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May 22nd, 2020:

Another profile of Judge Hidalgo

It’s good, and she deserves the attention she’s getting, but there’s something about this that bugs me a little, and I’m trying to put my finger on it.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

On March 1, before Harris County reported its first confirmed case of the coronavirus but as the disease was already infiltrating America’s biggest cities, Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo made a call to ground zero.

It was Dow Constantine, her counterpart in Washington state’s King County, who picked up. At the time, he was responding to what was believed to be the first coronavirus death in the United States.

Hidalgo believed Texas had the benefit of precious time, and she wanted Constantine’s advice to make sure she didn’t squander it. What did he wish he had known two weeks ago? How could Washington have been more prepared?

“I sat down with my team and said, ‘Guys, this is coming.’ It’s a bit like a hurricane in that we see it coming, but with this one we had more time,” Hidalgo said in an interview with The Texas Tribune. “There was no excuse to be caught flat-footed.” (Constantine told the Tribune that Hidalgo was the only county official who took the initiative to reach out for advice in the early days of the crisis.)

Harris County, the state’s largest, leads Texas in coronavirus cases and deaths, but the area has largely avoided the fates of the hardest-hit regions like Washington state, New York and Louisiana, where a surge of patients overwhelmed hospital systems. While the daily number of new cases reported in Texas continues to climb, the Houston area’s numbers have plateaued at a number far below their peak last month. The result is that Hidalgo, a first-term political figure, has been thrust into the spotlight.

Hidalgo, who took office in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, came into the job knowing she would have to prepare for disasters. “This is a huge county, and when you have landmass the size of Rhode Island and around 5 million people, things are bound to happen,” she said.

What she was not prepared for was the acrid backlash that would follow.

It goes from there, and it’s a good recap of what has happened so far and who (Republicans) has been vocally (and often insultingly) critical of Hidalgo, along with some biography that we should be reasonably familiar with by now. Like I said, there’s something about this that nags at me, and I have a hard time pinning it down. Part of me wishes that the main loudmouth critics in this story, like State Sen. Paul Bettencourt, would be made to answer just exactly what they would have done in her position. That can be satisfying to consider, but in reality they’d just come up with their own alternate history where everything they did turned out even better, and that accomplishes nothing. We can run a gazillion simulations of the pandemic based on whatever conditions we want to apply, but we only get to live it once, and we can never say for sure what might have been.

Perhaps another way to do this kind of story is to ignore the political critics and focus instead on the people who are front and center at dealing with the pandemic and its effects, and get their view on how various decisions and policies have helped or hindered them. The problem there is that people often don’t know or can’t isolate a particular action taken by one branch of government, and so what you get is a mix of their own interpretations and competing factors. How exactly do you distinguish between the feds, the state, and the locals have done if you’re a critical care doctor or nurse, or a grocery story employee? So I don’t know what that accomplishes, either.

So I don’t know that there’s a better way to tell this story than what we have here, which perhaps frustrates a close observer like myself but is more useful to someone who doesn’t spend as much time on this kind of minutia. I at least can always talk to my fellow nerds and get the unreported gossip, which is as much what I want as anything else. What do you want from stories like this?

Coronavirus and the State Supreme Court

Just a reminder, nearly half of the State Supreme Court is up for election this November. You know, in case you had opinions about their recent opinions.

Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.

Actions on bailevictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.

Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.

This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.

Democrats, who have not won a seat on the state’s highest civil court in more than two decades, have reclassified the typically sleepy races as a “top-tier priority,” a designation party officials said comes with digital ad spending. And some candidates have already begun to speak out publicly against high court decisions they say disenfranchise voters and risk their safety.

“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”

There’s more and you should read the rest. For obvious reasons, these races are largely going to be determined by the Presidential race – if Joe Biden can run even with or ahead of Donald Trump, one or more of the Democratic candidates can break through. It surely wouldn’t hurt for their to be some money spent on these races, in part just to make sure voters are aware of them and in part to highlight some of the decisions that are not exactly in line with public preferences, but there’s only so much the individual candidates can do about that. In case you’re wondering, I have one Q&A from a Democratic candidate for Supreme Court from the primaries, from Judge Amy Clark Meachum.

On a more sobering note:

Justice Debra Lehrmann

One day after presiding over a hearing on the state’s mail-in ballot controversy via videoconference, Texas Supreme Court Justice Debra Lehrmann says she and her husband have tested positive for COVID-19.

“We began to exhibit symptoms last week, despite diligently complying with stay-at-home rules,” Lehrmann wrote on Twitter on Thursday. “Thankfully, this has not interfered with #SCOTX work, as the Court is working remotely. We are grateful for your thoughts & prayers.”

Her diagnosis marks the first known coronavirus case of a top state official. The justice did not immediately respond to requests for an interview but told the Dallas Morning News that she and her husband Greg had fevers and body aches early last week before getting tested at an Austin drive-thru testing center.

She also told The News that their Houston lawyer son, Jonathan, his wife Sarah and their six-month-old son Jack, who had been visiting them every other week, stopped and are believed to also be infected.

Her tweet is here. I wish Justice Lehrmann and her husband all the best for a swift recovery. (She is not on the 2020 ballot, in case you were wondering.)

Making a better severe storm warning

Of interest.

We’ve all heard them – the blaring alerts that activate our cellphones or television when a severe weather warning is issued.

Perhaps our favorite weather app sent us a push notification, or we saw a television meteorologist pointing at vibrant boxes on a weather map. Whatever the medium, weather warnings have a way of finding us, especially whenever a severe thunderstorm is close by. Now, those warnings, specifically the way in which they’re generated, are in the process of getting a makeover.

Severe weather warnings are issued for individual thunderstorms; before 2007, entire counties would be alerted at once. Over the years, weather warnings have become more targeted – but one warning can still cover an expansive area. Moreover, conditions can vary wildly even within the region enclosed by a single warning.

Now, the National Weather Service is hoping to change that.

Kodi Berry leads the program that’s updating warnings at the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) in Norman, Oklahoma. The Forecasting a Continuum of Environmental Threats program, or FACETs, is an endeavor the National Weather Service is pursuing to communicate the hazards posed by severe thunderstorms on a hyperlocal level.

Berry says the goal is provide a more continuous flow of information for those who need it the most.

According to the National Severe Storm’s Laboratory, FACETs aims to improve weather watches and warnings to provide “detailed hazard information through the use of ‘threat grids’ that are monitored and adjusted as new information becomes available.”

Typical weather warnings are issued in the form of polygons digitally drawn on a map. If you’re within the polygon, you’re alerted and urged to take action – such as seeking shelter. But just a stone’s throw away, a neighboring home outside the polygon may not be given any special instructions. The current state of weather warnings is binary, akin to a “yes” or “no” to severe weather.

Berry’s team is hoping to improve that by creating a product that reflects the gray area in between. They are experimenting with displaying probabilities to reflect the range of possible outcomes in a rapidly-evolving severe weather event.

“There has been a lot of social science research that shows that, given probabilistic information, people make better decisions,” Berry said. “If we appropriately define these probabilities and what they mean, people can use them to make better decisions.”

See here for more on the NSSL, and here for more on FACETs. I like the idea overall and agree that more precise information that goes beyond the “threat/no threeat” binary makes sense, but I’m not so sure people make better decisions when given probabilistic information. There’s also a lot of research showing that people are not at all good at understanding risk levels, and at least in a political context it’s common to see people round down small-but-not-that-small probability events to “zero”, or the converse to “one”. I’m a fan of more and better data and so I approve of the idea, I just think it’s likely that how this data is presented and explained to the public will need to be refined a couple of times.