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Twitter sues Paxton

How the tables have turned.

Best mugshot ever

Twitter filed a lawsuit against Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton in a California federal court Monday and asked a judge to halt the state’s top lawyer from investigating the company.

The social media giant’s court filings include a request for a temporary restraining order that would keep Paxton and his office from enforcing a demand that seeks documents revealing the company’s internal decision making processes for banning users, among other things.

Paxton, a fervent supporter of former President Donald Trump, sent the company a civil investigative demand after it banned Trump from its platform following January’s deadly siege at the U.S. Capitol.

Twitter wrote that it seeks to stop Paxton from “from unlawfully abusing his authority as the highest law-enforcement officer of the State of Texas to intimidate, harass, and target Twitter in retaliation for Twitter’s exercise of its First Amendment rights.” The company claimed Paxton’s “retaliatory” investigation violated the First Amendment as an inappropriate use of government authority.

[…]

The attorney general is among Texas Republican leaders who have launched a campaign against technology and social media companies after officials and followers faced repercussions for sowing the election doubts that fueled the Capitol insurrection.

Twitter is one of five tech and social media firms to which Paxton issued civil investigative demands to learn about the procedures such companies use to regulate postings or user accounts.

Paxton, who attended the rally that preceded the attack on the U.S. Capitol, criticized companies’ moves after the siege, which included Twitter banning Trump from its platform.

“The seemingly coordinated de-platforming of the President of the United States and several leading voices not only chills free speech, it wholly silences those whose speech and political beliefs do not align with leaders of Big Tech companies,” Paxton said in a Jan. 13 news release.

Last week, Gov. Greg Abbott touted Texas legislation that seeks to crack down on social media companies’ perceived censorship of conservative voices. Senate Bill 12 would prohibit social media companies — including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube — from blocking, banning, demonetizing, or otherwise discriminating against a user based on their viewpoint or their location within Texas.

I’ve looked around but have not seen any legal analysis of this lawsuit, but Texas Lawyer adds some useful details.

The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California Monday, asserts that Paxton issued a civil investigative demand just five days after the company announced its ban of Trump. The Attorney General’s Office demanded “volumes of highly confidential documents concerning Twitter’s internal content moderation processes—the public disclosure of which would undermine their effectiveness, and compromise Twitter’s ability to effectively and efficiently moderate content on its platform,” according to the complaint, which was surfaced by Law.com Radar.

Twitter alleges that Paxton violated the First Amendment by issuing the investigation targeting its editorial practices. The company says in the lawsuit that it attempted to work with Paxton to tailor the document requests but did not reach an agreement.

“Instead, AG Paxton made clear that he will use the full weight of his office, including his expansive investigatory powers, to retaliate against Twitter for having made editorial decisions with which he disagrees,” wrote Wilmer attorneys Patrick Carome, Ari Holtzblatt, Peter Neiman and Mark Flanagan. “Now Twitter, already targeted because of its protected activity, is left with the untenable choice to turn over highly sensitive documents or else face legal sanctions.”

Twitter is seeking an order declaring that Paxton violated the tech firm’s free speech rights and a temporary restraining order enjoining the office from continuing the investigation.

A Twitter representative said Paxton is misusing the powers of his office in an attempt to silence free speech. “As we’ve repeatedly stated, and recent research underscores, we enforce the Twitter Rules judiciously and impartially across our service,” the representative said in an email statement. “In the words of AG Paxton: ‘…[i]t is one thing to use the legal system to pursue public policy outcomes; but it is quite another to use prosecutorial weapons to intimidate critics, silence free speech, or chill the robust exchange of ideas.’”

You can see a copy of the lawsuit embedded in the story. Still no analysis, so I have no idea if it’s mostly noise that won’t survive a motion to dismiss or if it’s likely to succeed, but that helped. We do know that Paxton is a complete bootlicking toady for Donald Trump, and we do know that his lawsuit to try to overturn the election was trash, so it’s hardly a stretch to think that his “investigation” is something less than top-notch lawyering. I think we can also agree that SB12, if it manages to pass, will draw a multitude of lawsuits within days of it becoming law. I say pop the corn and enjoy the spectacle. Reform Austin and the Current have more.

Paxton sues Griddy

Bandwagon time.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a lawsuit Monday against electricity retailer Griddy, claiming it misled customers using deceptive business practices after some customers reported bills costing tens of thousands of dollars.

These charges were incurred during Texas’ devastating winter storm that nearly shut down Texas’ electrical grid and sent energy demand skyrocketing. The lawsuit targets Griddy’s auto-billing system, which began drafting money out of customer’s accounts as the bills rolled in.

“Griddy misled Texans and signed them up for services which, in a time of crisis, resulted in individual Texans each losing thousands of dollars,” Paxton said in a statement. “As Texans struggled to survive this winter storm, Griddy made the suffering even worse as it debited outrageous amounts each day.”

Paxton noted this is the first lawsuit his office has filed against power companies after the widespread outages two weeks ago. A Houston-based law firm accused the company of price gouging and filed a separate class-action lawsuit last week.

[…]

Griddy customers paid a $10 monthly membership and in turn were passed wholesale power prices. These prices fluctuate but usually are cheaper than retail prices. However, unlike fixed-rate electricity plan users, Griddy customers are susceptible to market changes due to increased demand or reduced supply.

Paxton’s lawsuit claims the company understood the risk this posed to customers but misled them through its marketing.

Some customers have reported bills costing thousands of dollars, some surpassing $15,000. The retailer places the blame for the exorbitant prices on Texas’ Public Utility Commission, saying they were due to the commission jacking up wholesale prices.

See here for more on the previous lawsuit. I think that actin has some merit, but Paxton jumping in at this point has definite Claude Rains being shocked to discover gambling at the casino vibes to it. I mean, it’s not as if that risk hasn’t been there for customers since Griddy’s inception. It’s well within the power of the AG to sue over false or misleading advertising even before any actual harm is inflicted. This is what I meant when I said that the real problem here was that the system worked as designed.

Also, too: How do you think the cross-examination will go after Griddy’s lawyers call Dan Patrick to the stand to testify about his assertion that people should have read the fine print in their contracts?

Not sure what effect this will have on the proceedings, but we technically don’t have Griddy to kick around any more.

The state’s grid manager effectively shut Griddy down after the retail power company failed to make a required payment.

Griddy, which offers customers access to wholesale prices, gained notoriety for billing customers in the thousands of dollars when wholesale prices skyrocketed during the recent weather-driven power crisis. The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, barred the company, headquartered in California, from participating in the state’s power markets.

Griddy said Monday that it asked the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, for emergency help on Feb. 16 after the Public Utility Commission mandated that wholesale prices rise to the state maximum of $9,000 per kilowatt hour, where they stayed for days.

That cost, which passed through to Griddy customers, is equivalent to $9 per kilowatt hour on residential bills, compared to a typical 9 cents to 10 cents per kilowatt hour in fixed retail plans.

Griddy said ERCOT did respond to its plea for help. ERCOT “ decided to take this action against only one company that represents a tiny fraction of the market,” Griddy said.

A spokeswoman for ERCOT said the grid manager did work with Griddy, but could not discuss details because of confidentiality rules.

What do you suppose are the odds that Griddy will file its own lawsuit against ERCOT?

How will Biden handle judicial nominations in Texas?

Damn good question. He’s got to get better results than President Obama did.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

A potential showdown looms over Texas appointments after the White House tapped Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Dallas Democrat, to lead judicial vetting efforts that have traditionally been handled by the state’s Republican senators.

The arrangement, while not unprecedented, may foreshadow bruising partisan battles in the coming months over lifetime appointments to the bench, as well as key U.S. attorney spots.

House members have no defined role in that confirmation process, which instead works through the Senate. But there is an inherent tension in Texas these days: Democrats control the White House and Senate, while Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz are stalwart conservatives.

Johnson, a 15-term lawmaker who said the White House had tasked her to work with other Texas Democrats, channeled years of Democratic complaints that the GOP has stiffed them on judicial nominations by saying there is now “some expectation from our delegation that we have input.”

“It worked very well under Sen. [Phil] Gramm and Sen. [Kay Bailey] Hutchison,” she explained, referring to the two Texas Republicans who preceded Cornyn and Cruz in the Senate. “It hasn’t worked as well under Sen. Cornyn and Sen. Cruz.”

Cornyn and Cruz have pushed back on Democrats’ criticism that they’ve slow-walked the process under Democratic presidents and pressed fast-forward under GOP ones.

But the big question now is whether President Joe Biden and other Democrats — including Sen. Dick Durbin, the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee — will really play hardball with the Texas Republicans by ignoring traditions designed to protect senators in the political minority.

[…]

There’s still the real potential for clashes in Texas over judicial nominations, though it could take some time for those disputes to materialize. While a new slate of U.S. attorneys will need to be dealt with relatively soon, there are currently no vacancies on the federal bench in Texas.

Much of the ongoing tension can be explained by how the status quo came about on Texas’ four district courts and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, the appellate court that covers the state.

Trump — working with Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate — made federal judges a centerpiece of his four years in the White House, confirming them at a far faster pace than his predecessors, both Democrats and Republicans.

In Texas, Trump-appointed judges now comprise a plurality on the lower federal courts.

With a Republican in the White House and a GOP-run Senate, Cornyn and Cruz didn’t really need to seek input from Texas Democrats. Johnson, while saying she respects that the senators “are the senators,” fumed that “we didn’t even get a question or a call” over the last four years.

But the bigger Democratic complaint has centered on why Trump had so many vacancies to fill in the first place.

Democrats have long ripped Republicans for grinding judicial confirmations to a crawl after the GOP won the Senate in the latter stages of former President Barack Obama’s tenure. Trump often reveled in the vacancies he inherited, much to the chagrin of liberals in Texas and beyond.

“While we were able to find some very good judges, overall I don’t think the process worked very well,” said Christopher Kang, who oversaw the judicial nomination process under Obama. “Sens. Cornyn and Cruz were very challenging to work with, were very slow to work with.”

I’ve already discussed the US Attorney situation, which was an exercise in slow-walking in 2009-2010. I suppose it can serve as a way for Cornyn and Cruz to demonstrate that things will be different this time, but I see no reason to give them the benefit of the doubt. I say the Senators are welcome to put forth whatever names they want to, and if they’re sufficiently qualified and suitable, they can get in the queue alongside the nominees that Rep. Johnson and others provide. Otherwise, they can sit back and vote on the nominees like any other Senator, assuming that doesn’t conflict with Sen. Cruz’s busy travel schedule.

Has Ken Paxton been lying about his travel schedule?

Would anyone be surprised if he had been?

Best mugshot ever

When the media reported that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had flown to Utah with his wife in the middle of the state’s power crisis last week, Paxton called it a business trip that had been planned in advance.

Now a group of whistleblowers from his office who sparked an FBI investigation of Paxton are casting doubt on Paxton’s explanation.

In court records filed Friday, the whistleblowers say the attorney general had told a Travis County judge he could not appear at a hearing in their case because he was scheduled to be in Austin on Feb. 18 for a House appropriations committee hearing. The committee later canceled the hearing because of the state’s weather disaster.

Instead, the spokesman for Utah Attorney General Sean Reyes said Paxton met with Reyes on the afternoon of Feb. 19 and again on Feb. 21, as first reported by The Dallas Morning News. Paxton has not said when he arrived in Utah; he returned on Feb. 23.

“This begs the question: did Paxton pre-plan his Utah trip with plans to skip his legislative testimony, the hearing before this Court, or both?” the whistleblowers’ attorneys wrote in a filing Friday. “Or was Paxton simply lying to Texans about his trip to Utah having been pre-planned?”

See here for background on the Paxton travel situation, and here for the most recent update about the whistleblower lawsuit. It’s nice having a group of people who know Ken Paxton and his bullshit inside and out who are so motivated to call him on it. Other than adding to the public store of data about Ken Paxton’s dishonesty and lack of character, it’s not clear to me what effect this has on that lawsuit. The reason for asking to move the hearing was presumably legitimate, and for sure it would not have been heard on the original date once the committee meeting was canceled. I expect this is just to impugn Paxton’s credibility in the lawsuit, and to that extent it works as intended. The dude just can’t help himself. Reform Austin has more.

TEA appeals HISD takeover ruling to Supreme Court

One way or the other, this should get a resolution.

Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency filed an appeal Wednesday asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a temporary injunction that has slowed Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to strip power from all nine Houston ISD school board members.

The filing comes nearly two months after the Third District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s school board with a state-appointed board.

TEA pledged in late December 2020 to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s highest court overturns the injunction, TEA leaders could install a new board that could vote to end HISD’s lawsuit.

[…]

In their filing Wednesday, state lawyers representing the state argued the Third District Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation of laws and regulations on all three fronts. The lawyers also claimed HISD should not be able to sue the state over an administrative matter.

“This case is of immediate importance to HISD students,” Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful wrote in the appeal. “And the court of appeals’ misinterpretations of the law endanger TEA’s future efforts to assist failing schools.”

Each of the three issues considered by the Third District Court of Appeals largely fell along technical lines.

See here for the previous update. The ruling in favor of HISD was bipartisan, so this isn’t an R-versus-D issue in the way some other recent lawsuits have been. No idea how long this may take, so just keep on keeping on until we know more.

Deportation freeze still on hold

Grrrrrrrr.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has put an indefinite halt to President Joe Biden’s 100-day ban on deportations after issuing a preliminary injunction late Tuesday.

The ruling by Judge Drew Tipton comes after he had already temporarily paused the moratorium twice. The ban is nationwide and is in place as the case continues to play out in courts.

The ruling is a victory for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued to block Biden’s order three days into the Biden administration. Paxton’s office argued the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released into the state because of costs associated with health care and education, and said the moratorium would also lure others to come to Texas.

Tipton, a Trump appointee to the federal bench, wrote in his order that Texas would also incur costs for detaining immigrants within its state. “Texas claimed injury from unanticipated detention costs is sufficiently concrete and imminent. The harm is concrete or de facto because Texas incurs real financial costs in detaining criminal aliens,” he wrote.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Texas’ federal benches.

See here, here, and here for the background. This continues to be a load of crap, though as noted before one that seems to have a fairly limited impact. I don’t know what the argument is for not appealing. You can find a copy of the order here.

Suing Griddy

This is going to be interesting.

A Chambers County resident filed a class-action lawsuit against electricity retailer Griddy on Monday, accusing the provider of price gouging customers during last week’s freeze. She is seeking $1 billion in relief for affected customers.

Attorneys for Lisa Khoury said in the lawsuit that her bill spiked to $9,340 the week of the storm, compared to her average monthly bills that range from $200 to $250. Griddy drafted payments from Khoury’s bank account several times, according to the lawsuit, pulling $1,200 before she blocked further charges from her bank. She still owes thousands.

Griddy passes wholesale electricity rates directly to customers, who in turn pay the company $10 a month. This differs from fixed-rate electricity plans which offer a consistent rate regardless of market conditions.

But because of a price hike fueled by a shortage of supply and skyrocketing demand, some customers were faced with bills charging tens of thousands of dollars. While electricity bills are likely to rise across the board, Texans on variable rate plans faced immediate and alarmingly high prices.

Texas’ Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, raised the wholesale market price of electricity to $9 per kilo-watt hour — a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour — in response to rising demand. The hope was power generators would be enticed to produce more electricity.

“Energy prices should reflect scarcity of the supply,” the order stated.

Representatives for Griddy could not immediately be reached for comment. The electricity retailer addressed concerns of price gouging on its website and firmly placed the blame on the Public Utility Commission. The company states that it did not profit from raised prices.

A quick perusal of Griddy’s Twitter shows that they are blaming the PUC, and that they did suggest alternate electricity providers for their customers to switch to during freeze days; there are several news stories, including this one that ran in the Chron, about that as well.

This is one of those situations where the system is working exactly as designed – here are a couple of stories that explain the mechanics of this. I guess the courts could rule that what the PUC did violated the state’s laws on price gouging, but that seems like a stretch to me. I Am Not A Lawyer, so if you know better than me, please speak up.

More likely, there will be some kind of legislative solution to this. This Trib story goes into that option.

Gov. Greg Abbott and Texas lawmakers are promising relief for Texans hit with massive electric bills after a winter storm bludgeoned the state’s power grid, leaving millions of residents freezing without electricity.

But how they’ll accomplish that remains unclear. The state’s deregulated electricity market not only allows for staggering price spikes, but effectively compels them for some customers.

While many Texans are on “fixed rate” electricity plans that insulate them from market swings, others pay rates tied to the spot price of wholesale electricity, which skyrocketed during the storm.

As the bad weather bore down, it froze natural gas production and wind turbines, choking off the supply of electricity as demand skyrocketed. In response, the Public Utility Commission, appointed by Abbott, let the wholesale market price of electricity rise to $9 per kilo-watt hour, a 7,400% increase over the average 12 cents per kilo-watt hour.

The rate hike was supposed to entice power generators to get more juice into the grid, but the astounding costs were also passed directly on to some customers, who were suddenly being billed more for electricity each day than they normally pay in a month.

[…]

Kaiba White, an energy policy specialist with consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said the costs would be passed on to customers one way or another.

“If they [the electric provider] don’t have a mechanism that allows them to do that in the immediate — like on the next bill or the next several bills — it’ll end up getting rolled into the overall cost of service,” she said. “It’s just a matter of whether it’s going to get passed on in an immediate way, in a shocking way … or spread out over time.”

Tim Morstad, associate state director with the Texas AARP, said “prices are going to rise” but with a delay for those not on variable rate plans.

“Forgive me for stepping back to say — this system is truly designed to have high prices and huge fluctuations. And putting consumers through that by design is a bad process. It’s setting people up for pain,” he said.

Texas has an unusually deregulated electricity market that’s touted for offering customers the ability to pick from hundreds of plans offered by dozens of electric providers. Parts of the state are carved out, including cities like Austin, that get energy from a municipally owned utility, or people served by cooperatives. Those too could see cost increases down the line.

Lawmakers and Abbott have pledged to protect consumers from the big bills, and excoriated the Electric Reliability Council of Texas for the outages last week. The reliability council, which operates the power grid that covers most of the state, is overseen by a Public Utility Commission.

Abbott’s office did not respond to a question about what options were on the table.

Lawmakers have demanded that the utility commission roll back its decision to allow the huge rate increases, or suggested cobbling together some package of emergency waivers or relief money to buffer Texans’ from the high bills.

“We cannot allow someone to exploit a market when they were the ones responsible for the dire consequences in the first place,” said state Rep. Brooks Landgraf, R-Odessa.

I have no idea what Abbott will suggest. He’s nobody’s picture of a creative thinker, and “solving problems” is not in his skill set. I’m hardly an expert either, but it seems to me that the first order of business is to prevent people from getting multi-thousand-dollar electric bills, and the simplest way to do that is probably just to order everyone’s bill capped at some value that relates to their usual experience, and have the state pick up the difference since the providers do in fact have the legal right to charge these amounts. That’s the easy part. The much harder question, at least for the leadership we are stuck with, is what to do about it for the future. That either involves some form of re-regulation that puts limits on how “free” the electricity market is, or ignoring it and hoping you survive electorally. I know what I’d do, but I’m not a Republican. Good luck with that.

One more thing, as long as we are talking about freeze/blackout-related lawsuits:

The family of an 11-year-old boy who died last week in Conroe during power outages while Texas endured a freezing winter storm is suing Entergy Texas and operator of the state’s power grid for a total of $100 million.

In the lawsuit filed Saturday, the family said Cristian Pineda died of hypothermia after the temperature in his house plunged due to the forced blackouts. Pineda’s family of five shared a single room for warmth, and Cristian shared a bed with his younger brother, the lawsuit states.

His family found Cristian unresponsive in the morning. The Houston Chronicle first reported news of the lawsuit.

The family is suing the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, which operates the decentralized electrical grid system. The Texas grid is not governed by federal regulations.

As the story notes, our old buddy Tony Buzbee is filing this lawsuit, along with at least seven others, against ERCOT. Whether or not he can do that is an open question.

ERCOT has sovereign immunity, a well-established legal principle that protects governmental agencies from lawsuits. ERCOT, a private nonprofit corporation overseen by the Texas Legislature and the Public Utility Commission, is the only grid manager in the country with such protections.

A pending decision by the Texas Supreme Court, however, could change that. Justices on the state’s highest court are expected to rule this year on a case between Dallas utility Panda Power and ERCOT that could strip the Texas grid operator of its sovereign immunity, leaving it open to lawsuits that ERCOT has said could cripple the agency.

The ruling by the high court will have widespread implications in the wake of last week’s blackouts. It would not only determine whether Texans can use the legal system to hold ERCOT accountable for power outages that led to more than 48 deaths and billions of dollars of property damage, but also the future of ERCOT and the state’s power markets if the court opens the door to the likely flood of lawsuits.

[…]

“The political rhetoric around ERCOT and the weather emergency has embraced transparency and accountability,” Rottinghaus said. “A ruling that holds ERCOT immune from such lawsuits may run against that. It could be a political liability.”

Panda Power filed suit in 2016 against ERCOT, alleging the grid operator issued “seriously flawed or rigged” energy demand projections that prompted the Dallas power company to invest $2.2 billion to build three power plants early last decade. The plants ended up losing billions of dollars, with one forced into bankruptcy.

ERCOT’s reports calling for more power generators came in the aftermath of a major ice storm in February 2011, which crippled Texas power plants and forced rolling blackouts across the state.

Panda Power’s case was halted in 2018 when an appeals court in Dallas asserted ERCOT was protected from lawsuits by sovereign immunity. The Texas Supreme Court in June 2020 said it would review the appellate court decision, heard the case in September 2020 and is expected to render a decision before it recesses in June.

We’ll see about that. There’s definitely some pressure, on the courts and on the Lege and on Greg Abbott, to Do Something about all this – and again, I remind you, that the “all this” in question is what was supposed to happen based on existing laws. How long that pressure lasts, and what happens if there are no legal or legislative outlets for it, that’s the big political question.

UPDATE: Multiple ERCOT board members have resigned. All are folks who did not live in Texas, which yes is one of the weirder things about ERCOT. Not directly related to this story, but this is as good a place as any to note it.

Luhnow lawsuit dismissed

Nothing left to litigate about, apparently.

Did not age well

Former Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow’s lawsuit against the ballclub was dismissed on Friday after both parties “resolved their differences,” severing the final tie between the team and its most successful executive in history.

District Court Judge Kyle Carter granted the motion, which was filed jointly in 125th State District Court on Friday. Karl Stern, the attorney who submitted on behalf of Luhnow, did not respond when asked for further comment. An attorney representing the Astros did not return a request for comment.

Luhnow sought more than $20 million in damages in the breach of contract lawsuit he filed in November. The 54-year-old Luhnow claimed he was the “scapegoat” for a sign-stealing scandal that tarnished Houston’s 2017 World Series title.

[…]

Luhnow’s contract called for “any dispute” in the application of its terms to be resolved by “arbitration by the commissioner or the commissioner’s designee,” but Luhnow’s attorneys argued it was unenforceable in their suit due to commissioner Rob Manfred’s role in Luhnow’s dismissal. Manfred wrote MLB’s investigative findings into the sign-stealing scheme.

Luhnow’s lawyers said it would be a “complete sham” to allow Manfred or his designee in any arbitration hearing and called for an independent arbiter to preside. It is unknown whether arbitration occurred to cause the suit’s dismissal, but lawyers unaffiliated with the case surmised that was always a likely outcome.

“Arbitration is confidential. It is outside the public purview and accompanied by orders that make the proceedings secret,” Michael Lyons, of the Dallas firm of Lyons & Simmons, said in November. “Filing suit is a way for Jeff Luhnow to clear the air from a PR standpoint and get his story out in a way he might not otherwise have been able to do.”

See here and here for the background. I don’t really care what happens to Jeff Luhnow, but I feel like once I start blogging on a topic, I should see it through. Also, mandatory arbitration clauses are bad. I think that about covers it.

Ryan Patrick to resign as US Attorney

As is customary when a new President of the opposing party takes office.

Ryan Patrick

U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick said the acting attorney general asked him Tuesday to resign, a common occurrence when the occupant of the White House belongs to a different party than his predecessor.

Patrick got word on a joint call from acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson with other U.S. attorneys, nearly all of whom also have been asked to resign no later than Feb. 28. Patrick said he planned to finish out the month.

“This is not goodbye yet, as I have at least another 19 days representing the United States,” he wrote in an internal email to his staff.

Patrick said ethics rules don’t permit him to disclose where he’s headed next.

Dozens of Trump appointees were expected to leave posts across the country, according to news reports.

Patrick, the son of Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, has been the top federal law enforcement officer in the Southern District of Texas since Jan. 8, 2018. He oversees an array of criminal and civil matters and supervises more than 200 attorneys and 500 staffers covering an area that stretches from near the Louisiana border to McAllen.

I don’t have an opinion about Ryan Patrick. Honestly, the fact that he mostly stayed out of the news is a positive as far as I’m concerned. I’m sure he’ll do fine with whatever comes next.

I’m much more interested in who will be nominated to replace him and the other US Attorneys in Texas. In particular, I hope we get nominees and get them confirmed a lot faster than we did with the Obama administration, where Senators Cornyn and Hutchison were basically allowed to have veto power over the process. That’s one of the lessons the Biden administration appears to have learned from that experience, and I’m here for it. Now please don’t make me have to write another post in a year’s time wondering where our damn US Attorneys are. TPM has more.

Deportation pause still on hold

Another pause for the pause, which is as dumb and annoying as it sounds.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has extended the block on President Joe Biden’s deportation moratorium for two more weeks as the case continues to play out in court.

Judge Drew Tipton said in an order dated Monday the extension was necessary for “the record to be more fully developed” in the case brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who challenged Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations.

Tipton originally issued a 14-day suspension of Biden’s moratorium on Jan. 26. The pause in deportations was part of Biden’s attempted day one overhaul of several of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But Paxton quickly filed a lawsuit in response to Biden’s moratorium, claiming the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released from custody, because of costs associated with health care and education.

In his order, Tipton, a Trump appointee who took the bench last year, said Texas would face more harm than the federal government if the extension was not granted.

See here and here for the background. Not clear to me why this is taking so long, or even if this counts as “so long” at this point. I started to write that I wasn’t sure why there hasn’t been an appeal yet, but this tweet by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick answered that question, and suggested now one may be forthcoming . Beyond that, all I know is we’re still waiting.

Might Republican AGs suffer in court for their seditions?

This AP article considers the effect of the ridiculous Ken Paxton lawsuit and the role that the Republican Attorneys General Association played in the insurrection at the Capitol and asks the question from the title.

Best mugshot ever

Some legal experts think the overt political involvement by the Republican attorneys general could have a lasting effect on how judges view legal actions their offices bring.

“States occupy a unique position and an important position” in the courts, said Paul Nolette, a Marquette University political scientist who studies attorneys general. “If it turns out that AGs are no different from another politician or another interest group just looking for an angle trying to get into the courts, the courts could revisit special solicitude.”

The term refers to a state’s ability to unilaterally weigh in on any federal lawsuit, giving attorneys general and their states a say in a wide variety of issues.

Attorneys general are elected to office in most states and frequently use the job as a platform to run for governor or the U.S. Senate. Their offices serve as the legal arm of state governments, and they often band together — almost always with AGs of their own party — to challenge federal policy.

They also file claims on behalf of their state’s residents over consumer affairs and antitrust matters. Every state’s AG’s office, for example, has sued companies over the toll of the opioids crisis.

Most attorneys general also are the top law enforcement officers in their state, prosecuting criminal cases and upholding justice.

Greg Zoeller, a Republican and former Indiana attorney general, said attorneys general could lose the right to file “friend-of-the-court” briefs in any federal case without permission because of the activities of the Republican AGs in support of Trump’s election claims.

But he said the work of prosecuting crimes and protecting consumers is handled mostly by career government lawyers who are not focused on political cases.

“You can still have a very strong law office that represents the best interest of the state, the people, when it comes to consumer protection issues,” he said.

[…]

The push to overturn election results based on unfounded fraud claims did get some GOP pushback. Eight Republican attorneys general opted against joining Paxton’s effort.

One of them, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost, urged the U.S. Supreme Court to consider the case — but rule against Texas.

“Federal courts, just like state courts, lack authority to order legislatures to appoint electors without regard to the results of an already-completed election,” he said in a statement last month.

Sylvia Albert, the director of voting and elections for the liberal advocacy group Common Cause said the filings were so troublesome that she believes there are grounds to disbar the attorneys general who made them.

“When you submit something in court, you’re saying: ‘To the best of my knowledge, the information I’ve given you is true and valid,’” she said.

It’s always nice to think that there will be consequences for illegal or immoral actions, but I’m going to need to see it happen before I put too much faith in the possibility. Ken Paxton is as far out there as any Republican AG, and he’s continuing to file petty lawsuits of questionable merit, and so far he hasn’t been dealt a significant setback. Either the FBI with the Nate Paul case or the voters next year – hopefully both – will be left to do that task. If the courts want to push back even a little before then, that would be fine by me. Let’s just say I’m not expecting much.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Planned Parenthood not booted from Medicaid yet

A (likely very) temporary reprieve.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Responding to an emergency lawsuit filed hours earlier, a Travis County judge issued an order Wednesday blocking Texas from removing Planned Parenthood as a Medicaid health care provider beginning Thursday.

The 14-day temporary restraining order, granted by state District Judge Maya Guerra Gamble after a brief hearing Wednesday afternoon, allows Planned Parenthood to continue providing health care to about 8,000 low-income Texans.

The judge also set a Feb. 17 hearing to determine whether a temporary injunction should be issued to keep Planned Parenthood in Medicaid.

In its lawsuit, Planned Parenthood argued that state officials did not follow the legally mandated process for kicking its health clinics out of Medicaid. Wednesday was supposed to be the final day Planned Parenthood clinics could receive Medicaid reimbursement for care that can include contraceptives, cancer screening and testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections, but not abortions.

[…]

Planned Parenthood’s lawsuit argued that the termination letter did not comply with state law, including requirements that reasonable notice, and an opportunity for a hearing, be given.

The organization is seeking a court order blocking its removal until it exhausts all available administrative protests and appeals.

Texas officials, however, have argued that Planned Parenthood’s attack on the Jan. 4 notice of termination was misguided because a notice sent in January 2016 — kicking off years of litigation — complied with all necessary state laws and Medicaid regulations.

As the story notes, this has been going on since 2015. The state officially gave notice to Planned Parenthood patients that they needed to find a new doctor on January 5. I didn’t blog about it then because it was too depressing, and we know what else was going on at that time. It was a Fifth Circuit ruling that allowed the state to take the final steps in this process, so I don’t expect there to be much future to this litigation. Even the argument being made is just to buy time, as there are no questions of law remaining. You know my mantra: until we start electing different people to office, nothing is going to change. The Trib and the Chron have more.

Paxton the puppet

This is just pathetic.

Best mugshot ever

The long-shot lawsuit from Texas, which sought to invalidate the results in four swing states, was not drafted by Republican attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, but by Donald Trump’s own lawyers, revealed a new report.

The extensive New York Times report examined Mr Trump’s attempted coup to subvert the 2020 elections and the “77 democracy-bending days” when the former president propagated the voters fraud theory.

The efforts by Mr Trump’s campaign to help prevent alleged voters fraud were red-flagged by several Republican attorneys general and their senior staff lawyers, the report said.

Republican leaders were also concerned about Mr Trump’s problem in facing the reality of an electoral defeat.

The report revealed that Mr Paxton, who is said to have filed the Texas lawsuit, hired Lawrence Joseph as a special outside counsel through an “unusual contract” on 7 December.

Mr Joseph had earlier intervened in a US court to support Mr Trump’s efforts to block the release of his income-tax returns.

“The same day [7 Dec] the contract was signed, Mr Paxton filed his complaint with the Supreme Court. Mr Joseph was listed as a special counsel, but the brief did not disclose that it had been written by outside parties,” said the report.

Mr Paxton, however, was not the first choice for Trump’s team to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in swing states as he had criminal investigations going on against him.

An appeal was also made to Louisiana’s attorney general, Jeffrey M Landry, but he had declined.

“For every lawyer on Mr Trump’s team who quietly pulled back, there was one ready to push forward with propagandistic suits that skated the lines of legal ethics and reason,” the report said.

Which do you think is more embarrassing, that Paxton turned in someone else’s homework, or that Trump’s team didn’t want to go with Paxton initially because they were afraid his legal entanglements might make them look bad? No wonder no one in the Lege wants to talk about him.

District court judges to be removed from the felony bail lawsuit case

Hopefully, this brings us a step closer to settling the case.

Harris County’s 23 felony judges are no longer being sued over uneven bail practices that plaintiffs say discriminate against poor defendants. The civil rights lawsuit against the county and its reform-minded sheriff will move forward without them.

The federal judge presiding over Russell v. Harris County ruled Wednesday that once the bulk of the state district judges withdraw an appeal of one of her earlier rulings, they will be automatically removed as defendants in the case.

Lawyers for poor defendants say the mechanics of who is listed as a party will not prevent them from pursuing their goal of full adversarial bail hearings. The judges were not part of the original lawsuit, but were added at Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal’s request. Their removal was precipitated by an appellate court ruling in a similar challenge to the bail system in Dallas County, in which the 5th U.S. Circuit found the judges were cloaked by immunity and should therefore be excluded from the Dallas lawsuit.

See here for the background. If as that previous story suggests Ken Paxton and the AG’s office are also removed from the case, that should further the likelihood of a settlement. It also may mean I don’t have to be mad at the district court judges who were being represented by Paxton, though that will depend on how things go from here. And for those of you who insist that changing the existing policies will lead to mayhem in the streets, I will remind you that many of the US Capitol insurrectionists, who actually caused mayhem in the streets and elsewhere, as well as three-time murderer Kyle Rittenhouse, are now out on bail. It’s not a question of “safety”, it’s a question of who has privilege and who does not.

Federal judge blocks the deportation pause

Infuriating, but possibly less than it appears.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the Biden administration from moving forward with a 100-day pause on many deportations across the US, saying Tuesday that it was not adequately reasoned or explained to the public.

The temporary restraining order represents an initial setback for the Biden administration, which has vowed to reform agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by restricting who is arrested and deported.

“This is a frustrating loss for an administration that was trying to set a different tone than the chaos and rapid changes of the prior four years,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The order makes it clear that the moratorium may face significant legal hurdles.”

Judge Drew Tipton, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, ordered the Biden administration to immediately stop enforcing its moratorium on many deportations, which had gone into effect on Friday before Texas sued. The temporary restraining order is in effect for 14 days as the case proceeds.

On Jan. 20, the Biden administration issued a pause on deportations for many undocumented immigrants who have final orders of removal. The memo states that the 100-day pause applies to all noncitizens with final deportation orders except those who have engaged in a suspected act of terrorism, people not in the US before Nov. 1, 2020, or those who have voluntarily agreed to waive any right to remain in the US.

But Tipton said the memo issued by David Pekoske, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, appeared likely to violate the Administrative Procedures Act and that it was not adequately reasoned or explained.

“Here, the January 20 Memorandum not only fails to consider potential policies more limited in scope and time, but it also fails to provide any concrete, reasonable justification for a 100-day pause on deportations,” he wrote, while adding that Texas had shown evidence it would suffer if Biden’s moratorium was not blocked.

Tipton said Texas had demonstrated “that it pays millions of dollars annually to provide social services and uncompensated healthcare expenses and other state-provided benefits to illegal aliens such as the Emergency Medicaid program, the Family Violence Program, and the Texas Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

The state claimed that those costs would rise if the moratorium continued.

But Pratheepan Gulasekaram, an immigration law professor at Santa Clara University Law School, said the decision appeared to be vulnerable to an appeal.

“Federal administrations can and should be able to set their own enforcement policy as long as it is not forbidden by federal law. This allows a state to stop the federal government from reassigning resources and personnel and deciding the optimal level of enforcement,” he said. “This is not the way our federalism in the constitution is structured. States don’t have veto ability.”

See here for the background. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, who notes that Judge Tipton admitted his own ignorance of immigration law in the ruling, goes into some detail.

There are several remarkable aspects of Tipton’s decision. First, it applies nationwide—even though conservative jurists and Republican politicians spent the last four years decrying nationwide injunctions as illicit and unlawful. Trump’s Department of Justice launched a campaign against these injunctions, complaining that they unconstitutionally interfered with executive power. Right-wing judges condemned them as lawless power-grabs that promote “gamesmanship and chaos.” Republican lawmakers proposed legislation bringing them to a heel. Intellectuals in the conservative legal movement accused “resistance judges” of using them to sabotage the president. Now, six days into Biden’s term, a conservative judge has issued a nationwide injunction at the behest of a Republican politician.

Second, it is extremely difficult to determine the harm that Biden’s memo inflicted on Texas—and, by extension, why the state has standing to bring this case at all. In his lawsuit, Paxton failed to identify any concrete harm to Texas that actually flows from the deportation pause. Instead, he rehashed general complaints about the state’s expenditures on immigrants eligible for deportation—using estimations from 2018—and asked the court to assume that Biden’s memo would raise these costs. Paxton offered zero evidence that this specific memo would raise costs to Texas. Tipton gave the state standing anyway.

Third, and most importantly, Tipton’s decision is utterly divorced from both the entire framework of federal law governing deportation and the removal system as it functions on the ground. The thrust of Tipton’s reasoning is that a federal statute says the government “shall remove” an immigrant who has been “ordered removed” within 90 days. But, as the Supreme Court recognized as recently as last June, federal law also gives DHS sweeping discretion to determine which immigrants to deport, and when. A slew of statutes and regulations recognize this authority and address immigrants who are not removed within 90 days, a clear signal that this deadline is not, in fact, an iron rule.

Moreover, the deportation process is complex and time-consuming: It involves not only legal appeals but also tedious pragmatic considerations, like how an immigrant will actually be transported out of the country. The government has to plan this transportation on a mass scale, and it does not have a travel agency at its disposal that can guarantee an international flight full of deported immigrants within 90 days or your money back.

In short, if immigration law meant what Tipton says it does, then every president has violated it every day of their term, including the one who appointed him. Luckily, it does not. And there is therefore a very good reason to doubt that Tipton’s order will cause many, if any, deportations. The judge blocked Biden’s general policy of non-enforcement—but he did not, and could not, force the government to actually ensure that every immigrant who is eligible for removal be deported within 90 days. Biden’s DHS can merely exercise its authority to pause deportations on an immigrant-by-immigrant basis by granting an administrative stay of removal. It can halt travel arrangements and cancel deportation flights. Biden’s memo might be on hold, but it is perfectly lawful for the government to freeze deportations under its existing discretionary powers.

Others noted that the order is pretty limited in scope:

Everyone’s favorite question of standing was also brought up. It was not clear as I was drafting this if the Biden administration was going to ask the judge to put his order on hold, or if they were just going to appeal directly; either way, things may change before this runs in the morning, or shortly thereafter. It’s important to remember that the point of this lawsuit first and foremost is Ken Paxton’s fundraising, which works to his advantage whether he wins or loses. Given that, he may as well lose, that’s all I’m saying. Daily Kos, the Chron, and the Trib have more.

SCOTx allows Inforwars lawsuits to proceed

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected, without comment, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ attempt to toss out four defamation lawsuits by parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

The parents sued in Travis County, where Jones and his InfoWars website are based, arguing that they were defamed and suffered emotional distress after InfoWars broadcasts disputed the authenticity of the school shooting and the news coverage that followed.

Twenty young children and six adults died in the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Friday’s action by the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that had allowed the lawsuits to continue.

The state’s highest civil court also gave the green light to another defamation lawsuit against InfoWars and reporter Kit Daniels by a man mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

[…]

Friday’s announcement by the Supreme Court noted that two members, Justices Jeff Boyd and John Devine, would have granted Jones’ petition for review in the Pozner lawsuit, but the court order provided no reasons for their dissent.

In briefs to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Jones argued that the InfoWars host was engaging in protected speech because he was addressing matters of public concern.

“The pursuit of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ concerning controversial government activities has been a part and parcel of American political discourse since our Founding, and it is protected by the First Amendment,” they told the court in a brief for the Pozner and De La Rosa case.

Jones also argued that state libel laws required any harmful speech to be directed at specific family members, but the Sandy Hook families were not named in three InfoWars reports in 2017.

But a lawyer for the Sandy Hook families argued that Jones didn’t merely say the school shooting was staged by the government, he also generally accused family members of being actors to help sell a supposed coverup and exploit the event to attack gun rights.

As a result, Jones and InfoWars accused family members of collusion in a hoax “relating to the murder of their son … for nefarious purposes,” lawyer Mark Bankston told the court.

Jones also was reckless in publishing information that was so improbable that no reasonable publisher would have done likewise without substantial confirmation, Bankston argued.

“Mr. Jones’ fantasy about a shadowy government conspiracy to murder first-graders and then exploit the event with the help of the media and actors is the very definition of ‘improbable,'” he wrote.

The lawsuits are by the parents of two of the children that were murdered at Sandy Hook. You never know what can happen, but Jones’ record in defending himself so far isn’t great – he not only lost at the Third Court of Appeals earlier in the year, he was ordered to pay court costs for the frivolity of his appeal. He deserves to lose and to have the full weight of the consequences of his actions come down on him. Law and Crime has more.

The financial benefit of filing seditious lawsuits

Ladies and gentlemen, your Attorney General:

Best mugshot ever

Campaign contributions to embattled Attorney General Ken Paxton all but dried up last fall after senior staff accused the Republican of abusing his office to help a friend and political donor.

But Paxton’s fortunes reversed in December when, cheered on by President Donald Trump, he filed a lawsuit seeking to overturn election results in four key battleground states.

In the days after mounting the unsuccessful legal bid, Paxton raked in nearly $150,000 — roughly half of his entire campaign haul in the last six months of 2020.

Still, Paxton raised just $305,500 in total, a tiny amount compared to other statewide elected officials who raised millions of dollars to support their campaigns.

Paxton’s own fundraising reports have typically been in seven figures. Campaign spokesman Ian Prior did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The low fundraising numbers show Paxton’s political career “is on life support,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston.

“He went all in to back Trump and the far right and it was a losing play,” Rottinghaus said.

Paxton, in his second term, is up for reelection in 2022. His campaign account has about $5.5 million cash on hand.

[…]

After the seven employees’ accusations went public in early October, Paxton raised roughly $10,000, his campaign finance report shows. In November, his campaign brought in $75.

Paxton raised nothing more until Dec. 8, the day after he asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn election results in four states that helped deliver the presidency to Democrat Joe Biden. A few days later, the high court rejected the challenge, which was cast by legal experts as a long shot and an unfounded attempt to nullify millions of lawful ballots.

During that time, Paxton’s campaign brought in hundreds of mostly small donations from across the country. The l argest, a $25,000 contribution, came on Dec. 10 from James Dondero, co-founder of Dallas-based Highland Capital Management, the campaign finance report shows.

Whoever said crime doesn’t pay? He can only sue to overturn the election once, but he can sue over pretty much everything the Biden administration does, if he wants to keep tapping that source of campaign cash. That lawsuit over the deportation pause is the opening salvo. Maybe this strategy to boost his campaign coffers, and score a few policy wins, won’t work, but I feel pretty confident that it won’t stop him from trying.

Paxton sues over deportation pause

That didn’t take long.

Best mugshot ever

Three days into the Biden administration, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed his first lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit seeks an halt to one of the president’s executive actions on immigration, a 100-day pause on some deportations.

The moratorium, issued the same day as the presidential inauguration, was one of a flurry of early executive actions from the new administration. It is part of a review and reset of enforcement policies within Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agencies as the Biden administration “develops its final priorities,” according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

Paxton said the moratorium violates the U.S. Constitution and various federal and administrative laws, as well as an agreement between Texas and DHS.

“When DHS fails to remove illegal aliens in compliance with federal law, Texas faces significant costs,” reads the complaint, which was filed in federal court in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. “A higher number of illegal aliens in Texas leads to budgetary harms, including higher education and healthcare costs.”

The filing also alleges various other violations, including against posting-and-comment rules, as well as failure to ensure laws are “faithfully executed.” In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said they were “not able to comment on pending litigation.”

The moratorium excludes any immigrant who is “suspected of terrorism or espionage, or otherwise poses a danger to the national security of the United States,” those who entered after Nov. 1 and those who have voluntarily waived any rights to remain in the country, according to a DHS memo. It also retains an enforcement focus on people who have been convicted of an “aggravated felony” as defined by federal immigration law.

The first question one should ask of any lawsuit filed by Ken Paxton at this time, especially a politically-motivated lawsuit like this one, is whether it has any merit or if it’s just theater designed to rile up the rabble. Neither this story nor the Chron story examines that, though the latter does touch on some of the legal questions.

The case is before U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee who took the bench in Corpus Christi last June and previously practiced law in Houston. In a hearing held via Zoom on Friday, Tipton did not immediately rule on Texas’ request for a temporary restraining order. Instead, he said he would take the matter under advisement and vowed to make a decision quickly.

Administration officials did not respond to a request for comment, and a DHS spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation. But in a memo issued Wednesday, DHS Acting Secretary David Pekoske said the moratorium was implemented as the agency shifts staff and resources at the southwest border, and to protect the health and safety of DHS personnel amid the pandemic.

“We must ensure that our removal resources are directed to the department’s highest enforcement priorities,” Pekoske added.

The order does not apply to noncitizens who: have engaged in or are suspected of terrorism or espionage or who otherwise pose a national security risk; were not in the U.S. before Nov. 1; or voluntarily signed a waiver to rights to remain in the U.S. as long as they’d been given “a meaningful opportunity to access counsel” beforehand. It also gives the acting director the discretion to allow deportations on a case-by-case basis.

The agreement Paxton refers to is one that the department, while still controlled by the Trump administration, signed preemptively with multiple jurisdictions, including the state of Arizona, that required the agency to give them six months to review and submit comments before moving forward on any changes to immigration policy, as Buzzfeed News first reported. The legal enforceability of those documents, however, has yet to be seen.

[…]

In the virtual hearing Friday, Will Thompson, an attorney for the state, argued that the DHS agreement was valid and precluded it from enacting policy changes before the 180-day feedback period has ended. Thompson also said Texas would suffer irreparable harm from the pause on deportations, such as increased education and health care costs for undocumented immigrants.

Department of Justice attorney Adam Kirschner raised several legal arguments for why the agreement is not enforceable, among them that it violated Article II of the Constitution by giving Texas, at least for 180 days, “veto power over immigration law,” which is within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Kirschner also said the state failed to identify injury that the policy would cause, other than “general budgetary concerns.”

At least you have an idea what they’re arguing about, but it’s still pretty dry. Daily Kos gets more into the merits.

Paxton “says Biden administration is violating the agreement TX signed w/ Trump’s DHS, which said the agency would check in with Texas before making changes,” BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleazis tweeted. Paxton’s threat demands DHS immediately rescind the memo, as well as “an immediate response or we will seek relief to enjoin your order, as contemplated by the Agreement.”

To put it plainly, Ken Paxton can eat shit. Legal experts like Santa Clara University School of Law professor Pratheepan Gulasekaram have criticized the agreements, calling them “completely unmoored from legal, constitutional ways of implementing policy,” BuzzFeed News previously reported. “The agreements, as Ken Paxton well knows, are blatantly illegal,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick. “Of course, that’s never stopped him before. The Biden administration seems likely to take the correct step here; tell him to pound sand. The federal government can’t contract away its right to make policy changes.”

Not to mention that Cuccinelli was unlawfully installed at DHS! A federal court had already previously ruled that the truly very strange Cuccinelli had also been unlawfully appointed to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Reichlin-Melnick noted at the time that the previous administration had since dropped its appeal of that ruling, yet was still “letting him go to work every day.” Perhaps because they knew he’d be willing to put his signature to ridiculous policies like the one now trying to tie up the new administration.

The full thread is here, and you should also read this thread by Buzzfeed News immigration reporter Hamed Aleaziz, who suggests that federal judge Tipton could put the Biden order on hold as the suit is being heard. The ACLU and ACLU of Texas have filed an amicus brief in opposition to Paxton’s suit. This may be an early test of just how much Trump-appointed judges will abet in acting as roadblocks to anything President Biden wants to do.

Bail reform plaintiffs want Paxton booted from case

I for one am a fan of kicking out Ken Paxton in any context.

Best mugshot ever

In a strategic move that could speed up their case against Harris County, the plaintiffs challenging felony bail practices are hoping to kick two dozen players out of the game — 23 judges and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton, who represents most of them in the landmark suit.

These judges who dole out bail rulings on a daily basis to people accused of crime would become third parties. They would no longer go toe-to-toe with indigent defendants who sued in a civil rights case saying courts offer a vastly different outcomes to people arrested depending on how much money they have in their pocket.

The motion filed Wednesday asks Lee H. Rosenthal, the chief judge of the Southern District of Texas, to dismiss the felony judges as parties from the 2019 lawsuit. Should the judge grant it, the remaining defendants in the case would be the county and its sheriff. The majority in county government are in sync with bail reform and the sheriff’s office is headed by Ed Gonzalez, who has said that setting arbitrarily high bail rates doesn’t protect the public.

Paxton has been an impediment to progress, said Neal Manne, a pro bono lawyer from Susman Godfrey LLP, who is among the lead counsel behind twin bail challenges, to misdemeanor and felony bail.

“The county and the sheriff are actually operating in good faith and would like to figure out a solution to a terrible problem. The attorney general is not acting in good faith, he just wants to find ways to disrupt and disrupt and prevent any reform from happening.”

[…]

The idea of removing the judges from the case stems from a ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in a case that took on Dallas County’s bail system. The appellate court determined that sovereign immunity protected the Dallas judges from being sued over their bail practices. The 5th Circuit ruling said the sheriff is the key party to sue to obtain relief for people who are being detained unconstitutionally due to unaffordable bail.

See here for the previous update. The theory, as espoused by Judge Chuck Silverman, who is not represented by Paxton and agrees with the plaintiffs, is that this would thin the herd in the courtroom, which in turn might make it easier to come to a settlement agreement. It might also put some of the judges who are currently being represented by the AG’s office on the spot, and I’m fine with that.

It’s going to be lawsuit season again

Not looking forward to it, but it’s better than the alternative.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

President-elect Joe Biden has big plans for his first 100 days in office, when he’s vowed to roll back the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown, push policies addressing climate change and potentially forgive student debt for thousands of Americans.

He’s also said he’ll push a mask mandate to combat COVID-19 and wants Congress to pass another massive stimulus package. And in the longer term, Biden has talked about rewriting the tax code to raise taxes on the rich.

Texas is almost certain to fight him every step of the way.

The state is about to be back on the front lines battling against the federal government, a long tradition for its Republican leaders, from former Gov. Rick Perry to Gov. Greg Abbott — who as the state’s attorney general famously said, “I go into the office, I sue the federal government and I go home.”

Abbott’s successor, Attorney General Ken Paxton, has been just as committed to pushing back on federal laws and mandates championed by Democrats. Most recently he led a failed lawsuit seeking to overturn Biden’s victory in four battleground states at the U.S. Supreme Court. Paxton did not respond to a request for comment.

As Biden takes office next week, many expect the state to pick up where it left off after suing the Obama administration dozens of times to stop initiatives such as the Clean Power Plan, scrap protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and end the Affordable Care Act.

The conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation — which filed the Obamacare challenge that Paxton joined and is now before the Supreme Court — is gearing up to start grinding out challenges to a slew of White House priorities regarding immigration, energy and taxes.

“On the eve of the election we were discussing internally, ‘Well, what would happen if Biden won?’ One thing everyone pretty much agreed on is our litigation center would probably increase in size significantly,” said Chuck DeVore, vice president of national initiatives at TPPF. “We’re kind of excited about it.”

Robert Henneke, general counsel at the TPPF, wouldn’t say whether the group’s legal staff has grown as expected, but did say they are bracing for battles ahead as he expects the Biden administration to “pick up where the Obama administration left off.”

The story goes on to list some likely future battles, a couple of which are ongoing now. It should be noted that Texas’ record suing the Obama administration wasn’t particularly good, though now there are all those Trump judges on the bench, so who knows what can happen. One other thing that can happen is we can boot our felonious Attorney General out of office next year. That won’t stop bad actors in the private sector from bringing cases, but it will at least keep them from having the state’s imprimatur on them. All I can say beyond that is I hope they feel the need to file lawsuits for a lot longer than the next four years.

SCOTUS rejects TDP petition on vote by mail

Back to the lower court, I think.

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a Democratic bid to force universal vote-by-mail in Texas, leaving intact a state law that lets people cast no-excuse absentee ballots only if they are 65 or older.

The Texas Democratic Party and its allies argued unsuccessfully that the law violates the Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote “shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of age.”

Voting by mail became a sharply partisan issue amid President Donald Trump’s unsupported contentions that the practice led to widespread fraud in the November election. Texas’s Republican governor and attorney general urged the Supreme Court to reject the Democratic appeal.

A divided federal appeals court in September rejected the 26th Amendment claim, saying the Texas law didn’t make it more difficult for anyone to vote. The panel left open the possibility the law could be challenged as a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

The Supreme Court also rejected Texas Democrats in June, when the justices refused to reinstate a trial judge’s order that would have let any voter request an absentee ballot to avoid the risk of contracting Covid-19. That order, which was blocked by the appeals court, was designed to govern the 2020 election and might have boosted Democrats’ prospects.

See here for the last update, which was a petition for review of the Fifth Circuit ruling that kept intact the existing law on vote by mail in Texas as the original lawsuit that claimed the existing law violated the 26th Amendment is litigated. If I understand this correctly, the original case needs to be re-argued, with guidance from that Fifth Circuit ruling, and then once there is a ruling on the merits, we’ll go through the appeals process again. Or maybe not, if Congress and President Biden can pass a new Voting Rights Act that would allow for this nationally. I don’t see that particular provision in there now, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t or wouldn’t be there. Anyway, it’s kind of a non-starter now, since the effort was to make that happen in 2020, but it’s never too late to make it easier to vote. Just don’t expect anything to happen in the short term, outside of what Congress may do. Reuters has more.

Ken Paxton couldn’t be more on brand if he tried

News item: Texas laws protecting whistleblowers don’t apply to Attorney General Ken Paxton, his agency argues in bid to quash lawsuit. Who among us didn’t already know that Ken Paxton doesn’t think the law applies to him?

Best mugshot ever

The Texas Attorney General’s Office is attempting to fight off efforts by four former aides to take depositions and issue subpoenas in their lawsuit claiming they were illegally fired after telling authorities they believed Attorney General Ken Paxton was breaking the law.

The agency is arguing that Paxton is “not a public employee” and thus the office cannot be sued under the Texas Whistleblower Act, which aims to protect government workers from retaliation when they report superiors for breaking the law.

Four former Paxton aides claim they were fired in retaliation for telling authorities they believed Paxton had done illegal favors for a political donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul. The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation.

In seeking reinstatement and other financial damages, the whistleblowers want to question Paxton himself under oath, as well as Brent Webster, his top deputy at the attorney general’s office, and Brandon Cammack, a Houston lawyer Paxton hired to investigate complaints made by Paul in what aides say was a favor to the donor. They also issued subpoenas to Paul’s company and a woman alleged to have been Paxton’s mistress.

[…]

The whistleblowers sought to question Paxton, Webster and Cammack under oath as soon as next week. Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, accepted the subpoenas for both World Class and the woman, court documents show. She could not be reached for comment and Wynne did not return a request for comment.

But in a filing last week, the attorney general’s office asked the judge to quash the depositions and the subpoenas, and prevent the whistleblowers from conducting any discovery.

“The OAG is doing everything they can muster to avoid having Ken Paxton answer basic questions under oath about the facts,” said Carlos Soltero, an attorney for one of the whistleblowers.

Instead, the agency said, the Travis County judge should dismiss the case entirely on procedural grounds.

The Texas Whistleblower Act — the basis for the lawsuit — is designed to provide protection for public employees who, in good faith, tell authorities they believe their superiors are breaking the law. But the attorney general’s office claims the agency cannot be sued under the law because Paxton is an elected official.

“The Attorney General is neither a governmental entity nor a public employee and, thus, the Whistleblower Act does not extend protection to reports of unlawful conduct made against the Attorney General personally,” the agency argued. “The Act does not apply… for reports made about actions taken personally by the elected Attorney General.”

Comparing Paxton’s authority to that of the president of the United States, the agency claimed that the attorney general had the right to fire the employees, despite their claims of retaliation.

Under that theory, “he’s saying that elected officials aren’t accountable” for violating the Whistleblower Act, said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases.

“It appears that General Paxton is trying to get off on a technicality that doesn’t exist,” he added.

See here and here for the background. I don’t have anything clever to add here, just that I hope this defense is as successful as his lawsuit to overturn the Presidential election was.

Another way Ken Paxton is costing you money

He’s something else, this guy.

Best mugshot ever

Texas may pay tens of millions of dollars to outside attorneys hired to handle a major lawsuit against Google — money the state did not plan to spend before a scandal enveloped Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton this fall.

That’s under agreements signed last month with outside lawyers based in Chicago, Houston and Washington, D.C., including high-profile plaintiffs’ attorney Mark Lanier and the law firm Keller Lenkner, who will lead Texas’ multi-state antitrust lawsuit against Google.

The lawsuit came out of a Texas-led investigation launched more than a year ago. But until fall 2020, top agency staff intended to handle the case internally, instead of paying costly outside lawyers, a former senior Paxton aide told The Texas Tribune. The Associated Press first reported the timeline on Tuesday.

Jeff Mateer, who led the attorney general’s office for years as Paxton’s top deputy, said that when he resigned in October, the agency had no intention of hiring outside lawyers. Darren McCarty, another senior attorney, was leading an internal team on the case.

“Darren was more than able to do it,” Mateer told the AP.

But Mateer and McCarty were among the eight whistleblowers who left the agency after telling law enforcement they believed Paxton broke the law by doing favors for a political donor. Both resigned last fall, part of a notable exodus of the agency’s top staff.

The whistleblowers’ allegations have reportedly sparked an FBI investigation, but Paxton has insisted that the agency’s work has not been interrupted by the criminal investigation of him. Still, the contracts for the Google lawyers are an early indication of what cost taxpayers may bear for the latest drama surrounding Texas’ embattled attorney general.

The attorney general’s office will ask the Legislature for $43 million to pay the outside lawyers, according to a contract obtained by The Texas Tribune. If lawmakers do not grant that money — which may be a tall order during what’s expected to be a tight budget debate — the outside attorneys will be paid solely out of whatever monetary damages are recovered from Google, dollars that would have otherwise flowed into state coffers.

[…]

The expensive outside counsel contracts were inked in December, the same day the case was filed in federal court. The law firms were brought on only after the agency staff leading the probe fled the attorney general’s office in the wake of a fresh Paxton scandal.

Lanier told the Tribune he met with Paxton in Austin in November to discuss the possibility of working on the case, and emphasized that his team’s work was not intended to be “a big financial bonanza for the Lanier firm,” but rather to force a major restructuring of Google.

Lanier has given political contributions to Paxton, among a number of other top Texas officials.

The case, which comes alongside a number of other major government lawsuits against Google and other tech giants, takes aim at the company’s advertising practices.

Though it’s not yet clear exactly how much Texas could end up losing to the outside attorneys, it could be a massive figure. The outside lawyers’ contingency fee will either be based on an hourly rate equation — which could net the most senior attorneys as much as $3780 per hour — or be calculated as a percentage of the total Google settlement, whichever is less.

See here for the last update on the latest Paxton scandal. I will try, at least for a moment, to be as objective as I can about this. Paying the fee up front is a hedge against having to cough up a much larger amount of a hypothetical future award or settlement agreement, not to mention the time and effort it will surely take to haggle over the proper cut of said award. Lawyers cost money, this is going to run into some bucks no matter how you slice it, may as well get some certainty.

On the other hand:

1) The plaintiffs may lose this lawsuit, or have it overturned or any award reduced on appeal. We’d also be splitting any award a couple dozen ways, so it would have to be pretty freaking big for the attorneys’ cut to be more than $43 million.

2) Any future award is just that, in the future, likely years in the future. $43 million bucks now is worth more than an equivalent amount in, say, 2027. This is why Lottery winners who get the up-front payout instead of the over-20-years payout get a lot less than the stated prize amount.

3) Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t have an extra $43 million lying around right now. Yeah, sure, Rainy Day Fund yadda yadda yadda, but we know how that works. And yeah, $43 million is couch money compared to the real budget, but what would you rather spend it on this biennium – Ken Paxton’s fancy outside attorneys, or vaccines and the people to administer them? I know where my money would go.

4) Again not to nitpick, but if Ken Paxton hadn’t been a fucking awful Attorney General, we wouldn’t be in this predicament right now. He drove off the senior staff who could have handled this in house. Every dollar that Texas loses out on as a result of this, either up front or down the line, is his fault.

So yeah, I’m a big No on paying the outside attorneys at this time. I’ll roll the dice on the future award being either sufficiently small that the contingency fee is a bargain compared to the $43 million, or so freaking enormous that who cares if the Lanier firm makes out like bandits. And maybe, just maybe, we can get a new Attorney General in 2022 and we can hire another good senior staff, and maybe take the case back from the outsiders. I’ll be very, very interested to see what the Republicans in the Legislature make of this.

Fifth Circuit bats aside Gohmert appeal

In case you were wondering…

See here for the background. That’s two Reagan appointees and one Trump appointee, by the way. I suppose they could try their luck with SCOTUS, but you’d have to be Gohmert-level stupid to think they’d have a chance.

I saw this while scrolling Twitter and watching the Orange Bowl. There may be a news story out there, but it’s Saturday night and I’m not looking for it. Really, this is all there is to know.

Gohmert lawsuit tossed

As expected.

A judge dismissed a lawsuit from Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, that was aimed at Vice President Mike Pence, seeking to put the authority to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s election win in the vice president’s hands.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Kernodle, who is a Trump appointee, said Gohmert and a group of other Republicans on the lawsuit “lack standing.”

Gohmert “alleges at most an institutional inquiry to the House of Representatives,” Kernodle wrote.

Gohmert and the group of Republicans filed the suit against Pence this week, arguing that the vice president has the constitutional authority to decide which states’ Electoral College votes to count.

Kernodle continued, “The other Plaintiffs, the slate of Republican Presidential Electors for the State of Arizona (the ‘Nominee-Electors’), allege an injury that is not fairly traceable to the Defendant, the Vice President of the United States, and is unlikely to be redressed by the requested relief.”

“Accordingly, as explained below, the Court lacks subject matter jurisdiction over this case and must dismiss the action,” the judge stated.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the judge’s order. I’d like to say that this is the last desperate and seditious thing that a stupid and malevolent officeholder will do to try to overturn the election, but I said that about the Paxton lawsuit and the objections to the Electoral College certification, so I’m just gonna keep my piehole closed this time. Raffi Melkonian and Steve Vladeck have more.

Pence asks for deranged Gohmert lawsuit to be dismissed

Here we go.

Vice President Mike Pence has asked a federal judge to throw out a lawsuit brought against him by Republicans seeking to empower him to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election.

The suit, brought by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and 11 Arizonans who would have been electors for President Donald Trump, was aimed at throwing out the rules of a Jan. 6 session of Congress — with Pence presiding — intended to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.

Gohmert’s suit contends that the rules Congress has followed for more than a century are unconstitutional because they override the vice president’s power to unilaterally decide which electoral votes to count. Trump allies have urged Pence to assert control and refuse to introduce Biden’s electors in key states that handed him the presidency.

But Pence, in a 14-page filing brought by Justice Department attorneys, said the suit shouldn’t be aimed at him, since he is who Gohmert is trying to empower.

“A suit to establish that the Vice President has discretion over the count, filed against the Vice President, is a walking legal contradiction,” Pence’s brief said.

U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Kernolde, a Trump appointee who sits in Tyler, Texas, has not scheduled a hearing in the case. Gohmert is due to file a reply to Pence’s brief on Friday morning.

See here for the background. “Friday” is today, so we may get a ruling as quickly as this afternoon, given how bonkers (and yes, seditious) this action is.

In a 26-page brief calling on the court to reject Gohmert’s suit, House General Counsel Doug Letter described the effort as baseless and argued that both Gohmert and the Arizona electors lacked standing to bring it.

“At bottom, this litigation seeks to enlist the federal courts in a belated and meritless assault on longstanding constitutional processes for confirming the results of a national election for President,” Letter said.

Letter also says that Gohmert’s argument lacks substantive logic: It would make no sense for the framers to empower the sitting vice president to unilaterally control who becomes the next president, particularly when that sitting vice president is a candidate on the ticket. He also notes it would upend the accepted process for counting electoral votes that has been in practice for more than 130 years.

“Granting plaintiffs this extraordinary relief just days before the Joint Session would not only reward their inexcusably delayed filing,” Letter says, “it would also risk upending the orderly rules that have governed Congressional counting of electoral votes for more than a century and undermining the public’s confidence in the constitutionally prescribed processes for confirming—not overturning—the results of the election.”

I mean yes, if you’re going to rely on such stolid concepts as “logic” or “consistency” or “the rule of law”, then Gohmert’s suit should not only be laughed out of court, everyone associated with it should be removed from society so as not to taint the rest of us with the accompanying stink. Putting the attorneys in stocks and allowing the general public to hurl cream pies at them would also be an acceptable outcome, but alas, the law is limited in its menu of responses. We’ll have to settle for a swift dismissal, and work on winning some more elections.

TEA still barred from taking over HISD

Still in a state of limbo.

Texas is still temporarily barred from taking over Houston Independent School District, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday, upholding a lower court’s order.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Texas Third Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction that stops the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board of its largest district with an appointed board of managers. The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the lower court that in January blocked the state’s takeover effort.

The appellate judges said Houston ISD had a “probable right to relief” since the TEA did not follow proper procedure and acted outside its authority as it moved to sanction the district. It also ordered the state to “pay all costs related to this appeal.”

The TEA plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. “While the Agency is disappointed with the split ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, this is only a temporary setback,” the agency said in a statement. “We are confident that the Texas Supreme Court will uphold the Commissioner’s legally-authorized actions to improve the educational outcomes for the 200,000-plus public school students of Houston.”

[…]

[T]he appellate court’s ruling Wednesday said Texas’ “proposed actions are not authorized by the Education Code.” The opinion stated that the state did not have the right to appoint a conservator to oversee the entire school district in 2019, force Houston ISD to suspend its search for a new superintendent, or impose sanctions based on an investigation, among other things.

The opinion was written by Judge Gisela Triana, who was joined by Judge Jeff Rose in the ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Baker wrote that Texas is authorized to take over Houston ISD, the injunction should be removed and the district’s claims should be dismissed.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. The Chron story goes into the opinion in some more detail.

To start, HISD’s lawyers argued Wheatley High School did not trigger a state law requiring the school’s closure or the board’s ouster after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019. While the law is intended to punish districts with campuses receiving failing grades in multiple consecutive years, the justices found that the TEA failed to take a technical step — ordering HISD to submit a campus turnaround plan for Wheatley — that it says was required under the statute.

The two justices also ruled that the TEA incorrectly interpreted a state law that says Morath can replace the school board in any district that has had a state-appointed conservator for more than two years.

State officials appointed conservator Doris Delaney to oversee long-struggling Kashmere High School in 2016, then clarified that her authority extended to district-level support in 2019. TEA officials argued Delaney’s presence since 2016 met the criteria for triggering the state law, but the two justices ruled that only her time as a district-level conservator counted toward the two-year requirement, which thus hasn’t yet been met.

Finally, the two justices found that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures related to a special accreditation investigation, which Morath cited as a third reason for replacing HISD’s board.

For what it’s worth, the “affirm” opinion came from a Democratic justice (Triana) and a Republican justice (Rose), while it was a Democratic justice (Baker) who voted to overturn the district court opinion. I don’t know when this might be resolved – the appeal to the Supreme Court is of the injunction, while the case itself was sent back to the district court – but until there is a final ruling that says the TEA can install its Board of Managers, I’m going to operate on the assumption that there will be HISD Trustee elections this year. I guess there would be regardless, but at least for now those elections mean a bit more, since the Board of Trustees is still running things. The Press has more.

Okay, so *this* is the last pointless gesture

You can always count on Louie Gohmert to find the stupidest thing possible to do.

Vice President Pence was sued Sunday by Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) and several other Republicans in a far-fetched bid that appeared aimed at overturning President-elect Joe Biden’s election win.

The lawsuit focuses on Pence’s role in an upcoming Jan. 6 meeting of Congress to count states’ electoral votes and finalize Biden’s victory over President Trump. Typically, the vice president’s role in presiding over the meeting is a largely ceremonial one governed by an 1887 federal law known as the Electoral Count Act.

But the Republican lawsuit, which was filed against Pence in his official capacity as vice president, asks a federal judge in Texas to strike down the law as unconstitutional. The GOP plaintiffs go further: They ask the court to grant Pence the authority on Jan. 6 to effectively overturn Trump’s defeat in key battleground states.

Election law experts were dismissive of the lawsuit’s prospects for success.

“The idea that the Vice President has sole authority to determine whether or not to count electoral votes submitted by a state, or which of competing submissions to count, is inconsistent with a proper understanding of the Constitution,” said Edward Foley, a law professor at the Ohio State University.

[…]

Election law experts said there’s a strong possibility that U.S. District Judge Jeremy Kernodle, a Trump appointee, would find that Gohmert, Ward and the other Republican litigants lacked a legal right to sue.

“I’m not at all sure that the court will get to the merits of this lawsuit, given questions about the plaintiffs’ standing to bring this kind of claim, as well as other procedural obstacles,” Foley said.

Take that, Lance Gooden! Louie will show you what true fealty to Dear Leader looks like. In the spirit of not wasting your time any more than I already have, I will as tradition demands quote a couple of tweets from people who have some knowledge of the law and the constitution.

Rick Hasen has a copy of the complaint if for some reason you want to read it. Otherwise, you may safely resume ignoring Louie Gohmert, at least until the next time he unleashes some Kraken-level stupidity. Daily Kos has more.

Ken Paxton’s attempted jihad against Harris County

Wow.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton tried to get the Trump administration to revoke millions in federal COVID relief funding that Harris County budgeted for expanding mail-in voting earlier this year, newly revealed records show.

Paxton wrote in a May 21 letter to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Harris County’s plan was an “abuse” of the county’s authority and an “egregious” violation of state law. The letter was obtained and published by the Citizens For Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

“We respectfully ask the department to scrutinize its award of CARES Act funding to Harris County in light of the county’s stated intent to use federal funding in violation of state law, and to the extent possible, seek return of any amounts improperly spent on efforts to promote illegal mail-in voting,” Paxton wrote. “Without implementing adequate protections against unlawful abuse of mail-in ballots, the department could be cast in a position of involuntarily facilitating election fraud.”

The letter to Mnuchin illustrates the lengths Paxton went in his efforts to stop Harris and other counties from making it easier to vote by mail during the pandemic, which included suing Harris County as it tried to send mail ballots applications to all 2.4 million of its registered voters. The mail-ballot application push was part of the county’s $27.2 million plan to expand voting options, funded in large part through CARES Act money.

[…]

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Mnuchin heeded Paxton’s request to investigate how Harris County used the funding.

In a written statement, County Judge Lina Hidalgo said that the loss of the funds “would have knocked the floor out of our citizens’ ability to vote safely” during an important election held in the middle of a global pandemic.

“This attempt to cut off emergency federal funding for fellow Texans is indefensible,” she said. “To do so in secret is truly a shame and I’m relieved this is now out in the open.”

Members of the Texas Democratic Party accused the attorney general of “picking fights” to distract from his personal life.

“In the middle of the biggest pandemic in American history, every Texan should have been afforded the opportunity to vote as safely as possible. Indicted Texas Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton continues to try to pick fights to distract away from his personal life and his abuse of office. Paxton is a carnival barker who has made Texas a laughingstock with his ridiculous inquiries and lawsuits. To restore trust in the Attorney General’s office, we must all band together to vote him and his abuse of power out in 2022.”

I suppose if there’s one thing that the year 2020 has been good for, it’s to serve as a reminder to me that I am still capable of being shocked. I can’t say that I’m surprised, because it was clear from the beginning that then-County Clerk Chris Hollins’ aggressive efforts to make voting easier, ably funded by Commissioners Court, were going to draw a heated response. I guess I had just assumed that the lawsuits filed by Paxton and others against the various things that Hollins pioneered were the response, with bills filed in the 2021 Legislature the culmination, but I had not expected this.

It is interesting that Paxton chose to fire this particular shot in secret. We would have found out about it at the time if he had succeeded, of course, but it’s strangely out of character for Paxton to do something like this under cover of darkness. Say what you will about Ken Paxton, the man does not lack confidence in the correctness of his positions. I don’t know what his motivation was for not being front and center about this – I mean, we saw the lawsuit he filed to overturn the election. Shame, or fear of being publicly dragged, are not inhibitions for him. Maybe he was afraid of spooking Secretary Mnuchin, who is generally less cartoon-y in his villainy. I’m open to suggestion on this point.

The story mentions that this letter came from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), which led me to this:

CREW obtained Paxton’s letter to Mnuchin as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Treasury Department, which remains ongoing.

The lawsuit in question is over the appointment of Louis DeJoy as Postmaster General. We might never have found out about this scurrilous and cowardly action otherwise.

I was going to spend more time in this post pointing out that Paxton’s allegations were 1) essentially baseless, and 2) should have been made in a lawsuit, as this would have fallen squarely under his law enforcement authority if Harris County were indeed breaking the law as he claimed, but honestly that CREW article laid it out thoroughly, so go read that for those details. The main takeaway here is that this wasn’t just a partisan dispute, which could and should have been carried out in public as so many other mostly ginned-up voting “controversies” this year were, it was 100% unadulterated bullshit from our despicable Attorney General. He’s not feeling any pressure to step down from his fellow Republicans, and do brace yourself for a pardon from our Felon in Chief, so it really is up to us to vote his sorry ass out in 2022. The Texas Tribune has more.

SCOTUS mostly punts on Census apportionment shenanigans

They seem to be hoping that the problem will solve itself, while applying a partisan litmus test to when it is appropriate for them to step in.

The Supreme Court dismissed a challenge to Donald Trump’s final sabotage of the census on Friday, deeming it premature. Trump seeks to exclude an estimated 10.5 million people from the data used to divide up congressional seats among the states because they are undocumented immigrants. This policy, if successful, would strip seats in the House of Representatives from diverse states with large immigrant communities. Because it has not been implemented, however, the Supreme Court determined, by a 6–3 vote, that the case is not yet ripe for resolution. All three liberal justices dissented.

Friday’s decision in Trump v. New York does not come as a surprise: At oral arguments, several conservative justices seemed to be looking for a way out of deciding whether the president has the power to manipulate the census this way. A few, including Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, even appeared to recognize that Trump’s policy is unlawful. The Constitution requires the apportionment of House seats based on “the whole number of persons in each state,” and the government has never before in history sought to exclude undocumented immigrants. By declaring that an entire class of immigrants are not “persons” who reside in the United States, Trump is trying to pass a modern three-fifths clause—except his policy reduces millions of immigrants to zero-fifths of a person.

Still, the Supreme Court’s conservative majority decided that this threat was insufficient to create a live controversy due to the uncertainty that plagues this case. (It did so in an unsigned opinion apparently joined by all six conservatives.) The federal government does not actually know how many undocumented immigrants live in each state. Trump has directed the Census Bureau to use existing administrative records to obtain these figures. But this process is ongoing, and the bureau has warned that it may not produce the data for weeks—possibly not until Trump has left office. (Joe Biden will undoubtedly retract the policy if it has not yet been executed.) The administration has speculated that it may narrow its goal by excluding only subsets of immigrants, like those in detention. (There are more than 50,000 people in ICE detention today, so even that exclusion could affect apportionment and funding.)

In light of this uncertainty, the majority found that the plaintiffs—which include states that may lose representation and local governments that may lose funding—lacked standing to attack the policy in court. Trump’s policy “may not prove feasible to implement in any manner whatsoever, let alone in a manner substantially likely to harm any of the plaintiffs here,” the majority asserted. In other words, Trump might fail to carry out his scheme, which would spare the plaintiffs any injury. Moreover, if the president only excludes a subset of immigrants, like ICE detainees, the plan might not “impact interstate apportionment.”

The court also found that the case “is riddled with contingencies and speculation,” declaring that “any prediction how the Executive Branch might eventually implement” Trump’s policy is “no more than conjecture.” As a result, “the case is not ripe,” and the plaintiffs must come back when they can contest a more explicit policy. The court clarified that “we express no view on the merits of the constitutional and related statutory claims presented.”

[…]

Friday’s ruling also entrenches a new rule that emerged after Barrett replaced Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg: Plaintiffs only have standing when they are challenging a policy that the conservatives do not like. In November, by a 5–4 vote, the ultraconservatives blocked a COVID-19 restriction on New York City churches that was no longer in effect. As Roberts explained in his dissent, the restrictions were not in force when the court issued its decision. Yet the court blocked them anyway, reasoning that the governor might enforce them again in the future.

It is difficult to square that decision with Friday’s census punt. Trump has stated his policy in stark terms and directed the government to execute it as soon as possible. There is a serious, looming threat that his administration will carry it out in the near future. No one actually knows whether Biden or Congress can reverse the policy after it has been implemented. Yet the conservative justices still considered the case premature. This inconsistent approach gives the impression that at least five conservative justices are manipulating the rules to roll back blue states’ COVID orders while giving Trump leeway to test out illegal policies. Friday’s decision is not the end of this litigation, and the administration may ultimately fail to rig the apportionment of House seats. It is framed as a modest, narrow, technical decision. But the court has revealed its priorities, and they have nothing to do with restraint.

See here and here for the background. Texas would also likely lose a seat or two if this went into effect, not that you’d know it from the total radio silence of our state leaders. My hope is of course that the Census does not deliver this data before January 20, in which case the Biden administration could just drop the subject and proceed as we have always done. It’s not great that we have to rely on that hope, of course. Daily Kos and TPM have more.

TDP asks SCOTUS to review age discrimination claim in mail voting

From the inbox:

Today, the Texas Democratic Party and voters filed their final brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, seeking its review of the case filed last Spring which challenged the constitutionality of Texas’s law that limits voting by mail, without excuse, to voters age 65 and older. The 26th Amendment prohibits “denying or abridging” the right to vote based on age, which Texas law does. The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled in September that so long as all voters can vote in person, it does not abridge the right to vote if the state provides some voters with additional voting options. The Texas Democratic Party and voters argue this ruling runs contrary to the 26th Amendment and is inconsistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to confer regarding this case on January 8, 2021. On January 11, 2021, at 10:00 am ET, the Court will issue its orders list for the 2021 term. At that point, the Court may grant review of the case, deny review, or hold the case over for further consideration at a later time. If the Court grants review, the case could be heard this term, with a decision before Summer or it could decide to hear the case in its term beginning Fall of 2021. If the court denies review of the case, it will return to the U.S. District Court in San Antonio, where it will proceed to the final trial and, thereafter, potentially go back through the appeals process.

See here for my last update on this case, and here for a copy of the filing, which in fancy lawyer-speak is a “petition for a writ of certiori”. SCOTUSblog has a concise summary of the case so far. The brief makes three arguments, of which the first two are technical and boring to non-lawyers, but the third is a straightforward claim that the Fifth Circuit erred in its ruling:

The error in the Fifth Circuit’s reasoning was powerfully illustrated by the statement respondents’ counsel made at oral argument: “[I]f a state were to pass a law saying that White people must vote by personal appearance but Black people can vote by personal appearance or by mail-in balloting, …. the Fifteenth Amendment would not prohibit that law because that law does not deny or abridge the right to vote within the meaning of the Fifteenth Amendment.” Or. Arg. Rec. at 41:27-42:07. To state that position is to show its indefensibility.

1. The Fifth Circuit treated “abridge” as solely a temporal restriction: In its view, a state’s law does not “abridge” the right to vote when it adds voting opportunities for some, so long as one manner of voting remains in place for those not given the new voting opportunity. See BIO App. 38a. That holding is inconsistent with this Court’s precedents that the concept of abridgement “necessarily entails a comparison” of “what the right to vote ought to be.” Reno v. Bossier Par. Sch. Bd., 528 U.S. 320, 334 (2000).

Contrary to the Fifth Circuit’s arid resort to dictionary definitions of “abridgment,” BIO App. 33a34a, the proper baseline under the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-Fourth, and Twenty-Sixth Amendments is given in the text of those amendments themselves. Those amendments provide that the right to vote shall not be abridged “on account of” or “by reason of” specific characteristics: “race,” “sex,” taxpaying status, or “age.” By their plain terms, those amendments call for a comparison between the law’s treatment of voters of different races, sexes, taxpaying statuses, or ages—not between the scope of the right a particular voter enjoyed yesterday and the scope of the right he or she enjoys today. It cannot be that the Fifteenth Amendment would have nothing to say if a jurisdiction gave white voters an early voting period, as long as it left untouched a preexisting ability for Black voters to cast a ballot in person on election day. But that perverse consequence is exactly what the Fifth Circuit’s logic commands.

The reason why the voting amendments use the word “abridge” is not to create a temporal comparison, but to make clear that any race-, sex-, taxpaying-, or age-based suffrage rule, and not only categorical denial of the right to vote, is covered. The Voting Rights Act, which was enacted to enforce the Fifteenth Amendment, illustrates this point. While Section 5, the provision at issue in Bossier Parish involved a statute with language explicitly requiring a temporal comparison, Section 2 echoes the Fifteenth Amendment text and requires an inter-voter comparison. Section 2(a) prohibits practices that result “in a denial or abridgement” of the right to vote on account of race or color or membership in a specified language minority. 52 U.S.C. § 10301(a). Section 2(b) declares that a violation of that prohibition occurs, among other things, when the plaintiff group has “less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process and to elect representatives of their choice.” 52 U.S.C. § 10301(b) (emphasis added). That understanding of abridgment is also, as the petition explains, more consistent with this Court’s decision in Harman v. Forssenius, 380 U.S. 528 (1965). See Pet. 20-22.

Basically, the Fifth Circuit said that giving one set of voters (in this case, voters over the age of 65) something extra (no-excuses absentee ballots) was fine and not a form of discrimination against other voters, who were still able to vote. The TDP argues that the correct interpretation of the 26th and other amendments to the constitution is that not giving the under-65 voters the same benefit as the 65-and-older crowd is an abridgement of their rights, and thus unconstitutional. I think the plaintiffs have a solid argument, but as we know I Am Not A Lawyer, and also this particular Supreme Court is nobody’s friend when it comes to voting rights. We’ll know in January if we’ll get a short-term resolution or if this goes back to the trial court for a do-over.

Can Ken Paxton be sanctioned for his seditious lawsuit?

One group is going to try. I wish them luck.

Felons for autocracy!

A national lawyers group on Monday called for professional licensing bodies to investigate what it called a “breach of ethical rules” by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and 17 of his counterparts in red states who sued in the Supreme Court last week in a vain attempt to overturn President-elect Joe Biden’s win in four states in the Nov. 3 presidential election.

Lawyers Defending American Democracy, a nonpartisan group that says it has the support of 5,000 lawyers across the country, said in a statement that Paxton and his fellow Republican state attorneys general filed an “abusive lawsuit” that pushed groundless theories that erode confidence in vital institutions.

“The historically unprecedented attack on our democracy needs to be met by historically unprecedented state bar investigations,” said the group.

It called for the state bar of Texas, and its lawyer-licensing counterparts in other states, to investigate unprofessional conduct by not only the state attorneys general but any lawyers among the 126 GOP members of Congress who supported the suit.

“We call on state licensing authorities to promptly investigate the breach of ethical rules by these public officials and all lawyers participating in the filing of this Supreme Court petition,” the group said.

“They must not shrink from applying established ethical rules to discipline those officials.”

See here for the background, and here for the statement. I completely agree, and there were calls for sanctions a few weeks ago against Trump’s lawyers for their obviously dishonest filings. The case for bringing sanctions against Paxton as well is based on the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, which are adapted in some form in every state, which states that a lawyer shall not bring a suit “unless there is a basis in law and fact for doing so that is not frivolous.” But to even get to the State Bar of Texas with your complaint, first you need someone to file it, and then you have a difficult task getting them to agree with you.

“If history is any guide, it’s extremely unlikely that any of these lawyers are going to face disciplinary sanctions,” says Deborah Rhode, an ethics scholar at Stanford Law School and another co-author of Legal Ethics. “The bar is just, historically, extremely reluctant to take on anything that isn’t a clear, easily provable violation of disciplinary rules, and that has any kind of political overtones.” Moreover, she notes that bar disciplinary processes are underfunded and overworked. This issue came up in multiple conversations with experts: a lack of funding, expertise, and political will to investigate established or high-profile lawyers. “I think if you had a more robust disciplinary process with the likelihood that there would be professional consequences, that would be significant, that would be a deterrent,” she says. “But we’re a long way from that process.”

“This has been a persistent complaint that a lot of people in the legal ethics world have made about our discipline systems for years, which is that they don’t work that well,” says Luban. Most bar complaints do not lead to public sanctions, and that’s particularly true for the well-connected. It’s easier for underfunded committees to sanction solo practitioners, but they leave the big fish largely untouched.

Much as I’d like to see Ken Paxton suffer some professional consequences for his anti-American actions, the best we’re likely to get is to vote his sorry ass out of office. And to root for the various prosecutors and plaintiffs lining up against him. No one ever said life was fair.

Paxton denies whistleblower allegations

Pretty standard response.

Best mugshot ever

The Texas attorney general’s office will pay outside counsel $540 an hour to defend the state agency against accusations that it was retaliating against top aides when it fired them just weeks after they reported their boss, Ken Paxton, to authorities for possibly breaking the law.

William Helfand, a Houston attorney with Lewis Brisbois Bisgaard & Smith LLP, will make $540 per hour for his work on the case while an associate attorney and a paralegal will make $350 and $215 per hour, respectively, according to a contract with the agency.

They filed the agency’s first official response Monday to a lawsuit filed by four of eight whistleblowers who left the agency after leveling the accusations. Paxton’s attorneys roundly rejected pages and pages of allegations of wrongdoing and retaliation in just a few brief sentences.

The agency “generally denies each and every claim and allegation” made by the whistleblowers, attorneys for the state wrote in the brief filing.

“Any action Plaintiffs allege to be an adverse employment action was the result of each Plaintiff’s own misconduct, lack of competence, and/or disloyalty to the Office,” the outside attorneys for the agency wrote.

Paxton is reportedly being investigated by the FBI over the allegations raised by the aides.

Separately, he has been under indictment since 2015 on felony securities fraud charges but has yet to stand trial amid side issues over venue and prosecutor pay. Notably, his defense team and political allies have loudly objected to the special prosecutors in the case making $300 per hour — far lower than the pay scale for the outside attorneys in the whistleblower case.

That point was not lost on Brian Wice, one of the special prosecutors, who said it was “ludicrous for Paxton to believe that a seven-year attorney, not to mention a paralegal, should be paid more for defending him than two lawyers with over 80 years of combined experience should be paid for prosecuting him.”

“And it is outrageous that the taxpayers of Texas will be obligated to pay the legal fees for defending Paxton’s alleged misconduct that has reportedly triggered an FBI investigation,” Wice added.

See here and here for some background. Even I recognize this as Basic Lawyering 101, nothing new or unusual to see here. Where it gets exciting is in discovery, where Paxton will have to start coughing up some documents. As for how much the defense attorneys are being paid, as a theoretical matter the office of Attorney General deserves competent representation in matters like this. But the same is very much true for the special prosecutors, who have had to deal with a huge amount of political interference on Paxton’s behalf just to get paid. Surely if Paxton’s defense attorneys are worth that kind of fee, then we ought to see Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer as relative bargains. At least if Paxton does eventually get busted by the FBI, it’ll be the feds paying for that trial. In this case, we know Ken Paxton is going to raise money off of his latest legal travails. If the plaintiffs win, he can damn well kick in some of that loot to pay for the defense of his misdeeds.