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March 24th, 2016:

Once more with SCOTUS and birth control

Here we go.

In another major case concerning Texas women’s reproductive care, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday will consider if the right to religious freedom is broad enough to completely exempt nonprofits with religious objections to birth control from providing women access to it through their insurance plans.

The case, formally known as Zubik v. Burwell, pits religious nonprofit groups — including East Texas Baptist University and Houston Baptist University — against the federal government over a provision of the Affordable Care Act requiring some employers to provide contraceptive coverage to female workers.

The Texas case is among seven related lawsuits the high court agreed to hear together in which religious nonprofits argue the mandate infringes on their religious freedom. The Obama administration says the groups are offered a way around the requirement through a mechanism that still gives women access to free contraception.

Under the federal health care act, employers with 50 or more full-time employees are required to offer health plans with “minimum essential coverage,” including access to federally approved contraception for women, without co-payments or deductibles.

Religious nonprofits can seek “accommodations” to be exempted from the contraceptive mandate by submitting a form or notification certifying the organization’s objection on religious grounds. Doing so transfers the administrative duties of providing contraception coverage from the employer to the insurance company or a third party, which takes over handling the claims.

But the nonprofits argue they should be exempted from the requirement altogether because they are still “being forced to facilitate access” to contraceptives they oppose. In this case, the religious groups object to emergency contraceptives, including the so-called morning-after-pill, and intrauterine devices, which they liken to so-called “abortifacients” — or drugs that induce an abortion. (Health experts and scientists have disputed that claim.)

That parenthetical statement really understates the matter. People are free to believe what they want, but when those beliefs are contradicted by objective reality, I’m not sure why the law needs to accommodate them. Too bad I’m not on the Supreme Court.

Anyway. I’ve been following the HBU/East Texas Baptist lawsuit from the beginning – see here, here, and here for the basics, and remember that the full Fifth Circuit – yes, that Fifth Circuit – refused to uphold the initial lower court ruling in HBU’s favor.

Given the current composition of the Court, the fact that nearly every appeals court rejected the plaintiffs’ arguments, and the way things went with the HB2 case, there was a fair amount of optimism going into this one that the good guys would prevail. Unfortunately, it looks like perhaps the Bad Anthony Kennedy showed up for oral arguments.

In Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the last major case brought by religious objectors to birth control, the Court’s five justice conservative majority effectively wrote the “substantially burden” requirement out of the law. As Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the Court in that case, the Hobby Lobby plaintiffs “sincerely believe that providing the insurance coverage demanded by the HHS regulations lies on the forbidden side of the line, and it is not for us to say that their religious beliefs are mistaken or insubstantial.”

It quickly becomes clear during the Zubik argument, however, that the Court’s four justice liberal bloc wants to put the words “substantially burden” back into the law. Justice Sonia Sotomayor notes that, under the conservatives’ truncated reading of RFRA, it is unlikely that a plaintiff would ever fail to show a substantial burden because “we’re not asking you to do anything except identify yourself.” Justice Stephen Breyer even goes so far as to wax philosophic about how much easier life was in the few years before RFRA was enacted.

Kennedy, however, wants no part of this project to make “substantially burden” mean something again. “It seems to me that there is a substantial burden” in this case, Kennedy tells Solicitor General Don Verrilli in an uncharacteristically candid moment. About a minute later, Kennedy is even more candid, disclosing that he believes that this entire case comes down to whether the government could have used a less restrictive alternative (the third prong of RFRA) to provide birth control to women whose employers object to birth control.

For most of Verrilli’s time at the podium, however, Kennedy is sphinx-like, saying little and revealing little about whether he believes the government has made its case. Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Alito spend this period taking shots at Verrilli. At a major argument over abortion earlier this month, the Court’s conservative wing appeared stilted and unsure how to seize the offensive with Scalia absent from the bench. Today, with Scalia’s seat literally absent from the Courtroom and just eight chairs facing the audience and the attorneys, it was clear that Roberts and Alito had their mojo back.

In their briefs, the religious objectors argue that requiring them to fill out a form in order to receive a contraceptive plan is not the “least restrictive means” of ensuring access to birth control. The government could have created a new birth control entitlement program funded by taxpayers (an alternative that Kennedy briefly appears skeptical of), or they could have offered birth control-only plans in the Affordable Care Act’s health care exchanges to women whose employers refuse to provide them with contraceptive coverage.

Alito focuses on the later of these two opinions, in a series of questions for Verrilli that can fairly be described as combative and nasty. At one point, Alito demands to know how the government can claim that Obamacare’s exchanges are “so unworkable” that they cannot provide an alternative for women that need birth control-only plans. It’s the sort of remark that seems more at home on Fox News than in the Supreme Court of the United States, and its delivered in a tone that seems to betray Alito’s bitterness over the fact that he has twice tried and failed to gut Obamacare by judicial decree.

In response, Verrilli argues that offering birth control-only coverage in the exchanges would not be a workable solution. For one thing, it’s not currently legal to sell such single-subject plans in the exchanges. For another, it’s far from clear that any private insurer would agree to offer such a plan. And even if they did, there’s no guarantee that a woman would be able to buy a plan that included the same doctors she relies upon for other medical care. This could lead to a world where a woman’s regular physician would be unable to prescribe contraception or even counsel the woman on many issues related to her reproductive health. And it would add an additional layer of complication that would discourage many women from seeking out contraceptive care.

Roberts, meanwhile, embraces the religious objectors’ argument that the government is “hijacking employers’” health plans via its fill-out-the-form regulation. This proves to be a very effective argument for Roberts, largely because it appears to sway Kennedy near the end of Verrilli’s time at the podium. In response to Verrilli’s attempt to explain some of the details of how the fill-out-the-form rules operate, Kennedy snaps back “that’s why it’s necessary to hijack the plans!”

In contentious cases, Kennedy often appears to play the role of Hamlet, asking questions of both sides and giving off an air of uncertainty about how he will ultimately vote. But when Kennedy shows real emotion in one of his questions, or when he adopts the loaded language of one of the parties, that’s normally a good sign that he’s made up his mind. When the votes are cast and the Court’s decision is released, it’s a good bet that Kennedy will vote against Team Birth Control.

Yeesh. The good news from our perspective in Texas is that a 4-4 split would leave the Fifth Circuit ruling against the plaintiffs in place. That’s a small consolation for anyone in a state governed by the Eighth Circuit, which was the one to buy into that dumb argument, of course. Perhaps some day we can get a ninth Justice confirmed and settle this once and for all. In the meantime, this may be the best we can do. Have I mentioned that this election is super important? A transcript of the oral arguments is here, while TPM, SCOTUSBlog, Kevin Drum, and the Trib have more.

Recycling officially re-upped

That new recycling agreement with Waste Management was on Council’s agenda yesterday. Here’s a reminder of what it was about.

Originally, Houston was to ink a four-year deal with Waste Management, paying a $95-per-ton processing fee, a nearly 50 percent price hike. [Mayor] Turner, hoping the market would rebound quickly and strengthen the city’s negotiating position, countered with a one-year deal at a higher processing fee, but Waste Management rejected that.

The deal facing a vote Wednesday is a two-year agreement that omits glass, which is more costly to process and comparatively less valuable to resell, and carries a $90-per-ton processing fee.

Compared to what other Texas cities pay, that figure – and even the $65-per-ton processing fee Houston paid under its expiring contract – is an outlier.

San Antonio, Dallas and Fort Worth all pay their recycling contractors about $35 per ton to process recycled material; in the latter two cities, Waste Management is the vendor.

The other Texas cities’ contracts are much longer than any of the deals Houston was considering, however, and took effect when the market was stronger.

Dallas’ deal, inked in 2007, expires at the end of the year. Fort Worth’s current agreement began in 2013 and expires in 2018. San Antonio began its contract in August 2014, as commodities entered their current slide; that deal runs through 2024.

Only Austin pays rates similar to Houston’s, under 20-year deals with two contractors that began in 2012. Balcones Resources, which gets 60 percent of Austin’s recyclables, collects $79 per ton to process the first 2,000 tons of material every month and $75 for every ton after that. Texas Disposal Systems, which gets the remaining material, charges $90.50 per ton.

“We were in a really tough spot since we were negotiating the contract at a time when commodity prices are at one of their lowest points, and other cities had the advantage of negotiating during more favorable commodity markets,” said Melanie Scruggs of Texas Campaign for the Environment. “We’re also at a disadvantage because Waste Management has a monopoly and apparently there are no firms large enough that take residential recycling.”

[…]

Scruggs said a key difference between Houston and its peer cities is that Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have adopted waste diversion goals backed by investments in public education, recycling programs at apartment buildings or composting efforts. Those efforts have strengthened the cities’ recycling markets.

“It’s a signal the city is going to be providing, whether it’s ordinances or publicly funded incentives, things that would benefit their business,” Scruggs said. “Houston has no such environment for recycling as of yet, which is why we’ve been advocating that the city get a zero-waste goal and a plan.”

Turner on Tuesday said one of the options the city could consider at the expiration of the recycling contract in two years would be drafting a “recycling plan that is robust for Houston.”

In the end, the new contract was approved, with two No votes. The city and groups like TCE will get the word out to people about not putting glass in their bins. In a best-case scenario, people will bring glass to recycling centers and the city will make a few bucks from that to help offset these other costs. Most likely, the vast majority of that glass will wind up in trash bins, which will cost the city some money but not as much as it would for the glass to be in the recycling bins. A Zero Waste goal and plan would probably help with that – you can see the TCE make its case for that here – so I hope the city begins consideration of a “draft recycling plan” before this contract expires.

Former Trooper Encinia pleads not guilty in Sandra Bland perjury case

As expected.

Sandra Bland

A former Texas trooper pleaded not guilty to charges he lied about his actions last July while arresting Sandra Bland, whose death in Waller County’s jail three days later sparked a national outcry from civil rights activists.

Dressed in a gray suit and tie and flanked by his attorneys, former Department of Public Safety Trooper Brian T. Encinia said little Tuesday afternoon during a minutes-long arraignment hearing before State District Judge Albert M. McCaig Jr.

[…]

In an arrest affidavit, Encinia said he had ordered Bland out of the car to safely continue the investigation.

A Waller County grand jury indicted Encinia in January of misdemeanor perjury based on that statement, according to a special prosecutor in the case. If convicted, Encinia could spend up to a year in jail and have to pay a $4,000 fine.

Earlier this month, DPS Director Steve McCraw formally fired Encinia, saying he violated the department’s courtesy policy and procedures. Encinia is appealing the termination to the Texas Public Safety Commission. Separately, the trooper is named in a wide-ranging civil lawsuit filed by Bland’s family that alleges negligence and wrongful death. Attorneys representing Encinia in that case have asked – unsuccessfully – that it be delayed while his criminal trial plays out. The civil trial is set to begin next January.

Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and older sister, Shante Needham, both appeared at the arraignment, along with their lawyer, Cannon Lambert.

“To come all this way, I needed to do it,” said Bland’s mother after the hearing, as she embraced those who’d gathered in support of her and her family.

“I’m hopeful things go in the direction that [Encinia] eventually gets detained and he can remain there for the maximum amount of time that perjury carries,” Needham said. “At the end of the day, my sister, my mother’s daughter, is no longer here anymore. He needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

See here and here for the background. The Trib quotes Encinia’s defense attorney blaming his indictment on a “runaway” grand jury. I dunno, I thought that video of the traffic stop made it quite clear that at the very least, Encinia was unprofessional and antagonistic. We can argue if his behavior qualifies as perjury, but let’s see what happens in the courtroom first. And let’s not overlook the fact, as Grits notes, a law enforcement officer being called to account at all like this is quite unusual. A conviction, if it comes to that, would be even more so. The Press has more.

Texas blog roundup for the week of March 21

The Texas Progressive Alliance hopes your brackets are in better shape than its own as it brings you this week’s roundup.

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