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Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel

The state of the state redistricting lawsuits

A good update, and a reminder that not all of the action is in federal court.

In two cases heard [December 14 and 15], a group of mostly Democratic, Hispanic lawmakers from both chambers challenged the legality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.

“All we’re asking is for Republicans, who claim to be constitutionalists, to start acting like it, and follow the plain meaning and reading of the Constitution,” said Roland Gutierrez, one of two Democratic state senators who are suing Texas.

Focusing on the timing are Gutierrez and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, who sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. Also at issue are rules for keeping counties intact when drawing Texas House districts.

Similar to a suit they filed in federal court before redrawing began, the senators’ attorneys argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

That makes the newly drawn state House and state Senate plans invalid, argued the legal team for Gutierrez and Eckhardt, of San Antonio and Austin, respectively.

The senators’ lawyers pointed to a provision in the state Constitution that requires the redistricting process to start in the first regular session after the decennial Census has been published, asking the court to block the new plans from being used.

State lawyers argued the provision does not prohibit apportionment at other times, and warned that blocking the map will disrupt the 2022 election process that is already in motion.

“The Legislature … is perfectly free to redistrict whenever it wants,” Will Thompson, the attorney general’s deputy chief for special litigation, said at the Dec. 15 hearing in district court in Travis County.

[…]

The senators’ legal team also argued the new state House map violated the “county line rule” of the Texas Constitution, which requires that counties with sufficient population be kept intact in drawing Texas House districts.

The second challenge, mounted by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, made a similar case that the rule was broken, arguing it was designed to ensure people have local representation.

As lawmakers this fall debated the new House lines late into the night, they narrowly adopted a major change in South Texas. House District 37 was redrawn from a seat President Joe Biden won by 17 percentage points, to a seat the president won by only two points over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

That amendment, developed by Kingsville Republican Rep. J.M. Lozano, was denounced by some Valley lawmakers. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, called the change a “disingenuous, last-minute attempt to do a grab.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team argued the county line rule requires that two districts be wholly contained within Cameron County. Yet Lozano’s tweaks give Cameron County just one wholly contained district, with two that connect to adjoining counties.

The state’s lawyers argued the new boundaries do not dilute votes in Cameron County, and that Cameron got the number of districts it was constitutionally entitled to. The plaintiffs’ attorney rejected that interpretation of the rules.

“There is no doubt that to whatever extent Cameron County voters are a cohesive group … they get to elect the candidates of their choice,” said Thompson, one of the state’s lawyers.

District 37 Democratic candidate Ruben Cortez Jr. joined the senators’ suit, along with political organization Tejano Democrats. The new version of the district was joined with adjacent Willacy County.

“This Republican redistricting scheme is robbing the voice of Cameron County voters,” Cortez, also a member of the Texas State Board of Education, said in a news release.

The caucus’ complaint asked the court to block the Texas House map from being used in upcoming elections and allow for the creation of alternative boundaries.

Both sides discussed a full trial beginning Jan. 10.

It’s unclear, if the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs on the county line rule, whether they would delay Texas House primary elections just for South Texas, or the entire state. The plaintiffs’ legal team asked the court to delay the primary to May 24.

Thompson, the state lawyer, said he expects the 2023 Legislature to have to revisit the maps.

The Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit was originally filed in federal court, but at a hearing in October it was agreed that the plaintiffs would first pursue the matter in state court. The state lawsuit was filed on November 22, judging from the stamp on the document. The lawsuit over HD37 and Cameron County was one of two lawsuits filed by MALC, with the other being a broader federal lawsuit. I was not aware until this story that they had been combined, as the federal lawsuits (with the exception of the federal version of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit) have been.

The cases are being heard by an interesting three-judge panel: Karin Crump, a Democrat and district court judge in Travis County, who is presiding; Ken Wise, a Republican was was re-elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2020; and Emily Miskel, a Republican district court judge from Collin County who is running for the 5th Court of Appeals in 2022. I assume this is the work of the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, though that name is not mentioned in the story. Funny how once you become aware of something new you begin to see it everywhere.

As for the cases, with the standard I Am Not A Lawyer proviso, both of them seem pretty straightforward. Either the Lege is only allowed to embark on the decennial redistricting process in a regular session that follows the Census or it’s not, and either the county line rule means that a county with sufficient population to have more than one State House district in it has only one partial district in it, with the other(s) being fully within that county. Looking at the district viewer, I don’t see any other example of a county that has one complete district and more than one partial districts in it. There are no such examples in the current map, either – Cameron has all of HDs 37 and 38 and part of 35. It seems likely to me that previous legislatures didn’t think this was something they could do. And as for whether Cameron County voters get to elect the candidate of their choice, that’s nice and all but it’s not the question that was asked, nor is it relevant to the county line rule.

As for the claim that the Lege is free to redistrict whenever it wants, then it could in theory redraw new lines after every election. (The 2003 DeLay re-redistricting was only for Congress, which is outside the scope of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit. That same claim was made about “mid-decade” Congressional redistricting, and I don’t believe there was ever a federal ruling on that question.) Surely there are some limits on what the majority party can do.

The weakness of the state’s arguments suggests to me the possibility the plaintiffs could prevail, but we are getting way ahead of ourselves. I do think the state can reasonably claim it wasn’t their fault that the Census data was late, and that it’s less disruptive to redistrict in a special session so new maps can be in place for the intended election than to wait an entire cycle. The counter to that would be that this is what the Legislative Redistricting Board is for, though here I would say it’s not clear to me that the outcome would be any more favorable to the plaintiffs unless the LRB is restricted to just tweaking districts to equalize population. In other words, can the LRB draw whole new maps, in which case I’d expect them to come up with something exactly like what was adopted by the Lege, or must they use the existing maps and make only the minimal changes necessary to fix population imbalances? The Gutierrez/Eckhardt plaintiffs might “win” but not achieve anything, depending on how the court views that question. Someone with real legal experience should probably step in at this point and stop me from digging this hole any deeper.

Anyway. We might at least get an initial answer to these questions before voting begins, which would be nice. We might also get a split primary for at least part of the state, which is more than a little chaotic. Isn’t this fun?

State judge rules SB8 is unconstitutional

Sounds a little better than it actually is, but it’s still pretty good.

Right there with them

A Texas judge on Thursday ruled that the state’s controversial law restricting abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy violates the Texas Constitution, saying it should not be enforced in court.

Although Thursday’s ruling is a win for abortion rights advocates, the order only has direct consequences for the 14 lawsuits in the case that the judge oversaw. The judge did not issue an injunction to block cases from being filed, though experts say it would likely be used as precedent in those cases.

Jackie Dillworth, communications director at Whole Woman’s Health, said the group’s four clinics across the state will not resume full services but would be “eager” to do so if an injunction were issued.

“We are so grateful to Judge Peeples for his ruling today,” said Dillworth. “[The law is] depriving Texans of their rights, autonomy, quality of life, and health.”

[…]

State District Judge David Peeples’ ruling Thursday emphasized that he wasn’t ruling on abortion rights, but rather on the enforcement method that the law employs.

“This case is not about abortion; it is about civil procedure,” he wrote in his order.

Peeples echoed concerns on how a similar form of enforcement could be used to infringe on other constitutional rights, a view expressed by members of the U.S. Supreme Court during oral arguments last month in two other challenges to the law.

“In sum, if SB 8’s civil procedures are constitutional, a new and creative series of statutes could appear year after year, to be enforced by eager ideological claimants, who could bring suit in their home counties, where the judges would do their constitutional duty and enforce the law,” Peeples said in his order. “Pandora’s Box has already been opened a bit, and time will tell.”

[…]

The judge ruled that Texas Right to Life cannot file lawsuits against the 14 plaintiffs for helping others get an abortion disallowed by the Texas law. The plaintiffs include doctors, nonprofit organizations and Planned Parenthood. However, other parties or individuals can still sue the plaintiffs under the abortion law.

“This ruling is limited to the named parties. It does not apply to all other potential plaintiffs and defendants. John Doe could file suit tomorrow, without regard to this ruling,” Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, said in an email.

Blackman added that Peeples can only rule on the 14 cases before him — not on any other cases or the law overall.

“A judge can’t declare a statute unconstitutional in all contexts. Courts can only issue rulings with regard to particular parties in a particular case. But other courts can choose to treat this ruling as precedential (and likely would),” he said.

But even if Thursday’s ruling had stopped the law from being enforced, SB 8 is written with an unusual restriction that allows someone to later be sued if that ruling is overturned on appeal.

Joanna Grossman, a professor at SMU Dedman School of Law, said that means providers may not be comfortable resuming procedures until all the court battles are waged.

“It was just another thing to stack the deck against providers so that it just wasn’t possible for them to manage their risk,” she said. “I assume they’re all having conversations with their lawyers right now about [whether] this actually gives them any ability to reopen.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. The ruling will be appealed – since this was heard in Travis County, that means that the Third Court of Appeals will get it next, unless there’s some mechanism to have it go straight to the Supreme Court. There is of course the still-pending case before SCOTUS, which could generate a ruling as soon as today or sometime later or maybe never, who even knows. I suppose with the violence they plan to do to reproductive rights in the Mississippi case, the assassins on the high court could make a cynical nod towards “moderation” by putting the kibosh on Texas’ law. But again, who knows what they’ll do. In the meantime, now we wait for the next steps in this case. It’s a start.

I’ll see your AstroWorld lawsuit and raise you $10 billion

That’s a big number, though that’s partly because there are a lot of plaintiffs.

A local law firm has just filed the largest suit to date against Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival after the mass-casualty tragedy that claimed the lives of 10 concert-goers. Attorney Brent Coon is demanding $10 billion in restitution on behalf of 1,547 attendees — that’s more petitioners than any firm thus far.

Additionally, Coon’s firm, Brett Coon & Associates, has filed a request with the Harris County District Court system to consolidate all cases involved into one courtroom to provide for more efficient management of the docket on behalf of all claimants, per a press release. A hearing is scheduled for December 13, 2021.

Aside from the mammoth suit, Coon notes in a statement that he is demanding legislative action to include crowd control planning specialists to certify events, mandated training programs for event preparation and criminal liability for any wrongdoing.

[…]

Coon’s suit comes after a $2 billion filing by San Antonio lawyer Thomas J. Henry and a $750 million petition by Houston attorney Tony Buzbee.

See here for some background, and here for the Chron story. I assume the mention of consolidating the cases is a reference to the many others that have been combined and will be heard in Harris County via the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel.

Not much else to add to that story, so let me note a couple of other AstroWorld items that I didn’t put into their own post. First up, Travis Scott is seeking to be dismissed as a defendant from eleven lawsuits.

Houston rapper Travis Scott has responded to 11 lawsuits launched against him in the deadly Astroworld festival tragedy denying all liability and requesting he and his record label Cactus Jack Music be dropped as defendants, according to court documents.

Scott, whose real name is Jacques B. Webster II, has been named in hundreds of lawsuits totaling billions of dollars since the tragedy that took 10 young lives on Nov. 5. Scott’s attorney Ed McPherson issued a “general denial” on his behalf to allegations claiming he was to blame for the deaths and injuries of concertgoers.

Scott is also requesting the claims be “dismissed with prejudice” so that once finished, cases cannot be refiled.

Representatives with Scott’s legal team said in an email to the Chronicle that the request is “a standard response to the plaintiff filing and reiterates what’s already been out there that Travis is not legally liable.”

One of the 10 victims, 22-year-old Texas A&M student Bharti Shahani, died nearly a week post-festival after succumbing to injuries that left her on a ventilator. Her family filed suit against Scott and festival organizers and refused to accept Scott’s financial assistance for funeral expenses. Their lawsuit is one of the 11 Scott’s lawyers responded to.

Not clear to me from the story why Scott is taking this action in only eleven lawsuits, or why these specific eleven lawsuits. Maybe they have something in common, maybe they were just first in line, maybe he’s in settlement talks with the others, maybe full dismissal will be sought for others. I have no idea, but given the high-powered legal team working for Scott and Live Nation, I’m sure this is just a first step.

Other AstroWorld stories that I have skimmed but not found anything original to say about:

Exclusive: CEO of Astroworld medical provider recalls moment when routine festival spiraled out of control

How missed warning signs at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival led to one of the worst U.S. concert tragedies

8 biggest revelations from the Houston Chronicle’s in-depth Astroworld investigation

This story will be with us for a long time.

A brief look at the winter storm litigation

This story is actually about the judge who will be presiding over winter storm cases, but it caught my eye for a reason that will be apparent.

Sylvia A. Matthews presided over more than 175 jury trials and 160 bench trials during her decade as a Harris County District Court judge. Lawyers for plaintiffs and defendants say she is smart, fair, well-prepared, hard-working, efficient and decisive.

Matthews will need all those qualities over the next several months as she oversees more than 150 highly complex civil lawsuits filed by victims seeking billions of dollars in damages as the result of last February’s winter storm, which was one of the deadliest and costliest disasters in Texas history.

The lawsuits filed across Texas include individuals suing for wrongful death, personal injury and property damages and companies complaining about breach of contracts, interruption of business and price-gouging.

Some of the largest power companies, such as the Houston utility CenterPoint Energy, the Chicago company Exelon and Vistra Energy of Irving, one of the state’s biggest generators and retail electricity providers.

While the lawsuits have been filed in more than a dozen Texas courts, the Texas Supreme Court has consolidated them into one docket, called multidistrict litigation.

The cases are consolidated for efficiency, allowing pretrial issues, such as production of evidence and admissibility of testimony, to be decided in a uniform matter. Once the pretrial issues are decided, the cases are usually sent back to the courts where the lawsuits were filed for trial.

For example, lawyers predict that the 200 lawsuits already filed in the Astroworld tragedy will also be consolidated into a single proceeding for pre-trial purposes.

[…]

The winter storm litigation is likely to take years to resolve, according to legal experts. In fact, the statute of limitations for more lawsuits does not expire for another year, meaning more cases may still be filed.

The stuff in between is about Judge Matthews, a Republican now serving as a visiting jurist following her electoral defeat in 2018. It’s fine, I’m glad she’s good at her job, but it was the stuff about the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel that I noticed. Here’s this thing I’d never heard of before October of this year, and now it’s turning up all over the place, including and not surprisingly in the AstroWorld cases. I feel like someone owes me a nice in-depth explainer about this body. How long has it been in existence, what are the rules that govern it, who serves and how do they get there, and is it just one of those things that it’s been a key player in such high profile and hot button matters as these cases plus SB8 or is it somehow a sign of the times? Oh, to be an assignment editor. Seriously, someone write me that story, I’d read the hell out of it.

Anyway. Litigation over the freeze and blackout and responsibility for the latter will no doubt go on for years, but hopefully it will help provide some answers. Lord knows, we’re not getting any from our state leaders. I’ll be keeping an eye out for further news.

State lawsuits against SB8 finally get a hearing

A long strange trip it has been.

Right there with them

A state district judge on Wednesday morning heard arguments from abortion rights groups challenging Texas’ restrictive abortion law in what seems to be the first court hearing to specifically tackle the statute’s constitutionality.

David Peeples, a retired state magistrate judge, presided over the eight-hour hearing. He didn’t make a ruling Wednesday but is expected to make one soon after he receives additional filings from both the abortion rights groups and Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization and a defendant in the suits.

Peeples is considering over a dozen cases filed in state court challenging Senate Bill 8, which effectively bans abortions after about six weeks. These lawsuits — filed by Planned Parenthood, doctors, social workers, abortion fund organizations, practical support networks and lawyers — were consolidated by Texas’ multidistrict litigation panel to be heard together.

Attorneys for the 14 cases argued that the law is unconstitutional. Planned Parenthood sought an order blocking the law, while plaintiffs in the 13 other suits asked the judge to issue declaratory judgment of the constitutionality of the law, a legal maneuver used to resolve legal uncertainty in a certain case.

“In short, SB8’s enforcement mechanism, created to subvert one constitutional right, violates the Texas and United States Constitutions,” wrote attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the 13 other suits.

The suits target Texas Right to Life, which helped draft Texas’ law and has vowed to sue violators, even though the group has not filed suits against anyone as of yet.

Texas Right to Life argued that the plaintiffs can’t prove they’ve been injured by the law, and even if they did, the court has no jurisdiction to issue an order blocking the law. Furthermore, since it hasn’t actually filed any suits against people who have violated Texas’ abortion law, the organization argued it isn’t a proper defendant in the case. Its attorneys also argued the abortion rights groups were asking for an overly broad declaration to block cases that might hypothetically be filed.

See here, here, and here for some background. There’s video of the hearing here. The argument made by Texas Right to Life about how they couldn’t possible be sued for any of this, and the plaintiffs’ argument that the law has to be stopped at its root because the piecemeal approach fundamentally deprives them of their rights has been a part of this from the beginning and was a key element in the federal hearing before SCOTUS earlier this month. As before, I have no idea what the court might do or how long it might take to do it, but in this case I feel confident saying that it won’t be the final word. One way or the other, this will end up before the state Supreme Court. They may have some guidance from SCOTUS by then, but they’ll still have to grapple with those questions on their own. The Chron has more.

SCOTx denies Planned Parenthood emergency request

Not a surprise, I suppose.

Right there with them

The Texas Supreme Court denied a request Monday from Planned Parenthood to resume its lawsuit, filed in a state district court, that challenges the state’s near-total abortion ban.

Planned Parenthood asked the all-Republican court last week to overturn the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel’s decision to indefinitely pause its suit alongside 13 other lawsuits filed in Travis County district court. The panel of five judges stopped the cases from continuing at the request of Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization that helped draft Texas’ abortion restrictions.

The suit filed by Planned Parenthood asked the court to declare the abortion law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, unconstitutional. A hearing was scheduled for this month, the organization said, before the panel of judges paused proceedings. In that case, the court temporarily blocked Texas Right to Life from being able to sue Planned Parenthood for potential violations of the abortion law.

“The Texas Supreme Court’s decision to allow the stay to remain in effect is extremely disappointing and will likely deprive Planned Parenthood of its day in court, once again,” Helene Krasnoff, Planned Parenthood’s vice president for public policy litigation and law, said in a statement.

Elizabeth Myers, a Dallas-based attorney who represents plaintiffs for the other 13 lawsuits blocked, said Monday’s ruling was disappointing, but she called the stay a temporary setback.

“We’ll present our arguments and the defendants will ultimately have to attempt to defend SB8 on the merits,” Myers said. “That is something the defendants are obviously scared and unwilling to do, so it’s not surprising that they continue to try to delay it. At some point, their delay tactics will no longer work and our clients look forward to that day.”

See here for the background. I still don’t understand what the norms are for the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, so I don’t know if outrage, annoyance, or a shrug of the shoulders is the appropriate reaction. I’m going to go with “annoyance” anyway, because this whole situation is some kind of bullshit. Let’s please get a favorable ruling in the federal case ASAP, shall we?

Planned Parenthood files emergency request to SCOTx

From the inbox:

Right there with them

On Wednesday, Planned Parenthood affiliates in Texas filed an emergency request asking the Texas Supreme Court to intervene in an ongoing case against Texas Right to Life (TRTL), challenging Senate Bill 8, the state’s six-week abortion ban. Earlier this month, Planned Parenthood was granted a temporary injunction against the group and its associates, which blocked TRTL from suing abortion providers and health care workers at Planned Parenthood health centers in Texas under S.B. 8.

However, in yet another attempt to deprive Planned Parenthood of its day in court, at TRTL’s request, the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel stepped in and stayed all ongoing challenges to S.B. 8 in state court indefinitely. This comes despite the fact that a hearing in Planned Parenthood’s case, where it asked the court to declare S.B. 8 unconstitutional, was already scheduled for Oct. 13. Intervention by the Texas Supreme Court is urgently and immediately needed. S.B. 8 continues to cause unprecedented harm on the ground, blocking Texans from accessing their constitutional right to abortion.

[…]

The U.S. Supreme Court allowed S.B. 8 to take effect nearly one month ago, disregarding nearly 50 years of precedent by denying an emergency request to block the law’s unconstitutional pre-viability abortion ban. S.B. 8 has decimated abortion access in the state, as providers are forced to turn people away under the six-week abortion ban. Historically, the overwhelming majority — between 85 and 90% — of Texans who obtain abortions in the state are at least six weeks into pregnancy. Under S.B. 8, the first six-week abortion ban allowed to take effect since the Roe v. Wade decision, few are able to receive care in the state, forcing patients to bear the financial and emotional cost of traveling elsewhere for essential care, all during a pandemic. For many Texans, particularly those who are Black or Latino, who have low incomes, or who live in rural areas, abortion is unattainable.

Since S.B. 8 took effect, abortion has been virtually inaccessible for the 7 million women of reproductive age living in Texas. Some of the devastation caused by the law in Texas and beyond are detailed in recent declarations from Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast President & CEO Melaney Linton, Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains President & CEO Vicki Cowart, and Planned Parenthood of Arkansas and Eastern Oklahoma physician Dr. Joshua Yap in support of the U.S. Justice Department’s request for a preliminary injunction to stop the enforcement of S.B. 8.

See here for a bit of background. I wasn’t sure what the context of this was until I remembered that I had seen this:

With more than a dozen lawsuits challenging Texas’ near-total abortion ban stalled in state court, Planned Parenthood has asked the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to step in and allow the cases to proceed.

Last week, the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, which is made up of five judges, indefinitely paused 14 lawsuits filed in Travis County district court at the request of Texas Right to Life, a prominent anti-abortion organization that helped draft Texas’ abortion restriction. The panel of judges typically steps in to take action on a group of similar cases. The judges didn’t list a reason for the stay, and said the cases will remain paused until the panel makes another order.

One of the suits was filed by Planned Parenthood. It asked the court to declare the abortion law, which bans the procedure as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, unconstitutional. A hearing was scheduled for Oct. 8, the organization said, before the panel of judges paused proceedings.

In that case, the court temporarily blocked Texas Right to Life from being able to sue Planned Parenthood for potential violations of the abortion law.

“Texas Right to Life championed this blatantly unconstitutional law, but now it is doing everything it can to prevent those challenging S.B. 8 from having their day in court because TRTL knows it will lose,” Helene Krasnoff, vice president for public policy litigation and law at Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement. “We’re urging the Texas Supreme Court to step in and move this critical case along so we can restore access to abortion across the state.”

Got to say, I had never heard of the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel before now. I can understand why it exists, but at least in this instance it seems maddeningly opaque and unaccountable. I have no idea what the rules are here, or what PP’s odds of success are, but it seems they had no other choice if they wanted to be able to pursue this kind of legal remedy. So while we all have our eyes on the federal court, this is what’s happening at the state level.