or because there simply were not enough tests available.

All the while, the Bellaire family of four grew sicker as their fevers spiked and their coughs worsened. They said they fell one by one into an exhaustion unlike any they had felt before.

By March 18, Rosenberg was desperate and pleaded with her doctor for a test. Dr. Lisa Ehrlich, an internal medicine physician, told Rosenberg to pull into her office driveway. But Ehrlich warned Rosenberg, “I can only test one of you.” She swabbed her throat through an open car window. The result came back the next day: positive.

The rest of her family was presumed to be positive but untested – and thus excluded from any official tally of the disease.

As the number of confirmed cases of the potentially deadly virus continues to explode across the Houston region – tripling from 1,000 to more than 3,000 in just the past week – there is mounting evidence that the true scope of the disease here could be far worse than the numbers indicate.

A Houston Chronicle analysis of testing data collected through Wednesday shows that Texas has the second-worst rate of testing per capita in the nation, with only 332 tests conducted for every 100,000 people. Only Kansas ranks lower, at 327 per 100,000 people.

In cities across Texas — from Houston to Dallas, San Antonio to Nacogdoches — testing continues to be fraught with missteps, delays and shortages, resulting in what many predict will ultimately be a significant undercount. Not fully knowing who has or had the disease both skews public health data and also hampers treatment and prevention strategies, potentially leading to a higher death count, health care experts say.

[…]

As the pandemic’s march quickened, Texas was slow to ramp up testing.

The first confirmed case in Texas, outside those under federal quarantine from a cruise ship, was March 4, striking a Houston area man in his 70s who lived in Fort Bend county and had recently traveled abroad. By month’s end, the Houston area had more than 1,000 confirmed cases. A week later, the number had pushed past 3,000.

Yet it was not until March 30 that the rate of testing per 100,000 people in Texas topped 100. As of Wednesday, the state was testing 327 per 100,000, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from The COVID Tracking Project, which collects information nationwide on testing primarily from state health departments, and supplements with reliable news reports and live press conferences.

Twenty-six states in the U.S. are testing at least double the number of patients per capita as Texas, in some cases six times more. New York, for instance, is testing 1,877 per 100,000 people while neighboring Louisiana is testing 1,622 per 100,000. Even smaller states, such as New Mexico, are testing triple the rate of Texas.

Texas officials defended the state’s response.

“We’ve consistently seen about 10 percent of tests coming back positive, which indicates there is enough testing for public health surveillance,” said Chris Van Deusen, a spokesman for the Department of State Health Services, in an email, “If we saw 40 or 50 percent or more of test coming back positive, we’d be concerned that there could be a large number of cases out there going unreported, but that has not been the case.”

It is unclear if that is a reliable measure. Nearly 41 percent of New York tests were positive, the second-highest rate in the country. In Texas, about 9.4 percent of tests were positive — roughly the same as Washington state, where one of the largest outbreaks of coronavirus has occurred.

Not the first time we’ve talked about this, and it won’t be the last. This also means that the official number of deaths attributed to coronavirus is likely too low. This has been the case globally, especially in the hardest-hit places, where the difference between the normal daily mortality rate and the observed mortality rate during the crisis is a lot bigger than the official count of COVID-19 deaths. The good news is that as yet our hospitals have not been overwhelmed, but we can’t say with confidence that that will continue to be the case.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in the Houston area is continuing a steady climb, not close to crisis levels but unnerving enough that experts still aren’t sure when the area’s grand experiment in social distancing will start showing up in daily counts.

After a week in which COVID-19 hospitalization numbers more than doubled in Harris County, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists said it likely will be another week to 10 days before they know if the stay-at-home orders and closures are reducing the rate at which the coronavirus is spreading and keeping health care facilities from being overwhelmed.

“Even though we’ve been social distancing for three weeks, it’s too early to know when we’ll be on the downward slope,” said Catherine Troisi, a professor of epidemiology at UTHealth School of Public Health. “The numbers we’re seeing now reflect people who were exposed to the virus up to four weeks ago.”

Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, said the social distancing has paid off in terms of keeping hospital volumes under control so far but added that the pay-off in terms of ending the pandemic is unclear. He said that “we need to continue stay-at-home orders until the end of the month, then reassess whether to extend them longer.”

Hotez and others said that aggressive social distancing is more important now than ever, given modelers are projecting that the number of COVID-19 cases in the Houston area should peak in the next few weeks. They said people venturing out during the peak period will put themselves at high risk of contracting the virus.

[…]

The study, released on March 24, originally said the virus’ spread in the Houston area would peak April 7 and burn out by mid-May if stay-at-home orders are continued until May 12. It was not clear Tuesday when the study projects the virus will burn out now.

Eric Boerwinkle, the lead researcher, could not be reached for comment Tuesday and UTHealth officials had no update on the study. Boerwinkle, who did not make the original modeling publicly available, has briefed top local government officials on the work.

Another modeling study, conducted by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, now projects that the Texas peak use of hospital resources for COVID-19 will be April 19, some two weeks earlier than it previously projected. The study, reportedly relied on by the Trump administration, foresees no bed shortage in the state, including in intensive care.

“That’s why you shouldn’t place too much weight on any one model,” said Dr. James McDeavitt, Baylor’s dean of clinical affairs. “They depend on assumptions plugged in and can show everything from Houston being able to handle the surge to a New York City-like situation.”

McDeavitt noted the wild cards that go into modeling — the number of people admitted to a hospital, the percentage that need intensive care, how long it takes to get patients off ventilators, how long they need to recover in a regular bed once they move out of intensive care. Those are the assumptions that drive models, he noted.

McDeavitt said he doesn’t think the number of cases will come down in the Houston area until the end of the month.

That story was from earlier in the week, so all of the numbers are a bit out of date by now. But the bottom line remains that we don’t know where we are on the curve because we don’t really know how many people are or have been sick. Models all rely on data, and we’re also not good with the data.

The information Texans are working with is too damn thin.

Where to start? Not enough tests have been completed, or taken, to really know who has or doesn’t have the disease, where the Texas hotspots are, or whether people who have died of respiratory problems had COVID-19. The relatively small number of test results also means we don’t know which people had the disease and recovered (and how many people have recovered) and whether the projections being made with that skimpy data are accurate enough to guide our public health decisions.

It’s not enough to say that the testing is getting better, that we know more than we knew just a few days ago. What we still don’t know overshadows what we do know.

We’re like pilots flying in clouds without instruments. We know a little bit, but not enough to make really solid decisions or to figure out what’s next. We’re learning as we go. As of Thursday, Texas was reporting 10,230 cases and 199 deaths, 1,439 hospitalized COVID-19 patients and 106,134 tests conducted.

Given the level of testing right now, it’s hard to know how many cases Texas really has. Because the best way to get tested for the new coronavirus is to show symptoms that a medical professional finds troublesome, it’s probably safe to say we’re not testing many people who are carrying the virus but don’t have symptoms.

It’s easier — because it’s more obvious — to map the institutional cases. When someone in a nursing home or a state supported living center or a prison tests positive, testing everyone in that location is simple and smart. It’s simple to figure out that everyone in a given building or campus might have been exposed.

Even that data isn’t always available. The state of Texas initially wasn’t sharing details about the data it has collected from nursing homes where COVID-19 cases have been found. But a few days after The Texas Tribune’s Edgar Walters and Carla Astudillo wrote about it, the state revealed 13% of nursing homes have at least one confirmed case.

We’re doing a lot of flying blind. If we want to make good decisions about things like when and how to restart the economy, we need a much better understanding of where we are, and where that means we’re likely to be going.

Abbott imposes travel restrictions

Where we are now.

Now please pull over

Gov. Greg Abbott is tightening travel to Texas by ordering some motorists from Louisiana to self-quarantine for two weeks.

The new travel restrictions come as Louisiana’s status as a novel coronavirus hotspot grew Sunday to more than 3,500 positive cases statewide. Abbott said drivers with commercial, medical, emergency response, military or critical infrastructure purposes for entering Texas would be exempted.

State troopers will enforce the order at checkpoints at major roadways along the border. Those asked to quarantine will be asked to provide an address for where they plan to hold up in Texas, either for two weeks or until their return to Louisiana, whichever is comes first.

A provision in the order allows for DPS special agents to check on those under quarantine to make sure they’re complying. Violators could be subject to either a $1,000 find or 180 days in jail, according to the four-page document. Another rule states that if a driver is showing symptoms associated with COVID-19, such as fever, coughing or shortness of breath, a trooper will follow them to their destination.

The Texas order follows suit from Florida, whose governor on Friday required drivers from Louisiana to also quarantine upon entering their state. Motorists from Louisiana would have to cross both Alabama and Mississippi to make it to Florida.

The Louisiana border is 113 miles from Houston along I-10.

Mayor Sylvester Turner said he urged travelers returning to Texas to do the same more than three weeks ago, regardless of where they had been.

“If you leave Texas and come back to Texas, you should self-quarantine,” Turner said at a news conference. “Nobody should be traveling unless you absolutely have to.”

I get it, it’s a rational move to make, though there’s not much in the way of enforcement behind this, so it’s more suggestion than requirement. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, as long as we keep in mind that that’s what it is.

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

Buc-ee’s comes to Alabama

Tomorrow, the world.

Texas road stop institution Buc-ee’s has opened a store in Alabama, its first location outside the Lone Star State.

Despite chilly weather, more than 100 people were lined up outside the Baldwin County store when it opened at 6 a.m. Monday. They were eager to experience a Buc-ee’s supersized gas station and convenience store, renowned for its cartoon beaver logo, clean bathrooms and clever billboards. Some die-hard Buc-ee’s fans drove hours to get to the store opening, said Jeff Nadalo, Buc-ee’s general counsel.

“It was packed and very busy all day,” Nadalo said. “I think a lot of people had heard what Buc-ee’s was about from friends and family who had been and were familiar with the experience.”

The 52,000-square-foot store, in Robertsdale, features 124 fueling stations and the “biggest, most pristine bathrooms the state of Alabama has ever seen,” a Buc-ee’s press release crowed. The store, has a similar layout to the new Buc-ee’s in Katy, except the Alabama location doesn’t have a car wash, Nadalo said.

[…]

Since it was founded in 1982, Buc-ee’s has mostly stuck to its Texas roots, operating 34 stores across the Lone Star State. A couple of years ago, the Lake Jackson company began looking to expand across the southeastern U.S., which shares a similar customer profile to Texas, Nadalo said.

“We’re taking the great experience that is Buc-ee’s to other states,” Nadalo said. “We felt it was something that would work well, certainly in Alabama, and we think it’ll be well-received in Florida.”

We first heard about this almost three years ago, though at the time they were aiming for Louisiana. It’s on I-10, so if you’re driving to Florida (where Buc-ee’s plans future expansions), you’ll see the familiar signs. Less familiar was this:

A lawsuit claims that Buc-ee’s illegally priced gasoline when it opened its first Alabama travel center last month along Interstate 10 in Baldwin County.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court by Oasis Travel Center LLC, alleges that the Lake Jackson, Texas-based company violated the 35-year-old Alabama Motor Fuel Marketing Act, and demands that the company halt its pricing strategies while the case is pending.

The law, passed in 1984, prohibits big oil companies from selling gasoline to the public for less than it costs to buy and transport it to a retail outlet.

Similar lawsuits, over the years, have been filed in Alabama against big-box retailers like Costco and Murphy Oil Corp., which operates Walmart gas stations.

“We contend Buc-ee’s, when it opened up two weeks ago, it opened at prices for regular unleaded and other grades at below costs as defined under the Alabama law,” said H. Dean Mooty, a Montgomery-based attorney who has represented smaller-sized convenience stores in similar cases.

The lawsuit specifically cites several dates when Buc-ee’s posted a price of regular gasoline under what state law allows. Among the dates cited is Buc-ee’s Jan. 21 opener, when regular gasoline was sold at a rounded price of $1.80 per gallon.

Oops. You really are not in Texas any more, y’all. As for the rest of us, enjoy the beaver nuggets and the clean bathrooms while you can.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.

You know, there is a cheaper way to do this

Why are we still outsourcing inmates?

County commissioners next week will consider a proposal to outsource inmates to the Fort Bend County Jail, which would allow Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez to slow — but not stop — the flow of inmates to a private prison in Louisiana.

The deal would bring as many as several hundred inmates closer to their families and attorneys, but would cost Harris County more than twice as much as shipping prisoners to Jackson Parish, La. It would also fail to address the root causes of overcrowding at the Harris County Jail, one of the nation’s largest, and prolong an elaborate game of musical chairs as the sheriff searches for jails to take his inmates.

Harris County’s 10,162 inmates are already spread across five facilities in Texas and Louisiana. It currently outsources 724 inmates, more than twice as many as any other Texas county.

[…]

“If there’s a desire to bring inmates closer to Harris County, this is the best deal we’ve been able to find so far,” said Harris County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Jason Spencer. “It doesn’t fully address the outsourcing issue, but it chips away at it.”

Harris County pays $29.33 per inmate, per day at Jackson Parish Correctional Center, with transport included. Fort Bend’s per diem is $55.00, and Harris County would also have to pay for transport. Spencer said the additional costs would push the county’s total monthly inmate outsourcing bill to around $1 million.

The jail had stopped farming out inmates in 2017 but a backlog in the courts following Harvey led to a surplus of people in the jail, and so here we are today. The monthly cost of doing so now is more than $500K, which will go up to about $1 million with the more expensive Fort Bend option. That may not be a choice as defense attorneys in Harris County have asked the Court of Criminal Appeals to bar sending inmates out of state. I know you know but I’m going to say anyway that if we had fewer inmates in the jail – and remember, the lion’s share of these inmates have not been convicted of any crime – we wouldn’t need to spend this money. It’s a choice we’re making, one we’ve been making for way too many years. At least we get to make another choice this November.

Paxton goes after DACA

I have no words.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and officials from nine other states on Thursday urged the Trump administration to end an Obama-era program that’s allowed hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants to live and work in the country without fear of being deported.

In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Paxton urged the White House to rescind the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program. DACA applies to undocumented immigrants that came to the country before they were 16 years old and were 30 or younger as of June 2012. It awards recipients a renewable, two-year work permit and a reprieve from deportation proceedings.

As of August 2016, more than 220,000 undocumented immigrants in Texas had applied for a permit or a renewal of one under the program, and nearly 200,000 of those have been approved, according to government statistics. It’s the second-highest total behind California’s estimated 387,000 applications and 359,000 approvals during the same time frame.

“We respectfully request that the Secretary of Homeland Security phase out the DACA program,” Paxton wrote. He was joined by the attorneys general of Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, as well as Idaho Gov. C.L. Otter.

“Specifically, we request that the Secretary of Homeland Security rescind the June 15, 2012 DACA memorandum and order that the Executive Branch will not renew or issue any new DACA or Expanded DACA permits in the future,” Paxton wrote.

[…]

The Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, blasted the move and warned the signatories they’ll be remembered for being on the wrong side of history.

“Their evident xenophobia is not remotely consistent with the trajectory of our nation’s history and future progress,” MALDEF president and general counsel Thomas Saenz said in a statement. “Their political careers and each of their states will suffer from their mean-spirited stupidity.”

I don’t even know what to say about this. It’s cruel, it’s stupid, and I can’t think of a meaningful definition of “Christian” that would allow for it. The one sure to be effective thing we can do about this is to elect an Attorney General who won’t pull this crap. Nothing will change until we change who we elect. The Press, the Current, and Daily Kos have more.

State to help defend county bail policies

Of course it will.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and the top lawyers in five other states are backing Harris County in its protracted battle over money bail for poor low-level defendants, as the tally of those released on no-cash bail nears 1,000.

Paxton and the lead attorneys in Arizona, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana and Nebraska filed a joint brief late Monday supporting the county’s appeal of a federal court order that took effect three weeks ago eliminating cash bail for indigent misdemeanor defendants.

[…]

At a tense Harris County Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, officials provided the clearest picture yet of the people released from impact of Rosenthal’s ruling. Nearly 980 people have been released by the sheriff under Rosenthal’s ruling as from June 6 through Friday, according to county’s office of budget management.

Of those, 40 people who were released on personal bonds had been arrested again by Friday and charged with new crimes, a rate of about 3 percent.

In the group of people who were able to afford cash bond — either through a bail bondsman or by posting cash — during the same time period, only about 1 percent had been re-arrested, county officials said.

The county’s arguments were countered in a lengthy hearing before Rosenthal that led to her order.

[…]

Paul Heaton, academic director of the University of Pennsylvania Law School’s Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice and co-author of a study on Harris County’s criminal justice system, said the brief rehashes old arguments.

“The brief does demonstrate, however, that there are still important constituencies that have yet to be convinced of the need for bail reform,” he said. “Despite the significant progress in this area in states like New Jersey, Maryland, and Kentucky, and the mounting empirical evidence that cash bail systems can generate unwanted disparities and harm public safety — particularly when applied to low-level offenders — there are still many jurisdictions satisfied with the status quo that don’t want to change.”

Alec Karakatsanis, director of Civil Rights Corps, who represents ODonnell and the others who couldn’t afford bail, said Monday’s filing by the states’ attorneys echoed that stance.

“The amicus brief is a repeat of bail industry talking points that are entirely untethered to law and to fact,” he said.

I couldn’t find a copy of the Paxton brief, so you’ll have to rely on the story for what we know. Hard to know what else to make of this, or if the amicus brief will have any effect. Some days I wonder what it would be like to have an Attorney General who fights on the right side of an issue, any issue. Must be nice.

Bu-ee’s to expand to Louisiana

The road to world domination leads east.

The first Buc-ee’s outside Texas promises lagniappe, a little bonus, worthy of its Louisiana locale.

“It’s going to look like what we build, and it’s going to feel like what we build,” co-owner Beaver Aplin said this week. But in addition to the Beaver Nuggets and other proprietary snack foods such as fudge or jerky, Aplin said, customers should expect “Louisiana flair” with items like alligator, boudin and cracklins.

A 15-acre tract along Interstate 12 in Baton Rouge will soon get one of the Buc-ee’s mega-convenience stores. The chain known for its buck-toothed mascot, a cartoon beaver, has grown to 31 locations since the first one opened in 1982.

The store could also be the first of others in Louisiana and elsewhere as the Lake Jackson-based chain explores markets beyond Texas’ borders.

Exact plans are not yet available, but Aplin said Buc-ee’s has the Baton Rouge property under contract, and the company is working with the owner and the city. The store will likely be a 50,000- to 60,000-square-foot travel center, similar to ones in Baytown, Texas City or Madisonville. It will feature sprawling bays of fuel islands and expanded food and other items for sale.

“We think Louisiana will be a great market, and I look forward to being there,” Aplin said.

[…]

Many Louisianians, through traveling or living in Texas, have been exposed to the Buc-ee’s brand, said Kelli Hollinger, director of the Center for Retailing Studies at Texas A&M University.

“Buc-ee’s has a cult following,” Hollinger said. “You’re not just excited to go to Buc-ee’s, they’re part of the travel experience itself.”

Hollinger said tapping into Louisiana’s food culture should further help the brand there.

Added marketing professor Betsy Gelb of the C.T. Bauer College of Business at the University of Houston: “You always want to be putting a toe in a state where there are people who know you.”

General counsel Jeff Nadalo said Buc-ee’s continues “looking at all opportunities in Texas and outside of Texas.”

Louisiana is the current focus, Aplin said, with other sites, including along the I-10 corridor, under consideration. None of those projects is far enough along to announce, he added.

Makes sense. Just on billboards alone, you have to figure Buc-ee’s is well known to anyone who’s ever driven on I-10. Now you can stock up on Beaver Balls on your way to New Orleans. What more could you want?

SCOTUS also blocks Louisiana anti-abortion law for now

Forgot to note this over the weekend.

Right there with them

Right there with them

The Supreme Court handed down a brief order Friday allowing four Louisiana abortion clinics to reopen after they were closed due to a recent decision by a conservative federal appeals court.

Last week, an especially conservative panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit handed down an “emergency” decision permitting an anti-abortion Louisiana law to go into effect. Under this law, physicians cannot perform abortions unless they have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital — an increasingly common requirement masterminded by an anti-abortion group that drafts model bills for state legislatures. A challenge to a similar Texas law is currently pending before the justices.

The Supreme Court’s order temporarily suspends the Louisiana law, effectively preventing the Fifth Circuit’s Wednesday decision from taking effect. Only Justice Clarence Thomas explicitly dissented from the Court’s order.

Monday’s order from the Supreme Court is not surprising — indeed, the most surprising thing is that the Fifth Circuit permitted the Louisiana law to briefly take effect despite clear signals from the Supreme Court that they should not do so. The justices twice stayed Fifth Circuit decisions permitting Texas’ similar, if more comprehensive, anti-abortion law from taking effect. The first time, the Supreme Court issued a partial stay permitting two clinics to be exempt from Texas’s new credentialing requirements for abortion doctors. The second time, the justices handed down a more comprehensive stay of what may be the Fifth Circuit’s most aggressive anti-abortion decision.

See here and here for a bit of background. ThinkProgress then goes on to explain why this order from SCOTUS is different from every other order from SCOTUS.

Friday afternoon, the Supreme Court handed down a very brief order allowing several Louisiana abortion clinics to reopen after a conservative federal appeals court forced them to shut down. Yet, while the Supreme Court’s order was very short — only slightly more than a paragraph long — it contained 14 more words than such an order normally would. And those 14 words appear to be a direct swipe at the appeals court that shut down Louisiana’s clinics in the first place.

[…]

Just one week before the Supreme Court heard these arguments, however, the Fifth Circuit handed down another anti-abortion decision. In June Medical Services v. Gee, the Fifth Circuit granted an “emergency” motion reinstating a Louisiana law that was expected to shut down all but one of that state’s abortion clinics. The Louisiana law at issue in June Medical Services closely resembles a provision of the Texas law at issue in Whole Woman’s Health.

The Fifth Circuit’s order in June Medical Services was surprising, largely because the Supreme Court had already dropped some pretty big clues that a majority of the justices disapprove of the Fifth Circuit’s decisions forcing abortion clinics to close. Among other things, the justices stayed the Fifth Circuit’s Whole Woman’s Health decision pending the Supreme Court’s own resolution of the case — effectively enabling many Texas abortion clinics to remain open that would be closed if the Fifth Circuit’s order were still in effect.

Nevertheless, the Fifth Circuit decided not to take the hint that Texas-style attempts to shut down clinics should be placed on hold. Instead, the Fifth Circuit claimed in June Medical Services that it was free ignore this hint because, when the Supreme Court stayed Whole Woman’s Health, it did so in a brief order without explaining its reasoning. “No guidance can be gleaned from the Supreme Court’s vacating portions of the stay without explanation,” according to the lower court, “as we cannot discern the underlying reasoning from the one-paragraph order.”

Which brings us back to the 14 significant words in the Supreme Court’s most recent order. “Consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole,” that order begins, the Fifth Circuit’s order reinstating the Louisiana law is vacated.

These 14 words are a subtle spanking, but they are a spanking nonetheless. They directly contradict the Fifth Circuit’s claim that it can ignore the Supreme Court’s previous stay orders if the lower court “cannot discern the underlying reasoning” behind those orders. And they rebut the Fifth Circuit’s logic on its own terms. Why shouldn’t lower courts allow Texas-style abortion restrictions to go into effect in the future? Because halting these laws is “consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole.”

So there you have it. ThinkProgress admits that one can over-read meaning into these situations, but coming off the way oral arguments for the HB2 case went, it’s hard not to feel a teeny bit of optimism. Not too much – let’s not get irrationally exuberant here – but a little. RH Reality Check and Slate have more.

Hey, how about another lawsuit against Obamacare?

Sure, why not?

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Six states filed a new lawsuit Wednesday against the Obama administration over the Affordable Care Act.

The complaint that Texas, Wisconsin, Kansas, Louisiana, Indiana and Nebraska filed in the Northern District of Texas takes issue with the Health Insurance Providers Fee assessed to health insurers to cover federal subsidies.

The lawsuit says nothing in the Affordable Care Act’s language provided clear notice that states would also have to pay the fee.

“This notice was not even provided by rule but was ultimately provided by a private entity wielding legislative authority,” the suit says.

The suit seeks an injunction against the federal rules that say states are responsible for the fee. It also asks that states be refunded for what they’ve already paid.

The story says that the total cost of these subsidies is “$13 billion and $15 billion from states over the next decade”, so we’re not talking budget-busting numbers. It’s more the principle of it, or at least I assume so given the characters in this drama. Maybe by the time this one reaches the Supreme Court, the Senate will have finally gotten around to confirming a ninth Justice. Maybe. Trail Blazers has more.