Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Texas

SCOTx re-enables statewide abortion ban

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court has blocked a lower court order that had allowed clinics in the state to continue performing abortions even after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned it’s landmark 1973 ruling that confirmed a constitutional right to abortion.

It was not immediately clear whether the clinics in Texas that resumed performing abortions just days ago would halt services again following the ruling late Friday night. A hearing is scheduled for later this month.

The whiplash of Texas clinics turning away patients, rescheduling them, and now potentially canceling appointments again — all in the span of a week — illustrates the confusion and scrambling that has taken place across the country since Roe v. Wade was overturned.

An order by a Houston judge on Tuesday had reassured some clinics they could temporarily resume abortions up to six weeks into pregnancy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton quickly asked the state’s highest court, which is stocked with nine Republican justices, to temporarily put that order on hold.

“These laws are confusing, unnecessary, and cruel,” said Marc Hearron, attorney for the Center for Reproductive Rights, after the order was issued Friday night.

Clinics in Texas — a state of nearly 30 million people — stopped performing abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court last week overturned Roe v. Wade. Texas had left an abortion ban on the books for the past 50 years while Roe was in place.

Attorneys for Texas clinics provided a copy of Friday’s order, which was not immediately available on the court’s website.

See here and here for the background; Steve Vladeck provides a bit more context. You can see a summary of the order (order 22-0527) here. The relevant bits:

The parties are directed to submit briefing by 5 p.m. July 7, 2022 regarding whether the 269th District Court of Harris County, Texas, has jurisdiction to enjoin the enforcement of a criminal statute. See State v. Morales, 869 S.W.3d 941 (Tex. 1994). Real parties in interest are requested to respond to relators’ petition for writ of mandamus by 5 p.m. July 11, 2022. This order does not preclude further proceedings in the court of appeals and district court, including proceedings to address the jurisdictional issue described in paragraph 2 above. The Court is confident that those courts will proceed expeditiously.

[Note: The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.]

The 269th Civil Court in Harris County, which issued the temporary restraining order that SCOTx has now lifted, has a hearing scheduled for July 12 to determine whether an injunction can be granted. We may get that on the 12th or 13th, and then subsequent rulings from SCOTx shortly thereafter. I assume the writ of mandamus was filed by the Attorney General to supersede all this and just declare that there’s nothing stopping them from enforcing that 1925 law that criminalized abortion. Don’t you just love it when this kind of order drops on the Friday evening of a holiday weekend? Axios, the WaPo, the NYT, and the DMN have more; as of Saturday morning when I drafted this the Trib had not yet published anything and the Chron was carrying this same AP story. Like I said, Friday night, holiday weekend.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

Charges against Judge Jordan dropped

That was quick.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Just four days after being indicted and arrested, Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan saw an official oppression charge against him dropped.

Fort Bend County prosecutors on Friday announced they were dropping the misdemeanor charge against the judge.

Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton said that while Jordan was indicted by a grand jury, he didn’t believe his office could prove a crime was committed beyond a reasonable doubt.

“It is important to present cases implicating public integrity to the grand jury, particularly when there is some evidence to support the allegation, because they are representatives of the public,” Middleton said in a statement released after 6 p.m. Friday. “Moreover, it provides due process to the accused and transparency to the public.”

[…]

Middleton said prosecutors need to meet a higher standard when moving a case forward.

“If we believe we cannot prove a charge beyond a reasonable doubt, we have an ethical obligation to dismiss the prosecution,” Middleton said.

His office filed a motion to dismiss the case in Harris County on Friday, he said.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter called Middleton an “honorable man” and said he had believed the district attorney would dismiss the case all along. Jordan is currently deployed with the Texas National Guard, Carter said.

Carter said this week’s incident should remind people about how to behave in a courtroom.

“Contempt is an inherent power judges have to maintain order and decorum in the court,” Carter said “I would advise citizens and officers of the court to abide by the rules of court and maintain decorum to avoid being held in contempt.”

See here and here for the background. Dolcefino was not happy with the decision, which, too bad. I still don’t know any more about this than I did when the news first hit, but it is plausible that the case could have been not very solid, certainly not solid enough to feel confident about getting a guilty verdict. The defense was clear enough, for sure. I hope this is the last we hear of this. I have enough stories to follow.

Bexar County raises its COVID threat level

Hopefully not a sign of things to come.

Local health officials raised San Antonio’s COVID-19 risk level to high this week after warning of a “silent surge” just two weeks ago.

That surge continues, according to data from the city’s Metropolitan Health District, which is documenting an increase in new cases and hospitalizations.

As the July Fourth holiday approaches, San Antonio Metropolitan Health District chief Claude Jacob urged folks who will be getting together with friends and family to follow COVID-19 prevention strategies: “mask up in crowded indoor places, get tested if you have been exposed or have symptoms and stay up to date with COVID-19 vaccine and boosters.”

Dr. Bryan Alsip, chief medical officer at University Health, said the curve is starting to rise again, “but it’s not as steep an increase. It doesn’t look like the previous waves, not yet, so I think we have to wait and see how that turns out.”

The actual number of COVID-19 cases are suspected to be much higher than what is officially reported, as most people aren’t reporting positive home tests to any health authority.

Metro Health does not collect at-home test data, a spokeswoman said. Some rapid test kits include a way to report results through a mobile app, she noted, and urged everyone who uses a self-test to report positive results to their healthcare provider.

Alsip echoed Metro Health’s prevention strategies, noting that most people have stopped wearing masks. “Now that we know that the data support this high level [of transmission], while we’re in that higher risk timeframe, it would be a good additional layer of protection.”

He also warned that COVID-19 can now include a constellation of symptoms beyond the fever, cough and shortness of breath that characterized the disease at the beginning of the pandemic.

For the record, Harris County is still at Moderate threat level. Given the viral load in Houston’s wastewater these days, it’s not hard to imagine it going up. They key metric is hospitalizations, and that at least has remained at a sufficiently moderate level. It’s still the case that everyone needs to be vaxxed and boosted – kids under the age of five can now get vaccinated, and it looks like we’re getting an Omicron-specific booster later this year – and masking in indoor public places as well as anytime you may feel ill are still necessary. City and county governments can’t do much beyond exhort you to do the civic-minded thing, and for that matter the feds are pretty limited thanks to a bunch of sociopathic court rulings, so this is where we are. Do your part, if only for yourself, and we can make this be less bad than it otherwise would be.

More on Jordan and Dolcefino

Dolcefino speaks.

Former TV reporter Wayne Dolcefino has called for the resignation of Harris County misdemeanor Judge Darrell Jordan, alleging a personal vendetta led the jurist to wrongly hold him in contempt of court in 2020.

Dolcefino’s demand came after Jordan was arrested Monday and charged with official oppression related to the confrontation. Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain the private media consultant, who had arrived at the judge’s court to request public records on one of Jordan’s political allies.

“This guy has no business on the bench,” Dolcefino said. “He doesn’t have the temperament.”

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, denied that the holding in contempt had anything to do with Dolcefino’s investigative efforts. Dolcefino set a confrontational tone in his prior dealings with the judge, and he sought him out in court with a disruptive result, Carter said.

“This prosecution … will have an absurd result and a chilling affect on a judge’s ability to maintain order in their courts,” he said. “It’s absurd to think anyone can walk into a court, disrupt the proceedings and the judge of the court ends up being prosecuted. That’s not a reasonable person’s idea of justice. The DA should exercise discretion and dismiss this case.”

See here for the background. Let’s just pause for a moment and note that Wayne Dolcefino is denigrating someone’s temperament. Okay, moving on.

Video from the incident shows Dolcefino in a mostly empty courtroom, first chatting with court administrators and receiving a hello from the judge. Then he attempted to ask for the status of public corruption complaints he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials – including Harris County Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a friend of Jordan’s.

In the video, Jordan told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings. Dolcefino later shared photos of his arresting restraints.

The case against Jordan was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, which recused itself and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

Fort Bend District Attorney spokesperson Wesley Wittig said he couldn’t discuss the facts of the case, or what distinguished oppression from Jordan’s right to hold someone in direct contempt of the court.

“That would require a real detailed explanation in this case, and that’s the exact thing we can’t talk about,” he said.

Jordan contends that Dolcefino was disrupting his court proceedings on Zoom, but the media personality and an appeals court disagreed. The hidden video also made it seem questionable that Jordan had a hearing underway at all – a legal necessity for a contempt finding, said Amanda Peters, professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. Carter disputed that, adding contempt can occur as long as court is in session.

Dolcefino added that his years in journalism taught him proper courtroom etiquette.

“I would have never interrupted a hearing,” he said. “I may be wild and crazy, but I’ve never done that.”

Wrongful contempt cases do occur, but they usually don’t result in legal action against judges, Peters said. A grand jury might have found probable cause in Jordan’s case, however, if they learned of any personal conflict between the judge and former reporter, she said.

“These kind of charges for a judge in Harris County are incredibly rare,” she said.

If there was video of me writing this post, you would have seen my eyebrows nearly exit my forehead as I perused those statements from Dolcefino. At some point, more people will see the video he has, and we’ll go from there.

In the meantime:

Harris County misdemeanor court Judge Darrell Jordan on Thursday was suspended from his bench by the state’s commission on judicial conduct.

The suspension came just days after Jordan was indicted on a misdemeanor charge of official oppression and then arrested.

In a three-paragraph letter addressed to Jordan, the commission said that Jordan would be suspended without pay from his office as Harris County Criminal Court at Law Judge No. 16. The suspension will remain in place until Jordan is either acquitted or the charges are dismissed, according to the letter.

The letter was signed at 4 p.m. Thursday by David Schenk, the chairman of the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

Jordan’s attorney, Marc Carter, on Thursday evening confirmed the suspension.

[…]

Carter said the judicial commission was compelled to act because of the indictment. State law require judges to be suspended if they’re indicted on official misconduct charges, he said. The commission itself had received a complaint about Jordan’s contempt charges against Dolcefino and dismissed them, Carter said.

That last sentence suggests one possible reason why it took so long between the incident in question and the indictment. It’s certainly possible that if the Judicial Conduct Commission had sanctioned Judge Jordan for this, then perhaps there would not have been charges filed. Once the commission declined to sanction him, the complaint went to the grand jury. I don’t know if this is how it went, but it is plausible.

How are Texas businesses going to react to the forthcoming criminalization of abortion?

It’s too soon to say. Certainly too soon for most of them to say.

In overturning Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court presented corporate America with a question that may prove uncomfortable for big companies headquartered in states such as Texas, where abortion has effectively been banned.

Several national companies — including Disney, Goldman Sachs, and Meta, the parent company of Facebook — reacted the Dobbs v Jackson ruling handed down Friday by announcing that they would reimburse the cost of employees who need to travel out of state to access abortion care. Companies including Apple, Amazon, Citigroup, J.P. Morgan, SalesForce, Bumble and Levi’s had already announced similar policies, in anticipation of such a ruling or after draconian restrictions on abortion were adopted by states such as Texas, which last year banned virtually all abortions after the six-week mark of pregnancy.

But many Houston companies have not been forthcoming about whether they will modify their benefits to help employees get access to reproductive health services.

“We do not have a comment on this issue,” said Kinder Morgan, contacted by the Houston Chronicle on Monday.

“We decline to contribute at this time,” said EOG Services, an oil and gas company.

“We have no comment on this,” said Hines, the real estate firm.

[…]

Experts say no Texas laws prohibit companies from paying for travel for abortion services. A 2017 state law limits the extent to which conventional insurance companies can cover elective abortion, but makes no mention of travel.

“I don’t see they currently have liability if they pay for travel expenses for a lawful, out-of-state abortion,” said Seth J. Chandler, a professor at the University of Houston Law Center.

Whether companies decide to pay for travel expenses may have something to do with how it will affect their ability to attract talent, Chandler said.

“There is an issue of how you would attract employees, if there is a type of health care they perceive they may need is illegal,” Chandler said. “One vehicle for companies to overcome that reluctance is to say, ‘We’ll pay for your travel.’”

It’s not clear to me that they wouldn’t face civil litigation under the vigilante provisions of SB8, but even if they don’t, the Handmaid’s Tale caucus of the legislature will be working to change that.

Several companies have already announced they would cover expenses for an employee who has to travel for an abortion, including Walt Disney Co., Meta and JPMorgan Chase.

Those companies could be punished under the “accomplice liability” section of Texas, which applies to all residents and, according to Cain, also businesses.

“So, it also not just goes after the doctors, but it’s going to be going after those giving rides, supporting it, procuring the means, assisting, anybody that is an accomplice to the procurement of an abortion is also then committing a crime,” the Republican said.

That of course is chief woman hater Briscoe Cain, who says in the story that prosecuting “abortion crimes” is one of his top priorities. Let’s get real, it’s his main driving force. If Briscoe Cain gets his way, a whole lot of people are going to go to jail. That’s the reality we’re in right now.

There are a couple of ways that businesses can respond. They can cower and submit to the likes of Cain, and throw a bunch of their employees under the bus in the process. They can get the hell out of Texas or not come here in the first place; I suspect some will do that, though it’s hard to say how many. Allowing some employees to not live here would be another variant of this. I hope we get some real data and not just anecdotes about that.

And of course, they can fight. They can support candidates who support abortion rights, and other things that SCOTUS and the radicals that are currently in power are threatening, like same sex marriage and LGBTQ rights. That would be a huge change on their part, because keeping their heads down and not offending the powers that be is always the easier road to take. But it has the potential to have by far the biggest effect. It’s a choice they have, that’s all I’m saying. Providing expenses for employees who have to travel out of state to get reproductive health care is a reasonable choice as a short-term stopgap. But there’s only so long that can work. They can’t avoid the choice forever.

Beto will work to repeal Texas’ abortion ban

He can’t succeed, not at this time and not in the near future, but aim big and make it clear what the stakes are.

In the days after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, Democrats at rallies and protests in Texas said the November election is key for protecting reproductive rights.

In an interview after a Sunday rally in Austin, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Beto O’Rourke told The Texas Tribune he would work to repeal Texas’ abortion ban and expand access to reproductive health care if he is elected. Rochelle Garza, the Democratic nominee for attorney general, said she would partner with other lawyers to stop enforcement of the state’s abortion laws.

But these promises may be hard to keep if Democrats on the statewide ballot in November win. They would have to work with a Legislature that is likely to remain dominated by Republicans. Still, working with the GOP, O’Rourke said, is part of a functioning democracy.

“Just imagine the shockwaves this will send if for the first time in 32 years, Texas elects a Democrat as governor, a governor who won on the right of every woman to make her own decision about her own body, her own future, and her own health care,” O’Rourke said. “You know the Legislature will not only take notice, they will be forced to act in more of our common interest, instead of this extreme, fringe set of policies they have been pursuing over the last decade.”

He also said he’s hopeful the outrage among voters over the end of constitutional protections for abortion will translate to a more balanced Legislature come November and “change the dynamics in the Capitol.”

As I’ve said before, nobody knows right now what the effect of SCOTUS overturning Roe will be in Texas. Early polling suggests that Democrats are fired up about this, but it’s too early to know if that will persist, and it’s too early to feel confident that other news will not displace it in the forefront. Historic polling has shown there to be about a 2-1 majority opposed to making abortion harder to get in Texas, but that was composed of roughly equal parts “make abortion easier to get” and “keep current laws as they are”. Which, as you may recall, was pretty strict even before SB8 passed.

I believe Beto has done a good job of engaging Democratic voters, who from where I sit look to be reasonably enthusiastic about voting in Texas. I think he’ll get some tailwind from the overturning of Roe. I don’t know how that compares to the already-existing enthusiasm on the Republican side, or whether this decision will add any juice to it or not have much effect. We’re going to need a lot of polling data to begin to get a picture, and of course the campaigns themselves have a lot to say about this as well. I tend to be optimistic (a hard thing to be these days), and I think Beto has run a good campaign so far. I’m just reluctant to speculate beyond that at this time.

Congressional Dems ask Paxton to release Uvalde info

He won’t, because he sucks, but you gotta ask.

Best mugshot ever

Nine Democratic members of the U.S. House from Texas on Tuesday called on Attorney General Ken Paxton to order the release of government records related to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde that local officials are attempting to withhold.

In a letter, the group said that authorizing the release of records would help the families of victims heal by revealing the full truth about what happened at Robb Elementary School that day. They also said disclosure was important because officials have repeatedly changed their story about law enforcement’s response to the shooting.

“A first step in restoring trust in law enforcement and healing requires transparency from state and local officials,” the letter states. “You have a choice: shine a light on what went wrong to help Uvalde heal or be part of the cover up.”

It is signed by U.S. Reps. Joaquin Castro of San Antonio; Colin Allred and Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas; Lloyd Doggett of Austin; Veronica Escobar of El Paso; Sylvia Garcia, Lizzie Fletcher and Al Green of Houston; and Marc Veasey of Fort Worth. Republican U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, who represents Uvalde County, declined to join, Castro’s office said.

The city of Uvalde has declined to fulfill any records request from The Texas Tribune since the shooting, even those unrelated to the incident. In Texas, public agencies seeking to block the release of records must forward requests to the attorney general, citing specific exemptions under the Texas Public Information Act.

[…]

The members of Congress who signed the letter also said public officials should not hide behind what is known as the “dead suspect loophole,” an exemption to releasing public records meant to protect individuals who are never convicted of a crime. However, this exemption can also be applied to suspects who have died and thus won’t face prosecution, as is the case with the shooter in Uvalde.

Republican House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, said last month it would be “absolutely unconscionable” for officials to use the loophole to withhold records related to the shooting.

See here, here, and here for some background. That sure was a show of courage from Rep. Gonzales, wasn’t it? As for Paxton, he does six unconscionable things before breakfast, so I would not hold out much hope for him to do something non-hideous here. But as I said, you have to at least put him on the spot about it.

That’s an awful lot of tunnels

I’d say the over/under for the number of these that actually gets built is 1, and I’d bet the under.

On Monday, May 30, Bloomberg reported that it had obtained documents that showed Elon Musk’s Boring Company had pitched eight plans for projects in Texas. The documents, which stretch back over a year, included plans for connecting I-35 and MoPaC; a tunnel between Tesla’s Giga Texas factory, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, and downtown; and multiple tunnels in Pflugerville, where the Boring Company is now headquartered.

But a newly obtained document outlines an August 2021 Boring Company pitch for an even more ambitious project: plans to connect Austin and San Antonio via a system of underground tunnels. As of now, it is unclear how far the proposal reached, or which segments of the plan are being actively pursued.

Chap Ambrose, a man who lives next door to the Boring Company test site in Bastrop County, received the document as part of a public information request via the City of Kyle and posted it to Reddit. In the two emails between Boring Company business development lead Brian Gettinger and a Kyle official whose name has been redacted, they discuss involving the suburb south of Austin in its larger plan.

The plan, as outlined by Gettinger, is three-fold:

  • The Boring Company would “deploy individual systems in San Antonio and Austin.”
  • A connection between the cities, “likely collaborating with TxDOT” would follow I-35
  • Different city utilities would create segments to connect to the San Antonio to Austin system as follows:
    • Kyle to Austin
    • New Braunfels to San Antonio
    • San Marcos to Kyle
    • New Braunfels to San Marcos

In April, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg expressed his displeasure over a proposed plan to construct a Tesla-exclusive tunnel connecting San Antonio International Airport and downtown.

“We have a lot of transportation issues that we want to solve here in Texas and in San Antonio, frankly. That doesn’t solve any of them,” Nirenberg said on Inside Texas Politics.

[…]

Ambrose has spoken in front of city officials in his hometown and in Kyle about the opacity with which he believes the Boring Company operates in Central Texas.

“Business as usual for TBC,” he tells MySA via text message. “Trying to pull strings in the background. I think they’d catch more fish with transparency.”

In a reply less than two hours later, the Kyle official asks for cost specs so that they can find a location and consider funding.

“We would love a connection into downtown Austin AND ABIA,” the official writes.

On May 3, Kyle City Council approved a professional services contract to build a railroad pedestrian underpass to connect to its Vybe trail network.

Good luck with that. You may recall this all started with a proposal to build a tunnel from the San Antonio Airport to downtown SA, which later on morphed into a possible San Antonio to Austin tunnel project. There’s a lot of skepticism about how this could possibly work, and so far all of the price tags I’ve seen for this seem suspiciously low. We’re in the Elon Musk Zone here, it doesn’t have to make sense. The full list of projects includes one in our backyard, a drainage tunnel for groundwater under SH 288, as well as the first mention of hyperloops I’ve seen in a couple of years. Good times. Tune in at some unspecified point in the future to see if any of this has moved from the conceptual phase to something else. The Current has more.

Temporary restraining order granted to abortion clinics in trigger lawsuit

Some abortions are temporarily legal in Texas again.

Abortions up to about six weeks in pregnancy can resume at some clinics in Texas for now after a Harris County District Court judge granted a temporary restraining order that blocks an abortion ban that was in place before Roe v. Wade.

In the ruling issued Tuesday, Judge Christine Weems ruled that the pre-Roe abortion ban “is repealed and may not be enforced consistent with the due process guaranteed by the Texas constitution.”

“It is a relief that this Texas state court acted so quickly to block this deeply harmful abortion ban,” Marc Hearron, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights, said in a press release. “This decision will allow abortion services to resume at many clinics across the state, connecting Texans to the essential health care they need. Every hour that abortion is accessible in Texas is a victory.

Whole Woman’s Health, which operates abortion clinics in McAllen, McKinney, Fort Worth and Austin, said it would resume providing abortions as a result of this ruling.

“We immediately began calling the patients on our waiting lists and bringing our staff and providers back into the clinics,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, the organization’s president and CEO.

Abortions can resume only at the clinics named in the lawsuit. Besides the Whole Woman’s Health clinics, the others that will resume operations are Alamo Women’s Reproductive Services in San Antonio, Brookside Women’s Medical Center and Austin Women’s Health Center in Austin, Houston Women’s Clinic and Houston Women’s Reproductive Services in Houston, and Southwestern Women’s Surgery Center in Dallas.

A hearing has been set for July 12 to decide on a more permanent restraining order.

[…]

On a press call Tuesday, Hearron declined to speculate on what the temporary restraining order on the pre-Roe ban might mean for other clinics and abortion funds in the state.

“I don’t know that I have an answer to that question,” he said. “I think that’s a legal question that the other clients would want to look at.”

While some abortion access has been restored in Texas, current state law still allows abortions only up to around six weeks of pregnancy, a point at which many people don’t even know they are pregnant.

“So there still will be a large number of Texans who are still going to need to try to find access and appointments outside of the state,” Hearron said.

See here for the background. This will of course be appealed, so as I said before it will ultimately come down to what the Supreme Court says, if they choose to weigh in at all – they may decide to slow roll it, given that the whole thing will be moot in at most about two months. Not deciding when they don’t have to is a specialty of theirs.

As for the question of other providers, the Chron has a bit of input.

It’s unclear whether the injunction applies to clinics that are not party to the suit, such as Planned Parenthood.

The CEOs of Texas Planned Parenthood affiliates said in a joint statement Tuesday that their clinics had no immediate plans to resume offering abortions, but added: “This is a rapidly evolving situation and legal teams are still reviewing this order and its potential implications.”

The case could also offer a lifeline to Texas abortion funds, which provide transportation and other assistance to people seeking abortions, after they shuttered Friday, citing concerns of criminal liability.

Seems like it’s worthwhile to me to at least get the clarity and some assurance that you won’t be arrested for something that may have happened five minutes after Ken Paxton decided it was illegal. I Am Not A Lawyer, your mileage may vary, etc etc etc. I still think they should at least give serious thought to filing their own claims. We’ll see.

Jordan and Dolcefino

I have questions about this.

Judge Darrell Jordan

Darrell William Jordan, a Harris County misdemeanor court judge, on Monday was arrested and charged with of official oppression, according to court records.

Jordan is accused of using his office to unlawfully arrest and detain Wayne Dolcefino, a private media consultant and former TV journalist.

The charge stems from an incident on June 30, 2020, when Dolcefino was jailed in contempt of court by Jordan during a hearing in Harris County Court at Law No. 16.

Jordan accused Dolcefino of attempting to interrupt proceedings in the court by demanding to interview the judge. He jailed Dolcefino after giving him repeated warnings, according to court documents.

Dolcefino was found guilty and sentenced to three days in Harris County Jail, six months of probation and a $500 fine.

Monday’s indictment accuses Jordan of wrongfully holding Dolcefino in contempt or subjecting him to summary punishment and jail without a hearing.

In a 2020 video posted on the Dolcefino Consulting Facebook page after his arrest, Dolcefino revealed that he was wearing a hidden camera during the hearing.

The video shows Dolcefino attempting to ask Jordan about public corruption complaints and public records requests he made about multiple Houston and Harris County officials. In the video, Jordan, who was holding court hearings over Zoom, told Dolcefino that he couldn’t ask questions, told him to sit down and warned him to stop interrupting proceedings.

Court records indicate that the grand jury declined to hand down felony charges related to tampering with records and retaliation.

Jordan was arrested, formally charged and released on Monday evening, he said during a short phone interview with the Houston Chronicle. He directed other questions to his attorney.

Marc Carter, Jordan’s attorney, said the case was filed with Harris County DA’s Office, who recused themselves and asked Fort Bend County District Attorney Brian Middleton to investigate the allegation.

“Judge Jordan is absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing and looks forward to his day in court,” Carter said in a statement released on Monday.

“Contempt is a power given to judges so they can maintain decorum and control court proceedings. Without it the courtroom would be chaos. Litigants, officers of the court, and jurors want judges to be able to control proceedings and when necessary exercise their contempt power.

“This prosecution, if District Attorney Brian Middleton goes forward with it, will have an absurd result and a chilling affect on a judge’s ability to maintain order in their courts. It’s absurd to think anyone can walk into a court, disrupt the proceedings and the judge of the court ends up being prosecuted. That’s not a reasonable person’s idea of justice. The DA should exercise discretion and dismiss this case,” Carter said.

My head is spinning. You might want to read this companion story that gives some background on both Judge Jordan and Wayne Dolcefino, who’s probably a much better-known name among longer-time residents.

Now then. Three basic questions:

1. Contempt of court is a basic power that judges have. Any power can be corrupted, but I don’t see anything in this story that sounds like an extraordinary usage of that power. Maybe that hidden camera video is more damning than the story suggests, I don’t know. If I didn’t know anything else about this, I’d be wondering what exactly the beef was.

2. The incident in question took place two years ago. I know that investigations can take time, and I know that COVID has caused backlogs in the court system. But seriously, two years? What in the heck caused this to take so long to get to this point?

3. You may be wondering why Kim Ogg farmed this out to the Fort Bend County DA. My answer when I first read this is because Wayne Docefino worked for her campaign in both 2014 and 2016 – I saw him and talked to him at a couple of campaign events, and I have some press releases and other things that he sent out in my mailbox from that time. The second story indicates that Ogg and Dolcefino apparently had a falling out after that, which just makes this all messier. Whatever the merits of the case against Jordan, Ogg’s recusal was clearly the right thing to do.

At this point, I have no idea what else to say. I’m going to wait and see what happens. If you have some inside scoop on this, by all means please let me know.

Lawsuit filed over Texas trigger law implementation

One last fight before the curtain comes down.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

The empty “mental health” promise

What’s going on in Uvalde these days.

Days after the May 24 shooting, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott promised an “abundance of mental health services” to help “anyone in the community who needs it … the totality of anyone who lives in this community.” He said the services would be free. “We just want you to ask for them,” he said, before giving out the 24/7 hotline number — 888-690-0799.

That’s a tall order for a community in an area with a shortage of mental health resources, in a state that ranks last for overall access to mental health care, according to a 2022 State of Mental Health in America report.

Mental health organizations are assembling a collection of services to assist those who seek help in Uvalde. But there have been hiccups and hitches along the way.

There is worry that what’s being offered is not coming together as fast or efficiently as it could be, and that it’s being assembled without keeping in mind the community it serves: Many residents are lower income, and some may have difficulties with transportation, or are mainly Hispanic. Many are not accustomed to seeking out therapy, or are distrustful of who is providing it.

Quintanilla-Taylor didn’t believe many would use the mental health services and had doubts about their long term availability.

“It’s not going be prevalent. … I don’t trust the resources, and that’s coming from an educated person,” said Quintanilla-Taylor, who’s pursuing a doctorate in philosophy and specializing in organizational leadership at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

[…]

Uvalde County Commissioners, the countywide government body, voted Thursday to purchase a building to create the Uvalde Together Resiliency Center to serve as a hub for long-term services, such as crisis counseling and behavioral health care for survivors.

Abbott set aside $5 million in funding for the center, which has been operating at the county fairgrounds.

Texas Sen. Roland Gutierrez, whose vast district includes Uvalde, said the community needs continuity of care and rather than create a new building the state could invest in the existing local community health clinic, in operation for 40 years and already serving 11,000 uninsured Uvalde residents.

“These are people who have behavioral health on the ground. They actually have the one psychiatrist in Uvalde right here,” Gutierrez said Friday referring to the clinic. “We needed to have the budget so that we can bring in therapists, which we would have been able to do with that money. Instead, they’re starting from whole cloth this promised center you’re going to have the district attorney run?”

Gutierrez, who has shifted a district office from Eagle Pass to Uvalde, said he met with 11 families whose children survived the shootings and were either wounded or sent to the hospital.

“What the families have been telling me is they don’t want to see one therapist one week, a different one the following and another one yet maybe the next week,” he said. “So, they are having trouble with appointments, with continuity and that’s very, very important, especially when we are talking about young children.”

Gutierrez said he sent a letter to Abbott asking for $2 million for the existing free community clinic to provide crisis care but has not heard back.

I’ve discussed this before, and this is another illustration of the problem. We can count on hearing two things whenever there’s a mass shooting in Texas. One is the usual blather about guns and why restricting access to guns isn’t the answer. The other is a rush to talk about mental health, both as a means of explaining the shooter’s actions and now more regularly as an alternate mitigation for gun violence that doesn’t restrict access to guns. It was a big component of the Cornyn bill, and may have been a key to its passage since there’s no question that more mental health services and funding for those services are badly needed. I’m happy to see that happen, it’s just that we all know this is only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

From the state perspective, any and all talk of mental health and services for mental health that comes from our state leaders is guaranteed to be little more than hot air. We have the longstanding issue of healthcare in general being out of reach for too many people because of lack of insurance, and the continued resistance to expanding Medicaid, which would be the single biggest step forward in that regard. We have the also longstanding issue of healthcare in rural areas, from hospitals closing for lack of funds to scarcity of doctors in rural areas, a problem that was supposed to have been solved by the passage of the tort “reform” constitutional amendment nearly 20 years ago. More recently there was Abbott’s redirection of over $200 million in funds from the Department of Health and Human Services to his never-ending border boondoggle. At every opportunity, the Republican leadership has made it clear that they don’t care about funding healthcare in general, and mental health services in particular. But they are willing to use the promise of mental health services as a distraction when the next crisis hits. That’s where we are now, and where we will be again if nothing changes.

DAs are not going to be able to avoid enforcing anti-abortion laws

I appreciate the sentiment, but that’s not how it works.

Even before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade on Friday, local prosecutors in several of the largest Texas counties vowed not to file criminal charges in abortion-related cases, seemingly offering hope for those seeking a way around the state’s impending abortion ban.

But those counties are unlikely to serve as abortion safe havens in post-Roe Texas, legal experts and abortion rights advocates say, largely because clinics still face the threat of legal retribution even in counties with sympathetic district attorneys. And the penalty for those who continue offering the procedure is steep — up to life in prison and at least $100,000 in fines under Texas’ so-called trigger law, which will soon outlaw nearly all abortions, starting at fertilization.

While Attorney General Ken Paxton cannot unilaterally prosecute criminal cases unless authorized by a local prosecutor, he is free to do so for civil matters anywhere in Texas. That means district attorneys may shield clinics and physicians from the trigger law’s criminal penalty of a first- or second-degree felony, but Paxton could still target them for six-figure civil fines, said Sandra Guerra Thompson, a law professor at the University of Houston.

She also noted that abortion providers could be found criminally liable if an incumbent district attorney reconsiders or is replaced by a successor who wants to pursue abortion-related charges.

The trigger law, which takes effect 30 days after a Supreme Court judgment overturning Roe v. Wade, makes no exceptions for pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, nor for severe fetal abnormalities. It carries narrow exemptions for abortion patients placed at risk of death or “substantial impairment of a major bodily function.”

Still, some prosecutors could begin pursuing criminal charges immediately based on Texas statutes that pre-dated Roe but were never repealed by the Legislature, Paxton said Friday. Those laws prohibit all abortions except “for the purpose of saving the life of the mother.”

In any case, it’s unlikely that abortion providers will take the risk. They are already bound by the state’s six-week abortion ban, which allows people anywhere in the country to sue providers or those who help someone access the procedure in Texas after fetal cardiac activity is detected. Successful litigants win damages of at least $10,000 under the law.

We’ve discussed this before. There are things that cities and individuals can do to hinder law enforcement or prosecutorial efforts to enforce anti-abortion laws, but one way or another they are going to be enforced, very likely via increasingly intrusive and draconian means. If somehow local DAs refuse to pursue cases, the Lege will change the law to go around them, either to the Attorney General or to neighboring counties – Briscoe Cain is already planning to file bills to that effect. We can’t succeed at this level. The only way to fight it is to have power at the state level, and that’s going to mean winning statewide races and/or winning enough seats in the Lege to take a majority in the House. Even that is at best a defensive position – we are not taking over the Senate, not even in the most wildly optimistic scenario I can imagine – but it’s the best we can do, and it would definitely reduce the harm that is otherwise coming.

One more thing:

Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg also slammed the Supreme Court decision, arguing that the “criminalization of reproductive health will cause great harm to women in America.” While she added that “prosecutors and police have no role in matters between doctors and patients,” she stopped short of a blanket vow to not prosecute alleged violations of state abortion laws.

“As in every case, we will evaluate the facts and make decisions on a case-by-case basis,” said Ogg, a Democrat.

I’m including this because as far as I can tell it’s the first time Ogg has spoken publicly about the coming anti-abortion enforcement wave. I seriously doubt that Kim Ogg will want to pursue any cases that are filed with her office, but I also doubt that she’ll just ignore them. Maybe she’ll take a broad “prosecutorial discretion” stance, but again, if she does and if nothing changes with the November elections, that discretion will be taken away from her. There just isn’t much she or anyone in her position can do about this. We need to be clear about that.

Biden signs modest gun control bill

It’s now the law. We’ll see for how long.

President Joe Biden on Saturday signed into law a bipartisan measure to address gun violence, less than 24 hours after the bill was approved by the U.S. House and a month and a day after the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde.

“Today, we say more than enough. We say more than enough,” Biden said at the White House. “At a time when it seems impossible to get anything done in Washington, we are doing something consequential.”

The measure was negotiated by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in the aftermath of the Uvalde shooting that left 19 students and two teachers dead. That shooting had come less than two weeks after a massacre in a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 people dead.

In a statement announcing the signing, the White House thanked Cornyn and a small bipartisan group of other senators involved in its drafting.

The law is widely viewed as a series of modest changes to current gun regulations, falling far short of proposals pushed by House Democrats and Biden to raise the age to purchase a gun, ban assault weapons and expand universal background checks. The most noteworthy provision of the law would close what is known as “the boyfriend loophole.”

Current federal statutes prohibit firearm purchases for those convicted of committing domestic violence against spouses or partners who live together or share a child. To close the loophole, the new law will leave to the courts the contours of expanding how to define and include dating partners who commit such abuse.

Conservatives previously raised concerns that an expansive definition of a partner could threaten constitutional rights. The law will also permit offenders to regain their gun rights if there are no further offenses over five years.

See here for the background. Please note that first sentence in the last paragraph above, because I’ve been speculating about legal challenges to this new law ever since it became apparent that it was about to become law. I was called out in the comments of that earlier post for my assertion that “SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal”. I will admit that was a bit of hyperbole, but it’s absolutely the case that state gun control measures of all kinds around the country are now going to be challenged in federal court. Where do you think this Supreme Court will draw a line and say okay, no, that’s a reasonable and constitutional restriction and may stand? It’s not at all clear to me that they believe there is one. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – and even happier if we finally get around to reforming this completely radicalized and out of control SCOTUS – but I wouldn’t bet any of my own money on it. In the meantime, let’s see when – and yeah, I mean “when” and not “if” – the first suit is filed against this law.

PS – I know I make a lot of podcast recommendations as supplemental material for my posts, so here’s another for you: This week’s Amicus podcast talks for about 30 minutes about the Bruen decision, with the actual legal expert doing the talking sounding a lot more sanguine about certain types of state gun laws surviving future review; he also specifically thinks this federal law will survive. I’m the opposite of an expert, but I am deeply cynical and have zero faith in the consistency or fidelity of this court. You make the call which of us will be more accurate about the future.

In case you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a drought

And by “we”, I mean most of the state.

About 80% of Texas is currently experiencing some level of drought conditions, ranging from “moderate” to “exceptional.”

The drought, which caused wildfires across the state earlier this year and prompted burn bans, is now negatively affecting farmers and ranchers.

A lack of rain during the spring resulted in lower crop production and decreased soil moisture levels, with no relief in sight.

“This is a tough situation,” Tracy Tomascik from Texas Farm Bureau told Houston Matters on Monday, comparing this year to Texas’ historic drought in 2011. “It’s something that we hoped we’d all put in the back of our minds, but this year it has a little added sting to it.”

Hay supply is down, and 78% of the wheat supply in Texas is in “poor” or “very poor” condition.

“It’s as bad as it’s been since 2011, if not worse,” Texas State Climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon said about the state’s wheat supply. “2011 was a wake-up call… I think that experience will be of considerable help this time around.”

[…]

May and June are typically the wettest months of the year in Texas and are the prime months for plant growth. Hungry plants and no rain can quickly lead to a bad situation.

“It’s a flash drought,” Nielsen-Gammon said about the combination of factors working together to cause Texas’ current weather conditions and agricultural obstacles.

The drought is also causing water supply issues statewide as officials ask residents to conserve water.

“The way the weather pattern looks, it’s going to be like that for a while,” Nielsen-Gammon said.

While Houston has not been severely affected by drought conditions, Nielsen-Gammon said that could change.

“Coastal areas have been fairly dry, and with the high temperatures, the dryness is spreading over the whole area now.”

Remember 2011? More terrible drought, wildfires all over the state (especially around Bastrop), a whole month of daily temperatures over 100 degrees? Yeah, that. Any time 2011 is in the conversation, weather-wise, it’s a bad thing.

As far as Houston goes, it’s not that bad right now, but we know how bad it can get because we lived through 2011, too. So please, pay attention to this.

For the first time in a decade, the city is asking property owners to voluntarily cut back on water usage as low rainfall and blistering temperatures push Houston closer to drought conditions.

The solstice arrived Tuesday with temperatures up to 9 degrees hotter than average, triggering phase one of Houston’s drought contingency plan, adopted to stave off water shortages in times of dangerous heat and low precipitation.

Under the plan, residents are asked to voluntarily reduce water usage by watering plants after sunset, repairing dripping faucets and ensuring sprinkler heads do not spray directly into storm drains or streets. The requested moves could become mandatory if drought conditions worsen.

City officials hope the optional measures will cut water use citywide by 5 percent.

It marked the first time the city has entered any version of its drought contingency plan since 2011.

[…]

City officials issued the following voluntary water conservation guidelines, expected to continue until the threat of drought lifts:

  • Limit outdoor watering to twice a week after sunset and before sunrise
  • Single-family homes with even-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Sundays and Thursdays; those with odd-numbered street addresses are asked to water on Saturdays and Wednesdays, with Tuesdays and Fridays reserved for apartments and businesses
  • Check and repair water leaks from dripping faucets and running toilets
  • Fix sprinkler heads to ensure sure water is not disappearing directly into the street, storm drains or gutters

Surely that isn’t much to ask. Let’s do what we can to keep 2022 from being as bad as 2011 was.

A big part of the Cornyn gun bill will do nothing in Texas

Just a reminder.

The bipartisan gun bill that is on a fast track through Congress and backed by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn includes new state grants to incentivize red flag laws, which allow judges to temporarily seize firearms from people who are deemed dangerous.

That means it’ll be up to states as to whether they want to take advantage of one of the key provisions of the landmark gun legislation. But despite last month’s Uvalde school shooting being the inspiration for the bill, Texas is unlikely to get on board.

Red flag laws likely remain a nonstarter among Republican leaders in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott already faced a conservative backlash after he asked the Legislature to consider them four years ago.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who oversees the Senate and wields tremendous sway over what legislation is considered, indicated Wednesday he still opposes such an effort.

“After the Santa Fe shooting, we had the same move to do this and we did not support it,” he said in a radio interview. “I did not support [that], the Senate did not support that.”

Patrick said that if he were in the U.S. Senate, he would have been among the 36 Republicans — including Texas’ junior senator Ted Cruz — who sided against the bipartisan gun bill in an initial vote Tuesday. Patrick added that he was “very, very concerned about that and where that goes.”

See here for some background, in which the subject of red states and red flag laws was thoroughly discussed. I don’t really have anything to add to that, so go listen to this week’s episode of the Josh Marshall podcast, in which they discuss the politics of this bill and what might happen next. Our job here remains to elect leaders that will not be obstacles to sensible and meaningful gun reform.

One more thing:

Red flag laws are nonetheless popular with Texas voters. A poll released Tuesday found that 75% of the state’s voters support laws that “give family members or law enforcement a way to ask a judge to issue an order temporarily removing guns from someone who poses a violent threat to themselves or others.” The survey was conducted by Third Way, a centrist think tank, and GS Strategy Group, a GOP polling firm.

The poll doesn’t break any of their issues questions down by party (or any other subgroup, like gender or race or age), so it’s not very useful. That said, in addition to the number cited above, the poll had 89% support for “Requiring a background check before every gun purchase, including at gun shows and for online sales”, 80% support for “Increasing the minimum age to purchase a semi-automatic weapon from 18 to 21 years old”, 80% support for “Allowing law enforcement to access sealed juvenile records to ensure that young adults with a history of violent criminal behavior are restricted from purchasing firearms”, and 68% support for ” Funding research around the effectiveness of gun safety policies”. You’re not going to get those kind of numbers without a fair amount of Republican support. Getting them to vote for candidates that also support those positions, that’s a different matter. As we well know. The Chron has more.

Supreme Court confirms that Texas Central is a railroad

Hope it’s not too little, too late.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday gave the go-ahead to beleaguered plan to build a bullet train connecting Houston and Dallas, ruling that companies behind the project have the power to acquire private property through eminent domain. .

In a 5-3 ruling issued Friday, the high court said that Texas Central Railroad and Texas Logistics could indeed be considered as an “interurban electric railway companies” under state law, even though they have yet to build a railroad, and may never do so.

The decision culminates a years-long legal battle, launched by landowners along the bullet train’s route shortly after project was proposed. One of them, Leon County rancher James Fredrick Miles, filed suit in 2016, after Texas Central sought to survey the roughly 600 acres he owns along its “preferred” route—land which would be bisected if the bullet train is built.

The case turned on what it means to be a “railroad company” or “interurban electric railway company,” which have eminent domain authority under the state Transportation Code.

On HoustonChronicle.com: Critics say the idea of a Houston-Dallas bullet train could be over

Miles, along with other property owners argued that Texas Central didn’t qualify because it wasn’t operating a railroad and may never do so. Texas Central has yet to build any tracks or train stations, or acquire the Japanese Shinkansen railcars called for in the project proposal.

The project’s proponents, however, argued that this line of reasoning yielded a chicken-and-egg problem that would make it impossible to ever build a rail line.

A trial court sided with Miles. A court of appeals in 2020 overturned that ruling, leading Miles to petition the Texas Supreme Court for review. Friday’s ruling affirms the appellate court’s ruling.

See here for the previous update, and here for the majority opinion; there were two concurrences and two dissents, and you can find all of those documents here. As the story notes, this ruling comes at a time of turmoil for Texas Central. It’s not clear if this will finally enable them to move forward with construction, or if the only beneficiary will be whatever tries to resurrect the idea of a privately-run high speed railroad following their downfall. But in the end, they were indeed a railroad. That has to mean something.

Lock Louie up

He believes he committed at least one federal crime. Who are we to disbelieve him?

U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert was one of a handful of Republicans in Congress who asked former President Donald Trump for a pardon after the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, according to testimony shown by the House committee investigating the insurrection.

Witnesses told the committee that the president had considered offering pardons to several individuals, said U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican on the committee.

Cassidy Hutchison, who served as an aide to former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said in recorded testimony shown Thursday that the Tyler Republican was one of the members who had sought a pardon. Others included U.S. Reps. Matt Gaetz of Florida, Mo Brooks of Alabama, Andy Biggs of Arizona and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania.

“The only reason I know to ask for a pardon is because you think you’ve committed a crime,” Kinzinger said.

Gohmert did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What could he possibly say? His actions speak for themselves. Over to you, Justice Department.

Roe v Wade

You don’t need me to tell you what happened yesterday, or what is likely to come. Abortion is still technically legal for another 29 days in Texas, when the trigger law kicks in, but many clinics have already stopped providing abortions because they don’t want to get tangled up in another legal fight that they fear they’ll lose. Local district attorneys will have to handle things from there, though as I said before, if there’s even a hint that local prosecutors and/or police departments are dragging their heels, the enforcement power will be shifted to the state (or to the rabid prosecutors in other counties) so fast it will make you dizzy.

That’s only as long as the Republicans have the power to do that, of course. Governor Beto O’Rourke would be able to veto bills that tried to make that happen, while Attorney General Rochelle Garza would not act as the backup prosecutor if it came to that. We at least have the power to make those things happen. You’re mad now, as you should be. This is where to channel that. It’s our best hope.

Cornyn-Murphy gun bill gets final passage

What great timing, huh?

Exactly one month after a gunman shot and killed 19 children and two teachers in a Uvalde elementary school, the most significant new gun laws in decades were headed to President Joe Biden’s desk on Friday after the U.S. House cleared a bipartisan package of reforms requiring greater scrutiny of young buyers, closing the so-called boyfriend loophole and more.

The gun laws, authored by a group of senators including John Cornyn of Texas, easily passed the Democratic-controlled House on a 234-193 vote, just hours after 15 Senate Republicans joined every Democrat in approving the bill in the Senate late Thursday night. Biden is expected to sign the bill into law.

“When I met with families from Uvalde, they asked me how it was possible for the man who murdered their loved ones to get a dangerous weapon so easily,” U.S. Rep. Joaquin Castro said in a statement. “Today, Congress has voted to pass historic gun safety reforms that will save lives and keep deadly weapons out of the hands of people who present a clear danger to their communities. We need to make more progress on gun safety, but today’s vote is an important step forward.”

It is the first tightening of federal gun laws since 1994. It bolsters background checks on buyers under 21 years old and restricts access to firearms for dating partners convicted of domestic abuse. The bill creates stiffer penalties for gun trafficking and “straw” purchasing, in which someone buys a firearm for someone prohibited from owning one.

The legislation also provides funding for mental health programs, school security and for states to enact red flag laws or other intervention methods meant to stop shootings before they happen.

Just 14 Republicans voted for the bill in the House, where GOP leaders had urged members to oppose the legislation. Only one Texan was among them: U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales of San Antonio, whose district includes Uvalde. The rest opposed the legislation.

See here for the background. It would be nice to feel good about this, even as watered down as this bill is, but with SCOTUS on a rampage, it’s hard to feel good about anything. The fact that this got initial passage in the Senate on the same day that SCOTUS essentially declared all state gun control measures to be illegal was the kind of irony none of us needed. I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before a federal lawsuit is filed to invalidate even this modest effort, and who would take a bet on those plaintiffs losing? But here we are anyway. If we can ever find our way to fixing the courts, we can improve on this and do a lot more besides. One step at a time. The Trib has more.

We are getting serious about the flood tunnel idea

Now the question is how could we pay for this?

Japanese flood tunnel

A network of eight massive storm water tunnels that drain upstream of and into the Houston Ship Channel could be the key to alleviating flooding in Harris County, flood control engineers announced this week. The scheme looks at how storm water management has traditionally worked here and re-imagines, at a steep cost, how the system could be drastically expanded.

The Harris County Flood Control District, formed in 1937, has long dealt with flooding in two ways: Engineers built channels to move water away and dug detention ponds to store it temporarily. But those methods are increasingly challenging to implement, they say, because so much of the area has been developed. Texas prairie is covered with asphalt, concrete and buildings.

Climate change is also broadening the scale of what the region faces: Rains are likely to be more intense. Hurricanes are likely to be stronger.

And so Flood Control staff for several years studied how tunnels might work to lessen the storm water buildup that accompanies heavy rainfall. On Thursday, the agency released its findings in a detailed report that explains why a $30-billion, 130-mile network of tunnels could be worth the investment. The team says it has more research to do before committing to the idea fully, but the concept checks out so far.

“We have determined that a large-diameter underground tunnel system would significantly reduce flood risk and the number of instances of flooding,” said Scott Elmer, assistant director of operations for the flood control district. “And, as we consider expanding our current flood damage reduction toolkit by investing in a tunnel system, we would gain an additional tool to use in the many areas of our county where the land is densely populated.”

A question ahead is whether people here will support it. Residents and advocates recently called for consideration of a tunnel below Buffalo Bayou instead of a vehemently-opposed federal proposal to dig the bayou deeper and wider. The flood control district’s proposal, of course, takes the tunnel idea much further, marking a shift toward massive, costly solutions that could protect Houston better from worsening weather. It raises familiar issues of risk and environmental harm. It highlights the same complexities of how planners prioritize who to help.

A case in point is the project plan finished last year and making its way through Congress that would create the so-called Ike Dike, featuring a series of towering gates that would cross the mouth of Galveston Bay to defend against hurricane storm surges. Advocates in that case lament the lack of attention to nature-based solutions and the reliance on a band-aid fix to the real issue of human-fueled climate change.

Both the Ike Dike and the tunnel system would require some federal funding and take years to build.

See here for some background, and go read the rest, there’s a lot more to the story. I will note that Austin and San Antonio have similar albeit much smaller tunnels, so this concept is not new or untested. Paying for this would be a challenge – look how long it’s taken to get federal funding for the Ike Dike, which is still not yet assured – and as with the Ike Dike there are questions about how long it would take to build this, what its environmental effects might be, and what other things we can and should be doing right now regardless of whether this thing eventually happens. (For a discussion of that in re: the Ike Dike, listen to this recent CityCast Houston episode.) I’m intrigued by this idea, I think it has promise, but we all need to hear more, and we don’t have a lot of time to spare. Whatever we do, let’s get moving on it.

We’re still not going to get a special session for gun safety legislation

But I still appreciate the effort. Someone has to do it.

With Texas schools restarting classes in less than two months, Texas Senate Democrats renewed calls Monday for Gov. Greg Abbott to bring lawmakers back to Austin this summer to enact legislation that might prevent another mass shooting like the one at a Uvalde elementary school that killed 19 students and two teachers last month.

The senators said if lawmakers reconvene for a special session, they would support proposals like raising the age to legally own an assault weapon from 18 to 21, creating red flag laws for gun purchases, instituting a 72-hour “cooling off” period and regulating the private sale of firearms.

But first there has to be a debate, and a vote, to let Texans know where their elected officials stand on how to respond to the Uvalde shooting, said state Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee and was unsuccessful in passing his red flag legislation last session.

“The people are urging us to take action, but first we have to let them know we’re listening to them,” he said. “We’ve heard the public, we want to represent them, but we have to have a session to do that.”

The Senators have been calling for a special session for many weeks following the Uvalde massacre. They are now joined by multiple Mayors.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is part of a bipartisan group of 13 Texas mayors who sent a letter demanding Texas Gov. Greg Abbott call a special legislative session to address gun violence in the wake of the Uvalde school shooting.

Abbott, a Republican up for reelection in the fall, has asked state lawmakers to organize committees to look into school safety following the massacre, which killed 19 students and two teachers. However, he’s balked at calling a special session and has avoided discussion of new firearms laws — something that would anger the powerful gun lobby.

The letter calls on Abbott to enact reforms the mayors say are backed by the majority of Texans and could prevent future mass shootings.

“We represent a continuum of political ideology and have come together because we know most Texans have a strong desire for common sense reform to protect our children,” they said. “As mayors, we believe the legislature and executive leaders can come together to find the right solutions for Texas.”

The letter also asks Abbott to place the following reforms on the legislative agenda.

  • Requiring universal background checks for gun purchases.
  • Increasing the age to purchase assault weapons in Texas to 21.
  • Passing “red flag” laws to identify threats before shootings.
  • Boosting mental health support funding.
  • Training and properly equipping school safety officers.

Texas isn’t among the 19 U.S. states to enact “red flag” laws, which prevent people at risk of harming themselves or others from purchasing firearms.

In addition to Nirenberg, the letter is signed by Austin Mayor Steve Adler, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker, among others.

As always, I appreciate the effort. And also as always, I fully expect Greg Abbott to cover his ears and start singing “Baby Shark” or whatever it is he does to self-soothe these days, because it ain’t gonna happen. You probably didn’t pay much attention to the fascistic shitshow known as the Texas Republican Convention from last week, but Greg Abbott did. That’s who he’s listening to (and deathly afraid of), not a bunch of Democrats and mayors. The Chron and the Dallas Observer have more.

Our electric car charging stations future

Lots more are coming.

Texas is planning to add enough electric vehicle charging stations throughout the state to support 1 million electric vehicles with dozens of new stations to allow for easier long-distance travel.

In a draft plan released this month, the Texas Department of Transportation broke down a five-year plan to create a network of chargers throughout the state, starting along main corridors and interstate highways before building stations in rural areas.

The plan is to have charging stations every 50 miles along most non-business interstate routes.

In most other areas in the state, there will be charging stations within 70 miles, according to the plan. Each station is designed to have multiple stalls so there will likely be one available whenever someone stops to charge.

The chargers will be high-powered at 150kW, able to bring most electric vehicles from 10% to 80% in about half an hour, according to the report.

The funding is coming from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed last year, which is estimated to allocate about $408 million over five years to Texas for the purpose of expanding its electric vehicle charging network. No funds from the state budget will be used. Nationally, the goal is to create a network of 500,000 convenient and reliable electric vehicle chargers by 2030. In total from the infrastructure act, Texas is expected to receive about $35.44 billion over five years for roads, bridges, pipes, ports, broadband access and other projects.

[…]

Chandra Bhat, a University of Texas transportation engineering professor and the director of the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Center on Data-Supported Transportation Operations and Planning, said the additional charging stations are a welcome upgrade to Texas transportation. Some of Bhat’s research has been funded by TxDOT.

Bhat said there are several barriers to electric vehicle adoption by consumers: the upfront cost, anxiety over how far a driver can travel and the wait times for charging.

This new plan addresses range anxiety by providing many options only 50 miles apart — however, it doesn’t address cost or fully address wait times, he said. Although the planned chargers will be high speed, it still takes around half an hour, he said. A driver might not know how long they may have to wait if someone else is already using the stalls.

That uncertainty can cause consumers to pass on purchasing electric vehicles altogether, he said.

This is a good thing. There aren’t many electric cars in Texas right now, but the number is growing, and making it easier to charge them will help people overcome whatever concerns they have in considering them. I mean, with gas prices what they are right now, who wouldn’t be thinking about going electric?

Monkeypox in the Houston area

Was bound to happen sooner or later.

Two people in the region have tested positive for monkeypox, a viral disease with typically mild symptoms, public health officials with the City of Houston and Harris County announced Saturday.

The Houston Health Department said a Houston resident who had recently traveled internationally had a confirmed case of monkeypox. Hours later, Harris County Public Health said an out-of-state resident who had visited Harris County recently also had a confirmed case. The out-of-state resident is already out of the region and back in their home state.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Texas Department of State Health Services have said the virus does not present a risk to the general public. The CDC’s website says monkeypox is “rarely fatal” and the risk of transmission in the United States is low.

Symptoms can include fever, headache, muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, chills and exhaustion. It’s most notable symptom is a rash that can resemble pimples or blisters, the CDC said. It can spread from person-to-person through direct contact with the rash or body fluids. It can also spread by respiratory secretions during prolonged, face-to-face contact or during intimate physical contact.

As of Saturday afternoon, three cases had already been recorded in Texas — not including the two reported in Houston that day — and 114 have been logged nationwide since the first case this year was identified in mid-May.

See here for the background. As noted, it’s not something to freak out about, but do be aware of it and exercise reasonable caution. Mostly, if you have reason to think you might have been infected, contact your local public health department and do what they tell you to do.

Uvalde versus DPS

Someone’s not happy.

Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin on Tuesday accused state authorities of selectively releasing information about last month’s school shooting to scapegoat local law enforcement and intentionally leaving out details about the state’s response to the massacre.

New details emerged this week about the timeline of the shooting based on surveillance video from the school’s hallways and a transcript of officers’ body cameras. The records show that officers might not have attempted to open the doors of the classrooms where the gunman had holed up with victims. During a state Senate committee held earlier Tuesday, Texas Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told lawmakers that law enforcement’s response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure.”

McLaughlin lambasted McCraw for what he described as a selective release of information about the investigation, focusing on blaming local law enforcement and leaving out the role of McCraw’s agency during the shooting.

“McCraw has continued to, whether you want to call it, lie, leak … mislead or misstate information in order to distance his own troopers and rangers from the response,” McLaughlin said Tuesday evening.

McLaughlin said none of the entities with information about the investigation into the May 24 shooting at Robb Elementary School — DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI — have briefed Uvalde city officials about their findings.

McLaughlin said he had been asked to refrain from sharing details about the investigation while it was ongoing but said Tuesday he would now start releasing that information as it became available to city officials.

“The gloves are off. If we know it, we will share it,” he said.

McLaughlin’s comments at a special City Council meeting seemed to contradict a press release issued just hours before, in which the mayor had said city officials would refrain from commenting on the investigation “or reacting to every story attributed to unnamed sources or sources close to the investigation.”

I mean, Steve McCraw put all the blame on Pete Arredondo, so it’s not a big surprise that Uvalde’s mayor didn’t care for that. As a reminder, McLaughlin is the guy who got all mad at Beto O’Rourke when O’Rourke interrupted Greg Abbott’s press conference – you know, the one he held just before he headed out for a big fundraiser – to demand that Abbott do something in response to the massacre. This was back when Abbott and DPS were praising Arredondo and Uvalde police for their response, which is to say, back before any of the truth started coming out. McCraw, meanwhile, is a longtime hatchet man for Abbott and Rick Perry before him, and deserves exactly zero benefit of the doubt. This is a fight where you can root for both sides to lose with a clear conscience.

The real issue here is the coordinated resistance to releasing data about the police response to the mass shooting. This is the appropriate response to that.

Sen. Roland Gutierrez

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, who represents Uvalde, is suing the Texas Department of Public Safety over records related to the deadly shooting at Robb Elementary last month.

“In the wake of the senseless tragedy, the people of Uvalde and Texas have demanded answers from their government. To date, they have been met with lies, misstatements, and shifts of blame,” Gutierrez said in a lawsuit filed Wednesday.

State and local Uvalde officials have fought the release of records that could provide clarity around the botched emergency response to the shooting that killed 19 children and two educators. Law enforcement responding to the shooting waited more than an hour on the scene before breaking into the classroom to kill the shooter.

Gutierrez said he filed an open records request on May 31 for documentation about police presence and ballistics at the shooting, and he still has not received a response. Per state law, DPS had 10 business days to either respond or make a case to the attorney general.

[…

Abbott’s office on Tuesday said all information related to the shooting has been shared with the public or is in the expedited process of being released. Full results of the ongoing investigation by the Texas Rangers and the FBI will also be made public, according to the governor’s office.

That same day, Uvalde Mayor Don McLaughlin said city officials have been left out of briefings related to the investigation from entities, such as DPS, the Texas Legislature, the Uvalde County District Attorney’s office and the FBI.

Sen. Gutierrez’s press release is here and a copy of the lawsuit is here. I cannot wait to see what response the defendants make to this. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District police Chief Pete Arredondo has been placed on administrative leave by the district.

Cornyn’s gun control bill passes the Senate

Happy to have had my cynicism proven wrong.

Exactly four weeks after a teenage gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle massacred 19 elementary schoolers and two teachers in Uvalde, the U.S. Senate voted 64-34 Tuesday night to advance a bipartisan compromise that, if enacted, would become the first major legislation on gun safety since 1994.

The legislation does not restrict any rights of existing gun owners — a nonstarter for Senate Republicans. Instead, it would enhance background checks for gun purchasers younger than 21; make it easier to remove guns from people threatening to kill themselves or others, as well as people who have committed domestic violence; clarify who needs to register as a federal firearms dealer; and crack down on illegal gun trafficking, including so-called straw purchases, which occur when the actual buyer of a firearm uses another person to execute the paperwork to buy on their behalf.

The legislation includes $11 billion for mental health services and $2 billion for community-based antiviolence programs. It also includes money to help young people access mental health services via telemedicine, money for more school-based mental health centers and support for suicide hotlines.

Republican John Cornyn, the senior senator from Texas, who was formally rebuked by the Republican Party of Texas on Saturday evening for taking part in the bipartisan negotiations, said he felt confident that senators would see the deal as a reasonable compromise. If it holds up, that would itself be an extraordinary achievement after years in which mass shootings have devastated American communities with numbing reality.

“This is an issue that divides much of the country, depending on where you live, and maybe divides people living in the same household. But I think we have found some areas where there’s space for compromise and we’ve also found that there are some red lines and no middle ground,” Cornyn said on the floor of the Senate. “We’ve talked, we’ve debated, we’ve disagreed and finally we’ve reached an agreement among the four of us but obviously this is not something that is going to become law or fail to become law because of a small group of senators. The truth is we had a larger group of 20 senators, 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats, come together and sign on to an agreed set of principles, and I believe that as the senators see the text that supports those principles, they will see we’ve tried our best to be true to what those agreed principles should be.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the bill. It still has to pass the House, but I expect that will happen. This bill started out as modest and got watered down further – I mean seriously, we couldn’t just raise the minimum age for buying gun to the same as it is for buying a beer? – and yet it’s the first real advance in a long time. It remains the definition of “better than nothing”, but we’re so used to nothing it feels like more.

To be sure, there are issues.

There’s still a fundamental problem on the Democrats’ part in getting here: They ceded to Republican arguments that the problem is mental health and school safety and not simply the fact that the country is awash in deadly weapons. The extra funding in the bill for mental health support is a good thing, but a good thing that could have been achieved through Medicaid expansion to the hold-out states without pushing the myth that mental illness is intrinsically tied to violence and further stigmatizing it. It accepts school massacres as inevitable by beefing up school security—which does not make Black and brown students safer, since they’re often targets of abuse from cops at school—and creating programs for trauma support in schools for after the attacks occur.

There are some improvements, though none is without a downside. It enhances background checks for 18 to 21 year olds seeking to buy assault weapons. That imposes a waiting period on them from three to 10 days,  which could prevent some impulse massacres. But that provision sunsets in 10 years, ending in 2032.

The bill includes $750 million that could help states that don’t have red flag or crisis intervention laws implement them. These laws allow for courts to order weapons removed from people determined to be a danger to themselves or others. The grant money, however, is in the form of Byrne JAG grants and can be used for a variety of law enforcement and judicial programs, including mental heath courts, drug courts, and veteran courts. This is a win for Republicans whose states don’t have and won’t pass red flag laws. They want their states to still be able to access the money, so other “crisis intervention” programs will receive it and guns don’t necessarily have to be removed from people in crisis.

The loophole that allows dating partners convicted of domestic violence to keep their guns is partially closed. Current law only bars individuals who have committed violence against a spouse, live-in partner, or someone with whom they share children from owning guns. The ban has been expanded to anyone convicted of domestic violence against someone they have a “continuing serious relationship of a romantic or intimate nature” with, including “recent former” dating partners. It does not stipulate what “recent” means. It is not retroactive, so survivors from past attacks can’t petition to have their abuser’s weapons taken away. It also allows people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence to get their guns back in five years if they don’t commit other crimes.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline calls it “partially closing” the loophole, and a “significant step,” but advocates warn that there’s still a loophole in the “recent” language. “He doesn’t need to be ‘recent’ to cause harm,” Susan B. Sorenson, a University of Pennsylvania professor who studies family violence, told The Washington Post. “Feelings, not all of them positive, live on long after a relationship has ended.”

One of the more significant parts of this bill just flat won’t mean anything in a lot of states.

But even if it passes, federal funding for the bill’s most-discussed provision is unlikely to persuade many of the 30 states that don’t have red flag laws—most of them Republican-led—to adopt them. Some of these states have repeatedly voted down red flag legislation; at least one has formally outlawed their implementation. This means the federal gun control bill, aimed at reining in the epidemic of mass shootings, could have limited impact in a large swath of the country.

[…]

In a deadlocked Congress that has struggled to pass bills to keep kids fed and local governments running, the Uvalde shooting spurred momentum for this package to come together, though it falls short of many Democrats’ goals. The House, with its stronger Democratic majority, was able to pass a slate of gun control measures immediately after the Texas shooting that would have blocked semiautomatic rifle sales to people under the age of 21, created stricter gun storage regulations, and outlawed the sale of magazines holding more than 15 rounds of ammunition. That package stood no chance in the evenly divided Senate, where most bills have to garner the support of at least 60 senators because of the filibuster. An idea to create a national red flag law emerged in the hours immediately following the Uvalde shooting, but Democratic lawmakers saw both logistical challenges to that proposal and political ones.

Thus, optional funding for states to create their own red flag laws seemed like the safest bet to get anything across the finish line with Republicans wary of taking any action on guns, lest they lose their re-elections. Tellingly, several of the GOP senators in the bipartisan Uvalde-response contingent are retiring.

But while the incentive money could be used to help states that already have red flag laws, half a dozen state lawmakers and experts tell Mother Jones it is unlikely federal funding will persuade states that don’t already have red flag laws to create them.

This includes the state where tragedy prompted the bipartisan legislative framework in the first place: Texas. “I don’t believe any federal requirements or incentive would get Texas to move on this,” says Texas state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat in favor of stricter gun control.

He draws a comparison to Texas, joined by 11 other historically red states, opting not to take federal funds in order to expand Medicaid healthcare access to more poor residents: “If we’re not willing to take tremendous amounts of federal money, at no expense to us, in order to insure our uninsured residents, then I don’t see any daylight for financial incentives to get us to adopt a red flag law.”

I haven’t seen any discussion of what kind of legal challenges might get filed against this bill, assuming it does pass as now I believe it will. You know the NRA, which opposes the Cornyn/Murphy bill, will not sit quietly, and there are plenty of wingnut Attorneys General and Trump judges out there. That’s an issue for another day, I suppose. For now, be glad we got what we got, and let’s keep working to make it possible to get more in the future. The Chron has more.

Cuellar officially wins CD28 runoff

All over now.

Rep. Henry Cuellar

A recount has confirmed U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, as the winner of his hard-fought primary runoff, according to the Texas Democratic Party.

The recount wrapped up Tuesday, and Cuellar picked up eight votes, defeating progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros by 289 votes overall, the party said.

“As I said on election night, ‘the margin will hold’- and it has not only held but grown,” Cuellar said in a statement earlier Tuesday. “I am proud to be your Democratic nominee for the 28th District of Texas.”

Cisneros conceded in a statement, saying she will “keep fighting to create a more progressive and accountable Democratic Party this year and work to turn Texas blue in November.”

Cuellar’s Democratic primary runoff was one of two in South Texas that had gone to recounts. In the other runoff, for the open seat in the 15th Congressional District, Michelle Vallejo remained the winner after a recount wrapped up last week.

Cuellar led Cisneros by 177 votes after election night nearly a month ago. His lead grew to 281 votes by the time the final ballots were counted.

Cuellar had repeatedly declared victory, starting on election night, and dismissed the notion that a recount would change the outcome.

See here for the previous update, and here for the TDP statement. Not much to add, so let’s get on with it for November.

Where are we with the Paxton whistleblower lawsuit?

We are in the familiar position of waiting for the drawn-out appeals process to conclude. Pull up a chair and make yourself comfortable.

Best mugshot ever

The appeals process has grown a bit longer in state Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to dismiss a whistleblower lawsuit by four top agency officials who claim they were improperly fired in 2020 after accusing him of accepting bribes and other misconduct.

Paxton turned to the Texas Supreme Court 7½ months ago after two lower courts rejected his bids to toss out the lawsuit.

Last month, the Supreme Court told Paxton and the whistleblowers to provide justices with a deeper dive into the legal issues involved, kicking off a second round of legal briefing that was recently extended when the court granted Paxton’s request for an extra month to file his expanded brief.

Paxton’s brief is now due July 27, and although the court told Paxton that additional extensions aren’t likely to be granted, the move means the final brief isn’t due until Aug. 31 at the earliest.

That moves the case into election season as Paxton seeks a third four-year term against a Democrat, Rochelle Garza, who has made questioning Paxton’s ethics a campaign centerpiece. Three opponents tried the same tactic against Paxton in this year’s GOP primaries without success.

The timing also puts the case close to the two-year anniversary of when eight top officials of the attorney general’s office met with FBI agents and other investigators to relate their suspicions that Paxton had misused the powers of his office to help a friend and political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul.

See here and here for the most recent updates. Paxton’s argument is that as an elected rather than appointed official, he doesn’t count as a “public official” under the Texas Whistleblower Act, so the employees who fired him have no grounds to sue. He has other arguments, but that’s the main thing that will be of interest to the Supreme Court. I’m sure you can surmise what I think, but if you want to dig deeper you can click the Texas Whistleblower Act tag link and review other posts in this genre.

Just as a reminder, we are also waiting for the FBI to take some kind of action in their investigation of the Ken Paxton-Nate Paul dealings, the State Bar complaint against Paxton for his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election should have a hearing sometime later this summer, and of course there’s the granddaddy of them all, the original state charges that Paxton engaged in securities fraud, which are now eight years old. He’s sure been a busy boy, hasn’t he?

DPS pins the blame on Arredondo

Look out for that bus!

Department of Public Safety Director Steve McCraw told a state Senate committee Tuesday that the law enforcement response to the Uvalde school shooting was an “abject failure” and police could have stopped the shooter at Robb Elementary School three minutes after arriving were it not for the indecisiveness of the on-scene commander, who placed the lives of officers before those of children.

McCraw said the inexplicable conduct by Uvalde school district police Chief Pete Arredondo was antithetical to two decades of police training since the Columbine High School massacre, which dictates that officers confront active shooters as quickly as possible.

“The officers had weapons; the children had none,” McCraw said. “The officers had body armor; the children had none. The officers had training; the subject had none. One hour, 14 minutes and 8 seconds. That’s how long children waited, and the teachers waited, in Room 111 to be rescued.”

The revelations detailed by McCraw completed a remarkable shift in the police response narrative state officials have given since the May 24 shooting. Twenty-seven days after Gov. Greg Abbott said the shooting “could have been worse” but for officers who showed “amazing courage by running toward gunfire,” his state police director described stunning police incompetence that bordered on cowardice.

[…]

McCraw said though the state police are a far larger agency than the six-person Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District department, Arredondo was the rightful incident commander because he was the most senior first responder who had immediate jurisdiction over the district’s campuses. He said Arredondo could have transferred command to another agency, such as state troopers who arrived, but never did so.

Acting against the orders of an incident commander during an emergency can be dangerous and chaotic, McCraw said, responding to a question about why his troopers did not take charge. But he said the failure of one police agency means all law enforcement performed unacceptably that day.

The story notes the comparison of what Arredondo had said to more recent reporting; you can also see a list of places where the two accounts differ in this subsequent Trib story. One almost feels a little sorry for Arredondo. The main question I have at this point is what if anything are we going to do about this? Forget about adopting any kind of gun safety measures, which Greg Abbott will not do, are we interested in any laws that might prevent, or at least disincentivize, police behavior like what we got in Uvalde when the next mass shooting (whether at a school or not) occurs? One possibility I can think of that also will never pass through a Republican legislative chamber is to dial back qualified immunity for law enforcement officers, at least in this kind of circumstance. If the next Pete Arredondo has to worry about getting his ass sued for taking no action at the next gun massacre, maybe he’ll be more inclined towards action. Whether that might end up as a net positive or not, I can’t say. But it’s at least something we could talk about doing, rather than just talk. And someone else, maybe even someone with actual expertise in the matter, may have better ideas. Reform Austin and the Chron have more.

Of course we don’t do nearly enough for mental health

Because Republicans rush to talk about “mental health” every time there’s another mass shooting, it’s important to remember that their response to meeting the demand for mental health, in schools and elsewhere, has been completely inadequate.

Tucker’s was the kind of positive outcome state lawmakers pictured in 2019, when they worked to increase mental health resources for students after the mass shooting at Santa Fe High School that left eight students and two teachers dead.

Access to those services again is at the forefront as Republican leaders respond to last week’s massacre in Uvalde.

Mental health experts say the 2019 initiatives, including hundreds of millions of dollars more in funding, have only begun to address Texas’ mental health crisis, and that the state does little to track even their limited outcomes. Many school districts are left to fund their own interventions.

There is little evidence that mental illnesses cause mass shootings or that people diagnosed with them are more likely to commit violent crimes. Advocates also warn that scapegoating mental illness can stigmatize the wide spectrum of people living with psychological disorders.

“It’s absolutely something that should be addressed — but it’s not a panacea,” said Greg Hansch, executive director for the Texas chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “It’s more of a secondary or tertiary factor.”

Gov. Greg Abbott and other top Republicans have pointed to the shortage of mental health resources, especially in rural Texas, as a key factor in the Uvalde shooting, while rejecting calls for stricter gun laws.

The 18-year-old gunman, who killed 19 children and two adults, legally purchased the assault-style weapon he used in the shooting spree and had “no known mental health history,” Abbott said.

Even with the 2019 reforms, mental health care remains vastly underfunded in Texas. That largely is because of budget cuts two decades ago and years of stagnant funding to community mental health services. Today, Texas provides less access to care than any other state, and nearly three quarters of children and teenagers with major depression do not get treated, the highest rate in the country, according to the nonprofit group Mental Health America.

Without a direct source of state funding for mental health care, school districts in Texas are forced to rely on a patchwork of state and federal programs, most of which do not guarantee that money will flow to mental health services for students or training for teachers. As a result, only a tiny fraction of Texas’ roughly 1,200 public school and open-enrollment charter districts have enough counselors, social workers and psychologists to meet professionally recommended student-to-provider ratios, according to a recent Houston Chronicle analysis.

Central to lawmakers’ 2019 response was a new mental health consortium overseen by the University of Texas System, with a $99 million initial investment for programs focused on children and teens, including virtual visits between child psychologists and students referred by school staff. The Legislature also increased funding to Communities in Schools, which places staff directly on campuses and had employed Tucker’s social workers.

In addition, lawmakers required school officials to form “threat assessment teams” to identify students who may pose a risk of violence, and put forth another $100 million to school districts every two years that can be used to hire security personnel, provide mental health services and buy physical upgrades, such as metal detectors and bullet-resistant glass.

In the first year, however, just 12 percent of Texas school districts reported using any of the funds for mental health support, while 8 percent said the money was used for behavioral health services, according to a survey by the Texas School Safety Center at Texas State University.

A task force later found the Texas Education Agency was not collecting meaningful data on mental health programs in schools, including the number of students they serve or “any standard outcomes” they measure. The Legislature responded with a bill last year to bolster reporting, but the agency has yet to release any results.

Annalee Gulley, director of public policy and government affairs for Mental Health America of Greater Houston, said lawmakers have taken encouraging steps to support mental health but should have paired the funding with more direction for school officials on how to spend it.

“A critical lesson learned in the years following the Santa Fe High School shooting is funding alone is not enough,” Gulley said. “Instead, the state must connect financial resources to guidance on the most effective strategies to support the safety and well-being of educators and students following such a catastrophic event.”

Much of the focus since 2019 has been on the telehealth effort known as TCHATT, including more than $50 million in added pandemic funding last year. The program has been slow to expand, however, serving only about 6,000 students so far. By comparison, Communities in Schools serves 115,000 students annually on a $35 million budget. There are more than 5 million students in Texas.

So yeah, still a long way to go, and that’s before we get to things like the challenges of hiring all of the counselors that would be needed in Texas’ 1200 school districts and thousands of schools. And this story never mentions the need to expand Medicaid, which would be the single biggest thing that we could do in Texas to improve mental health care for everyone, not just for students. I started the draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, before the Cornyn/Murphy gang got what passes for traction on a bipartisan framework for a gun control bill (still no bill, and the framework remains under negotiation, but there’s an agreement to come to an agreement, and that’s the progress in question), and since then we’ve had that, more ridiculous talk about all of the non-gun things that actually cause mass shootings, the lunatics at the Texas GOP convention basically accusing Cornyn of treason, and a bunch more people getting shot and killed, but we haven’t had much talk about mental health. As with gun control itself, the Republicans and their gun enablers will be happy to just let that fade away, until the next time it has to be trotted out as an excuse for the latest mass casualty.

What were Uvalde police actually doing at Robb Elementary?

I’ll say it again: The more we learn about the law enforcement response to the Uvalde massacre, the worse it looks.

Surveillance footage shows that police never tried to open a door to two classrooms at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde in the 77 minutes between the time a gunman entered the rooms and massacred 21 people and officers finally breached the door and killed him, according to a law enforcement source close to the investigation.

Investigators believe the 18-year-old gunman who killed 19 children and two teachers at the school on May 24 could not have locked the door to the connected classrooms from the inside, according to the source.

All classroom doors at Robb Elementary are designed to lock automatically when they close and can only be locked or unlocked from the outside with a key, the source said. Police might have assumed the door was locked. Yet the surveillance footage suggests gunman Salvador Ramos, 18, was able to open the door to classroom 111 and enter with assault-style rifle — perhaps because the door malfunctioned, the source said.

Another door led to classroom 112.

Ramos entered Robb Elementary at 11:33 a.m. that day through an exterior door that a teacher had pulled shut but that didn’t lock automatically as it was supposed to, indicating another malfunction in door locks at the school.

Police finally breached the door to classroom 111 and killed Ramos at 12:50 p.m. Whether the door was unlocked the entire time remains under investigation.

Regardless, officers had access the entire time to a “halligan” — a crowbar-like tool that could have opened the door to the classrooms even if it was locked, the source said.

[…]

Days after the massacre, Col. Steven McCraw, director of the Texas Department of Public Safety, said at a news conference that “each door can lock from the inside” and that when Ramos went in, “he locked the door.” That information was preliminary, the source said, and further investigation has yielded new revelations about the door.

That’s the last paragraph of the story, which was published on Saturday with a note at the end that it’s developing and will be updated. Late yesterday, the Trib published this:

For this article, the Tribune reviewed a timeline of events compiled by law enforcement, plus surveillance footage and transcripts of radio traffic and phone calls from the day of the shooting. The details were confirmed by a senior official at the Department of Public Safety. The investigation is still in the early stages, and the understanding of what happened could still change as video records are synched and enhanced. But current records and footage show a well-equipped group of local officers entered the school almost immediately that day and then pulled back once the shooter began firing from inside the classroom. Then they waited for more than an hour to reengage.

“They had the tools,” said Terry Nichols, a former Seguin police chief and active-shooter expert. “Tactically, there’s lots of different ways you could tackle this. … But it takes someone in charge, in front, making and executing decisions, and that simply did not happen.”

Here are some key findings from these records and materials:

  • No security footage from inside the school showed police officers attempting to open the doors to classrooms 111 and 112, which were connected by an adjoining door. Arredondo told the Tribune that he tried to open one door and another group of officers tried to open another, but that the door was reinforced and impenetrable. Those attempts were not caught in the footage reviewed by the Tribune. Some law enforcement officials are skeptical that the doors were ever locked.
  • Within the first minutes of the law enforcement response, an officer said the Halligan (a firefighting tool that is also sometimes spelled hooligan) was on site. It wasn’t brought into the school until an hour after the first officers entered the building. Authorities didn’t use it and instead waited for keys.
  • Officers had access to four ballistic shields inside the school during the standoff with the gunman, according to a law enforcement transcript. The first arrived 58 minutes before officers stormed the classrooms. The last arrived 30 minutes before.
  • Multiple Department of Public Safety officers — up to eight, at one point — entered the building at various times while the shooter was holed up. Many quickly left to pursue other duties, including evacuating children, after seeing the number of officers already there. At least one of the officers expressed confusion and frustration about why the officers weren’t breaching the classroom, but was told that no order to do so had been given.
  • At least some officers on the scene seemed to believe that Arredondo was in charge inside the school, and at times Arredondo seemed to be issuing orders such as directing officers to evacuate students from other classrooms. That contradicts Arredondo’s assertion that he did not believe he was running the law enforcement response. Arredondo’s lawyer, George E. Hyde, did not respond to requests for comment Monday.

You can read the rest and get mad all over again. It seems clear why there’s such a wave of resistance to releasing official information about what happened in Uvalde. We can at least be glad that there are plenty of people who will leak info to the press, because otherwise we’d still be talking about what a bunch of damn heroes these guys were supposed to have been.

“We all marched into Stuckey’s, one hundred thousand strong”

I wish her all the best.

[Stephanie] Stuckey, 56, is in the third year of a turnaround for Stuckey’s, which, at its 1960s peak, boasted 368 travel centers along highways in 40 states. Their teal, steeply arched roofs were visible from afar, and their pecan log rolls were a staple of family vacations.

The company also owned a manufacturing plant, a trucking division and some 4,000 billboards that beckoned drivers with the cheesy come-ons for clean restrooms, Texaco gasoline and souvenirs for the kids. A sort of Buc-ee’s before Buc-ee’s.

That heyday was well in the rearview mirror by the time Stephanie Stuckey bought the company in 2019. The few branded stores remaining were owned by licensees. The handful of original buildings that weren’t torn down exist today mostly as “ghost stores,” still recognizable by the roofs but repurposed as everything from a quilt shop in Pennsylvania to a strip club in Florida.

An observant traveler can spot one just off the Gulf Freeway in La Marque and another at the northwest corner of Interstate 45 and Texas 21 in Madisonville, catty-corner from a bustling Buc-ee’s.

Stuckey paid $500,000 for the company, which by the time she took over had been reduced to two employees in the corporate office, three sales reps and a handful of workers in a rented warehouse. It closed the year $133,000 in the red.

Stuckey quickly set a new course, focusing on pecan treats and the nostalgic power of her family name rather than on building new brick-and-mortar convenience stores. She revved up online candy sales, which have grown by 850 percent. The roster of retail clients has swelled to 5,000 locations, including truck stops and grocery stores.

In the summer of 2020, Stuckey’s acquired the snack company Front Porch Pecans and brought on its founder, a third-generation pecan farmer with more business experience, as president of the combined company. The following January, it purchased a candy factory in Wrens, Ga., to bring production of pecan log rolls, divinity and other candies back in house.

Stuckey, who remains as chief executive officer, revived the original recipes developed by her grandmother and boasts that most artificial ingredients are gone, replaced by real chocolate and vanilla.

“We produce the best pecan snacks you will taste, period,” she said.

I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever stopped at a Stuckey’s. The main road trip I used to take as a young single dude was between Houston and San Antonio, and the place I usually stopped was what was then called Grumpy’s in Flatonia; it had a McDonald’s, which meant it had clean bathrooms, plus a big gas station and a hotel attached if for some reason you couldn’t make it the hundred more miles to whichever big city you were aiming for. There was also a small no-name place on the westbound side that had dirtier bathrooms but were a quicker in and out when I was going that direction. The McDonald’s and the gas station and the hotels (two now) are still there, but the Grumpy’s iconography is long gone, while the smaller place is now somewhat bigger. I usually aim for the Buc-ee’s in Luling now anyway.

But I had heard of Stuckey’s, perhaps mostly from the Austin Lounge Lizards song “The War Between The States” (from which this post title comes), and I’m sure I drove past a few back in the day. That also led me to this bit of linguistic controversy from the article:

After wrapping up her tour of the Beer Can House, Stephanie Stuckey popped into the gift shop and emerged wearing a turquoise ball cap she’d bought.

“I love swag,” she said, beaming.

About 90 minutes later at the Omni Houston, smartly attired in a cream-colored dress, she addressed a crowd of accountants and blue-blazered students from a charter school supported by the luncheon’s host, GLO Certified Public Accountants. The firm bought 500 shrink-wrapped tins of Stuckey’s treats to get her there.

Her delivery was crisp, with a touch of Southern humor as she instructed the audience on the preferred pronunciation of “pecan.” (PEE-can, not puh-CON)

As I said on Twitter, I pronounced it PEE-can coming from New York, but was firmly told I was wrong after arriving in Houston. I’ll leave it to you to fight it out in the comments.

So how’s that bipartisan agreement on a framework for a gun control deal going?

Let’s check in.

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn arrived at the Texas GOP convention in Houston Friday to address his role as chief negotiator for a bipartisan gun package head on — and was promptly booed for it.

“No gun control!” the crowd jeered, even as Cornyn reiterated popular Republican talking points — that Republicans would vote out President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Audience members shouted back, “You too!”

Cornyn was speaking to the state’s most dedicated Republicans, many of whom are more conservative than the general electorate. And none were shy in voicing their opposition to the gun deal, which emerged just weeks after a gunman killed 19 children and two teachers at a Uvalde elementary school.

The senator defended his role in the negotiations, saying the compromise would not impact law-abiding Texans. The package, which is still in its early stages, would expand background checks, introduce greater scrutiny of young buyers and encourage states to pass “red flag” laws that temporarily remove firearms from people deemed a danger to themselves or others.

It also includes billions of dollars for mental health resources and school safety plans.

“Let’s see if we can find a better way of enforcing existing law and keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally ill,” Cornyn said. “But I will not, under any circumstance, support new restrictions for law-abiding gun owners. That will always be my red line. And despite what some of you may have heard, the framework that we are working on is consistent with that red line.”

The audience members were not impressed, chanting “no red flags!”

That’s always the problem with bipartisan deals, isn’t it? They involve Republicans.

Look, whether this is a matter of Cornyn’s legacy or it’s an old familiar game of perpetually moving goalposts, one fact remains: Nothing is ever assured in the US Senate. I mean, we don’t even have a bill here. Maybe we’ll get there, and maybe what eventually passes, if indeed something passes – the default in the Senate is always for nothing to happen – we can talk about what it means and what it might do. Until then, it’s vaporware. It’s more advanced vaporware than we’ve seen before, and it’s easy to feel optimistic about that. But until we have a bill and a cloture vote, that’s all it is. Reform Austin, the Chron, and Stace, who was properly in touch with his inner cynic from the beginning, have more.

Fifth Circuit upholds dismissal of Methodist vaccine mandate lawsuit

Good.

A federal appeals court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a lawsuit challenging Houston Methodist’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, which last year thrust the hospital into the national spotlight as the first healthcare system in the U.S. to require the shots for its employees.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of 117 Houston Methodist employees who refused to abide by the policy, was dismissed in June 2021 by U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes, who at the time decried arguments comparing the requirement to those made under Nazi Germany.

In its opinion, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals said it affirmed the original ruling “because plaintiffs do not demonstrate any error in the district court’s judgment on the arguments made in that court but instead make an entirely new argument on appeal.”

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Jared Woodfill, said “this battle is far from over.”

“We believe employment should not be conditioned on your willingness to take an experimental shot,” he said in an email to the Chronicle. “During oral argument, the court indicated that one way to potentially address this case of first impression is to take it back to state court. We will pursue every legal avenue available to our clients, including taking this case to the United States Supreme Court.”

Woodfill added that a “companion case” has been filed in Harris County, though records of that lawsuit could not be found by press time.

[…]

The lawsuit brought three separate claims of wrongful termination, alleging violations of state and federal law. In their appeal, the plaintiffs “pivoted” from focusing on the federal law violations to state law, the appeals court notes in its opinion.

The plaintiffs “now even equivocate on whether federal law supports their claim,” according to the opinion. “Federal law does not, and the district court did not err in dismissing plaintiffs’ claim.”

See here for the previous update. As noted at the time, Texas state law isn’t exactly employee-friendly, so the odds of a better result for the vaccine refuseniks seems quite low. But hey, they have Jared Woodfill, Super Genius, on their side. What could possibly go wrong?