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January 2020 campaign finance reports: Statewide

There’s a whole lot of candidates of interest for state offices. I’m going to break them down into several groups, to keep things simple and the posts not too long. Today we will look at the candidates for statewide office. This will include the statewide judicial races, and both Republicans and Democrats. I have previously done the Harris County reports.

Roberto Alonzo, RRC
Chrysta Castaneda, RRC
Kelly Stone, RRC
Mark Watson, RRC

Ryan Sitton, RRC

Amy Clark Meachum, Supreme Court, Chief Justice
Jerry Zimmerer, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

Kathy Cheng, Supreme Court, Place 6
Lawrence Praeger, Supreme Court, Place 6

Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

Brandy Voss, Supreme Court, Place 7
Staci Williams, Supreme Court, Place 7

Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

Peter Kelly, Supreme Court, Place 8
Gisela Triana, Supreme Court, Place 8

Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

William Demond, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3
Elizabeth Frizell, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3
Dan Wood, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3

Gina Parker, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3
Bert Richardson, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3

Tina Clinton, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4
Steve Miears, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4

Kevin Yeary, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4

Brandon Birmingham, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9

David Newell, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9


Candidate     Raised     Spent     Loan     On Hand
===================================================
Alonzo         1,500     8,458    7,340       3,840
Castaneda     46,297    42,196   26,000      46,297
Stone         25,331    23,465    3,875       3,018
Watson           750     3,762        0         750

Sitton       480,850   154,832  378,899   2,514,759

Meachum      139,370    42,854        0     119,067
Zimmerer      10,680    22,213   20,000      45,251

Hecht        296,168   146,575        0     531,660

Cheng          1,315    41,200   84,167       8,129
Praeger        1,280     5,227   10,000       1,280

Bland        335,707    73,945        0     277,965

Voss         100,696   135,076  100,000     169,470
Williams      55,154   105,936        0      59,074

Boyd         134,844   100,193      177     562,533

Kelly         30,527     7,037        0      50,963
Triana       100,970    39,710        0     106,577

Busby        260,378   129,825        0     542,918

Demond        4,250      5,050    5,000       3,599
Frizell       1,000        988        0          11
Wood          6,490     68,592        0      41,291

Parker       58,195     82,247   25,000      21,055
Richardson   52,975     21,690    4,500      35,207

Clinton           0     10,216   25,000       4,944
Miears            0      3,750        0           0

Yeary        14,355     11,203    3,004       6,245

Birmingham   29,770     16,375   10,960      25,003

Newell        8,879      7,370        0       1,391

Railroad Commissioner is not a high profile office and not one for which a bunch of money is usually raised, though Ryan Sitton has clearly made good use of his five-plus years on the job. If you’ve listened to my interviews with Chrysta Castañeda and Kelly Stone, you know that I’m a little scarred by goofy results in some of our statewide primaries in recent cycles. Strange things can and do happen when people have no idea who the candidates are, as the likes of Grady Yarbrough and Jim Hogan can attest. On the plus side, I’d say three of the four candidates running in this primary would be fine – Castañeda and Stone are actively campaigning, Roberto Alonzo is a former State Rep, you can have confidence they’ll do their best. As for Mark Watson, at least I could identify him via a Google search. It’s a low bar to clear, you know?

I don’t often look at finance reports for judicial candidates – there’s just too many of them, for one thing, and they usually don’t tell you much. None of what I see here is surprising. The Republican incumbents have a few bucks, though none of their totals mean anything in a statewide context. I’m guessing the Dems with bigger totals to report had cash to transfer from their existing accounts, as District Court or Appeals court judges. It’s possible, if we really do see evidence of the state being a tossup, that some PAC money will get pumped into these races, for the purpose of making sure people don’t skip them. Everyone has to be concerned about the potential for undervotes to have an effect on the outcome, in this first year of no straight ticket voting.

As for the Court of Criminal Appeals, well, the money’s on the civil side of the house. It is what it is. I’ll be back with the Lege next, and then the SBOE and State Senate after that.

Flynn officially on HD138 primary ballot

Score two for formerly-booted candidates.

Josh Flynn

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

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

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

An attorney for Simpson and the party echoed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

We continue to wait on the District B runoff

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

We should have a full statewide slate

Nice.

Judge Gisela Triana

For Brandon Birmingham, a state district judge in Dallas, the 2020 race for Texas Court of Criminal Appeals started on election night 2018.

As he watched Beto O’Rourke win more votes than any Texas Democrat ever had in a statewide race, Birmingham — who himself won reelection that night with 100% of the vote in his countywide district — began to mull his own chances at winning Texas. Within weeks, he’d reached out to the state Democratic Party. By December, he’d sat down with party officials over breakfast in Dallas to discuss a possible run.

Now, as the 2020 election season begins in earnest after the start of the filing period Nov. 9, Birmingham is one of 14 Democrats seeking one of seven seats on the state’s two high courts — an unusually crowded and unusually qualified field for races that have over the past two decades plus proved suicide missions for Democrats. This year, with a controversial Republican president on the ballot and sky-high stakes for Texas Democrats, candidates are hoping the races look more like heroes’ journeys.

“In 2018, 2016, 2014, 2012, the last four cycles, the month of October was spent talking and begging people to come to us, to run for these kinds of offices,” said Glen Maxey, a former Texas House member who is coordinating statewide judicial races for the Texas Democratic Party. “That’s what’s different about 2020. We did not make a single phone call. … We have not twisted a single arm about doing this.”

In past years, Maxey said, the party was often scrambling to find “any qualified attorney” to put on the ballot. This year, nearly every race involves at least one sitting judge or justice with years of experience.

[…]

Strategists sometimes consider statewide judicial races the best measure of the state’s true partisan split: Whom do voters pick when they know little or nothing about either party’s candidate?

Statewide judicial races are “important to watch in terms of partisan vote behavior,” said Mike Baselice, a GOP pollster. They show a “good reflection of base Democratic and base Republican vote in the state.”

That also means that judicial candidates typically rise and fall as a slate: Most likely, either all of them will win or none of them will, strategists acknowledge. It’s a blunt theory, but it offers clear strategic guidance: A rising tide lifts all boats.

“We won’t have them each deciding to be at the same chicken fry in Parker County on the same Friday,” Maxey said. Instead, he said, they’ll tell nominees: “We need you to travel. We need you to be making appearances as seven people in seven different media markets every day, so that people are hearing a Democratic message about equal justice, all over, everywhere.”

I agree with Mike Baselice that judicial races do indeed do a good job of measuring partisan vote behavior. As you know, I’ve been using CCA races across the years as my point of comparison. I like judicial races at the county level even more because they are almost always straight up R-versus-D contests, but a lot of these go uncontested in counties that have strong partisan leans, so the statewides are the best overall proxy.

By that measure, 2018 was easily the most Democratic year in recent memory. The Supreme Court and CCA Democratic candidates ranged from 45.48% (in a race that included a Libertarian) to 46.83%, the best showing since Sam Houston got 45.88% in 2008 and Margaret Mirabal got 45.90% in 2002. I’d quibble slightly with the assertion that all the Dems will win or none of them will – there is some spread in these races, so if the state is basically 50-50, you could have a couple Dems sneak through while others just fall short. That’s basically what happened in Harris County judicial races in 2008 and 2012, after all. The presence or absence of third party candidates could be a factor as well, as more candidates in the race means fewer votes, and only a plurality, are needed to win. Again, this is only relevant if the state is truly purple, and the range of outcomes that include a split in the judicial races is narrow, but it could happen.

My one complaint here is that the story only names one Democratic CCA candidate, while teasing that there are many more. So I asked some questions, of reporter Emma Platoff and Patrick Svitek, reporter and proprietor of the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet of announced candidates, and now that Statewide tab is full. Here. for your perusal, are your Democratic statewide judicial candidates:

Amy Clark Meachum – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)
Jerry Zimmerer – Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice)

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

Kelly is a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, elected in 2018. He doesn’t appear to have an online campaign presence yet, but a search for “peter kelly texas supreme court” yielded this.

William Demond is a “constitutional rights attorney” in Houston. Elizabeth Frizell is a former County Criminal Court judge in Dallas who ran for Dallas County DA in 2018 but lost in the primary. This story in The Appeal has some information about her candidacy from that year. Dan Wood is a criminal appellate lawyer who ran for the Fifth Court of Appeals in 2012 and for CD05 in 2018.

Brandon Birmingham, the one candidate named in the story, was elected to the 292nd Criminal District Court in Dallas in 2014, re-elected in 2018.

Tina Clinton serves as Criminal District Judge Dallas County Number 1, which is a felony court. I don’t know why the nomenclature is different from the other District Courts as I had not heard of this kind of court before, but similarly-named courts exist in Tarrant and Jefferson counties as well. She was elected to this court after serving eight years as a County Criminal Court judge, and you can scroll down the 2018 election results page to see more judges like her. Steve Miears is a criminal and criminal appellate attorney from Grapevine.

And now we’re as up to date as we can be The Secretary of State is now providing candidate filing information, which tells me that as of Friday Lawrence Praeger was the only one to have formally filed. More are to follow, and I’ll keep an eye on it.

Filing period preview: Statewide

Previously: Congress. As before, I am using the Patrick Svitek spreadsheet as my primary reference.

Statewide elections are much less exciting in Presidential years in Texas, since the state offices are on the ballot in the off years. We do have a US Senate race of interest, which I think you are familiar with. Beyond that, there’s the one Railroad Commission spot (there are three Railroad Commissioners, they serve six year terms, with one slot up for election each cycle), and the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals positions. We’ll take a look at those this time around.

Railroad Commissioner: We discussed this recently. Chrysta Castañeda and Kelly Stone are in, 2016 candidate Cody Garrett is thinking about it, and I will worry about Grady Yarbrough rising like a zombie to sow chaos until the filing deadline.

Supreme Court: There are four races, thanks to a previous retirement and appointment by Greg Abbott. Three of the races are contested.

Against Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, in Position 1, we have Amy Clark Meachum, a District Court judge in Travis County first elected in 2010, and Jerry Zimmerer, a Harris County judge elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2018.

For Position 7 against Jeff Boyd, the candidates are Brandy Voss, an attorney and law professor from McAllen, and Staci Williams, a District Court judge from Dallas County, first elected in 2014.

Position 6 is the open seat, where Jeff Brown was replaced by Jane Bland, a former First Court of Appeals judge who was defeated in 2018. Kathy Cheng, a Houston attorney who ran for this same position in 2018, finishing with 46.3% of the vote, and Lawrence Praeger, also a Houston attorney, are the contenders.

Position 8, held by Brett Busby, is the only one that has a lone Democrat, at least so far. Gisela Triana, a longtime District Court judge in Travis County who was elected to the Third Court of Appeals in 2018.

Court of Criminal Appeals: Three positions are up, as per usual: Bert Richardson (Place 3), Kevin Yeary (Place 4), and David Newell (Place 9). There are candidates running for Place 6, except that that election may not happen this cycle. The spreadsheet only lists the Place 3 race and doesn’t mention any Dem candidates, so at this point I don’t have any knowledge to drop on you. I’m sure there are people running for these positions, but for what it’s worth the one statewide office that Dems did not challenge in 2018 was a CCA slot. I will of course keep my eyes open for this.

Next up: SBOE, State Senate, and State House. Let me know what you think.

Suing ERCOT

Interesting.

Panda Power built three power plants earlier in this decade, investing billions of dollars based on projections from the state’s grid manager that Texas desperately needed more generation to meet growing electricity demand. But those projections turned out to be wildly wrong — Texas, in fact, had plenty of power — and Panda ended up losing billions of dollars and putting one of the plants into bankruptcy, unable to sell electricity at prices sufficient to cover debts.

The Dallas company is now in court, alleging that the Electric Reliability Council of Texas intentionally manipulated the projections to encourage new power plant construction and relieve the political pressure that was building on the grid manager to increase generation in the state. The case has implications that reach beyond whether Panda gets its money back to issues as profound as the reliability of power grid, the integrity of the wholesale electricity market and the accountability of an organization whose decisions affect thousands of businesses, millions of people and billions of dollars.

The Texas Supreme Court is considering whether ERCOT, a private, nonprofit corporation, is entitled to its sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governments and their agencies from lawsuits. The high court’s decision, expected later this year, could determine whether electricity buyers and sellers can hold the grid manager responsible for pricing errors, mistake-ridden forecasts or life-and-death consequences of power outages.

These problems aren’t just hypothetical. After a data error this spring forced electricity buyers to pay millions of dollars more than they should have, ERCOT declined to reprice the power, arguing that such errors are so frequent that continual repricing would disrupt the electricity market.

Case details are here. I have no idea how this may play out, but it’s one of those things that no one is paying attention to that may turn out to be a big deal, so I figured it was worth noting. I’ll keep an eye on it.

There’s no reason to trust the Republican study to “reform” the judicial election process

Oh, hell no.

After a punishing election for Republican judges, state leaders are set to take a long look at Texas’ often-criticized judicial selection system — a partisan election structure that Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht has described as “among the very worst methods of judicial selection.”

This summer, Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law creating a commission to study the issue — signaling that the GOP-led Legislature could overhaul the system as soon as 2021. That move comes after Democrats killed a sweeping reform proposal that Abbott had quietly backed.

In Texas, one of just a few states that maintains a system of partisan judicial selection all the way up through its high courts, judges are at the mercy of the political winds. They are required to run as partisans but expected to rule impartially. They are forced to raise money from the same lawyers who will appear before them in court. And in their down-ballot, low-information races, their fates tend to track with the candidates at the top of the ticket.

That means political waves that sweep out of office good and bad, experienced and inexperienced judges alike. And while sweeps are perennial problems for the judiciary, 2018’s elections “set records,” said Tom Phillips, a former Texas Supreme Court chief justice.

Democrats, riding on the coattails of Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, left the election with majorities on appeals courts where they had previously held zero seats. Republicans were entirely shut out of major urban counties. Voters, largely uninformed about judicial races, differentiated very little between well-funded, experienced candidates and those who had done little but throw their hats in the ring. The judiciary lost hundreds of years of experience.

“Make no mistake: A judicial selection system that continues to sow the political wind will reap the whirlwind,” Hecht warned lawmakers in January, exhorting them to change the system.

But reform is similarly fraught with politics. Voters don’t like having choices taken away from them, even if vanishingly few recognize judicial candidates’ names on the ballot. And any new system has to win the approval of both parties, as a two-thirds majority in each chamber is required for the constitutional amendment needed to change the system.

[…]

Texas Republicans dominate the state’s judiciary: All nine members on each of the state’s two high courts are Republicans, as are lower-court judges across much of the state. But that dominance began to wilt after last fall’s elections, particularly on intermediate courts of appeals, where Democrats now hold majorities on 7 of 14 courts.

After scores of Republican judges lost their jobs last fall, Abbott set about appointing many of them back to the bench. He also became more vocal on the issue of judicial selection reform.

Eyebrows went up in February, when he tweeted a Houston Chronicle column criticizing the partisan judicial election system. The governor commented, “We need judges devoted to the constitution and strict application of the law, not to the political winds of the day.”

Advocates began to believe this might be the year to push the issue — or at least to tee it up for a big swing in 2021. It was around that time that a group of would-be reformers — attorneys, former judges and donors — formed a non-profit organization, Citizens for Judicial Excellence in Texas, to push the issue in Austin. One lobbyist registered to represent the group at the Capitol this spring.

With powerful supporters in his ear calling for change, Abbott was also pushing the issue more quietly. In March, he met with state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, a Republican lawyer from Lubbock. Two days later, on the Legislature’s filing deadline, Landgraf proposed a constitutional amendment that would have overhauled the system, centralizing much of the power to pick judges in the governor’s office.

The Landgraf pitch — which ultimately stalled out for a lack of bipartisan support — would have scrapped the partisan judicial election system, replacing it with a multi-step process: gubernatorial appointment, qualifications evaluation by a non-partisan commission, Texas Senate confirmation and retention elections. Since judges tend to win retention elections, barring scandal, the proposal would effectively have allowed Abbott to appoint judges likely to serve for three four-year terms — giving Republican-appointed judges a dozen years in power even as Texas creaks toward the political center.

Landgraf’s proposal carved out small, rural — conservative — counties, where voters would still have had the opportunity to elect judges on partisan ballots, unless they voted to opt into the appointment system.

Landgraf’s pitch, blessed by Abbott, didn’t sit well with Democrats, who demanded to know why the urban centers they and their colleagues represent would be treated differently from Republican strongholds. They feared overhauling the system would mean losing the new class of Democratic judges elected in last year’s sweep — a class that brought unprecedented diversity to the bench. And they questioned whether centralizing that power in Abbott’s office might effectively give the Republicans control over the judiciary for longer than the party can hold the other two branches of government.

In April, a House committee hosted a spirited debate on the bill, then left the pitch pending. Landgraf said he wouldn’t push to advance it without bipartisan support; Democrats cheered its defeat.

First of all, no way is it acceptable to put this power in the hands of the Governor. Putting aside who the governor is now, how does that take the politics out of the process? All it does is incentivize anyone who wants to be a judge to suck up to the Governor. Sure, you could redesign things so that no one person or one party has control over the process, but any way you slice it you are granting this power to a small, unelected, unrepresentative group of people. But if this does get traction, then no way do “small rural counties” get exempted from it. If this is a good system for Harris and Dallas, it’s a good system for Loving and Deaf Smith.

But the bottom line remains that this is only ever an issue when Democrats have a good year at the ballot box. The first time Republicans started talking about changing the partisan election system was in 2008. It then got mostly dropped (except for its most ardent supporters, and I will admit that the likes of Wallace Jefferson and Nathan Hecht continued to bang this drum at every opportunity) in the 2010 to 2014 period, only to be revived in 2016. First they ended straight ticket voting (though not in time for 2018, poor things), and now this. The goal is to install Republican judges, hopefully before Democrats can elect a majority to either of the statewide courts. Come back with a proposal that isn’t primarily about that, and then maybe we can talk. Until then, there’s no reason for any Democratic legislator to support this.

Using floodplain rules to force environmental safety compliance

A county’s gotta do what a county’s gotta do.

Harris County officials are using flood control regulations passed after Hurricane Harvey to delay the reopening of two chemical companies where fires erupted in recent weeks, killing one worker and sending large plumes of black smoke into the Houston area.

The Harris County Attorney’s office cited the post-Harvey rules on floodplain construction and stormwater drainage in its civil lawsuits against KMCO and Intercontinental Terminals Co., where cleanup is still ongoing after the fires.

“We don’t shy away from going after the biggest, baddest companies out there,” said Harris County Attorney Vince Ryan. “It sends a message to everyone.”

The county is digging through maps and available data to determine if both companies are in a floodplain. The new regulations put chemical facilities that are in a 500-year floodplain under tighter scrutiny.

The drainage rules restrict discharges of hazardous materials into the county’s stormwater system. If a company is found to have discharged hazardous materials, it can be cited by the county. Larger releases could lead to additional legal action.

The floodplain rules apply to more than facilities with fires and toxic releases and can force companies to meet new requirements when seeking to expand or change an existing facility, said Rock Owens, managing attorney for the Harris County Attorney’s environmental section.

The story doesn’t go into detail about what compliance issues there are and how long they may take to resolve. You may be thinking “why doesn’t the county file a lawsuit against these companies to force them to fix their problems?” The answer is that this used to be how things went, but your Texas legislature has taken steps to shackle counties and their enforcement efforts.

But in 2015, the state Legislature started taking away authority from the local governments. Lawmakers approved a bill capping the amount of money a local government could receive from civil penalties sought in environmental cases.

In 2017, another bill passed forcing local authorities to ask permission from the Texas attorney general before seeking penalties. If the attorney general’s office does not file its own suit in 90 days, the local government can go forward with a civil suit.

Lawmakers are currently considering two bills that would restrict local governments even more.

House Bill 3981, filed by state Rep. Jeff Leach, R-Plano, would give the attorney general the authority to settle lawsuits started by the county, without the approval of the county.

House bill 2826, filed by state Rep. Greg Bonnen, R-Friendswood and three others, would let the attorney general prohibit the county from hiring outside attorneys on cases.

“The concern isn’t that the local governments are intentionally causing any problems with these suits, just that a more efficient state-led effort may at times be more desirable,” said Justin Till, Bonnen’s chief of staff.

More desirable for the polluters, that’s for sure. Let’s be very clear, the main reason why bills like these get passed are specifically to muzzle Harris County’s enforcement efforts. (The city of Houston’s efforts were killed by the Supreme Court.) It’s a pollution-friendly Republican Legislature taking care of bad actors, aided and abetted by the business lobby. You know what I’m going to say next: Nothing will change until we change who we elect.

More on McLeod

Here’s the Chron story on the bizarre accidental judicial resignation.

Judge William McLeod

The Harris County attorney’s office was notified in March that Judge Bill McLeod, a Democrat presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4, had filed a transfer of campaign treasurer appointment with the Texas Ethics Commission stating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court.

Unbeknownst to McLeod, this filing triggered Article 16, Section 65 of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial post an automatic resignation.

“This is insane,” McLeod said Wednesday. “All of the judges are going, ‘You did what? How? We didn’t even know (the constitutional provision) existed.’”

McLeod, who was elected in November, hopes that a different provision of the constitution will help rectify his mistake. Article 16, Section 17 states that a county Commissioners Court is not required to appoint a successor after a county officer resigns, and “may allow the officeholder who resigned…to remain in office” as a holdover. If this happens, McLeod would have to run again in 2020 even though he was elected to a four-year term.

[…]

McLeod is not the first judicial officer to fall victim to this provision. In 2013, Irene Rios, then a Bexar County (San Antonio) court-at-law judge, told county commissioners she intended to run for chief justice of the 4th Court of Appeals, triggering her automatic resignation. Rios remained in her seat for four weeks after her announcement before tendering her letter of resignation, and she continued to make legal rulings during that time.

A 1999 amendment to the Texas Supreme Court judicial code of conduct further affirms that judges can continue to hold judicial office while being a candidate for another judicial office.

[…]

Rodney Ellis, a Democratic commissioner, was noncommittal on McLeod’s future, stating: “I firmly believe that any action taken by Commissioners Court on this matter must uphold the Texas Constitution above all else and that principle is what will ultimately guide my decision on Tuesday.”

Commissioner Adrian Garcia and a spokeswoman for County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the two other Democrats on the court, did not respond to requests for comment.

Republican Commissioner Steve Radack said he would not be receptive to appointing a holdover for a judicial post.

“If he’s resigned then how can you justify having him as a holdover?” Radack said. “That’s certainly not the spirit of the law.”

See here for the background. As the story notes, the judicial code of conduct doesn’t override the Constitution, it just allows judges that aren’t subject to that Constitutional provision to run for other office while remaining on the bench. If you look at Chapter 16, Section 65, all the offices in question are county offices except for District Attorney. It’s a quirk of the code that’s surely a holdover from an earlier time (note the inclusion of public weighers), and when you think about it there’s no real logic to limiting that restriction to just those offices. But that’s the Constitution we have, so here we are.

As to what happens, who knows? Either three Commissioners agree with the argument that it doesn’t make sense to kick McLeod off the bench, thus allowing him to hold over till the 2020 election, or they don’t. Note that if McLeod has his sights on the Supreme Court, he would have to step down after 2020 anyway, as he wouldn’t be able to run to fill the remainder of his term. It’s a coin toss either way, and I don’t envy any member of Commissioners Court the decision.

UPDATE: The Washington Post covers the story, reprinted by the Trib.

UPDATE: Here’s a detailed legal argument in favor of retaining Judge McLeod, sent to me by Adam Milasincic. It’s pretty persuasive.

Same sex employee benefits lawsuit tossed again

This is great, but as always that’s not the end of it.

The lawsuit dates back to 2013, when pastor Jack Pidgeon and accountant Larry Hicks sued the city to end the policy. In 2015, after the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the landmark Obergefell ruling that opened up marriage rights to same-sex couples in all states, Pidgeon and Hicks continued to pursue the lawsuit, arguing that the decision did not extend to the right to city spousal benefits.

In June 2017, the Texas Supreme Court agreed, ruling unanimously that while same-sex marriage had been made legal, there is still room for state courts to explore the “reach and ramifications” of the landmark Obergefell ruling. The all-Republican high court sent the case back to a Houston trial court for further consideration.

Nearly two years later, Judge Sonya Heath on Monday threw out the case, ruling for Houston in what the city has touted as a major win.

“This is a victory for equality, the law of our nation and human rights,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said in a statement Thursday evening. “I thank our Legal Department for its diligent work defending common sense and fairness, and I’m glad we get to continue the policy established by the city 6 years ago.”

Still, that win won’t go unchallenged. Jared Woodfill, the lawyer who represents Pidgeon and Hicks, said Thursday night that his clients will appeal the ruling — and that he expects the case to land again before the Texas Supreme Court and that it could eventually be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s a bunch of blathering by Jared Woodfill in the story about how unfair it was that a Democratic judge, who ousted the Republican judge that originally gave him an injunction that was quickly overridden, got to rule on his case, while also gloating that Republican judges up the line and on SCOTUS will surely be in the bag for him. He failed to mention that the only reason this case is still being litigated is because the State Supreme Court bowed to political pressure after initially giving him the brushoff. I don’t know what will happen in this case once the appeals process starts up again, but I do know two things. One is that Woodfill and his crank case plaintiffs represent a shrinking fringe, and two is that we need to win more elections so we can pass some more robust laws protecting the fundamental rights of all Americans. (Honestly, just ensuring that no more bad legislation gets passed would be a big step forward.) Mayor Turner’s press release has more.

Texas Central gets an adverse court ruling

Hard to say how much effect this will have.

The planned high-speed rail project from Houston to Dallas hit a big obstacle last week in rural Leon County when a judge there declared the project’s backers did not have authority to force landowners to sell or provide access to properties.

Opponents of the rail project on Monday cheered the ruling as a death knell for the line — albeit one that will take years to savor and finalize.

“This project cannot be finished without eminent domain and the project is completely off track,” said Blake Beckham, the Dallas lawyer who has represented opponents of the Texas Central Railway project.

Company officials said Monday many of the opponents’ claims and the significance of the ruling were exaggerated.

“Texas Central is appealing the Leon County judge’s decision and, meanwhile, it is moving forward on all aspects of the train project,” the company said in a statement.

The heart of many of the legal fights, and Monday’s decision, center on whether the company is, in fact, a railroad. Backers since 2014 have insisted the project — using Japanese bullet trains to connect Houston and Dallas via 90-minute trips as 220 mph — is a railroad and entitled to access to property to conduct surveys and acquire property via eminent domain.

“Texas has long allowed survey access by railroads like Texas Central, pipelines, electrical lines and other industries that provide for a public good and a strong economy,” the company said.

Opponents have insisted that since the company does not operate as a railroad, owns no trains and has not laid a single piece of track. it is not eligible for the access.

“Simply self-declaring that you are a railroad … does not make it so,” said Kyle Workman, one of the founders of Texans Against High-Speed Rail.

Judge Deborah Evans of the 87th District Court agreed, issuing an order Friday that found Texas Central and another company it formed “are not a railroad or interurban electric company.”

[…]

The ruling covers Freestone, Leon, and Limestone counties where the line is planned.

In previous court cases related to land access in Harris County and Ellis County, the company has been denied access or dropped its request in the face of mounting questions from the court or opponents.

“They have lost every single legal interaction,” Beckham said.

Texas Central disputed that in a statement.

“A judge in Ellis County said trials should be held on survey cases for three local property owners,” the company said. “The judge did not rule on the merits of those cases, instead only saying they should proceed to trial.”

See here and here for some background. We’re still very early in the legal process, with some procedural rulings but nothing decided on the merits yet. It will be years before the courts sort it all out, and nothing will be settled until the Supreme Court weighs in. In the meantime, there will be further attempts by members of the Lege to put roadblocks in Texas Central’s way. KUHF has more.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

The Innocence Project and the prosecutor

Fascinating case.

Attorneys with the group that helped exonerate Texan Michael Morton two decades after he was wrongly convicted of killing his wife were back at the Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday. But this time, instead of uncovering prosecutorial misconduct, they were sticking up for a former prosecuting attorney who they say should be a model for how to do the job.

Eric Hillman was an assistant district attorney in Nueces County who was fired in 2014 after refusing to follow a supervisor’s order to hide evidence that was favorable to a defendant in a felony intoxication assault case.

The New York-based Innocence Project took on Hillman’s case in March after lower courts dismissed his wrongful termination lawsuit, citing Texas sovereign immunity laws that protect government agencies from lawsuits in the interest of saving taxpayers money.

Hillman’s attorneys, Chris Gale and Philip Durst, a lawyer with the Innocence Project, argued that his firing goes against a state law designed to prevent wrongful convictions. They also asked the court to amend a 1985 ruling to give prosecutors and district attorneys additional protection if they are fired for refusing to break the law.

“The state has had more exonerations than any other, and has taken remarkable steps to prevent wrongful convictions by passing a series of laws to correct the system’s flaws,” said Nina Morrison, an attorney with the Innocence Project, in a statement. “But these new laws can only work if the prosecutors who enforce them are also protected.”

The Innocence Project helped argue the case before the Supreme Court, the first time in the organization’s 27-year history that its lawyers appeared in court on behalf of a prosecutor. The nonprofit legal group is best known for helping exonerate 350 wrongfully convicted individuals.

So consider this another reminder that taking the time and making the effort to achieve justice rather than rack up results means fewer innocent people in jail, more guilty people being arrested, and far less resources being used on the back end trying to fix the godawful mess that sloppy, indifferent, and often racist prosecutions create. Sure seems to me like the better way to go.

Initial reactions: Statewide

I’m going to do a few of these “Initial reaction” posts about Tuesday’s elections as I try to make sense of all that happened. Here we go.

Let me start with a number. Two numbers, actually: 4,017,851 and 48.26%. The former is how many votes Beto O’Rourke has right now, and what his percentage of the vote was. That first number, which may still creep up a bit as there are a tiny number of precincts unreported as I write this, is the largest vote total any Texas Democrat has ever received. It’s more than 500K greater than Barack Obama in 2008, and it’s about 130K greater than Hillary Clinton in 2016. I had thought Clinton’s 3,877,868 votes were the absolute ceiling for any Dem this cycle, but I was wrong. Somehow, Beto O’Rourke built on what Hillary Clinton did in 2016. That is truly amazing.

Oh, and do note that Beto’s losing margin was 2.68 points, which was closer than all but four of the polls taken in this race – the one poll where he was tied, the one poll where he was leading, the one poll where he was trailing by one, and the one poll where he was trailing by two. It couldn’t have been easy for the pollsters to model this year’s electorate, but when they did they were generally more pessimistic about this race – though not necessarily about the state as a whole – than they should have been.

Now here are two other numbers to consider: 4,685,047 and 4,884,441. The former is what Donald Trump got in 2016, and the latter is what Supreme Court Justice Eva Guzman got that same year. Those are our targets for 2020, to truly make Texas a competitive electoral battleground. We know a lot of people with no previous electoral history voted this year, and I think it’s safe to say most of them voted for Beto. We need to figure out who the people are that did vote in 2016 but not in 2018, and make sure they vote in 2020. We also need to keep registering voters like crazy, and keep engaging the voters we got to come out this year. I know everyone is sad about Beto falling short – at this writing, he trails by 2.57 percentage points, which among other things means that the polls generally did underestimate him – but we need to stay focused and work to ensuring the level he achieved is a stepping stone and not a peak.

By how much did Beto outperform the Democratic baseline? First we have to decide what the baseline was. For the executive offices, the totals are bifurcated:


Valdez     3,520,868   Collier   3,833,069
Chevalier  3,545,626   Nelson    3,870,345
Suazo      3,540,153   Olson     3,794,683
McAllen    3,586,198

One might argue that Collier and Nelson and Olson might have done better if they’d had more money. Maybe, but there was a ton of money spent in the Senate race, and it’s not clear to me what the marginal effect of another million or two might have been. It’s hard for me to imagine any of them making it over the top if Beto wasn’t at least within automatic-recount distance of Cruz. The point here is that there was significant variation in these contests. That’s one reason why I usually default to the judicial races as my benchmark for partisan strength:


Kirkland   3,820,059
Sandill    3,765,102
Cheng      3,769,290
Jackson    3,707,483
Franklin   3,723,541

Much closer, as you can see. They lost by a range of 6.55 points (Kirkland) to 8.39 points (Franklin). In 2016, the closest any statewide Democratic judicial candidate got was Dori Garza’s 13.22 point loss. Based on the 2018 vote totals, I’d say the Democratic baseline is around 3.7 to 3.8 million. Compare the judicial race vote totals from this year to 2016:


Kirkland   3,820,059   Westergren  3,378,163
Sandill    3,765,102   Garza       3,608,634
Cheng      3,769,290   Robinson    3,445,959
Jackson    3,707,483   Meyers      3,496,205
Franklin   3,723,541   Johnson     3,511,950
                       Burns       3,558,844

That’s a nice step up, though do note that in 2016 all of the statewide judicial races also had a Libertarian candidate, and all but one also had a Green, while this year only Terri Jackson had company from a third party. Still and all, I think this shows that Beto wasn’t the only Dem to build on 2016. It also suggests that Beto got on the order of 300K crossover votes, while Collier and Nelson and Olson got 100K to 150K.

I don’t have any broad conclusions to draw just yet. We built on 2016. We still have room to grow – remember, as high as the turnout was this year, beating all off years as well as 2008 and 2012, turnout as a percentage of registered voters was still less than 53% – and with the right candidates we can attract some Republican voters. We should and we must make our goal be a competitive state for the Presidential race in 2020. I’ll look at the county by county canvass later, then of course do some precinct level reporting when the dust clears a bit. In the meantime, read Chris Hooks’ analysis for more.

A broader look at the statewide judicial races

From the Trib:

Judge RK Sandill

Judicial candidates are subject to strict campaign finance restrictions, making it difficult to get their names out across a state of 28 million. And they must walk a difficult line as they campaign, running as partisans without compromising their judicial impartiality.

That means judicial candidates’ fates often rest with the top of the ticket — which is perhaps why no Democrat has been elected to the Texas Supreme Court or the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals since 1994. This year, five Democrats are vying for six seats on the state’s two high courts, which hear civil and criminal cases, respectively.

These low-information, down-ballot races are rarely competitive, but this year, as El Paso Democrat Beto O’Rourke draws attention to the top of the ticket in an unusually tight campaign for U.S. Senate, Democrats hope their judges can ride his coattails to the state’s highest benches.

Republicans, meanwhile, expect history to repeat itself.

“I do think to a large extent that my success will depend on how the entire ticket of my party goes,” said Texas Supreme Court Justice Jeff Brown, one of three Republican incumbents on the court up for re-election this fall. In that context, he said, he feels confident. “Of course, Beto O’Rourke’s popularity has certainly got Republicans thinking that maybe Texas is getting a little purpler. But I still feel like it’s going to be a Republican sweep.”

If anyone is poised to spoil that sweep, it’s R.K. Sandill, a long-serving Democratic district judge in Harris County who’s consistently outraised his opponent, Justice John Devine. In addition to an impressive cash-on-hand tally, an endorsement from the Houston Chronicle and victories in the Houston Bar Association and Texas Bar Association polls, Sandill faces perhaps the most controversial incumbent on the high court. Before being elected to the high court in 2012, Devine was sued for displaying the Ten Commandments in his courtroom. Devine has also boasted publicly that he was arrested 37 times protesting outside abortion clinics.

But that history may not hurt Devine’s chances, Sandill said in an interview last week.

“It doesn’t matter who the Republican [candidate] is in a statewide office in Texas,” Sandill says, smiling but resigned across the table at a downtown Houston coffee shop. “It’s been 24 years. There’s no vulnerability. We all live and die together on the Democratic ticket.”

That’s not entirely true – there’s always some variation in the vote totals for Supreme Court and CCA justices, just as there’s variation in the vote totals for District Court judges. In 2016, Eva Guzman got 4,884,441 votes while Paul Green received 4,758,334; among Democrats, Dori Contreras Garza picked up 3,608,634 votes while Mike Westergren got 3,378,163. Didn’t make any difference then, but if we’re sufficiently close to even it becomes a live possibility that one or two Dems win while the others lose.

Beyond that, I covered some of this in my earlier post about Sharon Keller. I note that the Trib discusses the impending end of straight ticket voting, which could have a negative effect on Republican incumbent justices and possibly judges here in Harris County. I’m gonna wait and see what the data says over the next couple of cycles before I make any pronouncements on that.

“The least-discussed vulnerable Republican on the ballot”

From Grits:

Grits does not expect Beto O’Rourke to win. But if he were to pull off the upset, many other dominos could fall in succession as a result, with at least three Republican senators, Texas’ Attorney General, and potentially even the Lt. Governor at risk. Another race likely to flip if Dem turnout goes that high is Presiding Judge of the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Incumbent Sharon Keller won her primary with only 52% of the vote, and CCA races have consistently been among the lowest vote-getters over the years among Republican statewide officials. There is no Libertarian in the race, so the Democrat, Maria Jackson, should get all the anti-incumbent vote. If, on election night, the US Senate race at the top of the ticket is competitive, or heaven forbid, Beto pulls an upset, check down the ballot for this race; it may flip, too.

It’s a little more complicated than that. The basis of this idea, which Grits has advanced before, is that in past elections Republicans have tended to drop off and not vote in downballot races more than Democrats have. If that is the case, and if the top of the ticket features a close race, then it stands to reason that other statewide races would be closer, and might even flip. I made the same observation early in the 2016 cycle when the polls were more favorable to Hillary Clinton in Texas. We seem to be headed for a close race at the top of the ticket this year, so could this scenario happen?

Well, lots of things can happen, but let’s run through the caveats first. First and foremost, Republicans don’t undervote in downballot races at the same pace in off years as they do in Presidential years. Here’s how the judicial vote totals from 2014 compared to the top of the ticket:


2014

Abbott - 2,796,547
Davis - 1,835,596

Candidate         Votes   Dropoff   Drop %
==========================================
Hecht         2,757,218    39,329     1.4%
Brown         2,772,824    23,723     0.8%
Boyd          2,711,363    85,184     3.0%
Richardson    2,738,412    58,135     2.1%

Moody         1,720,343   115,253     6.3%
Meyers        1,677,478   158,118     8.6%
Benavides     1,731,031   104,565     5.7%
Granberg      1,671,921   163,375     8.9%

Maybe if the hot race that year had been more closely contested we’d see something more like what we’ve seen in Presidential years, but so far this isn’t encouraging for that hypothesis.

The other issue is that it’s clear from polling that Beto is getting some number of Republican votes. That’s great for him and it’s a part of why that race is winnable for him, but the Republicans who vote for Beto are probably going to vote for mostly Republicans downballot. The end result of that is judicial candidates who outperform the guy at the top. Like what happened in 2016:


Trump    = 4,685,047
Lehrmann = 4,807,986
Green    = 4,758,334
Guzman   = 4,884,441
Keel     = 4,790,800
Walker   = 4,782,144
Keasler  = 4,785,012

So while Trump carried Texas by nine points, these judicial candidates were winning by about 15 points. Once more, not great for this theory.

Now again, nine points isn’t that close, or at least not close enough for this scenario to be likely. (I had suggested a maximum six-point spread in 2016.) Nine points in this context is probably a half million votes, and undervoting isn’t going to cut it for making up that much ground. But if Beto is, say, within four points (or, praise Jeebus, he wins), and if the reason he’s that close is primarily due to base Democratic turnout being sky high and not anti-Cruz Republicans, then the rest of the statewide ballot becomes very interesting. I personally would bet on Ken Paxton or Sid Miller going down before one of the Supreme Court or CCA justices, but the closer we are to 50-50, the more likely that anything really can happen. You know what you need to do to make that possible.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.

Partisan statewide judicial elections upheld

I’d totally forgotten about this lawsuit.

A federal judge has rejected a race-based challenge to the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi handed the state of Texas a win Wednesday, writing that its current method for electing judges to the Texas Supreme Court and the Court of Criminal Appeals does not violate federal safeguards for voters of color.

The system does dilute the power of Hispanic voters, Ramos wrote. But it’s not clear that “race rather than partisanship” explains why Hispanic voters’ preferred candidates tend to lose at the polls.

Seven Hispanic voters and a community organization sued the state in 2016, arguing that Texas’ statewide judicial election system violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it weakens Hispanic voters’ political clout and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates. Both high courts have been entirely dominated by Republicans for more than two decades, and both courts remain overwhelmingly white.

[…]

The plaintiffs had proposed that Texas adopt a single-member district approach, carving up the state geographically to allow for Hispanic-majority voting districts. In her Wednesday ruling, Ramos conceded it would be possible to remedy the Hispanic voters’ “electoral disadvantage” by switching to single-member elections. But she declined to order that change because the voters had failed to prove that the obstacles they faced to electing their preferred candidates were “on account of race.”

See here, here, and here for the background. It was an interesting argument, though as commenter Mainstream pointed out in that middle update it would have been a challenge to draw districts to try to remedy the problem if the judge had found for the plaintiffs. At some point – maybe this year! – Democrats are going to break through at the statewide level, and that could easily scramble the arguments that would apply now. I don’t know if the plaintiffs intend to appeal, but it seems to me they’ve already faced the court most likely to be amenable to them. It’s not going to get any easier from here.

The firefighter pay parity referendum won’t be decided by the voters

it will be decided by the courts. Here’s a story out of Austin to illustrate.

Former Travis County judge Bill Aleshire has sued the city of Austin in the Texas Supreme Court, challenging the ballot language of a proposition up for a local vote in November.

The lawsuit filed Monday challenges ballot language related to Proposition K, which calls for an outside audit of government efficiency at City HallThe Austin City Council approved the ballot wording last week.

At that council meeting, some supporters of the proposition bristled at the language, which includes a cost estimate for the audit of between $1 million and $5 million. Proposition backers complain the inclusion of the cost estimate will bias voters against the measure because the wording does not mention any possible savings that could result from an audit.

You can follow the links and read the writ, which is embedded in that Statesman. I don’t care about any of that. My point here is that while Council has voted to put the measure on the ballot, we don’t have ballot language yet. Does anyone think for even a minute that the language that Mayor Turner will provide and Council will approve will be satisfactory to all of the stakeholders in this fight? Does anyone think it is possible for this referendum to be a) simple enough for everyone to be clear on what they’re voting on, and b) thorough enough for it to adequately cover all the relevant details? These were the points of contention in the lawsuits over the term limits referendum, and the Renew Houston referendum. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: The losing side in this vote, whichever side it is, will file a lawsuit arguing that the ballot language was inadequate, inaccurate, unintelligible, whatever else. Given the lifespan of the Renew Houston battle – which as you know is still not over – we’ll be handing this fight off to the next Mayor, and that is very much assuming a second term for Mayor Turner. On top of all of the other reasons why this is a bad idea, this is why this is a bad idea.

Woodfill and Hotze take their next shot at same sex employee benefits

Here we go again.

Anti-LGBTQ activists are again asking a Harris County judge to halt benefits for the same-sex spouses of Houston city employees, according to a recently filed motion.

The motion for summary judgment in Pidgeon v. Turner, a five-year-old lawsuit challenging the benefits, states that the city should not subsidize same-sex marriages because gay couples cannot produce offspring, “which are needed to ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race.”

The motion also asks Republican Judge Lisa Millard, of the 310th District Family Court, to order the city to “claw back” taxpayer funds spent on the benefits since November 2013, when former Mayor Annise Parker first extended health and life insurance coverage to same-sex spouses. And the court filing suggests that to comply with both state and federal law, the city should eliminate all spousal benefits, including for opposite-sex couples.

The motion for summary judgment was filed July 2 by Jared Woodfill, an attorney for Jack Pidgeon and Larry Hicks, two Houston taxpayers who initially brought their lawsuit in December 2013. Woodfill, a former chair of the Harris County Republican Party, is president of the Conservative Republicans of Texas, which is listed by the Southern Poverty Law Center as an anti-LGBTQ hate group.

In his motion for summary judgment, Woodfill asserts that although the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in Obergefell v. Hodges in June 2015, that decision does not require the city to treat same-sex couples equally.

“Obergefell does not require taxpayer subsidies for same-sex marriages — any more than Roe v. Wade requires taxpayers subsidies for abortions,” Woodfill’s motion states.

Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for the city, said it will respond to the motion “in a timely fashion.”

“The City hopes the Judge will be persuaded by the law,” Bernstein said in an email. “The Legal Department defers to the arguments it will make in response.”

See here for previous coverage, and here for the last update. It’s hard to know what will happen here because the basic goal of the lawsuit is so ridiculous and harmful, and the immediate reaction of any decent person who hears about it will be “but marriage is marriage and why would anyone want to do that?” The sad and scary fact is that some people are like that, and that includes some judges. Did I mention that the judge in this case, Lisa Millard, is up for re-election in August? Sonya Heath is her opponent. There’s never been a better time to elect some better judges. Think Progress has more.

ReBuild re-vote approved

Add another item to the ballot.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

City Council on Wednesday unanimously agreed to put the controversial street and drainage program known as ReBuild Houston before voters again in November, but not before tweaking the ballot language in hopes of avoiding future court challenges.

The Turner administration should find out quickly if they were successful.

The lawyer who represented the conservative plaintiffs who got the Texas Supreme Court to throw out the original 2010 charter amendment already has asked a judge to force the city to include ballot language specifically stating that drainage fees will be imposed on and paid for by property owners.

[…]

Turner, however, has said approval of the charter amendment would be limited, calling it an an affirmation of “what already is,” and saying it simply would solidify a dedicated source of funding to continue the ReBuild Houston program as it is being run today. The drainage fee, which is a key part of the program, is not at risk in the November referendum because it was created via city ordinance, not by the 2010 charter amendment.

“I think we all support a dedicated source (of funding),” Turner said Wednesday. “I think we all support the emphasis being placed on drainage, flooding and streets … We’re all passionate about it, but I think there is more agreement than disagreement around this table.”

See here for the background. I confess, it’s not clear to me what the stakes are in this vote, just as it’s not clear to me what the neverending litigation is about. As the story notes, Council voted to approve an ordinance that instituted the fee. Even with the obscure stakes, I doubt there’s any ballot language short of language written by Andy Taylor himself that would satisfy Andy Taylor and his flood-loving plaintiffs. I’d put something on like “ReBuild is what we say it is, mofos”, but then that’s probably why I’m a blogger and not a public official. Be that as it may, a-voting we will go this fall. KUHF has more.

Austin drops its bag ban

What choice did they have?

The City of Austin says it will no longer enforce a ban on single-use plastic bags at most retail outlets, following a state Supreme Court ruling last month that struck down Laredo’s bag ban.

The court ruled Laredo’s ban was at odds with state law, but urged the Legislature to pass more specific laws to allow similar bans in the future.

The Texas Health and Safety Code says that local governments in Texas may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” Opponents of bag bans argued that language makes the bans illegal, and the court agreed, saying state lawmakers haven’t effectively defined how plastic bags fit into that regulatory framework.

[…]

“Following the recent ruling from the Texas Supreme Court, the City will not enforce our current rules,” a city spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “While it’s disappointing that the City is losing a tool to help protect the environment, we are also confident that the Austin community will continue to do their best to minimize plastic bag waste. Meanwhile, the City of Austin will continue to educate Austinites about the benefits of bringing reuseable bags with them every time they shop.”

Austin officials say prohibiting retailers from giving away disposable plastic bags helped reduce litter, save wildlife and stop bags from clogging up storm drains.

“The people of Austin have gotten used to this. Not a single job was lost. Not a single business was harmed,” said Andrew Dobbs with Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We hope businesses and residents of this city will continue to do what works, regardless of what the Texas Supreme Court says.”

See here for the background. AG Ken Paxton has sent a letter to the other cities that had similar ordinances warning them they need to do the same, and I’m sure they will. The good news here, if you want to be optimistic, is that this was a statutory ruling, not a constitutional one. Which is to say, the Lege could fix this by amending the law in question. That’s not going to happen without a massive change in the type of legislator we elect, but it is possible, and something we can work towards.

The Lawrence decision, 15 years later

Time flies, but society moves slowly.

Theirs was an unlikely case.

John Lawrence and Tyron Garner weren’t in love, they weren’t a committed couple and it’s not clear that they were even having sex one September 1998 evening in Lawrence’s Houston apartment when a police officer burst in and arrested them for violating a Texas law that prohibited “deviate sexual intercourse with another individual of the same sex.” That law was rarely enforced, especially in homes — how often, after all, do police appear in private bedrooms? In the Lawrence case, officers entered in response to a false report of a weapons disturbance.

The factual details of that night are often called into question; Lawrence told one interviewer that he and Garner were seated some 15 feet apart when police arrived. But the two pleaded “no contest” to the sodomy charge, allowing them — and their team of advocate lawyers — to challenge the law itself.

Ultimately, they won, and it was their unlikely case that sparked a sweeping ruling from the nation’s highest court, one that overturned not just Texas’ ban on sodomy but 13 similar laws across the country.

That Supreme Court decision was June 26, 2003 — 15 years ago Tuesday. One law professor at the time said it “removed the reflexive assumption of gay people’s inferiority,” laying the legal groundwork for same-sex marriage. Without the immediate, presumptive criminal charge against LGBT people, new doors were opened — new jobs, new opportunities, new freedom in their skin.

The ruling “gave lesbian, bisexual and gay people back their dignity,” said Camilla Taylor, a Lambda Legal attorney who started with the legal advocacy group in 2003, just in time to watch her colleague, Paul Smith — a gay man himself — argue Lawrence before the Supreme Court.

“Everyone knew this case had the power to change the world. The court gave us everything we asked for and more — and went big, just as we demanded,” Taylor said.

Ten years later, June 26 became an even more important milestone for gay rights when the high court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act. And then, in 2015, the date again gained new significance with the ruling known as Obergefell that legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.

But this year, as the date rolls around, LGBT Texans are still reckoning with the legal and political landscape in a state where they have few protections against discrimination and their rights as couples are again being questioned in court.

Fifteen years later, some wonder, how much progress have same-sex couples in Texas really made?

You want to know how long I’ve been doing this blog thing? Long enough to have blogged about the Lawrence decision. As this story notes, the next big test of where we stand as a society with regard to the rights and dignity of same-sex couples comes in January, right here in Houston, when the anti-same sex employee benefits lawsuit gets heard in a Harris County district court. It’s a bullshit case from top to bottom, but as we’ve seen lately from both the state and federal Supreme Courts, being bullshit is not a hindrance when there’s an agenda at play. Just remember you’ll have at least one and probably two opportunities to have your own influence on our Supreme Court, with the first one being this November. Please do make the most of it.

Supreme Court affirms trashing Laredo’s plastic bag ban

Not really a surprise.

The Texas Supreme Court handed a loss to local government on Friday, striking down a Laredo ban on plastic bags. The decision imperils about a dozen other cities’ bans across the state.

In a decision viewed as one of the court’s most highly politicized of the term, justices ruled unanimously that a state law on solid waste disposal pre-empted the local ordinance. That decision drew immediate responses from both sides of the aisle, with high praise from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican who had weighed in against the bans, and condemnation from environmental groups, which had argued the ban kept at bay the harsh environmental damage brought by plastics.

The court’s ruling resolves a long-standing question over whether local governments may impose such bans, as cities including Austin, Fort Stockton and Port Aransas have in recent years. Friday’s unanimous holding makes those bans unenforceable as well, and likely tosses the issue over to the Texas Legislature for debate.

The court said in a unanimous holding that its intent was not to wade into the “roving, roiling debate over local control of public affairs” but simply to resolve the legal question at hand.

“Both sides of the debate … assert public-policy arguments raising economic, environmental, and uniformity concerns,” Chief Justice Nathan Hecht wrote for the court. “We must take statutes as they are written, and the one before us is written quite clearly. Its limitation on local control encompasses the ordinance.”

[…]

While arguments have seemed to center on semantics, the court’s decision is likely to have major implications for local control issues across the state. It’s a loss for local governments, said Bennett Sandlin, executive director of the Texas Municipal League.

“Plastic bags are the perfect case for why different geographies need different sets of rules,” Sandlin said. “This is a sad day.”

A long list of lawmakers have weighed in on the case, including by filing friend of the court briefs. Twenty Republican state lawmakers filed a brief against the ban in an earlier appeal of the case. And state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, a Laredo Democrat, told the Texas Supreme Court she supports the city’s ban.

In 2017, state Sen. Bob Hall filed a bill that would have prevented Texas cities from enforcing bag bans.

Now that the court has ruled, the issue is likely to become one for legislators to take up. Justice Eva Guzman urged lawmakers to do just that in a concurring opinion Friday.

“The legislative branch, not the judiciary, bears the unenviable task of making complicated policy decisions that balance the benefits of uniform regulation and the myriad burdens (financial or otherwise) that may be imposed on taxpayers, businesses, and the environment,” Guzman wrote.

She added, “I urge the Legislature to take direct ameliorative action. … Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning—it will invite one.”

See here and here for the background. Yes, the Legislature could remediate this – the case hinged on the definition of a “container”, which I think we can all agree is not something that was handed down by God to the Founding Fathers. But we all know that’s not what this Legislature is going to do. Quite the reverse, in fact. So while I appreciate Justice Guzman’s concern about the “ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem”, I would encourage her to venture out of the ivory tower once in awhile to observe what is actually happening around her. In the meantime, we can all do our part to reduce, reuse, and recycle plastic bags. The Observer and the Current have more.

Judge sides with city in term limits lawsuit

The city wins for now, but we all know it’s not over yet.

Politicians at City Hall can continue serving four-year terms — at least for now — after a state district judge sided with the city of Houston Friday in a lawsuit seeking to void the November 2015 election in which voters lengthened elected officials’ terms from two to four years.

The plaintiffs, who plan to appeal, allege former mayor Annise Parker and the City Council misled voters in setting the ballot language for the proposition, which changed the city’s term limits to a maximum of two four-year terms, ending the system of three two-year terms that had been in place since 1991.

Local lawyer and Harris County Department of Education trustee Eric Dick sued, arguing the ballot language obscured the nature of the vote by asking whether voters wanted to “limit the length for all terms,” when, in fact, the change lengthened the maximum term of office from six to eight years. For council members first elected in 2013, the limit is 10 years — one two-year term followed by up to two four-year terms.

Judge Randy Clapp, a Wharton County jurist appointed to hear the case, granted summary judgment for the city on Friday, repeating phrasing he had used at a procedural hearing in the case two years ago, saying the city’s chosen language was “inartful” but not “invalid.”

See here, here, and here for some background. You know how I feel about Eric Dick and Andy Taylor and the bullshit they peddle – and remember, I say that as someone who voted against this referendum – so let’s just slide past that. I suppose I’m encouraged that the Supreme Court refused to intervene last year, but they will still have the last say and we know they don’t have any particular compunctions about overriding the will of Houston’s voters. I will also note that the original lawsuit was filed in November of 2015, a couple of weeks after the referendum was passed, and we just now have a ruling from the district court. We are still some unknowable number of years away from a final decision, and as with the Renew Houston case that final decision may just send the whole thing back to the lower court for a do-over. You see why I find the concept of a pay parity referendum for the firefighters to be so laughable? The lawsuit that will result from that, regardless of the verdict, may not be fully resolved until all of the firefighters who’d be affected by it are retired. The lawyers are warming up in the bullpen for it as we speak.

Anti-same sex employee benefits lawsuit moved back to state court

On and on we go.

Nearly three years after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide, the city of Houston continues to battle for the rights of its gay workers.

On Tuesday, a judge struck down Houston’s attempts to defend its city benefits policy in federal court. The case will be remanded back to state court, and the city will have to pay the legal fees of the two men suing to overturn the policy, which extends spousal benefits to same-sex marriages.

The outcome of this case will be limited to the city of Houston. Dallas has a similar policy that has not been challenged.

But the fight is a good example of the war waged to erase, erode or at least stop the expansion of LGBT rights since since the 2015 marriage ruling, Noel Freeman said.

“These are people who are never, ever going to give up. They are going to go to their grave hating us,” Freeman, the first city of Houston employee to receive spousal benefits for his husband, told The Dallas Morning News on Wednesday. “And there is no court case … that’s going to change their minds.

“That’s just the way it is.”

[…]

In a last-ditch effort to shift the fight to federal court, Houston asked to move the case to the Southern District Court earlier this year. On Tuesday, Judge Kenneth Hoyt ruled the city did not prove federal court was the proper venue and ordered it to pay Pidgeon and Hicks’ legal fees.

The case will be remanded to Harris County District Court. Married gay city employees will continue to receive benefits for their spouses until a final ruling.

See here for previous coverage of this atrocity, which is still a thing because our feckless State Supreme Court allowed itself to be pressured into giving the case a second chance after previously refusing to consider it. Noel Freeman, who’s a friend of mine, is quite right that the people pursuing this action (including Jared Woodfill) will never give up – if this suit is ultimately ruled against them, they’ll find some other pretext to keep LGBT folks from being treated as full and equal members of society. We all need to oppose the politicians who enable these haters, and support those who favor equality. It’s the only way this will get better.

Lawsuit over how judges are elected statewide goes to trial

Hey, remember that lawsuit that argued that statewide elections of judges was discriminatory against Latinos? The case is being heard in court this week.

El Paso lawyer Carmen Rodriguez and Juanita Valdez-Cox, a community organizer in the Rio Grande Valley, live hundreds of miles from each other, but they share an electoral grievance that could upend the way Texans fill seats on the state’s highest courts.

For years, Rodriguez and Valdez-Cox have noticed that campaigning for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals hardly reaches their corners of the state. And it’s left them feeling so neglected and undermined as voters that they decided to the sue Texas over the statewide election system it uses to fill seats on those courts.

“I think every vote should count and should have equal weight as much as possible,” Rodriguez testified in federal court on Monday on the first day of a week-long trial in a case challenging the state’s current election method for the Texas Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals. But those campaigning for those seats hardly make their case to El Paso voters, Rodriguez added, so “they don’t seem to need our vote.”

That sentiment is a key component to a lawsuit filed on behalf of Rodriguez, six other Hispanic voters and Valdez-Cox’s organization, La Union del Pueblo Entero, that alleges the statewide method of electing judges violates the federal Voting Rights Act because it dilutes the voting power of Texas Hispanics and keeps them from electing their preferred candidates.U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos has set aside the rest of the week for the trial during which the plaintiffs’ lawyers will work to convince Ramos that Texas should adopt a single-member approach — similar to those employed by some city councils and school boards — that would carve up districts geographically in a way that could allow for Latino-majority voting districts.

“The courts cannot be the great equalizer of our social fabric when one group — Latinos — are disadvantaged in the election process,” Jose Garza, an attorney representing the voters, said in his opening statement Monday.

Throughout the day, Garza and other attorneys representing the voters suing the state called up individual plaintiffs and election law and history experts to help make their case that the state’s current system for electing Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals judges “submerges Latino voters” in a manner that violates Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act, which prohibits an electoral practice or procedure that discriminates against voters.

Lawyers for the Texas attorney general’s office, which is representing the state in court, will offer up their own experts later in the week in hopes of dispelling those claims. The state’s lead attorney, Patrick Sweeten, on Monday provided a preview of their arguments when he described their defense and the plaintiffs’ arguments as “two ships passing in the night” because the state’s evidence will show that the plaintiffs cannot meet their legal burden of proving a Section 2 violation.

The state is also expected to call up an expert witness who will argue that single-member districts would “disempower more Hispanic voters than they could potentially empower” because they would only be able to vote for one seat on each high court instead of casting a ballot for all 18 seats.

Plaintiffs’ lawyers spent a large portion of the day arguing that that point would only hold up if you assumed Latinos had the opportunity to elect their preferred candidates to begin with.

See here and here for some background. The plaintiffs survived a motion to dismiss a few months ago. This story was from Tuesday, but I haven’t seen anything more recent so I can’t say how the trial is going. Seems like a heavy lift to me, and there’s an argument to be made that districting the courts would put a ceiling on the number of Latinos that could be elected. You have to figure that sooner or later things will be different for statewide races. That said, I very much understand not wanting to wait, though of course taking a court case to completion will take some number of years. We’re at the start of that process, and we’ll see how it goes. Courthouse News and KUT have more.

Supreme Court hears bag ban arguments

Hoping for the best, but not really expecting it.

In the case Laredo Merchants Association v. The City of Laredo, lawyers spent almost an hour arguing whether Laredo’s 2015 ban was illegal under state law. If the Republican-led court rules against the city, bag bans across the state could be deemed illegal.

The city of Laredo’s lawyer, former Supreme Court justice Dale Wainwright, argued single-use bags are not garbage, so they are not covered by the several lines of state law that the case hinges on. The code says local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.”

The arguments made Thursday mirrored those in lower courts, where the case was originally decided in favor of Laredo before an appeals court overturned the verdict by a 2-1 margin. The city then appealed that decision to the Supreme Court.

[…]

The oral arguments represent the last public action taken on the case, but a decision by the Supreme Court could still be a long way away. The court has discretion over the timeframe for a verdict, and previous cases have taken anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of years to resolve.

See here for some background. An earlier Trib story that previewed the case had some further details.

The case hinges on only a few lines of the Texas Health and Safety Code, specifically section 361.0961, which states local governments may not “prohibit or restrict, for solid waste management purposes, the sale or use of a container or package in a manner not authorized by state law.” In the lower courts, arguments focused on the specifics of the law, including the definitions of “container or package” and “solid waste management.”

Attorney Christy Drake-Adams filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Municipal League and the Texas City Attorneys Association supporting the city of Laredo and arguing that siding with the merchants would represent a swift departure from Texas’ history of supporting local governments.

“There just seems to be a trend that the state wants to consolidate power in the state’s hands,” Drake-Adams said. “They don’t want the federal government telling them what to do, and yet they want to tell local governments what to do.”

Drake-Adams also said this case could create a dangerous precedent of strict, uniform regulations on cities.

“Extreme uniformity and regulation fails to address diverse local concerns,” Drake-Adams said. “Texas is a great example of why that can’t work. A state as large and diverse geographically as Texas, that simply can’t work.”

Supporters of the merchants’ case are arguing that statewide enforcement of the law should overrule any local ordinances, and the inconsistent local laws like the plastic bag bans seen in cities across Texas cause unnecessary strain on small businesses.

“Inconsistent local ordinances harm the sales of affected retailers, force the layoff of employees, deprive retailers of their existing inventory of bags, and impose an expensive and complex requirement on multisite retailers to comply with varying ordinances across the state,” wrote Edward Burbach in a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the Texas Retailers Association in support of the merchants.

Remember, the goal here as expressed by Ken Paxton and abetted by Greg Abbott is to kill off all local bag laws, on the way to generally bringing cities to heel under the state. And yeah, we’re hoping the Supreme Court will stop them. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that the law in question can – someday – be easily modified to fix the flaw that the pro-bag-litter faction is exploiting. That would require winning some elections first, of course. But at least it gives us something to aim for.

Microbrewery legal setback

Kind of a lousy Christmas present.

Three Texas brewers are going back to battle with the state after an appeals court reversed a decision that would have allowed them to sell their distribution rights for monetary compensation.

In 2014, Peticolas Brewing Co. (Dallas), Revolver Brewing (Granbury) and Live Oak Brewing Co. (Austin) sued the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission, saying a newly passed law related to who could sell a brewery’s distribution rights was unconstitutional. The mandate, which passed in 2013 with a bundle of other beer regulation reforms, said breweries may not accept payment for contracting with a distributor, but that a distributor could get a payout if it sold those same territorial rights to another distribution company.

Last year, a judge served victory to the breweries. But on Dec. 15, the Texas Third Court of Appeals reversed that decision. It stated, in part, the law does not prevent the brewers from successfully operating their businesses and that it also upholds the industry’s three-tier system, which aims to avoid conflicts of interest between alcohol manufacturers, distributors and retailers.

The decision will be appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, according to a statement from Institute for Justice, which is representing the breweries.

“It is well established that the Texas Constitution protects economic liberties, and these rights do not cease to exist when the government begins licensing and regulating individuals and businesses,” said Arif Panju, managing attorney for Institute for Justice’s Texas office, in a statement. “Every business in Texas should be concerned with the court’s ruling in this case. It is dangerous and we will ask the Texas Supreme Court to reverse.”

See here, here, and here for the background. You know how I feel about this. The three-tier system is an anachronism and a travesty, a glaring counterexample to any politician’s paeans to how Texas has a great business environment. Yet it persists, a lasting tribute to the lobbying efforts of the beer distributors and the big breweries that support them. As with so many things in this state, the ultimate solution is going to have to be a political one. Nothing will change until we elect enough people who want it to change. Austin360 has more.

Inevitable lawsuit over pension bond ballot language filed

Like night follows day, like flies garbage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner misled voters into approving a $1 billion pension bond referendum last month, a new lawsuit alleges, claiming that city officials plan to use the bonds’ passage to sidestep a voter-approved limit on the property tax revenue Houston can collect.

A local businessman and former Houston housing department director, James Noteware, sued the city on Friday in state district court, contesting the Nov. 7 election on the grounds that the ballot language was “materially misleading.”

The full language, rather than the summary listed for voters on the ballot, stated that the taxes levied to repay the bonds would not be “limited by any provision of the city home rule charter limiting or otherwise restricting the city’s combined ad valorem tax rates or combined revenues from all city operations.”

The suit claims that phrasing means the taxes levied to pay for the bonds will be exempted from the 13-year-old revenue cap, which limits the annual growth of property tax revenue to the combined rates of inflation and population growth, or 4.5 percent, whichever is lower.

“Omitting the fact that the proposition created a billion-dollar exception to default limits on the city’s taxing authority renders the proposition materially misleading and void,” the suit states.

More coverage from the Chron here. This is, in a word, nonsense. I mean look, Paul Bettencourt, who insisted on the pension bond referendum and who loves the revenue cap and the spotlight more than his own children, had nothing to say about this during the campaign. Nobody complained about the ballot language. At this point, this kind of lawsuit is basically pro forma, and serves as nothing more than an attempt by the losing side to get bailed out by the Supreme Court. If you have the resources to hire a lawyer to file this kind of crap, you have the resources to mount some kind of campaign against the referendum before the election, even if it’s nothing more than sending an incendiary press release to a gaggle of reporters. If James Noteware, who by the way was a Mayoral candidate for about 15 minutes in 2013, did anything like that, he failed spectacularly to get a news story out of it. If this thing goes anywhere, it can only mean that the Supreme Court is now an official part of the referendum process, and we may as well ask their opinion before we bother wasting our time voting on anything.

(Also, too: Yet another reason to kill the awful, terrible, no good, very bad revenue cap. I’m just saying.)

SCOTUS declines to hear Houston’s appeal of same-sex marriage lawsuit

Disappointing, but nowhere close to the end of the line.

Denying the city of Houston’s request, the U.S. Supreme Court will not review a June decision by the Texas Supreme Court, which ruled that the landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage does not fully address the right to marriage benefits.

The high court on Monday announced it would not take up the case — which centers on Houston’s policy to provide spouses of gay and lesbian employees the same government-subsidized marriage benefits it provides to opposite-sex spouses — just months after the city of Houston filed its appeal, arguing the state court’s June decision “disregarded” precedent.

In that decision, the Texas Supreme Court threw out a lower court ruling that said spouses of gay and lesbian public employees are entitled to government-subsidized marriage benefits, and it unanimously ordered a trial court to reconsider the case. The ruling found that there’s still room for state courts to explore “the reach and ramifications” of marriage-related issues that resulted from the legalization of same-sex marriage.

That’s despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide in 2015 and noted that now-defunct marriage laws were unequal in how they denied same-sex couples the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples.

See here for the previous update. What this means is that the district court needs to reconsider the lawsuit in light of the state Supreme Court’s assertion that Obergefell may have made marriage universal, but it did not specifically address the question of whether same-sex marriages are entitled to the same actual rights and benefits as traditional marriage. If all this sounds to you like unfathomable pinhead-ery, in which the concept of marriage is divided into an upper class and an underclass based on biology and the easily offended sensibilities of a couple of old coots, you’re correct. But this is where we are. The city will continue to provide spousal benefits for all its married employees, as it has the right to do, at least for now. The Chron, the Dallas Observer, the Texas Observer, and the Current have more.

Five out of six ain’t bad

Five Democratic candidates for six statewide judicial positions, all from Harris County.

Four state district and county-level judges from Harris County and a Houston civil-litigation lawyer filed for seats on the Texas Supreme Court and the state Court of Criminal Appeals at state Democratic headquarters.

“The only time they open the courts is when it suits their cronies,” said state District Judge Steven Kirkland of Houston, referring to the nine Republicans on the Texas Supreme Court.

[…]

Harris County Civil Court Judge Ravi K. Sandill, who seeks Republican Justice John Devine’s Place 4 seat on the state Supreme Court, said voters would reject the leadership styles of Trump and Gov. Greg Abbott.

“We’ve got a bully in the White House. We’ve got a governor who’s a bully,” he said. “Texans stand up to bullies.”

[…]

Kathy Cheng, a native of Taiwan, said she’s been “the voice for people who don’t have a voice” in nearly 20 years of private law practice. She filed for the Place 6 seat of Republican Justice Jeff Brown.

Signing paperwork to run for Court of Criminal Appeals were Maria T. Jackson, presiding judge of the 339th state District Court in Harris County, and Ramona Franklin, who’s judge there in the 338th.

Jackson filed for the presiding judge seat now held by Republican Sharon Keller of Dallas. Franklin is seeking the Place 7 seat of Republican Barbara Hervey of San Antonio.
“No matter where you live or what you look like or who you love, in my courtroom, you’re going to receive justice,” she said.

Kirkland and Sandill you knew about. Jackson was elected in 2008 and has been re-elected twice. Franklin was elected in 2016. Cheng ran for the 1st Court of Appeals in 2012. The Chron story says that a sixth candidate is not expected to come forward, which is too bad. It’s great that Harris County is representing like this, but surely there’s someone somewhere else in the state who can throw a hat in the ring. Be that as it may, best of luck to these five.