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August 10th, 2021:

Supreme Court upholds Abbott’s power grab

Ugh.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday denied a request from several Democratic House members and state employees asking the justices to overturn Gov. Greg Abbott’s veto of legislative funding in the upcoming two-year state budget.

Abbott vetoed the funding in June after House Democrats walked out during the final days of the regular legislative session in May, killing two of his priority bills on elections and changing the state’s bail system. Abbott then brought the Legislature back for a special session to get the bills passed, but more than 50 House Democrats again broke quorum — denying the lower chamber of the number of present members needed to move bills — by decamping to Washington, D.C., until the 30-day session ended Friday.

Democrats challenged Abbott’s veto in court, saying it stripped their power as a “co-equal branch of government.” But the Texas Supreme Court on Monday sided with Abbott on his veto that will effectively defund the Texas Legislature, its staffers and legislative agencies later this year.

[…]

In an unsigned opinion, the all-Republican court said the lack of funding for the legislative branch “continues to exist not because of a dispute between the Governor and the Legislature, nor even because of one between the Governor and a minority of House members. Rather, the principal dispute is among the members of the Legislature.”

“This political dispute within the legislative branch is not an issue of separation of powers that we can decide,” the court said in its opinion.

[…]

The court said House Democrats could have worked with other lawmakers during this year’s first special sessions to reinstate Article X of the state budget, which covers legislative funding, without having to pass any other bills. They also could have worked with their fellow lawmakers to pass the bill more than 10 days before adjournment, which would have made it veto-proof. But they chose not to do so.

“Relators argue that the Governor is unconstitutionally coercing them to vote for legislation that he favors. But the Governor has not forced the Legislature to enact his priorities before addressing its own funding,” the opinion read. “The Legislature was free to use the special session to reinstate Article X funding. It could have done so without addressing any of the other items listed in the Governor’s call.”

“[T]he Governor’s veto of Article X followed by his call of a special session neither prevents the Legislature from funding itself nor forces the Legislature to enact legislation of the Governor’s choosing,” the opinion read.

The court noted that Abbott was trying to advance his favored pieces of legislation but that a majority of lawmakers in the GOP-dominated Legislature also supported those bills.

The court said the Democrats’ alleged injury may have started with Abbott’s veto, but continued only because they could not agree with their fellow lawmakers “over the order in which to consider legislation.”

You can read the unsigned opinion – there’s a load of political courage, I tell you – here. I didn’t expect the Supreme Court to wade into this, when it would be so much easier to avoid it, but this is just sophistry. The only reason there was a special session is because Abbott called one, as he has the sole power to call them. Would the Supreme Court feel differently if he hadn’t, or if he hadn’t added Article X funding to the special session agenda, another thing he has control over? Or is it now the case that constitutional separation of powers is entirely dependent on the calendar?

It is what it is at this point. The Article X funding will get restored, likely pretty soon at this point, and we’ll all go on our merry voter-suppression way. Just don’t come crying to me when a future Governor zeroes out Supreme Court funding. The Chron has more.

You can’t arrest the quorum-busters, at least not yet

Good to know.

A state district judge in Travis County issued an order blocking the arrest of House Democrats who have broken quorum by leaving the state, paving the way for those who remain outside of Texas to return home without threat of apprehension.

State District Judge Brad Urrutia, a Democrat, granted the temporary restraining order late Sunday night restricting Gov. Greg Abbott and House Speaker Dade Phelan from “detaining, confining or otherwise restricting” the free movement of House Democrats within the state or issuing any warrants ordering their confinement.

The order expires in 14 days unless extended by Urrutia. The court will hear arguments on a temporary injunction on Aug. 20 where Abbott and Phelan must show why a temporary injunction should not be filed against them.

[…]

The petition for the restraining order appears to be preemptive in nature, as the House has not yet voted to renew a call of the House in the second special session which began Saturday.

“[T]he Speaker thinks he can wave his hand and have his political opponents rounded up and arrested. We’re watching a major political party backslide in real time from fair representation, the rule of law, and democracy itself,” said Dallas State Rep. Jasmine Crockett, one of the plaintiffs in the case.

Enrique Marquez, a Phelan spokesman, said Monday morning the speaker’s office had not yet been notified of the suit or restraining order. Abbott’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of 19 House Democrats by attorneys Samuel E. Bassett, Jeremy Monthy and Megan Rue.

“No matter what the Governor or Speaker have said, it is a fundamental principle in this country that no one has the power to arrest their political opponents. That is why this action had to be filed,” Bassett said in a statement.

The plaintiffs are Reps. Gina Hinojosa, Alma Allen, Michelle Beckley, Jasmine Crockett, Joe Deshotel, Barbara Gervin-Hawkins, Vikki Goodwin, Celia Israel, Ray Lopez, Armando “Mando” Martinez, Trey Martinez Fischer, Ina Minjarez, Christina Morales, Mary Ann Perez, Ana-Maria Ramos, Richard Peña Raymond, Ron Reynolds, Eddie Rodriguez and Ramon Romero, Jr. All of the plaintiffs broke quorum and left the state in July.

It is the second lawsuit filed by House Democrats in an attempt to avoid arrest if they returned to Texas. The other was filed Friday by attorney Craig Washington in federal court in Austin on behalf of 22 House Democrats. It was riddled with problems, including subsequent statements by at least four of the plaintiffs that they had not authorized the suit on their behalf.

The lawsuit in federal court also named State Rep. James White, R-Hilister, as a defendant. White is not named as a defendant in the case in state court.

In his order, Urrutia said Abbott and Phelan erroneously interpreted Texas law and legislative rules to allow the apprehension of members of the House in response to a call for quorum. He barred the defendants from detaining or restraining the Democrats’ movement in any way and from issuing warrants or other documents ordering their apprehension. Urrutia also barred the defendants from ordering law enforcement to arrest the lawmakers.

A copy of this lawsuit is here, and of the judge’s order is here. As the story notes, this has nothing to do with that other lawsuit, filed in federal court, which did not seem to make much sense. This one at least I can understand, and it has bought the Dems some time. Whether they choose to remain out of the Capitol during this time or not remains to be seen, but at least now they have the option. KXAN, the Current, and the Chron have more.

UPDATE: Though more Dems did show up yesterday, the Lege still fell short of a quorum. Tune in again today at 4 PM to see the next episode.

Dallas ISD to require masks

Good for them.

Starting Tuesday, Dallas ISD will require students and teachers to wear masks at its campuses, defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that bars districts from issuing mask mandates.

Superintendent Michael Hinojosa announced the change during a Monday morning press conference, saying that it was within his discretion to ensure the health and safety of his employees and the district’s students.

“We’re in a situation that has gotten significantly more urgent,” Hinojosa said.

Dallas is the first district in the state to flout the governor’s order; Houston — the state’s largest district — is considering such a move. Its new superintendent, Millard House II, announced last week that he would bring a mask mandate in front of Houston trustees at their next board meeting, Aug. 12.

School officials say it’s necessary in the face of the highly contagious delta variant. The youngest students remain ineligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a statement, Ben Mackey, Dallas’ board president, said he was fully supportive of Hinojosa’s stance.

“The superintendent is the educational leader and chief executive officer of our school district tasked with the day-to-day operations of the district, which includes implementing safety protocols,” Mackey said. “Requiring masks for staff and students while on district property is a reasonable and necessary safety protocol to protect against the spread of COVID-19 and the new delta variant.

“Towards the end of last school year, we saw very low transmissions rates on campuses, thanks in part to masks being worn consistently by educators and students.”

Abbott’s executive order, issued in May, bars public schools and the Texas Education Agency from issuing any requirements on mask usage. Those who defy Abbott’s order could be subject to a fine of up to $1,000. It’s unclear how such a penalty could be applied to school districts.

Asked about a potential fine, Hinojosa responded: “Who knows?”

“All this is going to play itself out, and we’re not going to be the only ones taking this action,” Hinojosa said.

That certainly seems to be the case, as we have discussed before. HISD will vote on whether or not to follow through on Thursday, while Austin ISD may have made a decision by now as well. There’s also this:

Meanwhile, the Southern Center for Child Advocacy, a nonprofit education group, filed a lawsuit Sunday night in Travis County against Abbott and his executive order prohibiting school districts, governmental bodies or any public or private entity that is receiving or will receive public funds from requiring masks.

In the absence of a statewide mask mandate, the group seeks to give the power to enforce mask wearing back to local school districts, said Hank Bostwick, volunteer center coordinator and lawyer.

[…]

The lawsuit claims that Abbott is overreaching his authority and that his emergency powers should be used to take proactive steps and “not to advance an anti-mask political agenda that has no discernible basis in the data regarding the COVID-19 contagion rate.”

“This is purely political gamesmanship, and has nothing to do with the health and safety of Texas children or their teachers,” Bostwick said.

The lawsuit highlights that people of color are still lagging behind in vaccination rates and getting these families back in schools without proper protection makes them vulnerable to an increased rate of infection.

“The threat to the health and safety of Texas public school students and teachers is imminent and real,” the lawsuit states.

The group also claims that the governor is in violation of Texas education code because children with disabilities “are entitled to learn and interact with their non-disabled or typical peers in a safe and healthy educational environment.” The order not allowing masks means some of these students may be unable to attend school in-person if masking is not required, the lawsuit claims.

I looked around but was unable to find anything else about this lawsuit. From the Trib story, it seems they are making a couple of statutory claims – the Governor does not have the legal authority under the law to forbid school districts (and presumably other local governmental entities) from forbidding them from adopting mask mandates, and the lack of a mask mandate violates state law about providing an equal educational opportunity to all students. This Chron story suggests that these plaintiffs are not alone in that position.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee contends Abbott is misusing the Disaster Act. He cautioned that the governor’s power “is not absolute.”

“While he acknowledges that COVID is a health crisis that needs addressing, he then bars measures that would help mitigate this disaster,” the county attorney said in a statement. “The Disaster Act doesn’t allow him to do that, and local county and city officials should be able to take actions needed to stop the spread of COVID — including issuing a mask mandate.”

It would be fine by me if the Harris County Attorney were to take more direct action on that point. It may well be that this legal argument fails in court, but I see no harm in making that argument, as forcefully as possible. Maybe it’s Greg Abbott who is wrong in his interpretation of the law. Wouldn’t it be nice to know? Only one way to find out.

UPDATE: The Chron writes about the SCCA suit but has no further details.

UPDATE: Austin ISD will require masks as well.

Dissension in the ranks

sigh

Some of the Texas House Democrats who are still in Washington, D.C., did not hold back Monday as they watched more of their colleagues return to Austin and bring the chamber within single digits of a quorum.

“You all threw us under the bus today! Why?” Rep. Ana-Maria Ramos of Dallas said in a tweet addressed to three of her Democratic colleagues who came back to Austin.

The House had as many as 95 members on hand at one point Monday afternoon, five members short of quorum but the nearest the chamber has gotten to being able to start business since most Democrats fled last month over the Republican elections bill. It was the third day of the second special session, and the GOP-led House again issued a “call of the House,” procedural move to lock the doors of the chamber and prevent members from leaving without permission.

The 95 members who were present included at least four new Democrats: El Paso-area Reps. Art Fierro, Mary González and Joe Moody, as well as Rep. James Talarico of Round Rock. Moody is the former speaker pro tem, a title that House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, stripped from Moody in retaliation for the quorum break during the first special session.

Talarico was the most open about his return, announcing it on Twitter and issuing a statement explaining his decision, saying he was coming back to work on “real issues Texans face” after a productive time in Washington.

[…]

While the quorum-busting Democrats were able to maintain a largely united front during the first special session, which ended Friday, it was clear they reached a fork in the road when the second special session began a day later. A group of them released a statement saying that 26 House Democrats would be staying behind in Washington to keep up their fight to pass federal voting rights legislation in Congress.

Another House Democrat still in D.C., Rep. Gina Hinojosa of Austin, also scrutinized the Democrats who returned Monday afternoon on Twitter, calling out Fierro, González, Moody and Talarico as the House was waiting to see if it could still reach quorum for the day.

“Quorum is still not met,” Hinojosa tweeted. “Praying no other Democrats willingly go to Floor.”

I’d prefer not to throw any lighter fluid on this fire, so I’m going to keep this short and simple. Sticking together and not having people wander back to Austin was a key to not losing the political and PR battle in the first special session. With that behind us, members will once again have to make their own decisions about what to do, but only to a point because restoring the quorum or not needs to be a strategic decision, made with everyone’s buy-in. I don’t know what happened here, but this obviously ain’t a great look. There’s still no quorum, though the more Dems that make like these colleagues, and the more Republicans who come off the COVID quarantine list, that may not be the case for much longer. Pick a plan and stick with it, that’s all I’m asking, And iron this stuff out behind closed doors, none of us needs to see this.