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Texas Disaster Act

More injunctions against the mask mandate bans

Keep ’em coming.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTx does what SCOTx does

Room service, as always.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And second:

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

UPDATE: Interesting:

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

UPDATE: This too:

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

And it’s off to SCOTx for the mandate stuff

It’s where it was always headed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harris County gets its restraining order against Abbott

Step one.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A legislator’s view of the mask-ban mandate

State Rep. John Turner pens an op-ed that sums up the arguments for defying Greg Abbott’s executive order banning mask mandates.

Rep. John Turner

The governor’s attempted ban on local decision-making is set out in his most recent executive order of July 29. That document not only purports to prohibit requiring masks in schools, but also to suspend any existing laws that would allow any local entity or official to make this decision. The governor ostensibly relies on the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which gives a governor the ability to declare a state of disaster and then assume certain extraordinary powers to respond to that disaster.

But is prohibiting local action on masking in schools within the governor’s powers, even under the Disaster Act?

The text and structure of the Disaster Act strongly suggest that the special powers the governor has during a disaster declaration must be exercised to actually respond to the declared disaster. The act allows a governor to suspend certain statutes, for example, only if compliance with the statute “would in any way prevent, hinder, or delay necessary action in coping with” the disaster.

Here, the declared disaster is the COVID-19 pandemic. At least in this legislator’s view, it is hard to see how a law or rule that allows masking mandates by local entities is preventing or hindering necessary action in coping with that disaster. In fact, the opposite is true: the scientific consensus is that mask requirements help control the spread of this deadly virus. At a minimum, statewide prohibition of mask requirements is not “necessary action” to counter COVID-19.

It is true that, earlier in the pandemic, courts held that certain statewide COVID-19 measures ordered by the governor could override conflicting local rules adopted by cities or counties. But even if those cases were correctly decided, they came at a time when the governor himself was ordering meaningful measures in response to the crisis, such as occupancy limits for businesses and restrictions on gatherings. Schools were also requiring masks.

Then, the governor was arguably attempting to standardize a statewide response to the pandemic. Today, that is no longer the case — unless one considers preventing others from responding to be a response.

It might be reasonable for a governor to seek to impose some uniformity on disaster measures. But the Disaster Act shouldn’t be read to allow a governor to declare a disaster, only to focus his newly acquired powers on preventing local governments from dealing with that disaster.

This is basically the argument that have been made so far in the various lawsuits filed so far challenging the mandate ban in the executive order, as well as my own intuition. Some form of “the governor doesn’t actually have the authority to do that”, based in turn on “the law he’s using to justify his actions doesn’t say what he claims it says” is what you’d expect. Turner also notes that school districts across the state impose all kinds of requirements on students for what they can and cannot wear, generally without controversy, so why would including a face mask in those requirements be any different?

All this sounds sensible, but it will come down to what the courts do and don’t accept. That could hinge on a specific word or phrase in the law, or the omission of a specific word or phrase, or it could just be what the courts say that the law says. Really, I just mean one court, the Supreme Court, because that’s ultimately where all this is going. At least we have some idea of what they’ll be fighting over.

We do agree that “Greg Abbott” and “disaster” go together well

I just have one question about this.

Over the past year, Gov. Greg Abbott has issued disaster declarations across the state for a number of tragedies: the coronavirus pandemic that killed more than 50,000 Texans, a winter storm that left millions of people in freezing temperatures without power for days, hurricanes and floods that wiped out homes and local infrastructure.

The disaster declarations give the governor broad power to suspend state laws and regulations that hinder a jurisdiction’s recovery from a disaster and to allow the use of available resources to respond to the disaster.

Then, on May 31 the two-term Republican governor who is seeking reelection next year took the unprecedented step of declaring a disaster for 34 counties based on an increase of illegal immigration at the Texas-Mexico border. The declaration allowed Abbott to request the reallocation of $250 million of legislatively appropriated funds toward a border wall construction project pushed by his office.

“It’s extraordinarily unusual,” said Jon Taylor, professor of political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “Traditionally, it’s used for natural disasters,” he added, though state law does allow for its use for some man-made disasters.

Abbott’s move raises questions about the executive branch’s emergency powers, rekindling concerns raised during the early days of COVID-19 last year when Abbott used his broad emergency powers to enact restrictions shutting down businesses to curb the pandemic. In response, the Legislature tried without success to rein in Abbott’s authority this session.

But now, critics are questioning whether an increase in illegal immigration constitutes a disaster that merits emergency action by the governor.

State Rep. John Turner, D-Dallas, said Abbott’s use of a disaster declaration to reallocate legislatively appropriated funds to a project from his office stretches the concept of emergency authority “to its breaking point.”

“A governor should not be able to circumvent the legislative process by declaring such matters to be emergencies and then implementing whatever measures he wishes,” Turner said in a statement. “If a governor can commence such a long-term, multi-hundred-million-dollar public works project under the cover of emergency powers, it is difficult to know what the limits of those powers are.”

“I hope the Legislature will reassert its authority and resist this ill-considered action by the Governor,” he added.

See here and here for the background. My question is this: Who’s going to sue, and when will they do it? The Lege is not going to rein in Abbott – he’s not going to put that on the special session agenda, and even if he did the same Republicans who grumbled about his COVID actions are just fine with this. Filing a lawsuit is all that’s left. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t – my advice is to hire a better attorney than Jared Woodfill if you want a chance – but that’s the only avenue available at this point. It’s fine by me if there are multiple lawsuits, in both state and federal court. Just, start filing. The longer this charade goes on, the worse it’s going to get.

Another lawsuit against Abbott over emergency orders

This one is a bit more serious due to the lack of Hotze and Woodfill, but it’s still not a great way to have the debate about this issue.

Five Republican Texas lawmakers are suing Gov. Greg Abbott over the state’s $295 million COVID-19 contact tracing contract to a small, little-known company, alleging the agreement is unconstitutional because it wasn’t competitively bid and because the funds should have been appropriated by the Legislature in a special session.

In the Travis Country district court suit filed Monday, State Reps. Mike Lang, Kyle Biederman, William Zedler, Steve Toth and state Sen. Bob Hall named as defendants Abbott, the Texas Department of State Health Services and the company awarded the contract, the Frisco-based MTX Group.

Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton have defended the contract. Abbott did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawmakers are seeking a court order voiding the contract for lack of statutory authorization and deeming unconstitutional the governor’s application of the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which gives him broad powers in the case of an emergency, in granting the contract.

“The Texas Constitution requires a separation of powers, and that separation leaves policy-making decisions with the Texas Legislature,” the lawsuit states. “These decisions are not changed by pandemics.”

Abbott has declined to convene a special session since March when the coronavirus pandemic began, instead leaning on his emergency powers to issue a series of sweeping executive orders governing what businesses can open, where people can gather in public, and mandating safety measures including wearing face coverings in public.

While the law has been used by governors for years, the time span of the coronavirus-related orders is unprecedented and raises questions about the durability of that legal justification.

As the story notes, the Supreme Court just rejected several Hotze lawsuits relating to executive emergency powers, saying he lacked standing. I don’t know if that is likely to be an issue in this case or not. I still agree with the basic premise that we need to have a robust debate about the parameters of the Texas Disaster Act, including when the Governor should be compelled to call a special session so that the Lege can be involved in the decision-making process. I also still think that this is a lousy way to have that debate, and while these five legislators have more gravitas than Hotze, that’s a low bar to clear. To put it another way, the anti-face mask and quarantine lobby still isn’t sending their best.

There’s no doubt that the contact tracng deal was a boondoggle, and I welcome all scrutiny on it. And I have to admit, as queasy as I am with settling these big questions about emergency powers by litigation, there isn’t much legislators can do on their own, given that they’re not in session and can’t be in session before January unless Abbott calls them into a session. I’m not sure what the right process for this should have been, given the speed and urgency of the crisis. The Lege very much needs to address these matters in the spring, but I’m leery of making any drastic changes to the status quo before then. In some ways, this is the best argument I’ve seen against our tradition of having a Legislature that only meets every two years. Some things just can’t wait, and we shouldn’t have to depend on the judgment of the Governor to fill in the gaps. I hope some of the brighter lights in our Legislature are thinking about all this. The Trib has more.