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A response to Paxton’s response

As you may recall, back in June we learned about a State Bar of Texas complaint against Ken Paxton for his ridiculous and seditious lawsuit that attempted to overturn the 2020 Presidential election. That complaint was filed by four people: Kevin Moran, retired journalist, President of the Galveston Island Democrats; David Chew, former Chief Justice of the 8th Court of Appeals; Brynne VanHettinga, a now inactive member of the Texas Bar; and Neil Cohen, a retired attorney. A second complaint was later filed by Lawyers Defending American Democracy, part of a group that included four former Presidents of the State Bar of Texas.

I’ve had some email correspondence with Neil Cohen, who was introduced to me via a mutual friend, since that first complaint came to light. He sent me the following analysis of Paxton’s responses to the complaints:

Ken Paxton’s recent [7/15] Response to four Grievances arising from his December lawsuit to overturn the election demonstrates that his claims of a stolen election and of illegal voting procedures were merely posturing to improve his political standing. The top law officer of Texas put our system of democracy in grave danger for his own political benefit.

The Grievances charged that his lawsuit is filled with falsehoods and absurd legal claims, thus violating attorney disciplinary rules. Paxton’s response failed to defend large sections of the lawsuit. As to his claims of massive voting improprieties, Paxton stated that he had hoped to develop the evidence during trial. (1) That, however, was his only evidence in support of his stolen election claims. Thus, Paxton’s tacit admission that he has no evidence to support his claims is strong proof that there is no evidence of a stolen election. The “Big Lie” is indeed a big lie. His admission is also in marked contrast to his repeated claims in the month between the filing of the lawsuit and the meeting of the electors on Jan 6 that the election was stolen and his urging Trump supporters to take action. Those claims culminated in Paxton’s appeal to a mob to “keep fighting” shortly before they invaded the Capitol Building.

As to legal claims, Paxton did not offer a defense of several essential claims (2), including the most important, that the proper remedy was overturning the election and disenfranchising millions of voters. On the issue of standing, where by a 7-0 vote [two justices ruled based on other issues] the Supreme Court had rejected Paxton’s arguments that Texas had the right to dictate to four other sovereign states how they conducted their election lawsuit, Paxton merely reiterated his arguments.

Instead of better defending his lawsuit, Paxton instead relies on two very weak procedural arguments. First, the Bar shouldn’t hear the Grievances because the filers weren’t his client. (3) The Disciplinary Rules, however, specifically provide that anyone with information about rule violations can file a grievance. (4) He also argues, without citing cases specific to attorney discipline, that the separation of powers doctrine prevents a court system from disciplining an attorney general for a court filing. (5) This is contrary to the cases I found. (6) Also, moving from the abstract level of his argument to the specific facts of this case, Paxton is arguing for the privilege to lie and to bring lawsuits that lack any reasonable basis. That privilege is non-existent. In fact, an attorney appearing before a court acts as an officer of the court and is therefore subject to discipline from the court (and from the relevant bar associations).

The weakness of Paxton’s Response demonstrates that the lawsuit violates attorney disciplinary rules and that his claims of a stolen election are nonsense. Because of the serious consequences of Paxton’s action, including an invasion of the Capitol Building, the Bar should impose its most serious punishment, disbarment. In addition, Paxton should be removed from office.

1 Response, pp. 12-13.
2 What he did defend — See Response, p. 8 (standing), p. 10 (electors clause), p. 11 (equal protection and due process).
3 Response, p. 13.
4 https://www.law.uh.edu/libraries/ethics/attydiscipline/howfile.html The second question (which is not numbered) states, "Any person who believes that a rule of professional conduct has been violated may file a complaint with the State Bar."  (emphasis added).
5 Response, p. 20
6 In re Lord, 255 Minn. 370 (Minn. 1959) • 97 N.W.2d 287; Massameno v. Statewide Grievance Committee, 234 Conn. 539 (Conn. 1995) • 663 A.2d 317.

I have a copy of the Paxton response here, and further notes from Cohen on the response are here.

As it happens, there was also a story in Salon about the complaint and Paxton’s limited and technicality-laden response to it:

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, an ardent Trump supporter who was the lead plaintiff in a last-ditch Supreme Court case aimed at overturning the 2020 election, appears to be backing away from his past claims of widespread election fraud. Facing discipline or even potential disbarment in Texas, Paxton now merely alleges that there were “irregularities” in battleground states, while still suggesting those could somehow have affected the overall result

Paxton’s apparent retreat came earlier this month in response to an array of grievances filed by several members of the Texas bar: retired lawyer Neil Cohen; Kevin Moran, president of the Galveston Island Democrats; former Texas Court of Appeals Chief Justice David Chew; and Dr. Brynne VanHettinga. In their initial complaint, the group argued that Paxton should face professional discipline over his bid to undermine the 2020 presidential election, saying that Paxton’s December petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that President Biden’s victory should be set aside, was both frivolous and unethical.

In Paxton’s response to their grievances, which was provided to Salon, the attorney general argued that “Texas’s filings were not frivolous” because “the 2020 election suffered from significant and unconstitutional irregularities in the Defendant States.” Paxton further claimed that, by this logic, he and his office “did not violate the disciplinary rules.”

Paxton’s response is a clear departure from his previous rhetoric, much of which explicitly supported former President Trump’s grandiose conspiracy theories about systemic election fraud. Earlier this month, Paxton told a Dallas crowd at the Conservative Political Action Conference that his “fight” for election security “is not done.”

“When people tell you there is no election fraud, let me just tell you my office right now has 511 counts in court because of COVID waiting to be heard,” Paxton continued. “We have another 386 that we’re investigating. If you add those together, that’s more election fraud than my office has prosecuted since it started investigating election fraud years and years ago.”

Paxton is notably less bombastic in his response to the Texas bar, but mentions the same “irregularities” that his original Texas suit claimed had tainted the elections in swing states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin. Effectively all of those supposed “irregularities” were changes in voting rules made in response to the COVID-19 crisis, which created significant challenges for both in-person and absentee voting.

[…]

In an evident attempt to ward off the threat of disbarment, Paxton’s response seeks to explain why the suit had any legal basis or “standing.” He argues, somewhat confusingly: “Texas’s assertion that it had standing in Texas v. Pennsylvania could not have been frivolous. There are no Supreme Court cases contrary to its position that it had standing.”

But Paxton indirectly admits, in Cohen’s view, that he had no real evidence of fraud, and apparently “hoped to develop the evidence during discovery.” In other words, his entire case could be interpreted as a fishing expedition, or just an attempt to rile up the Trump base with unsupported allegations. “That’s in contrast to his behavior for the month after filing the lawsuit,” Cohen said, “when he repeatedly claimed the election was stolen and urged people to take action.”

So now you know. I have no idea when the State Bar may issue a ruling, and as richly as Paxton deserves to be disbarred, I can’t see them doing much more than issuing some kind of reprimand. But at least that would be something. My thanks to Neil Cohen for the info and the guest post.

Justice Department sues over Abbott’s anti-migrant executive order

Good.

The Biden administration sued Texas on Friday, asking a federal judge to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that state troopers pull over drivers transporting migrants who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19 as a way to prevent the spread of the virus.

The lawsuit comes a day after the U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland, in a letter to the governor, threatened to take legal action against Texas if Abbott didn’t rescind his order. Garland described the order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

The Department of Justice said in the lawsuit that Abbott’s order will contribute to the spread of COVID-19 and it will disrupt immigration officials’ network of contractors and non government organizations that help host recently arrived migrants as their legal cases are pending.

“In our constitutional system, a State has no right to regulate the federal government’s operations,” the DOJ argued in a motion asking the judge to block Abbott’s order, adding “this restriction on the transportation of noncitizens would severely disrupt federal immigration operations.”

[…]

The lawsuit says that if migrants are not allowed to be transported by volunteers or contractors they would have to be confined to immigration facilities where there would not be enough space for every migrant.

I’d not blogged about this before, so here’s the background for you:

Gov. Greg Abbott draws criticism for ordering state troopers to pull over vehicles with migrants, saying it will stem COVID-19 risk
U.S. attorney general blasts Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s latest border directive and threatens a legal battle
‘Dangerous and unlawful.’ AG Merrick Garland threatens to sue over Gov. Abbott’s latest border order

Yes, the same Governor who has banned mask mandates and vaccine mandates for local government employees somehow thinks this will have a positive effect on COVID, even though 90% of migrants are vaccinated, nearly double the rate of the Texas population as a whole. For more on the lawsuit, which is an emergency motion seeking an injunction or temporary restraining order, see here. For a copy of the lawsuit itself, see here. For an analysis of why the Abbott executive order is “*flagrantly* illegal and unconstitutional”, see here. For more in general, see Dos Centavos and the Chron.

Appeals court overturns verdict in firefighter pay parity lawsuit

Wow.

An appeals court on Thursday reversed a ruling that declared Houston firefighters’ pay-parity measure unconstitutional, a major win for the fire union and one that could have far-reaching effects on city finances.

The fire union won approval of a charter amendment, known as Proposition B, in 2018 that would have granted them equal pay with police officers of similar rank and seniority. The city and the police officers’ union quickly sued, though, and in 2019 a trial court ruled the referendum unconstitutional because it contradicted state law that governs how cities engage with police officers and firefighters. The voter-approved charter amendment was never implemented.

In its ruling, the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston said that was an error. Justice Meagan Hassan wrote in a 2-1 opinion that the Texas Legislature did not intend to stop cities from enacting such pay measures.

“Preemption is not a conclusion lightly reached — if the Legislature intended to preempt a subject matter normally within a home-rule city’s broad powers, that intent must be evidenced with ‘unmistakable clarity,’” Hassan wrote.

The justices sent the case back to the lower court. Both the city and the police union said they plan to appeal the ruling.

It was not immediately clear when the city would have to implement the pay parity measure.

[…]

Controller Chris Brown, the city’s independently elected fiscal watchdog, said the ruling was disappointing and concerning from a financial perspective. He said the administration and union need to iron out a collective bargaining agreement so the city knows how much it will have to pay if Prop B is upheld and back wages are owed. It could be in the ballpark of $250 million to $350 million, he said, adding the city and union could agree to pay that money over several years instead of all at once.

“We need to have certainty on the ultimate financial impact to the city,” he said. “I have a concern because ultimately, the taxpayers are going to foot this bill… If we do have a big, one-time payment, where’s that money going to come from?”

Good question. See here for the background here for the majority ruling, and here for the dissent. I would imagine this will be put on hold pending appeal to the Supreme Court, so we’re probably looking at another two years or so before this is resolved. It’s possible that the Mayor and the firefighters could hammer out a collective bargaining agreement that would moot this, or perhaps the next Mayor could, if the Supreme Court decides to wait till after the 2023 election to hand down a ruling. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it is theoretically possible.

A Deshaun Watson sighting

Noted for the record.

Deshaun Watson made a shrewd move Sunday when he reported early for training camp with the other quarterbacks and rookies.

Watson showed up at NRG Stadium for the first time since the end of last season, avoiding a fine of $50,000 a day, creating a colossal distraction for a team in rebuilding mode and putting pressure on the Texans to make a move.

But what could that move be?

Watson reiterated he still wants to be traded. That means he doesn’t want to be at the facility, and the Texans don’t want him there, but a trade doesn’t appear imminent, according to team sources. Any move would likely come when his legal issues are resolved.

[…]

The Texans have options when it comes to Watson. He can attend meetings and practice. He can be given an excused absence and be able to leave and work out on his own without being fined. He can be placed on the exempt list (essentially paid administrative leave) by commissioner Roger Goodell until the league concludes its investigation.

The league’s personal conduct policy empowers Goodell to put a player on the exempt list “when an investigation leads the Commissioner to believe that a player may have violated this Policy.”

The conduct policy says that Goodell “may act where the circumstances and evidence warrant doing so,” and adds: “This decision will not reflect a finding of guilt or innocence and will not be guided by the same legal standards and considerations that would apply in a criminal trial.”

Tony Buzbee, who represents the women in the civil cases said “almost half” have given sworn statements to the police and spoken to the NFL. He said he expects to give the NFL more information.

Watson or the NFL Players Association could appeal his placement on paid leave. A player on paid leave cannot practice or play in games but is permitted to be at the team’s facility for meetings, workouts, therapy and rehabilitation.

Just a reminder, the first of the depositions by Watson’s accusers may begin in September. There is a criminal complaint, filed in April, that is still under investigation. There’s no formal timeline for when (or if) the NFL may act on the exempt list; some people think he should already be on it. We’re just waiting for updates until then. Sean Pendergast has more.

The case against moving the Paxton trial back to Collin County just got more interesting

Best mugshot ever

All right, settle in for a minute, this is going to take a bit of explaining, and there’s no accompanying published news story that I know of. Way back in March of 2017, visiting District Court Judge George Gallagher (from Tarrant County), who was appointed to preside over the Ken Paxton trial in Collin County after literally every other District Court judge there recused themselves, ordered the trial to be moved from Collin County. A couple of weeks later, in April, he set Harris County as the venue. There was a note in one of the news stories about this that I gave no real thought to at the time, which was that “Paxton respectfully advises the Court that he will not be giving the statutorily-required written consent… to allow the Honorable George Gallagher or his court staff to continue to preside over the matter in Harris County”.

Judge Gallagher declined to step down, but Team Paxton pursued the matter, initially repeating the assertion that they did not give permission for Gallagher to follow the case to Harris County, but later asserting that Gallgher was no longer able to be judge because his appointment had expired at the end of 2016. (Note that we are now in May 2017 in this timeline, this becomes important later.) At the end of May, the 5th Court of Appeals sided with Paxton and ordered Gallagher off the case, voiding his rulings after the one that moved the case to Harris County. In June, the case was officially reassigned to Criminal District Court Judge Robert Johnson in Harris County.

After that, we settled into a long fight about the pay for the special prosecutors, culminating in a muddled ruling from the Court of Criminal Appeals in June of 2019 – yes, now two full years after the case was moved to Harris County. The issue of prosecutor pay was before Judge Johnson, but before he could begin to get anywhere on it, Team Paxton asked for the case to be moved back to Collin County; we are now in July of 2019. In December of 2019, Judge Johnson said he would rule on that Real Soon Now. That turned out to be six months later, in June of 2020, though that ruling had to be affirmed in October by a different judge, because Judge Johnson recused himself after it was pointed out that Paxton’s office was representing Johnson (among others) in the ongoing cash bail litigation. (That was yet another weird sideshow in a saga that has been little but sideshow, but never mind that for now.) Ultimately, Judge Johnson agreed with Paxton that Judge Gallagher’s ruling that sent the trial to Harris County was invalid because Gallgher’s term had expired at the time he made that ruling. In May of 2021, a three-judge panel on the First Court of Appeals agreed.

Just a little recap here, Judge George Gallagher was appointed to preside over the Paxton trial in July of 2015 by the administrative judge of the Second Court of Appeals (Mary Murphy). That appointment expired on January 2, 2017, but no one said anything at the time. In April 2017, Judge Gallagher ordered the trial moved to Harris County, where he would preside, but Paxton declined to approve his continued service (as is required by state law in these matters) and then filed a motion in May to boot Gallagher from the case because his appointment had expired back in January. That motion was granted later in May, Judge Johnson was randomly selected by the Harris County District Clerk in June, and on we went. Then in 2019, Paxton filed a motion to move the case back to Collin County, claiming now that Judge Gallagher’s original ruling to move the case was also invalid, again because his appointment had expired. That motion was granted and was upheld on appeal, which is now on hold as the special prosecutors have requested and were granted an en banc hearing to reconsider.

OK, now that we are caught up, you may be wondering why there was a four-month gap between when Gallagher’s appointment expired and Paxton first filed a motion that was based on said expiration. You may also note that said motion came shortly (but not immediately) after Gallagher’s order moving the trial to Harris County. Is that timing maybe a little convenient? I’m glad you asked, because that very subject comes up in the reply filed by the special prosecutors. I would encourage you to read that filing – it’s not very long, and it contains high doses of shade thrown by the special prosecutors at Paxton. We have previously seen how lethal and entertaining they can be when served a pitch in the zone, and you will get a good laugh out of their efforts this time as well.

But what’s crucial is this: Errors like nobody noticing that Judge Gallagher’s appointment had lapsed happen. Remember, his appointment had been made more than a year before, and I guess no one put a reminder on their calendar to ask for it to be re-upped. Normally, such minor errors are trivially resolved, but the thing is that the law requires any objections made to such a lapsed appointment be made in a timely fashion, and at one’s earliest opportunity. Paxton claimed that’s what they did, and in the initial First Court ruling, it was noted that there was no evidence to suggest otherwise. Except, as it turns out, they did know, and in fact they knew ahead of time, and then sat on that information until it was convenient to them to wheel it out. How do we know that? Because, as it turns out and as the special prosecutors managed to discover in the interim, there was an email sent by Administrative Judge Mary Murphy to Paxton’s defense team on April 24, 2017 – after Paxton refused to give his consent to Gallagher’s continued service on the trial, but before he first claimed that Gallagher was no longer allowed to continue because his appointment had expired – that sent them copies of communications about Gallagher’s appointment from July 2015, and which they said they had previously sent in November of 2015. In other words, Paxton received an inadvertent reminder of the appointment expiration from Justice Murphy in April 2017, right before he started arguing about it. He had that information all along, but did not do anything about it. And then it landed in his lap again, and they took advantage.

Again, I urge you to read the filing (the Team Paxton filing, which preceded this by about a week, is here. They lay out the argument for why Paxton “sandbagged” the court (their words), and show all the opportunities Paxton had to object to Gallagher’s continued presence on the case after the expiration but didn’t do so. That, they argue, invalidates the later objections based on the lapsed appointment because they didn’t do it in a timely fashion, and what’s more they knew or should have known they weren’t timely. I just wanted to provide a longer-than-I-originally-planned review of how we got here. The bottom line is that the special prosecutors’ argument is that the original rulings that ordered the case back to Collin County were in error, and they have a new piece of evidence to show why it was in error. Now we just have to wait and see what the First Court of Appeals does with that information. As you can see from this post, we may be waiting for awhile. But hey, at least we’re used to that.

When might SCOTX rule on the line item veto thing?

The short answer to that question is “who knows, when and if they feel like it”. I’m just going to focus on the analysis part of this, because that is what interests me more.

Legally, the case hinges on whether the Texas Constitution allows a governor to cut off funding for an equal branch of government.

Politically, it’s unclear whether the court would be doing Abbott a bigger favor by upholding his veto power, or by extricating him from a stalemate that’s not going his way.

Either way it goes, the case will have broad implications for the future of Texas governance, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

If the veto is upheld, it strengthens executive power, giving Abbott and future governors a new axe to wield over the Legislature.

“This is well beyond the Schoolhouse Rock version of how government works,” Rottinghaus said, referencing a children’s animated series that simplified political concepts into cartoons. “This is a political story as much as it is an institutional separation of powers story. So it’s going to really push the boundaries of what’s allowable in Texas, especially in its governor.”

And if Abbott’s veto is upheld it would likely deflate the Democrats who fled to Washington D.C, leaving them to shoulder part of the blame if about 2,100 legislative staffers lose their jobs come fall.

“It takes a lot of the wind out of the sails of the Democrats if the courts back the governor in this fight. So that’s really, I think, what they’re waiting for,” he said. “The bottom line is that they can’t keep doing this forever, that the Democrats are going to see that at some point, politically, they’re not getting any more purchase.”

And the court itself could face political repercussions when its members are up for reelection. Courts have not pushed back on executive power for decades, Rottinghaus said. The doctrine of separation of powers has been eroded over the last couple of decades, he says, and if the court takes Abbott’s side, then it’s likely to further blur the line.

“I’m a big believer in separation of powers. I don’t think this is a partisan argument,” Rottinghaus said, saying he wished the whole Legislature, both parties, would “stand up for itself collectively” against the move. “To boil it down, this is basically a question about which power’s more robust, the power of the executive veto or the separation of powers — institutions that have been weakened by political fights.”

[…]

Jeffrey Abramson, a University of Texas at Austin law and government professor, says he believes the veto infringes on the Texas Constitution.

“Like every other state constitution and the U.S. Constitution, the Texas Constitution is based on the fundamental principle that separating government power among three coequal branches of government is the best way to limit the possibility of tyranny,” Abramson said in emailed comments. “Gov. Abbott’s defunding of the Legislature, by vetoing the part of the budget that provides funds for the legislature, is a clear and frightening attack on separation of powers. It is an attempted executive coup.”

It’s unclear when the Texas Supreme Court could rule on the issue — or if it will at all. It could rule any day now, delay a decision or decide the court does not have the jurisdiction over the case at all. The justices could also rule to disallow part of the veto — for example, legislators are allowed a per diem payment under the constitution — or find that the issue is not yet ripe and punt it down the road to decide at another time. Attorneys for House Democrats asked for the court to expedite its decision “well before” the new budget comes into effect.

“If I had to really put money on it, I would say that the court would back the governor’s veto, in part because they might view this as being a temporary political skirmish that can be resolved,” Rottinghaus said.

[…]

If the veto is deemed constitutional, House Democrats warn it will set a dangerous precedent.

“People need to understand that going forward, every governor will be using this power. Every Legislative session will involve a list of demands, [and] it will be explicit or implicit that if the governor doesn’t get this legislation, and then the legislature won’t exist,” said Chad Dunn, attorney for the House Democrats who filed the petition to the Supreme Court, in an interview. “That is dangerous stuff, and it’s got to be remedied immediately.”

The House Democrats also warn the state’s top court: if it happens to us, it could happen to you, too. They argued in court filings that if the governor can defund the Legislative branch, a co-equal branch of government, for going a way he disagrees with, he could then turn around and do the same to the state’s top court.

Abramson agrees.

“Imagine a governor that stripped Texas courts of funding as a way of retaliating against a decision the governor did not like and as a way of pressuring the courts to do his bidding,” he said. “No one would think the governor had such power. But he has done the equivalent to the Legislature.”

Just for the record, I’ve already imagined that. It wasn’t hard at all to imagine. Doesn’t mean that the great legal minds that make up our Supreme Court have imagined it, or are capable of imagining it. But some of us can, and did.

Separation of powers is baked into the state constitution, Rottinghaus said. If Abbott’s veto is upheld, it could throw off the balance completely.

Charles Rhodes, a Texas constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston, agreed.

“Using the line item veto power as a sword to make the other branches yield to his will, that’s going to totally upset the original foundations of the very strict separation of power scheme that the founding fathers of the Texas Constitution of 1876 envisioned,” Rhodes said.

If the veto is deemed valid, then it will likely cause permanent change to the power structures in Texas, he said.

“Sometimes, Texas is referred to as a weak governor state,” Rhodes said. “But if the governor can start leveraging vetoes to control legislation and to control the courts, then our governor just became one of the most powerful gubernatorial officials of any state.”

I mean, what else is there to say? The state’s arguments in favor of the veto are total weaksauce. This really shouldn’t be a hard question. It’s just a matter of whether the Supreme Court has the guts, and the imagination, to properly address it.

Another State Bar complaint against Paxton

He certainly deserves all the trouble this has brought him. Whether any of it leads to actual consequences, we’ll have to see.

Best mugshot ever

Four former presidents of the State Bar of Texas joined a group of high-profile lawyers on Wednesday to file an ethics complaint against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, over his efforts to overturn President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory against former President Donald Trump.

Paxton filed a widely criticized lawsuit with the Supreme Court in December, in which he sued the battleground states of Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin over what he claimed were “unconstitutional irregularities” in their election processes. The Supreme Court rejected the lawsuit, which came as Trump and his allies repeatedly promoted baseless allegations that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged” or “stolen.”

The organization Lawyers Defending American Democracy, which asserts it is not partisan, filed the lawsuit in connection with 16 prominent Texas attorneys.

“The injunction Mr. Paxton sought with the Supreme Court would have usurped the presidency for the next four years and cast doubt on whether truly democratic presidential elections would ever have been restored in America,” Jim Harrington, one of the complaints signers and a retired founder of the Texas Civil Rights Project, said in a statement published on LDAD’s website.

Harrington said Paxton’s actions “demonstrated his disregard for the ethical rules which govern lawyers and for our country’s democratic principles.”

As you may recall, there’s already such a complaint against Paxton. I don’t know how the State Bar works, but I would assume these two would be combined. Reading that earlier post reminded me that Paxton was supposed to have responded to that complaint within 30 days, and indeed he has responded, asking for the complaint to be dropped – he’s basically saying that the original complainant doesn’t have standing to file against him. As a non-lawyer, I shrug my shoulders as I have no way to evaluate this claim on my own. Those of you who are lawyers, feel free to enlighten us.

Above the Law adds some details.

The bar complaint alleges that Paxton violated the Texas Disciplinary Rules of Professional Conduct by filing a frivolous suit, making false statements of fact and law to a tribunal, engaging in deceitful conduct, and failing to uphold the Constitution.

The complainants point to Paxton’s representation that Biden’s odds of winning the election were less than one in a quadrillion, a gross distortion of a economist Charles Cicchetti’s assertion that this was the probability of Biden winning if the votes before and after 3am were randomly drawn from the population as a whole. Cicchetti’s analysis was ridiculous on its face even before Paxton mangled it — the differential between in-person votes favoring Trump and absentee ballots favoring Biden had been widely predicted. And furthermore, smaller rural areas, which tend to lean Republican, were always going to complete their counting before cities like Philadelphia and Atlanta.

As for misstatements of law, the complainants point to Paxton’s bizarre theory of standing which “flew in the face of the Electors Clause and the bedrock constitutional principle of each State’s sovereignty within our federal system.”

“The standing to sue Mr. Paxton sought from the Supreme Court had no basis in law and would have been a prescription for an autocratic President to perpetuate his power indefinitely against the will of the voters,” said Gershon (Gary) Ratner, co-founder of Lawyers Defending American Democracy and principal author of the complaint.

Here’s the LDAD statement on their complaint, and here’s the complaint itself for your perusal. Note that they had called for Paxton to be sanctioned within a week of his filing that ridiculous lawsuit. I don’t know if it took them this long to prepare their complaint or if there was something else going on, but here we are. I don’t know enough to add anything else at this point, so stay tuned.

Federal judge halts Arkansas law against gender affirming care for trans kids

Of interest.

In an in-person hearing in Little Rock on Wednesday, a federal judge issued a preliminary injunction to block an Arkansas law that criminalizes gender-affirming care for transgender kids.

U.S. District Judge James M. Moody Jr.’s bench ruling was made in response to a lawsuit from the ACLU, which argues that Arkansas’ law violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause and the First Amendment right to free speech. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of four trans kids and their families in Arkansas, plus two physicians working in the state.

Still, legal advocates warn that a rare amicus brief signals that the battles over legislation targeting trans youth are not over.

[…]

The legal battle over Arkansas’ ban — the only one of its kind to be passed in the United States — also attracted the interest of 17 state attorneys general, who filed an amicus brief last week to bolster support for Arkansas’ law. Nearly all of the states that backed the brief have introduced their own bills to ban gender-affirming care, bar trans kids from playing sports that match their gender identity, or prevent them from discussing their identities in school, according to a bill tracker by Freedom For All Americans.

Four of the states that signed the brief through their attorney general — Alabama, Mississippi, South Dakota and Tennessee — enacted legislation this year to ban trans youth from sports that match their gender identity. Idaho, which also counseled on the brief, signed its ban on trans kids’ sports participation in March 2020.

Two attorneys told The 19th that such a brief is largely unprecedented, although any weight it carried in Moody’s decision on Wednesday was unclear. It is not guaranteed that a federal judge would take a brief like this into account.

Ezra Ishmael Young, a civil rights attorney and founding board member of the National Trans Bar Association, did not recall a similar brief ever being filed about trans kids’ health care at the trial level.

“It’s very rare for an amicus brief to be filed by a bunch of states that have no stake in the actual issue at all,” Young said, adding that it takes time to coordinate a response from so many attorneys general.

“It’s not totally unusual for AGs to team up and push their state’s policy preferences in courts outside their jurisdiction,” he said. “What makes this tack odd here is that the AGs are pushing for policy preferences that have been soundly rejected by their legislature, sometimes repeatedly.”

Carl Charles, a Lambda Legal staff attorney, told the 19th that the brief — which also he sees as unprecedented, based on research undertaken by him and his paralegal — is concerning on another level.

“To write affirmatively in support of an outlier law in one state, where there are no related laws on the books in their respective states … they have nothing really to stand on in terms of, ‘We’ve passed these similar laws and we’re in support,’” he said.

“They’re essentially taking an inherently political position and one that’s outside the scope of their office, which is to say, ‘We have an interest in seeing this law stand because we too want to pass a law like this.’ Well, that’s not the AG’s job. The AG’s job is not to pass laws. The AG’s job is to enforce the laws on the books,” he said.

As we know, Greg Abbott is plotting some executive action to block this health care for trans kids, so this ruling is quite timely. Arkansas is not in the Fifth Circuit, so the ruling would not apply here, but it’s significant nonetheless. Also significant is that the state of Texas and its felonious AG Ken Paxton were on that amicus list, as I’m sure you’re not surprised to hear. None of this is going to stop Abbott from doing whatever he plans to do, but there will very likely be a legal roadblock in his way once he does do it.

The DACA ruling

Ugh.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas ruled Friday that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that allows certain immigrants to temporarily avoid deportation and receive renewable work permits, is illegal and ordered the Biden administration to stop granting new applications.

Judge Andrew Hanen’s order won’t affect current DACA recipients who have the two-year renewable work permits.

“[T]hese rulings do not resolve the issue of the hundreds of thousands of DACA recipients and others who have relied upon this program for almost a decade,” Hanen’s order says. “That reliance has not diminished and may, in fact, have increased over time.”

The ruling stems from a 2018 lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and eight other states against the federal argument. The complaint argues that Texas and the other states face irreparable harm because they bear extra costs from providing health care, education and law enforcement protection to DACA recipients.

Across the country there are more than 600,000 DACA recipients, including 101,970 in Texas, which has the second most DACA recipients in the country after California, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In 2012, the Obama administration created the program to allow immigrants who were brought to the country illegally to be able to temporarily avoid deportation, work legally and pay taxes.

Hanen said the Obama administration did not use the right legal procedure to create the program, making it illegal.

The program has survived previous court rulings. But the Trump administration had put an end to the program before a U.S. Supreme Court ruling a year ago allowed the federal government to continue it.

The latest ruling will prevent the approval of at least 50,000 new DACA applicants nationwide who applied earlier this year but were not approved before Friday’s ruling, based on USCIS statistics.

There’s a lot of backstory to this, as the original threat of litigation came in 2017. See here, here, here, here, here, here, and here for previous blogging.

What we know at this point: The ruling will be appealed, and I think there’s a decent chance that it is put on hold pending appeals. It will still have a negative effect on a lot of people, many of whom have been in a state of limbo already for a decade or more. There’s a good argument that Judge Hanen’s ruling is erroneous, and thus could be overturned. But really, this is now a super duper way-past-due emergency for the Democrats to fix legislatively while they can. The filibuster is the reason the DREAM Act of 2010 (which had I believe 55 votes in favor) didn’t pass – it’s a bit misleading even to say it had “55 votes in favor”, because that was 55 votes to suspend debate and allow for a vote; it never actually got an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor – and we cannot let it be the reason it fails again. There’s talk of including a new DREAM Act in the infrastructure bill that will be passed by reconciliation. It’s ludicrous that we have to resort to such legerdemain to pass a bill that has majority support, but ultimately I don’t care as long as the damn thing passes.

And finally, another thing we have known for a long time is that Ken Paxton has gotta go. Electing Justin Nelson in 2018 would not have stopped this lawsuit – it had already been heard by Election Day that year, and as noted there were eight other states as plaintiffs – but that’s beside the point. Dumping Ken Paxton’s felonious ass will go a long way towards preventing other bad things from happening. In the short term, though: The DREAM Act has got to pass. No excuses, no other way out. Stace has more.

P Bush files a Paxton-style lawsuit

What a wannabe.

Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush has filed a lawsuit against the Biden administration, claiming the president is illegally preventing the construction of a wall on the Texas-Mexico border.

Bush announced the lawsuit Wednesday, saying his office is suing Biden and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas “on grounds that (the Biden administration) is illegally preventing the border wall from being constructed.”

“The issue here is simple — no man is above the law. And that includes President Biden,” Bush said.

[…]

The complaint by Bush, filed in U.S. District Court in McAllen on Tuesday, argues that between 2018 and 2021, Congress approved $5 billion for the construction of barriers along the U.S.-Mexico border and Biden had no legal right to halt construction on the project.

On Inauguration Day, Biden issued an executive order calling the border wall a “waste of money” and saying that it was “not a serious policy solution.”

The complaint asks federal judge Ricardo H. Hinojosa to rule Biden’s order illegal and to stop Mayorkas from diverting the funds earmarked for the wall to other uses.

“This lawsuit is not about whether border walls are effective. It is about whether a President may unilaterally override these duly enacted appropriations bills to fulfill a campaign promise,” the lawsuit says.

It’s about more than that, I think we can all agree. I have no idea what if any merits there are to this suit – I couldn’t find any legal analysis in the stories I found while googling around. I suspect that the political mission has been accomplished, and that’s what really matters. We’ll see about the rest.

More briefs in the lawsuit over the line item veto

I sure hope this means a ruling is on the horizon.

Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office has asked the Texas Supreme Court to toss a lawsuit brought by House Democrats over Gov. Greg Abbott’s move to veto funding for the Legislature, arguing that lawmakers improperly blocked the issue from being resolved when they fled the state.

After Abbott vetoed the portion of the coming two-year state budget that funds the Legislature and its staff, known as Article X, more than 50 Democratic state House members filed a lawsuit accusing the Republican governor of violating a constitutional provision that provides for three separate and independent branches of government. In calling lawmakers back to Austin for a 30-day special session, Abbott gave them the option to restore the funding.

In a filing Tuesday evening, Solicitor General Judd Stone wrote that the special session is the “forum for addressing the very issue in dispute, yet it is (the Democrats) who are preventing that outcome by purposefully stopping the Legislature from being able to exercise its constitutionally granted powers.”

[…]

Stone went on to argue that the matter “is a political question unsuited for adjudication” that should instead be resolved by the legislature.

“By staging another walkout, …House Democrats are forcing the Legislature into the result they say would injure them—the lack of Article X funding,” Stone wrote. “Proceeding with this case would improperly reward (Democrats) for their misguided attempt to manufacture jurisdiction and would waste this Court’s resources.”

Democrats responded to the filing Wednesday, arguing there is no link between the lawsuit and Democrats’ quorum break. Chad Dunn, the Democrats’ attorney in the case, framed the court filing by Paxton’s office as an “attempt to blame the victim by putting the onus on the Legislature to rectify Governor Abbott’s unconstitutional conduct.”

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” Dunn wrote. “Rather, they confirm the need for this Court to decide whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives.”

See here and here for the background. I’m sorry, I Am Not A Lawyer and I clearly have a rooting interest in the outcome, but the state’s argument is transparently self-serving. Abbott is entirely the reason we’re in this situation. He vetoed the funding. Only he had the power to call a special session, and to set the agenda, to give the Lege a chance to respond. He could have only put Article X funding on the agenda, at least until that was resolved. The only way out of this conundrum that doesn’t give all the power to Abbott is to declare that he cannot veto the funding for the legislative branch. (And again, if he can do that, he can also veto the Supreme Court’s funding.) The state constitution makes no sense otherwise.

The Statesman gives more of the Democrats’ response.

“Governor Abbott’s veto violates the constitutional guarantee of separation of powers by effectively abolishing a co-equal branch of government. The recent events in the Texas Legislature do not change that fact,” their lawyers told the court in a response filed Wednesday.

If anything, the quorum break that has hamstrung the special session demands the court’s answer to the central question: “Whether Governor Abbott may threaten the Legislature’s existence — and hold hostage the more than 2,000 public servants who work for it — as a means of achieving his legislative objectives,” the Democrats argued.

What’s more, they said, Abbott has not said he will sign into law a bill restoring the money.

“There is good reason to think he will not unless and until the Legislature has first fulfilled his other agenda items,” said the letter signed by lawyers Jim Dunnam and Chad Dunn.

Instead of accepting the argument that Abbott’s veto is an improper intrusion on another branch of government, Republicans are working to “blame the victim” by putting the onus on lawmakers to correct Abbott’s unconstitutional action, they argued.

“It is the Governor’s unconstitutional veto that is harming (House Democrats) by defunding the Legislature — not the subsequent decision by some Members to push back on this unprecedented break in the constitutional structure by breaking quorum,” Dunnam and Dunn wrote.

I do sympathize with the Supreme Court not wanting to rule on this hot potato, but if they can’t stand the heat they shouldn’t have run for the Court in the first place. Put on your grownup pants and do what needs to be done.

Astros again seek to dismiss Bolsinger lawsuit

They will probably succeed.

Did not age well

The Astros have submitted their proposal for a Harris County judge to dismiss former Toronto Blue Jays reliever Mike Bolsinger’s lawsuit against the team.

Bolsinger has alleged trade misappropriation and sought more than $1 million in damages in the wake of Houston’s sign-stealing scandal in the 2017 season.

[…]

In the Astros’ 17-page motion to dismiss submitted on Tuesday night, the team pointed to Bolsinger’s misinterpretation of Texas’ trade secrets law and called Bolsinger’s lawsuit an attempt “to turn a headline-grabbing sports story into a cash recovery.”

According to the Astros’ motion, Bolsinger needed to prove ownership of the trade secrets, misappropriation of them and injury caused by the misappropriation to recover any damages under the state’s trade secrets law. The club claimed he did not.

The motion, submitted by Astros attorneys Hilary Preston and James L. Leader, challenged the notion that Toronto’s signs are even secrets at all.

“The signs are not trade secrets, and, to the extent that any party can “own” hand gestures meant to convey pitching strategy, the signs are owned by the Toronto Blue Jays, not (Bolsinger),” the Astros wrote in their motion.

“The signs are hand gestures made in front of thousands of spectators, and the mere fact that the Blue Jays attempted to conceal the meaning of those signs from the Astros’ hitters does not turn those gestures into trade secrets under Texas law.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, Bolsinger had sued in Los Angeles originally, but that suit was tossed on the grounds that California didn’t have jurisdiction, so he re-filed in Harris County. I don’t buy his argument and expect the suit to be dismissed, but we’ll see.

Former HCC instructor sues over sexual harassment allegations

Hoo boy.

Robert Glaser

A former Houston Community College instructor is suing the community college system, its chancellor and a board member for $15 million, alleging that the college system retaliated against her for reporting that she was being sexually harassed by a board member.

Patricia Dodd, who is suing for compensation and damages (including lost income and benefits; attorney’s fees and court costs; and mental anguish), filed a Title IX complaint with HCC in May, stating she had been sexually harassed by board of trustee member Robert Glaser since November. Dodd, who has taught HCC for more than eight years, said Glaser pledged to help her with issues at her job in exchange for a sexual relationship, which she describes as “quid pro quo” sexual harassment.

The 50-year-old English instructor also contended in the July 8 suit that HCC Chancellor Cesar Maldonado knew about the harassment but did nothing to stop it. She claimed that Glaser was emboldened by his friend Maldonado, who also had a sexual relationship with one of his female direct reports who is married.

Both Glaser and Maldonado are named as defendants in the lawsuit, which describes a culture of sexual misconduct at the college with little consequence or correction. An attorney representing the community college said that Dodd was dismissed because she didn’t report two arrests.

Dodd alleged that Maldonado “repeatedly turn[ed] a blind eye to other male supervisors’ sexually harassing actions toward subordinate female employees” and attempted to intimidate HCC law enforcement investigating claims against him in order to protect his job. Dodd’s attorneys name at least six employees who Dodd asserts have engaged in sexual misconduct and/or sexual harassment, and at least three individuals who have allegedly helped cover for such incidents.

“Sexual exploitation and harassment of female employees at HCC is grotesque and widespread. The two most powerful policymakers at the college are male — defendants Glaser and Maldonado — whom both have engaged in repetitive, flagrant, sometimes grotesque bullying and vile sexual exploitation of vulnerable subordinate female employees at the college,” stated Dodd’s attorneys Ben Hall, George J. Hittner and James Ardoin in the court document.

Maldonado said in a written statement that the allegations against him are false — that he had not had an affair with a direct report, nor had he any prior knowledge of a relationship between Glaser and the instructor.

“I was not aware of any inappropriate relationship between Trustee Glaser and any college employee until recently, at which time I reported the information to the board and to appropriate regulatory authorities,” Maldonado wrote. “The college and I take all such allegations very seriously and I expect an objective and thorough investigation.”

See here and here for some background. Dodd says her firing was in retaliation foe filing the sexual harassment complaint against Glaser. The attorney for HCC says it was because she failed to inform the college of two arrests, both for assault and both since 2019. All I can say at this point is that this is a big mess. I hope we get to the bottom of it quickly.

Paxton agrees to unblock Twitter critics

Our long national nightmare is over.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton will no longer block ​users from his personal account for expressing “First Amendment-protected viewpoints” as part of an agreement to end a lawsuit where plaintiffs say they were unconstitutionally blocked for criticizing him or his policies on the platform, according to a filing late Friday in a federal court in Austin.

Paxton had already unblocked the named plaintiffs of the lawsuit in May, a month after the lawsuit was filed, but the latest filing confirmed he has now unblocked any other accounts. The ACLU of Texas, a freedom of speech organization that represented the plaintiffs in the lawsuit along with the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University called the agreement “an important victory for Texans’ First Amendment rights.”

“We’re pleased that Attorney General Paxton has agreed to stop blocking people from his Twitter account simply because he doesn’t like what they have to say,” Katie Fallow, a senior staff attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute, said in a prepared statement. “Multiple courts have recognized that government officials who use their social media accounts for official purposes violate the First Amendment if they block people from those accounts on the basis of viewpoint. What Paxton was doing was unconstitutional.”

See here and here for the background. Statements from the ACLU of Texas and Knight First Amendment Institute have the remaining details. Paxton had already agreed to unblock the nine plaintiffs, and the law was clearly against him, so this was the only way out for him that didn’t involve getting slam-dunked by a federal judge. It’s a molehill in the grand scheme of things, but nowadays we should celebrate any time the rules are made to apply to schmucks like Paxton.

Lawsuit filed against “heartbeat” abortion law

Normally, I’d say this has an excellent chance of success, given that all previous litigation over such bans have been wins for the plaintiffs. But we are in uncharted territory here.

Two months after Gov. Greg Abbott signed a law banning abortion as early as six weeks, more than 20 abortion providers responded with a lawsuit against top Texas officials aimed at stopping one of the country’s strictest abortion measures to date.

The suit was filed Tuesday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas.

Known as the “heartbeat bill,” Senate Bill 8 was heavily criticized because it limits abortion to two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, a time when some women don’t yet know they’re pregnant. It aims to ban abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, which is considered a misnomer as a fetus doesn’t possess a heart at six weeks’ gestation.

Around 85% of those who obtain abortions in Texas are at least six weeks into their pregnancy, according to a press release from the Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, a lead plaintiff in the suit.

“We’ve beaten back these attacks before. We can and we will do it again,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, executive director of Whole Woman’s Health, said at a press conference. “These are dark days, and it’s easy to feel like the extremists in the Texas Legislature are running the table.”

A particularly controversial provision of the law allows private citizens to sue abortion providers and others who help someone get an abortion after six weeks.

Republican legislators removed responsibility for enforcement from state officials; instead, the law allows any Texan to sue providers they think are not complying with state abortion laws, thus pushing enforcement to the civil court system. This is intended to make the bill harder to block in courts.

Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights and lead attorney on the suit, said this provision could produce “endless lawsuits,” leave abortion clinics vunerable to harrassment and possible closure, intimidate pregnat women, and leave them with fewer avenues of help.

“It allows complete strangers, anti-abortion activists, to sue and interfere with the patient’s decision,” Hearron said. “Those people may try to essentially hijack the courts for their ideological agenda.”

Citizens who file such suits would not need to have a connection to an abortion provider or a person seeking an abortion or even reside in Texas. Those who win lawsuits would be awarded a minimum of $10,000 in damages, as well as attorney’s fees.

This isn’t the first time a private-citizen suit provision has been included in a Texas abortion law.

It was first tested in Lubbock, with a voter-approved city ordinance that outlaws abortions and empowers “the unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings” to sue for anyone who helps another person get an abortion. A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ordinance last month, finding that Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, the plaintiff, did not have standing to sue the city.

Hearron said that his organization hopes to overcome that obstacle in the suit against the state law by naming state officials as defendants. Eight state officials were sued in the new lawsuit, including Attorney General Ken Paxton, Texas Board of Nursing Executive Director Katherine A. Thomas, and Texas Health and Human Services Commission Executive Commissioner Cecile Erwin Young.

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said they named officials who are not charged with directly enforcing Senate Bill 8 but still have authority to enforce related laws.

“If this is not blocked, if this is successful, it would set a truly dangerous precedent, because states could eviscerate their own citizens’ federal constitutional rights by creating a private lawsuit to do what their own officials couldn’t do,” Hearron said.

See here and here for more on that Lubbock situation. I don’t know if this approach will be any more successful, but I trust these folks know what they’re doing. It’s nuts to think there could be no proactive remedy against such a law, but who knows what the courts will do.

The Chron adds some details.

[Whole Woman’s President and Chief Executive Officer Amy] Hagstrom Miller said the Texas law has already impacted her facilities, making it harder to recruit new staff who worry about the near-term viability of the work and creating aggressive interactions between patients, employees and anti-abortion rights activists.

She described one scenario in which activists entered a clinic and began soliciting for whistleblowers who could provide information for future civil suits. The lawsuit names the director of Right to Life East Texas, Mark Lee Dickson, as a defendant in the case, and includes a letter purportedly distributed at one of the Whole Woman’s Health four clinics in the state.

[…]

The litigation filed Tuesday could face a difficult legal path.

Earlier this year Planned Parenthood, which has several clinics in the state, sued to block a new Lubbock ordinance that uses a similar enforcement strategy. The suit was dismissed after a judge ruled that the provider had not shown it was harmed yet by the measure. Planned Parenthood has since asked the court to reconsider, and says it has stopped providing abortions in Lubbock.

Hagstrom Miller said she and others involved in the suit, including fellow abortion providers, abortion funds, clinic staff and clergy, have been following the Lubbock case closely, and are preparing for all outcomes. While some legal scholars have suggested that providers could protest the law by continuing to perform post-six-week abortions come September, Hagstrom Miller said that would be logistically difficult, and she was not willing to ask her staff to defy a law that could leave them vulnerable to malpractice claims.

Like I said, I have no idea what to expect. I am fervently hoping for success for the plaintiffs, but to say the least it’s a tough road they have ahead of them. The Press has more.

The response to the lawsuit over the line item veto

I know, scintillating headline, but there’s plenty of action here.

The state is defending Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent veto of legislative funding as a bipartisan group of former state leaders — as well as more Democrats — weigh in against the governor.

The state faced a Monday deadline to respond to a Democratic lawsuit asking the state Supreme Court to overturn Abbott’s veto, which he issued after House Democrats staged a walkout that killed Republicans’ priority elections bill at the end of the regular session in May. Abbott has promised to bring back the bill in a special session and scheduled one to begin Thursday; he has not announced the agenda yet.

“The Governor properly exercised the veto power bestowed upon him by the Texas Constitution and acted consistently with this Court’s precedent,” the state said in its response. “Under the Texas Constitution, the Governor has the exclusive power to disapprove any bill.”

At the same time, three former state leaders filed an amicus brief arguing Abbott’s veto is “an attempt to intimidate members of the Legislature and circumvent democracy.” The brief was filed by former House Speaker Joe Straus, a Republican; former House Speaker Pete Laney, a Democrat; and former Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff, a Republican.

The brief says Abbott’s move “should rebuked by people of all political persuasions.”

[…]

Another amicus brief surfaced Monday that argued against Abbott’s veto and was signed by all 13 Democrats in the Texas Senate, as well as a group of law professors and a few current and former Republican elected officials. The GOP signees included state Rep. Lyle Larson of San Antonio, as well as former state Reps. Jimmie Don Aycock of Killeen and Sarah Davis of West University Place.

See here for the background. All of the case information is here, with the response by the AG on behalf of Abbott’s executive clerk here. The first two amicus briefs, by Straus, Laney, and Ratliff and by various legislators and law professors, explicitly cite the constitution and the separation of powers doctrine, while the one by the League of Women Voters raises the issue of redistricting work not being done by legislative staffers.

The state’s defense essentially amounts to 1) It is too constitutional, 2) The Court lacks jurisdiction for boring technical reasons (specifically, the Governor’s clerk is not an executive officer of state government), and 3) The relators lack standing because the issue isn’t ripe yet, which is a fancy legal way of saying that since the legislative funding doesn’t run out until August 31 there’s no actual injury yet and thus no cause to sue. I Am Not A Lawyer and have no opinion on the first two items, but item 3 strikes me as technically correct but also beside the point. It should be possible to prevent an injury from occurring, not just waiting around for the disaster to happen and then trying to clean it up. The state’s argument is that because there’s already a special session on the docket, this can and should be fixed without the court getting involved. That may well be, and it would not surprise me at all if SCOTX were to sit on this for as long as possible, to give the legislative process a chance to patch this up without needing for them to issue a ruling. I think that would set a terrible precedent and would not address the “future Governor vetoes the funding for the Supreme Court in a fit of pique” scenario, but then no one ever claimed SCOTX was a profile in courage.

As far as the possibility of the Lege restoring funding before it runs out, there’s this:

If the Dems get what they asked for, that would undermine the case for their writ. It’s still what they have to do, and then hope that SCOTX sees the constitutional issue as more important than the practical one. We’ll see.

City victory in water rights lawsuit upheld

Some good news.

A split Texas appeals court ruled Wednesday that a state law that would have stripped Houston of its interest in an unbuilt water reservoir was unconstitutionally retroactive, siding with a lower court that protected the city’s interests.

Two justices on a three justice panel upheld Houston’s 70% interest in water rights at an unbuilt reservoir on Allens Creek, which has suffered numerous setbacks since permits were first issued decades ago to the city and its partner, the Brazos River Authority. The court said that a law passed by the Texas Legislaturein 2019 to transfer the city’s interests to that partner would have impaired the city’s long-term plans related to the water project and that the partner hasn’t shown an overriding public interest in finishing the project that would overcome those concerns.

Just because the city wasn’t acting with urgency to develop the project doesn’t mean the Legislature had shown an overriding interest in upending previously granted rights through the passage of HB 2846, the court said. For instance, while the Legislature was seemingly acting in the public interest when it moved to strip the city of its rights and force a transfer of interest to the BRA, the justices said that decision failed to show how the beleaguered project would necessarily be completed faster since it had already undergone repeated setbacks and was facing years of work before ground could be broken anyway.

[…]

The city described the majority’s decision as a win with bigger implications for municipalities in the Lone Star State and said the ruling allows the city to avoid the forced sale of its “irreplaceable” surface water rights to the BRA without the option to replace the water.

“This a very important victory for Houston and all Texas cities and towns. Fresh water is an irreplaceable resource and the city has for years carefully planned and acquired scarce and very valuable water rights to ensure that the city, its residents and businesses have sufficient water resources to enable the city to grow and prosper in this century and beyond,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “House Bill 2846 punished the city’s foresight and endangered Houston’s and all Texas cities’ water supplies and future growth. No city would have been safe had the bill been allowed to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The city will continue to fight to protect the city’s irreplaceable resources.”

The permits for the project were first granted in 2000, when the Legislature gave the project a deadline for construction to begin by 2018. After Houston and the BRA received a $20 million loan to take on the project together, it was hit with numerous setbacks, leading to an extension of that 2018 deadline by the Legislature that gave them until 2025 to finish the project.

When no progress was made by 2019, lawmakers held legislative hearings and ultimately passed HB 2846.

Houston sued that same year, and the district court granted declaratory relief that the law was unconstitutional, void and unenforceable.

A Brazos River Authority spokesperson said it plans to appeal the appeals court decision.

See here and here for the background. The majority opinion is here, the dissent is here, and the case history is here. Not much for me to add except I hope the city wins the next appeal, too.

SCOTUS takes another knife to the Voting Rights Act

The red carpet for voter suppression has been rolled out.

The Supreme Court on Thursday upheld two Arizona voting restrictions that a lower court had said discriminated against voters of color.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion in the 6 to 3 ruling, which divided the court along ideological lines. Voting rights experts said the decision could make it harder to challenge some of the new voting restrictions being passed by state legislatures around the country. The Texas Legislature is expected to convene next week to consider legislation that would impose new restrictions on voting.

The court was considering the shield provided by the Voting Rights Act (VRA), first passed in 1965 to forbid laws that result in discrimination based on race.

The cases involved two voting regulations from Arizona that are in common use across the country. One throws out the ballots of those who vote in the wrong precinct. The other restricts who may collect ballots cast early for delivery to polling places, a practice then-President Donald Trump denounced as “ballot harvesting.”

I would advise you to read Slate, Vox, Rick Hasen, The 19th, and Daily Kos for the analysis and effect. The short answer is that there’s nothing in the Republicans’ way, and any subsequent court action will be really hard to win. I wish I had something more positive to say, but here we are. The challenge remains the same – we have to win enough elections to pass the laws we want to pass, and repeal the crap that needs to be thrown out. It’s just going to be harder to do now.

Anti-gay Waco JP’s lawsuit tossed

Here’s a bit of good news.

A Travis County judge has thrown out McLennan County Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley’s lawsuit against the state panel that sanctioned her in 2019 for refusing to perform same-sex weddings.

Judge Jan Soifer of Austin’s 459th State District Court listed a variety of reasons for dismissing the lawsuit. She ruled that the State Commission on Judicial Conduct has sovereign and statutory immunity from the claims and that Hensley failed to exhaust other legal remedies before filing her lawsuit.

[…]

Hensley, a justice of the peace for six years, officiates weddings between men and women but refuses to perform weddings for same-sex couples, saying it goes against her “Bible-believing” Christian conscience. Her lawsuit claims the agency violated state law by punishing her for actions she took in accordance with her religious beliefs.

In issuing its sanction against Hensley — a public warning — the commission said Hensley has refused to perform same-sex weddings since August 2016, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision a year earlier that established constitutional rights to same-sex marriage.

The commission said Hensley is violating the Texas Code of Judicial Conduct by “casting doubt on her capacity to act impartially to persons appearing before her as a judge due to the person’s sexual orientation.”

Hensley, who has said she is entitled to a “religious exemption,” filed her claims under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act under the backing of the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile religious liberty law firm based in Plano.

Hensley has said that she, along with most all of the county’s JPs, stopped performing any weddings on legal advice from the county so as not to appear that those who chose not to perform same-sex weddings were discriminating against same-sex couples.

See here, here, and here for the background. Hensley had sought damages of $10,000 to make up for the money she was unable to make when she was not performing weddings because of her bigoted refusal to do them for same sex couples. Instead, she was ordered to pay court costs, which seems fitting to me.

Chron reporter Taylor Goldenstein, who wrote their story when Hensley filed her suit, has some more detail on this.

I don’t think I was aware of the federal lawsuit or its current status – I did suggest when Hensley sued that this might wind up in federal court – so that’s good to know. I’m certain she will appeal, so this isn’t over, but I suspect the Commission’s immunity from lawsuits will be hard for her to overcome. For now, let’s celebrate a bigot being told “No”.

SCOTX and Facebook

Interesting.

The Texas Supreme Court will allow three human trafficking victims to move forward in litigation against Facebook that alleges the platform enabled their abusers to groom them into a life of prostitution.

In a 6-0 ruling, with two justices not participating, Justice Jimmy Blacklock rejected Facebook’s plea for mandamus relief, based on arguments that the federal Communications Decency Act said the social media giant couldn’t face liability for things that its users published or said on its platform.

“It was time for the court to adjust the way it looks at how the internet is regulated,” said plaintiffs attorney Annie McAdams, partner in Annie McAdams PC in Houston. “I think it will have a profound influence. This is the first major decision that puts a crack in absolute immunity for internet companies.”

A Facebook spokesman emailed a comment from the company that said it was reviewing the high court’s ruling.

“We’re reviewing the decision and considering potential next steps. Sex trafficking is abhorrent and not allowed on Facebook. We will continue our fight against the spread of this content and the predators who engage in it,” the statement said.

The ruling said the plaintiffs’ claims for statutory human trafficking can proceed, but the high court dismissed common-law claims for negligence, gross negligence, negligent undertaking and products liability.

Blacklock wrote in the ruling in In re Facebook that the Communications Decency Act doesn’t create a “lawless no-man’s land on the internet” that strikes a state’s power “to impose liability on websites that knowingly or intentionally participate in the evil of online human trafficking.”

Although the high court agreed that the federal statute wouldn’t enable the plaintiffs to hold Facebook accountable for its users’ comments, it decided this case poses a different situation.

“Holding internet platforms accountable for their own misdeeds is quite another thing,” said the opinion. “This is particularly the case for human trafficking.”

See here for the opinion, and here for all the filings related to the case. Note that the question here was whether or not the victims could sue Facebook, not whether they won their suit. At this point, everything goes back to the district court, where an actual trial can begin on the merits of the case. It will likely be some number of years before there is a final result.

I had not followed this case at all and wasn’t aware of it until I saw these stories. The Chron provides some background.

The lawsuits were brought by three Houston women recruited as teens through Facebook apps and trafficked as a result of those online connections. The young women said in court filings that the social media giant cloaked traffickers with credibility and provided “a point of first contact between sex traffickers and these children” and “an unrestricted platform to stalk, exploit, recruit, groom, and extort children into the sex trade.”

One young woman who sued was 15 when a friend of a mutual friend reached out to her on Facebook in 2012. The adult who began messaging her had images on his profile of “scantily-clad young women in sexual positions” with money stuffed in their mouths and “other deeply troubling content,” the justices wrote. She confided in him and he complimented her, offering her a modeling job. After they met in person, the trafficker posted photos of her in prostitution ads on Backpage, an online platform shuttered due to its promotion of human trafficking. The young woman said she was “raped, beaten, and forced into further sex trafficking.”

Another plaintiff was 14 in 2017 when a man contacted her on Instagram, another Facebook property. The pimp in this instance lured her with “false promises of love and a better future.” She said the easy access to her through social media made it possible for the man to traffic her, using Instagram to advertise her as a prostitute and set up “dates,” during which she was raped numerous times. After the teen was rescued from his operation, traffickers kept using her profile to lure in other minors, according to the ruling. In this case the family says the girl’s mother reported what had happened to Facebook and the company never responded.

The third girl who sued identified herself as being 14 on Instagram in 2016. A man of about 30 whom she didn’t know sent her a friend request on Instagram. They exchanged messages for two years in what plaintiffs said was a calculated effort to “groom” her and prepare her for sex-trafficking. In March 2018, the man asked the teen to leave home and meet him. He brought the girl to a motel, photographed her and posted images in Backpage ads, according to the opinion. The johns who responded to the post raped her.

Nasty stuff. This is a big ruling, but it is far from the end of the line, and there will be plenty of opportunity for Facebook to prevail in other ways as we proceed. The HuffPost has more.

First post-legislative session voting rights lawsuit filed

Surely not the last.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday, a Latino civil rights group and a voting rights group say a bill signed into law by Texas Governor Greg Abbott last week that prevents Texans from using a commerical address or post office box as their address when they register to vote is unconstitutional.

The Texas chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), a civil rights group, and Voto Latino, a political mobilization group are asking the court to block the enforcement of Senate Bill 1111, which the groups say violates the First, 14th, and 26th Amendments.

The bill is set to go into effect on Sept. 1.

The law states that a person cannot “establish a residence at any place the person has not inhabited” and they cannot “designate a previous residence as a home and fixed place of habitation unless the person inhabits the place at the time of designation and intends to remain.” This means that the address a voter gives while registering to vote must be the address at which they currently reside.

In addition to the address restrictions, the bill empowers voter registrars to send a confirmation notice letter to a registered voter requiring them to confirm their address. If a completed confirmation notice is not received within 30 days, that voter may become unregistered and be unable to vote.

To confirm the address of their current residence the voter must sign a sworn statement that their address is not a commercial location. They would also have to provide the same information required for one to register to vote, including some form of identification.

The plaintiffs characterize SB 1111 as one of many examples of voter suppression pushed by Republicans this past legislative session.

The groups allege the law “burdens voters who rely on post office boxes” and unfairly targets people who may not reside in a single location for long periods of time. The population of people who may not have a primary location and rely on P.O. boxes include people who are experiencing homelessness and students who may live on a college campus.

Texas State LULAC director, Rudy Rosales, said in an interview that the bill is “just another avenue for the state to interfere with people’s right to vote.”

Rosales points to the confirmation notices as a clear example of how this law will disenfranchise many Texas voters. Combining an important notice that may impact a person’s ability to vote with the amount of junk mail people sift through daily, he said, will lead to many missing their chance to confirm their address and render them ineligible to cast a ballot. Rosales also believes that the law serves to intimidate people from minority communities who are already wary of interacting with the government.

Here’s SB1111, which as Reform Austin notes is an outgrowth of an effort by local vote suppressor Alan Vara to target people who don’t have permanent addresses. This bill is also a reminder that for all of the very justified attention that SB7 got, there was plenty of other much lower-key activity in this legislative session to make it harder for people to vote. I hope that the Justice Department is keeping an eye on this as well, and offers whatever assistance it can.

ACLU warns counties to stay away from the Abbott wall

From the inbox:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sent letters today to 34 counties informing top officials that implementing Gov. Greg Abbott’s unlawful plan to engage in immigration enforcement would violate the U.S. Constitution.

The letters, sent to the counties targeted by Abbott, advise against local law enforcement participation in Abbott’s unilateral efforts to set federal immigration policy, arrest and detain immigrants, and deter people from seeking protection in the United States. Noncitizens in the U.S. have the legal right to seek asylum and other protections. Arresting and detaining immigrants due to their immigration status or as a result of enforcing or altering federal immigration law is unconstitutional.

“Gov. Abbott cannot seek to enforce his own version of immigration policy,” said Kate Huddleston, attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “County officials will be in violation of the law if they enforce the governor’s plan. The federal government, not states or local governments, sets immigration policy and enforces immigration law. Yet again, the governor is targeting immigrants and inciting fear and xenophobia in our state. These moves are a cruel distraction from the real problems facing the state, such as fixing the failing state electrical grid.”

The letters also request under the Texas Public Information Act information about guidance that local officials have received from the state, as well as local cooperation with state efforts to arrest immigrants to date, including any arrests or prosecutions by their locality.

In addition, the letters advise localities to train local law enforcement officers to ensure they do not violate the Constitution or federal law when interacting with immigrants. The ACLU of Texas is asking agencies to adopt policies that comply with constitutional policing and limitations on immigration enforcement, including training officers to refrain from making stops based on perceived immigration status, race, ethnicity, or language.

The 34 counties that received the letter are: Brewster, Brooks, Cameron, Crockett, Culberson, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, El Paso, Goliad, Gonzales, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kinney, La Salle, Lavaca, Maverick, McMullen, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Reeves, Starr, Sutton, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and Zavala.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the letter is here. It seems clear that this is a precursor to a lawsuit, serving both as a warning to the counties that if they follow along with Abbott’s folly they will be named in the suit as well, plus an early effort to gather evidence. The Public Information Act request in this letter specifically asks for the following:

1. Any and all records regarding the May 31, 2021 disaster declaration and its implementation;

2. Any and all records regarding Operation Lone Star and its implementation;

3. Any and all records regarding your locality’s participation in or cooperation with Texas Department of Public Safety officials engaged in Operation Lone Star or any other immigration enforcement efforts; and

4. Any and all records regarding arrests and/or prosecutions pursuant to Operation Lone Star, the May 31 disaster declaration, or for immigration-related enforcement purposes by your locality from March 6, 2021, to the present, including but not limited to arrests and prosecutions for criminal trespass, smuggling, or human trafficking.

We’re unlikely to get any of that information from Greg Abbott, so no matter what else happens this should be valuable.

Justice Department sues Georgia over its voter suppression law

Good to see.

In its first major action to combat GOP voter suppression laws, the Biden Justice Department announced on Friday that it is suing the state of Georgia over its new voting restrictions. The lawsuit was first reported by Mother Jones.

“Today the Department of Justice is suing the state of Georgia,” Attorney General Merrick Garland announced at a press conference at the Justice Department headquarters.

The lawsuit challenges a number of provisions of the law, including a ban on election officials sending unsolicited mail ballot request forms to voters, a shorter period of time for voters to request absentee ballots, new voter ID requirements for mail ballots, restrictions on the number of mail ballot drop boxes, a ban on giving out food and water to voters in line, and throwing out provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct.

Gov. Brian Kemp has said “there is nothing Jim Crow” about the Georgia law, enacted in March, but it includes 16 different provisions that make it harder to vote and that target metro Atlanta counties with large Black populations.

The lawsuit is being overseen by Kristen Clarke, the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, and Vanita Gupta, the associate attorney general—two longtime civil rights lawyers with extensive records litigating against new restrictions on voting.

[…]

The Supreme Court’s 2013 gutting of the Voting Rights Act means that states with a long history of discrimination—including Georgia—no longer need to get their voting changes approved by the federal government. Since that decision, 26 states have enacted new restrictions on voting, according to an analysis by Mother Jones published on Friday. Garland said Friday that if not for that Supreme Court ruling, “it is likely that SB202 would have never taken effect.”

If successful, and assuming that SCOTUS doesn’t use this as an opportunity to gut the Voting Rights Act further (or that they haven’t already by then), this could put Georgia back under preclearance. And the stakes are obviously higher than that. You can easily see the parallels between Georgia’s SB202 and Texas’ SB7, which will get a new number in the special session. AG Garland has announced his intention to make the defense of voting rights a top priority for the Justice Department, and this is the down payment on that promise. It seems very likely that the Texas bill will end up as another installment, unless somehow the bill tanks again or gets watered down to the point where Dems can reasonably shrug and move on to the next fight. Yeah, I don’t think either of those things will happen, either. Daily Kos and the Current have more.

Lawsuit filed against suspension of federal unemployment benefits

Not sure how likely this is to succeed, but it’s worth a try.

Thousands of Texans have banded together and hired an attorney to file suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott from ending emergency federal unemployment benefits before the programs expire in September.

The plaintiffs, two groups that organized over Facebook with more than 30,000 people, argue that the decision to end the benefits early exceeded the governor’s authority, according to the lawsuit, filed this week in state district court in Austin. The benefits, aimed at providing relief to workers during the pandemic, are scheduled to expire Saturday under Abbott’s order.

“Texas has what is known as a weak governor and a large part of Texas is run by commissions,” David Sibley, an attorney for the group of unemployment groups, said. “We just believe the governor is acting outside of his authority, and it’s something the TWC (Texas Workforce Commission) should address.”

Abbott last month ordered the early end to federal programs that provided supplemental payments of $300 a week to unemployed workers and extended jobless benefits to gig workers and other self-employed people not covered by the traditional unemployment system. Abbott argued that job openings in the state are plentiful and the additional benefits were no longer needed.

[…]

On Friday, Judge Dustin Howell denied a temporary restraining order to block the governor from ending the federal benefits while the case is proceeding. Despite the ruling, Sibley said his clients will continue with their case. “A denial of a (temporary restraining order) does not mean the case is over,” Sibley said.

The plaintiffs are asking the court to order the Texas Workforce Commission to make the decision on whether and when to end the benefits. They acknowledge that the workforce commission could reach the same decision as the governor, but it would delay when the federal benefits would expire.

See here and here for the background. The only other news story I found about this is a paywalled DMN story, so I don’t have any more details. Seems to me getting denied the motion for a temporary restraining order is a big setback, but maybe there is still a way forward. I found a Facebook group with 30K members that appears to be related to this, but it’s private and I don’t want to go poking my nose in places where it doesn’t belong. I wish these folks well, but I don’t think they’re going to get what they’re asking for. The Texas Signal has more.

Lawsuit filed over veto of legislative budget

Good. And necessary.

A group of Texas House Democrats and legislative staffers is asking the Texas Supreme Court to override Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent veto of a portion of the state budget that funds the Legislature, staffers there and legislative agencies.

More than 50 Democrats, a number of state employees and the Texas AFL-CIO have signed on to a petition for a writ of mandamus, which was filed Friday morning.

“The state is in a constitutional crisis at this moment,” said Chad Dunn, an attorney involved with the petition, during a briefing with reporters Thursday.

[…]

The petition argues that Abbott exceeded his executive authority and violated the state’s separation of powers doctrine. The parties involved with the petition are asking the all-Republican court to find Abbott’s veto unconstitutional, which would allow Article X of the state budget, the section at issue, to become law later this year.

State Rep. Chris Turner, a Grand Prairie Democrat who chairs his party’s caucus in the lower chamber, told reporters Thursday there are roughly 2,000 employees in the state’s legislative branch that would be affected by Abbott’s veto if it stands.

Lawmakers receive $600 a month in addition to a per diem of $221 every day the Legislature is in session for both regular and session sessions.

“This isn’t about [lawmakers’] paychecks,” Turner said during the briefing. “What he’s doing is hurting our staff and hurting our constituents.”

See here for the background, and here for a Twitter thread from Rep. James Talarico explaining the reasons behind the petition. Rep. Talarico notes that the effect of the veto “also includes nonpolitical staff like the custodians, cafeteria workers, landscapers, and parking attendants…[who] will also lose their pay and their health insurance on September 1”, which is the end of the fiscal year. The special session for July will almost certainly include action to restore this funding, but only if Abbott puts it on the agenda, which gives him quite a bit of leverage. Way too much, if you believe what the state constitution says.

The plaintiffs have asked the Supreme Court for a ruling before September 1. I have no idea what they will do, but consider this for a moment. Beto beats Abbott in November 2022. After taking office, he issues an executive order of some kind, maybe to kill the Abbott border wall. Doesn’t really matter, whatever it is he gets sued by Jared Woodfill, who gets a writ of mandamus from SCOTX blocking the order. And then, a few months later after the Lege passes its budget, Governor Beto uses his line item veto authority to defund the Supreme Court, which he says is payback for their dumb and disrespectful ruling against him.

You may say that’s ridiculous. I would agree, but the real question is what (other than a respect for norms and not being a petty tyrant like Greg Abbott) would stop Governor Beto if it came to that? If the Supreme Court says there are no limits on what a Governor can do to exert influence over another branch of government, then surely this too is fair game.

Those of you with memories that extend past last week may remember the precursor to all this, when Rick Perry threatened to veto funding for the Public Integrity Unit of the Travis County DA’s office if then-DA Rosemary Lehmberg didn’t resign following a drunk driving arrest. Lehmberg, whatever her faults, was an elected official who did not answer to the Governor, but Perry felt it was within his power to attempt to force her out and to use the threat of cutting off funding for a division of her office as the stick. Perry was subsequently indicted by a grand jury for an abuse of office charge, but the Court of Criminal Appeals came to his rescue and tossed the indictment, buying his argument that he was being arrested for exercising veto power. But it wasn’t that – indeed, he never did veto any PUI funding – it was the threat and the coercion. Abbott’s veto, done as retaliation against a legitimate legislative action that he just didn’t like, is the next step of this progression. It’s autocratic, it’s a huge abuse of power, it’s dangerous, and it must be stopped by the one branch of government that can stop it. If SCOTX doesn’t recognize the need to do this, they will have truly failed us all.

UPDATE: A statement from Abbott about the lawsuit can be found here.

Suing the “Trump Train”

Good.

A group of people traveling on a President Joe Biden campaign bus on a Texas highway last fall when it was surrounded and followed by former President Donald Trump’s supporters have filed a lawsuit against at least seven people who allegedly were following the bus, claiming the group violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and Texas law by organizing a “politically-motivated conspiracy to disrupt the campaign and intimidate its supporters.”

The Klan Act prevents groups from joining together to obstruct free and fair federal elections by intimidating and injuring voters, or denying them the ability to engage in political speech.

The lawsuit, filed in federal court Thursday, claims the defendants violated that law when they followed the bus, yelling death threats and streaming their activities on social media.

The plaintiffs include former state Sen. Wendy Davis, David Gins, a then-campaign staffer who now serves as deputy director for operations for Vice President Kamala Harris, Eric Cervini, another campaign volunteer, and the bus driver, Timothy Holloway. The lawsuit also states that the plaintiffs continue to suffer psychological and emotional injury from the event. The bus driver, Holloway, has been unable to drive a bus following the experience. They are asking for compensatory and punitive damages and for legal fees to be covered.

“What Defendants cannot do under the law is use force, intimidation, or threats against those with whom they disagree politically. Yet that is precisely what Defendants did by conspiring to use their vehicles as weapons to interfere with the constitutional rights of those who supported the Biden-Harris Campaign,” the lawsuit reads. “The Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, association, and assembly is empty if those rights cannot be freely exercised. And where groups are permitted to terrorize those with whom they disagree into forgoing their constitutional rights, the functioning of our democracy demands accountability.”

[…]

In an exclusive interview with the Tribune in January, Davis said she didn’t think law enforcement had taken the situation seriously enough. She said in San Antonio, police responded to a request for assistance, pushing the trucks with Trump flags back. But once they left San Antonio, the caravan once again surrounded the bus. Davis said they called 911 again in San Marcos but they could not get an officer to respond.

“They just kept saying, ‘Where are you now? Where are you now,’” Davis said in January. “We kept giving them landmark after landmark, mile marker after mile marker. … Never were we able to get anyone to come out. It was unbelievable.”

I didn’t blog about that incident at the time because there was a lot going on and there wasn’t much to add to it except inchoate anger. The Texas Civil Rights Project has a landing page for this – it appears there are two complaints, both of which have some unnamed defendants – with a one page explanation of the lawsuit and the law it has been filed under. The one pager says that the Klan Act has been “mostly unused” over the past hundred years, so who knows how a judge will view it. There is apparently still an FBI investigation of the incident, so perhaps we’ll be able to hear about what they have learned.

The Chron provides some details about the two suits.

The first of two lawsuits filed Thursday targets at least seven individuals who were driving the vehicles that surrounded the bus. The second addresses local law enforcement officers, whom the plaintiffs contend did not properly respond to the incident.

[…]

The first lawsuit filed Thursday alleges that the individuals involved in surrounding the bus violated the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which prohibits people from conspiring to inhibit individuals’ political speech via force, intimidation or threats.

“Plaintiffs feared the Trump Train might run the bus off the road, or that they might crash into a vehicle, wall barrier, sign, pillar, or other obstacle on or by the highway,” the lawsuit states. “They feared what the Trump Train might do if they succeeded in stopping the bus or forcing the bus off the road. Plaintiffs were terrified that someone on the bus, or someone else driving on the interstate, would be injured or killed.”

The second lawsuit claims that, as Biden staffers solicited aid from the San Marcos Police Department, they “were failed by the very officials charged with upholding both their safety and their foundational democratic rights.” The plaintiffs allege that they contacted San Marcos police with safety concerns a day in advance of their travels, and that officers declined to provide help when the bus was surrounded on the highway.

A spokesperson said last fall that the San Marcos Police Department had received a request for a police escort, but they couldn’t catch up with the vehicle before it left the city.

The lawsuit contradicts that claim, asserting that officers said they wouldn’t respond unless the campaign was “reporting a crime.”

OK then. Assuming they survive a motion to dismiss, I will be very interested to see what comes out of the discovery process, because the potential is there for this to connect to some public figures. I mean, it sure seems likely to me that what happened didn’t come as a complete surprise to various Republican campaigns and the state and county parties. I will also be interested to see if some fancy high-priced attorneys materialize for the defense. It’s surely best to keep one’s expectations low on this, but the potential is there for some accountability to be had. Here’s hoping.

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

I just have one question about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Methodist anti-vaxxers officially fired

I have three things to say about this.

More than 150 Houston Methodist Hospital employees resigned or have been fired as of Tuesday over a recent policy that required hospital employees to be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Monday.

All told, 153 people are no longer employees of the Houston health care chain, Methodist spokesperson Patti Muck said. The hospital has about 25,000 employees, nearly all of whom have abided by the policy, Methodist leaders have said previously.

The firings follow a contentious few weeks in which hospital employees staged protests and filed a lawsuit against the hospital, claiming the policy, announced in April, violated their rights. Methodist was one of the first large health care providers in the country to announce vaccine requirements.

“I’m so happy and relieved,” Jennifer Bridges, the lead plaintiff in the suit, said Tuesday. “I don’t want any part of Methodist.”

Earlier this month, a federal judge tossed the lawsuit filed by more than 100 Methodist employees, most of whom were not doctors or nurses. In it, the plaintiffs argued Methodist’s policy violated the Nuremberg Codes, a World War II-era agreement that bans involuntary participation in medical trials.

Bridges said Tuesday that she and others planned to protest outside Methodist on Saturday, and that conspiracy theorist Alex Jones will be in attendance.

See here and here for the background. My three things:

1. I strongly suspect Methodist would say that the feeling is mutual, Jennifer.

2. Inviting Alex Jones to your protest really makes one question the previous statements made about how these folks are not anti-vaccine, just super cautious about this particular vaccine.

3. As Methodist cardiovascular technician Deedee Mattoa says in this story, the real surprise here is not that Methodist followed through, but that Memorial Hermann and Baylor College of Medicine, which have made public promises to require COVID-19 vaccines but have not set deadlines for when staff will need the shots, have not yet followed suit. What are you guys waiting for? The Trib has more.

Whistleblowers respond to Paxton’s appeal brief

That title is a dry way of saying that they basically accused him of lying in his filing to the 3rd Court of Appeals.

Best mugshot ever

A group of former top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reiterated in a court filing this week that they believe Paxton committed crimes while in office, and suggested that Paxton is intentionally mischaracterizing witness testimony in their whistleblower case against him for political reasons.

The aides are taking issue with a brief and a press release issued on June 2 where Paxton’s lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to throw out the case four aides filed against the state’s top lawyer in which they allege he fired them for reporting his alleged illegal behavior to federal and state authorities. Paxton, who has denied the charges, said he fired aides last year because they had gone “rogue” and made “unsubstantiated claims” against him.

Paxton’s lawyer said in June that in a trial court hearing on March 1, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer would not say he specifically saw Paxton commit a crime, but only that he had “potential concerns” about Paxton’s dealings with real estate developer Nate Paul. Paul is a political donor and friend of Paxton who the whistleblowers allege Paxton helped with his legal issues in exchange for personal favors.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that the appeals court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

But in a new brief filed on Monday by the whistleblowers’ lawyers, they argue Paxton’s lawyers took the exchange they cited out of context to argue Mateer never saw Paxton commit a crime. They said Mateer’s comment was in response to a specific question about whether any employees raised concerns about Paxton’s behavior in June 2020, three months before former employees reported Paxton’s behavior to law enforcement.

“This claim distorts Mateer’s testimony,” the brief states. “In fact, Mateer testified unequivocally that he believed at the time of Appellees’ FBI report—and still believes today—that Paxton committed crimes, including abuse of office and bribery.” They also point out that Mateer signed a letter on Oct. 1, 2020 that alerted the attorney general’s office that the whistleblowers had reported Paxton’s behavior to the FBI, further proving Mateer believed Paxton had violated the law.

[…]

The whistleblowers’ attorneys say the AG’s office did not accurately explain to the appeals court that Mateer’s potential concerns were specifically in response to a question about Paxton and Paul’s relationship in June 2020.

“OAG took even greater license in its [June] press release, predicting victory because its brief shows that Mateer “swore under oath that Paxton committed no actual crimes,” the lawyers wrote in a footnote in the brief. “Given the … OAG’s mischaracterization of what Mateer ‘swore under oath,’ perhaps this portion of OAG’s brief was written for an audience other than the justices of this Court.”

A lawyer in the case told The Texas Tribune they believed the press release was written for Paxton’s supporters and Texas voters, rather than to make a legal argument.

See here for the previous update. That last paragraph is both shocking and completely on brand. A press release is of course not the same thing as a legal filing, but in general judges tend to take a dim view of lawyers misrepresenting the facts. If what the plaintiffs are saying here is accurate, I would think that the Third Court justices might have some sharp words for Team Paxton. And yes, as noted in the story, that press release came out just before P Bush officially launched his challenge against Paxton. Totally coincidental, I’m sure.

The lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to consider this appeal without hearing oral arguments. If the court decides to hear arguments, the aides requested it happen as quickly as possible.

The four former aides also laid out in detail in the filing the specific instances where they believe Paxton broke the law.

We’re familiar with the outline of the charges the plaintiffs have made against Paxton, but go ahead and read on if you want to remind yourself. The reasons behind Paxton’s bizarre, corrupt actions are still unclear – one assumes that financial reward was part of it, and if the allegations about Paxton’s affair are true that likely was a factor as well – but there’s no good way to spin them if they happened as alleged. It’s hardly bold to say that Ken Paxton has no integrity, but it’s still appalling to see the things he is said to have done. And if the Third Court agrees that oral arguments aren’t needed, that would be pretty amazing as well.

City appeals firefighter collective bargaining case to Supreme Court

Here we go.

The city of Houston on Monday asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on a recent appellate court ruling that rejected Mayor Sylvester Turner’s attempt to strike down a key provision of state law governing how firefighters negotiate their wages and benefits.

The case stems from a 2017 lawsuit filed by the Houston Professional Fire Fighters Association, which claims Turner’s administration did not negotiate in good faith during failed contract talks between the city and fire union that year.

As part of that lawsuit, the firefighters invoked a provision of state law that allows a state district judge to set their pay after Turner declined to enter contract arbitration. The city responded by arguing it was unconstitutional for judges to determine the pay of firefighters and police officers without firmer guidelines for doing so.

In an appeal filed Monday, attorneys representing the city asked Texas’ highest civil court to reverse a ruling last month by Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals, in which a panel of justices found the provision challenged by the city does not run afoul of the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers clause, which prohibits one branch of government — the judiciary, in this case — from exercising power that belongs to another branch.

Under state law, public employers must provide firefighters and police officers with “compensation and other conditions of employment” that are “substantially the same” as those of “comparable private sector employment.”

In the Supreme Court filing, the city contended that provision does not provide specific enough guidelines for courts to determine firefighter pay, an argument that was rejected by the appeals court in May. Still, city attorneys wrote in the latest filing that the law governing police and firefighter compensation has “existed under a legal cloud with respect to the unconstitutional delegation of legislative power accomplished by this judicial enforcement mechanism.”

See here and here for the background. This is too technical for me to have an opinion about the merits, but as I said before it would not have bothered me if the city had accepted the ruling and gone ahead with the judge setting the firefighters’ pay. I recognize that the downside risk of this for the city is getting a number they would not like, and if nothing else the appeal buys them some time. We’ll see how long it takes SCOTX to handle this.

One more thing:

Meanwhile, firefighters are collecting signatures for a charter amendment that would make it easier to bring contract talks with the city to binding arbitration. Union officials say they are aiming to place the measure on this year’s November ballot.

Insert your favorite GIF of someone shrugging their shoulders here.

Supreme Court agrees that Texas Central is a railroad

Or at least, they declined the opportunity to say otherwise.

Texas Central Railroad, according to the Texas Supreme Court, is a railroad, ending a five-year legal battle over the controversial high-speed rail company’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

The ruling, unless a federal court intervenes or stops the company in another way, clears the path for backers of the Houston-to-Dallas bullet train to acquire land over the objections of landowners unwilling to sell.

The Supreme Court on Friday declined to review the Texas 13th Court of Appeals ruling last year that upheld Texas Central’s right to use state eminent domain laws.

“The court’s denial of review should put an end to over five years of contentious litigation and clear the path for Texas Central to bring the high-speed train to Texas,” Texas Central said in a statement.

[…]

At issue in the case, brought by Leon County landowners Jim and Barbara Miles, was whether Texas Central was classified as a railroad by state law. Despite claiming to be a railroad, Miles’ lawyers noted the company owns no trains, has no track and does not operate any service. Texas Central remains, after more than nine years, still in the planning stages, and continues to face stiff opposition from rural residents.

Being considered a railroad is important because only a railroad has a right to acquire property under eminent domain for a private purpose. Otherwise landowners simply could refuse to sell. Now, Texas Central must offer property owners fair market value, but can go to court to condemn land.

See here and here for the background. With the manufacturing contract, the final federal environmental approvals, surviving the legislative session, and now this, it’s been a few good months for Texas Central. Opponents still have some arrows in their quiver – they are challenging the environmental approvals, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Greg Abbott is asked to add consideration of eminent domain to a special session agenda – but the path forward is a lot clearer for them now than it was a year ago. Once they start actually laying track – and I know I’ve said this before, but it’s still true – they will be hard to stop.

SCOTUS upholds Obamacare again

Another Ken Paxton failure, for which we should be grateful and also really pissed off.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas-led legal challenge to the Affordable Care Act on Thursday, saying the plaintiffs in the 2018 lawsuit are not being harmed by the law’s unenforceable individual mandate provision — a central argument of the challenge.

The 7-2 ruling did not include an official opinion on whether the ACA, a sweeping piece of health care legislation commonly known as Obamacare, was constitutional.

Instead, the court focused its rejection of the lawsuit — brought by 18 states and two individuals — on its opinion that the plaintiffs didn’t have any standing to sue over the individual mandate, which requires Americans to purchase health insurance and had originally included a financial penalty for those who chose to remain uninsured. That penalty was zeroed out in a later Republican tax bill.

“A plaintiff has standing only if he can ‘allege personal injury fairly traceable to the defendant’s allegedly unlawful conduct and likely to be redressed by the requested relief,’” the opinion reads. “Their problem lies in the fact that the statutory provision, while it tells them to obtain that coverage, has no means of enforcement.”

It was the third time the high court defended the ACA against legal challenges, including a 2012 ruling that the initial mandate — and its tax penalty for noncompliance — was constitutional because it was within Congress’ taxing power.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican, set out in 2018 to achieve through the courts what his party tried and failed for years to achieve in legislation: the end of President Barack Obama’s landmark health law.

And he failed, because Ken Paxton is a failure in life and in law, and we really need to dump his ass. I recommend you read Mark Joseph Stern’s analysis, which explains why this was a strong ruling. The next step is to elect a better class of Attorney General, here and elsewhere. The Chron has more.

En banc request granted for Paxton trial moving issue

Best mugshot ever

I don’t know if that headline makes sense, but it’s the natural next step after the special prosecutors in the Ken Paxton trial asked the First Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling that would send the trial back to Collin County. The only news stories I have seen for this are behind paywalls – here’s the Statesman and here’s Law360 – but really all you need to know is in the two court orders. This one grants the temporary stay of the previous ruling pending the en banc hearing. This one says that Team Paxton has 30 days to file a response to the special prosecutors’ request.

After that, the full court will take however much time they will take and then issue their ruling. In theory, based on previous experience, we may get that ruling around the end of the year, give or take a month or two. And then, because we’ve seen this movie before and we know how it goes, whatever that ruling is will be appealed to the CCA. In other words, don’t expect there to be an actual trial any time soon.

Methodist anti-vaxxers appeal lawsuit dismissal

As expected.

A group of Houston Methodist employees who sued the hospital system over its COVID-19 vaccine requirement have appealed a ruling dismissing the case.

Over the weekend, U.S. District Judge Lynn N. Hughes tossed the lawsuit, calling it “reprehensible” to compare the vaccine requirement to Nazi Germany’s medical experiments.

“Equating the injection requirement to medical experimentation in concentration camps is reprehensible,” Hughes said. “Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on victims that caused pain, mutilation, permanent disability, and in many cases, death.”

[…]

Although the lower court judge thought the case had no merit, Woodfill could get traction from the 5th U.S. Circuit Court, known as one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country. On several recent occasions, the 5th Circuit has dealt blows to Hughes, a historically stubborn 79-year-old Reagan appointee.

The appeals court ordered him to re-sentence a defendant in a terrorism case who was accused of supporting ISIS overseas. After Hughes re-sentenced the man to the same abbreviated sentence, 18 months, which did not consider a sentencing enhancement, the government appealed and the 5th circuit removed the sentencing from Hughes’ court.

The 5th circuit also admonished Hughes for remarks he made on the record about female employees of the federal government. Hughes later barred the Houston prosecutor from appearing at the jury trial involved in that case.

More than half of frontline medical workers nationwide have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to a survey from the Kaiser Family Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. But as of April, nearly one in five said they did not plan on receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.

See here for the previous entry. It’s true that Judge Hughes can be a crank, but I kind of doubt that any of those previous instances will weigh on this case. For some analysis of the lawsuit and subsequent dismissal, this WaPo story has some good information.

Valerie Gutmann Koch, co-director of the University of Houston’s Health Law & Policy Institute, called the decision “another step in demonstrating the legality of these mandates, particularly in a health crisis like this.”

“There isn’t much there to rely on to argue these mandates should be illegal,” she said.

[…]

Akiko Iwasaki, an immunologist at Yale University, characterized the lawsuit’s claims as “absurd” in recent remarks to The Washington Post, noting that tens of thousands of people participated in the vaccine trials. The suit also repeats misinformation circulated widely online about the shots altering DNA.

The inoculations are seen as key to a return to normalcy, yet most employers have shied away from mandating them, concerned about the thorny politics and previously untested legal issues. Colleges and universities, along with Houston Methodist and a handful of other health-care institutions, are the exception.

Koch said the ruling shows “employer mandates of the covid-19 vaccine, particularly in the health care arena, are absolutely legal.” She said she expects to see more legal battles around vaccination mandates but noted she has “always predicted that they have very thin legal legs to stand on.”

There is precedent for vaccine requirements, she said, such as when health-care institutions require vaccinations during particularly bad flu seasons. Koch said she was “encouraged by the fact that this was dismissed as quickly and expeditiously as it was.”

Veronica Vargas Stidvent, executive director at the Center for Women in Law at the University of Texas School of Law, said the ruling is based on employment law in Texas, so the extent to which it sets a precedent for other jurisdictions is not clear.

“At least here in Texas, under this ruling, it’s pretty clear employers can require employees to get vaccinated,” she said.

Yeah, I don’t think it should be a surprise that Texas employment laws are much more favorable to employers than to employees. As Reuters notes, Judge Hughes wrote that “Texas law only protected employees from being fired for refusing to commit an illegal act and that the requirement is consistent with public policy.” I’ll be more than a little surprised if the Fifth Circuit decides that this is the place to take a stand in favor of the workers.