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TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Plaintiffs move for dismissal of state lawsuit over mail ballots

Not a surprise.

The fight over expanding voting by mail in Texas during the coronavirus pandemic appears to be coming to an end in state courts, but a lawsuit continues at the federal level.

Following a Texas Supreme Court ruling that closed the door to expanded mail-in voting, the individual voters, state Democrats and civic organizations that sued to expand voting by mail based on a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus asked a state appeals court on Tuesday evening to dismiss their case.

[…]

Legal challenges to the state’s voting by mail rules continue in federal courts though a panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals last week extended its order blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The panel cited in part the proximity of the upcoming July primary runoffs. It’s possible the issue will end up before the U.S. Supreme Court after the runoffs.

This was more or less expected after that State Supreme Court ruling, which directly addressed the question of what the state law on “disability” meant in this context. At the federal level there remains the age discrimination lawsuit and the undue burdens lawsuit, neither of which has had a hearing yet, as well as the TDP/LULAC lawsuit for which there is a block of the lower court’s ruling in the plaintiffs’ favor. (This Daily Kos elections lawsuit tracker may be useful for you.) If there’s going to be any change in the status quo, it will be for the November election, though at this point I’m dubious even if the age discrimination claims have merit. Ultimately, the sure path forward is winning enough elections to change the state law. We’re talking 2023 at the earliest for that, so in the meantime this is where the fight is. It’s all up to the federal courts now.

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

Hotze and pals still crying to the Supreme Court

It’s hard to keep track of it all.

Houston GOP activist Steve Hotze and a coalition of business owners and conservatives have launched a legal challenge claiming Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency orders related to the coronavirus violate the Texas Constitution.

In a 34-page emergency pleading filed Friday, lawyers for Hotze as well as three pastors, state Rep. Bill Zedler and five business owners ask the Texas Supreme Court to strike down the orders.

Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Attorney Jared Woodfill argued in the petition that the governor does not have the power to issue mandates that suspend state laws and that he should have convened the Legislature instead.

“Our senators and state representatives have been muted because Gov. Abbott has chosen to act as a king, and that is fundamentally unconstitutional and fundamentally wrong,” Woodfill said.

Even if the law that gave Abbott his emergency powers is constitutional, Woodfill wrote, the orders are still unconstitutional because they deny due process by assuming every Texan and business is a threat to public health without allowing them the chance to defend themselves; violate equal protection by allowing some businesses to stay open and others not; and are otherwise “arbitrary” and “capricious.”

[…]

Woodfill said the petitioners’ goal is to set the precedent for governors’ authority during future emergencies.

“What’s going to happen if we have a COVID-20?” Woodfill said. “Are we going to again surrender all our constitutional rights?”

It’s hard to keep track of all the lawsuits and petitions coming from the Hotze machine, but I’m going to try. He and this same cohort (more or less) had previously filed a lawsuit in Travis County against Abbott and Paxton over the statewide stay at home orders. This had followed a lawsuit filed in March against the Harris County stay at home order, which he then tried to get fast-tracked to the Supreme Court but was denied. He then filed another lawsuit against Harris County over the face mask order and sought an emergency ruling from the Supreme Court on it, but by that time Abbott had issued an order overriding local orders and forbidding the requirement that face masks be worn. It’s not clear to me if this pleading is related to the Travis County lawsuit against Abbott and Paxton or if it is a second front in their war on anyone who dares to try to tell them what to do under any circumstance. I’m also not sure if that Harris County lawsuit is still in effect or if it has been mooted by subsequent state actions.

All right, so that’s where I think we are now. I’ll say again, I think there are very valid questions to be asked about what powers the Governor does and does not have in emergencies. When must the Legislature be involved? What if any laws can be superseded or suspended by executive order, and under what circumstance? What power does the Governor have to unilaterally overrule cities and counties, whose executives have their own emergency powers? There’s plenty of room for robust debate on these topics, and I hope the Lege addresses some of them in the spring. It’s clear that the Governor – and Mayors, and County Judges – need to have some latitude to take quick action in times of crisis, but it’s equally clear there needs to be some limits on that, in terms of scope and duration and jurisdiction. I don’t want any Governor to have unchecked power, least of all Greg Abbott. I also don’t want a bunch of nihilistic cranks to have the power to disregard public health and safety with impunity. I don’t want the worst people in the world to be the ones asking the questions that will affect all of us going forward. I hope the Supreme Court is up to the task of responding to this.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

Primary precinct analysis: Where a man can still win

Judge Gisela Triana

As previously discussed, female candidates in Democratic judicial primaries kicked a whole lot of ass this year. The four statewide races that featured one female candidates against one male candidate were shockingly not close – Amy Clark Meachum and Tina Clinton both topped 80%, while Kathy Cheng and Gisela Triana were both over 70%.

I’ve said before that blowout elections usually don’t yield anything interesting to see when you take a closer look at them. When a candidate wins by a dominant margin, that dominance tends to be ubiquitous. Still, I wondered, given that Texas is such a mix of counties – large, medium, small; urban, suburban, rural; Anglo and Hispanic; Republican and Democratic – that I wondered if that might still be true in these judicial primaries.

So, I picked the closest of the four race, Gisela Triana versus Peter Kelly, which was a 73-27 win by Triana, and looked at the county by county canvass. Behold, here is every county in Texas in which Peter Kelly won or tied:


County      Kelly   Triana
==========================
Borden          4        2
Briscoe        16       15
Burleson      340      292
Carson         59       56
Coke           33       28
Collingsworth  25       17
Fisher         79       20
Glasscock       7        5
Hall           33       30
Hansford       11        8
Hardeman       53       41
Hartley        32       29
Haskell        83       59
Hudspeth      143      143
Jack           72       70
Jasper        551      494
Kent           21       12
King            2        0
Lavaca        257      213
Limestone     340      308
Loving          4        1
Madison       132      111
Morris        345      274
Motley          5        5
Newton        160      134
Oldham         18       18
Red River     208      191
Roberts         5        4
Rusk          861      776
San Augustine 219      172
Shelby        187      182
Stonewall      35       19
Wilbarger     130      129

So there you have it. Congratulations to Fisher County, in what I would call the southern end of the panhandle, for being the most pro-dude part of the state, and to Rusk County in East Texas for being the largest pro-dude county. There were two counties in which each candidate got at least a thousand votes that were fairly close:


County      Kelly   Triana
==========================
Gregg       2,028    2,159
Harrison    1,182    1,484

I did not check the other races, on the assumption that there would be fewer such examples in those less-close contests. None of this is intended as a comment on the quality of the candidates – the Dems had a robust lineup of well-qualified contenders this cycle. I don’t think that this kind of “analysis”, if one can call it that, tells us anything useful, but I do think there’s value in examining the silly side of politics now and then. I’ve also had this sitting in my drafts since mid-March and felt like it was finally time to publish it. I hope you enjoyed this little exercise in said silliness.

First federal vote by mail lawsuit hearing

One down, two to go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery heard arguments Friday in a federal lawsuit seeking to give all voters the option to vote by mail due to fears of catching or spreading the coronavirus.

[…]

During Friday’s federal court hearing, Texas Democratic Party General Counsel Chad Dunn argued that concerns about coronavirus should not disqualify someone from exercising their right to vote. Doing so discriminates against classes of voters, such as voters under the age of 65.

Requiring people under the age of 65 to vote in person creates a “survival of the fittest election,” Dunn said via videoconference, and an impossible choice between protecting their health and exercising their right to vote. In the meantime, voters will be left in a “twilight zone,” unclear if they can apply for a mail-in ballot or not, Dunn said.

The Texas Democratic Party named Gov. Greg Abbott, Secretary of State Ruth Hughs, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir, and Bexar County Elections Administrator Jacquelyn F. Callanen as defendants in the suit. Other plaintiffs include the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and other individual voters Joseph Daniel Cascino, Shandra Marie Sansing, and Brenda Li Garcia.

They are seeking a preliminary injunction for the finding that the current election conditions violate tenets of the First, 14th and 26th amendments as well as some provisions of the Voting Rights Act. The suit also requests that the defendants stop issuing threats of criminal or civil sanctions for helping voters vote by mail.

Biery said he could not estimate when he would issue a ruling in the case. “All I can tell you is it will be forthcoming,” he said. “No guarantee as to when.”

Robert Green, an attorney representing Bexar County and Callanen, said the county “is not here to take a position” on the various legal arguments presented by the Democratic Party or by the State. However, Green stated that counties have no mechanism or authority to investigate what “disability” a voter cites in an application for a mail-in ballot.

“A voter who believes that they are eligible … is permitted to indicate that solely by checking a box,” he said. “If a court were to order or if the Secretary of State were to issue guidance that local officials should reject certain disability applications if they’re premised on some COVID-related fear or lack of immunity, it’s not clear at all that local officials would be able to do that because the application does not allow voters” to explain their disability, he said.

Lack of immunity to COVID-19 is a physical condition, Green said. “A voter lacking that immunity is endangered by in-person voting. I think that that’s an inescapable reality.”

See here and here for the background. As the story notes, not long after this hearing came the State Supreme Court ruling that for now at least halted efforts to encourage people to apply for mail ballots. The people who have already asked for them and cited “disability” as the reason will presumably still receive them – as noted, there’s neither a process nor the authorization to check on that. The other two federal lawsuits are not on the calendar yet as far as I know. I have no idea if we’re going to have a clear ruling on this in time for the primary runoff. Of course, the question of what comes after that is even bigger, so this story is just getting underway. Stay tuned.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.

Appeals court rules that Texas Central is in fact a railroad

Seems obvious, but these things are more complicated than you’d think.

Planners of a Houston-to-Dallas bullet train scored a victory in Corpus Christi Thursday when a state appeals court said the company — despite not operating yet — is a railroad in the eyes of the law.

“This decision confirms our status as an operating railroad and allows us to continue moving forward with our permitting process and all of our other design, engineering and land acquisition efforts,” Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar said in a statement.

Writing for the 13th Texas Court of Appeals, Judge Nora Longoria said a Leon County judge who sided with landowners erred when he said the lack of current operations or equipment meant Texas Central was not a railroad, and therefore had no claim to survey land or acquire it through eminent domain. Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles sued Texas Central in early 2017, claiming the company had no authority to survey their land, after they refused to grant the company’s hired surveyors access.

In their challenge, lawyers for the Miles’ argued since Texas Central is not operating as a railroad and currently owns no trains, it cannot claim to be railroad under Texas law to take land. The company, created in 2012 specifically to build a high-speed rail line from Houston to Dallas, said owning and operating trains was not necessary, noting it still is designing and developing its 240-mile route.

[…]

Aguilar and others said Texas Central remains ready for federal approvals of the project’s safety and engineering, expected later this year.

“Today’s ruling supports the enormous amount of work Texas Central has done to date,” he said.

See here for the background. As the story notes, this is a fight over whether or not Texas Central can use eminent domain to acquire right of way; there have been various attempts to pass a law along these lines in the Lege without success. If this ruling stands, that’s one less obstacle for Texas Central, which is facing other attacks related to the current economic situation. The plaintiffs will appeal to the Supreme Court, so this is not over yet. For now at least, Texas Central is officially a railroad.

State Supreme Court is skeptical of stay-at-home orders

They’re not ready to act yet, though.

In turning down a case challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s order allowing certain Texas businesses to reopen, the Texas Supreme Court hinted Tuesday that it is sympathetic to constitutionality concerns raised by coronavirus restrictions.

The state’s highest civil court declined to take the case —spearheaded by a Dallas salon owner whose decision to open in defiance of the order prompted demonstrations and TV spots over the past few weeks — saying lower courts should first consider whether the restrictions should stand. The Texas Supreme Court is generally the “court of last resort.”

Justice James D. Blacklock wrote in the opinion Tuesday that during a public health emergency, the onus is on the government to explain why its measures are necessary and why other less restrictive measures would not adequately address the threat. District courts will need to decide how to judge whether that’s been accomplished, he wrote.

“When the present crisis began, perhaps not enough was known about the virus to second-guess the worst-case projections motivating the lockdowns,” Blacklock wrote. “As more becomes known about the threat and about the less restrictive, more targeted ways to respond to it, continued burdens on constitutional liberties may not survive judicial scrutiny.”

[…]

The businesses argue in their suit that local authorities do not have the power to close businesses or threaten fines or jail time. The suit says that local stay-at-home orders mandating closures of certain, but not all businesses, are unconstitutional. Instead the governor should have convened a special legislative session as the Texas Constitution allows in the case of a “disease threat,” it says.

Business owners across Texas “are having their legal and constitutional rights, and the constitutional rights of their businesses, continuously infringed as long as these authorities are allowed to enforce executive orders, and particularly so when the executive orders are enforced arbitrarily,” the suit states.

They are seeking a court order to block enforcement of all local orders and had hoped to skip over district courts by going straight to the state high court.

I have to say, I don’t have any particular problem with this. They were right to send this back to the lower courts, which is where the facts can and should be established. They are right that local and state government must adequately justify their actions and not go overboard. There’s certainly a case to be made that Greg Abbott is doing way too much on his own, without involving or even informing legislators of his actions. Calling a special session to get things done takes time, which isn’t always in abundance, and we are in a place where no one really knows what is the optimal thing to do so we had been fairly cautious up till now. We will hopefully have a much better idea how to react – and have a federal government that is capable of responding to events like these – the next time we have to. In the meantime, it’s good and right to have a thorough discussion about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it, and making sure the government is accountable for its decisions.

Hotze goes crying to the Supreme Court

This effing guy, I swear.

Houston conservative activist Steve Hotze on Monday filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court seeking an emergency ruling on Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s mask order, which took effect this morning.

Hotze originally filed the lawsuit in state court last week, but District Judge Steven Kirkland on Friday denied his request for a temporary restraining order, allowing Hidalgo’s mandate to take effect Monday, as planned.

Hotze’s new filing echoes the argument he made to Kirkland: that the Texas Constitution and local government code do not give Hidalgo authority to require people to cover their faces in public.

[…]

During a Friday hearing in Kirkland’s court, Assistant County Attorney Seth Hopkins argued that Hotze did not have standing to challenge the order because he had no “actual imminent fear of prosecution.”

“The order itself tells the law enforcement, use broad discretion,” Hopkins said, according to a court transcript. “And the plaintiff concedes he’s not going to be prosecuted.”

Hotze attorney Jared Woodfill responded, “So, I guess my question is, if they don’t plan to enforce it, then why is the language even there? Why wouldn’t it just continue to be voluntary…?” He also clarified Monday that Hotze does not “concede he’s not going to be prosecuted” under the order.

Hopkins said the order allows officers to impose a fine if there is an “extreme case, but I think in the examples we have, we don’t have a case like that right now.”

See here for the background. We now have the Abbott reopening order, which overrules any local order that allows for a fine or other punishment for non-mask-wearing. I would think, in my non-lawyerly way, that Harris County will add that to its argument that Hotze has no standing. The Supreme Court has asked for a response from the county by this Friday, so we’ll see.

Hotze sues Harris County again

This is just what he does now, I suppose.

Houston conservative power broker Steve Hotze filed a lawsuit against Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo Thursday, alleging that her order requiring people to cover their faces in public violates the Texas Constitution and conflicts with Gov. Greg Abbott’s stay-at-home order.

Hotze, who also sued Hidalgo over her stay-at-home directive, said in a petition filed in state district court that the mask rule is at odds with a provision of the Constitution that gives the Legislature “exclusive authority to define crimes and to designate the punishments for those crimes.” The petition also contends that Hidalgo cannot issue more restrictive orders than Abbott, who has not mandated that Texans wear masks in public.

[…]

Robert Soard, the first assistant county attorney, cited Section 418.108 of the Texas Government Code, which gives the county judge the authority to declare a disaster in her jurisdiction and to “control the movement of persons and the occupancy of premises in that area.” That authority extends to the incorporated and unincorporated parts of the county.

Soard said Hidalgo has authority to issue the mask order under that provision and another that allows her to “exercise the powers granted to the governor” for emergency management, including issuing local executive orders that “have the force and effect of law.”

In the petition, Hotze also challenged the part of Hidalgo’s order that requires people to wash their hands before leaving their residence, and stay six feet away from each other and avoid touching their face in public. Hotze argued the section of state law that governs disasters “does not contain any language forcing private citizens to” perform the actions in Hidalgo’s order.

See here for the background. According to the Trib story, there should be a hearing on a temporary injunction later today, and an appeal to the Supreme Court if/when they lose. So, you know, just another Friday. Hotze of course has two other lawsuits going, one against Harris County over the stay-at-home order, and one against Abbott and Paxton for more or less the same thing. It’s actually kind of hilarious to see him described as a “power broker” in the story, since he’s basically never been more out of power locally than he is now. But hey, he can still move a few votes in a Republican primary.

Here’s the official order in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit

Round One went to the plaintiffs. From there, who knows.

A Texas state district judge on Friday issued an order allowing voters to use the coronavirus as a reason to vote by mail for as long as the pandemic lasts — an early victory for the Texas Democratic Party and civil rights groups seeking to expand mail-in voting, though the ruling is almost certain to be quickly appealed by the state.

Judge Tim Sulak’s temporary injunction says the state can’t stop voters from voting by mail based on disability “as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,” and it stops the state from “taking actions” preventing county elections officials from accepting and counting mail-in ballots from those voters.

State law allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

Democrats and voting rights groups, who have sued in both state and federal court, argued the disability clause should cover voters who are worried about showing up to a polling place during a pandemic. But Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton has said fear of the coronavirus is not an acceptable excuse to claim disability to vote by mail.

The order was expected after Sulak said during a court hearing earlier this week he was inclined to issue it.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the order. I don’t believe an appeal has been filed or even formally announced yet, but it’s 100% there will be one, and this won’t be settled as a matter of state litigation till the Supreme Court rules. As noted, there is also a federal lawsuit out there, so all sorts of things can happen. Also, so far this ruling just affects the primary runoffs in July. There will be another hearing in August on the merits of the case to determine whether this should be extended to the November election. Assuming that other rulings haven’t made this all moot by then, of course.

In the meantime, here’s another look from Vox’s Ian Millhiser, who had done an earlier analysis that outlined the cruz of the dispute. This article in Slate also provides a useful way of thinking about this case.

The election law in question says a person can only vote by mail if the would-be voter “has a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on Election Day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.” On one hand, Paxton’s claim that being sick means actually being physically ill is plausible. The rule, he says, is about sick people who can’t get to the polls because they are sick, or who might get sicker if they had to vote in person. It is not about non-sick people afraid of getting sick if they go to the polls.

As the ACLU stated it in its motion in the case, though, it’s arguable that everyone now has a “physical condition” that increases the “likelihood” that going to the polls might “injure[] the voter’s health.” (New Hampshire has interpreted its analogous “physical disability” provision in precisely this way) Paxton’s construction of the statute, meanwhile, also might mean that someone who actually tests positive for COVID-19 but is asymptomatic may not qualify for an absentee ballot, which seems absurd. As Vox’s Ian Millhiser wrote: “Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate.”

This is where Texas’ judges should turn to the so-called “democracy canon,” a method of interpreting statutes that is tailor-made for cases like this one. In his 2009 Stanford Law Review article about the method, University of California, Irvine law professor Richard Hasen offered a case citation that perfectly captures the heart of the democracy canon: “[a]ll statutes tending to limit the citizen in his exercise of [the right of suffrage] should be liberally construed in his favor.” In other words, when there is a “tie” in how to interpret the statute, the tie goes to the voter.

The case Hasen cited—Owens v. State ex rel. Jennett—was, in fact, a Texas Supreme Court case. Indeed, Texas historically adopted a fairly strong version of what Hasen called the democracy canon. In one appeals court case from the 1950s on the very subject of absentee ballots, Sanchez v. Bravo, a Texas court established a “clear statement” rule regarding restrictions on the right to vote. If a state is going to prevent someone from voting, the court ruled, they have to say so in “clear and unmistakable terms.” Otherwise, courts must read the law in a way that promotes “the right of the citizen to cast his ballot and thus participate in the selection of those who control his government.”

Finally, there is a related issue about the good faith of the voters who’ve decided they want to vote absentee by mail. If the Texas Supreme Court eventually comes down on the side of a narrow reading of the law—turning its back on the democracy canon and an older body of the court’s own jurisprudence—this could be made up by voting officials and lower courts generously construing on a case-by-case basis voters’ reasons why they chose to vote absentee. It is here that Paxton’s veiled warning in the letter that those who obtain ballots by “false pretenses” can be prosecuted sounds a sour note. It is one thing to proclaim a general election rule regarding sickness and disability. It is a separate and more ominous thing for the state of Texas to threaten voters who understandably want to have it both ways: to stay safe in the middle of a pandemic and exercise their right to vote.

Again, nothing really matters in this lawsuit except what five or more members of the state Supreme Court say, but it’s good to have a way to make a coherent argument for the plaintiffs. And by the way, if you’d like to see that ambiguous language in the state law replaced by something that unambiguously allows for more people to vote by mail, that starts with electing more Democrats to office, most especially in the Attorney General’s office.

What’s weird in all of this is that voting by mail has long been a Republican asset, though admittedly in this state for a very small number of voters. I agree with Campos, Republican voters themselves like voting by mail. I’m old enough to remember that vote by mail is exempt from the state’s ridiculously strict voter ID law, in large part because the Republicans who passed our voter ID law recognized that vote by mail was their bread and butter. That appears to have been replaced by a larger fear of anything that might make voting easier for the general public, which for sure is what everyone from Trump on down is trumpeting. But be careful what you wish for, because the recent Wisconsin experience suggests that Democrats may be better equipped to overcome barriers to voting than Republicans are, since Democrats by now have so much more experience in having to overcome obstacles. Maybe – I know this is crazy talk, but hear me out – if the Republicans spent a bit more time persuading people to vote for them rather than making it harder for anyone to vote, they might be better off in the end.

Abbott’s stay-in-jail order blocked and then unblocked

This was Friday.

A state district judge in Travis County has temporarily blocked enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to limit jail releases during the new coronavirus pandemic. She cited unconstitutional provisions and overreach of executive power in the gubernatorial order.

State District Judge Lora Livingston issued her ruling Friday night after a lawsuit this week challenged the governor’s order that prohibited judges from releasing some inmates without paying bail. Abbott’s order was prompted by some local officials moving to reduce the number of people locked up in disease-prone county jails. He said “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.”

Abbott’s order banned the release of jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime on no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas argued in their lawsuit filed Wednesday that Abbott’s order violates the constitutional separation of powers and keeps only poor defendants in jails. The plaintiffs, represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project, asked the court to declare Abbott’s order unconstitutional and an overreach of his power.

[…]

In a virtual hearing Friday, Livingston repeatedly questioned how the governor’s order affected public safety and whether he could make a widespread decision to take away judges’ authority to individually assess defendants.

“I’m just trying to understand how this order without regard to any particular specific information about a case can blanketly decide that a personal bond is not necessary or appropriate or required in a particular situation,” she said. “I’m troubled by the sort of blanket nature of that order in the same way that apparently the governor was concerned about a blanket order from judges that hasn’t yet happened but could theoretically be entered.”

[…]

“What confusion is solved by the governor taking action in this way when in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the Harris County district judges, there’s no confusion at all?” she asked Biggs. “I think the judges do what they do and that Harris County order seemed to bear that out: This is what judges do everyday and we will handle it, thank you very much.”

She later added that the county judge can’t tell local judges how to make decisions. “That’s not how separation of powers works; that’s not how reality works.”

See here for the previous update. Judge Livingston more or less addressed the question I had raised, which is that given how the judges in Harris County had already said they were going to operate, what was Abbott’s order even doing? This ruling was to in effect until April 24, at which time there will be another hearing. But then the Supreme Court stepped in:

The Texas Supreme Court has revived Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the high court stayed a state district judge’s ruling from Friday night that blocked Abbott’s order. The district judge cited unconstitutional provisions and an overreach of executive power in her temporary order against Abbott. The Supreme Court’s order is also temporary, with responses due to the court Monday evening.

The legal battle stems from an Abbott order issued last month during the state disaster. The governor’s order prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

A copy of Judge Livingston’s ruling is here. I would refer you to the Grits for Breakfast analysis of why the plaintiffs should win on the merits, which now we have to hope that the Supreme Court is able to recognize as well. The Chron has more.

Ridiculous Hotze lawsuit now in district court

We are all dumber by the mere existence of this.

The Texas Supreme Court has dismissed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Harris County’s stay-at-home order, though the legal fight is set to continue in state district court.

The Wednesday ruling came at the request of the suit’s plaintiffs, including longtime conservative activist Steve Hotze and the pastors of three Houston-area churches.

Earlier this week, Jared Woodfill, the group’s attorney, filed a new case in Harris County that similarly claims County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights because it allegedly continues to restrict church services even after Hidalgo revised it to align with Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order deeming churches “essential businesses.”

The governor’s March 31 directive, akin to the stay-at-home orders issued by counties across Texas, came one day after anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez filed a petition arguing that Harris County’s order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The four original plaintiffs remain on the new lawsuit, and they are joined by Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader who represented a district in the Houston area until 2006. The plaintiffs also have challenged Montgomery County’s stay-at-home order in a different state district court.

[…]

Last Friday, Hidalgo revised her order to “permit in-person religious services that comply with the CDC’s guidelines,” according to a court filing by the county attorney’s office. The plaintiffs are continuing to challenge Hidalgo’s order in state district court, Woodfill said, in part because it imposes penalties — up to 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine — that Abbott’s does not.

Hidalgo’s amended order says: “Per the Texas Attorney General’s guidance on this topic, if religious services cannot be conducted from home or through remote services, then religious services may be conducted in churches, congregations and houses of worship.”

Woodfill said he interprets that language to bar most churches from meeting in person, because most are capable of holding services remotely.

“Just about every church has the ability to do that,” Woodfill said. “Maybe there are some small churches that don’t. That doesn’t mean your parishioners have internet or the ability to access the service. We think that’s clearly government coming in to the church and issuing edicts and mandates that are an infringement on religious liberties.”

See here for the background. All this and Tom DeLay, too, because you can’t spell “stupid, evil, and corrupt” without Tom DeLay. Bear in mind, Hotze got what he wanted from Abbott’s executive order. It’s just that he’s special, so very special, and the rules of law and man don’t apply to him. I could sit here and spew invective at him all day, but what’s the point? He’s a sociopath, and this is what he does. If you get hurt as a result, that’s not his problem.

Steven Hotze’s death wish

I have three things to say about this.

A hardline conservative power broker and three area pastors filed a petition with the Texas Supreme Court Monday arguing that Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo’s stay-at-home order violates the Constitution by ordering the closure of churches and failing to define gun shops as “essential” businesses.

The emergency petition for a writ of mandamus, filed by anti-LGBTQ Republican activist Steven Hotze and pastors Juan Bustamante, George Garcia and David Valdez, contends Hidalgo’s order undercuts the First Amendment by limiting religious and worship services to video or teleconference calls. Pastors also may minister to congregants individually.

Hotze and the pastors argue the order also “severely infringes” on Second Amendment rights by closing gun stores. The order does not define gun shops as essential businesses, though Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an opinion Friday that stay-at-home orders cannot force gun stores to close or otherwise restrict sales or transfers.

Hidalgo’s order, issued March 24, requires most businesses to close and directs residents to stay home unless they are getting groceries, running crucial errands, exercising or going to work at a business deemed essential. The directive is aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus, and it came a day after chief executives at the Texas Medical Center unanimously called for the county to implement a shelter-in-place order.

[…]

Hidalgo spokesman Rafael Lemaitre declined to address “the specifics of the litigation,” but said: “Public health and science must drive our response, and the science is clear: If we fail to take adequate steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, people will die. We continue to urge folks to take this seriously.”

First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard said county officials view the order as “necessary to deal with the extraordinary crisis that Harris County, Texas and the country are facing as a result of the coronavirus.”

Soard said the order does not intend to close gun stores and “we’ve not advised any gun stores to close, as far as I’m aware.” He also said Paxton’s opinion makes clear that gun shops in Texas will remain open.

As for the First Amendment challenge, Soard said there is “nothing in the order that prevents churches from broadcasting” services. He said Hidalgo crafted the order “as precisely or narrowly as she could to allow people to worship as they choose.”

1. If Hotze and his band of idiots were only putting their own health and lives at risk, I wouldn’t care. Hell, I’d cheer them on, from a sufficiently safe distance. But as we’ve said many times, that’s not how viruses work. They would be putting many other people in jeopardy. They may not care about that, but they don’t get to make that kind of decision unilaterally.

2. Even if the courts stop them, Hotze is still working to put other people in danger:

In a video posted to YouTube late last month, Hotze advised that people take multivitamins and not worry about the virus, which he said is “all media hype” and “fake news.”

Hotze then compared the virus to the flu or dysentery, and accused democrats of having “weaponized the coronavirus” to hurt President Donald Trump.

Marc Boom, CEO of Houston Methodist, called the lawsuit “disheartening” and “reckless,” and said it is “potentially endangering lives.”

I’m old enough to remember when behavior like that was considered to be un-Christian.

3. I’ll leave the last word to this guy:

‘Nuff said. A copy of the lawsuit is embedded in the story. The county should be filing its response today.

2020 primary results: State races

I’m going to direct you to the Texas Tribune results page, which combines both parties’ results and is a couple orders of magnitude less sucky than the revamped SOS election night results pages. Good Lord, whoever designed that “upgrade” from the lower-tech previous version should be banished to a desert island. We’re gonna do bullet points here:

– As with the Harris County judicial races, female candidates swept the statewide judicial nominations. Brandon Birmingham, who was unopposed for CCA Place 9, will be the lone Democratic dude on the statewide judicial ballot. Staci Williams was leading Brandy Voss for Supreme Court Place 7. On the Republican side, incumbent CCA Place 3 incumbent Bert Richardson was holding on against Rick Perry fangirl Gina Parker. Good grief.

– Chrysta Castaneda and former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo were headed to a runoff for Railroad Commissioner. On the Republican side, incumbent Ryan Sitton was trailing his opponent, some dude named Jim Wright. I was paying no attention to that one, so I’ll be looking for some news stories today to explain what happened there.

– Michelle Palmer and Kimberley McLeod were headed to a runoff in SBOE 6, while Marsha Burnett-Webster was cruising in SBOE 10. Rebecca Bell-Metereau was on her way to another shot at SBOE5, and, well, lookie here:

Robert Morrow is leading in the Republican primary races for the State Board of Education District 5 seat, which represents an area spanning Austin to San Antonio, according to some voting returns Tuesday night.

With about 86,000 votes counted, Morrow, a provocateur who often posts photos of women’s breasts on social media, had 39% of votes, followed by Lani Popp, a speech pathologist at the Northside school district in San Antonio, who had 36% of votes. Inga Cotton, executive director of San Antonio Charter Moms, a nonprofit that provides resources to families about charter schools, has 25% of votes. If nobody wins more than 50% of votes, the two highest vote recipients will head to a run-off election May 26.

Chairman of the Travis County GOP Matt Mackowiak was already signaling his dismay at Morrow’s lead Tuesday night.

You may recall that Morrow was for a brief time the Chair of the Travis County GOP. Have fun dealing with that shit sandwich, Matt.

– Sen. Eddie Lucio was on the knife’s edge to win in SD27. He was just over 50% when last I looked. Sara Stapleton-Barrera was in second, with about 34%. This still could go to a runoff, we’ll see. In SD19, the main pickup opportunity for Dems, Xochil Pena Rodriguez led Roland Gutierrez and would face him in the runoff. Sen. Borris Miles was around 60% of the vote in his race.

– For the State House, Natali Hurtado (HD126) and Ann Johnson (HD134) won easily. Akilah Bacy was headed to a runoff with Jenifer Pool in HD138, and Anna Eastman will have to run one more race, this time against Penny Shaw, in HD148. As of this writing, Rep. Harold Dutton was at 50.03% in his race, eight votes above the line to avoid a runoff. Needless to say, that can change. All other incumbents, in Harris and elsewhere, were headed to victory, though on the GOP side Reps. Dan Flynn and JD Sheffield were facing runoffs. Suleman Lalani and Sarah DeMerchant were leading in HD26.

Like I said, a few things are still in flux, but this is where we are with about two-thirds of the Harris County vote in. I’ll do updates as needed and will have more tomorrow.

UPDATE: In the end, both Sen. Eddie Lucio and Rep. Harold Dutton fell short of fifty percent and will be in runoffs in May.

Endorsement watch: Four more

The Chron endorses Rodney Ellis for County Commissioner, Precinct 1, and then proceeds to spend the endorsement mostly talking about his opponent.

Commissioner Rodney Ellis

Count us among those who were a little surprised when felony court Judge Maria T. Jackson resigned her seat as Harris County’s longest serving judge to run against Rodney Ellis, the powerful, well-funded longtime state senator-turned-county commissioner in Precinct 1.

Count us among those who welcomed her nerve. No public official should get used to running unopposed, even one as productive as Ellis. And the 65-year-old veteran lawmaker and former Houston city councilman has left himself open to criticism for not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans, a pattern that led to a failed tax increase before a legislatively imposed revenue cap.

So it’s disappointing that Jackson, 55, known as tough jurist who also served as a municipal judge and an administrative judge, fell far short of making a coherent case for why she’d be more effective on Commissioner Court.

In a 90-minute interview with the editorial board, Jackson’s main criticism of Ellis centered around his role shepherding through Harris County’s historic bail reform settlement, saying she supported the principle but it didn’t include help for victims and it has led to people out on no-cash bonds reoffending. But she misstated parts of the deal, claiming defendants would get free Uber rides and other assistance, items not included in the final agreement.

Jackson bemoaned millions of dollars for studies on why people don’t go to court — an oversimplification of the scope — saying “most of us know why people don’t go to court. They don’t want to go to jail.” That’s another oversimplification that betrays a lack of compassion for misdemeanor defendants who often balance multiple jobs and transportation challenges.

Asked why she thought her campaign had drawn significant donations from the bail bonding industry, which supported keeping the unconstitutional system of poverty jailing, Jackson answered: “good government.”

Jackson’s most troubling claim was that, when she was elected in 2008, there was only one drug court, and that “under my leadership and direction,” the county established three more and a list of other rehabilitation courts.

“I have been a change maker and been boots on the ground working with everyone and making things happen,” she told us.

In fact, Harris County already had four drug courts in 2007. Jackson didn’t start presiding over a drug court herself until 2017, according to a court newsletter. The other specialty courts were started by other judges.

I agree with the sentiment that no one deserves a free pass, and that having to actually account for oneself each election cycle is the best way to keep officials honest. I also agree with a sentiment that John Coby often expresses each cycle when people start filing for this or that, which is why are you running? Maria Jackson, who declined to be interviewed by me, has done a lousy job of answering that question. She has some undirected complaints, no clear ideas for why she would be an improvement, and multiple misstatements of the facts. You have to do better than that, a lot better when running against someone with a strong record of accomplishment. It’s Candidate 101. I can’t tell you why Maria Jackson is running any more than she can, but Rodney Ellis can, and you can hear him talk about it here.

Oh, and that bit about Ellis “not trying harder to build consensus with Republicans [leading] to a failed tax increase” is utter horsefeathers. Anyone who could type that sentence with a straight face has no understanding of Republican politics and politicians in our time. Treat your readers with more respect than that, guys.

The other three endorsements from Thursday were all for statewide offices.

Chrysta Castañeda for Railroad Commissioner:

Chrysta Castañeda

Ask Chrysta Castañeda what one of the biggest issues facing the Texas Railroad Commission is, and she answers flaring — the burning of surplus gas from oil wells.

The practice is “without any benefit and with environmental harm,” Castañeda, who is running in the March 3 Democratic primary for railroad commissioner, told the Editorial Board. “We’re lighting on fire enough right now to power the city of Houston.”

Castañeda, 57, an engineer and attorney with decades of experience in the oil and gas industry, has been raising the alarm about flaring on the campaign trail. On Tuesday, the man she is trying to unseat, Republican incumbent Ryan Sitton, issued a report on flaring.

[…]

Her opponents include Mark Watson, 63, an attorney who emphasizes the need for strict enforcement of current regulations, former State Rep. Roberto Alonzo, 63, who spent 20 years in the Texas Legislature and Kelly Stone, 41, an educator and stand-up comic, who displays a genuine passion to protect the environment.

All three are also calling for constraints on flaring, but Castañeda’s expertise sets her apart. She understands the Railroad Commission’s dual mission is to both promote the development of Texas’ natural resources by regulating the oil and gas industry and to protect the state’s environment.

Those mandates can often seem at odds, especially during the kind of sustained oil and gas boom Texas has been experiencing. Castañeda’s experience will help her balance the economic concerns of the oil and gas industry with the need to protect the environment for all Texans.

My interview with Castañeda is here and my interview with Kelly Stone is here. They’re the two most active candidates, and while Castañeda has been collecting the newspaper endorsements (here’s your friendly neighborhood Erik Manning spreadsheet), Stone has gotten plaudits from those panels as well.

Brandy Voss for Supreme Court, Place 7.

Brandy Voss

We recommend attorney Brandy Voss for Place 7 on the Texas Supreme Court in the March 3 Democratic primary. Voss lacks the judicial experience of her opponent, Civil District Judge Staci Williams of Dallas County, but more than compensates for that with a career-long immersion in appellate law.

Voss spent a year after graduating Baylor University law school as a briefing clerk for then-Chief Justice Thomas R. Phillips, where she helped draft opinions. She then worked as an appellate lawyer in Dallas until relocating to McAllen with her family and later worked for four years as a senior staff attorney for Justice Gina Benavides on the 13th Court of Appeals. She again helped draft opinions and continued learning the intricacies of managing an appellate docket.

Those skills, along with experience in volunteer roles such as a member of the Texas Bar Association’s rules advisory committee, have prepared her well to be a member of the state’s top civil court. Lawyers responding to the Texas Bar Association judicial preference poll backed Voss over Williams by a 2-1 margin.

This is one of those races where I’ve had a hard time choosing, as both candidates look pretty strong and there’s no clear distinction between them. The Trib did a story about the contested Democratic primaries for statewide judicial positions and noted that all but this one and the three-way race for CCA Place 3 are a man versus a woman. If you’re looking for other distinctions, Voss has raised more money and has a slight overall edge in endorsements. Make of that what you will

Amy Clark Meachum for Supreme Court, Chief Justice.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Texas Democrats have two experienced judges to choose from as they vote in the March 3 primary to pick their nominee to challenge Chief Justice Nathan Hecht for his seat on the state’s top civil court in November.

Both have experience that would serve them well on the high court. But we strongly recommend District Judge Amy Clark Meachum over Justice Jerry Zimmerer, who sits now in Place 3 of the 14th Court of Appeals in Harris County.

Meachum, 44, is currently a civil district judge in Travis County, where she was first elected in 2010. She scores reasonably well on the local bar evaluation — 50 percent of respondents rated her overall as “excellent” and just 17 percent said she “needs improvement” — and her fellow judges have elected her as presiding judge for the county’s civil and family courts.

Here are Meachum’s Q&A responses. This one, I have a clearer idea of which way to go.

Statesman overview of the statewide judicial races

It’s good to have a full slate of qualified candidates.

After years of trouble scraping together enough candidates to run for seats on both statewide courts, Texas Democrats have the opposite situation in 2020 — contested primaries in almost every race.

In all four races for the Texas Supreme Court, the state’s highest civil court, two Democrats are vying to challenge Republican incumbents.

And for the state’s top criminal court, multiple Democrats are running in two of three available races for the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

The renewed Democratic interest comes after the party’s court candidates lost by 6 to 8 points in 2018 — defeats that seem strong after the party’s judicial candidates were drubbed by an average of 24 points in 2010.

As an added incentive, Democratic judicial candidates tend to do better in presidential election years like 2020.

Contested primaries are a mixed blessing, offering an opportunity to improve name recognition but depleting campaign coffers, particularly in Supreme Court races in which GOP incumbents can raise more than $1 million in contributions, largely from civil lawyers and law firms. In contrast, races for the Court of Criminal Appeals tend to be low-cost affairs.

Let me start by saying once again that the “contested primaries are resource drains” narrative continues to be tiresome, and in a year where a lot of people will be voting in the primary it’s very much a good thing for voters to have some idea of who you are ahead of November. There are brief writeups of each candidate, not much more than that, but it’s a start. I have Q&A responses from a couple of the candidates, Judge Amy Clark Meachum (Supreme Court, Chief Justice) and Steve Miears, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4. Texas Lawyer has Q&As with nearly all of these candidates as part of their judicial race coverage. Their Supreme Court candidate Q&As are here and for the Court of Criminal Appeals here. The Erik Manning spreadsheet shows everyone’s endorsements, and as you can see there were a lot of split decisions.

One race has drawn a bit more heat than the others, the Supreme Court Chief Justice primary.

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

Jerry Zimmerer, a Houston appeals court justice running for Texas Supreme Court, said his Democratic primary opponent, Amy Clark Meachum, has “selfish” motivations for running, pointing to the fact that she has cast her campaign to be the first woman elected chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court as a historic one.

“I just think somebody who wants to try to break barriers for their own benefit is not going to be successful,” Zimmerer told The Texas Tribune in an interview Thursday. “I just don’t think that’s what voters are looking for. … I just think that’s a goal she wants to achieve for herself.”

He said his campaign is different because “I actually want the best candidate to win.”

“I may not be the first anything, but I’m going to be the best,” he said.

Meachum said Zimmerer “should run on his own record instead of attacking mine.” Throughout her campaign, Meachum has said she hopes to restore balance to the all-Republican court and champion women in the legal profession.

“If he chooses to disparage a more qualified and experienced judge because of her gender, he’ll find himself on the wrong side of history,” she said. “These sorts of sexist comments are straight from the 1950s.”

[…]

In a state bar poll that gauges Texas attorneys’ support for judicial candidates, Meachum won more favor than Zimmerer, with 1,779 votes to his 326. The Republican incumbent, Chief Justice Nathan Hecht, won 2,706 votes.

Meachum has said she is the Democrats’ best chance at winning a seat on the high court for the first time in more than two decades.

“I don’t exactly look like or sound like my primary opponent, my general election opponent, or any of the men who have previously been elected Chief Justice,” she said in a Houston Chronicle questionnaire. “I am making an important statement for women in the law and women in our party in 2020 and I would appreciate your support!”

Reached Friday for comment, Zimmerer said, “As someone who has traveled the state trying to pull together all the different groups that make up the Texas Democratic Party into a cohesive coalition, I have concerns with those who would seek to divide us.”

Yeah, put me down in support of Judge Meachum on this one. I know both of these candidates and I like them both, but I disagree with Justice Zimmerer’s argument. We’ll see what the voters think.

Endorsement watch: Supreme Court and SD11

The Chron’s endorsement process has been a bit haphazard this season – there are times when it looks like they’ve got a theme going, then they deviate from it in some head-scratching way that makes it hard for me to do these posts in a coherent manner. They gave us three endorsements on Saturday, two from Supreme Court races and the SD11 race, so I’m just going to roll with it and give them all to you here.

Susan Criss for SD11:

Susan Criss

Within hours of the 2005 Texas City Refinery explosion that killed 15 workers, Judge Susan Criss of the Texas 212nd District Court in Galveston County began meeting with lawyers representing victims and BP to begin handling what would eventually number 4,005 settled claims. After Hurricane Ike in 2008, Criss again oversaw a massive number of disputes over insurance claims even as she struggled to repair her own flooded home.

As a result of her judicial experience, and time as a criminal defense lawyer, Criss has an exceptionally deep understanding of how Texas laws can be improved. She is bursting with ideas for criminal justice reform, mitigating flood damage and making the workings of the Legislature more transparent. We believe all this adds up to make her an extraordinary candidate for the Texas Senate and Democrats’ best choice for Senate District 11 in the March 3 primary.

No argument from me. Susan Criss is a super candidate, and her opponent in the primary doesn’t appear to be running much of a campaign.

Larry Praeger for Supreme Court, Place 6:

Houston lawyer Kathy Cheng sees her race for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court as a prime opportunity for voters to break up what many see as a monoculture among the nine justices currently sitting on the state’s top civil court. There are six men and three women. Of them, only one justice — Eva Guzman — is Hispanic. There are no African-Americans, no Asian Americans and no Democrats, either.

Cheng says her experience as an immigrant, a woman, and a person of color equips her to see the world — and where the law fits into it — with more nuance and depth than her opponent, in part because he is white.

“If you don’t experience, say, racism in your own life, then you won’t have as deep, or as broad, an understanding of what that experience is like or what it means,” she said, describing the extra awareness she believes she’d bring to her role on the bench.

We agree with Cheng that this court could use a greater dose of diversity — and not just along racial lines. More variety in life experience, in legal practice and, yes, political ideology would be welcome. After all, how can judges apply the law to the facts of daily life in legal disputes without ready antennae capable of reading life in all its variegated nuance?

Cheng goes too far, however, to suggest that a vote for her opponent, Larry Praeger of Dallas, would be a missed opportunity to bring diversity of any kind to the court. Praeger, a former prosecutor who has built up his own mostly family law practice over 20 years, would also bring a radically different perspective to the court.

Cheng ran for this same Supreme Court position in 2018, losing to Jeff Brown, who has since stepped down, thus opening the seat and necessitating its spot on the ballot again. I don’t know much about Praeger. Both have received some endorsements, according to the Erik Manning spreadheet.

Peter Kelly for Supreme Court, Place 8:

Justice Peter Kelly of the 1st District Court of Appeals in Houston is our choice between two very qualified candidates in the Democratic primary for Place 8 on the Texas Supreme Court.

Both Kelly and his opponent, Justice Gisela Triana of the 3rd Court of Appeals in Austin, have served a little over a year as appellate court judges — so it is their experience prior to their election in 2018 that is the best gauge for voters in assessing what kind of Supreme Court justice they will make. And on that basis, we find Kelly’s decades-long career as an appellate lawyer, one who has argued roughly 30 cases before the court he now wishes to join, a stronger indicator of success than Triana’s impressively diverse career as a trial court judge.

[…]

Democrats are lucky to have two qualified choices in this race, but we urge them to vote for Kelly.

Not much to add here. Either candidate would have to be replaced on their current bench if they win in November, so Greg Abbott will get to appoint someone. That’s the price we pay for having candidates who have previously won elections.

Judicial Q&A: Judge Amy Clark Meachum

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Judge Amy Clark Meachum

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Judge Amy Clark Meachum, a three-term district court judge from Travis County, and I am running for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The Supreme Court of Texas is the court of last resort for civil appeals (including civil cases, family law matters, administrative appeals, probate and estate matters, child protection cases and juvenile justice cases) in Texas.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

It is time for a new generation of judicial thought leaders to bring much needed balance to the all-Republican Supreme Court. Texas has never elected a woman chief justice to its highest court, and I am proud to be the first woman to ever run for this office. We need a system of justice that respects the Constitution, protects the vital role of citizen juries, and addresses the economic barriers that too often prevent women, persons of color, and working families from seeking and obtaining justice. We need to elect judges who put public service and fairness over special interests.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

As presiding judge for the 201st District Court in Travis County, I have general jurisdiction and have presided over cases at the trial level for almost a decade. I am currently the Civil Presiding Judge for all civil and family courts in Travis County, and serve on the Administrative and Public Law Council for the State Bar of Texas. I am a guest lecturer on legal ethics, active on the CLE circuit, and a board member with Volunteer Legal Services of Central Texas. Before taking the bench, I practiced civil litigation at two of the best firms in Texas. I graduated with honors from the University of Texas School of Law in 2000, where I was a member of the Texas Law Review, and graduated magna cum laude from Southern Methodist University in 1997.

5. Why is this race important?

The Supreme Court of Texas has been controlled by the Republican Party for over 25 years. SCOTX is considered by legal watchdog groups to be one of the most ideologically conservative in the nation, consistently ruling in favor of large corporations and insurance companies and against individuals and everyday Texans. I am committed to returning the state’s highest civil court to a much more balanced center — and affording all persons equal justice under the law. Even the skeptics agree that 2020 is the best opportunity for Democrats to win statewide in 25 years, and we have the opportunity to possibly win four seats on a nine-member court. This is the most consequential election in our lifetime. Now, more than ever, we need a system of justice that respects the Constitution and values the role of our judiciary and the rule of law.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

When you compare my nearly decade of judicial experience to my primary opponent’s one year, any reasonable person will conclude that I am the more qualified and experienced candidate. When you investigate my judicial record, it will show a decade of standing up for the values of fairness, equality and justice under the law. After winning a contested Democratic primary in Travis County in 2010, I ran for reelection unopposed in 2014 and 2018. Not a single Democrat nor a single Republican ran against me in 2014 or 2018. That speaks to the quality of my work and the fairness of my rulings. In the most consequential election of our lifetime, let’s do something bold and give the voters a clear choice next November. I don’t exactly look like or sound like my primary opponent, my general election opponent, or any of the men who have previously been elected Chief Justice. I am making an important statement for women in the law and women in our party in 2020 and I would appreciate your support!

The Jerry Davis situation

Someday, this is going to be taught in political science classes. And possibly law schools.

CM Jerry Davis

The ongoing election dispute in District B has put Jerry Davis in a peculiar position, seemingly caught between two provisions of the Texas Constitution as he challenges longtime incumbent state Rep. Harold Dutton in the March 3 Democratic primary.

And it is unlikely to change until the courts clear the way for voters to cast ballots in the long-delayed runoff for his council seat.

Until then, Davis is stuck in the council seat he was supposed to leave in January because of term limits.

[…]

With no new council member seated by the first of the year, Article XVI, Sec. 17 of the Texas Constitution kicked in, requiring Davis to remain in the District B seat until his successor can be elected and seated.

“All officers of this State shall continue to perform the duties of their offices until their successors shall be duly qualified,” the provision reads.

When Davis filed Dec. 9 to challenge Dutton for the District 142 seat in the Texas House, it raised another constitutional clause, this one found in Article III, Sec. 19.

That provision says no public official who holds a “lucrative office… shall during the term for which is he elected or appointed, be eligible to the Legislature.”

Texas Supreme Court rulings have held that any paid public office, no matter how small the compensation, is considered “lucrative.” Additionally, the high court has ruled that the eligibility requirement extends to one’s candidacy.

A Houston city council salary is around $63,000 a year.

To date, no one has challenged Davis’ eligibility.

The councilman said he believes he is in the clear because his elected term ended in January. Democratic Party officials, tasked with determining eligibility for primary candidates, say they believe he qualifies because his appointed term as a hold-over should end long before he would join the Legislature next January if he wins.

And Dutton has not lodged any complaints or challenges. That could change, should Davis prevail in the March election.

Buck Wood, an authority on Texas election law who has represented clients in landmark Supreme Court rulings on the subject, said the law holds that candidates have to be eligible while they are running for office, not just on the date they take it.

Since Davis still is on the council, someone could make the case that he is not eligible, he said.

“The problem is, the court has also held that you have to be eligible as of the date that you file,” Wood said.

The interaction of those two constitutional clauses is an open legal question, left unresolved for now by Texas judges.

“The courts have not ruled on that hold-over provision,” he said.

It gets deeper into the weeds from there, and I’ll leave it to you to read up. For now, all is well and legal and good. Until such time as someone files a lawsuit – either Dutton over Davis’ eligibility to be on the ballot (an irony that may wash us all into the sea), or a city resident alleging that some action Davis has taken since January 1 as Council member is invalid, or maybe some other claim I can’t envision right now – there are no problems. Maybe we’ll make it all the way to the (we hope) May runoff in District B and there will still be no problems. It can all come crashing down at any time, and if that happens it’ll tie up the legal system for years, but for now, make like Wile E. Coyote and keep on running. As far as you know, the end of that cliff has not yet arrived.

(Note: this story ran, and I drafted this post, before the ruling in the District B runoff lawsuit. The fundamentals are the same, as Davis will still be serving till we have a runoff winner.)

Texas Lawyer’s judicial race coverage

As you know, I’ve been busy with judicial Q&As as usual, but this year I’m not the only one chasing down judicial candidates to ask them why they’d make good judges. Texas Lawyer, a part of the Law.com publication, is flooding the zone with its own Who’s Running For Judge In Texas Elections? 2020 Voters Guide. Normally you need to give Texas Lawyer your email address and are limited to three articles per month – they’ll send you a daily newsletter and breaking news, both of which have highlighted stories that I’ve blogged about that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere – but they appear to have made this feature publicly available. They’ve got their own Q&As with the candidates, most of whom responded to them, which has some overlap with my own questions – not a surprise, there’s only so much you can ask them because there’s only so much they can ethically say. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me, so go check it out and annoy the critics of our current system by making informed choices in the upcoming primaries.

January 2020 campaign finance reports: Statewide

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

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

Ryan Sitton, RRC

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

Nathan Hecht, Supreme Court, Chief Justice

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

Jane Bland, Supreme Court, Place 6

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

Jeff Boyd, Supreme Court, Place 7

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

Brett Busby, Supreme Court, Place 8

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

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

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

Kevin Yeary, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4

Brandon Birmingham, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9

David Newell, Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9


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

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

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

Hecht        296,168   146,575        0     531,660

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

Bland        335,707    73,945        0     277,965

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

Boyd         134,844   100,193      177     562,533

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

Busby        260,378   129,825        0     542,918

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

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

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

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

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

Newell        8,879      7,370        0       1,391

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

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

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

Flynn officially on HD138 primary ballot

Score two for formerly-booted candidates.

Josh Flynn

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

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

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

An attorney for Simpson and the party echoed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TEA appeals takeover-delay injunction

This isn’t settled just yet.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

After-deadline filing review: Courts

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

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

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

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

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

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

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

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

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

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

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County District Courts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The following races are contested in both March and November:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We continue to wait on the District B runoff

Ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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