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Social Security Administration

Suing for same-sex death benefits

Married people receive death benefits when their spouses die. Unless your marriage isn’t recognized as legal by the state you live in. That’s the basis of this lawsuit.


An Austin woman filed a federal lawsuit Wednesday seeking to halt the Social Security Administration’s practice of withholding spousal benefits from gay couples who reside in states, like Texas, that ban same-sex marriage.

Kathy Murphy’s lawsuit argued that the practice perpetuates discrimination and unconstitutionally deprives same-sex couples of equal treatment under the law.

“With increasing frequency, state and federal executives and courts — including the United States Supreme Court — have recognized the patent discrimination and affront to dignity faced by same-sex couples whose families are denied the protections of marriage,” the lawsuit said.

Murphy and Sara Barker, Austin residents since 1984, were married in Massachusetts, where same-sex unions are legal, in 2010 after 30 years as a couple.

But after Barker died of cancer in 2012 at age 62, Murphy was denied spousal and death benefits because the Social Security agency determines whether couples are married based on the laws of the state where they live, not where they were married, according to the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.

“SSA’s incorporation of discriminatory state laws tells same-sex couples living in those states that their valid marriages are unworthy of federal recognition and equal treatment,” said the lawsuit, filed by lawyers with Lambda Legal, a national gay-rights legal advocacy organization.

Texas Politics has a copy of the suit. There are three other federal lawsuits against Texas’ same sex marriage ban that have been filed and are still active in the courts. One is DeLeon v. Perry, in which the ban was ruled unconstitutional and is awaiting an appellate hearing from the Fifth Circuit. The other two were filed in Austin and are separate from DeLeon despite Greg Abbott’s efforts to combine them. I’m assuming the two Austin suits have been combined, but I couldn’t verify that. Yet another lawsuit, this one filed in state court and having to do with parental and custodial rights, also resulted in a ruling that declared Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage to be unconstitutional. That one is awaiting appeal in the state’s Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. One would think this one would be straightforward given all that has gone on before it, but you never know. The one thing we do know is that Greg Abbott can’t wait to “just do his job”, which in this case involves defending the federal government. So ironic. Anyway, here’s Lambda Legal’s blog post and press release about the lawsuit, and Lone Star Q has more.

SOS ups the ante against Sumners

It’s getting real at the Tax Assessor’s office.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County election officials got a bit of a surprise Friday morning when they attempted to open the county’s spending account on the Texas Secretary of State’s office website and found their access blocked. State officials have temporarily cut off the county’s voter registration funding.

“We received verification from (state election division Director) Keith Ingram that funding was being held up,” said Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners.

Secretary of State spokesman Rich Parsons said state officials halted funding Tuesday after learning that Sumners refused to purge deceased voters from the voter rolls as required by federal and state law.


Sumners’ office collected about $711,000 in fiscal 2010 and about $66,000 in 2011. It has received about $31,000 of an expected $732,404 so far this year, Parsons said.

The spending account on the state agency’s website enables registrars to track voter registration funding expenditures and to submit reimbursement claims.

Sumners said the county needs the money to pay $7,500 in weekly wages to 18 temporary workers and to cover other costs.

“It will have a pretty dramatic effect on ability to process the work we need to do and other documents we need to complete to produce voter roll for the November election,” he said.

Sumners is not the only county official pushing back on this.

Dallas County Elections Administrator Toni Pippins-Poole said Wednesday that her office does not have sufficient staff or time to check out all names on a list sent out last week by the secretary of state indicating that some area voters may be deceased.

The secretary of state, acting under a 2011 law enacted by the Legislature, notified county officials across the state that nearly 77,000 voters may be dead and should be checked out locally to determine if they should be struck from voter rolls. About 9,000 voters in Dallas County were identified.

Pippins-Poole said it’s too close to the election to act, and doing so could jeopardize some citizens’ right to vote.

“We absolutely intend to comply with the law, but we need enough time to process these reviews,” she said. “Until we hear something different, we believe this is the best way to handle this.”

The secretary of state’s office compared current voter rolls with a master list of deceased or potentially deceased Texans compiled by the Social Security Administration. After its review, the state compiled a list of voters who had a “strong match” between the two lists and those who had a “weak match.”

Pippins-Poole said that of the 9,000 names from Dallas County, only 830 were found to have a strong match. All of those residents are being sent letters asking them to respond if they are alive and still registered to vote — but they will not have to do so until after the Nov. 6 election. A strong match means the same last name, birth date and full Social Security number on both lists.

As for the other voters who were identified by the state based on weak matches — the same last name and last four digits of the Social Security number — Pippins-Poole said her office will not pursue additional verification.

Far as I can tell, the SOS has not taken any action against Dallas County as of yet. As for Harris County, there may be a lawsuit on the horizon:

[County Attorney Vince] Ryan responded to Ingram’s letter Wednesday. He said that his office reviewed Sumners’ and the county’s actions and was confident that neither had violated federal or state law.

“The letter did not cite any specific statute or rule that was allegedly violated nor does it state any basis for denial of funds under (Texas Election Code) 18.064,” Ryan wrote.

He also threatened to sue the state if it attempts “to withhold funds without a proper legal basis.”

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to hear how Greg Abbott justifies the use of a filthy federal database to force elections administrators in the State of Texas to do something they don’t think is right.

SOS versus Sumners

It’s not a steel cage death match, but it’ll do.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a strongly worded letter today, the Texas Secretary of State’s office told Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector and Voter Registrar Don Sumners that his decision not to purge presumed-dead voters from the rolls before the Nov. 6 election likely violates the law and compromises the “integrity” of the Nov. 6 election.


“As director of the elections division, it is my duty to inform you that your actions likely constitute violations of both state and federal laws and put the integrity of Harris County and the State’s voter registration lists as well as the integrity of the November 6 General Election in jeopardy,” Keith Ingram wrote to Sumners. “As always, my door is open to assist you with any difficulties you have in carrying out your duties as voter registrar, or if you are unable to fulfill those duties. Should you be unwilling to fulfill your duties, this office will then evaluate what options to take on behalf of the citizens of Harris County.”

Ingram also noted that Sumners’ failure to comply with state requirements “means that the registrar is not entitled to receive voter registration funds distributed by the Secretary of State’s office.”

Assistant County Attorney Doug Ray took strong issue with the state’s letter.

“They didn’t actually specify how he’s violating the law. He sent out the letters they asked him to send out. He’s just saying that, based on the reaction he’s getting, he can’t consider the information that they sent to him reliable, which is certainly within his discretion to do,” Ray said. “If they would spend as much time getting people who are qualified on to the voter registration list as they’re spending trying to get unqualified people off, we’d all be a lot better off.”

Ray’s boss, Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan, yesterday said he believes the Secretary of State’s office violated the law in the way it implemented this voter purge. Ryan also released a legal memorandum stating the reasoning behind his position.

One key in his argument is that the law says “If the secretary (of state) determines that a voter on the registration list is deceased, the secretary shall send notice of the determination to the voter registrar of the counties.” Ryan says the state never made any “determination” about the life or death of the people on the list it sent to the county.

The Secretary of State’s office disagrees with Ryan’s reading of the law, saying an accompanying passage that was part of House Bill 174 (the law that required the use of this Social Security data in the first place) requires no such “determination” and supersedes the passage Ryan cites.

Any lawyers want to weigh in on this? I’m still wrapping my mind around Sumners being the good guy in all this. If I were Sean Pendergast I could probably find some pro wrestling analogy to encapsulate this, but I’m afraid I wasted my youth on other things. We’ll see how it goes from here.

UPDATE: A nice bit of snarkery related by Patricia Kilday Hart:

Spring retiree David Smith, who received one of Sumners’ notices, wondered if the whole effort wasn’t a case of voter fraud. After all, we’ve been there’s an epidemic of it going around.

Smith responded to his own death notice from Sumners with the appropriate Twain-ism:

“As Mark Twain would have it ‘Rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. … A little research should have convinced you, in short order, that I am, in fact, still able to fog a mirror.”

Smith also contacted Attorney General Greg Abbott, who has vigorously defended our state’s new Voter ID effort.

Wrote Smith: “Someone apparently, has reported my death to Harris County in order, presumably, to disenfranchise me. I would request that your office execute a thorough investigation and, if appropriate, prosecute the perpetrator or perpetrators to the full extent allowed by law and with the same vigor as you have defended the proposed Texas Voter ID law before the Courts of the United States.”

I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Not dead yet

As they say, reports of their deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Harris County Tax Assessor-Collector Don Sumners said Monday that he would not purge from the voter roll before the November election any of the 9,018 citizens who received letters from his office in recent days notifying them that they may be dead and are at risk of having their registrations canceled.

However, a spokesman for the Texas secretary of state, the office that generated the statewide list of about 80,000 voters, said Sumners’ move contradicts legislative directives.

“Our office has federal and state requirements to maintain an accurate and secure voter registration list. If any of those people are deceased, the law requires that they be removed from the voter registration list ,” Rich Parsons said. “Mr. Sumners’ decision would prevent that.”

The letters, many of which were delivered Friday and Saturday, asked recipients to verify within 30 days that they are alive or be cut from the roll.

Sumners, who also is the county’s voter registrar, said conversations with the Secretary of State’s Office convinced him the list of possible dead was too unreliable to act on until after the Nov. 6 election.

“We’re not even going to process any of the cancellations until after the election,” Sumners said. “Because we’ve gotten such a response from people that say that they are still alive.”


House Bill 174, passed last year, required the secretary of state to purge possibly dead voters quarterly using data from the Social Security Administration, Parsons said; the office long has used similar data from the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

“The process is nothing new,” he said. “What’s new is the use of the Social Security Administration’s death master file. The Social Security Administration, as I understand it, had made clear to our office that they don’t guarantee or provide any assurance of the accuracy of their list.”

The Secretary of State’s Office and local tax offices regularly purge dead voters from the rolls, based on information from several sources. In some cases, the voter’s birth date, name, or other identifying data is considered a strong enough match to death records to remove the voter from the roll automatically; when the match is weaker, the voter is sent a letter giving him an opportunity to prove he is alive. Last week’s batch mailing was unusually large, local and state officials said.

Perhaps the problem was with HB174, which passed with bipartisan support despite these issues. As with the voter registration restrictions that are being litigated, this bill got very little attention as it was being debated. State Sen. Rodney Ellis has some questions for the SOS about this that deserve answers. I just wish some of these questions had been brought up last year. We’ve discussed the challenges of registration purges before. This is another example of why they should be undertaken with extreme caution to add to the pile. I don’t say this very often, but kudos to Don Sumners for doing the right thing. I hope other county voter registrars follow his example if they have similar doubts.

I can’t be the only one who read this story and thought of this, can I?

You’re not fooling anyone, you know.

Happy birthday, Jacob!

Meet the newest most popular boy’s name in Texas.

For the first time in more than a decade of dueling to become the most popular baby boy name in Texas, if infant Jacobs could talk, they’d have said “No way, Jose!” in 2010.

Since 1996, Jose has been the top name for baby boys in the Lone Star state, according to Social Security Administration popular baby names database. Those little guys have edged out the longtime second-place Jacobs for the top slot since 1998.

However, Jacob joined Isabella atop the list of the most popular names for newborns in Texas and in Houston in 2010. Jose landed at No. 2 statewide.

The story notes the “Twilight” connection, about which the less said, the better. As for me, I remember seeing a production at the now-defunct Radio Music Theater back in the 90s, in which the father of the house addresses his teenage daughter’s boyfriend as “Michael”. When the boy asks him how he knew his name was Michael, the father says “Well, aren’t most boys your age named Michael?” Clearly, not any more they’re not – “Michael” wasn’t even in the top ten for Houston.

The Houston list also turned out some originals on the pink side from Aabida to Zyrianna and Aa’den to Z’yun on the blue side.

One girl each received these names: Amazing-Grace, A’Miracle, Apple, Babygirl, Beyonce, Dae’Gorgeous, Elektra, Forever, Gorgeousg’zaiya, Myranique, Paisley-Ann, Passion, Praisegod and Radiance.

Some of the more creative boy names appeared inspired by faith: Divinefavour, Ezra-Nehemiah, Godswill, Goodness, JesusNazaret and King-David. Other little guys were dubbed Baby Boy, Clever, Handsome, Sir Genius, Memphiz and Tuff. In true Texas flair, one boy was named Stetson and another’s first name: Dallas Cowboys.

I got nothing. Talk amongst yourselves.