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Just a reminder, no one is enforcing Abbott’s mask mandate ban

In case you had forgotten.

While Republican Gov. Greg Abbott is speaking out against mask mandates in schools and suing to stop some Texas school districts from enacting them, in reality his order banning such mandates has gone largely unenforced — so much so that the federal government doesn’t consider it active.

Abbott threatened $1,000 fines for officials who try to impose mask mandates, although no such fines have been handed down. And if he wanted to, Abbott could send state troopers or deputize the Texas National Guard to enforce his order, as he has done on the border, but he hasn’t. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, meanwhile, has a published list of 71 non complying cities, counties and school districts; is fighting in court with at least six of them and sent letters threatening more legal action to others.

But in the court filings from the lawsuits, Paxton has acknowledged that neither he nor Abbott will directly enforce the ban on mask mandates, instead leaving it to local district attorneys, some of whom are already on-record saying that they don’t intend to prosecute.

Abbott’s own Texas Education Agency on Aug. 19 said that the ban on mask mandates would not be enforced until the courts have resolved legal challenges to his authority to do it. And the federal Department of Education chose Monday not to open an investigation into the matter in Texas, even as it launched probes of five other states with active bans.

[…]

The five largest counties in the state are Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis. The district attorneys for Harris and Bexar counties have already announced they don’t intend to prosecute school districts over mask rules, and a prosecutor with Travis County said the office would remain focused on violent crime, although they would evaluate the situation on a case-by-case basis.

Tarrant County did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for Dallas County said: “This issue is working its way through the civil courts. At this point in time — until that’s concluded and depending on how that’s concluded — there’s no reason to consider a position on that.”

On Monday at a House Public Education Committee hearing, Rep. Steve Allison, a San Antonio-area Republican, acknowledged there’s “an appearance of dysfunction” in government right now over the mask orders and Abbott’s ban.

See here and here for the background. I’m not sure why the Travis and Dallas DAs are being so equivocal, but it doesn’t really matter. There’s no way they’ll prosecute anyone over this, not if they want to avoid having their asses handed to them in the next primary election. We all know this is about Greg Abbott trying to look macho for the Republican primary voters. There’s no need to help him with that in any way.

Feds take first steps in the mask mandate fight

Coming attractions.

The U.S. Department of Education is opening civil rights investigations to determine whether five states that have banned schools from requiring masks are discriminating against students with disabilities, the agency said on Monday.

The department is targeting Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, all Republican-led states, in its investigations. It said it was concerned that their bans on mandatory masking could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19, limiting their access to in-person learning opportunities.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

“The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

[…]

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona are four other Republican-led states that have banned mandatory masking orders in schools. The Education Department left those states out of its inquiry because court orders or other actions have paused their enforcement, it said in a news release.

The department says it is monitoring those states and would take action if local mask-wearing policies are later barred from going into effect.

See here for the background, and here for the press release. It’s too early to say how this might go, and that’s before we get a resolution in the reams of mask mandate-related lawsuits that are still working their way through our system. Suffice it to say that the good guys have a lot of fight left in them.

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

Concluding that Gov. Greg Abbott exceeded his authority by banning mask mandates in Texas, an Austin judge ruled Friday that school districts in Travis County can enforce face coverings as a COVID-19 precaution.

State District Judge Catherine Mauzy’s order also applied to 19 school districts that represent about 1 million students — including Austin, Dallas, El Paso, Fort Worth and Houston — as well as Austin Community College, which also sued Abbott.

However, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly appealed, automatically blocking enforcement of Mauzy’s temporary injunction — though the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals can be asked to reinstate the judge’s order while Paxton’s challenge proceeds.

In her ruling, Mauzy concluded Abbott’s ban on mandatory masks — contained in a July 29 executive order — was unlawful and exceeded his authority in violation of the Texas Constitution.

Mauzy found that the school officials and parents who challenged Abbott’s order made “a sufficient showing” to establish that Abbott was not authorized to declare “by executive fiat” that school districts are prohibited from requiring masks to be worn.

Without court intervention, Mauzy added, Abbott’s ban leaves school officials unable to mandate masks to control the spread of COVID-19, “which threatens to overwhelm public schools and could result in more extreme measures such as the school closures that have already begun in several Texas school districts.”

In a separate ruling, Mauzy also granted an injunction sought by Harris County to allow a mask mandate to continue for Houston-area school districts, said Christian Menefee, county attorney.

“Gov. Abbott is misusing the Texas Disaster Act to make this pandemic worse,” Menefee said, calling the ruling an important step in reining in the governor.

But in a third challenge, the judge declined to issue a statewide injunction, requested by the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, that would have allowed mask mandates in all Texas school districts. Mauzy’s one-page order gave no reason for the denial.

It’s hard to keep track of all of these, but see here for the original ruling in the Harris County case, and here for the original ruling in the SCCA case; the filing of their lawsuit was noted here. I have so many of these posts, some of which combine stories from multiple lawsuits, so I can’t find (and may not have) a post about the original Austin lawsuit, but the famous SCOTx demurral of the emergency request by Paxton and Abbott to block a TRO was related to the Austin/Travis County lawsuit. I note that the Harris County case and the SCCA case were originally in Judge Jan Soifer’s courtroom, so I am assuming that a bunch of similar lawsuits were combined into one and that’s how they all wound up before Judge Mauzy.

The injunction may be on hold because of the appeal (there’s some fancy legal term for this that I have encountered before but forgotten by now), but the plaintiffs can and surely will ask for it to be reinstated by the Third Court of Appeals. That will force another reckoning with the Supreme Court, thanks to the recent order in the Bexar County case. In a sense all of this is just sound and fury since Abbott and Paxton can’t enforce the mask mandate bans anyway, but the ritual must be observed. I feel like I should get a CLE credit for all of this blogging. HISD Superintendent Millard House’s statement about the ruling is here, and KXAN and the Trib have more.

Abbott admits he can’t enforce his mask mandate ban

So what are we even doing here? Just make your mandate and move on.

Gov. Greg Abbott has been embroiled in court battles with Texas cities, counties and public schools that have defied his ban on local mask mandates. But in the urban areas where those battles are being waged, the local officials Abbott needs to enforce his ban aren’t playing ball.

Even as Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton vow to punish local government and school district officials who flout the governor’s executive order, they conceded in court documents that they actually have no power to enforce the ban.

“Neither Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing” the order, Paxton argued in a Monday court filing in Dallas.

Since the pandemic began, Abbott has issued a flurry of executive orders, the most prominent of which have limited cities and counties from enacting measures intended to slow the spread of COVID-19, like mask mandates and occupancy restrictions on businesses like restaurants and retailers.

Cities, counties and school districts in the state’s major urban areas have responded with a flood of lawsuits challenging Abbott’s executive order prohibiting them from enacting mask mandates amid a surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations.

In a bid to convince judges to toss out those legal challenges, Abbott and Paxton claim in recent court filings that they’re not the right target because it’s up to local prosecutors to enforce Abbott’s orders.

“The Governor’s executive orders, having the full force and effect of law, are enforceable by state and local law enforcement,” spokesperson Renae Eze said in a statement.

But in the state’s urban counties, those district attorneys are mostly Democrats who are unlikely to sue fellow local officials for violating Abbott’s order banning mask mandates.

“[Abbott is] saying, ‘Well, it’s not enforceable, only the DA can do it,” said Randall Erben, an adjunct law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “Well, the DAs in Travis, Harris and Dallas are not going to prosecute anybody for violation of the executive order.”

In the state’s most populous county, Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg doesn’t anticipate enforcing Abbott’s executive order because it’s not a criminal matter, a spokesperson said.

Abbott’s legal argument — tucked into court documents in at least five lawsuits challenging his order — has prompted some lawyers representing local governments and public schools to call out the governor and Paxton for saying one thing in public and another in the courtroom.

Yeah, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee was one of those people. This is, as the article notes later on, one hundred percent Abbott and Paxton beating their chests for the rubes. Again, never believe a word Ken Paxton says.

Two points to consider. One is that while those of us fortunate enough to live in a sufficiently enlightened county can now put whatever pressure we want on our mayors and county judges and school boards to move forward with their mask mandates, since there won’t be any criminal consequences for them and in that sense all of the ongoing litigation doesn’t really matter. But if your city or school district is not in such a place, then you really do care about what the Supreme Court will ultimately say, because your Mayor or Superintendent will be in the crosshairs otherwise. Even with a favorable SCOTx ruling, Abbott has ratcheted up the political pressure enough that it may not be worth it to them regardless. The harm they’re doing for the sake of winning the support of a depraved bunch of Republican primary voters is incalculable.

And two, this is now another example of Abbott and Paxton making “you can’t sue me” a key point of their governance. The “heartbeat” abortion ban atrocity is perhaps the highest-profile example, but Paxton’s claims that he’s exempt from the state’s whistleblower laws because he’s not a “public employee” are another, and it’s just as pernicious. It’s all about wielding power without responsibility or constraint. If trends hold to form, look for bills introduced by Republicans in the next Lege to include clauses about why the state can’t be sued by anyone who claims to have been harmed. At least, that will be the case until we have Democrats in the executive offices. At that point, it will be game on for limiting what they can do. But for now, we’re not supposed to sue them for anything because…well, just because.

Bexar mask mandate put on hold again

SCOTx has entered the chat, again.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked San Antonio and Bexar County’s mask mandate, marking the latest update in a flurry of court battles over mask requirements statewide.

The decision comes after an appellate court earlier this month allowed the local mask mandate to stand, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order barring public entities from instituting such requirements. The new ruling is a win for the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had asked the high court earlier this week to step in and stop local officials.

[…]

In the order, the high court noted that the lawsuit does not consider whether people should wear masks or whether government officials should compel them to do so. Rather, the justices said, the case concerns which levels of government can make those decisions.

“The status quo, for many months, has been gubernatorial oversight of such decisions at both the state and local levels,” they wrote. “That status quo should remain in place while the court of appeals, and potentially this court, examine the parties’ merits arguments to determine whether plaintiffs have demonstrated a probable right to the relief sought.”

The court has yet to make a final decision on the matter, which could take weeks or months. Several similar but separate lawsuits, including two in Dallas and Houston, are also currently being litigated.

See here, here, and here for some background. This only affects the Bexar County case – the litigation in Harris and Dallas and other places have not yet been taken to the Supreme Court. It seems likely that they would go the same way, but as noted so far SCOTx is not inclined to let Abbott and Paxton jump the line on this, so they have to go through the process first. Also, this is a stay of the temporary restraining order, which means that if and when the judge in Bexar County issues a temporary injunction, as the judge in Dallas County just did, the SCOTx stay will become moot and Abbott and Paxton will have to go through the process again, to get another stay while that ruling is appealed. Isn’t this fun?

Also, as a friendly reminder, never believe a thing Ken Paxton says:

I know you didn’t need to be told that, but it never hurts to say. The Trib and the Current have more.

Dallas County gets its injunction

Another big win.

Clay Jenkins

A district court judge has sided with Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins in his dispute with Gov. Greg Abbott over the county’s mask mandate, allowing the mandate to stay in place.

Judge Tonya Parker issued a temporary injunction Wednesday on Abbott’s order that public entities such as cities, counties and schools can’t issue mask requirements or mandates. The injunction allows Jenkins’ mask order — and the mask requirements of local school districts — to continue, for now.

Parker in her ruling said that Jenkins has shown that Dallas County residents “will suffer probable imminent and irreparable injury through County Judge Jenkins being precluded from exercising his authority” to require masks in public.

The judge noted that the highly transmissible delta variant threatens to overwhelm the healthcare system and has increased hospitalizations and death in Dallas County.

“Each of these bases for probable imminent and irreparable injury independently supports the issuance of the requested temporary injunction,” the ruling said.

The temporary injunction will return Jenkins to “the position he was in” before Abbott’s executive order that barred face mask requirements, the ruling said.

Parker set a hearing for Jan. 10 to review the temporary injunction, though attorneys for the state could file an appeal to Parker’s ruling sooner than that.

See here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here, and you can see Judge Jenkins doing a media call about this here. This will be appealed, of course – one presumes that Paxton and Abbott have learned their lesson and will go through the appellate courts first – and we’ll see how long that takes. It may be that at the least SCOTx is less inclined to grant emergency relief. We’ll know when it gets to them. For now, a win for the good guys.

On a related note, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee sent out an interesting press release that notes some differences between what Ken Paxton says in public about mask mandate bans and what he’s been saying in court about them.

In GA-38, the Governor banned school districts and local officials from mandating masks, and stated local officials who issue such safety measures would be subject to a “fine up to $1,000.” In response to recent mask mandates imposed by local officials, Attorney General Ken Paxton has stated publicly—and repeatedly—that his office will enforce Governor Abbott’s mask mandate ban. He and Governor Abbott joined together in stating that “any school district, public university, or local government official that decides to defy [the Governor’s mask mandate ban] will be taken to court.”[1] His office has compiled a list of “government entities unlawfully imposing mask mandates,” designed to intimidate those entities into compliance.[2] He has sent letters to many on that list, threatening them with enforcement.[3] He has tweeted several times he intends to sue these entities, most recently saying “I will defend TX Law & sue every entity that violates it. We will win!”[4]

Despite these public statements, the Attorney General admitted to the courts hearing the lawsuits brought by local officials and school districts that his office does not and cannot enforce GA-38, nor can he seek the $1,000 fine provided in the order. His office has stated plainly that “[n]either Governor Abbott nor Attorney General Paxton will be enforcing GA-38.”[5] Instead, the Attorney General acknowledges that only local district attorneys can enforce GA-38—he has claimed that entities like Harris County, other counties/cities, and certain independent school districts cannot sue the Governor and the Attorney General because they have “alleged no credible threat of prosecution by local district attorneys, who would be the ones enforcing GA-38.”[6]

Menefee added: “I presume the Attorney General is telling the truth in his court filings. He should be telling everyone else the same thing and letting local governments and school districts continue doing what they can to stop the spread of COVID-19, especially among our children.”

Go view the document to see the footnotes; the last two refer to the AG’s own filings in the cases involving Harris County and others. I mean, it’s not like anyone should have expected the truth from Ken Paxton, but it’s still bracing to see it laid out like that.

Back to SCOTx for the mask mandate ban

Brace yourselves.

Following an unfavorable outcome at an appellate court, Gov. Greg Abbott asked the Texas Supreme Court to block the mask mandate in San Antonio and Bexar County.

A Bexar County district judge issued a temporary order on Aug. 16 allowing the city and county to require masks in city and county buildings and public schools. That order keeps the mask mandates in place until December, when a trial is set for the case. Attorney General Ken Paxton, on behalf of the state, appealed that order immediately to the 4th Court of Appeals, but a panel of judges upheld the local mask mandate last Thursday.

Paxton took that decision to the Texas Supreme Court on Monday, arguing in the filing that the 4th Court of Appeals’ ruling adds to the confusion over mask requirements in Texas, and asked for “urgent” action.

Paxton wrote that the 4th Court’s action “upends, rather than preserves, the status quo. The court of appeals’ decision thereby compounds the widespread confusion over mask mandates in Texas and frustrates the state’s ability to cohesively address the pandemic.”

The 4th Court of Appeals had judged keeping a local mask mandate maintains the status quo, as a previous temporary restraining order granted on Aug. 10 first put the mandates in place in San Antonio and Bexar County.

Paxton also argued that the state’s high court must take quick action because other cities and counties are being granted their own temporary orders allowing them to require masks despite the governor’s executive order prohibiting that.

See here and here for some background. The 4th Court of Appeals issued its order denying the request for a stay on the same day that the Supreme Court batted back the request it had received in the Harris County case. They could act quickly or they could sit on this and wait for action from other courts, because Lord knows there’s a ton of litigation out there.

Speaking of other litigation

A Dallas County judge today will decide whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has the authority to prevent local officials from imposing public health measures like mask mandates. It’s the latest in a dramatic and fast-moving court battle over the issue in the state.

At today’s hearing, the judge will likely hear evidence and testimony about the pandemic’s impact and the efficacy of mask-wearing to stop the spread of the COVID-19 delta variant as well as legal arguments about the Texas Disaster Act.

Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins and his legal team, who are requesting a temporary injunction against Abbott’s order, say mask-wearing is the best way to save lives and slow the pandemic while they wait for people to get the vaccine. They’ll also argue that Jenkins, the county’s chief administrator who has emergency management powers, has the legal authority to issue executive orders to mandate such rules.

“We need protection for citizens in Dallas County, we need protection for the economy of Dallas County,” Charla Aldous, one of Jenkins’ attorneys, said at the hearing Tuesday morning. “The bottom line: We are here because Judge Jenkins wants to do his job.”

Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton say the governor’s executive order, GA-38 — which bans mask mandates — is legal because the Texas Disaster Act gives him the power to ban Jenkins and other local officials like school districts from requiring masks.

Benjamin Dower, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, said the state would produce no witnesses and that the testimony from Jenkins’ witnesses weren’t relevant to temporary injunction hearing.

“None of this is actually relevant to the matter the court has to decide,” Dower said. “This is really a question of law, not fact.”

Judge Tonya Parker, of the 116th Civil District Court, will decide today whether to grant a temporary injunction barring the governor’s order. She previously granted a temporary restraining order doing just that.

The restraining order hearing was to prove whether there would be harm if Abbott’s ban were enforced. The temporary injunction hearing scheduled for this morning is to decide whether the decision should be more permanent. The judge will hear evidence on the matter, but Jenkins’ legal team must still prove immediate harm from Abbott’s order.

See here and here for some background; yes, all of this litigation is hard to keep track of. This post is likely to be already out of date by the time it publishes in the morning. I’ll update it then. Hold onto your butts in the meantime.

UPDATE: No news on the Dallas case yet. Maybe by this time tomorrow.

Stop investigating yourself, you’ll go blind

There’s not enough snark on the Internet for this.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office on Tuesday released an internal report that found that Paxton did not accept bribes and did not misuse his office to benefit his friend and campaign donor Nate Paul, despite a continuing FBI investigation of the matter.

The office did not immediately respond to questions about who completed the unsigned report, or why the office handled the matter internally, rather than hiring outside investigators to avoid a possible conflict of interest.

The bribery and abuse of office accusations were made by eight of Paxton’s top aides last fall. Four of the whistleblowers have sued Paxton for retaliating against them for reporting him to law enforcement.

“The takeaway from this internal report is that, although Ken Paxton remains under active federal investigation, the people who still work for Paxton say he did nothing wrong,” the whistleblowers’ attorneys said in a joint statement. “Of course, the one-sided internal report is full of half-truths, outright lies, and glaring omissions.”

The attorneys added that it was notable that “whoever in Paxton’s office wrote this report was not willing to put their name on it.”

The “report”, if you can even call it that, is here. The only appropriate response to this is guffaws and mockery, so I’ll start with my own.

OK, fine, a little sober skepticism is all right, too.

You can read the rest yourself. Honestly, this is one of those situations where the headline to the story tells you all you need to know. Save the self-serving BS for the appellate court and quit insulting our intelligence, please. The Trib, which has quite a few details, has more.

The status of the mask mandate lawsuits

The Chron does a roundup.

Texas courtrooms have become a busy place this August, with Attorney General Ken Paxton battling school districts, cities, counties and nonprofits to defend Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local mask mandates aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Tracking the status of lawsuits can be dizzying.

“The way I like to think about it is there are four big buckets of cases and then there are some little minor cases out there,” said Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, whose county has sued both Paxton and Abbott over the ban on mask orders.

Those buckets include Harris County’s lawsuit; one brought by a group of school districts; one from Bexar County and San Antonio; and one from Dallas County. Those cases are the furthest along in the legal process, Menefee said, and he expects a final decision on Abbott’s mask order rules to come from one of those cases.

Harris County’s lawsuit and the school districts’ are proceeding along the same track, Menefee said. Local officials cheered a ruling late Thursday by the state Supreme Court, on a procedural question, that allowed the county’s mask mandate to stay in place for now.

The all-Republican high court could have ruled on the merits of the question, but chose not to, instead punting it to a lower court. This signals that the court isn’t yet prepared to offer a final decision on whether or not mask mandates across the state will be allowed to remain in place, he said.

“They could rule whenever. The fact that they haven’t issued a ruling I think is encouraging because I think that means they’re thinking about it,” Menefee said. “If they do that, that’s going to be the law of the land for Texas,” applying to all cases.

[…]

In Bexar County and San Antonio’s case, local officials won a temporary injunction from an appeal, allowing their mask mandates to remain in place while their case is pending. A trial is scheduled for December. Paxton’s office is likely to appeal that to the state Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Dallas County is fighting for a temporary restraining order to allow it to keep the mask mandate in place for the short term, a step that precedes arguments over a temporary injunction. That decision would last longer, months rather than weeks.

The stragglers, as Menefee described them, include a Fort Bend County case and a lawsuit from the Southern Center for Child Advocacy over many of the same issues.

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county a temporary injunction it its legal challenge to Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. County Judge KP George said it “removed the hurdles that have prevented our municipalities and school districts from taking the same action to protect their communities and the children…”

Thursday’s ruling should remain in place until the issue goes to trial in at least 45 days. Or Paxton could appeal the lower court’s decision to the state Supreme Court, as he has others, leaving it up to them to decide.

Hope that helps a little. And as a reminder of the legal questions, Erica Greider talks to an expert.

Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School at Law, reckons that local officials still face an uphill battle in their legal battles.

The Supreme Court of Texas, he explained, didn’t side against the state on the substantive question. It simply concluded that Paxton had skipped a step in the legal process, meaning that the statewide restraining order against Abbott’s executive order remains in effect while Paxton retraces his steps.

The TEA guidance on masks, similarly, isn’t a policy change on the agency’s part; rather, it’s a recognition that a temporary restraining order issued by Travis County District Judge Jan Soife blocking the enforcement of Abbott’s latest executive order remains in effect, while litigation is pending.

“The real bottom line is that Judge Soifer’s TROs are still in effect today, but they may not be tomorrow,” Vladeck said.

Vladeck thinks it’s more likely than not that the state’s highest court will eventually side with Abbott; after all, he noted, it previously issued stays against local mask mandates issued in Dallas and Bexar County — that’s “more than nothing, when it comes to reading tea leaves.”

At the heart of the case, Vladeck continued, are genuine substantive questions about the scope of the governor’s powers under the Texas Disaster Act of 1975.

“I think we can safely say they’re broad,” Vladeck said. “The problem is they’re surely not limitless.”

Judge Soifer, you may recall, ruled in both the Harris County case and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy case. As we have seen, there is a range of opinion on this litigation from the legal community. I tend to think Vladeck is right about what will happen – however subtle some of the legal questions are, there’s also the politics of it, and the Supreme Court is much more likely to give Greg Abbott what he wants than not – but it’s not an obvious question to answer. We should know more pretty quickly.

The mask rebellion

Sweet, sweet music to the ears.

The local mask rebellion, coupled with the fresh threat of legal action from President Joe Biden’s administration, poses the most serious challenge yet to [Gov. Greg] Abbott’s emergency powers, which he has wielded in unprecedented ways that have drawn intense criticism both from Democrats and from some conservatives.

[…]

Many school boards and superintendents are stuck between conflicting requirements from the governor and their local health departments, while others feel that masks are essential and that they have the authority to control their own schools, regardless of the governor’s wishes.

“I don’t think the governor has an MD next to his name,” said Conrado Garcia, superintendent of West Oso Independent School District in Corpus Christi. “We’re just trying to help our kids, and maybe what’s missing is some of that kind of thinking.”

West Oso is one of 58 school districts deemed “noncompliant” with Abbott’s order by Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is publishing a list of the rogue government entities.

At last count, the list also included three charter school groups, one city and eight counties — Bexar, Cameron, Dallas, Harris, Hays, Hidalgo, Nueces and Travis — for a total of 70 entities. Paxton, who is also suing to overturn some of the local mandates, encouraged the public to notify his office of any “violator” that was not included on the list.

Garcia said he hopes Abbott will come around on the local mask mandates.

“Our intention is not to fight the governor, our intentions are that he will realize that there’s so many parents, and the list is growing of the number of school districts that are passing more and more resolutions,” Garcia said. “So I think eventually, somewhere, somehow, common sense dictates to me that if you’re hearing from that many people, I hope that he will compromise and let us continue with our work.”

The cases pose a new legal test for Abbott, whose emergency orders withstood early challenges from the right, filed by conservative groups that argued against business closures and the governor’s own mask mandate.

The Texas Supreme Court decided last year that it didn’t have standing to take up those cases, though Justice John Devine nonetheless issued an opinion in which he critiqued a portion of state law that allows the governor to suspend certain laws and rules during emergencies.

“I find it difficult to square this statute, and the orders made under it, with the Texas Constitution,” Devine wrote, noting that only the Legislature — not the judiciary or executive branches — has constitutional power to suspend laws.

In the latest mask challenges, local officials are citing the same portion of state law, but with the opposite intent: to stop Abbott from blocking local action aimed at blunting the spread of COVID. In cases involving San Antonio’s and Dallas’ mask mandates, local officials have argued that Abbott may suspend only local orders that would “in any way prevent, hinder or delay necessary action in coping with a disaster.”

Ron Beal, an attorney and former administrative law professor at Baylor University, sided with the local officials in an amicus brief submitted to the state Supreme Court on Monday.

“It is wholly inconsistent with the legislative intent for the governor to consciously and knowingly not meet or prevent the dangers, but to enhance them,” Beal said. “There is simply no language in the statute that empowers the governor to give citizens permission to prolong the disaster. It is thereby void.”

[Dale Carpenter, a constitutional law professor at Southern Methodist University], said the case raises difficult constitutional questions for the conservative jurists on the court.

“That cuts a number of ways in this case, both for and against the governor, because he’s acting in a way that many conservatives believe is reinforcing individual rights to choice, choice about wearing masks specifically,” Carpenter said. “But I think the court certainly doesn’t want to issue an opinion that says the governor’s the commander-in-chief and he can do what he wants, and not qualify that opinion a lot.”

[…]

Paris ISD, in Northeast Texas, has taken a novel approach to its own mask mandate. While other districts have argued that health data or conflicting local requirements required them to ignore Abbott’s order, Paris ISD’s board simply amended its dress code to include a mask.

The lawyer for the district, Dennis Eichelbaum, argues that so long as the state’s education law remains in place, school districts have the exclusive right to govern themselves. Unless Abbott decides to use his emergency powers to suspend that law, Eichelbaum argues, school districts can institute mask mandates.

“We’ve always had dress codes. It’s very common in Texas. And this is no different, really, than saying we’re requiring our students to wear shoes,” he said. “I can’t explain why other law firms weren’t as creative, but it seems pretty simple to me.”

Eichelbaum argued that Abbott’s executive order is vague and inconsistently enforced, pointing to requirements that students wear face masks during welding class or that baseball catchers and football players wear face protection. Amending a dress code to include masks to protect against COVID is no different, Eichelbaum said.

Obviously, I am delighted by the resistance to Abbott’s shameful demagoguery on this issue. Abbott, who has made a career out of defying federal laws and directives he doesn’t like, deserves no sympathy for any of this. I don’t know what the Supreme Court will do, though their refusal to just call an end to all the litigation is moderately heartening, and I appreciate the legal analysis in this story. There’s at least a chance that common sense can prevail, and that’s more than we’ve had around here in awhile.

I will say, it’s been this kind of resistance to Abbott’s anti-mask mandate, which as noted has come from some red areas as well as the cities, that makes me give some credence to that Spectrum/Ipsos poll. Abbott may only care about the most fervid of Republican primary voters, but mayors and school boards have to answer to a broader electorate, and some of them will be facing that music this year. Maybe one of the HISD Trustee candidates, especially one in a district formerly held by a Republican, will base their campaign on an anti-mask platform, but if so I haven’t seen any evidence of it yet. If nothing else, this is a big campaign issue for next year, when we finally get a candidate for Governor out there.

SCOTx demurs

Very interesting:

This was for the Harris County litigation, which included Austin and several South Texas school districts. As such, Harris County’s mask mandate is still in effect. This is a procedural ruling, just telling Ken Paxton he needs to follow the law and go through the appellate courts first, and as such it buys some time. Given how accommodating SCOTx has generally been, it’s nice that they’re not fast-tracking any of this. I doubt it makes much difference in the end, but it matters now.

By the way, if you heard that Greg Abbott was dropping enforcement of school mask mandate bans, that simply isn’t so. Abbott and Paxton can go via the appellate courts as before and as they should have here, and the case will eventually make its way back to SCOTx, where they will likely give the state what it wants. Everything is temporary and in a state of flux right now.

Speaking of the appellate courts:

After Gov. Greg Abbott appealed a temporary order that allowed for mask mandates in schools and city- and county-owned buildings, the 4th Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that the order still stands.

On Monday, Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga of the 57th Civil District Court granted San Antonio and Bexar County a temporary injunction, allowing the mask mandates in city- and county-owned buildings and in schools to continue until a trial is held. The city and county sued the governor earlier this month over the ability to issue mask mandates.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district court’s ruling on behalf of Abbott, arguing that his appeal automatically blocked the San Antonio and Bexar County mask mandate. While city attorneys disagreed, they still asked the 4th Court of Appeals on Tuesday to officially uphold the temporary injunction.

In an order issued Thursday, the 4th Court of Appeals reasoned that allowing local governments to have policies to protect public health maintained the status quo, while Abbott actually changed it with his July executive order prohibiting governmental entities from mandating masks.

The court also cited testimony given during the Monday hearing from Dr. Junda Woo, the medical director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District, and San Antonio City Manager Erik Walsh. Both said that requiring masks will help slow the spread of the delta variant, which is much more transmissible than previous coronavirus strains. They also pointed to the vulnerability of schoolchildren under the age of 12 who are not yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

“Based on the temporary injunction order and the evidence attached to the emergency motion, the City and County have demonstrated that reinstating the trial court’s temporary injunction is necessary to prevent irreparable harm and preserve their rights during the pendency of this accelerated appeal,” the appellate judges wrote. “The circumstances of this case are unique and, quite frankly, unprecedented.”

See here for the background. This ruling means that the Bexar County mandate can remain in place until the hearing for the temporary injunction, which will be December 13. Except, of course, that Abbott and Paxton can appeal this ruling to SCOTx, and having gone through the proper channels this time, the same reason to reject the other TRO will not be in effect. Expect this to get a ruling from SCOTx in the next couple of days.

In the meantime:

A Fort Bend County district judge on Thursday granted the county’s application for a temporary injunction, siding with local officials in their fight against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

Judge J. Christian Becerra of the 434th District Court approved the county’s application for the temporary injunction following a day’s worth of testimony in his courtroom.

The Fort Bend County public health director and a local hospital administrator testified to the healthcare emergency currently facing the Southeast Texas region. Both said they believe mask mandates would help mitigate the spread.

Fort Bend ISD had not gone along with implementing a mask mandate initially. This may change that, we’ll see. This was a late-breaking story, there will be more details to come.

And finally, just to show that you can’t keep Ken Paxton down:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sued the San Antonio Independent School District Thursday after its superintendent said he’ll require all staff to get vaccinated against COVID-19 before an October 15 deadline.

The suit, filed in Bexar County District Court and shared by Courthouse News Service, argues that a July 29 order by Gov. Greg Abbott bars any public entity in the state from mandating that people take the vaccine. That order supersedes SAISD’s ability to require inoculations of its staff, the state claims.

“Defendants challenge the policy choices made by the state’s commander in chief during times of disaster,” according to the petition.

SAISD is believed to be the first large Texas school district to make vaccines mandatory. Superintendent Pedro Martinez’s demand comes during a statewide surge of COVID-19 cases as children too young to be vaccinated head back for a new school year.

“For us, it is about safety and stability in our classrooms,” Martinez told the Express-News this week. “We cannot afford to have threats to those two goals.”

Martinez also told the daily that the legal implications of his order weren’t a consideration.

A mask mandate is one thing, a vaccine mandate is another, at least in terms of waving a red flag in front of Abbott and Paxton. I expect Paxton to prevail, though we’ll see if he gets his restraining order from the district court judge or if he has to go up the ladder.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story about that SCOTx refusal to put a stay on the Travis County judge’s rulings, and here’s the Chron story. There’s so much damn news these days I just go with what’s in front of me when I’m ready to start writing, and circle back as needed.

Using the dress code to skirt the ban on mask mandates

Brilliant!

The Paris school district found a loophole in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order preventing mask mandates across the state.

Paris ISD’s board of trustees voted to alter the district’s dress code to include masks, according to its website.

The school district, which is located about 100 miles northeast of Dallas, has nearly 4,000 students across eight campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

“The Texas Governor does not have the authority to usurp the Board of Trustees’ exclusive power and duty to govern and oversee the management of the public schools of the district,” Paris ISD said in a release posted on its website. “Nothing in the Governor’s Executive Order 38 states he has suspended Chapter 11 of the Texas Education Code, and therefore the Board has elected to amend its dress code consistent with its statutory authority.”

[…]

“The Board of Trustees is concerned about the health and safety of its students and employees,” the Paris ISD release says. “The Board believes the dress code can be used to mitigate communicable health issues, and therefore has amended the PISD dress code to protect our students and employees.”

Pretty damn clever, if you ask me. I’m sure Ken Paxton will file a writ of mandamus with the Supreme Court to stop them, and who knows what happens after that, but I hope other school districts are looking at this and thinking about it. By the way, Paris TX is in Lamar County, which voted about 80% for Trump in 2020. Not exactly a big liberal city taking this action here, is what I’m saying.

And sigh speaking of Paxton:

Paxton asked the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday to overrule a Travis County judge who over the weekend allowed mask mandates to proceed in any school district in the state.

State District Judge Jan Soifer issued temporary restraining orders against Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates, clearing the way for Harris County and eight school districts to enact their own mask-wearing rules. Soifer also barred Abbott from enforcing his order “against Texas independent school districts.”

[…]

“The ongoing disregard of the law by certain local officials is causing mass confusion in Texas, necessitating intervention by this Court to provide clarity and statewide uniformity,” Paxton’s office wrote to Supreme Court justices Tuesday.

Abbott and Paxton have had some legal victories — albeit short-lived ones. The high court sided with Abbott and Paxton on Sunday and temporarily shut down mask mandates in Bexar and Dallas counties. But the court allowed legal challenges to continue playing out.

If I’m reading this correctly, this filing goes after both the Harris County temporary restraining order and the Southern Center for Child Advocacy TRO, both of which were handed down by Judge Soifer. As the story notes, while SCOTx has obliged the request to stay the TROs, it has not as yet put a halt to any of the lawsuits that have been filed, which Paxton has been asking for. As such, with one exception in Fort Worth no school district that has put forth a mask mandate has been barred from doing so, at least so far.

In the meantime, school districts are doing what they can do to keep the kids safe, which means keeping masks on.

Houston ISD is among those taking a hardline approach to enforcing their mask mandates, with threats of being sent home and disciplinary action for students who refuse to cover their faces. Other districts said they have no such plans and are hopeful that all students and staff members will abide by the face covering requirement without stirring up drama.

Keyhla Calderon-Lugo, a spokeswoman for Edgewood ISD in San Antonio, said the only students who showed up on campus without masks on Monday, the first day of school, did so by accident.

“We have surveyed our parents and have been in continuous communication with them,” Calderon-Lugo said. “For us, our community has been cooperating greatly with the guidelines and safety protocols established by the district.”

\Many school administrators think mask-reluctant children may just need a nudge. Almost across the board, districts with mandates in place have provided schools with extra masks and instructed staff to offer them to students who show up on campus without a face covering.

“We’re assuming that they didn’t have one, not that they don’t want to wear one,” said Sheleah Reed, a spokeswoman for Aldine ISD. “Our hope is that we keep students in class. Our goal is not to send them home. We’ve worked really hard to get all 67,000 of our students back to in-person learning.”

Where school districts diverge is when students refuse to wear masks after being offered one.

North of Austin, Pflugerville ISD is “certainly not denying any student access to school,” said spokeswoman Tamra Spence, who added that she was “not aware of any specific instances where a resolution hasn’t been reached” with children who have arrived unmasked since classes resumed Monday.

Some districts say they will segregate the unmasked students from those with masks.

At Houston ISD schools, students who refuse to wear masks will be “placed in a separate area” and their parents or guardians contacted. Those who continue to refuse will be told to stay home, marked absent and offered temporary online learning, according to district guidance.

Dallas ISD, meanwhile, is working with its schools to provide separate rooms where students who decline to follow the mask mandate will continue to receive instruction, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said Sunday. He described Dallas ISD’s approach to enforcing its mask requirement as “nice but firm,” and noted that the district had not had any problems since its mandate took effect Aug. 10.

“We’re going to be benevolent. We’re going to work with people. We’re going to offer masks,” Hinojosa said. “But we’re going to be firm. We have to protect the health and safety of our students.”

This could all be a lot simpler, and we could genuinely be doing our best to keep kids and teachers and staffers safe, if Greg Abbott would allow it. He is the reason for the confusion, and he deserves all of the defiance he is getting.

SCOTx confirms quorum-busting Dems can be arrested

I thought this had been settled already, but I guess not.

Texas House Democrats who refuse to show up to the state Capitol in their bid to prevent Republican lawmakers from passing a voting restrictions bill can be arrested and brought to the lower chamber, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.

The all-Republican court sided with Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan — and ordered a Travis County district judge to revoke his temporary restraining order blocking the civil arrest of Democratic lawmakers whose absences have denied the chamber the number of present members needed to move any legislation.

“The legal question before this Court concerns only whether the Texas Constitution gives the House of Representatives the authority to physically compel the attendance of absent members,” Justice Jimmy Blacklock wrote in the court’s opinion. “We conclude that it does, and we therefore direct the district court to withdraw the TRO.”

The state Supreme Court already has blocked court rulings in Travis and Harris counties to shield the quorum-busting Democrats from arrest — but Tuesday’s ruling signified that it’s legal under the state Constitution for House leaders to compel members to be physically present in the House, even if it means their arrest.

See here and here for the background that I had. I feel like I must be missing another story or two, but there’s been so much news the past couple of weeks who can even tell? Anyway, to me the question remains will any law enforcement officer actually do this? It’s not just the arresting part, it’s the transporting them to Austin part. I know that things like “norms” and “precedent” are basically meaningless these days, and that we have all been experiencing too many things we once thought could never happen, but I still have a hard time believing this. One way or another, I guess we’ll find out.

Bexar County mask mandate back on

And in an update to the original mask mandate lawsuit story, the district court that issues the temporary restraining order that was later stayed by the Supreme Court has now issued a temporary injunction, barring the state from forbidding San Antonio and Bexar County from requiring masks. Confused? Keep reading.

Bexar County’s mask mandate for public schools is allowed to remain in effect after the latest in a back-and-forth court battle between the county and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.

Just one day after the Texas Supreme Court lifted a temporary restraining order that allowed for Bexar County’s mask mandate last week, 57th Civil District Court Judge Toni Arteaga ruled in favor of the county again on Monday.

“I’m aware of the importance of this decision and, as before, I don’t take it lightly,” Arteaga said. “My thoughts continue to be with those children in our schools who don’t have access to the vaccine but must attend school coupled with the dire situation right here in Bexar County hospitals.”

The ruling grants a temporary injunction that prevents the enforcement of Abbott’s executive order that barred local governments from issuing coronavirus-related mandates. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling allowed for injunction hearings to continue in Bexar and Dallas counties.

Like the order granted last week, the latest ruling is likely to be appealed by the governor and Attorney General Ken Paxton. The mask mandate on public schools and city employees will remain in effect until the trial is scheduled, unless higher courts reverse the decision before then.

In their closing arguments, lawyers representing Bexar County relied on testimony from local officials, who painted a grim picture of what frontline responders are facing during the latest coronavirus surge fueled by the delta variant.

“The city and county both face a situation where, unless they do everything they can to curb the increase in cases, the health care system is threatened to be overwhelmed … and the city is struggling to provide essential services including ambulance, fire and other services that members of our community relay on every day,” said attorney Bill Christian, who represented the City of San Antonio.

The state’s attorney, Assistant Attorney General Kimberly Gdula, argued that local officials would be violating state law by issuing orders that conflict with Abbott’s executive orders. The governor is granted broad power through the Texas Disaster Act, she said.

“This court is not the forum for a policy debate regarding masks,” Gdula said. “Plaintiffs have made it clear today that they have opinions about masking policy. But this court can only address legal questions.”

See here for the previous report, which noted that the plaintiffs had not exactly been eager to comply with the SCOTx ruling in the first place. This is all separate from the other lawsuit that resulted in a statewide restraining order on Sunday night. As I, a noted non-lawyer, understand it, the purpose of the initial restraining order that was granted was to address claims by the plaintiffs that they are suffering harm right now as a result of the thing they’re suing over – the TRO is to mitigate that harm until there’s an evidentiary hearing. That TRO is what was lifted by SCOTx, who said in effect that any such harm was either insignificant or irrelevant, and no mitigation needed to be in place at this time. The purpose of the injunction is to say that the plaintiffs have presented enough evidence to suggest that they will prevail on the merits, and thus they can get what they are asking for until a final ruling is made. This too can and surely will be appealed, and I would be surprised if it is not stayed, but as before until such time the plaintiffs have gotten what they wanted.

The San Antonio Report adds on.

Arteaga said that like her decision to grant a temporary restraining order last week, the choice to grant a temporary injunction was not made lightly. She acknowledged the testimony of Bexar County resident Michelle Means, who told the court Monday that she did not want to send her youngest child to school with a face mask and was disappointed by the sudden mask mandate issued last week.

“I just wanted to apologize to all those parents, school administrators, the superheroes that we call teachers, for what someone called the equivalent to a legal tug-of-war,” Arteaga said. “Unfortunately, … our children are right in the middle.”

Arteaga’s ruling on Monday is only a temporary extension; the mask mandate will not be permanently in place until the case goes to trial. Once appealed, the 4th Court of Appeals and Texas Supreme Court would also have to rule in the city and county’s favor.

[…]

The city and county must now set a trial date with the state over a permanent injunction.

Arteaga heard from five witnesses during a hearing Monday, with four testifying on behalf of San Antonio and Bexar County and one for the state. During the hearing, local officials testified about rising coronavirus cases and hospitalizations and said the need to require masks in schools was urgent as more of them opened their doors to students.

Children under the age of 12 are still ineligible for the coronavirus vaccine, making them more vulnerable, said Dr. Junda Woo, who testified in her capacity as the public health authority for San Antonio and Bexar County. She also serves as the medical director for the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District. Though children generally have better health outcomes if they contract the virus, they can still bring it home to older, more vulnerable adults.

“People are out and about more and we have a large number of people who are unvaccinated,” she said. “And the delta variant is more contagious than the earlier version of COVID, where every person who had COVID will infect one or two people. With the delta variant, every person infects eight to nine people.”

Woo also cited rising hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in the area. Those increases are now accompanied by smaller staff numbers at area hospitals compared to previous surges, Woo said.

“As a physician, I really worry we’re going to break our health care system,” Woo said. “The level of burnout, of anger that I see among health care providers who I have known for years, is at levels I have never seen before. We can’t keep asking people to do this over and over again.”

We’ll see how long it takes for this to get back before SCOTx, and how long it takes them to give Greg Abbott everything he wants. In case you’re wondering, the temporary injunction hearing for the Dallas lawsuit is August 24, so depending on where we are it’s possible we’ll go through this again in that court.

The Trib reports that the general reaction so far to all this is confusion and a mess of differing local actions.

Colleges in Travis County must require masks — but not two hours south in Bexar County. There, officials decided to keep the mandate just to K-12 — a move intended to give state officials challenging the order in court fewer opportunities to strike it down.

“We restricted it because we didn’t want to overreach and have another reason [for the state] to knock down our order,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

[…]

Amid the legal disarray, many school districts have walked back plans to require masks.

​​Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio imposed a mask order after Bexar County officials convinced a judge to pause Abbott’s ban on mask mandates. But after Sunday’s Supreme Court ruling, the district scuttled its plans.

The same goes for Fort Bend ISD — another district that was set to require masks, but changed course in defiance of Fort Bend County Judge KP George’s mask order for the county, which includes public schools.

Some districts aren’t waiting for the state to challenge local mask orders to reverse course. In Travis County, Eanes Independent School District pulled back its mask mandate after the state Supreme Court decision — even though the decision didn’t apply to Travis County and the county mask mandate remains in effect.

“We will follow the law as it is determined by the highest court at the time in this legal chess match,” the school district posted on Twitter.

Others have stuck with their mandates through the chaos. Dallas, Austin and San Antonio ISDs will continue to require masks despite the Supreme Court order.

In parts of the state where masking orders remain untouched by the legal crossfire, officials are weighing the possibility of expanding the mandate beyond schools and colleges.

Plenty of businesses in Austin have adopted their own masking requirements without a local mandate, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. But he hasn’t ruled out mandating masks for private businesses if the number of COVID-19 patients in hospitals continues to rise — though Adler doesn’t relish the idea.

“We’re all just trying to keep people safe and to keep the economy open,” he said.

It’s a mess, it’s Greg Abbott’s fault, and there should be more resistance to his nonsense. Thank you for attending my TED talk.

And in the meantime, a new player has entered the fight.

El Paso health authority Dr. Hector Ocaranza said on Monday he would issue an order requiring masks in indoor settings, including schools. The City Council voted 5-3 to approve a motion to join legal challenges to Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders that strip local governments of the ability to issue mask mandates.

“It is my intent to have a local health authority order to have a mask mandate throughout the city and the county in all indoor establishments to include the schools,” Ocaranza told the City Council at an emergency meeting conducted over Zoom.

He said he would allow exceptions to the mandate, which he plans to make effective Wednesday morning, but did not specify them. He said his order would align with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and could be re-evaluated in 30 days.

[…]

City Attorney Karla Nieman said a lawsuit against Abbott would be filed tonight and the city hoped to be heard by a judge on Tuesday.

“Tonight” was Monday night – as far as I could tell late Monday there were no news stories confirming that such a suit had been filed. I’ll keep an eye on this. The Current has more.

UPDATE: The latest version of the Yallitics podcast does a nice job explaining all the legal mumbo jumbo, in case you still need some help understanding it all.

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

The Texas Supreme Court on Sunday temporarily blocked mask mandates in Dallas and Bexar counties, marking a pivotal moment in the showdown between state and local government as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations surge in Texas.

The ruling comes after several school districts and a handful of counties across the state defied Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order that restricted local entities from instituting mask mandates. On Friday, the 4th Court of Appeals in San Antonio upheld a lower court ruling that permitted Bexar County to require mask-wearing in public schools. Shortly after, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld a more far-reaching order from Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins that required masks in public schools, universities and businesses.

In a petition for a writ of mandamus to the Texas Supreme Court, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said the Texas Disaster Act of 1975 gives the governor power to act as the “‘commander in chief’ of the state’s response to a disaster. Attorneys representing cities and counties that have sued Abbott over his executive order have argued that his orders should not supersede local orders.

“Let this ruling serve as a reminder to all ISDs and Local officials that the Governor’s order stands,” Paxton said in a tweet on Sunday after the ruling.

Abbott’s response to the decision was less pointed, specifying that his executive order does not prohibit mask-wearing.

“Anyone who wants to wear a masks can do so,” Abbott said in a tweet.

See here and here for the background. Abbott’s tweet is pathetic in its misrepresentation of the issue. Masking only works if the people who are sick – whether they know it or not – are in compliance. That means that the people who are most likely to be sick – unvaccinated adults and unvaccinated children, which is all children under the age of 12 – especially need to be masked, and as we very well know, that first group and their children are not ever going to do that voluntarily. My mask doesn’t protect me from you (unless I’m wearing an N-95), it protects you from me. If you’re not reciprocating, it’s not doing us any good. The problem with Greg Abbott is not that he doesn’t understand this, it’s that he values the opinion of the largely unvaccinated and completely indifferent Republican primary voters more than anything else. And so here we are.

As for Paxton, he’s wrong in two ways. First:

And second:

Austin Mayor Steve Adler and Travis County Judge Andy Brown last week required face coverings to be worn inside public schools and government buildings to deal with a surge in local COVID-19 infections. Both insisted the orders remained in effect because Sunday’s court action did not involve local rules.

“While we await a final decision, we believe local rules are the rules,” Adler said on Twitter. “Regardless of what eventually happens in the courts, if you’re a parent, please keep fighting to have everyone in schools masked. We stand with you.”

[…]

A number of other mask mandates rely on trial court orders not yet before the Supreme Court, including restraining orders issued Friday in Travis County for Harris County and a half-dozen South Texas school districts.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee said Sunday’s Supreme Court action did not affect his county, and he plans to move forward toward an expected injunction hearing like Dallas and San Antonio.

The Chron story makes the same point. To be sure, Paxton can pursue the same kind of writ against Harris and Austin and those other school districts – several others that have as far as I know not been involved in litigation yet have implemented mask mandates – and when SCOTx issues a final ruling it can and likely will encompass all of the other jurisdictions in its order. But until then, no one other than Dallas and Bexar Counties are directly affected. And for what it’s worth, it’s not clear to me what would happen if they just decide to tell Abbott and Paxton and SCOTx to go pound sand. They haven’t yet, and they may never, but don’t throw out the possibility. The San Antonio Report has more.

UPDATE: Interesting:

I mean, he’s not wrong. And this is what I’m saying about the state’s ability to enforce this. As above, Paxton could go after DISD and make them comply. But until and unless he does, what’s stopping them from continuing on as they had planned?

UPDATE: This too:

At this point it’s not clear to me that anyone truly feels bound by this SCOTx order.

And it’s off to SCOTx for the mandate stuff

It’s where it was always headed.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is taking the mask mandate battle to the state Supreme Court after the state was defeated in its attempts to overturn such mandates in San Antonio and other municipalities.

Paxton made the announcement late Friday night in a tweet that read, “We have taken this mask mandate to the Texas Supreme Court. The Rule of Law will decide. — AGPaxton.”

On Friday, a three-judge panel of the 4th Court of Appeals denied Paxton and Gov. Greg Abbott’s request to overturn a temporary restraining order granted Tuesday that blocked Abbott’s ban on mask mandates and allowed the city to order masks in schools and government buildings.

“After considering the petition and the motion, this court concludes (the state) is not entitled to the relief sought,” Justices Luz Elena Chapa, Irene Rios and Beth Watkins wrote in their Friday ruling.

That same day, the 5th Court of Appeals in Dallas also denied the state’s bid to overturn a mask order by Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins. And in Travis County, a judge granted similar restraining orders against Abbott to Harris County and the South Texas school districts of Brownsville, La Joya and Edinburg, allowing them to keep mask mandates in place.

See here for some background, and here for a story about the Dallas appellate verdict. As far as I can tell, this hearing will review both of those rulings, and thus will obviously affect the other litigation going on. To that end, Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee has submitted an amicus brief in support of Dallas and Bexar. I have no particular reason to believe that the Supreme Court will do anything other than offer the usual room service to the state, but I have to hope, because what else is there to do? I assume we will know shortly what they think. KXAN and the Trib have more.

Harris County gets its restraining order against Abbott

Step one.

A judge in Travis County on Friday granted Harris County a temporary restraining order, blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on local COVID-19 restrictions.

The decision by Judge Jan Soifer of the 345th Civil District Court provides legal cover for the county health department, which Thursday issued a mask mandate for schools and day care centers at the direction of County Judge Lina Hidalgo.

“While this decision is temporary, it’s a victory for residents in Harris County who are concerned about this public health crisis,” County Attorney Christian Menefee said in a statement. “We need every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of COVID-19, including masks and other measures that are proven to slow the spread.”

A handful of area school districts, including the Houston, Spring, Aldine, Galena Park and Galveston Independent School Districts, have issued mask mandates. Others said they were waiting to see how the legal battles between the state and local officials are resolved.

[…]

[Harris County Judge Lina] Hidalgo on Aug. 5 moved the county to its highest pandemic threat level, which urges unvaccinated residents to stay home and avoid unnecessary contact with others. She said masks are particularly important in schools because children under 12 cannot yet be vaccinated, which health officials agree is the best defense against COVID-19.

Harris County’s order also requires schools to notify parents when a student comes into contact with someone who tests positive for the virus; the Texas Education Agency advises but does not mandate this.

“At this point, public health interventions like masking, contact tracing and notifications in schools remain (children’s) only protection against the virus,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents Tuesday.

In his lawsuit, Menefee said the governor had exceeded the authority given to him by the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which, he argued, allows Abbott to suspend laws only in certain circumstances.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton, who was also named in the suit, are almost certain to appeal. The pair pledged in a joint statement Wednesday to sue any “school district, public university or local government official” who violates the governor’s executive order.

Randall Erben, a professor of the University of Texas School of Law, said Abbott has broad powers under the Disaster Act. This situation is unique, said Southern Methodist University law professor Nathan Cortez, because the governor is attempting to limit, rather than enhance, the government’s response to a disaster.

See here for the background, and here for a story about what other area ISDs are doing. I can’t blame any of them for waiting to see how the litigation winds up before changing course, though I would strongly encourage them to be as forcefully on the side of protecting their students and teachers and staff as much as possible.

As noted before, Abbott and Paxton are now appealing the lower court orders that allowed for the mask mandates to go forward for now. So far that isn’t going well for them, either, though that comes with an asterisk:

Yeah, we know that’s where this is going, and there’s no particular reason to be optimistic. It should also be noted that a district court judge in Tarrant County issued a TRO blocking the Fort Worth ISD’s mask mandate in response to a suit filed by some parents. That was a Republican judge, though there was more to the case than just the executive order. It’s not hard to see the partisan split, though. Still, every loss Greg Abbott suffers, even if transitory, is worth it.

Alvarado’s filibuster ends

It was a strong effort, and she deserves credit for it.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

After 15 hours of speaking nearly nonstop against the GOP’s priority elections bill, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, concluded her filibuster on Thursday morning.

“Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere,” Alvarado said in her closing remarks, as fellow Democrats surrounded her to show their support.

Yet, as expected, after Alvarado got some hugs and took a seat to rest her feet, the Senate voted 18-11 along party lines to advance the bill and send it to the House, where it will be stalled by a Democratic walkout that has lasted a month.

While Alvarado’s filibuster could not — and did not — kill the bill, it exemplifies the at-all-costs attitude the Democrats are bringing to their opposition to it. Alvarado acknowledged that the tactic was a temporary measure in an interview with the Texas Tribune.

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado told the outlet. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

See here for the background. The point here isn’t about winning – Dems know they’re outnumbered and cannot hold off any of these bills if they come to the floor. The point is about fighting, and showing your voters that you’re fighting. Midterms are about turnout, and you can’t win if your voters aren’t engaged. It’s the same principle as with the quorum-busting, though that also had other purposes, such as directly lobbying Congress and focusing national attention on the issue. You do what you can so that in the end you can say you did all you could. Sen. Alvarado did all she could.

As for the quorum-busters, they’re back on the lam.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday overruled a Houston judge who had provided Texas House Democrats with the legal shelter they requested to avoid civil arrest for absconding from the state Capitol.

After Houston Rep. Gene Wu successfully challenged his warrant in Harris County state district court on Wednesday, 44 additional Democrats had followed in his footsteps, hoping for the same outcome.

The stay from the state’s highest civil court came swiftly, potentially scrambling the plans of those Democrats and others who’d made plans to return home.

A dwindling number of House members remain in Washington, D.C., where they have spent a month rallying for federal voting rights legislation that would supersede existing Texas elections laws as well as bills that Republicans are pushing in Austin. The Democrats have until Monday to respond in court.

“Despite the high court’s ruling, Texas House Democrats remain committed to fighting back with everything we have to protect Texans from Republicans’ repeated attacks on our freedom to vote,” Wu said in a statement on behalf of the caucus. “Instead of trying to calm the situation and find ways to peacefully resolve the situation, Texas Republicans continue to add more fuel to this fire. We will not be deterred. If anything, this action continues to solidify our resolve to stand up for Texans.”

In his motion to the high court, the state’s Solicitor General Judd E. Stone had warned that Wu’s court order could have a domino effect.

“Without this court’s intervention, every truant member of the House will follow the lead of Representative Wu, file habeas petitions in trial courts throughout the state, disrupt the ability of the Legislature to obtain a quorum, and undercut this court’s ability to achieve an orderly and efficient resolution of identical issues presented,” Stone wrote.

[…]

Several Houston-area representatives, including Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Hubert Vo, were pre-emptively released from potential custody on Thursday as a result of the newest writs, attorney Romy Kaplan said.

Three hearings tomorrow concern non-Houston-area representatives, who will be appearing via Zoom to put themselves in Harris County’s jurisdiction, Kaplan said.

A hearing is also scheduled for next Thursday in district Judge Chris Morton’s court. He said his approval of Wu’s writ on Wednesday was conditional, and he will further explore his jurisdiction over the case and over the House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms in Austin.

See the same link for the background; I’m trying to conserve resources by combining some of these stories into single posts. The Trib adds some details.

Texas law enforcement was deputized Thursday to track down Texas House Democrats still missing from the chamber and bring them to the state Capitol in Austin, a process that Speaker Dade Phelan’s office said “will begin in earnest immediately.”

The news came as the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for their civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting 45 Democrats from such a move.

Law enforcement was tapped “to assist in the House’s efforts to compel a quorum,” Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in an emailed statement. Earlier this week, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, signed warrants for those missing lawmakers, many of whom have refused to return to the chamber for weeks to block a GOP elections bill. Their absence has prevented the chamber from having a quorum, the number of present lawmakers needed to move legislation.

If lawmakers are arrested, they will not face criminal charges or fines and could only be brought to the House chamber.

[…]

After Wu was granted his request for temporary protection Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear he would fight that order in a similar manner to how the state fought a previous temporary restraining order by a state district judge in Travis County that also sought to block the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.

In that case, the Supreme Court voided the order temporarily on Tuesday, though Democrats have said they plan to push forward in their request for a temporary injunction on Aug. 20. If granted, that injunction could again grant them protection from arrest.

I mean, the real question at this point is what exactly happens when a law enforcement officer finds a wayward lawmaker? Are they going to slap cuffs on them, throw them in a car and drive them to Austin? Call Speaker Phelan and tell him to, I don’t know, send an Uber? This may wind up being a lot of commotion over nothing, because I just can’t quite see how any of this brings a currently absent member to the House floor. Maybe we’ll find out – I hope we don’t, but we are in completely uncharted waters. I just have no idea what to expect.

In the meantime, as the Senate passed SB1, the House prepped HB3 to bring to the floor, with no public hearings because why would they want to do that. We know what will happen if there is a quorum again. Until then, I have no freaking idea.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

Fort Bend joins the lawsuit parade

Come on in, the water’s fine.

As the Delta variant drives a pandemic surge, Fort Bend County officials on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning local government from implementing public health mandates.

“I’ll do all I can to protect the public health, and the people of Fort Bend County,” Judge KP George tweeted. “I hope others will join me in following the science and listening to local doctors and the CDC to act swiftly and decisively.”

The county filed a lawsuit in district court requesting a temporary restraining order to challenge the Republican governor’s order. George, a Democrat, and other county leaders had scheduled a news conference for Wednesday afternoon.

County commissioners met in a closed special session at 3 p.m. Wednesday to deliberate with an attorney and discuss potential responses to rising COVID-19 infections, according to the meeting agenda.

The story has no further detail, so I will just assume this is along similar lines as the others so far.

We now have our first official response from the powers that be, and as one might expect, it’s arrogant and jerky.

Attorney General Ken Paxton said Wednesday he plans to appeal a pair of rulings by judges in Dallas and San Antonio that allow local officials in those cities to issue mask mandates, with possible decisions from the Texas Supreme Court by the end of the week.

The temporary rulings override Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that bars local officials from requiring face coverings. They came in response to legal challenges from top elected officials in the Dallas and San Antonio areas, who argued Abbott overstepped his emergency powers by preventing the local mandates. The rulings also pointed to a rapid ongoing rise in COVID hospitalizations across the state, particularly in large cities.

Paxton said Wednesday he expects a quick ruling in his favor from the state’s top civil court.

“I’m hopeful by the end of the week or at least early next week we’ll have a response from the Texas Supreme Court,” Paxton told conservative radio host Dana Loesch. “I’m going to tell you right now, I’m pretty confident we’re going to win that.”

[…]

Paxton argued on the talk show Wednesday that the Texas Legislature had granted Abbott the power to ban local COVID restrictions, including mask mandates, through the sweeping Texas Disaster Act of 1975. He also downplayed the early court win by Jenkins.

“The reality is, he’s going to lose,” Paxton said. “He may get a liberal judge in Dallas County to rule in his favor, but ultimately I think we have a Texas Supreme Court that will follow the law. They have in the past.”

We’ll see about that. For what it’s worth, there was one Republican district court judge in Fort Bend who wasn’t challenged in 2018, so there’s at least a chance that he could preside over this case. The crux of the argument here is that it’s Greg Abbott who isn’t following the law. I agree with Paxton that the Supreme Court is going to be very inclined to see it Abbott’s way, but I’d like to think they’ll at least take the plaintiffs’ arguments into account.

Later in the day, we got the first words from Abbott as well.

“The rebellion is spreading across the state,” Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff said.

Abbott — under intense pressure from some on his right to hold the line against local officials who want to require masks — now is trying to quell that rebellion.

Hours after Jenkins signed his mandate, Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton announced they would go to court to block Dallas County’s top official — asking the 5th Court of Appeals to overturn the state district judge’s decision that allowed Jenkins to move forward. The two men threatened to sue any government official who defies Abbott’s order.

“The path forward relies on personal responsibility — not government mandates,” Abbott said in a statement.

Yeah, that’s what has gotten us to this situation in the first place. I will confess that I’m surprised it has taken this long for Abbott to speak up. He’s never been shy about quashing dissent, and as this story notes the right wing scream machine has been fulminating about his lack of action. Those days are clearly now over.

We got another peek at the state’s response in this story about the larger revolt by cities and school districts against Abbott’s mask mandate ban.

At a hearing Tuesday afternoon before state District Judge Antonia “Toni” Arteaga, a city attorney argued that Abbott had exceeded the bounds of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which the governor cited in suspending local authority to impose COVID restrictions.

“The Texas Legislature has given cities and counties broad authority within the Texas Health and Safety Act,” said Assistant City Attorney Bill Christian. “Only the Legislature has the authority to suspend laws.”

Kimberly Gdula, a lawyer with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, pointed to an appellate court ruling last November that upheld Abbott’s ban on local business restrictions. She also argued that the city and county were asking the court to improperly “throw out” parts of the Disaster Act.

Interesting, but I don’t know how to evaluate it. When there are some actual opinions and not just temporary restraining orders pending the injunction hearings, we’ll know more.

It’s possible there may be another avenue to explore in all this.

President Joe Biden says the White House is “checking” on whether he has the power to intervene in states like Texas where Republican leaders have banned mask mandates.

Asked whether he has the power to step in, Biden responded: “I don’t believe that I do thus far. We’re checking that.”

“I think that people should understand, seeing little kids — I mean, four, five, six years old — in hospitals, on ventilators, and some of them passing — not many, but some of them passing — it’s almost, I mean, it’s just — well, I should not characterize beyond that,” Biden said.

[…]

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Wednesday the administration is “looking into ways we can help the leaders at the local level who are putting public health first continue to do their jobs.” She said those include efforts to “keep students safe and keep students in school” and that the U.S. Department of Education “and others” are working on it.

Insert shrug emoji here. I don’t know what this might look like, but I believe they will be creative in looking for a possible point of leverage.

Finally, on a side note, Fort Worth ISD implemented a mask mandate on Tuesday. We are still waiting for HISD to vote on the request by Superintendent Millard House to implement one for our district. The Board meeting is today, I expect this to be done with little fuss from the trustees.

Supreme Court tosses no-arrest order

Things just got more interesting.

House Democrats who refuse to show up for the Legislature could soon be detained by law enforcement and brought back to the state Capitol, after the Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday voided a state district judge’s temporary restraining order barring their arrest.

The all-Republican high court’s order came at the request of Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan, also both Republicans, who petitioned the court on Monday to overturn a recent ruling by a Travis County district judge that blocked them from ordering the arrest of quorum-busting Democrats, who were in Washington, D.C., for about a month. The House Democrats in the suit have until Thursday at 4 p.m. to respond to the court. Democrats who are arrested would not face criminal charges and could not be jailed or fined. Law enforcement officers carrying out arrest orders by state officials could only try to bring them to the House chambers.

[…]

Without the Supreme Court’s intervention, Abbott and Phelan would have had no assurance whether the temporary restraining order would be lifted, and such orders are not appealable. The first scheduled hearing in district court is set for Aug. 20, when Judge Brad Urrutia would decide whether to grant Democrats a temporary injunction. Waiting until then “virtually guarantees that no significant legislation will be passed during this session,” Judd E. Stone II, the state’s solicitor general, argued in his emergency motion to the Supreme Court.

The state also argued that the Supreme Court’s action is warranted because the House speaker is immune from suits for legislative acts.

“Compelling the attendance of absent members by the House is a quintessential legislative act,” the state’s motion read, adding that Urrutia’s “hasty” order “ignores this fundamental principle.”

The state also argued that the House Democrats’ claims are “quintessential political questions” that lie beyond a court’s power to decide. The House’s rules allow for present members to compel the attendance of missing lawmakers, and at least 41 other states have similar provisions in their constitutions, the motion read.

In a response, lawyers for the House Democrats who received the temporary restraining order said the state sought an order that will free it to “to forcibly arrest political opponents who have committed no crime.”

Unlike other states, whose rules only require the presence of a majority of members to reach quorum, Texas requires a two-thirds supermajority “because the framers of the Texas Constitution prioritized high levels of participation and consensus-building in legislative decision making, even if it increased the costs of the process and the possibility that the process could deadlock,” the Democrats’ lawyers argued.

“In other words, the architects of the Texas government fully expected, and even encouraged, the power of a cohesive minority of members to ‘bust the quorum’ as a means of participation in the decision-making process,” their response read, adding that the Democrats were “acting like true Texans.”

They also argued that the state did not prove it would be harmed if the Supreme Court did not grant a stay, while the House Democrats — some of whom had already returned to the state on the understanding that Urrutia’s order protected them from arrest — would suffer harm.

Once one of those lawmakers was arrested “without a premeditating crime or due process, the Court cannot un-ring that bell,” the Democrats’ lawyers argued.

See here for the background. I don’t care for this ruling, and I agree that the power to arrest political opponents, even in this limited circumstance, is one we should be extremely reluctant to allow, but I can see the state’s argument, at least from a procedural perspective. I could also note that as Abbott has unlimited power to call special sessions, the “nothing can get done till we get a ruling on the TRO” assertion rings a little hollow. I mean, other than the Article X funding, which could have been done and dusted in the first session, before the quorum break, if Dade Phelan and Dan Patrick had chosen to prioritize it, none of these items needs to happen any time soon.

As noted, the Dems have until tomorrow to respond, and I guess then SCOTx will either let this order stand or revise it. The still-quorumless House voted to send law enforcement out for the absentees, though who knows what will come of that. I really don’t expect anyone to actually be arrested, but we’ll see. That later Trib story mentions a couple of Dems – Reps. Celia Israel and Jon Rosenthal – who are apparently in the state but not at the Capitol. Maybe they should avoid being at home for the next few days, or at least not answer the doorbell. Never a dull moment, that’s for sure. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Warrants have been signed for 52 missing Dems. Place your bets on how many actually get arrested and/or dragged into the Capitol.

Judges in Harris County implement mask mandate

It’s what all the responsible public officials are doing.

State judges in Harris County voted unanimously Tuesday to implement a mask mandate in courthouses that will supersede Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on such mandates, according to three judges who participated in the meeting.

The anticipated courthouse ban comes as Dallas County officials and school officials in districts across the state have begun bucking up against Abbott’s latest coronavirus ban, which prioritizes Texans’ right to make their own choices over the health emergency.

The local judges’ order comes amid a surge of COVID-19 infections boosted by the delta variant. The judges, who asked to remain anonymous because the order was not yet official, said the mandate should go into effect imminently, as soon as it is signed by an administrative judge.

The new rule calls for masks to be used by everyone — vaccinated or not — inside civil, criminal, family and juvenile court buildings. County Attorney Christian Menefee said it would also apply to county judges if they are in a shared building with district judges.

The state judges’ mandate follows a memo Friday from the Office of Court Administration that informed judges, clerks and court staff that the infection, hospitalization and death rates have recently spiked and that they have power to enact rules independent of the executive branch. This delineation of executive and judicial power derives from the Texas Constitution, but also the separation of powers in the U.S. Constitution, according to judges, lawyers and law professors interviewed by the Chronicle.

The state courts take their direction on operation orders from the Texas Supreme Court, which allows judges to continue holding hearings remotely and to “modify or suspend any and all deadlines and procedures, and take any other reasonable action to avoid exposing court proceedings and participants to the threat of COVID-19,” according to the Friday memo from court administration in Austin.

[…]

“My understanding is that judges have been free to handle this whatever way they want,” said Menefee, the county attorney. “The Supreme Court has allowed judges to retain their authority to set conditions for their own courts. The Texas Supreme Court has not politicized the issue by issuing a rule.”

Menefee declined to comment on whether the county is contemplating a mask mandate for employees.

This has come up before, with Williamson County implementing a similar mandate last week, following Dallas and Bexar counties. I noted it in passing here, as it happened at the same time as the city of Houston mask mandate for its employees. So far, no pushback from Abbott or Paxton on either of those, and as such it is reasonable to assume this will pass by without fallout as well. Until it does draw a response, I guess – I can’t figure out what those guys are thinking right now. Maybe they’re too busy with all the lawsuits. I expect this will come up at the next Harris County Commissioners Court meeting, and I look forward to seeing what they do given the current set of facts on the ground.

Supreme Court upholds Abbott’s power grab

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from several Democratic House members and state employees asking the justices to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of legislative funding in the upcoming two-year state budget.

Abbott vetoed the funding in June after House Democrats walked out during the final days of the regular legislative session in May, killing two of his priority bills on elections and changing the state’s bail system. Abbott then brought the Legislature back for a special session to get the bills passed, but more than 50 House Democrats again broke quorum — denying the lower chamber of the number of present members needed to move bills — by decamping to Washington, D.C., until the 30-day session ended Friday.

Democrats challenged Abbott’s veto in court, saying it stripped their power as a “co-equal branch of government.” But the Texas Supreme Court on Monday sided with Abbott on his veto that will effectively defund the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies later this year.

[…]

In an unsigned opinion, the all-Republican court said the lack of funding for the legislative branch “continues to exist not because of a dispute between the Governor and the Legislature, nor even because of one between the Governor and a minority of House members. Rather, the principal dispute is among the members of the Legislature.”

“This political dispute within the legislative branch is not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide,” the court said in its opinion.

[…]

The court said House Democrats could have worked with other lawmakers during this year’s first special sessions to reinstate Article X of the state budget, which covers legislative funding, without having to pass any other bills. They also could have worked with their fellow lawmakers to pass the bill more than 10 days before adjournment, which would have made it veto-proof. But they chose not to do so.

“Relators argue that the Governor is unconstitutionally coercing them to vote for legislation that he favors. But the Governor has not forced the Legislature to enact his priorities before addressing its own funding,” the opinion read. “The Legislature was free to use the special session to reinstate Article X funding. It could have done so without addressing any of the other items listed in the Governor’s call.”

“[T]he Governor’s veto of Article X followed by his call of a special session neither prevents the Legislature from funding itself nor forces the Legislature to enact legislation of the Governor’s choosing,” the opinion read.

The court noted that Abbott was trying to advance his favored pieces of legislation but that a majority of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature also supported those bills.

The court said the Democrats’ alleged injury may have started with Abbott’s veto, but continued only because they could not agree with their fellow lawmakers “over the order in which to consider legislation.”

You can read the unsigned opinion – there’s a load of political courage, I tell you – here. I didn’t expect the Supreme Court to wade into this, when it would be so much easier to avoid it, but this is just sophistry. The only reason there was a special session is because Abbott called one, as he has the sole power to call them. Would the Supreme Court feel differently if he hadn’t, or if he hadn’t added Article X funding to the special session agenda, another thing he has control over? Or is it now the case that constitutional separation of powers is entirely dependent on the calendar?

It is what it is at this point. The Article X funding will get restored, likely pretty soon at this point, and we’ll all go on our merry voter-suppression way. Just don’t come crying to me when a future Governor zeroes out Supreme Court funding. The Chron has more.

Meet the new special session

Same as the old special session, at least at first.

It appears likely that not enough Democrats will show up for the Texas House to conduct business when a second special legislative session convenes Saturday.

Some of the more than 50 Democratic representatives who fled Texas to foil the first special session began trickling out of their Washington, D.C., hotel and heading home Friday. But 27 members have committed to staying in the nation’s capital. At the same time, Democrats were working to confirm that at least 50 members will pledge to not return to the House floor on Saturday even if they are back in Texas.

If that happens, the chamber would again be deprived of a quorum to conduct business for at least a few days. And it could set up a showdown over whether House Speaker Dade Phelan has the authority, and political will, to compel Democratic representatives in Texas to show up at the Capitol.

The ongoing absences would further delay any consideration of the 17-item agenda Gov. Greg Abbott has set for the 30-day special session, including a contentious voting bill, which Republicans have vowed to pass into law, that motivated Democrats to leave the state last month. Two-thirds of the 150 member chamber must be present to conduct business. One seat is currently vacant.

“If you’re looking for us to telegraph exactly what we’re going to do over the next couple days, we’re not going to do that at this time,” state Rep. Chris Turner, the Democratic caucus chair, said earlier in the day. “The governor would love us to do that, but we’re not going to.”

The House Democratic caucus would not confirm any details about its next move as of Friday evening after marking the last day of the first special session that was derailed after 57 members broke quorum.

The number of Democrats actually in Washington had appeared to dwindle to about 40 members over the last few days. But with 27 Democrats planning to stay behind, even some of the Democrats seen departing from their hotel in Washington on Friday indicated the House floor may not be their destination.

[…]

“If Congress is in session, we’re in session,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said earlier in the day. “Our job is here, and we will have a significant number of members staying here and waiting day by day, engaging day by day, finishing the fight.”

Well, we’ll see. We ought to know early on what the head count is. In one of the earlier stories I saw, it was noted that the Republicans are also not quite at full strength, as some are on vacation or otherwise not available – Jake Ellzey is now in Congress, so right there they’re down one – and that means they need that many more Dems to show up to get to 100. We don’t know if Speaker Dade Phelan is going to follow through on the threat to use DPS to hunt down wayward Dems in the state and drag them to Austin. We may eventually get a quorum, but it won’t happen right away.

Later on Friday, this happened.

Twenty-two Texas House Democrats sued some of the state’s top Republican leaders in federal court in Austin late Friday, alleging that GOP officials’ efforts to bring them home for a special legislative session infringed on their constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

The lawsuit was filed on the final day of the first special session called by Gov. Greg Abbott — and on the eve of a second specially called legislative session — and names as defendants Abbott, House Speaker Dade Phelan and State Rep. James White.

[…]

It’s unclear why White was listed as a defendant. White said Friday night he was not aware he’d been sued or why he was named as a defendant. The lawsuit also did not use Phelan’s legal name, which is Matthew McDade Phelan.

Abbott and Phelan did not immediately have a statement on the lawsuit.

The Democrats’ attorney, Craig Anthony Washington, a former Democratic lawmaker, did not respond to a request for comment. Washington is practicing law under a probationally suspended license, according to the State Bar of Texas.

The lawsuit alleges that some Democrats are being targeted because of their race and skin color, but then provides no evidence.

It also claims the three Republican lawmakers acted together under the “color of law” to cause the harm alleged in the suit, but then points no specific harmful actions other than “public statements.” The lawsuit also says some individual plaintiffs experienced “retaliatory attacks, threats and attempts at coercion relating to the exercise of their First Amendment rights” but again does not provide specifics.

The plaintiffs listed in the case are state Reps. Senfronia Thompson, Trey Martinez Fischer, Gene Wu, Vikki Goodwin, Ron Reynolds, Eddie Rodriguez, Jon Rosenthal, Jasmine Crockett, Mary Ann Perez, Alma Allen, Christina Morales, Nicole Collier, Celia Israel, Ana-Maria Ramos, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Terry Meza, Donna Howard, Jarvis Johnson, Ray Lopez, Shawn Thierry, Elizabeth Campos and Gina Hinojosa.

The lawsuit alleges that the three Republican lawmakers have attempted “by public statements and otherwise, to attempt to deny, coerce, threaten, intimidate, and prevent” the Democrats and their constituents from voting in all elections, petitioning the government for redress of grievances, speaking publicly about their constitutional rights, exercising their right of association and their right to not being arrested without probable cause. The Democrats allege that in acting together, the defendants engaged in a conspiracy to deprive them of their constitutional rights.

Because of the defendant’s actions, the complaint alleges, the plaintiffs have been “deprived of liberty for substantial periods of time, suffered much anxiety and distress over separation from their families, and much discomfort and embarrassment.” They also have suffered damages to their reputations and have had to spend time traveling to Washington to lobby Congress to pass laws that would protect voting rights.

That sounds pretty unlikely to me, even without the issues noted for attorney Craig Washington. You can read a copy of the lawsuit and come to your own conclusions, but this seems like an extreme longshot. And as to why Rep. White was named as a defendant, my guess is it stemmed from his request for an AG opinion suggesting that the quorum-breaking Dems had “vacated” their seats. Even if you could count on Ken Paxton’s office to give an honest answer, that seems like a big escalation of the stakes.

And in other desperation moves, there’s this.

Texas Republican leaders said Friday they were extending “an additional month of funding” for the Legislature as a deadline to reinstate those dollars vetoed by Gov. Greg Abbott nears, which could cost some 2,100 state workers their salaries and benefits.

The announcement Friday by Abbott, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and House Speaker Dade Phelan comes a day ahead of the beginning of a second special session, where it’s still unknown whether enough state lawmakers in the lower chamber will convene in time to restore the funding long term.

[…]

Citing an emergency, the Legislative Budget Board requested the transfer of funds, according to a memo dated Aug. 6 from Abbott responding to the LBB’s proposal. Funds amounting to at least $12.6 million will be transferred from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to the Senate, the House, and legislative agencies such as the LBB, the Legislative Council and the Legislative Reference Library.

Abbott referenced his veto in that memo, reiterating his position that “funding should not be provided for those who quit their jobs early and leave the state with unfinished business, exposing taxpayers to higher costs for additional legislative sessions.”

“However, in order to ensure the Legislature is fully resourced to do the work of the next special session,” he wrote, “I recognize that the partial restoration the Legislative Budget Board had proposed is necessary.”

The extension announced Friday means that those legislative employees and legislative agencies will have funding intact through Sept. 30 instead of Sept. 1, when the next two-year state budget takes effect.

I thought the LBB could only meet when the Lege was not in session, which is certainly was on Friday. If this is all it took, then why not act sooner? And why not free up more money? This has the feel of something half-baked, though I suppose if no one challenges it in court there’s nothing to stop it. And hey, even if someone does challenge it in court, the Supreme Court will just sit on it until the matter becomes moot anyway, so what difference does it make? We’re off to a roaring start here, that’s for sure.

Special session 2.0 coming right up

Here we go again.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the second special legislative session will begin at noon Saturday — and with an expanded agenda.

The 17-item agenda still includes well-known Abbott priorities like the election bill that caused House Democrats to flee the state at the start of the first special session, which ends Friday. But it also features six additions, including the spending of federal COVID-19 relief funds and potentially changing the legislative rules regarding quorums.

[…]

The start of the second special session is approaching amid continued uncertainty over the fate of paychecks for over 2,100 legislative staffers. Abbott vetoed their pay after House Democrats staged a walkout over the elections bill in the regular session that ended in May, and the funding was set to start Sept. 1.

The reinstatement of that funding remains on the agenda for the second special session.

The new items on the call also include legislation to protect Texans from radioactive waste and to change the timeline for the 2022 primary elections. The latter item is likely a nod to the fact that the primaries will have to be pushed back due to delays in the redistricting process.

The item on changing the rules around quorums comes after Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick called on Abbott to add something like it to the agenda for the second special session. The lieutenant governor wants to lower the threshold for each chamber to conduct business from two-thirds of members to a simple majority. That would require a state constitutional amendment and thus a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

As for education during the pandemic, Abbott is asking lawmakers to pass legislation that “in-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it.” He also wants legislation that ensures that masks and vaccinations are not mandatory in schools, which he has already ordered through executive action.

Not anything here that would make it more enticing for the Dems to come back, that’s for sure. The item about changing quorum rules is cute, but if it needs a 2/3 vote to pass as a constitutional amendment, I would not expect it to go anywhere, for all the obvious reasons.

What will the Dems do? They haven’t said yet, and as before I don’t know. Looking back, they didn’t get a voting rights bill passed, not that anyone could have expected that, though it’s fair to say there’s a lot more pressure being applied on President Biden and the Senate Dems to make that happen. Perhaps the new “Right to Vote” bill by Sen. Ossoff has a chance – it wouldn’t address everything – redistricting reform would be a key omission – but it would help. As expected, between the infrastructure bill and the January 6 committee hearing and our national fruit fly-level attention span, they’re getting maybe one percent of the press coverage they got when they first left, but again, I don’t know what could have changed that. They successfully killed off the first session, and for the most part the Republicans have been able to do little but sputter and post the occasional juvenile photo on Instagram, so I’d call this a draw. A draw that still inevitably ends with them back in Texas and the odious bills they have been able to stop so far getting passed anyway. Again, it was always going to be this way, barring a miracle from Sens. Manchin and Sinema.

Two other points: One is that redistricting data is soon to arrive.

Ideally for the Republicans, they breeze through this session, finish up all the business they want to get done, then get a short break before embarking on this much more involved task. They want to get to this quickly to foreclose even the minimal possibility of a federal voting rights bill that includes preclearance and redistricting reform being enacted. The ideal scenario for Dems is less clear to me, but running more time off the clock so that the original special session items have to take a back seat to this is probably better than what I just laid out as being best for the GOP. In short, the best outcome is still bad unless there’s some federal action to mitigate the damage.

As for restoring legislative funding, the Quorum Report posted an item just before the new special session was announced that suggested the possibility of the Legislative Budget Board moving some money around to fix that problem. Unfortunately, the LBB can only meet when the Lege is not in session – the QR report speculated that they would have this weekend to do that, with Special Session 2.0 being called for Tuesday – so that is off the table. That means that either the Dems show up and the Lege fixes it, the Supreme Court rules that Abbott’s veto was unconstitutional (AS THEY SHOULD ANYWAY), Abbott himself uses his emergency powers to plug the hold he dug, or the funding runs out and who knows what happens to redistricting. You know that sequence from “Animal House” where the Deltas have sabotaged the marching band and the parade they were in has devolved into chaos? That’s the energy I’m getting from all this now. I’ll leave it to you to decide who Bluto and Niedermeyer are in this analogy. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: More here from the Trib, reiterating that House Dems have not committed to a specific action just yet.

Another ruling to allow whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton to proceed

So much for all the lawyers to do.

Best mugshot ever

A state judge has rejected a bid to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit filed by four former executives at Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office who said they were fired in retaliation after accusing their boss of misconduct.

In a brief order issued Tuesday evening, state District Judge Amy Clark Meachum gave no reasons for allowing the lawsuit to continue.

Shortly after the ruling, however, the attorney general’s office notified Meachum that it had filed an appeal, halting further action on the case, including a planned April 5 hearing on a request by two of the whistleblowers to be reinstated to their jobs.

[…]

During a March 1 hearing on the motion to dismiss, Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to defend the attorney general’s office, argued that there was no basis to sue because Paxton was allowed to fire the employees for any reason.

“Texas employees of any elected official always serve at the pleasure of the elected official,” Helfand told Meachum.

[…]

Meachum’s ruling on the motion to dismiss was delayed by an earlier appeal from Helfand, who objected when Meachum called a second hearing on March 1 — to consider whether to reinstate the jobs of two whistleblowers — without ruling on his motion to dismiss.

Helfand argued that no further action could be taken until his motion was ruled upon because it questioned whether Meachum had jurisdiction to hear the lawsuit. Meachum disagreed, held the second hearing, heard from two witnesses and recessed the hearing for the night, but her plans to resume March 2 were blocked by the 3rd Court of Appeals while it considered Helfand’s appeal.

The appeals court rejected that appeal on March 12, leading to Meachum’s ruling Tuesday.

See here and here for some background. I’m honestly a little confused by what that “April 5” hearing was supposed to be about. Clearly, I’ve missed a story or two along the way, but the gist appears to be that there was a motion to dismiss by Paxton and a motion to reinstate two of the fired employees that Paxton objected to, and along the way there have been rulings and appeals and now here we are. According to Chuck Lindell, the 3rd Court of Appeals will have a hearing on September 22, presumably to consider the ruling that the lawsuit can proceed. Maybe it will be more clear at that time. Mark your calendars and we’ll see.

“I’ve lost track of what day it is” quorum-busting post: What next?

Hey, guess what: The current special session will be over soon, like this Saturday. What happens next?

Uncertainty is running rampant among Texas Democrats and Republicans as the final days of the special legislative session dwindle away.

The session officially ends Friday, and lawmakers are already gearing up for a second special session as House Democrats show zero interest in returning from Washington, D.C., and restoring quorum in the lower chamber for this session.

Abbott has promised to call a second special session to pass the GOP’s priority voting bill, but the exact timing is uncertain. Abbott also has yet to detail what other items, if any, he intends to include on the agenda for the next special session. And House Democrats have not yet revealed what they have planned after the session ends this week.

At stake is the fate of the elections bill, which prompted Democrats who object to the legislation to leave in the first place, as well as the livelihoods of some 2,100 state workers and legislative agencies that are set to lose funding next month.

Everyone agrees Abbott will call another session, likely for next week. Abbott says it will have all of the current items on it for Special Session 2. No one knows yet what the Democrats will do. No one knows when or if the Supreme Court will rule on Abbott’s line item veto of the legislative budget. Which, by the way, is something he had thought of before, because he’s a wannabe autocrat and much like Trump knows that the Republican sycophants in charge of the Legislature will never hold him accountable for anything. No one knows if there will be redistricting repercussions of the legislative budget veto, or if its funding can be restored in time for that work to begin. You can read the rest of the story for more details, but that’s the big picture. Hasn’t this been fun?

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

When might SCOTX rule on the line item veto thing?

The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.

Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.

Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.

Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.

“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”

And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”

And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.

“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”

[…]

Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.

“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”

It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.

“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.

“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”

The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.

Abramson agrees.

“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”

Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.

Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.

Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.

“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.

If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.

“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”

I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.

Day 9 quorum busting post: See you in August

Here’s your endgame, more or less.

Texas House Democrats will not return to the state until after the special session of the Legislature is over, one of the leaders of their walkout confirmed Tuesday.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said they expect to return to Texas on Aug. 7 — when the 30-day special session aimed at passing new voting restrictions is required to end.

“It will be our plan on that day — on or about — to return back to Texas,” Martinez Fischer told advocates of a group Center for American Progress Action Fund, that is led by former White House Chief of Staff John Podesta, a Democrat. “Then we will evaluate our next option.”

[…]

He said Democrats want to soften some of the “sharp edges” of the voting restrictions Republicans are proposing — specifically, how the GOP bill enables felony charges against election officials who violate its provisions, as well as for people who help voters fill out their ballots without the proper documentation, even for inadvertent offenses.

“There really has been no attempt to negotiate in good faith,” he said. “We are all putting our hopes in a federal standard.”

Other Texas Democrats have said their plan right now is to keep their caucus unified and focused on spurring national action. State Rep. Ann Johnson, D-Houston, said Abbott’s threats to have them arrested or to call more special sessions don’t mean much to her.

“Our presence here together ensures that those Texans who are not being heard by Gov. Greg Abbott continue to be stood up for,” Johnson said.

Democrats on Tuesday said while in Washington, they are pushing for a meeting with President Joe Biden and were continuing to meet with key leaders. That included a strategy session with U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, a top leader in the House from South Carolina.

But if the Texans are counting on Congress acting, they don’t have much time. The U.S. House goes on its annual August recess starting July 30 and the U.S. Senate leaves a week later. Neither returns to Washington until after Labor Day.

When Texas Democrats do finally return, Abbott has made clear he’ll call them back into special session again to pass an elections bill and other key priorities of Republicans who control the agenda in state politics. The Texas Constitution allows the governor to call as many special sessions as he wants, but each cannot last for more than 30 days.

It’s the Senate that matters, and their recess (assuming Majority Leader Chuck Schumer allows it in full) corresponds to the end of Special Session #1. The House is not the problem for the Dems. Same story, different day.

Timing may be a problem for Greg Abbott, as Harvey Kronberg suggests.

HK: Article X Veto may have compromised full Republican control of redistricting

In theory at least, Democrats may have leverage they should not otherwise have; Article X cannot be revived without a special and with a hard August 20 deadline looming, the Legislature is on the edge of mutually assured destruction

“The Democrats’ claims about the governor’s veto ‘cancelling’ the legislative branch are misleading and misguided. The Constitution protects the legislative branch, and as the Democrats well know, their positions, their powers and their salaries are protected by the Constitution. They can continue to legislate despite the veto” – Gov. Greg Abbott, responding to the Democrats’ Texas Supreme Court request to overturn his Article X veto.

Let’s be clear up front.

The conventional wisdom is that although there is a threat of arrest upon arrival, the House Democrats will come back at some point and watch Republicans pass some version of their election bill. A substantive question is whether the bill becomes more punitive due to Republican anger over the quorum break.

Let’s not bury the lede here. The House is boiling and Governor Abbott’s veto of legislative funding could conceivably lead to Republican loss of control in redistricting. While there is much chest beating and both feigned and real anger over the quorum bust, it camouflages a much bigger issue.

The rest is paywalled, but I was able to get a look at it. The basic idea is that per Comptroller Glenn Hegar, the state has until August 20 to reinstate legislative funding for the software to be updated in time to write checks for the next fiscal year beginning September 1. If that hasn’t happened by then, the Texas Legislative Council, which does all of the data crunching for redistricting, goes offline. No TLC, no ability to draw new maps. Pretty simple, as far as that goes.

What happens next is unclear. If the Lege can’t draw maps, that task falls to a federal court for the Congressional map. They wouldn’t have the needed data, and they wouldn’t have a default map to use as a basis, since the existing map is two Congressional districts short. The Legislative Redistricting Board draws the House, Senate, and SBOE maps if the Lege doesn’t, but they wouldn’t have data either, and per Kronberg “the LRB cannot constitutionally convene until after the first regular session in which census numbers have been received. (Article 3, Section 28).” Which is to say, not until 2023. You begin to see the problem.

Now maybe funding could be restored quickly, if Abbott were to call everyone back on August 8 or so. But maybe some TLC staffers decide they don’t need this kind of uncertainty and they move on to other gigs. Maybe Abbott declares another emergency and funds the TLC himself, though that may open several cans of worms when the litigation begins. Maybe the Supreme Court gets off its ass and rules on the line item veto mandamus, which could settle this now. Indeed, as Kronberg points out, the amicus brief filed by the League of Women Voters is expressly about the failure of the Lege to do its constitutional duty in the absence of funding for the TLC.

There are a lot of things that could happen here, and Kronberg is just positing one scenario. His topline point is that any outcome that includes a court drawing maps is a big loss for Republicans, for obvious reasons. Does that provide some incentive for “good faith negotiation”, if only as a risk mitigation for the Republicans? I have no idea.

One more thing:

When Texas Democrats staged a walkout at the end of the regular legislative session in late May, they successfully killed Republicans’ prized bill: a slew of restrictions on voting statewide. Or that’s how it seemed at the time, at least.

Less than three weeks later, Gov. Greg Abbott announced a special legislative session specifically aimed at passing an equivalent version of the so-called election integrity bill alongside other conservative legislative priorities.

The same day Abbott announced his plan for the special session, AT&T, whose CEO has said the company supports expanding voting rights nationwide, gave Abbott $100,000 to fund his reelection campaign.

[…]

In April, AT&T CEO John Stankey told The Hill that the company believes “the right to vote is sacred and we support voting laws that make it easier for more Americans to vote in free, fair and secure elections.”

In an email, an AT&T spokesperson said, “Our employee PACs contribute to policymakers in both major parties, and it will not agree with every PAC dollar recipient on every issue. It is likely our employee PACs have contributed to policymakers in support of and opposed to any given issue.”

How could the left hand possibly know what the right hand is doing? It’s a mystery, I tell you.

More briefs in the lawsuit over the line item veto

I sure hope this means a ruling is on the horizon.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss a lawsuit brought by House Democrats over Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to veto funding for the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers improperly blocked the issue from being resolved when they fled the state.

After Abbott vetoed the portion of the coming two-year state budget that funds the Legislature and its staff, known as Article X, more than 50 Democratic state House members filed a lawsuit accusing the Republican governor of violating a constitutional provision that provides for three separate and independent branches of government. In calling lawmakers back to Austin for a 30-day special session, Abbott gave them the option to restore the funding.

In a filing Tuesday evening, Solicitor General Judd Stone wrote that the special session is the “forum for addressing the very issue in dispute, yet it is (the Democrats) who are preventing that outcome by purposefully stopping the Legislature from being able to exercise its constitutionally granted powers.”

[…]

Stone went on to argue that the matter “is a political question unsuited for adjudication” that should instead be resolved by the legislature.

“By staging another walkout, …House Democrats are forcing the Legislature into the result they say would injure them—the lack of Article X funding,” Stone wrote. “Proceeding with this case would improperly reward (Democrats) for their misguided attempt to manufacture jurisdiction and would waste this Court’s resources.”

Democrats responded to the filing Wednesday, arguing there is no link between the lawsuit and Democrats’ quorum break. Chad Dunn, the Democrats’ attorney in the case, framed the court filing by Paxton’s office as an “attempt to blame the victim by putting the onus on the Legislature to rectify Governor Abbott’s unconstitutional conduct.”

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” Dunn wrote. “Rather, they confirm the need for this Court to decide whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sorry, I Am Not A Lawyer and I clearly have a rooting interest in the outcome, but the state’s argument is transparently self-serving. Abbott is entirely the reason we’re in this situation. He vetoed the funding. Only he had the power to call a special session, and to set the agenda, to give the Lege a chance to respond. He could have only put Article X funding on the agenda, at least until that was resolved. The only way out of this conundrum that doesn’t give all the power to Abbott is to declare that he cannot veto the funding for the legislative branch. (And again, if he can do that, he can also veto the Supreme Court’s funding.) The state constitution makes no sense otherwise.

The Statesman gives more of the Democrats’ response.

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” their lawyers told the court in a response filed Wednesday.

If anything, the quorum break that has hamstrung the special session demands the court’s answer to the central question: “Whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives,” the Democrats argued.

What’s more, they said, Abbott has not said he will sign into law a bill restoring the money.

“There is good reason to think he will not unless and until the Legislature has first fulfilled his other agenda items,” said the letter signed by lawyers Jim Dunnam and Chad Dunn.

Instead of accepting the argument that Abbott’s veto is an improper intrusion on another branch of government, Republicans are working to “blame the victim” by putting the onus on lawmakers to correct Abbott’s unconstitutional action, they argued.

“It is the Governor’s unconstitutional veto that is harming (House Democrats) by defunding the Legislature — not the subsequent decision by some Members to push back on this unprecedented break in the constitutional structure by breaking quorum,” Dunnam and Dunn wrote.

I do sympathize with the Supreme Court not wanting to rule on this hot potato, but if they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t have run for the Court in the first place. Put on your grownup pants and do what needs to be done.

Day 3 not as long omnibus quorum busting post

Let’s jump right in…

Who’s paying for Texas Democrats’ trip to DC? Beto O’Rourke has already raised $400K.

Beto O’Rourke’s political action committee has raised nearly half a million dollars to support Texas Democrats’ escape to Washington, D.C., he said Tuesday night.

O’Rourke, a former El Paso congressman and possible 2022 candidate for governor, has been soliciting donations for the Democrats on Twitter since they fled to the nation’s capital on Monday. It’s the second time House Democrats have broken quorum in about six weeks to kill a controversial elections bill championed by Texas’ GOP leaders.

The PAC, Powered By People, has raised more than $430,000 so far, O’Rourke said.

“Up to them to use it for whatever keeps them in the fight for as long as it takes,” he said.

The 60 or so fugitive Democrats have repeatedly said that no taxpayer dollars are funding the expenses for their stay in Washington, which could last as long as Aug. 7, the end of the special session in Austin. Legislators have been using campaign funds and personal funds, they said.

State Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said he paid for the first night of hotel rooms and meeting spaces for the group on Monday.

The effort has garnered national attention, and some celebrities have joined the fundraising push. Texas icon Willie Nelson and his wife, Annie, matched $5,000 in donations on Tuesday.

The Trib also covered this topic. Greg Abbott has been out there claiming the Dems are using taxpayer funds for this journey, which is nonsense. As I said up front, of course this is going to be a fundraising opportunity for the Dems, partly because firing up the base is a key component and partly because they’re going to need it. It’s pretty simple.

Behind the partisan drama lies a profoundly serious struggle over who gets shut out under Texas voting laws.

The dramatic exodus of Democratic Texas lawmakers to block a Republican voting bill has choked the political airways in a haze of confusion, posturing and finger-pointing.

But beneath the smoke, a fire rages.

Many Democrats, especially those who are people of color, are incensed, seeing the latest Republican voting bill as another moment of crisis in a state they believe has long marginalized people like them in the halls of power.

Many Republicans, passions stoked by unsubstantiated claims of widespread voting fraud, see their hold on political power slipping away, and are clamoring for a firewall.

The struggle over voting rights in Texas goes beyond the legislative theatrics of the moment. It is fundamentally a clash not just of elected officials, but of the two constituencies they represent. It is a fight over whose voices will be heard that began long before the Democrats shut down the Texas Legislature, and the stakes are not trivial.

The two days preceding the Democratic flight offered a microcosm of the standoff.

[…]

In the lead up to their quorum break, Democrats appeared frustrated at Republicans’ lack of consideration for the fallout voters of color could face from their proposals. Throughout the legislative debates, they’ve repeatedly pressed GOP bill authors on whether they’ve sought disparate impact studies to assess if their new voting rules would disproportionately harm voters of color. (Republicans have consistently responded they have not.)

But Democrats’ retort since fleeing the state — that their actions are an extreme but necessary effort at safeguarding their own communities from the Republicans in charge of the state — have underlined the reason behind their destination.

Conceding they don’t have the sufficient numbers to block the Texas legislation indefinitely, they have thrust their fight onto the national stage in hopes of helping increase pressure on Congress to pass federal legislation to restore sweeping protections for voters of color.

“Texas’ generations-long pattern of discrimination is not in the past; it is alive and present today in the anti-voter bills before the Texas State Legislature,” state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said in a statement about the quorum break. “This is part of a calculated and deliberate Republican plan to chip away at the freedom to vote and to choose our leaders.”

Their remarks echoed the series of federal court rulings in recent years that found state lawmakers have repeatedly and intentionally discriminated against voters of color, often by diluting the power of their votes in selecting their representatives.

The high-stakes fight in Congress centers on a pair of federal bills, including one that could place Texas, and other states with a history of discrimination against voters of color, back under federal supervision of its election laws and redistricting.

For decades, that oversight — known as preclearance — proved to be a powerful mechanism for keeping Texas laws and political maps from going into effect until the Department of Justice or a federal court ensured they wouldn’t undermine the voting rights of people of color.

Before it was wiped out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, preclearance forestalled the adoption of the state’s 2011 redistricting maps before they were revised by the federal courts. It also kept Texas from immediately implementing its stringent voter ID law, which was eventually slightly rewritten as a result of the legal intervention over the way it targeted Hispanic and Black voters who were less likely to have the one of the IDs that were not required to cast a ballot.

Texas Democrats have been able to easily align their efforts with calls for the restoration of those protections because they would wholly benefit the voters of color that are in the majority in most of their districts. Republicans’ political base is more likely to be made up of older, white Texans, while Democrats rely on a more diverse electorate with huge vote counts coming in from the state’s urban metros.

A lot of this is going to be about attention and headlines and winning hearts and minds and news cycles, but at the core there’s a serious policy issue, and Dems are giving it the level of commitment they believe it deserves. I hope that’s one of the messages that gets through to lower-information voters.

‘We are in a state of crisis’ Texas Black faith leaders speak against voter suppression legislation.

In a press conference on Tuesday highlighting Texas Republicans latest push on voter suppression bills, Black faith leaders from across the state asked Gov. Greg Abbott for a meeting to discuss voting legislation.

In addition to the meeting, leaders also asked constituents to participate in the Push Democracy Forward and the Austin Justice Coalition Prayer and Justice March on Voter Suppression at the steps of the Austin Capitol on July 15.

According to Dixon, buses will be provided in cities across the state for constituents who want to participate in the march.

“Texas is headed toward a dangerous tipping point,” Bishop James Dixon, President of the Houston chapter of the NAACP said. “We are indeed a state and a nation in crisis.”

The Black clergy said they are hoping to provide spiritual and moral leadership in the community regarding voting rights.

“We intend to make it clear that this issue is more than political,” Dixon said. “People are being misunderstood and the truth is being misrepresented.”

Dixon also said the Black clergy will be sending an open letter to non-Black clergy colleagues to meet and stand in solidarity.

“We all read from the same Bible thus we should be able to stand together for justice,” Dixon said.

Furthermore, Rev. Frederick D. Haynes III said Austin is the new Selma.

“We’re coming to Austin to say Texas, America, you must be born again,” Haynes said. “Voter suppression and democratic subversion taking place in Texas is a result of an addiction to the big lie and it’s connectected to the terrorist sedition of Jan. 6.”

Not much you can say to that except “Amen”.

Scenarios: Where Texas Dems go from here.

Texas Democrats made national news this week when they once again denied a quorum in the state legislature, preventing the Texas House from conducting business and thus preventing the passage of an egregious voter suppression bill.

So what happens next? Democrats have some options here.

1. LOBBYING TO PASS FEDERAL VOTING RIGHTS LEGISLATION
In flying to D.C. to break quorum, Democrats are continuing their work in a different forum. Their presence expresses urgency to President Biden, Senator Schumer, and Speaker Pelosi to use their majorities to pass federal voting rights legislation.

This is bigger than just Texas, because what we’re seeing in the Lone Star State is what we also saw in state legislative chambers around the country – Donald Trump’s claim that he lost the election due to unsubstantiated voter fraud, also known as “The Big Lie,” has become the basis for voter suppression laws around the country.

Things like limiting the number of polling places in cities but not in rural areas, limiting access to vote by mail, limiting voting hours, criminalizing clerical errors on voter registration cards, allowing judges to overturn elections simply based on claims and not evidence, and empowering partisan poll watchers to interfere with balloting are some of the more egregious efforts in these bills.

Democrats must use their national leverage to protect our free and fair elections, and neither Donald Trump nor state legislatures should be allowed to stifle those elections.

Door #2 is “Keep delaying the special session”, perhaps until the Supreme Court settles the legislative funding veto; Door #3 is “Republicans can negotiate”; and Door #4 is “Democrats return, nothing changes”. We don’t want to open Door #4.

That’s all for today. Tune in tomorrow when I may do another one of these.

Day 2 quorum busting omnibus post

Gonna round up a few stories here. Don’t know how often I’ll be this energetic, or how often there will be this many stories that I see that are worth commenting on, but it is Day Two. We’re just getting started, and there’s lots of people still paying attention.

The cops are almost certainly not coming for the wayward Dems. I mean, come on.

A showdown in the Texas House was locked into place Tuesday after the chamber voted overwhelmingly to send law enforcement after Democrats who left the state a day earlier in protest of a GOP priority elections legislation.

More than 50 House Democrats left Monday for Washington, D.C., to deny the chamber a quorum — the minimum number of lawmakers needed to conduct business — as it takes up voting restrictions and other Republican priorities in a special session.

That agenda, set by Gov. Greg Abbott, includes House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 1, the election legislation at hand that would make a number of changes to Texas’ voting system, such as banning drive-thru and 24 hour voting options and further restricting the state’s voting-by-mail rules. Over the weekend, both House and Senate committees advanced the election bills.

The impact of the House move is unclear since Texas law enforcement lacks jurisdiction in the nation’s capital.

Meeting shortly after 10 a.m., the House quickly established that it lacked the two-thirds quorum required to do business, with only 80 of 150 members participating in a test vote.

Then Rep. Will Metcalf, R-Conroe, chair of the House Administration Committee, moved to issue what is known as a “call of the House” to try to regain quorum. That motion passed 76-4. Metcalf offered another motion, asking that “the sergeant at arms, or officers appointed by him, send for all absentees … under warrant of arrest if necessary.” That motion also passed 76-4.

Metcalf’s motions were opposed by four Democrats who were present on the House floor Tuesday morning: Reps. Ryan Guillen of Rio Grande City, Tracy King of Batesville, Eddie Morales Jr. of Eagle Pass and John Turner of Dallas.

Axios noted Greg Abbott on Fox News shaking his fist and threatening arrest as well. It’s noise – remember, a big part of this is about the PR for both sides – and in all honesty, it’s what I’d do in the Republicans’ position. Let’s just say I will be extremely surprised if anyone is met at the airport by police on the way back.

If 58 Dems went to DC, then there were nine who did not. We know four of them, at least, and they make sense – Guillen and Morales represent districts carried by Trump in 2020, King’s district trended redder in both 2016 and 2020, and Turner is not running for re-election. I’ll be interested to see who the others are. Everyone will have their reasons for their choices, and bear in mind that family responsibilities may well be among those reasons.

The Chron adds a few tidbits.

Rep. Morgan Meyer, R-Dallas, asked [Speaker Dade] Phelan on the floor Tuesday whether Democrats could be removed from committee chair positions for breaking quorum. The speaker said they could not.

Morales, whose gargantuan district spans an area from Eagle Pass nearly to El Paso, said he chose to stay in Texas because he believes it was what his constituents, who tend lean more conservative even among Democrats, wanted from him.

“I felt, and I think what my constituents expected, was for me to be in the Capitol, to make sure that I’m fighting for their rights, and that I fight in opposition to this voter suppression,” he said. “Everyone can fight and they can fight differently. My way of fighting is being here because that’s what my constituents expect.”

Morales said it is clear Democrats would be “steamrolled” when the Republican majority did not give them 24 hours after a House committee hearing this weekend to offer amendments based on the testimony they heard.

“It was just fanfare. They had no intention of actually working and actually coming to play and actually making those modifications necessary to the bill,” he said. “ That is why Democratic leadership decided to take the actions that they did.”

Morales said he expects that Phelan will allow members who ask permission to be excused to leave the chamber on an individual basis. He’ll need to do so to be at work at his day job as a city attorney on Tuesday night.

The process of asking for permission to leave the chamber will likely be repeated every day.

Troopers will now go to the missing members’ homes in their districts and in Austin, and places of work and family and friends’ houses, Morales said.

The Texas Senate, meanwhile, had a quorum of 22 members and was expected to debate its version of the voting bill later Tuesday.

The home visits were a part of the 2003 walkouts as well. You never know, someone might try to sneak home for some reason.

The bit about the Senate having a quorum feels a little surprising even though it obviously isn’t. I don’t know how much incentive Senate Dems have to do anything other than screw around and try to make trouble as they can. As for the likely death of other bills, well, that was priced into the decision to break quorum.

Bills to restrict pretrial release from jail, ban critical race theory in schools and prohibit transgender public school students from competing on teams that correspond with their gender identity were up in the air after dozens of Democratic lawmakers chartered flights to Washington, D.C. But their departure also left in jeopardy more widely-supported measures, like giving more money to retired teachers and restoring vetoed funding for more than 2,100 legislative employees who could potentially go without paychecks starting in September.

[…]

Beside bills on voting and bail, other Republican priorities that are now in danger during Abbott’s 30-day session include efforts to stop social media companies from blocking users for their viewpoints, limiting pill-induced abortions and adding money for policing efforts at the Texas-Mexico border. But the governor also tagged lawmakers to tackle less partisan issues — like adding funds for foster care, property-tax relief and retired teachers. On Monday, he slammed Democrats for leaving those on the table.

One piece of legislation would provide what is known as a “13th check” to retired teachers across Texas. The bills would direct the Teacher Retirement System of Texas to distribute a one-time supplemental payment of up to $2,400 by January of next year.

Committees in the House and Senate unanimously advanced the legislation Friday in some of the earliest committee votes of the special session.

Tim Lee, executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association, said its members “desperately need help,” especially after the economic stresses caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think there are mixed feelings,” Lee said of the potential demise of the 13th check proposal due to Democrats leaving the state. “I think that educators care about voting rights, educators care about the truth, they care about working together and compromising and listening — so that’s what they hope both sides of this policy spectrum will ultimately yield, that people will work together.”

As far as legislative employees — who earn a median salary of $52,000 per year — some staffers and a legal representative said there may be other ways to pay the employees of elected officials and those who help all lawmakers write bill drafts and provide cost estimates for legislation.

Lawmakers could potentially roll over money from the current fiscal year, if they have any, to pay their staffers. Or the Texas Supreme Court may rule in favor of the employees and House Democrats in a lawsuit arguing Abbott’s veto was a gubernatorial overreach. And Abbott has used his emergency power to move money around before, as he did by directing the transfer of $250 million from Texas prisons to a border wall down payment.

For Odus Evbagharu, chief of staff to state Rep. Jon Rosenthal, D-Houston, the onus to restore his and his colleagues’ wages is on Abbott.

“I don’t believe it’s on the House Democratic Caucus to answer for that. I think that’s going to be an answer that Governor Abbott’s gonna have to answer himself,” Evbagharu said. “My best guess is you hope he doesn’t further punish staff for decisions that lawmakers are making.”

Most of these bills are garbage, and their death (however fleeting) is a bonus as far as Dems are concerned. The legislative funding issue is entirely on Abbott for his temper-tantrum veto, and I hadn’t even thought about him using emergency powers to override himself. That’s if the Supreme Court doesn’t settle this, AS THEY SHOULD. The extra paycheck for teachers is a genuine shame, but it could be handled in any subsequent special session.

Again I want to emphasize, Greg Abbott has the primary responsibility here. He pushed these divisive, red meat issues, he called the special session to try again on the ones that failed, and he broke all precedent by vetoing the legislative funding. This is his mess.

One thing, though, seems clear: this comes at a very bad time for Governor Greg Abbott, who was already having a pretty bad week. Abbott is facing, so far, three challengers to his right in the Republican primary for governor. The charge from his Republican opponents is that he’s feckless and weak. The quorum break, which is designed to deny passage of one of his priority pieces of legislation, fits neatly into a narrative that he is getting outfoxed by an ostensibly powerless Democratic opposition. That the narrative is largely untrue—Democrats certainly believe they got the shaft this session—doesn’t matter much.

If the crisis resolves by offering concessions to the exiled Democrats, or otherwise weakening the bill, Abbott will catch hell. The best case for him is to “break” the Democrats and win the fight, but taking a hard line could also prolong the crisis. At first, messaging from his camp was uncharacteristically soft, perhaps because it’s not clear what he could say. In a statement Monday, Abbott said Democratic absences were standing in the way of “property tax relief” and other issues, a sign that the governor’s office was uncomfortable centering the election bill that’s the problem here. On Tuesday, he started talking tough, threatening them with arrest and “cabining” in the Capitol if they return to Texas, but both those threats reflect his underlying powerlessness. The main talking point so far, at least on social media, is that the Democrats brought beer with them.

[…]

Abbott’s predicament is one he seems uniquely unfit to solve. Unlike his predecessor, Rick Perry, he has never had much in the way of personal relationships with lawmakers. He has no credibility with Democrats to coax them back. But even Republican legislators don’t trust him very much. Abbott did not help the situation with his decision after Democrats walked out on the last day of the regular session to veto funding for the Legislature in retribution. He is holding Republican staffers and state employees hostage in order to coerce Democrats back to the chamber. That may make Abbott look “tough,” but hurting your allies to spite your enemies isn’t sensible politics.

The one thing Abbott does have going for him here is that the Dems will eventually come back, one way or another, and he will always have to call at least one more special session to deal with redistricting. He could just decide to wait and let the Dems figure out what they’re doing and mostly ignore them until they return. I don’t think he’ll do that, but he does do best when he mostly stays out of sight.

Whatever Abbott does or doesn’t do, things are happening in the Senate.

As Democrats fled the state to avoid voting on a GOP priority elections bill that would restrict voting rights in the state, the Texas Senate approved the bill Tuesday with a party-line vote of 18-4.

[…]

[Bill author Sen. Bryan] Hughes amended the bill to drop requirements for curbside voting that troubled advocates for people with disabilities. The original version of the bill required any person other than the voter using curbside voting to leave the car while the voter was casting their ballot.

Hughes removed that provision to “avoid confusion and not create hardship for anyone with a disability.”

Another amendment by Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, was intended to bring the bill into compliance with federal laws on voter assistance. It removed provisions from the bill that required people assisting voters to specify under oath how they were providing assistance to a voter and that they were doing so because the voter had a disability.

Sen. Brian Birdwell, R-Granbury, also amended the bill to allow for tents to be used as temporary polling places if a regular polling place sustained physical damage that rendered it unusable. The permission would only grant the temporary permission for one election and would have to be approved by a county commissioners court.

Another amendment by Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, required poll watchers to be provided training manuals to educate them about their duties.

Note that eight Senate Democrats are also in DC, with a ninth on the way. That’s not enough to break quorum in the Senate, so on they go with that wretched business.

Meanwhile, what are the Dems trying to accomplish? I’ll give you a hint, it has to do with that other Senate.

At a press conference Tuesday in Washington, DC, the group of Democrats specifically called on Biden and Congress to demonstrate “the same courage” they had shown by traveling to the nation’s capital during a special legislative session that had been called by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, who has since threatened to arrest the more than 50 Democrats who fled. As they did in a statement confirming their plans to boycott the session before hopping aboard two private planes on Monday, the group once again hailed both the John Lewis Voting Rights Act and the For the People Act as examples of model legislation for protecting voting rights at the federal level and implored Congress to pass them.

“We were quite literally forced to move and leave the state of Texas,” Texas Rep. Rhetta Bowers said in a press conference flanked by some of her fellow state Democrats. “We also know that we are living right now on borrowed time in Texas. And we can’t stay here indefinitely, to run out the clock, to stop Republican anti-voter bills.” Bowers said that although Texas Democrats would use “everything in our power to fight back,” they ultimately needed Congress to act with the same urgency.

“We are not going to buckle to the ‘big lie’ in the state of Texas—the ‘big lie’ that has resulted in anti-democratic legislation throughout the United States,” Rep. Rafael Anchia added.

[…]

Tuesday’s press conference came hours ahead of President Biden’s much-anticipated speech on voting rights in Philadelphia, where he’ll make a forceful condemnation of Republican efforts to enact voter suppression laws. His message, however, is not expected to include support for ending the Senate’s filibuster rules, which advocates say stand in the way of passing meaningful protections for voting rights.

They did get to meet with numerous key Senators, though not yet the two that hold this legislation in their hands. As Slate’s Christina Cauterucci puts it for when and if they do, what the Dems have is an emotional appeal.

The emotional appeal may be the only route left for [Rep. Senfronia] Thompson, her colleagues, and other Democrats who see this moment as a turning point for U.S. democracy. Manchin and Sinema already have all the facts. They’ve shown no willingness to budge. Now, they’ll have to tell a crowd of fugitive Texan legislators singing a civil-rights protest song that their extreme measures to protect the franchise will be for naught.

Like I said yesterday, that is the ultimate grand prize. I hope it has better odds than a Powerball ticket.

Finally, Houston Matters spoke to State Reps. Penny Morales Shaw, who is in DC, and Garnet Coleman, who is not because of health issues, though he is not in Austin. They also spoke to US Rep. Lizzie Fletcher about the subject, for which a YouTube clip is here. And here is the note I think we can all agree it would be best to end on:

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

Quorum broken again

And they’re off.

Democrats in the Texas House of Representatives left the state Monday afternoon en route to Washington, D.C., in a bid to again deny Republicans the quorum needed to pass new voting restrictions with 26 days left in a special legislative session called largely for that purpose.

Upping the ante in both the legislative fight at home and the national debate over voting rights, most House Democrats boarded two planes out of Austin headed for the U.S. capital without a set return date. At least 51 of the 67 Democratic representatives — the number needed to break quorum — were in the process of leaving Monday afternoon, most arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport Monday to board chartered flights that departed around 3:10 p.m.

The House is set to reconvene Tuesday morning, but the absent Democrats would mean there will not be enough members present to conduct business under House rules.

“Today, Texas House Democrats stand united in our decision to break quorum and refuse to let the Republican-led legislature force through dangerous legislation that would trample on Texans’ freedom to vote,” Democratic leaders said in a joint statement released Monday.

With the national political spotlight on Texas’ efforts to further restrict voting, the Democratic exodus offers them a platform to continue pleading with Congress to act on restoring federal protections for voters of color. In Texas, the decamping will mark a more aggressive stance by Democrats to block Republican legislation further tightening the state’s voting rules as the GOP works against thinning statewide margins of victory.

Ultimately, Democrats lack the votes to keep the Republican-controlled Legislature from passing new voting restrictions, along with the other conservative priorities on Gov. Greg Abbott’s 11-item agenda for the special session.

Some Democrats hope their absence will give them leverage to force good-faith negotiations with Republicans, who they say have largely shut them out of negotiations over the voting bill. Both chambers advanced their legislation out of committees on party-line votes after overnight hearings, passing out the bills early Sunday morning after hearing hours of testimony mostly against the proposals and just a few days after making their revived proposals public. The bills were expected to hit the House and Senate floors for votes this week.

[…]

Even if Democratic lawmakers stay out of state for the next few weeks, the governor could continue to call 30-day sessions or add voting restrictions to the agenda when the Legislature takes on the redrawing of the state’s political maps later this summer.

Monday’s mass departure follows a Democratic walkout in May that kept Republicans from passing their priority voting bill at the end of the regular legislative session. For weeks, Democrats had indicated that skipping town during the special session remained an option as Republicans prepared for a second attempt at tightening the state’s voting laws.

House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said in a statement later Monday that the chamber “will use every available resource under the Texas Constitution and the unanimously-passed House rules to secure a quorum…”

[…]

If a quorum is not present when the House convenes Tuesday, any House member can move to make what’s known as a call of the House to “to secure and maintain a quorum” to consider a certain piece of legislation, resolution or motion, under chamber rules. That motion must be seconded by 15 members and ordered by a majority vote. If that happens, the missing Democrats will become legislative fugitives.

“All absentees for whom no sufficient excuse is made may, by order of a majority of those present, be sent for and arrested, wherever they may be found, by the sergeant-at-arms or an officer appointed by the sergeant-at-arms for that purpose, and their attendance shall be secured and retained,” the House rules state. “The house shall determine on what conditions they shall be discharged.”

It’s unclear, though, what options Phelan may have to compel Democrats to return to the Legislature if they’re out of state.

Past experience would suggest that his options are basically nil. The DC police and the FBI are not going to be rounding them up and putting them on planes.

This is both a fast-moving story, and one that will play out over who knows how long. I’m probably not going to be able to keep up with every story and hot take out there, so feel free to browse the Internet or just scroll through Twitter – if you’re anything like me, you’ll have all the content you can consume and then some. I’m going to highlight what I think are the main salient points:

– What is the exit strategy here? That has always been my question. It was clear that the 2003 Senate Dems didn’t really have one, though one could argue that if they had held out a little longer they might have been able to scuttle the 2003 re-redistricting for the 2004 cycle. Maybe they can negotiate some concessions from Speaker Phelan in return for a promise that they’ll stay put for this session and the next one on redistricting. Maybe that’s a pipe dream. I have no idea. I hope they do.

– This is all about PR at this point. The main thing the Dems have going for them is that their action is extremely popular with their base – if this doesn’t help them with fundraising, nothing will – and there’s nothing on the special session agenda that has appeal to anyone who isn’t a Republican primary voter. (With one exception, which I’ll get to later.) The bottom line here is that they will portray themselves as fighting for a principle, while Republicans will claim they are cowardly running away. There’s no real question about how each side will perceive things, but there is room to affect the lower-information voters. If Dems can look good to them, they will have achieved a key objective.

– Does this help move Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema on national voting rights legislation? I have no idea. It can’t hurt, I suppose. For sure, if an end result is the passage of a voting rights bill, which would necessitate some alteration to the filibuster, that would be a huge, titanic, earth-shaking victory for the Dems, no matter what else happens in Austin. I would not hold my breath, but the Dems are clearly shooting the moon. You can’t say they’re not giving it their all.

– How long can they hold out? Remember, being in Washington DC means not being home, not being with family, not having a whole lot of control over one’s daily routine. Once the adrenaline wears off, and the reality of having to hold out until at least August 6 kicks in, this can very easily become a slog, and just keeping morale up, while also trying to win that PR battle, will be a chore. It’s also got to be expensive – there are no accommodations in DC that will rival the Ardmore Holiday Inn, I suspect. Part of that exit strategy I mentioned above is making sure the inevitable return at least looks like it’s on their terms, and not because they had run out of options or money or resolve, or because they were losing the PR battle. That’s the other end of the spectrum from the “getting a federal voting rights bill passed” side.

– The issue of restoring funds for the legislative branch will remain unresolved while the Dems are away. Maybe the Supreme Court will feel compelled to address the matter, or maybe they will be like “hey, y’all could totally solve this without us, we’re gonna keep out of it”. I hope someone is communicating with the employees who are still out in the cold right now.

– Like I said, none of the rest of the agenda, including items that Abbott may be planning to add, are anything that the average voter cares about. It’s all terrible from the Dems’ perspective, and the fact that things like the anti-trans sports bill is also hung up is a bonus. That’s the one item that has polled reasonably well, however, and it would not surprise me to see the Republicans make some noise about it. I feel confident saying that’s a long-term loser for them, but all we care about right now is the next 30 days, and the next 15 or so months after that.

For now, Dems are riding high, and they will get a lot of positive attention as well as the usual hate. How long that lasts, we’ll see. Even by this time next week, they may be struggling to get news coverage. It’s going to be a hell of a month. The Chron, the Signal, and pretty much every other news outlet (for now) has more.