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Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

Paxton accuses his accusers

Well, that’s one way to do it.

Best mugshot ever

In Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first interview since seven of top aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing his office, he said Tuesday that he was about to put one of them, first assistant attorney general Jeff Mateer, on administrative leave when Mateer made those accusations and resigned instead.

“I think he found out about it and decided he wanted to leave and set the narrative,” Paxton told the Southeast Texas Record.

Paxton also told the paper that he has placed two remaining executive employees — David Maxwell, director of law enforcement, and Mark Penley, deputy AG for criminal justice, who were among his seven accusers — on administrative leave while he investigates their actions.

Paxton’s statements on Tuesday provide the public’s first glimpse into how he is handling the matter inside the office of the Attorney General, where more than half of the executive staff has accused him of committing crimes.

[…]

In his interview Tuesday, Paxton reiterated his counterclaims against the whistleblowers, saying that they were trying to impede a legitimate investigation of the law enforcement agencies.

“It seems like my office did everything possible to stop an investigation of some law enforcement agencies,” Paxton said. “I can only come to the conclusion that there was an effort to cover up the reality of what really happened. This wasn’t supposed to be a complicated investigation.”

[…]

Paxton also backed accusations by Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, who said in a letter released late Sunday that Maxwell, a former Texas Ranger, berated Paul for even bringing the complaint. Paxton said he watched a video of the meeting between Maxwell and Paul.

“It was not a good interview — it was pretty harsh,” he said. “It was clear he had no interest in doing an investigation.”

In the interview, Paxton said Mateer also insisted that the attorney general did not have the authority to sign contracts and that only he, as first assistant, did. Paxton said he reviewed support documentation provided by Mateer and found it to be false.

“I don’t know why there’s so much turmoil over this investigation. I’m not impugning every law enforcement agent,” Paxton said. “We all should be held accountable. We all have to follow the law.”

Well, he was going to defend himself one way or another, and given what the accusations were, a defense of “no, they’re the real criminals” seems like the best option. That would then lead to the question of how it is Paxton managed to hire so many bad actors for high-ranking positions in his office, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, keeping his own ass out of trouble is the main goal.

Here we must pause and note that so far all we know is there were a bunch of accusations leveled against Paxton. We don’t know if there’s an investigation into the actions he’s alleged to have taken, much less if he did do the things he’s accused of. We do know that his accusers are fellow travelers in conservative circles, and that former Paxton lieutenant Chip Roy sided with them. We know that folks like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and John Cornyn have been in full “wait and see” mode, which may suggest that they genuinely don’t know what to make of all this, or that they’ve heard enough scuttlebutt to think there’s something to it, but they’re either not ready to throw Paxton overboard, or they’re seeking a more graceful way out of this mess. A lot of information has come out so far, none of which looks great for Paxton, but nothing yet that would force him to resign. That may be what this is like for awhile, and then either the feds do something to make it clear they’re going after him, or we get a press release saying he’s in the clear. Until then, this is what we have to sustain ourselves.

Well, there’s also this.

[Brandon] Cammack declined to answer questions about his work for the agency or speculate as to why Paxton called him about the job. But said he “rose to the occasion” in accepting a major assignment from the state’s top lawyer and that the fallout has been “unexpected.”

“When one of the highest elected officials in the state reached out to me to go conduct this investigation, knowing what my background and knowing what my experience was, with regards to state law claims… I took it seriously,” Cammack told The Texas Tribune Tuesday.

“I don’t know anything about office politics… I don’t know anything about [the relationship] between people. I was called to duty. I showed up for duty,” he said.

Cammack’s work for the attorney general’s office has ended, though he said it was “beyond” him to know if the review would go forward in someone else’s hands.

[…]

Legal experts have questioned the precise nature of Cammack’s job — Paxton described him as both an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel” — and asked how he was able to issue subpoenas that aides said “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul.”

They also raised concerns that Cammack — who is connected to [Nate Paul’s attorney Michael] Wynne through their involvement in the Downtown Rotary Club of Houston and the Houston Bar Association — lacked the experience for such a high-profile assignment.

Cammack said the subpoenas were issued by a Travis County judge and that he never went before a grand jury. He submitted an application for subpoenas to the Travis County district attorney’s office and they assisted in getting them issued, he said. He declined to answer other questions about the subpoenas, including which judge issued them, and his role.

Cammack also disputed the notion that he lacked experience, saying he’d had a “successful practice” in Houston for about two and a half years, handling primarily criminal defense work. His investigation for the attorney general’s office centered on violations of the Texas penal code — “something I’m very well versed in having handled hundreds of cases for hundreds of families here in Harris County and contiguous counties.”

He said he was “not friends” with Wynne, but declined to say why Wynne was present when at least one subpoena was delivered. He also would not specify Paxton’s involvement in his work or provide specifics about his investigation.

Cammack said he was interviewed for the outside counsel position on Aug. 26 by Paxton and Mateer. He declined to provide specifics about the conversation, but said he understood there were a few other candidates for the job, and that Paxton asked about his educational and professional history.

A few days later, Cammack received a call from Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about his contract, he said. Signed in early September, the agreement says Cammack would be paid $300 an hour to investigate a complaint and compile a report about any potential criminal charges. It did not give him the authority to indict or prosecute, and said he could work only as directed by the office of the Attorney General.

Cammack’s work on the case largely ended in late September when he received a cease and desist letter from Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and then Mateer.

I mean, we still don’t know much, but what we do know just looks sketchy. And so we wait for more.

Nate Paul strikes back

Just when I think this can’t get any better.

Best mugshot ever

When Ken Paxton announced Friday his office was dropping the investigation into an Austin real estate investor’s claims of mistreatment during a federal raid of his home and business, the attorney general may have hoped the questions swirling around his relationship with Nate Paul would dissipate.

But a letter released late Sunday by Paul’s attorney that appears to be laying the foundation for a lawsuit against Paxton’s office dispelled any notion the controversy would go away soon.

[…]

Until now, Paul and his attorney, Michael Wynne, have remained mostly silent. But Sunday’s letter, in which Wynne demands that the attorney general’s office preserve documents related to the investor’s contact with Paxton’s office, flips that narrative.

In it, Wynne asserts that, far from helping his client’s cause, deep dysfunction inside Paxton’s office scuttled his client’s legitimate claim of abuse at the hands of federal investigators and has led to “A chaotic public spectacle of allegations.”

In Wynne’s telling, investigators’ behavior during the August 2019 raid against Paul were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials that I have witnessed in my professional experience.” The searchers tampered with records and then gave testimony contradicted by documents, he wrote.

Paul took his complaints to District Attorney Margaret Moore, who advised him that Paxton’s office was the correct agency to conduct any investigation of wrongdoing on the part of the searchers, including the FBI. But when Paul detailed his complaints, Paxton’s staff was dismissive and abusive, Wynne wrote.

At a July meeting, Paul’s team was “met with open hostility,” Wynne wrote. Paxton’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted my client for bringing the complaint.”

Wynne said additional meetings with Paxton’s staff yielded the same “hostile attitude.”

Paxton personally attended a third meeting, Wynne wrote. At it, Paul demonstrated that the attorney general’s review of his complaint had been cursory and contained several errors, and that “this appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne recounted in the letter.

Oh, my. Paul and his attorney are mad about the way Paxton’s office handled his demand for an investigation into the way he was treated by the feds, whom you will recall were investigating him for various alleged financial misdeeds. The seven senior members of Paxton’s staff found Paul’s complaint to be without merit, and the fact that Paxton proceeded – including the hire of the inexperienced and unqualified Brandon Cammack – is what led to them sending Paxton a letter alleging that he was taking a bribe. Maybe this is Paul’s way of saying he expected better service at that price.

The Trib adds some details.

Wynne’s letter places the blame for the debacle on the attorney general’s office, alleging top aides there failed to investigate his client’s claims as they should have and “deprived [Paul] of a proper review.”

“The mishandling of this complaint as outlined below has risen to an alarming level,” Wynne wrote in the letter, which also demands that the agency retain all related documents and files in preparation for potential litigation.

[…]

Wynne questioned the attorney general’s office’s basis for closing the inquiry, accused employees in the attorney general’s office of making “numerous inappropriate and false statements to the media” and said their handling of Paul’s complaint culminated in a “chaotic public spectacle of allegations, mudslinging, and an apparent power struggle” within the agency last week.

Top aides to Paxton have said internal investigations showed that Paul’s complaint lacks “any good-faith factual basis” and have accused their boss of serving a donor’s interest by hiring an outside attorney to pursue it.

Wynne said the circumstances of the federal search were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials” that he had witnessed.

In May 2020, Paul “sought guidance on the protocol for reporting a complaint” about the search and was told by Paxton to file it with the Travis County district attorney’s office.

The next month, the district attorney’s office referred the complaint back to Paxton’s agency after determining it would be “inappropriate” to send it to the Department of Public Safety, which was named in the complaint.

Wynne said “seven weeks of inaction” were followed by a series of meetings between him, Paul and officials in the attorney general’s office, whom he accused of being “hostile.”

At a meeting on July 21, the attorney general’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted” Paul for bringing the complaint and attempted to intimidate them into dropping the matter, Wynne alleged.

He wrote that Maxwell and another top official — Mark Penley, one of the signatories on the letter about Paxton — attended a second meeting, in which Maxwell at one point yelled at Paul and asked “who [does] he think he is?”

At a third meeting, personally attended by Paxton, the review was found to be flawed and “appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne alleged.

The Karen-like “I want to speak to your manager” energy out of this is strong, isn’t it? I’m dying for them to file a lawsuit against the AG’s office over this, because discovery is sure to be a hoot. The capacity this scandal has had to surprise and amaze me has been quite the source of joy these past few days.

And speaking of Brandon Cammack, the Paxton special prosecutors have some thoughts – and a motion – about how much Paxton paid him.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued that $300 an hour is too much to pay the two special prosecutors appointed to take him to trial in a long-running felony securities fraud case — but that’s the rate his agency is paying the inexperienced attorney Paxton hired last month to investigate a complaint by a political donor.

[…]

The prosecutors, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, pointed out that irony in a spirited filing Friday before Harris County District Judge Jason Luong, asking that they be compensated at the same rate as Cammack, whom they dismissed as “an untested and unqualified rookie.”

“If this hourly rate sounds familiar, it should: it is the very rate the Pro Tems were promised when they were appointed,” they wrote in a Friday filing. “If the defendant’s choice to pay Cammack $300 an hour appears to be disingenuous, it is only because it is: in successfully derailing this prosecution by spearheading a concerted effort to defund it, the defendant has repeatedly referred to the Pro Tem’s $300 hourly rate in his filings as unreasonable and unwarranted.”

Wice and Schaffer, who told the court that between them, they have 80 years of experience in the criminal justice system, questioned why they should not be entitled to the same sum as Cammack, “whose own experience, training and expertise, compared to the Pro Tems, is virtually microscopic.”

Paxton can “run but not hide” from his “concession that $300 an hour is reasonable,” Wice and Schaffer argued.

In their own filing to the court, Paxton’s defense attorneys told the judge that Cammack’s contract is irrelevant to the issue of pay for the prosecutors.

[…]

The issue of prosecutor pay in the securities fraud case against Paxton was raised by a Paxton donor, Jeff Blackard, in December 2015, when he sued, calling the fees exorbitant. Since then, the issue has dragged through the courts for years, bouncing all the way up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters.

Paxton’s defense attorneys told Luong he should rely on the high court’s ruling — which found the $300 hourly rate fell outside legal limits — in determining how much Wice and Schaffer should be paid.

Nothing in the prosecutors’ filing, “which contains unsubstantiated gossip about an irrelevant matter and no legal argument, authorizes this court to disregard the holding of the CCA and grant the relief requested by the pro tems,” Paxton’s attorneys wrote.

I don’t know if Wice and Schaffer’s motion can be a justification to essentially overturn that CCA ruling, but it certainly shows (again) why that ruling was ridiculous, and why the current system for hiring special prosecutors is fundmentally flawed. They may not be able to do more than score political points, but even just a reminder of how much Paxton has been coddled and protected by his political buddies all these years is useful. The Chron and Rick Casey, who notes a connection between Michael Wynne and Brandon Cammack, has more.

Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

Because of course they did. Why would you have expected anything else?

In a ruling issued late Monday night, a federal appeals court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that limited counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by President Donald Trump, rejected arguments from civil and voting rights groups that claimed Abbott’s order suppressed voting rights by making it harder to cast a ballot, particularly for elderly and disabled voters who are the most likely to use mail-in balloting.

In reality, the judges said, Abbott expanded voting options by suspending a state law that allows mail-in ballots to be hand delivered only on Election Day — a July 27 order that Abbott merely refined on Oct. 1 by closing multiple ballot drop-off sites in Travis and three other large counties, the panel said.

“That effectively gives voters 40 extra days to hand-deliver a marked mail-in ballot to an early voting clerk. And the voter still has the traditional option she has always had for casting a mail-in ballot: mailing it,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel.

The ruling blocked Friday’s injunction from U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who said Abbott’s order placed an unacceptable burden on voters who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

[…]

The panel criticized Pitman for vastly overstating the magnitude of the burden on voting rights caused by Abbott’s “partial refinement” of an earlier order that made it easier for eligible Texans to hand deliver a ballot before Nov. 3.

“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” Duncan wrote. “Indeed, one strains to see how it burdens voting at all.”

Texans still have “numerous ways” to participate before the Nov. 3 election — by voting early beginning Tuesday because Abbott added six days to the early voting period as a pandemic safety measure, by hand delivering completed mail-in ballots before Election Day, and by dropping their ballot in the mail, Duncan said.

See here and here for the background. Never mind the fact that the state of Texas had previously affirmed that multiple dropoff locations were legal, never mind the fact that Abbott issued this order a week before early voting began and more than two months after Harris County had announced its plan for multiple locations, and of course never mind the global pandemic that has everyone seeking to mitigate their own personal risk. Abbott extended the early voting period, so what are you peasants complaining about?

I mean, look. The Harris County Clerk used legal means to make voting easier and more accessible. The Governor used a false pretext to overrule him, and did so late in the process after people had been led to expect what the Clerk had implemented. The fact that the Governor had indeed taken steps to expand voting access isn’t relevant. The fact that most other counties hadn’t taken similar action as Harris isn’t relevant – they could have and in many cases should have, and if the Governor thought that was unfair to the voters in the slacking counties, he could have used the same authority he exercised here to try to spur those other counties to action. The point is that Harris County stood for making it easier and more convenient to vote, and the state of Texas said no, you can’t do that. In response, the Fifth Circuit said “we don’t see the problem here”. That’s what we’re up against.

I should note that there is still that state lawsuit, which will have a hearing this week. I don’t expect much at this point, but duty compels me to point this out. I presume the other federal lawsuit – as I observed before, this was a combination of two federal lawsuits, but did not include the third – is now moot. As we have seen over and over again, the way forward is going to require winning more elections first.

Why did Ken Paxton hire a newbie attorney to be a “special prosecutor” or whatever he meant to call him?

The Trib has some questions.

Best mugshot ever

It was a baffling, perilous, perhaps unprecedented task.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hired an outside lawyer last month to look into a complaint of misconduct by a host of state and federal officials, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. attorney’s office. The claim had been made by a Paxton donor whose home and office were reportedly raided by federal agents last year.

Some legal experts say the investigation should never have been in the hands of the attorney general’s office at all. But if it was, longtime Texas attorneys say, it’s a job for a seasoned prosecutor, perhaps someone with years of experience as a U.S. attorney or district attorney, someone who’d already established a reputation, someone who’d taken dozens of cases all the way from investigation to sentencing.

Instead, Paxton personally signed off on a $300 hourly rate for Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney with ties to the donor’s attorney and five years of experience whose docket, court records show, largely comprises cases involving driving while intoxicated, low-level theft or assault.

Paxton’s office abruptly ended that investigation Friday after political backlash from both parties and criminal allegations from his own top aides. But questions about Cammack’s role — and the process of his selection — persist.

“That’s the $64,000 question: How did Paxton come to hire this particular lawyer?” said Tim Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “You’d expect, for something that would have the possibility for serious consequences, that you’d want to have somebody that had a great deal of experience in the criminal justice system. And it doesn’t appear that they did that.”

Equally inscrutable is the precise job Cammack was hired to perform for the attorney general’s office. Paxton has described him both as an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel,” and one subpoena obtained by The Texas Tribune refers to Cammack as a “special prosecutor.”

But Cammack’s contract, which Paxton released this week, shows that Cammack was never independent, nor was he a prosecutor. Cammack can investigate “only as directed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” and his contract specifies that he will not be involved in any indictment or prosecution born out of his investigation. He’s submitted an invoice for more than $14,000 of work, according to media reports.

I’ll get back to this article in a second, but I should note that it’s a pretty good overview of the story so far, and includes a lot of new details. Because this is a sprawling story that’s being told in multiple places, it also covers some stuff we’ve already talked about. No one is going to be able to write a short article for anything related to this just because recapping the backstory will take at least six paragraphs.

Legal experts and lawyers who’ve worked with Cammack, including his estranged father, questioned whether he has the experience needed to take on such a high-profile assignment.

As recently as 2018, a judge appointed a more senior attorney to assist Cammack when he was working as a defense attorney on a felony manslaughter case.

Mark Hochglaube, the longtime prosecutor and defense attorney who was brought in, said it wasn’t clear whether the judge or Cammack himself considered the young lawyer too inexperienced to handle the case alone — but that both were on board with getting Cammack some help.

Their client, who was found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to 50 years.

He praised Cammack’s effort on the case but questioned his selection for the high-profile appointment.

“If I were the attorney general, and I was in this predicament, would the name Brandon Cammack be the first name that popped into my mind? No, it wouldn’t,” Hochglaube said.

Young attorneys can often punch above their weight and rise quickly through the ranks, Hochglaube said, but he added, “I have a hard time saying, based on my experience with Brandon, that I would’ve thought this was suitable for him.”

[…]

Beyond questions about Brandon Cammack’s qualifications, the scope of his role is murky, too.

Why, some legal experts wondered, would a state attorney general be investigating claims against federal authorities at all? Some called the situation unprecedented.

“I guess every politician is limited only by his imagination,” said longtime Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin, “but that’s a pretty unique event.”

Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said FBI agents are not above the law, and, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the state attorney general looking into FBI misconduct for violations of Texas law.

But he added that it is unusual — and raises serious ethical questions — for a state attorney general to take on an investigation of FBI misconduct in a case involving alleged criminal activity of one of the attorney general’s donors. The prudent course, he said, would have been to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent division within DOJ that probes such claims made against DOJ employees.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever happened before,” said Johnson, the former U.S. attorney, adding that if he had been asked to fill Cammack’s role, “I would’ve stayed as far away as I could.”

“Anybody with half a brain would’ve gotten as far away from this as they possibly could,” Johnson said. But Cammack “may not have had enough experience to realize this is something he really shouldn’t want to get involved with.”

Lawyers interviewed by The Texas Tribune said Cammack’s official role as outside counsel raises questions about whether he had the authority to issue subpoenas, a power limited to prosecutors and assistant attorneys general. His actions in the case could open him up to legal liability if he usurped his authority, and Phelps, the former official in the attorney general’s office, questioned whether the issuance of the subpoenas amounted to a criminal offense.

“An outside counsel is not a ‘special prosecutor’ and has no authority to issue subpoenas, appear in front of a grand jury, or prosecute a criminal case,” said Phelps, who also worked for a decade as first assistant district attorney in Brazos County, and head of a special prosecutions division under Morales.

“I wish someone would pull that Brandon Cammack aside because I think he’s being used, because of his inexperience,” Phelps said.

I skipped over a couple of paragraphs that describe Brandom Cammack’s relationship with his father, who is also an attorney and who comes across as an abusive. It’s icky stuff.

After several days and a whole lot of reading, I’ve been thinking about how to summarize what we know so far, so if we get into a conversation with someone who knows nothing about this other than a vague recollection of some headlines or Facebook posts, we can help them understand. The basic gist of it is that a real estate hotshot in Austin named Nate Paul had been the target of an FBI investigation into his finances, which involved raids on his offices. Paul filed a complaint about the investigation and searches of his properties with the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom he had contributed $25K in the last election. Paxton did open an investigation, going through the Travis County DA’s office first with a somewhat shady legal pretext to get the investigation handled by his office instead of the DA. He then hired Brandom Cammack, an inexperienced attorney, in a role that is not clearly defined but is something like a special prosecutor, except that Cammack was not independent of Paxton, and no one thinks he had the qualifications or experience for the job. All of this looked like Paxton doing some legal work on behalf of Nate Paul but with the official seal of the AG’s office. That caused a revolt among Paxton’s senior assistants, who told him all of this was highly inappropriate at the least. In the end, seven top assistants to Paxton asked for a federal investigation of Paxton’s involvement in the Nate Paul situation, accusing him of being paid off by Paul to help Paul defend himself against the feds in their investigation of him. Whew!

That’s where things stand now, and there are various subplots and unanswered questions and who knows what else. You can see what I mean when I say that it will be impossible any time soon to write a short article relating to this. I feel like there are still some big shoes to drop, but I couldn’t even guess at what that might mean. It’s becoming quite the political hot potato, as US Rep. Chip Roy – a former top lieutenant to Paxton – has called on him to resign (as have a couple of newspaper editorial boards), and Sen. John Cornyn, himself a former AG, has expressed his disappointment in Paxton’s handling of this. I have to believe that this will be an issue in 2022, in a bigger way than the existing Servergy indictments of Paxton ever were.

One more thing, just to expand on an item noted in the story above: Paxton has officially closed the Nate Paul investigation that started all this, shortly after Travis County DA Margaret Moore told him her office was not going to be involved any more in any way.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office is closing its investigation into a complaint made by one of his donors, hours after the Travis County District Attorney formally distanced itself.

Also on Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was not investigating allegations by aides in Paxton’s office that he committed bribery and other corruption crimes but instead the matter had been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A DPS spokesman said the Texas Rangers are available to assist.

Paxton had argued that he only pursued an investigation urged by the donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, after getting a referral from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office. Moore already told the Houston Chronicle that it was Paxton who first brought Paul’s request for an investigation to her and not the other way around.

A letter she sent Paxton Friday upped the ante and made clear her office is cutting all ties to the probe. Moore noted all the revelations that have come out in recent days — revelations that demonstrate Paxton has more than gone out of his way to assist Paul and his troubled real estate dealings.

“Any action you have already taken or will take pursuing this investigation is done solely on your own authority as provided by Texas law,” Moore said. “The newly surfaced information raises serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”

She said the referral of the Paul matter from her office to his — until now in the hands of an outside Houston lawyer Paxton hired — “cannot be used as any indication of a need for an investigation …or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral.” She also said she had instructed her employees “to have no further contact with you or your office regarding this matter.”

Paxton said in a statement Friday that he closed the investigation because his office “can only investigate in response to a request for assistance from the District Attorney’s office.”

I wonder if we’ll hear some more about this from the perspective of someone in Moore’s office, now that they are free of any constraint. We’re almost a week into this story and it’s still a total firehose of new information. The Statesman has more.

Judge briefly halts Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

Late Friday breaking news, which lasted until the early afternoon on Saturday.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots heading into the Nov. 3 general election, blocking the enforcement of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order that sought to limit counties to just one such location.

Saying Abbott’s order confused voters and restricted voter access, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted an injunction late Friday barring its enforcement. With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous locations to accept the ballots before Abbott’s order.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county,” Pitman wrote, “older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party called Friday’s ruling a “common sense order [that] followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”

Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats had denounced Abbott’s order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal court, arguing the order was based on invalid security concerns and places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

The Texas and national League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed suit the night of Abbott’s order, and another lawsuit was filed the next day by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group Bigtent Creative and a 65-year-old voter.

“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location. Limiting counties like Harris is a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. Looking at the plaintiffs, it appears that the first lawsuit and the second lawsuit were combined. That leaves one other federal lawsuit, plus the one state lawsuit for which there is a hearing next week.

One presumes this will be appealed, and as we all know the Fifth Circuit is where all good things go to die. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that allowing Abbott’s order, which was made more than two months after counties had begun making plans to have multiple dropoff locations and after the state Solicitor General filed a brief saying that state law allowed for this, is the thing that would improperly disrupt the election at this late date. I also think the Fifth Circuit can rise to the occasion of brushing such an objection aside. Travis County, one of the places that had multiple dropoff locations in place prior to the order, has said it will wait to see what the Fifth Circuit does before reopening them. It’s hard to fault them for that. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

UPDATE: As expected, Paxton has filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judge’s ruling. You can read that here. The smart money always says that he gets what he asks for from this court, so it’s a matter of how quickly they have a hearing and issue a ruling.

UPDATE: Faster than you can say “Anything you want, Kenny”, the Fifth Circuit grants Paxton’s motion. Now we wait for a hearing. See why Travis County decided to wait before reopening any of those dropoff locations? Here’s the Chron story about the granting of the stay.

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

Lawyers for voters and voting rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order limiting counties to one location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.

Abbott waited too long to issue his order on Oct. 1, they argued, not only because it came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations after a monthlong public information campaign, but also because voting had already begun in the Nov. 3 general election.

“It is too late and too dangerously burdensome to change election rules midstream,” lawyer Chad Dunn told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in a hearing that was held via Zoom as a pandemic precaution.

Other lawyers argued that Abbott’s order placed a disproportionate burden on Texans who are most likely to vote by mail — those who are 65 and older or have a disability — by forcing many to endure longer and more difficult travel to ensure that their votes are submitted in a time of decreasing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s ironic and sad,” lawyer John Devaney said. “Now, after voting has started, the plug has been pulled.”

Lawyers for Abbott disputed claims that his order limited voting rights, saying the governor acted to expand opportunities and options for voters during the pandemic.

Abbott’s first election-related order, issued July 27, added six days of early voting and suspended a state law that allows voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day, lawyer Eric Hudson told the judge.

In effect, Abbott gave voters almost 40 extra days to hand-deliver their ballots, Hudson argued.

“That’s not provided for in Texas law, and without Gov. Abbott’s proclamation, that right … would not be possible,” he said.

Pitman broke in to ask: “Is it the governor’s position that we’ve given you so much it’s OK to take back a little?”

“I don’t think we’ve taken anything back, your honor,” Hudson replied.

This hearing was for the first lawsuit, filed by LULAC and the League of Women Voters. Earlier in the day, the ACLU and the Lincoln Project announced they had filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Courthouse News has some further details.

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

It wouldn’t shock me if we get a ruling by Monday, but we’ll see. This is now the fourth lawsuit filed against the Abbott order, with three of them in federal court. According to the Statesman story, there’s a hearing scheduled for the state lawsuit next week.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman appeared unconvinced by the idea that eliminating the additional locations would have no impact on voting accessibility.

The suit before Pitman is one of several challenging Texas election laws and Abbott’s pandemic executive orders amending them that are still swirling, even as the start of early voting approaches.

[…]

The pool of voters using this method appears to be relatively small so far, though mail-in voting is up across Texas, so demand could rise.

In Harris County, for example, just 0.2 percent of 85,922 absentee voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff; 39 of the 404 ballots for the Nov. 3 election that have been returned through Thursday were dropped off by voters. Those dropoffs ceased when Abbott’s order went into effect with less than 24 hours notice.

It should be noted that dropoff boxes were basically never mentioned as an option for the July primary runoffs, so the fact that almost no one used them is no surprise. And since 39 out of 404 is almost ten percent, it sure looks like we were on our way to a significant increase in the use of this method. I point these numbers out because one can make an argument about how much of a burden Abbott’s order is based on them.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Third lawsuit filed against Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff sites

This one’s in state court.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to one mail ballot drop-off location has been challenged in court a third time.

The lawsuit filed in Travis County court on Monday alleges that Abbott’s order exceeds his authority under the state’s constitution and would make it unreasonably difficult for eligible Texans to use ballot by mail.

“The state of Texas should be working to ensure safe and accessible voting for all Texans. The governor’s order does the opposite,” Cheryl Drazin, vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s Central Division, which includes Texas, said in a statement. “Limiting the number of drop-off sites available to absentee voters reduces the options Texans have to participate in the 2020 election without risking their health.”

Several Texas chapters of the Anti-Defamation League are plaintiffs in the case, as are the government watchdog group Common Cause Texas, and Robert Knetsch, a 70-year-old voter from Harris County.

[…]

The plaintiffs argue that Texas election code gives local officials, not the governor, authority to manage elections. So by limiting drop-off locations to one per county, Abbott was overstepping his authority.

The order also went against what the state had already said in other cases, plaintiffs said. In late September, Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office said in a filing to the Texas Supreme Court that the state election code allowed local officials to interpret “early voting clerk’s office” as extending to annexes of those offices and the secretary of state had already allowed that.

Because of projected increases in vote by mail and delays in the U.S. postal service’s mail delivery, taking away the option for multiple drop-off locations would harm voters, like Knetsch, who was at high risk for COVID-19 because of his age, plaintiffs said.

Knetsch had planned to drop off his ballot at one of Harris County’s multiple locations, but “now plans to risk voting in-person at his local polling place, despite the risk to his health” because he fears there will be large crowds at the remaining drop-off site.

“Many of the Texans who qualify to vote absentee have disabilities and are elderly, and they rely on public transportation,” Anthony Gutierrez, executive director of Common Cause Texas said in a statement. “With only one drop-off site per county, these voters would face challenges in travel that might make it impossible for them to vote. The drop-off site limit will also make the one site in each country prone to lines and crowds, endangering voters’ health.”

See here and here for background on the previous lawsuits, both of which were filed in federal court. A copy of the complaint for this suit is here, and a statement from the Brennan Center, which is representing the plaintiffs, is here; you can also see their Twitter thread. I have no idea if one or the others has a better chance of success, I just know that we need to get a ruling Real Soon Now for any of this to make a difference. You can see all the filings from the first federal lawsuit here, and for whatever it’s worth, the top Democratic Congressional leaders have written a letter to Greg Abbott asking him to repeal this order. I’m sure he’ll get right on that.

More details emerge about the latest Paxton allegations

The Chron advances the ball.

Best mugshot ever

The top state officials who staged a mutiny against Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that he was using his office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an embattled Austin real estate investor.

Paul, a once high-flying businessman whose offices were reportedly raided by the FBI last year, gave Paxton $25,000 ahead of the attorney general’s hard-fought re-election battle in 2018.

The No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, put Paul at the center of allegedly illegal activities by Paxton in a text message sent Thursday. Mateer, who resigned Friday, joined six other high-ranking employees in accusing Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement officer, of abuse of office, bribery and improper influence.

“Each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul,” Mateer wrote in the text message, which was obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The group requested an immediate meeting with Paxton, but the attorney general said he was “out of the office” and asked them to email him with their concerns. The Austin American-Statesman, which first reported on the allegations against Paxton, published a letter the officials sent to the attorney general’s human resources office on Oct. 1.

Neither Paul nor his attorney returned calls or messages left on their voicemail.

Paxton said in a statement Sunday: “The Texas attorney general’s office was referred a case from Travis County regarding allegations of crimes relating to the FBI, other government agencies and individuals. My obligation as attorney general is to conduct an investigation upon such referral. Because employees from my office impeded the investigation and because I knew Nate Paul, I ultimately decided to hire an outside independent prosecutor to make his own independent determination. Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations, the AG’s office will continue to seek justice in Texas.”

The uprising against Paxton crystallized when a special prosecutor he appointed, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, a senior AG official told Hearst Newspapers.

The official who spoke with Hearst Newspapers said those subpoenas spurred the seven top deputies in the attorney general’s office into action. One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state district court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to “quash” them was granted on Friday, records show.

In filing the subpoenas, Cammack “represented that he was acting on behalf of the office of the Attorney General as a Special Prosecutor,” Penley’s motion said. “He is not properly authorized to act as a Special Prosecutor, and … has no authority to appear before the grand jury or issue grand jury subpoenas.”

See here for the background. The information about the special prosecutor appointed by Paxton who’s been issuing subpoenas that “target adversaries” of this Nate Paul character is what really made my hair stand on end. If there is any truth to that, then this is a massive violation of the AG’s office and I can see why his top lieutenants rebelled the way they did. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are quoted in the story issuing “this sounds bad but let’s wait an see” statements – which, in all honesty, is reasonable enough for now – but the pressure is going to be on them, too.

There’s more in the story about Nate Paul, who sounds like a typical “more money than brains or ethics” sort, and I’ll leave that to you to read. This is the other bit that had me going “hmmmm”:

Kent Schaffer, a special prosecutor in [the long-running financial fraud case against Paxton], said Saturday that the latest accusations, if they leads to charges, could imperil Paxton’s odds of securing any kind of deal to resolve the criminal case.

“We were trying to get this case resolved, but if this guy’s out committing crimes while he’s on bond, then it’s going to become an extremely serious matter,” Schaffer said. “I’m not saying that he has — I don’t know the specifics, (but if he has) then it’s game on.

“Maybe the people that reported him are not shooting straight, but I want to hear from both sides, if possible. We’re going to do what we can to investigate.”

Schaffer said he contacted the Texas Rangers on Saturday immediately upon hearing the news. He declined to comment on whether the agency mentioned any existing investigation on the matter.

Paxton has also been accused by his staff of accepting bribes in the past.

Those 2016 bribery allegations did not lead to charges, though they did give us all a momentary thrill. The idea that the special prosecutors in the current case against Paxton might be able to get some leverage against him from this scandal-in-the-making is also giving me a thrill. I should know better by know, but I can’t help myself.

The revelations over the weekend appeared to have shaken the agency, where Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven officials who reported Paxton to the authorities, sent out a letter of reassurance to staff.

“I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office and the people of Texas,” Bangert wrote. “Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all.”

Jordan Berry, Paxton’s political adviser, said he resigned after news of the allegations broke.

Watch what the people around Paxton do. We could be in for a mass exodus. I will try to stay on top of things. The Statesman has more on Nate Paul, and there’s national coverage from Bloomberg and CNN.

Second lawsuit filed against Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff order

From Chuck Lindell on Twitter, on Saturday afternoon:

See here for the background, and here for more on the first lawsuit. This one is a Democracy Docket suit, and you can read the complaint here. As of when I drafted this on Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t any news coverage that I could find – this CNN story mentions the second lawsuit, but it’s primarily about the first one, and doesn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Marc Elias of Democracy Docket summarizes what the complaint is about:

Monday ought to be a busy day at the federal courthouse. I feel like there may be cause to file a complaint in state court as well, on the grounds that Abbott’s action violates the Disaster Act since it does not conform with the goal of mitigating the disaster and thus isn’t an appropriate use of his emergency powers, but I Am Not A Lawyer so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ll update this when I see a link to news story about this second lawsuit.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

It’s Julie Oliver week

Julie Oliver, the Democratic candidate in CD25, is getting a fair bit of attention this week. First, there’s this Statesman story about what her path to victory looks like.

Julie Oliver

On a recent Zoom fundraiser with Beto O’Rourke, Democratic congressional candidate Julie Oliver was asked what the campaign was doing in the vast rural stretches of a district that extends 220 miles from Hays to Tarrant counties.

“We’re doing everything we did before the pandemic except knocking on doors and having rallies, so we’re connecting with people throughout the district,” said Oliver, an Austin lawyer and former health care executive. “Y’all that live in Austin might not be able to see what is happening in rural Texas. But that’s what’s exciting. The Democrats that have been scared to be Democrats for years and years and don’t tell their neighbors are now loud and proud. And even more than that, Republicans who have lost their party are loud and proud.”

Two years ago, Oliver came within 9 points of defeating U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin.

Williams won reelection in 2016 by nearly 21 points. In 2018, Oliver won 20,000 more votes than Kathi Thomas, the 2016 Democratic nominee, while Williams drew 18,000 fewer votes than he had two years previous.

Most of Oliver’s gains came from winning 15,500 more votes in Travis County, even as Williams’ total declined by 6,500 votes.

But, beyond Travis County, there are all or part of 12 other counties in the 25th Congressional District, and, of those, Oliver only prevailed in the small slice of Bell County by Fort Hood, and only has any chance of adding to the win column this November the western portion of Hays County that lies in the district.

The other counties are mostly rural and extraordinarily hard country for Democrats.

“I do not envision Julie Oliver being in the 20s in Hamilton County,” said Lucas Robinson, the Republican chair in the county, which provided Oliver only 509 votes in 2018, the fewest of any the districts’ counties.

That’s 15.5%, a 2% improvement from 2016.

“We are very, very, very Republican county,” said Robinson, an attorney and businessman. “And I don’t get any sense that that’s changing. In fact, it’s probably improving for Roger, this time around, simply because it’s the presidential year and people are quite fired up in my estimate for Trump.”

[…]

The 25th is the most starkly polarized of the six districts that each carve a piece out of Austin, complicating Oliver’s task as she seeks to overtake Williams.

With growth in the district factored in, Oliver probably has to claim nearly half as many more votes than she received in 2018 to win.

“I think she’s a good candidate, and by running twice, she’s in a more advantageous position than someone who no one in the district has ever cast a ballot for,” said Josh Blank, research director the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas, who lives in the 25th.

But he said, “Ultimately, Roger Williams’ task is much easier than Julie Oliver’s, because his success relies on mobilizing reliable voters, as much as he possibly can, while dinging her slightly along the way with voters who might be on the fence, of who they were going to be very few.”

Democrats, on the other hand, are “trying to become competitive by mobilizing groups of voters who are defined by their low propensity in most cases to vote. If you are a voter of low socio-economic status, working multiple jobs, and in need of health care, the Democrats definitely would be very attractive to you, but voting is not your No. 1 priority.”

Oliver cannot overlook any opportunity.

“We’re at a place in America where every election is a base election, every election is about mobilizing your core partisans, if not for you, at the very least, against the other guy,” Blank said. “And as we get closer or more competitive in any place, and Texas is an example of that, ultimately, it does come down to margins.”

That means trying to reduce the magnitude of Williams’ advantage even in places like Hamilton County, while assiduously courting and increasing the ranks of the more than 72,000 new voters in the 25th since the last election, and synchronizing efforts with overlapping state legislative campaigns that are more invigorated than in the past.

My interview with Julie Oliver is here in case you missed it. I generally agree with Josh Blank, in that CD25 has a much greater rural aspect than the other Democratic pickup opportunities. That said, the rural part of CD25 isn’t growing by nearly as much as the more Dem-friendly parts of the district:


County        2016      2018     2020
=====================================
Bosque       12,002   12,209   12,264
Burnet       29,587   31,072   32,208
Coryell      37,644   38,635   39,539
Erath        21,537   22,492   23,063
Hamilton      5,467    5,611    5,714
Hill         22,825   22,743   22,924
Johnson      91,725   97,157  102,458
Lampasas     13,786   14,099   14,728
Somervell     6,018    6,287    6,482

Bell        186,533  195,760  204,863
Hays        121,326  134,403  144,314
Travis      725,035  775,950  829,305

I skipped Tarrant County, as there’s just a tiny piece of it in CD25. Bell, Hays, and Travis are only partly in CD25, and I can’t say how much of their growth is in this district. I feel confident saying that Hamilton County, which had 66% turnout in 2016 and 61% in 2018, will not be the major contributor to a Roger Williams victory, if that is what is in the cards. It’s Johnson County (net 28K to Williams in 2018, followed by Burnet (+10K to Williams), Coryell and Hill (+6K each) that are Oliver’s biggest obstacles. If she can hold those margins down while building on the +42K net she got in Travis and the +3K in Bell (Hays was minus 3K for her, but that was an improvement on 2016; I’d say the goal is to break even here), she can win. A challenge to be sure, but it’s doable.

Meanwhile, the Texas Signal has a nice long profile on Oliver.

In the inevitable-looking saga of Republicans losing power in Texas, there would be no sweeter stroke of fate than Julie Oliver toppling Congressman Roger Williams.

A healthcare finance analyst turned Democratic candidate, Oliver is running one of the most progressive campaigns in Texas that include support for the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, abolishing private and for-profit prisons, and going after dark money in politics.

To prove the latter, Oliver is saying no to all political action committee money. Not just corporate PAC money, but PAC money from the major unions and agreeable political action groups that have endorsed her, such as the Texas AFL–CIO, Our Revolution, Working Families, Moms Demand Action and Planned Parenthood Action Fund.

Oliver’s commitment to the no PAC money pledge goes as far as sending back checks, sometimes worth only $100 or $200, to small Democratic clubs that support her.

“You don’t have to have millions of dollars in cash to win,” Oliver told the Signal, citing the elections Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush — three progressives that defeated more moderate, well-funded incumbent Democrats in safely blue districts during their primaries due to grassroots fundraising and organizing.

Oliver held the same pledge in 2018 during her first bid for Congress against Williams. She raised an impressive $644,928, but fell 9 percentage points short on Election Day — not exactly a nailbiter, but a significant improvement from her predecessor in 2016 who lost by 20 points.

“I’ve heard from some people in the Democratic Party who are like, ‘oh that’s foolish, you’ll have to take PAC money this time,’” Oliver said. “And I’m like, mm-hmm, we’ll see about that.”

Primaries are not the same as general elections, but Oliver has done very well with this approach. She’d already outraised herself from the 2018 cycle as of Q2 and appears to be on her way to topping $1 million in total receipts. That’s pretty damn impressive, especially since the large majority of her donations have come from Texas. The main thing this money, and the level of engagement that has allowed her to get contributions from so many small donors, will allow her to do is to reach out to the new voters and the likely Democrats who were there but didn’t vote in 2018. That’s the kind of thing that a campaign that has resources can do.

And she may have some more resources coming her way.

Julie Oliver, the Democrat challenging U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, is being named to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s Red to Blue program.

“Texans know tough, and Julie Oliver has always beat the odds,” DCCC Chairwoman Cheri Bustos says in a statement. “A homeless, pregnant teenager who dropped out of high school, Julie endured to finish high school, put herself through college and law school with a young family and build a successful career.

The Red to Blue designation comes roughly a month after the DCCC expanded its Texas target list to include Williams’ 25th Congressional District and two others. The committee has now designated 10 total seats in Texas that it’s working to flip this November, and Oliver is the seventh contender in those races who’s received the Red to Blue distinction.

See here for the background. The DCCC is of course a PAC, but it does its own spending, not in conjunction with campaigns. More likely, what this means is that they will tell their donors who are looking to put their extra dollars to good use that Julie Oliver and CD25 is worth the investment. At this point in the cycle that’s going to have a fairly limited effect, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing, and a whole lot more than what anyone might have thought possible in 2018.

And just as I was finishing this draft, Texas Monthly began a series it’s calling Get To Know A Swing District, with CD25 and the Oliver/Williams rematch as its first entry. All in all, a pretty good week for Julie Oliver.

A matter of timing

That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.

The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.

[…]

Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.

“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”

[…]

In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.

Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.

First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.

The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.

We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.

I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).

Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.

The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.

Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.

As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.

The Green Party owes Ken Paxton a thank-you note

He did them a solid, that’s for sure.

Turns out it is easy being Green

In the legal fight to exclude minor party candidates from the November ballot, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton took a flexible view of time and deadlines.

After the Texas GOP filed suit Aug. 21 to remove 44 Libertarians from the ballot for failure to pay a required candidate filing fee, Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court that there was plenty of time to pursue the challenge.

This week, however, Paxton told the same court that a Democratic bid to oust three Green Party candidates — filed four days before the unsuccessful GOP challenge — was begun much too late and needed to be overturned.

“The (Democrats’) dilatory conduct and unjustified delay in seeking relief imposed an undue burden on the Green Party officials,” Paxton told the court in a brief filed Monday.

[…]

[F]acing an Aug. 21 deadline to declare candidates ineligible, Democrats sued Aug. 17 to strike three Greens running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Railroad Commission.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals gave the Greens less than 48 hours to respond, then issued an Aug. 19 order declaring the three Green Party candidates ineligible for failure to pay the filing fee. The 2-1 ruling had two Democrats in the majority and one Republican dissenting.

The ruling drew the notice of Republican Party leaders, who quickly demanded that Libertarian leaders drop a long list of candidates for the same reason.

When those demands were rejected, Republican organizations and candidates asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to follow the precedent set in the Democratic challenge and order the Libertarians removed from the ballot.

But the GOP filed its challenge on Aug. 21, the deadline to declare candidates ineligible, and the appeals court tossed it out, ruling that there wasn’t time to hear from all parties and gather the necessary information before the deadline expired.

The GOP turned to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that instead of challenging candidate eligibility under an expired deadline, it was challenging the Libertarians’ candidate applications as improper — giving them until Sept. 18 to seek court intervention.

Paxton, in a letter brief to the Supreme Court, agreed with the GOP interpretation of state election law.

“Under Texas law, there is still time for this Court to compel compliance,” Paxton told the court on Sept. 4.

The all-Republican Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Sept. 5 that the GOP and Paxton were looking at the wrong section of the Election Code on deadlines. The court concluded that the Libertarians could not be removed from the ballot because the GOP challenge was filed too late.

[…]

Then on Friday, the Green Party asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its three candidates, arguing that like the GOP, the Democrats relied on the wrong part of the Election Code, rendering their challenge void as well.

The court asked Paxton’s office for its opinion.

In Monday’s response, filed 10 days after arguing that the GOP had not acted too late in challenging Libertarian opponents, Paxton urged the court to reinstate the Green candidates because the Democrats waited too long to act and because the 3rd Court of Appeals engaged in a rushed process that didn’t give the Greens, other political parties and other candidates time to weigh in.

“The 3rd Court abused its discretion,” Paxton wrote.

The Supreme Court’s one-paragraph order to reinstate the Green candidates did not explain the court’s rationale.

See here for the background. We expect SCOTX to publish its opinion on this ruling today, so we may get some idea if it’s all a bunch of sophistry or if they can make a principled argument that the Greens were deprived of their right to respond to the Dems’ legal action in a timely manner, which was a part of the ruling against the GOP in the Libertarian purge attempt. That Ken Paxton was willing to be morally and conveniently flexible on the subject should come as no surprise, given everything we know about him and his character. The Republican Party of Texas has a longstanding willingness to help the Greens whenever they think it might benefit them. This time that support came from an elected official instead of a deep-pocketed donor. Whatever works.

There was a debate in the comments of the last post about ranked choice voting (RCV) being a solution to this kind of legal gamesmanship. The theory is that since the people who voted Green or Libertarian (or independent, or whatever else may have been on the ballot) would still be able to express their electoral support for whichever major party candidate they like as their backup selection, which in turn would reduce the incentive for the major parties to bump them off the ballot. The logic has merit, though the lack of RCV around the country means there’s no data to test that hypothesis.

In this case, the argument that had been made by both the Ds and the Rs is that the other parties’ candidates had violated the law by not paying the newly-mandated filing fees – you may note, the Dems did not challenge the three Greens who did pay their filing fees, just the three candidates who had not – and there is a long history of candidates being challenged because they failed to meet eligibility requirements. If the filing fee law continues to survive the lawsuits against it, and there are Greens and Libertarians who refuse to comply with it in 2022, I would fully expect them to be taken to court again, surely in a more expeditious fashion, and I would expect that even in an RCV-enabled world. This is a basic tool in the political toolbox, one that I would not expect to go away if the method of determining the winner of an election changes. That too is a testable question, and perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for it. For now, that’s how I see it.

SCOTX puts Greens back on the ballot

That sound you hear is my head spinning.

The Texas Supreme Court has ordered three Green Party candidates to be restored to the November ballot after Democrats successfully sued to remove them.

Last month, a state appeals court sided with the Democrats, who were seeking to kick the candidates off the ballot because they had not paid filing fees. The three candidates are David Collins for U.S. Senate, Katija “Kat” Gruene for Railroad Commission and Tom Wakely for the 21st Congressional District.

The Texas Green Party appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that the secretary of state “shall immediately take all necessary actions to ensure these candidates appear on the” November ballot. The Supreme Court did not give its rationale, but said a full opinion was forthcoming.

It is the latest development in a spate of legal battles over third parties on the November ballot. At issue is a new requirement that third parties pay filing fees like Democrats and Republicans do. The law, passed last year by the Legislature, is the subject of multiple legal challenges, and many third-party candidates had not paid filing fees amid the pending litigation.

A state appeals court upheld the 2019 law last week.

While the Democrats were initially successful in booting the three Green Party candidates off the ballot, Republicans more recently failed in their bid to remove 44 Libertarians from the ticket for a similar reason. In rejecting the GOP effort earlier this month, the Supreme Court said the party waited too long to raise the issue.

[…]

It is crunch time for finalizing ballots across the state, with a Saturday deadline for counties to mail overseas and military ballots. The state’s most populous county, Harris County, wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday saying that “it is too late to make changes,” even if the court acted that day.

In an email sent to county election officials shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas secretary of state indicated that counties that had already sent out mail ballots would need to send a corrected version “as soon as possible.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling and ballot change will not be an acceptable excuse for missing the [Sept. 19] deadline,” wrote Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections. “That deadline must still be met.”

State law requires corrected ballots to include both a written notice explaining the change and instructions to destroy “defective” ballots that have not yet been returned to a county. A defective ballot returned to the county will be counted if a corrected ballot is not returned in time.

See here and here for the background on the Dems’ effort to boot those three Green candidates, and see here and here for more on the Republicans’ failed effort to boot the Libertarians. A fourth Green candidate had withdrawn from the ballot before all this started because he had voted in the Democratic primary this year.

My first reaction on seeing this news was that it was awfully late in the game for further changes to the ballot. Looking at the case filings, the writ was filed by the Greens on September 11, the Dems had till the 14th to respond, and the ruling came down on the 15th. I’ll have an opinion on the ruling when it is available, but until then all I can do is shrug. It is what it is. You can read this Twitter thread, which began with the original rulings in the two cases, for some more context. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit rejects age discrimination claims in vote by mail lawsuit

This is pretty much the end of the line, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Texas can keep its strict eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Siding with the state’s Republican leadership, the appellate judges rejected the Texas Democratic Party’s effort to expand eligibility for voting by mail to all registered voters based on their argument that the state’s age restrictions for such voting violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting rules that discriminate based on age.

The panel of appellate judges ultimately found that “conferring a privilege” to some voters — in this case the option of voting by mail to voters 65 and older — does not alone violate the 26th Amendment.

“In sum, the plaintiffs based their Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim on the argument that differential treatment in allowing voters aged 65 and older to vote by mail without excuse constitutes, at least during the pandemic, a denial or abridgment of a younger citizen’s right to vote on account of age,” the panel wrote. “This claim fails because adding a benefit to another class of voters does not deny or abridge the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote.”

The federal panel vacated a lower court’s sweeping ruling that found Texas voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail were in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. On Thursday, state Democrats indicated they would push forward with their challenge at the lower court, where the appellate court sent the case for further consideration of the party’s remaining arguments against the state’s restrictions.

[…]

“Rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments, we hold that an election law abridges a person’s right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced,” the judges wrote.

The panel was made up by Judges Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; Carl Stewart, who was appointed by Bill Clinton; and Leslie H. Southwick, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

Dissenting in part to the majority opinion, Stewart wrote that the state’s eligibility rules fail to “treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting.”

“This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic,” Stewart wrote. “Though all individuals can seemingly vote in person, those without the opportunity to vote by mail have less opportunity to participate than others.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Michael Hurta has a good brief analysis of it. As to what happens next, Rick Hasen thinks the original trial judge will find for the plaintiffs again, which will trigger another appeal. As such, this isn’t really the end of the line as I’ve suggested above, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be a ruling that favors the plaintiffs any time before the November election. Whatever ultimately happens with this will not happen until at least 2021. I don’t care for this ruling, and this was about as friendly a three-judge panel as we were gonna get. It’s hard for me to see how the outcome changes.

Which means, as I have been saying over and over again, the ultimate fix rests within the legislative process. Just add this to the ever-increasing list of things that a Democratic Legislature, in conjunction with a Democratic Governor, will need to fix. The Republicans have made their position crystal clear. There’s no bipartisan solution. The only way out is through, and that means electing a better government. The Chron has more.

Libertarians will stay on the ballot

Sorry, Republicans. You were too late after all.

The Texas Supreme Court on Saturday rejected an attempt by Republicans to kick 44 Libertarians off the ballot in the November elections.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations had sued to remove the Libertarians, arguing they did not pay filing fees — a new requirement for third parties under a law passed by the Legislature last year. But the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, finding that the Republicans missed the August 21 deadline to successfully boot people from the ballot.

“The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility,” the court wrote in a per curiam opinion. “But the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed.”

[…]

“Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me quote from the intro to the opinion, which was released on the Saturday evening of a holiday weekend, to give you the basic gist of it.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations seek to prevent 44 Libertarian Party candidates from appearing on the 2020 general-election ballot due to the Libertarians’ failure to pay the filing fee required by section 141.041 of the Texas Election Code. The Republicans concede that the statutory deadline to have the Libertarians removed from the ballot using a declaration of ineligibility passed on August 21. See TEX. ELEC. CODE § 145.035. They claim a later deadline applies to their petition, which they describe as a challenge to the Libertarians’ ballot applications governed by the deadline in section 141.034.

For the reasons explained below, the Election Code does not authorize the requested relief. Because the Libertarian Party nominates candidates by convention rather than primary election, its candidates’ applications are governed by chapter 181 of the Election Code, not by chapter 141’s procedures for challenging ballot applications. See id. §§ 181.031–.034. The relators invoke deadlines governing challenges to “an application for a place on the ballot” under chapter 141, but Libertarian Party candidates do not file such applications. Instead, they file “an application for nomination by convention” under chapter 181, which is a statutorily separate type of application governed by a separate set of statutes. Id. The Election Code does not subject the Libertarian candidates’ applications for nomination by convention to the procedures and deadlines for ballot-application challenges on which the relators rely.

Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code. The Legislature established detailed rules for ballot access and for challenges to candidates, and courts must carefully apply these rules based on the statutory text chosen by the Legislature. The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility. However, the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed. The Election Code does not permit the relators to bypass that deadline by belatedly challenging the Libertarians’ applications. The petition for writ of mandamus is denied.

In other words, the novel attempt to say they are not challenging the candidates’ eligibility, which the Republicans conceded was too late, but were challenging their applications. The Supreme Court says that the law the Republicans were citing for this challenge doesn’t apply, and as such they’re out of luck. They did say in a footnote on page three that the Green Party could have sought Supreme Court review of that Third Court of Appeals order that forced their candidates off the ballot, and that an Attorney General amicus brief that took no position on that question was filed and considered for this case. They don’t seem to be saying how such a motion for review might have been received, just that it could have been done.

The bulk of the opinion is a tour through the part of the Election Code that governs parties that nominate their candidates by convention instead of by primary election, and how the Legislature treats the two kind of nominating processes differently. I gave it only a quick scan, because life is short and it is a holiday weekend, but feel free to dive in if that’s your jam. I will say, unless the Libertarians win one of their lawsuits challenging the new statute that mandates a filing fee, which was the basis for all of this legal wrangling, both Rs and Ds will be sure to do this again in 2022, since it is clear that they can knock Libertarians and Greens who don’t pay that fee off the ballot. The Ls and Gs may not like this law, but it’s in effect until further notice, and they know what the price of not following it is. And I have to imagine that somewhere, someone inside the Republican Party is getting reamed out by someone else for not being as on the ball about this as the Democrats were. They had a path to get what they wanted, they just didn’t take it in time. From where I sit, they were caught flat-footed and were out-lawyered by the Dems. That’s gotta sting a little for them.

More on the Republican attempt to defenestrate the Libertarians

From the Statesman:

Republican candidates and organizations are asking the Texas Supreme Court to remove 41 members of the Libertarian Party from the November ballots.

All of the Libertarians are ineligible to run, the GOP argues, because they failed to pay a newly created candidate filing fee or collect the necessary petition signatures to avoid the fee. But the Libertarian Party argues that the GOP, which could have challenged the candidates in December, waited too long to seek a court remedy.

“In the midst of pandemic, with life in general taking longer and facing more complications than usual, this Court should not exacerbate the problem by ordering counties across the state to stop preparing ballots so (the GOP) can strip Texas voters of their rights to vote for their chosen candidates,” the party’s leaders told the Supreme Court in a Tuesday filing.

[…]

The Republicans argued that they “fell in the trap” of challenging the eligibility of candidates, too late as it turned out, when they should have challenged the candidate applications as improper under a different section of the state’s election laws. Removing candidates based on improper applications can take place any time before Sept. 18, when ballots are mailed to members of the military serving overseas, the Republicans told the Texas Supreme Court.

Practically, however, the party acknowledged that the Texas secretary of state’s office has been arranging to print and distribute those ballots since Aug. 28, and its petition urged the Supreme Court to act as quickly as possible.

“Should this Court issue relief, the Secretary of State can take corrective action through early September,” said the petition, filed last Wednesday.

One day later, the court gave the Libertarian Party until 10 a.m. Tuesday to file a response. In that filing, party officials urged the court to avoid a rushed decision over a filing fee that many Libertarians see as an unconstitutional poll tax — particularly with two court challenges underway.

In the first, a state lawsuit filed by current and former party candidates in Harris County led to a court order blocking the fee as unconstitutional, though the ruling was halted by an appeals court that has yet to decide the case. The second involves a federal lawsuit by the party and several of its candidates that is set for trial next year.

“There are two constitutional challenges pending,” the Libertarians said. “In this context without the benefit of a more developed record, it would be difficult to say that ineligibility is conclusively established.”

See here for the background. My not-a-lawyer self thought the Republicans’ second attempt to knock off the Libertarians had some merit – certainly more than the clumsy and too late initial attempt had – but I also think the Libertarians make a good point in their response. The successful Democratic attempt to boot the Greens was based on well-established state law, and the facts were incontrovertible. The Republican challenge is novel, and the Libertarians are correct that the facts are still in dispute in this case. The ongoing federal litigation may sway the court as well, though that same appeal did not work for the Greens. We should get a ruling quickly, that much I feel confident saying.

Fifth Circuit hears arguments on vote by mail case

One more try before it’s too late to make a difference for this year.

The Texas Democratic Party’s lawyer argued today before a federal appeals court that the state is unlawfully discriminating against the majority of the voting-age population by requiring only those under the age of 65 to have an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot.

It’s one of several last-minute battles playing out in the months leading up to the 2020 election, which is expected to yield historic turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

[…]

The Democrats’ federal case is expected to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the clock is ticking. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Texas is October 23, leaving just about seven weeks for the appellate court and high court to rule on it.

At Monday’s hearing, Chad Dunn, representing the Texas Democratic Party, told the court that the Texas mail-in voting law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote can’t be “denied or abridged” on account of age.

Dunn said previous elections have shown that voters will likely be waiting in long lines in November.

“We’re asking voters — certain ones of them get excused from that endurance test and others, based purely on their age, are to suffer through it,” Dunn said. “The fact of the matter is that when individuals’ characteristics are used by the government to divvy up who gets to vote, those are prohibited” by the Constitution.

The state, represented by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, argued that Supreme Court precedent exists to show that the Texas law does not violate the 26th Amendment.

“It does not deny or abridge the right to vote to make voting more available to some groups as opposed to others,” Hawkins said. “To abridge the right to vote does not mean giving other groups more options; it means taking away something from a certain group.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, the other vote by mail-related lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss. We should get a ruling of some kind in this lawsuit before the deadline to mail out overseas ballots, which is September 18. I have no idea if there’s time for any action on the other one.

This Statesman story from earlier in the day on Monday has some more background info on the case.

Monday’s arguments will focus on the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, saying the right to vote cannot be denied or restricted “by any State on account of age” for those 18 and older.

Just as other constitutional amendments ensure that voters cannot be treated differently based on race or gender, the 26th Amendment uses identical language to extend voting protections based on age, said Chad Dunn, who will argue Monday on behalf of Democrats before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am confident that we will ultimately ensure that everybody, regardless of age, has the right to vote by mail,” Dunn told the American-Statesman.

[…]

The age question has drawn the interest of at least one influential observer: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

When Texas Democrats raised the issue at the high court this summer, the nine justices declined to accept the case. Sotomayor was the only one to discuss the reason.

The Democrats’ challenge, she wrote in late June, “raised weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment.”

However, justices balked at addressing those questions for the first time at the high court, and Sotomayor urged the 5th Circuit Court to make a speedy decision in the matter.

Many others hope for a quick resolution as well. In Texas, voting for the November election begins in less than seven weeks.

[…]

The case before the 5th Circuit Court will determine the fate of a May order by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who required mail-in ballots to be sent to any registered Texas voter who requested one while “pandemic circumstances” continue.

“One’s right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature. Citizens should have the option to choose voting by letter carrier versus voting with disease carriers,” Biery wrote.

Paxton appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court responded by blocking enforcement of Biery’s order until the appeal can be decided.

That ruling by a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit was notable for its harsh criticism of Biery for wading into election decisions that belong to “politically accountable officials,” not judges.

“The spread of the virus has not given unelected federal judges a roving commission to rewrite state election codes,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

A different three-judge panel, however, will hear Monday’s oral arguments and decide whether the 26th Amendment bars Texas from denying mail-in voting to those under age 65. Two of the judges on the new panel were appointed by Democratic presidents — Carolyn Dineen King and Carl Stewart — while the panel’s third member, Leslie Southwick, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

A ruling won’t come Monday, but with the election looming, the appeals court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule.

The Texas Democratic Party’s challenge has drawn considerable interest, with additional legal briefs filed by liberal and conservative public interest groups, health professionals, advocates for the disabled, other states and local political parties.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir also submitted a brief with election officials from Harris, Cameron and Fort Bend counties that begged the 5th Circuit Court to accept the 26th Amendment arguments and expand mail-in voting.

“Unless access to vote by mail is increased significantly, providing a safe election will be impossible because of the expected high volume of in-person voters this presidential year,” their brief said.

On the one hand, almost 30 doctors and nurses, including epidemiologists and front-line health workers, told the court that it is essential to reduce the number of people gathering on Election Day to protect voters, poll workers and the community from COVID-19, while the Texas NAACP argued that the state’s Republican leaders adopted a needlessly restrictive interpretation of mail-in voting law to impose a severe and unacceptable burden on the right to vote.

On the other hand, a brief from conservative legal interest groups argued that Biery improperly interfered with the state’s authority to regulate the time, place and manner of elections in favor of widespread mail-in voting, which should be allowed in only limited circumstances because it is more vulnerable to fraud than traditional voting.

Originally, there were two lawsuits, one filed by the TDP that argued COVID vulnerability was sufficient to be considered a “disability” and allow anyone who claimed that to get a mail ballot, and one filed by other groups that argued the existing limit of vote by mail to those 65 and over (plus those who claim a disability, which as we know was not clearly defined and is being argued about in other venues) violates the 26th Amendment, which is the one that lowered the voting age to 18. Both were combined into this lawsuit, and as you can see the 26th Amendment claim is the main thrust from the plaintiffs. We’ll see what we get.

A word about mail ballot drop boxes

I learned something in this story.

Travis County voters nervous about delays with the post office will be able to hand-deliver mail-in ballots or drop them off at drive-thru sites this fall, County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said Tuesday.

“If they want to vote by mail but now they’re worried, at least they have a drive-thru option,” she told county commissioners.

DeBeauvoir said reported issues at the post office have put local election officials “in a jam” and that they’re creating more options for people planning to vote by mail in the upcoming election.

She said she anticipates about 100,000 people in Travis County will vote by mail. There are about 833,000 eligible voters in the county, she said, and about 123,000 of those voters are over 65, which means they qualify for a mail-in ballot under Texas’ limited program.

[…]

Other states also allow election officials to set up “drop boxes” for voters to hand-deliver ballots. Those are illegal in Texas, however; voters must hand their ballots directly to an official.

“Voters will still have to show up in person with only their own ballot,” DeBeauvoir said. “They can’t deliver anybody else’s for them. We want to be sure that voters understand that they’ll need to produce ID and they will have to sign a signature roster.”

DeBeauvoir said there will be a walk-up site to hand-deliver ballots, as well as three drive-thru locations downtown. She said there should be about 10 lanes to drop off ballots.

“We think we can have enough capacity to handle the number of voters we feel like are going to take advantage of this, because of what happened to the post office,” she said.

I did not know that drop boxes as they are being used in other states are illegal in Texas. I’m not surprised, but it is another typical annoyance. Harris County is doing something similar as voters will be able to drop off mail ballots at any County Clerk office, though whether there would be drive-thru service for that is not clear to me. I think there will be drop off boxes at some early voting sites, like the NRG Arena, but that’s only for the early voting period. I’d like to see someone in the Lege revisit this issue in the next session, and put a bill to expand mail ballot drop off access on the agenda.

If Dana DeBeauvoir is correct about there being 100K or so votes by mail in Travis County, that will shatter records. I had to check the SOS archive pages for early voting because the Travis County elections website does not split out mail ballots from other early votes, but in 2016 there were 20,090 mail ballots as of the last day of early voting, which was 4.2% of final turnout. In 2018, those numbers were 17,830 mail ballots, and 3.6% of final turnout. Where it gets more interesting is in the 2020 primary runoff, which of course was done in the height of the COVID-19 outbreak. We also do have mail totals from the county: For the 2020 Democratic primary runoff, there were 20,641 mail ballots cast out of 124,608 total ballots, or 16.6% of turnout, a massive increase. On the Republican side, it was 2,974 mail ballots and 19,257 total ballots, or 15.4%. A hundred thousand mail ballots in November would be around twenty percent of total turnout. Like I said, a big big increase. If other counties are expecting something similar, then this really will be a very different election than what we have seen before.

Republicans go to Supreme Court to remove Libertarian candidates

If at first you don’t succeed, make up a new statutory deadline that you claim is the real date that matters.

About a week after Texas Democrats took several Green Party candidates to court and had them knocked off the ballot for failing to pay candidate filing fees, state and national Republicans are taking a similar case to the state’s highest civil court.

The Third Court of Appeals ruled against three Green Party candidates, but in the case of the Libertarians, the court dismissed the case as moot, saying it was no longer timely because the Aug. 21 deadline to declare a candidate ineligible had passed. The Republicans’ petition was filed Aug. 21.

This latest lawsuit filed by the Republicans names 40 Libertarian candidates, including two candidates for Texas Supreme Court, three for Texas Senate, 10 for Texas House and 25 for Congress.

The high court doesn’t have much time to take action: Friday was the deadline for the Secretary of State to certify candidates for the ballot.

“It’s a last-ditch effort on their part,” said Libertarian Party of Texas Chair Whitney Bilyeu. “They’re clearly desperate to do everything they can to remove voter choice at the polls to continue to have a one-party state here in Texas.”

The Libertarians say their candidates chose not to pay the fee for various reasons: some were taking a personal stand against a law they believe to be unconstitutional, some filed with the Secretary of State during a window of time when a judge had temporarily blocked the law, and others simply did not have the funds.

The filing fees in Texas are $3,125 for the U.S. House, $1,250 for Texas Senate and $750 for Texas House. Fifty-three of 70 Libertarian candidates paid theirs, state data shows.

Lawyers for the Republicans wrote that “timing is of the utmost importance” because “each day closer to September 19 — the date ballots are mailed — makes relief less practical.”

[…]

At the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas House Republican Caucus PAC and National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as 27 of their candidates and the GOP parties in Harris, Travis and Tarrant counties, are arguing that while the deadline to challenge eligibility may have passed, the deadline to challenge a candidates’ application is Sept. 18, the day before any mail-in ballots are sent out.

See here for the background. Patrick Svitek has a copy of the writ of mandamus, and honestly the “Relief Requested” section of the document, starting on page 18, explains why this is different in a fairly clear manner:

When a candidate fails to submit the required filing fee, there is confusion whether the appropriate challenge is to the application, under Chapter 141 or the eligibility under Chapter 145. The statute is less than crystal clear on this point, providing that “To be eligible to be placed on the ballot for the general election . . . a candidate must” pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu of a filing fee. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041(a) (emph. added). At the same time, Chapter 141 provides that a challenge under this section, to provide the application, is not “a determination of a candidate’s eligibility.” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.034(b).

Adding to the confusion, courts and parties have intermingled these two challenges. See In re Davis. No. 03-20-00414-CV, 2020 Tex. App. Lexis 6663 (Tex. App.—Austin, Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding) (granting mandamus relief challenging a minor candidate’s eligibility under Chapter 145 based on a candidate’s failure to pay the required filing fee).

Candidly, in the tight window to seek mandamus relief, many of the Relators fell in the same trap last week when they challenged certain Libertarian candidates eligibility under Chapter 145. The Third Court of Appeals denied that relief, finding it untimely.

But, as an analysis of the statutory scheme and case law bear out, a challenge to a candidate’s failure to submit the application with the required filing fee is a challenge arising under Chapter 141.

This distinction is important because challenges to application— versus eligibility—have different timing requirements. The Third Court of Appeals concluded that a challenge to eligibility must be completed by the 74th day preceding the election. On the other hand, a party can challenge a candidate’s application, including the failure to pay the filing fee “the day before any ballot to be voted early by mail is mailed . . .” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.032. That date is September 18.

Relators institute this new original proceeding under Texas Election Code Section 273.061, challenging the candidates’ ability to appear on the general election ballot for failure to submit the required filing fee under Chapter 141. As this is a new action, requesting new relief, this is an appropriate original jurisdiction proceeding before this Court. In this action, Relators ask the Court to compel the Libertarian Party of Texas and its Chair to comply with their statutory duty to reject these applications and to notify the Secretary of State of the rejection. If the Secretary of State is made aware of the rejection, it can take appropriate corrective action.

There is no question of timeliness in this challenge, as it can occur at any time prior to September 18. Practically, though, after August 28, the Secretary of State will begin to make arrangements to print and distribute ballots. Thus, timing is of the utmost importance. Should this Court issue relief, the Secretary of State can take corrective action through early September. However, each day closer to September 19—the date ballots are mailed—makes relief less practical.

Basically, what this claims is that the challenge that the Third Court rejected was made under the wrong law, given the timing. This challenge is made under a different law, where the timing is not an issue, at least not yet. Will it fly? I have no idea, but points for effort.

Two other items of interest here. One is that the long list of relators (again, that’s what you call a plaintiff in a case like this) here includes multiple Republican candidates, presumably all of whom have a Libertarian opponent. You may recall from the previous challenge that the absence of Republican candidates in affected races raised the question of standing. The Third Court did not address that issue because they ruled that the motion was moot, but the Supreme Court would surely have to address it in any race where the candidate was not among the relators. Two, the story says that 53 of 70 Libertarian candidates did in fact pay the filing fee, but the Republicans named 40 of them in this writ and claimed none of them paid the fee. Both of these facts can’t be true, so we’ll see what the court says. My guess is we’ll get an answer in short order.

Republicans try and fail to remove Libertarian candidates from the ballot

From Patrick Svitek:

The Third Court of Appeals decision is here. You may be wondering, why did this same court agree to boot three Green candidates off the ballot last week, for the same reason of not paying filing fees? A good question, with a straightforward answer in the opinion.

Basically, the key difference is timing. By state law, the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot is 74 days before the general election, which this year was August 21. The same date is also the deadline for removing an ineligible candidate’s name from the ballot. A candidate who has withdrawn, or been declared ineligible, or died after this date will still appear on the ballot. Recent examples of the latter include Sen. Mario Gallegos in 2012 and State Rep. Glenda Dawson in 2006. If the ineligible/withdrawn/deceased candidate wins the election (as was the case in those two examples I cited), there is then a vacancy for the office, because that person cannot take office, and thus there is the need for a special election to fill that vacancy.

How that matters in this case is that the plaintiffs (“relators” in Appeals Court-speak) waited too long to take action. The relators included the NRCC, the Republican Party of Travis County, and Rep. Van Taylor. As outlined in the Dem cases against the Greens, they asked via email the Libertarian Party of Texas to disqualify the candidates that didn’t pay the filing fee, and then followed that up with the filing to the Third Court. The problem was, they sent that email “late in the evening on Thursday, August 20”, and filed their mandamus petitions on the 21st (the NRCC in the morning, the Travis County GOP at 9:19 PM). That did not leave adequate time for the Libertarian Party to respond, and it also means that the legal deadline I just mentioned had already passed. Here’s the analysis of the case from the court’s ruling:

“The law is clear that a challenge to the candidacy of an individual becomes moot ‘when any right which might be determined by the judicial tribunal could not be effectuated in the manner provided by law.’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting Polk v. Davidson, 196 S.W.2d 632, 634 (Tex. 1946) (orig. proceeding)). “If a challenge to a candidate’s eligibility ‘cannot be tried and a final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes by officials charged with the duty of preparing for the holding of the election,’ we must dismiss the challenge as moot.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Crawford, 747 S.W.2d 938, 940 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1988, orig. proceeding)).

The Texas Election Code provides that “[a] candidate’s name shall be omitted from the ballot if the candidate withdraws, dies, or is declared ineligible on or before the 74th day before election day.” Tex. Elec. Code § 145.035. However, “[i]f a candidate dies or is declared ineligible after the 74th day before election day, the candidate’s name shall be placed on the ballot.” Id. § 145.039. “If the name of a deceased, withdrawn, or ineligible candidate appears on the ballot under this chapter, the votes cast for the candidate shall be counted and entered on the official election returns in the same manner as for the other candidates.” Id. § 145.005(a).

Because relators waited to file their challenge to a total of 30 candidates until the last possible day this Court could grant the relief they seek, they made it impossible for the Court to obtain the information and briefing needed to afford due process and make a reasoned decision until less than 74 days remained before election day. Accordingly, even if this Court were to conclude based on the mandamus record that respondents have a statutory duty to declare the real parties in interest ineligible, their names would remain on the ballot and any votes cast for them would be counted. See id. §§ 145.039, .005(a); see also Brimer, 265 S.W.3d at 928 (holding that challenge to candidate’s eligibility for general election becomes moot when it cannot be tried and final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes); accord Smith, 747 S.W.2d at 940 (“This is true, even though the contestant may have good cause or grounds for the contest.”) (citing Cummins v. Democratic Exec. Comm’n 97 S.W.2d 368, 369 (Tex. App.—Austin 1936, no writ)). No order that this Court might enter would be effective to change this result. The Republican Party candidates’ only legally recognized interest in pursuing this mandamus is to avoid being opposed by an ineligible candidate—an outcome that we cannot, at this point, change.

In other words, if the Republicans wanted the Libertarians who didn’t pay the fee off the ballot, they needed to act sooner than they did, in order to meet the statutory deadline for removing those candidates’ names from the ballot and also to give them their due process rights to respond to the allegations. Because they waited as long as they did, the law was clear that the candidates’ names would remain on the ballot, even if they were indeed ineligible. If one of those Libertarians were to win, then (I presume, anyway) there could be a subsequent lawsuit over whether they could take office or not, but that would be a fight for another day. They snoozed, they lost, better lawyering next time.

One more thing, from a footnote to the analysis of the case:

We note that relators seek the same relief that was sought and granted in our recent opinion, In re Davis, No. 03-20-00414-CV, __S.W.3d__, 2020 WL 4931747 (Tex. App.—Austin Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding). There, the petition for mandamus was filed four business days before the statutory deadline. To assure due process to respondents, this Court required responses in one business day, the same as it did here. And in In re Davis, the candidates themselves brought the challenge. While it is clear that “a candidate for the same office has ‘an interest in not being opposed by an ineligible candidate,’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting In re Jones, 978 S.W.2d 648, 651 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1998, orig. proceeding [mand. denied]) (per curiam)), respondents in this proceeding challenge whether political parties have an interest sufficient to confer standing to pursue mandamus relief. See Colvin v. Ellis Cnty. Republican Exec. Comm’n, 719 S.W.2d 265, 266 (Tex. App.—Waco 1986, no writ) (holding that “voter” who was opposing political party’s chair had no justiciable interest apart from general public and could not bring suit to enjoin candidacy of ineligible candidates). We need not reach this issue or the other legal and evidentiary arguments raised by respondents because we are disposing of the mandamus petitions based on mootness.

In other words, the question of who raised this challenge to the Libertarian candidates would have been an issue for the court to decide if the matter was not moot. I should note that the Brimer v. Maxwell case cited in that footnote was a reference to a challenge brought by then-Sen. Kim Brimer against Wendy Davis for the 2008 election. There had been a prior challenge made by some Fort Worth firefighters who alleged that Davis did not resign her Fort Worth City Council seat in time to file for the Democratic primary, but that case was dismissed because the court ruled those plaintiffs did not have standing. Brimer did have standing, but a district court ruled in Davis’ favor and a subsequent appeal was denied in part because it was way past the deadline to boot anyone from the ballot. You never know what tidbits of interest can lurk in these things. Anyway, that should be that for now.

Weekend voting litigation news

I have two news items about voting-related lawsuits. Both of these come via the Daily Kos Voting Rights Roundup, which has been increasingly valuable to me lately, given the sheer number of such lawsuits and the fact that some news about them either never makes the news or does so in a limited way that’s easy to miss. For the first one, which I have been unable to find elsewhere, let me quote directly from the DKos post:

A federal court has rejected the GOP’s motion to dismiss a pair of Democratic-backed lawsuits challenging a 2019 law Republicans enacted to ban mobile voting locations that operate in a given location for only part of the early voting period. The law in question requires that all polling places be open for the entire early voting period, but because this puts additional burdens on county election officials’ resources, many localities have opted not to operate so-called “mobile” polling places altogether.

Democrats argue that the law discriminates against seniors, young voters, voters with disabilities, and those who lack transportation access in violation of the First, 14th, and 26th Amendments.

This was originally two lawsuits, one filed in October by the Texas Democratic Party, the DSCC, and the DCCC, and one filed in November by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, the Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Emily Gilby, a registered voter in Williamson County, Texas, and student at Southwestern University serving as President of the Southwestern University College Democrats (the original story listed this plaintiff as Texas College Democrats, but they are not mentioned in the ruling). These two lawsuits were combined, and the ruling denying the motion to dismiss means that this combined lawsuit will proceed to a hearing. Now, I have no idea how long it will take from here to get to a hearing on the merits, let alone a ruling, and as far as I know there’s no prospect of an injunction preventing the law in question (HB1888 from 2019), so this is more of a long-term impact than a 2020 thing, but it’s still good news. I should note that there was a third lawsuit filed over this same law, filed in July by Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters. That one was filed in San Antonio federal court, while this one was in Austin. I do not know anything about that lawsuit other than the fact that it exists. Like I said, this stuff is hard to keep up with.

The ruling is here, and it’s not long if you want to peruse it. The motion to dismiss argued that the Secretary of State could not be sued because it didn’t enforce voting laws, that the plaintiffs did not have standing because the injuries they claimed under HB1888 were speculative, and that HB1888 was constitutional. The judge rejected the first two claims, and said that once standing and the right to sue were established, the constitutionality question could not be answered in a motion to dismiss because the state had a burden to meet for the law to be constitutional, even if that burden is slight. So it’s on to the merits we go. Now you know what I know about this particular offensive against one of Texas’ more recent attempts to limit voting.

Later in the Kos roundup, we learned about a brand new lawsuit, filed by the Hozte clown car crowd, which is suing to overturn Greg Abbott’s executive order that extended early voting by an additional six days.

Conservative leaders and two Republican candidates have filed suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that added six days of early voting for the November election as a pandemic-inspired safety measure.

The extension, they argued, must be struck down as a violation of the Texas Constitution and state law.

“This draconian order is contrary to the Texas spirit and invades the liberties the people of Texas protected in the constitution,” the lawsuit argued. “If the courts allow this invasion of liberty, today’s circumstances will set a precedent for the future, forever weakening the protections Texans sacrificed to protect.”

The lawsuit was the latest attempt by prominent conservative activist Steven Hotze to overturn Abbott’s executive orders and proclamations in response to the coronavirus.

None of Hotze’s suits to date has succeeded, but the barrage of legal challenges highlights the difficulty Abbott is having with his party’s right wing, which questions the severity of the pandemic and opposes limits on businesses and personal decisions.

The latest lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Travis County state District Court, was joined by Republican candidates Bryan Slaton, running for the Texas House after ousting Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, in the GOP primary runoff, and Sharon Hemphill, a candidate for district judge in Harris County.

Other plaintiffs include Rick Green, a former Texas House member from Hays County, and Cathie Adams, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas and a member of Eagle Forum’s national board.

In late July, when Abbott extended the early voting period for the Nov. 3 election, he said he wanted to give Texas voters greater flexibility to cast ballots and protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Beginning early voting on Oct. 13, instead of Oct. 19, was necessary to reduce crowding at polls and help election officials implement safe social distancing and hygiene practices, Abbott’s proclamation said. To make the change, Abbott suspended the election law that sets early voting to begin 17 days before Election Day.

At the same time, Abbott also loosened vote by mail rules allowing voters to deliver completed ballots to a county voting clerk “prior to and including on election day.”

The Hotze lawsuit, which sought to overturn that change as well, argued that Abbott’s emergency powers do not extend to suspending Election Code provisions and that the early voting proclamation violates the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine because only the Legislature can suspend laws.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the Texas secretary of state from enforcing Abbott’s proclamation and a court order declaring it unconstitutional.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Abbott did extend early voting, though whether it was in response to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ request or if it was something he was always planning to do – remember, he did do the same for the primary runoff election – is not known. What is known is that the State Supreme Court has shown little patience for Hotze and his shenanigans lately. The quote in the story from the lawsuit may be one reason why – there’s a lot more heat than facts being alleged, and even a partisan institution like SCOTX likes to have some basis in the law for what it does. The fact that the extension of early voting for the July runoffs went unchallenged would seem to me to be relevant here – if this is such a grave assault on the state Constitution, why was it allowed to proceed last month? The obvious answer to that question is that there’s a partisan advantage to (potentially) be gained by stopping it now, whereas that wasn’t the case in July. My guess is that this goes nowhere, but as always we’ll keep an eye on it. Reform Austin has more.

Finally, I also have some bonus content relating to the Green Party candidate rejections, via Democracy Docket, the same site where I got the news about the mobile voting case. Here’s the temporary restraining order from the Travis County case that booted David Collins from the Senate race and Tom Wakely from CD21; it was linked in the Statesman story that I included as an update to my post about the mandamus request to SCOTX concerning Wakely and RRC candidate Katija Gruene, but I had not read it. It’s four pages long and very straightforward, and there will be another hearing on the 26th to determine whether the Texas Green Party has complied with the order to remove Collins and Wakely or if there still needs to be a TRO. Here also is the Third Court of Appeals opinion that granted mandamus relief to the Democratic plaintiffs regarding all three candidates:

Molison and Palmer are hereby directed to (1) declare Wakely, Gruene, and Collins ineligible to appear as the Green Party nominees on the November 2020 general statewide ballot and (2) take all steps within their authority that are necessary to ensure that Wakely’s, Gruene’s, and Collins’s names do not appear on the ballot. See In re Phillips, 96 S.W.3d at 419; see also Tex. Elec. Code § 145.003(i) (requiring prompt written notice to candidate when authority declares candidate’s ineligibility). The writ will issue unless Molison and Palmer notify the Clerk of this Court, in writing by noon on Thursday, August 20, 2020, that they have complied with this opinion.

“Molison” is Alfred Molison and “Palmer” is Laura Palmer, the co-chairs of the Texas Green Party. Since the question of the state lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party over the filing fee mandate came up in the comments on Friday, here’s what this opinion says about that, in a footnote:

We note that although the Green Party and other minor parties and candidates have attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the filing-fee or petition requirement in federal and state court, the statute is currently in effect and enforceable. The federal court denied the parties’ and candidates’ motion for preliminary injunction on November 25, 2019. See Miller v. Doe, No. 1:19-CV-00700-RP, (W.D. Tex., Nov. 25, 2019, order). Although the state district court granted a temporary injunction on December 2, 2019, temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees from the general election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition, the State superseded the temporary injunction, and an interlocutory appeal is pending before the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. See Hughs v. Dikeman, No. 14-19-00969-CV, (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], interlocutory appeal pending).

Emphasis mine. So there you have it.

Further thoughts on the Dems defenestrating the Green candidates

But first, the Chron story about yesterday’s legal action.

An appellate court on Wednesday blocked three Green Party candidates from the November ballot because they failed to pay candidate filing fees.

The candidates are David Collins, who was running for Senate; Tom Wakely, who was running for the 21st Congressional District, and Katija “Kat” Gruene, who was running for the Railroad Commission. The legal challenge was filed by their Democratic opponents: MJ Hegar, Wendy Davis and Chrysta Castañeda, respectively.

Two members of a three-judge panel of the court sided with the Democrats late Wednesday.

In their majority opinion, Justice Thomas Baker wrote that Wakely, Gruene and Collins are ineligible to appear on the ballot and compelled the Green Party to “take all steps within their authority” to ensure they don’t appear on the ballot. Due to the time sensitivity, Baker said the court would not entertain motions for a rehearing.

Chief Justice Jeff Rose dissented, saying providing no other explanation than that relief was “not appropriate based on the record before us.”

[…]

Davis’ campaign declined to comment. Hegar’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Randy Howry, Hegar’s lawyer in the Travis County case, referred questions about the impetus for the suit to attorney Alexi Velez, who was not available for comment.

Castañeda said the suit was a matter of fairness and that the timing was “based on the fact that the Green Party tactics only recently came to light.”

“I and my fellow candidates worked very hard to get on the ballot, and the statute is clear for all of us,” she said, adding that if the candidates didn’t want to or couldn’t pay the fee, they “could have acquired the signatures to petition to be on the ballot but chose not to do so.”

[…]

Wakely said it was clear to him that the last-minute pile-on of lawsuits was a coordinated strategy to eliminate competition. He added that it was curious that Libertarian candidates, including the one in his 21st District race, Arthur DiBianca, who also did not pay fees, were facing similar scrutiny.

Gruene added that the last-minute nature of the case also seems to be part of the Democrats’ strategy, as it leaves the Green candidates without many options for relief.

Charles Waterbury, a lawyer for the Green Party candidates, agreed that the timing seemed like a tactic and said Democrats should have raised the issue sooner.

“The Democrats waited so long for what I would argue is kind of an artificial emergency,” Waterbury said. “If this is such a huge deal, if keeping the juggernaut that is the Green Party off the ballot is so important, this is something they should have filed way before. … They know the difficulty faced by a party like the Greens is basically insurmountable.”

Gruene said she views the suit against her in the same way as Wakely.

“It’s a way to siderail a campaign to shift into dealing with legal matters instead of campaigning,” Gruene said. “The Democratic Party has always seen the Green Party as their opposition, and they, from 2001 until today, have used lawsuits as a way to bankrupt candidates, bankrupt parties and prevent voters from having the choice of voting for Green Party candidates.”

See here and here for the background. Let me begin by saying that yes indeed, the Democratic Party and the Green Party are opponents, by definition. Only one candidate in a race can get elected, so by definition every candidate in a given race is an opponent to the others. I have no patience at all for the whining of these candidates about how mean the Democrats are being to them because I am old enough to remember the 2010 election, in which deep-pocketed Republican backers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Green candidates get on that year’s ballot, an act of charity that the Green Party was only too happy to accept. Those Republicans did that with the intent of making it just a bit harder for Bill White to beat Rick Perry in the Governor’s race. It turned out they needn’t have bothered, but that wasn’t the point. So please spare me the hand-wringing, and pay the filing fee or collect the petition signatures as long as that is required by law, or face the consequences of your actions.

Along those same lines, I respectfully disagree with RG Ratcliffe:

I have never voted for the Green Party and never will, but it is really chickenshit of Texas Democrats to complain about voter suppression and then try to suppress the choices of voters who want to cast ballots for candidates of a party with ballot access over a filing fee the party candidates did not have to pay until this year. And this is about more than a few candidates, this is about denying the Greens ballot access in the future.

I don’t agree that challenging candidates who did not follow the law as written – and please note, a couple of the Green candidates did pay the filing fee, so it’s not that they all shared this principle or all lacked the ability to pay – is in the same universe as passing discriminatory voter ID laws, refusing to expand vote by mail in a pandemic, aggressively pursuing felony prosecutions against people who made honest mistakes (two words: Crystal Mason), but I’ll allow that filing these motions to oust the Greens is not exactly high-minded. To respond to that, let me bring in Evan Mintz:

Here’s an important lesson: Hypocrisy in politics isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no grand umpire or arbiter who punishes elected officials for inconsistency (besides the voters, and they usually don’t mind). Politics isn’t about truth; it’s about power. If past positions get in the way, change them.

I’d say that’s a lesson they don’t teach you in school, but actually they do. Rice University graduate student Matt Lamb told me it’s the first thing he teaches students in his Introduction to American Politics class: “Politics is about power.”

It’s the power to implement an agenda, impose one’s own morality on others, or distribute resources. It’s the reason people try to get elected in the first place.

Texas Democrats must’ve missed that class, because for the past 30 years or so they’ve acted as if noble intentions alone are enough to merit statewide office. Uphold the process. Act professionally. Do the right thing. Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said essentially that in a May conference call with journalists in response to the governor’s plan on ending COVID lockdowns. “The Democratic Party is not looking at the response through a political lens,” he said. “We’re looking at what is good for the public. If that costs us votes, so be it.”

There’s a slight flaw in Hinojosa’s plan: You can’t pursue the public good if you don’t get the public vote.

I’d say it’s clearly the case that the Democrats took legal action to remove these Green Party candidates from the ballot for the same reason why the Republicans paid money in 2010 to help put them on the ballot: They want to increase the chances that their candidates can win these elections. Obviously, there are limitations to this. One need only look at the utter degradation of the Republican Party and the principles it once held on subjects like free trade and personal morality under Donald Trump, where the only principle they now have is winning at all costs for the sake of holding onto power, to understand this. I’d like the Democratic candidates I support to hold principles that I support as well. But you also have to try your best to win elections, because as I’ve said way too many times over the past decade-plus, nothing will change in this state until the Dems start winning more elections. If that means I have to live with the knowledge that we booted some Green Party candidates off the ballot for the purpose of maybe upping our odds some small amount, I’ll do that. If you want to judge me for that, you are free to do so. I can live with that, too.

Hollins asks for some slack on when mail ballots are received

From the inbox:

Chris Hollins

On Wednesday, August 19, 2020, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins sent a formal request to Governor Greg Abbott requesting that Governor Abbott extend the deadline by which county election administrators can receive mail ballots. The deadline for most mail ballots is currently either 7:00 p.m. on Election Day (November 3) or, if postmarked by Election Day, 5:00 p.m. the day after Election Day (November 4). To alleviate Harris County residents’ fears after recent news coverage detailing expected delays from the United States Postal Service, the Harris County Clerk’s Office seeks to extend the deadline by which all mail ballots postmarked on or before November 3 may be received by election officials to at least Monday, November 9, 2020 –– the same deadline that currently exists in Texas for military voters.

“This November, we are predicting record voter turnout, and my office is receiving thousands of vote-by-mail applications,” said Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins. “As the situation stands now, a mail ballot postmarked on Election Day is unlikely to be received in our office the following day. We know that voting by mail is the safest way to vote ––I hope that the Governor accepts this request to avoid disenfranchising thousands of Harris County voters due to mail delays beyond our control.”

He tweeted about this as well. Given the great uncertainties caused by the ongoing sabotage of the postal service, it makes all kinds of sense to allow ballots that were postmarked by Election Day be received up to the statutory deadline for military and overseas ballots. You know how every time there’s a really close election and a call for a recount, they wait a few days until military and overseas ballots are all in? That’s because the election isn’t really over until that happens. If we’re waiting for those ballots anyway, why not wait for the likely small number of non-military or overseas ballots that may have gotten delayed in delivery? Especially this year, of all years.

Among other things, that would make life a lot easier for local election officials.

Data gathered by the Tribune from nine major counties — Harris, Tarrant, Bexar, Travis, Collin, Denton, El Paso, Fort Bend and Hidalgo — showed that at least 2,639 of 198,947 votes cast by mail-in ballot [in the July elections] went uncounted. (Dallas County did not provide data.) Some were derailed by mistakes, like returning ballots without a signature. But Harris County alone accounted for 2,034 ballots that weren’t counted based on tardiness. Overall, at least 2,155 ballots went uncounted because they arrived too late.

For most people voting absentee, Texas counties must receive completed ballots by Election Day. If they’re postmarked by 7 p.m. that day, they’ll be counted if they come in the next day by 5 p.m. The U.S. Postal Service recommends that Texans ask for mail-in ballots no later than 15 days out from that due date. But state law allows voters to request the ballots up until a week and a half before Election Day, so some may not receive their ballots until it’s too late to mail them back in time.

The misalignment between the state’s deadlines and USPS processes is hardly novel, but the ill-matched timelines will be newly tested this general election as more Texans are expected to try to vote by mail to avoid the health risks of voting in person. At the same time, a troubled U.S. Postal Service is facing cost-cutting measures and ensuing mail delivery delays.

Although they represent a small sample in a low-turnout election, the mailing woes that kept voters from being heard in the July runoffs are spurring local election officials and voting rights advocates to work to minimize similar problems come November.

“What we have been telling voters is that [voting by mail] is the safest and most secure way to vote, period, in a global pandemic,” said Ali Lozano, voting rights outreach coordinator with the Texas Civil Rights Project. But some local officials “are fully aware that they have to do something because there is just no possible way they can maintain the same infrastructure and handle the inevitable influx of ballots they’re going to get.”

During the runoffs, the state’s deadline for requesting mail-in ballots — 11 days out from Election Day — left a troop of Harris County election workers, including County Clerk Chris Hollins, working furiously on the Sunday of July Fourth weekend to send ballots to the last of the voters whose applications had come in.

The county had been told by the U.S. Postal Service that Texans hoping to have their votes counted should send back their completed ballots at least one week before the state’s deadline for accepting mail-in votes. On that timeline, the Harris County voters whose applications for ballots were being processed that Sunday would possibly end up receiving their ballots on the same day they were already supposed to be on their way back to the county. And that was under the best-case scenario.

“We were well ahead of the cutoff legally, but in a COVID scenario, meeting the legal deadline is not helpful to voters,” Hollins said. “It leaves them very much in a pinch.”

[…]

Harris County’s to-do list for November includes purchasing more mail-sorting equipment and hiring hundreds of temporary workers who will be solely focused on processing voting-by-mail applications and ballots. Harris County posted voting-by-mail numbers in a typically small runoff election approaching general election figures, Hollins said, and the county will continue to encourage eligible voters to use the vote-by-mail option in the fall. With thousands of ballot styles to draw up for the general election, the complex endeavor requires ballot requests to be processed by hand.

The runoff election “was taxing on our system, so thinking about an election that’s going to be seven or eight times larger than that in the fall, our operation has to be seven or eight times larger,” said Hollins.

But not all Texas counties can attain that sort of exponential growth. In the mostly Republican county of Aransas — population 24,763 — the elections department is typically a two-person office. During the March primary, it took Election Administrator Michele Carew and her deputy eight days to get through mail-in ballot requests from Republican voters while still preparing for in-person voting.

Aided by the election funding her county received through the federal coronavirus relief package, Carew hired an election worker solely dedicated to mail-in ballots. But Aransas is facing a continuous stream of applications that will need to be fulfilled while the county prepares to manage six extra days of early voting that Gov. Greg Abbott ordered for the fall.

“Every day, we get up to a dozen requests,” Carew said. “Before, it used to be far and few between.”

Neither Abbott’s office nor the Texas secretary of state’s office responded to questions on what guidance the state is providing to local election officials on handling the dueling deadlines.

Big surprise there. This would be a small change, it would likely affect a small number of ballots, and it would make the system fairer and easier for the people who run it to operate. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

More challenges to Green Party candidates

From Patrick Svitek:

As we know, the Green Party candidate for Supreme Court Chief Justice withdrew following a challenge that alleged he had violated election law by voting in this year’s Democratic primary. The writ makes the following allegations:

1) The passage of HB2504, the same bill that lowered the statewide vote threshold from five percent to two percent for third parties to automatically qualify for the ballot also mandates a filing fee (or collection of petition signatures), with the same fees or petition requirements for third parties as for Dems and Republicans.

2) Candidates Wakely and Gruene did not pay the filing fees or collect the petition signatures, and the Green Party was aware of this. Indeed, the Green Party specifically stated in their April newsletter that some of their candidates did pay the filing fee while others (including Gruene, Wakely, the already-withdrawn Waterbury, and Senate candidate David Collins, who for whatever the reason was not named in this mandamus) did not.

3) Both the Greens and the Libertarians filed lawsuits alleging that the filing fee was illegal for them, since the idea of the fee was to help pay for the primary elections, which they don’t have. The Libertarians won a temporary injunction against the fee in December, but that was put on hold by the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, and as of today the filing fee is still in effect. (This had caused some confusion for the Ls and Gs, and I have no idea how many other candidates there may be in this particular boat.)

4) Because of all this, the Green Party was required to disqualify these candidates, and since they did not, the Dems are asking the Supreme Court to do so. They are asking via mandamus because Friday the 21st is the statutory deadline for candidates to be included or excluded from the November ballot.

So we’ll see what happens. In theory, I’ll have an update to this by the weekend. The Libertarians’ lawsuit over the legality of the filing fees is still ongoing, it just won’t be resolved in time for this election. Two side notes of interest that I discovered while writing this: One, Katija Gruene also tried to file for HD51, but was not allowed to file for two different offices by the SOS. Pretty sure it’s clear in state law that’s a no-no. Also, a candidate who had applied to run for HD45 was disqualified by the Greens at their convention because he had voted in the Dem primary. Just like Charles Waterbury, except I guess he was up front about it. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Apparently, there was more than one effort going on.

A Travis County judge issued an order Wednesday that temporarily blocked two Texas Green Party candidates for Congress from appearing on the November ballot.

The 14-day temporary restraining order was granted after Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar, joined by two national Democratic organizations, argued that her Green Party opponent, as well as a Green candidate opposing Democrat Wendy Davis, should not be placed on the ballot because they failed to pay a candidate filing fee as required by a new state law.

District Judge Jan Soifer’s order blocked the Texas secretary of state’s office from certifying David Collins, the Green candidate for U.S. Senate, and Tom Wakely, running for U.S. House District 21, to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. Both candidates were “indisputably ineligible” to appear on the ballot, Soifer said.

Soifer, who was head of the Travis County Democratic Party before becoming a judge, also set an Aug. 26 hearing to determine if the Democrats’ request for an injunction should be granted.

[…]

Hegar’s challenge was one of two that Democrats had recently filed in state courts seeking to keep Green Party challengers off the ballot over failure to pay the fees.

Davis, running for the House seat held by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Hays County, and Chrysta Castañeda, running for the Railroad Commission, filed an emergency petition Monday asking the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals to issue an order blocking their Green Party opponents from the ballot.

Hegar, seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also joined that effort Wednesday. The appeals court has not yet ruled on the request.

Green Party candidates are generally believed to take votes that would otherwise go to Democrats.

The Green Party acknowledges that its candidates – Collins, Wakely and Katija Gruene for railroad commissioner – did not pay the filing fee or collect the needed number of petition signatures to avoid the fee.

But the party believes the fee, as it applies to third parties, is unconstitutional and improper, said Laura Palmer, Green Party co-chair.

Wow. I had wondered about Collins, given that he wasn’t mentioned in the mandamus request. If all of these motions succeed, the Greens will end up with no statewide candidates, one Congressional candidate (in CD36), one State Senate candidate (SD26), and two State House candidates (HDs 92 and 119). That’s not a lot, but even if the Greens prevail they’d still only have seven total candidates on the ballot. Seems like maybe there’s a bigger issue than the filing fee here, but maybe that’s just me.

UPDATE: And here’s a Trib story by Patrick Svitek with further information.

On Wednesday, both a Travis County district judge and a state appeals court blocked the Green Party nominees for U.S. Senate and the 21st Congressional District from appearing on the ballot. The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals additionally forced the Green Party nominee for railroad commissioner off the ballot.

Earlier this week, it surfaced that a Green Party contender for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court had withdrawn after the Democratic nominee questioned his eligibility.

The Democrats are largely targeting Green Party candidates because they have not paid filing fees — a new requirement for third parties under a law passed by the Legislature last year. The filing fees were already required of Democratic and Republican candidates. The new law is being challenged by multiple lawsuits that remain pending, and the Green Party of Texas has been upfront that most of its candidates are not paying the fees while they await a resolution to the litigation.

[…]

The rulings Wednesday came in response to lawsuits in two different courts that involved some of the same candidates. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, MJ Hegar, had sued in Travis County district court to disqualify the Green Party nominees for U.S. Senate, David Collins, and for the 21st District, Tom Wakely. Meanwhile, Hegar had joined the Democratic nominees for the 21st District, Wendy Davis, and for railroad commissioner, Chrysta Castañeda, to seek an ineligibly ruling for their three respective Green Party candidates before the 3rd Court of Appeals.

In the appeals court’s opinion, Justice Thomas Baker ordered the Green Party of Texas to declare their three candidates ineligible and do all they can to make sure they do not appear on the ballot. Baker said the court would not accept motions for rehearing, citing the “time-sensitive nature of this matter.”

In the Travis County district court decision, Judge Jan Soifer said her order is in effect for the next two weeks. However, she scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 — two days before the state’s ballot certification deadline — where she could reevaluate the decision.

Four things: One, as of these rulings we are now at the point I mentioned earlier, where there are no statewide Green candidates. Two, this may moot the mandamus request to the SCOTX. Three, apparently I was wrong earlier, because August 28 is the deadline for party nominees to be certified for the ballot. August 21 is the deadline to withdraw. And finally, that strategy of not paying the filing fees while the lawsuit over filing fees carries on, even though there is no injunction stopping the filing fees, sure does not appear to have worked out well for the Greens.

Despite it all, voter registration keeps increasing

You love to see it.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Not even the worst pandemic to hit Texas in a century was enough to stem the surge in voter registrations that has remade the state’s electorate over the past four years.

Just since March, Texas has added nearly 149,000 voters even as the political parties and voter registration groups face new obstacles in signing up people in a world of social distancing and stay-at-home orders.

The state now has a record 16.4 million voters, 2.1 million more than it had just over four years ago — a 15-percent increase in registrations that is nearly equivalent to the voter rolls of the entire state of Connecticut.

“It is a totally different electorate than it was in 2016,” said Luke Warford, voter expansion director for the Texas Democratic Party.

Harris County and Bexar County have led the way in the last three months with voter registration efforts. In Harris County, voter rolls have grown by 16,000, while in Bexar they are up almost 14,000. Combined, the two counties account for one-fifth of the increase in registrations statewide.

Texas voter registration rolls historically have grown very slowly. From 2002 to 2012, the rolls grew by 800,000. But now, registration is in hyperdrive. Just since November of 2018, Texas has added almost 600,000 voters.

Some of the change is coming from transplants moving from other states, while many others are coming from minority communities that voter registration advocacy groups have targeted over the last four years.

In short, Brandon Rottinghaus, a University of Houston political science professor, said 2020 is setting up as a real shootout in regions of the state that have become more competitive because of the diversification and growth of the electorate.

“It’s another step toward Texas being a true battleground,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

In Texas voters don’t register by party affiliation like many other states, making it unclear exactly how many Republican or Democratic voters are in the state.

But about one-third of the 1.3 million new voters since November 2018 come from three counties: Harris, Travis and Bexar — all deeply blue since 2016.

Harris and Bexar being at the top of the list doesn’t surprise Antonio Arellano, who is the leader of Jolt, a voter advocacy group focused on registering young Latino voters and getting them involved in politics. He said his group has been on the ground in those two counties.

While the coronavirus made registration drives impossible in traditional locations such as libraries, county fairs and large events, younger voters can still be found with direct messages on social media, text messages, and digital ads. The virus hasn’t affected those efforts at all.

“We harness culture, art and technology to get it done,” Arellano said.

Each year in Texas, 200,000 Latinos turn 18 — a population that is Jolt’s main focus.

Nice. The March voter registration figures are here, the January figures are here, and the November of 2018 figures are here. Harris County is right at 2.4 million, and I think we have a shot at getting to 2.5 million for November. As the story notes, average monthly voter registration figures are actually up since April, about double what it had been from November of 2018 through March. People have been working it, with Jolt, Battleground Texas, and Beto’s Powered by People all doing a lot of heavy lifting. You want to make a difference, get trained as a volunteer deputy voter registrar – the Harris County Tax Assessor has online ZOOM training sessions to become a VDVR – and join up with one of these groups. Every new voter matters.

I actually drafted this about a month ago, just before the primary runoffs, then as is sometimes the case kept putting off publishing it. Because I procrastinated, you can now see the state and county-by-county voter registration figures by looking at the contest details for the Senate runoff. But this post is even more of a delayed special than that. In the Before Times, I had drafted a story about where a lot of voter registrations were coming from – short answer, the I-35 corridor from San Antonio to D/FW – but between the primary and the world falling apart, I never got around to publishing it. I’m repurposing it for this post, so read on for what I had written a couple of months ago.

(more…)

Hemp lawsuit

This ought to be interesting.

New rules prohibiting the retail sale and distribution of “smokable” hemp products are unconstitutional, companies argue in a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Travis County.

When Texas legalized hemp last year, the legislation explicitly outlawed manufacturing and processing hemp products meant to be smoked. But rules released Sunday defining the state’s hemp program also banned the sale of these products.

That cut off a major source of income for many small businesses that sell hemp in Texas.

[…]

The lawsuit argues the ban of manufacturing and processing smokable products enacted as part of the law is unconstitutional and that the ban on distributing and selling these products is not valid.

Jax Finkel, executive director of the Texas Chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said banning the sale of smokable products goes beyond the intent of the bill.

You can see a copy of the lawsuit here. There’s a more detailed story here.

In a lawsuit filed in Travis County District Court on Wednesday, the companies are asking a judge to declare the ban unconstitutional and allow hemp products intended for smoking or vaping to be produced and sold legally across the state.

“At a time when the Texas economy is reeling from the fiscal impact of COVID-19, it is unfortunate that the State chose to foreclose such a large economic opportunity for our state and instead chose to force long-standing Texas businesses and jobs across the border to neighboring states, such as Oklahoma,” said attorney Chelsie Spencer, counsel for lead plaintiff Crown Distributing LLC.

“Crown Distributing, which manufactures the popular Wild Hemp brand of smokable products, stands to lose $59.6 million in revenue over the next five years if the bans are upheld,” Spencer told Marijuana Moment in an email. “The state of Texas stands to lose $2.9 million in sales tax revenue alone.”

Texas legalized hemp in 2019, in large part to capture a piece of an industry that is booming following the federal legalization of the crop through the 2018 Farm Bill. Hemp, a category of cannabis that contains less than 0.3 percent THC, has a variety of uses: Its seeds are a nutritious food source, its fibrous stalks can be made into textiles or building materials and its flowers can produce a variety of cannabinoids, most notably cannabidiol (CBD).

Texas’s hemp law as passed by the legislature specifically prohibited the manufacture of hemp products intended for smoking or vaping, though it left open the door for selling products made out of state. But a year later, regulators at the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) issued rules extending that ban to forbid the retail sale of any smokable hemp products. That restriction took effect on Sunday.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit argue that both those provisions should be overturned. The state legislature’s ban on processing and manufacturing smokable products violated the state constitution’s protection of economic freedom, they say, while DSHS lacked the authority to extend lawmakers’ ban to include retail sales.

“DSHS characterizes banning distribution and retail as ‘a logical extension’ of banning manufacturing,” the lawsuit says. “But even if this were true (it is not), agencies have no authority to enact rules that they deem to be a ‘logical extension’ of law.”

[…]

“If allowed to move forward, these bans on smokable hemp products will shutter businesses across the state, resulting in a loss of jobs and tax revenue,” the companies said in their complaint. “They impede the economic liberty of Texas businesses, pose an existential threat to Texas hemp manufacturers, farmers, and retailers, and are sure to stifle growth of a budding Texas industry.”

As for the ban on producing and manufacturing smokable hemp products, the companies say it violates the state constitution’s protections against arbitrary economic restrictions.

“There is no plausible law enforcement benefit from banning the Texas manufacture and processing of smokable hemp products,” the lawsuit argues. “Imposing an arbitrary constraint here is particularly perverse because the law does not ban the use or consumption of smokable hemp products. As such, Texas consumers will simply buy smokable products made out-of-state.”

“Stated differently,” it continues, “if Texas had banned the processing and manufacture of cheese in Texas, Texans wouldn’t stop eating cheese.”

See here for more on the hemp legalization bill (HB1325), which has also had the effect of making it a lot harder to prosecute marijuana cases. I’d be very interested to hear what a lawyer thinks about this complaint. I’ll say that the bits quoted here sound a lot like political arguments, which were made during the discussion of the bill. Don’t get me wrong, I largely agree with those arguments, but that doesn’t mean they’ll have any purchase in a courtroom. Still, this could be interesting, and it may help push the broader legalization argument forward. Perhaps we’ll get another incremental bill this session; we are for sure not getting anything more ambitious than that as long as Dan Patrick is Lt. Governor. But there’s a lot of room for small steps, and who knows, maybe this will end up being a big one. I wouldn’t count on it, but you never know. Reform Austin and the Hemp Industry Daily have more.

No eviction moratoriums

So opines Ken Paxton, and we all know what an unimpeachable source he is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised Friday that local Texas governments’ attempts to delay evictions for renters grappling with the COVID-19 recession amounted to rewriting state law — something they can’t do, he said in nonbinding legal guidance.

“While local officials do possess certain emergency powers … statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised ‘on an appropriate local scale,’” Paxton said in a letter. “Government Code does not authorize local governmental entities operating under a declared disaster to independently rewrite state law as it applies to their jurisdiction to prohibit, delay, or restrict the issuance of a notice to vacate.”

Paxton’s letter, issued in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, seems to chide local officials like Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who last month extended the eviction moratorium in the city until Sept. 30. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe extended his ban until the same date. In other counties, like Harris and Dallas, some justices of the peace have decided to not hear evictions. It is unclear if Paxton’s opinion will influence those judges.

Adler said in a statement that his orders were lawful and “do not amend statewide eviction procedures,” but rather aim to “reduce person-to-person contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for Travis County, said officials there are reviewing the opinion.

Paxton’s opinion could have weight if someone were to sue a local government over its eviction moratorium.

“I can’t say I’m shocked that the state attorney general would side with landlords. Nothing he has done to date shows us that we could expect something different,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the housing advocacy group Texas Tenants Union. “A lot of tenants are facing eviction in Texas by zero fault of their own, and putting protections that are normal in almost every other state should be allowed in this pandemic.”

As we know, AG opinions don’t carry the force of law, but they are an obstacle. As with other contentious matters on which Paxton has opined, someone will have to take this to court to force the issue. Of course, this is also something the Legislature can review and revise, and I’d say it needs to be on the ever-increasing list of things the Lege very much needs to do at its first opportunity. On a side note, this adds some context to the city of Houston’s rental assistance program, which has been offered instead of an eviction moratorium order, which a number of people advocated for. A moratorium would certainly have been a more comprehensive tool to keep people who have been affected by the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from it in their homes, but not if it could not be enforced. Whatever you think of Mayor Turner’s approach, it was not affected by this action.

Harris County issues school closure order

This was expected.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County and Houston health authorities on Friday ordered all public and non-religious private schools to delay opening for in-person instruction until at least Sept. 8 — a date likely to be extended unless the region sees a significant reduction in its COVID-19 outbreak.

Flanked by their respective health authorities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner said the region’s novel coronavirus outlook appears too dire to allow the restart of face-to-face classes before Labor Day. Most Houston-area public school districts already had pushed back their in-person start dates to Sept. 8, though a few remained on track to hold on-campus classes in August.

“The last thing I want to do is shut down a brick-and-mortar representation of the American dream,” Hidalgo said Friday. “But right now, we’re guided by human life.”

With the decision, officials in all five of the state’s largest counties — Harris, Dallas, Tarrant, Bexar and Travis — have ordered the closure of public schools through at least Labor Day.

None of the Greater Houston region’s other large counties — Fort Bend, Montgomery, Brazoria and Galveston — have issued closure orders. However, Montgomery County public health officials recommended this week that their school districts delay their start dates or remain online-only through Labor Day.

The Harris County order comes four days after Hidalgo and Public Health Executive Director Umair Shah issued a non-binding recommendation that campuses stay closed until October at the earliest. While county and city officials held off Friday on mandating closures through September, Hidalgo said reopening buildings immediately after Labor Day “is still likely too soon.”

County and city officials said they will need to see a significant decrease in multiple measures, including case counts, rate of positive tests, hospitalizations and deaths, before they OK the reopening of campuses. Local health officials, however, have not set specific COVID-19 outbreak benchmarks that must be met.

“If we want our schools to reopen quicker in person, it’s going to take all of us pulling together to do that,” Shah said.

See here for the background. This was done in part so that HISD would be in compliance with the TEA’s current guidelines. We all want our kids to get back to school in a safe manner as quickly as possible. That means not flattening but crushing the curve, getting coronavirus infections way down to much more manageable levels. We have the month of August to make that happen. Are we going to take this seriously – face masking, social distancing, self-quarantining as needed – or not? The choice is ours.

The progressives and the runoffs

May as well check in on this.

Sara Stapleton Barrera

Judging from March, the ideological left wing of the Democratic Party in Texas should be inconsolable.

After months of high hopes, the faction ran into a centrist buzz saw in the March 3 primary. Joe Biden practically locked up the Democratic presidential nomination, and progressive candidates experienced electoral drubbings.

Among the fallen: presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, congressional candidate Jessica Cisneros, U.S. Senate hopeful Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, and Audia Jones, a candidate for Harris County District attorney endorsed by Sanders.

But rather than licking their political wounds, leading progressive candidates still in the fight say they’re invigorated — and eager to use the coronavirus pandemic, fights over voting by mail and calls for police reform to score some late victories in the July runoffs.

“Every time we have a progressive run, we get a little bit closer,” said Sara Stapleton-Barrera, who is in a runoff against state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville. “I feel like we’re slowly winning the war, but we have to get through some of these battles first.”

Perhaps the most energy is coming from Austin, where two runoffs have the attention of progressives. José Garza is competing in the nationally watched Democratic primary runoff for Travis County district attorney. Mike Siegel is vying for his party’s nomination in the 10th Congressional District’s Democratic primary runoff.

Garza’s race is where the focus on police reform is arguably the clearest. Even before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police prompted protests nationwide, Garza was challenging incumbent Margaret Moore from the left, arguing she was too harsh in her prosecution of nonviolent offenders. He earned the most votes in March and has promised to bring all police shootings and more police misconduct cases before a grand jury. He has also pledged not to accept campaign contributions from police unions.

Moore, meanwhile, has accused him of being inexperienced with the local criminal justice system and running a campaign focused on national issues instead of local ones.

In the 10th Congressional District, Siegel is running on a platform that includes supporting “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal. Siegel will face Dr. Pritesh Gandhi, who has cited his medical experience while pitching Medicare Extra, a proposal that does not go as far as Medicare for All and leaves some private insurance in place.

“I think this is the exact moment in history when progressives are in a place to lead, and it’s because the times have caught up the policies we’re fighting for,” Siegel said. “This is the time to run as a progressive. I feel really good not just about my chances, but the movement overall.”

[…]

Another runoff that has drawn the attention of some national progressives is the one for the 24th Congressional District, where Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela are competing to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Kenny Marchant, R-Coppell. The seat is a national Democratic target.

Valenzuela has endorsements like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Warren, but the runoff has not as sharply split along ideological lines as much as it has on issues of experience and racial identity. Valenzuela, a former Carrollton-Farmers Branch school board member, and her allies are hammering Olson over her time as human resources director for the Dallas Independent School District. Valenzuela and her supporters are also touting that she would be the first Afro-Latina to serve in Congress. Olson is white.

But the divide might be clearest in South Texas, where the winner of the state Senate runoff between Lucio and Barrera will be the overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November.

I’ve said repeatedly that beating Eddie Lucio in SD27 will do more for progressives than beating Henry Cuellar in CD28 ever could have done, because of the relative sizes of the two legislative bodies and the outsized influence Lucio has in the 12-member (for now) Dem Senate caucus. Lucio is terrible, and I’m delighted that that particular race has finally gotten the attention it needs. I think one reason why maybe it didn’t get as much attention earlier is because Sara Stapleton Barrera isn’t necessarily “the” progressive candidate in that race. If Ruben Cortez had finished second, people would be rallying behind him now. This race is much more about Eddie Lucio, and I’d say it’s only now that we’re down to one candidate against him that the race has been viewed through that lens.

As for CD10, I mostly shrug my shoulders. I think Medicare For All is a fine goal to work towards, but Medicare For Those Who Want To Buy Into It is much more easily achieved in the short term, with far less disruption to the existing system and far less resistance from people whose employer-based (possibly collectively-bargained) plan is just fine for them. If we’re lucky enough to have a Democratic Senate in 2021, I think what can get passed by that Senate is what we’re going to get. Will having more pro-Medicare For All members of Congress affect that outcome? Maybe. It’s hard to say. I like Mike Siegel and would vote to give him a second chance to topple Mike McCaul if I lived in CD10, but I think either Siegel or Pritesh Gandhi will be a fine addition to Congress and a major upgrade over the incumbent. Same in CD24, with Kim Olson and Candace Valenzuela, each a good candidate with different strengths and appeals but no major differences on policy.

The race that definitely has the potential to have a big effect is the Travis County DA race, where the ideological lines are clear and the ability for the upstart to make a difference if they win is great, though not unbound. Please feel free to set a good example for the rest of us, Travis County.

As for whether this is another step in a long march towards more liberal candidates and officeholders, I’d say yes, and that we’ve already been on that march for a long time. Ideological sorting is a thing that has been happening for a few decades now. You can see the effect just in recent years – the Democratic waves of 2006 and 2008 included a lot of candidates whose politics included “fiscal responsibility”, support from the NRA, opposition to same-sex marriage, immigration restrictionism, and a host of other views that were very much not shared with the class of 2018. The Democratic Party is a big tent, which means there will always be room for vicious family fights over various issues. Having some number of Never Trumpers inside that tent will just make it all more exciting. It’s fine, and I’d rather be dynamic than stagnant. And every primary and primary runoff, the main emotion many of us will feel will be “thank prime that’s over, now let’s please get on to the general election”. Same as it ever was.

The lack of testing is becoming a more serious problem

It was already serious. Now it’s extra serious.

As the new coronavirus continues to spread in Texas, leaders of some of the state’s biggest cities said Monday that their testing sites were being strained, forcing them to turn away people in the middle of the day or limit who is eligible to take a test.

In Travis County, interim County Judge Sam Biscoe said the county’s public testing is being rationed to only people with symptoms. Previously, local leaders had encouraged anyone to get tested, including asymptomatic people and people that had come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

“The rapid increase in cases has outstripped our ability to track, measure, and mitigate the spread of the disease,” Biscoe wrote in a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott asking to allow metropolitan areas to issue their own stay-at-home orders.

The largest laboratory analyzing tests is also strained, Biscoe said, to the point that the county has decided to prioritize cases from severely ill patients in hospitals. Residents in Travis County who don’t show symptoms still have other options, like private facilities, to get tested.

In Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner said his city’s two public testing sites, where testing is still available to people who are symptomatic or asymptomatic, reached their maximum capacities before noon.

“The capacity on those sites will be increased from 500 [daily tests] to 650 each,” Turner said. “It is clear that there is a demand out there, and we need to ramp up as best as we can to meet that demand.”

Meanwhile, the two community-based testing sites in the city of Dallas are reaching their capacity “by noon or early afternoon daily,” according to city spokesperson Roxana Rubio. In these sites, testing is restricted to symptomatic patients, high-risk people, first responders, essential workers and asymptomatic patients who have engaged in large group settings.

The obvious problem here is that if you think you need a test but can’t get one, you have the choice of self-quarantine and hope for the best, or keep on keeping on, and hope you’re not the 2020 equivalent of Typhoid Mary. If everyone could reliably get a test and get their results in a reasonable amount of time, people would be much freer to move around, and maybe even socialize with other people who can confidently state that they are safe. Indeed, if we could do this at scale, we could do much more targeted quarantining, and thus let larger portions of society open up safely. Wouldn’t that have been nice? Other countries have managed to do it. Just not this one. SIt with that for awhile.

Meantime, in Houston, the spread of this disease is having a bad effect on crime.

With more than 10 percent of its workforce out due to COVID-19, the Houston Forensic Science Center is dangerously close to having to limit its responses to crime scenes, the agency’s director said Monday.

Of 200 total staff, 10 have tested positive for the novel coronavirus, said Dr. Peter Stout, CEO and president of the agency, which manages Houston Police Department’s forensic laboratory and crime scene unit. Another 12 are self-quarantining while they await test results. None of the exposures appear to have been transmitted through their work, Stout said.

Stout said he’s “very worried” because about one-fourth of the agency’s team dedicated to crime scene investigation is out of commission due to COVID-19. He’s concerned what that might mean for the center’s ability to collect evidence at murders, police-involved shootings and child deaths.

“We’re precariously close to having to shift around so we can have any capacity to make scenes that come up,” said Stout.

[…]

Delays in collecting evidence could mean further backlogs in criminal cases, prosecutors said.

“The pandemic is stretching the criminal justice system thin, causing backlogs up and down the system,” said Michael Kolenc, a spokesperson for the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. “We will address any impact on a case by case basis.”

The center was already severely understaffed for a city the size of Houston before the pandemic, Stout said. There are usually 27 people working in the CSI unit. In cities like Dallas and Austin, the standard is around 100 crime scene investigators, Stout added.

“It’s not even close to the right magnitude of what we should have,” said Stout. “Especially this year, with the escalation in homicides, we were in a real pinch with the crime scene unit already.”

The unit is now only able to travel to scenes of homicides, officer-involved shootings, deaths of children and around 1 percent of aggravated assaults reported in the city, said Stout.

“It’s a serious issue,” Stout said.

Sure sounds like one. Maybe we’ll do a better job with the next pandemic.