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August 13th, 2021:

Alvarado’s filibuster ends

It was a strong effort, and she deserves credit for it.

Sen. Carol Alvarado

After 15 hours of speaking nearly nonstop against the GOP’s priority elections bill, State Sen. Carol Alvarado, a Houston Democrat, concluded her filibuster on Thursday morning.

“Voter suppression anywhere is a threat to democracy everywhere,” Alvarado said in her closing remarks, as fellow Democrats surrounded her to show their support.

Yet, as expected, after Alvarado got some hugs and took a seat to rest her feet, the Senate voted 18-11 along party lines to advance the bill and send it to the House, where it will be stalled by a Democratic walkout that has lasted a month.

While Alvarado’s filibuster could not — and did not — kill the bill, it exemplifies the at-all-costs attitude the Democrats are bringing to their opposition to it. Alvarado acknowledged that the tactic was a temporary measure in an interview with the Texas Tribune.

“I’m using what I have at my disposal in the Senate,” Alvarado told the outlet. “The filibuster isn’t going to stop it, but a filibuster is also used to put the brakes on an issue — to call attention to what is at stake — and that is what I am doing.”

See here for the background. The point here isn’t about winning – Dems know they’re outnumbered and cannot hold off any of these bills if they come to the floor. The point is about fighting, and showing your voters that you’re fighting. Midterms are about turnout, and you can’t win if your voters aren’t engaged. It’s the same principle as with the quorum-busting, though that also had other purposes, such as directly lobbying Congress and focusing national attention on the issue. You do what you can so that in the end you can say you did all you could. Sen. Alvarado did all she could.

As for the quorum-busters, they’re back on the lam.

The Texas Supreme Court on Thursday overruled a Houston judge who had provided Texas House Democrats with the legal shelter they requested to avoid civil arrest for absconding from the state Capitol.

After Houston Rep. Gene Wu successfully challenged his warrant in Harris County state district court on Wednesday, 44 additional Democrats had followed in his footsteps, hoping for the same outcome.

The stay from the state’s highest civil court came swiftly, potentially scrambling the plans of those Democrats and others who’d made plans to return home.

A dwindling number of House members remain in Washington, D.C., where they have spent a month rallying for federal voting rights legislation that would supersede existing Texas elections laws as well as bills that Republicans are pushing in Austin. The Democrats have until Monday to respond in court.

“Despite the high court’s ruling, Texas House Democrats remain committed to fighting back with everything we have to protect Texans from Republicans’ repeated attacks on our freedom to vote,” Wu said in a statement on behalf of the caucus. “Instead of trying to calm the situation and find ways to peacefully resolve the situation, Texas Republicans continue to add more fuel to this fire. We will not be deterred. If anything, this action continues to solidify our resolve to stand up for Texans.”

In his motion to the high court, the state’s Solicitor General Judd E. Stone had warned that Wu’s court order could have a domino effect.

“Without this court’s intervention, every truant member of the House will follow the lead of Representative Wu, file habeas petitions in trial courts throughout the state, disrupt the ability of the Legislature to obtain a quorum, and undercut this court’s ability to achieve an orderly and efficient resolution of identical issues presented,” Stone wrote.

[…]

Several Houston-area representatives, including Reps. Senfronia Thompson and Hubert Vo, were pre-emptively released from potential custody on Thursday as a result of the newest writs, attorney Romy Kaplan said.

Three hearings tomorrow concern non-Houston-area representatives, who will be appearing via Zoom to put themselves in Harris County’s jurisdiction, Kaplan said.

A hearing is also scheduled for next Thursday in district Judge Chris Morton’s court. He said his approval of Wu’s writ on Wednesday was conditional, and he will further explore his jurisdiction over the case and over the House of Representatives’ sergeant-at-arms in Austin.

See the same link for the background; I’m trying to conserve resources by combining some of these stories into single posts. The Trib adds some details.

Texas law enforcement was deputized Thursday to track down Texas House Democrats still missing from the chamber and bring them to the state Capitol in Austin, a process that Speaker Dade Phelan’s office said “will begin in earnest immediately.”

The news came as the Texas Supreme Court cleared the way for their civil arrests after it temporarily blocked Harris County judges’ orders protecting 45 Democrats from such a move.

Law enforcement was tapped “to assist in the House’s efforts to compel a quorum,” Phelan spokesperson Enrique Marquez said in an emailed statement. Earlier this week, Phelan, a Beaumont Republican, signed warrants for those missing lawmakers, many of whom have refused to return to the chamber for weeks to block a GOP elections bill. Their absence has prevented the chamber from having a quorum, the number of present lawmakers needed to move legislation.

If lawmakers are arrested, they will not face criminal charges or fines and could only be brought to the House chamber.

[…]

After Wu was granted his request for temporary protection Wednesday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton made clear he would fight that order in a similar manner to how the state fought a previous temporary restraining order by a state district judge in Travis County that also sought to block the arrest of the quorum-breaking Democrats.

In that case, the Supreme Court voided the order temporarily on Tuesday, though Democrats have said they plan to push forward in their request for a temporary injunction on Aug. 20. If granted, that injunction could again grant them protection from arrest.

I mean, the real question at this point is what exactly happens when a law enforcement officer finds a wayward lawmaker? Are they going to slap cuffs on them, throw them in a car and drive them to Austin? Call Speaker Phelan and tell him to, I don’t know, send an Uber? This may wind up being a lot of commotion over nothing, because I just can’t quite see how any of this brings a currently absent member to the House floor. Maybe we’ll find out – I hope we don’t, but we are in completely uncharted waters. I just have no idea what to expect.

In the meantime, as the Senate passed SB1, the House prepped HB3 to bring to the floor, with no public hearings because why would they want to do that. We know what will happen if there is a quorum again. Until then, I have no freaking idea.

Harris County sues Abbott and issues a mask mandate

Quite the busy day yesterday.

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Thursday issued a mandatory mask order for Harris County schools and daycares, joining the chorus of elected officials in the Texas’ larges cities in defying Gov. Greg Abbott’s order prohibiting local COVID-19 restrictions.

Hidalgo’s order requires students, teachers, staff and visitors to K-12 schools and daycare centers to wear face coverings. Schools also are required to notify parents when a student has close contact with someone who tests positive for the virus.

“There’s an unwritten contract between parents and their schools — and it’s that when our children are under the care of their schools, they do everything they can to keep them safe,” Hidalgo wrote in a letter to superintendents.

Houston ISD’s board of trustees already is expected to vote Thursday on a mask mandate proposed by Superintendent Millard House II. House announced he would bring such a proposal to the board last week.

Earlier on Thursday, County Attorney Christian Menefee filed a lawsuit challenging Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order prohibiting local authorities from issuing COVID-19 restrictions, such as mask and vaccine mandates.

Menefee told the Houston Chronicle Tuesday evening that he believes the July 29 order violates the Texas Disaster Act of 1975, which he said grants the governor the power limited authority to suspend laws.

“In his orders, he’ll suspend two to three laws specifically by name, and then he’ll say ‘any other laws that could allow a local official to do something inconsistent with what I’m doing,’” Menefee said. “That’s not how a democratic society works. You have separation of powers.”

Commissioners Court had previously authorized Menefee to file suit.

The move came at the end of a whirlwind day where local officials in Dallas and San Antonio prevailed — at least temporarily — in their own legal challenges to the governor’s order.

In Houston, the three Democrats on Commissioners Court voted to allow County Attorney Christian Menefee to bring his own case, over the objections of the two Republican members.

Menefee said he is undecided but leaning toward filing suit; he said the county would seek a temporary restraining order preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s July 29 executive order prohibiting local governments from issuing local COVID-19 restrictions.

Abbott is exceeding his authority under the state Disaster Act of 1975, Menefee argued, which the county attorney said allows the governor to suspend laws in only narrow circumstances.

“What he’s doing is not helping in furtherance of coping with the disaster,” Menefee said. “Instead, he’s basically taking this power and turning it into a mechanism to tie local officials’ hands. The problem is none of the justifications he’s providing make any sense.”

See here for the background. Obviously, County Attorney Menefee made up his mind since then. Filing this suit, in the same manner as several other jurisdictions, was I think a straightforward choice. Winning it will be another matter.

If the past is any guide, the local governments are unlikely to prevail in court, said University of Texas School of Law Adjunct Professor Randall Erben. Governors have broad power under the Disaster Act, he said, noting that the state Supreme Court sided with Abbott when Travis County attempted to enact a New Year’s Eve curfew for restaurants.

“Given the precedent and given the broad discretion the governor has under that act, he’s probably on pretty solid ground,” Erben said.

The San Antonio Report consulted another expert with a similar opinion.

Political science and law experts agree that the local governments’ mask mandates have an unfavorable path forward, ending with the Texas Supreme Court; all nine justices are Republicans and have shown little appetite for ruling against the governor.

[…]

Despite the crisis, St. Mary’s University School of Law professor Michael Ariens believes the lawsuit’s ultimate success is a “long shot.”

Attorneys for the city and county relied on a dissenting opinion from a judge on the 8th Court of Appeals in a mask mandate case involving El Paso County, Ariens said: that Texas law does not allow the governor to suspend laws giving local governments the ability to respond to public health crises as they see fit.

“A decision by a dissenting [opinion] of the court, while sometimes correct,” Ariens said, “is not as helpful as a decision from a majority of the court.”

But getting the temporary restraining order granted in the first place puts San Antonio and Bexar County in a stronger position, he said, as it allowed the city to get a mask mandate in place in public schools and public facilities. That means “the ball is in the state government’s court,” he said, which will have to make a move “if it wants to change the status quo before Monday.”

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning; lawyers representing San Antonio, Bexar County, will ask to extend the temporary restraining order into a temporary injunction. If granted, the mask mandate would remain in place until trial or until the decision was appealed.

[…]

Abbott’s swift action to get a temporary restraining order lifted was expected, as the governor would not want to be seen as weak while school districts and local governments defy his executive order, said Jon Taylor, professor of political science and chair of the department of political science and geography at the University of Texas at San Antonio. But no matter the ultimate outcome, Taylor said, Abbott’s political standing will likely remain unaffected.

“A week is a lifetime in politics and this can radically change, but if the governor wasn’t hurt by what happened with the electric grid and the winter storm in February — and for the most part, he seems to have not been hurt by it — it’s probably the same kind of calculations here when it comes to the masking order and mandatory versus voluntary vaccinations,” Taylor said.

Henry Flores, professor emeritus of political science at St. Mary’s University, had a slightly different take. He believes the collective force of school districts, county judges, and mayors could push the weather vane in the opposite direction.

“He’s playing a tough game with everybody, but if enough people stand up to him and cause enough of an uproar, he’ll back down, I think,” Flores said. “And that might be the safe investment for him to make. … It’ll become too much of a political annoyance for him, and it could end up costing him dearly. He’s going to have to weigh all that.”

If the case moves quickly, and the Texas Supreme Court vacates the temporary restraining order, “chaos” could ensue, Taylor said. Not only would the back-and-forth cause further confusion among parents of schoolchildren, but leaders of Bexar, Dallas, and Harris counties could simply refuse to stop requiring masks.

“This is not some sort of radical rebellion,” he said. “You’re talking about school districts that are following CDC guidelines on masking. The other thing is this: because there’s enough prosecutorial discretion that’s involved, it takes time — obviously justice takes time — and any sort of delay in court action could be months from now, long after, hopefully, the crisis and the spike in delta has passed. It could all be a moot point by then anyway.”

I would quibble with the assertion that Abbott took “swift” action – as you know, I’ve been marveling at how long it took him to respond. Be that as it may, the point about the counties just not moving to undo what they have ordered is an interesting point. Abbott may win in court, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get his way, at least not right away. And I’d bet none of those county judges suffer for any of it politically, either. We have a ways to go before this is truly settled.

UPDATE: The HISD Board approved the mask mandate that Superintendent House requested.

The charter referendum will be in 2023

So be it.

The organizations and residents who petitioned the city to give City Council members more power will have to wait until 2023 to vote on the measure, after the council declined to put it on this year’s ballot.

Council voted unanimously to set the election in 2023 instead of this November, despite the objections of several council members and the groups that pushed for the charter amendment. An amendment to put it on this year’s ballot failed, 13-4, before the 2023 vote. Councilmembers Amy Peck, Ed Pollard, Mike Knox and Michael Kubosh supported the earlier date.

The measure would give any three council members the power to place an item on the weekly City Hall agenda, a power almost entirely reserved for the mayor under Houston’s strong-mayor format.

Mayor Sylvester Turner, who opposes the measure, said pushing off the election was prudent so the city could include other pending charter amendments, which would lower the cost by hosting one election instead of several. He also argued an off-cycle election would have low turnout.

“If any of you have problems getting something on the agenda, I’d like to hear that,” Turner told council members. “So, we’re going to spend $1.3 million in a very low-turnout (election) on an issue that doesn’t really pertain to this council?”

[…]

At-Large Councilmember Michael Kubosh likened a delay to voter suppression, a suggestion that irked several of his colleagues. He referred to Democrats in the Legislature who fled to Washington, D.C. to stop a voting restrictions bill.

“If we don’t vote to put this on the ballot, we are doing the same thing (as the Legislature): We are suppressing the vote,” Kubosh said. “I believe voting delayed is voting denied.”

District F Councilmember Tiffany Thomas said he deserved a “Golden Globe for drama,” arguing the later election date would improve access to the polls by encouraging higher turnout.

Kubosh said it does not matter whether officials like the content of the charter amendment; their duty is to put it on the ballot.

I’ve said before that I believe this referendum, as well as the firefighters’ referendum (the petitions have not yet been certified, which is another issue altogether), should be on this November’s ballot. I do think the right thing to do is to be prompt about these things, even though the law allows for the discretion to put the vote on the next city election. But CM Thomas has a point, which is simply that at least twice as many people and maybe more will vote in 2023 than in 2021, and as such having this referendum in 2023 will be closer to a true reflection of the public will. I mean, even with a heavy GOTV effort by the pro- and anti- sides this year, we might be looking at 100K in turnout. Turnout in 2015, the last time we had an open Mayor’s race, was over 270K, and turnout in 2019 was 250K. Turnout in all of Harris County in 2017, with no city of Houston races, was 150K; I can’t calculate the exact city component of that, but based on other years it would have been in the 90-110K range. There’s just no comparison. Is the tradeoff in turnout worth the two-year delay? People can certainly disagree about that, and I sympathize with those who wanted it this year. But putting it in 2023 is legal, and can be justified.

(No, I still have no intention of voting for the “three Council members can put an item on the agenda” referendum. Its proponents may have a point, but their proposition is still a bad idea. I remain undecided on the firefighters’ item.)