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October 23rd, 2021:

SCOTUS will hear SB8 appeals

Both of them, on November 1. The law remains annoyingly in effect until then.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to fast-track two Texas cases involving the state’s near-total ban on abortion, but refused to halt the law from being enforced.

The high court has scheduled oral arguments for Nov. 1.

The court will take up the cases brought forward by abortion providers and the U.S. Department of Justice against the ban, according to a court opinion from Justice Sonia Sotomayor on Friday. It will review the procedural merits of both cases, rather than the constitutionality of abortion, while enforcement of Senate Bill 8 remains in effect.

In her opinion, Sotomayor offered a partial dissent of the Supreme Court’s decision to keep the law in place while the court deliberates over the two cases.

“By delaying any remedy, the Court enables continued and irreparable harm to women seeking abortion care and providers of such care in Texas—exactly as S. B. 8’s architects intended,” Sotomayor wrote.

The court’s decision to expedite its involvement was a rare move, brought upon by a law that has garnered national attention because of its extensive limits on abortions and its particular mechanisms of enforcement: not by state officials but by private citizens who are empowered to sue those who may help someone receive an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected.

“The last time [the Supreme Court] moved this quickly was Bush v. Gore,” said Josh Blackman, a law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston whose expertise includes constitutional law.

[…]

Normally, the Supreme Court considers getting involved in a case only after an appeals court has had a chance to make a decision on it. But abortion providers filed a request called a “certiorari before judgment,” a rarely used procedure in which the high court immediately reviews a district court’s ruling without waiting on an appellate court to take action.

One of the abortion providers included in the challenge is Whole Woman’s Health, a provider with four clinics in Texas. Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, said Friday’s decision will mean Texans will continue to be denied safe and accessible abortion care.

“The legal limbo is excruciating for both patients and our clinic staff,” Miller said in a statement. “Lack of access to safe abortion care is harming our families and communities and will have lasting effects on Texas for decades to come.”

See here. here, here, and here for some background. The 19th adds some details.

The court will not specifically examine the constitutionality of a six-week ban. Rather, the justices will be looking at the legality of Texas’ private enforcement setup, as well as whether the Justice Department has the right to challenge the law. But regardless of the specific questions at play, a decision in favor of Texas could still signal to other anti-abortion lawmakers that a ban like Texas’ is a viable path to pursue.

The law has virtually eliminated access to the procedure in Texas. Many clinics have stopped providing abortions altogether. Those who can afford the journey and are past six weeks of pregnancy are seeking abortions in surrounding states, including Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arkansas and Kansas. But many others — particularly those without the time off, financial resources or child care to travel out of state — may end up carrying unwanted pregnancies to term.

Abortions are now virtually unavailable for minors in Texas, who are required to either get parental consent or go through a special judicial approval process that makes it very difficult to meet the six-week deadline. Undocumented teens who are seeking abortions have been sent to immigration facilities in other states, because most of them already past six weeks when they discover they are pregnant.

And Slate tries to read some tea leaves.

The plaintiffs got half a loaf on Friday, or maybe less. SCOTUS will hear both cases, holding oral arguments in just 10 days. (With these orders, the court acted at breakneck speed, which is nearly unprecedented in modern times; the closest analogue is Bush v. Gore.) But SCOTUS restricted the scope of its review in a curious and confusing way. The court will not consider the Justice Department’s request to rule on the merits of S.B. 8. Instead, it will ask only whether the United States may sue the state of Texas, as well as all “state officials” and “private parties,” to “prohibit S.B. 8 from being enforced.” The abortion providers’ application likewise focuses on procedural issues, asking the court to decide “whether a state can insulate from federal-court review a law that prohibits the exercise of a constitutional right” by delegating enforcement to the public.

Neither of these questions squarely presents the constitutionality of a six-week abortion ban to the Supreme Court. The justices could interpret the abortion providers’ request as an invitation to consider the merits by declaring that the court must decide whether abortion is “a constitutional right” before determining “whether a state can insulate” S.B. 8 from review. (If there’s no right to abortion, there’s no clear constitutional flaw in S.B. 8.) But that seems unlikely; after all, the justices took pains to avoid confronting this question in the Justice Department’s case, where it is directly presented. They also ignored Texas’ request to recast these cases as a direct challenge to Roe. It appears, rather, that the court is committed to deciding only whether private plaintiffs or the federal government can sue a state when it makes an end run around the Constitution, as Texas did with S.B. 8.

Several aspects of the court’s orders suggest that at least one justice has not made up their mind about this question. If a majority believed Texas’ scheme is permissible and federal courts cannot stop it, why would it rush to hear these cases? It could have let them languish on the shadow docket, or decline to intervene at this early stage, just as it did last time around. Conversely, if a majority believed Texas’ scheme is impermissible and federal courts can stop it, why would it let S.B. 8 remain in effect? Why not halt the law while the court prepares a formal ruling?

Friday’s orders thus read like a compromise. But for whom? Chief Justice John Roberts and the three liberals have already said they want to pause the law. No one seriously argues that the overtly anti-Roe justices—Clarence Thomas, Sam Alito, or Neil Gorsuch—would lift a finger to stop S.B. 8. That leaves Justices Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett, who probably want to overturn Roe but may want to move slower than their hard-right colleagues. It appears either Kavanaugh, Barrett, or both aren’t yet sure which way they’ll vote in the Texas litigation. Now they’ve preserved every option.

I don’t have anything to add to that. Hold your breath and hope for the best.

Third Court rejects Paxton attempt to kill whistleblower lawsuit

Good.

Best mugshot ever

A state appeals court found Thursday that former deputies of Attorney General Ken Paxton who were fired after accusing the Republican official of abusing his office are protected under the state’s whistleblower law, allowing their lawsuit against Paxton to proceed.

Paxton’s lawyers had argued in court that he’s exempt from the Texas Whistleblower Act because he’s an elected official, not a public employee. But the court upheld a previous lower court decision that denied Paxton’s attempt to dismiss the case.

In its opinion, Texas’ 3rd Court of Appeals rejected the attorney general’s interpretation of the Texas Whistleblower Act, “which would have the effect of stripping whistleblower protections from employees who might report misconduct by the thousands of elected officials throughout the State — particularly by those who direct and lead the agencies of this State.”

[…]

In its opinion, the court wrote that the former employees “sufficiently alleged illegal conduct by their employing governmental entity as contemplated by the Act” and disagreed with Paxton’s characterization of the whistleblower law, writing that while “Texas is an employment-at-will state,” the act “provides an exception to that general rule.”

“Although loyalty and confident are important considerations in employment matters,” it wrote, “the Act provides that a State employer cannot fire an employee because he reports illegal conduct by the employer, even when it is that act of reporting that causes the employer to lose confidence or feel the employee lacks loyalty.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. The justices seemed pretty skeptical of Paxton’s argument at the hearing, so this is no surprise. Paxton could ask for an en banc hearing or he could appeal to the Supreme Court. The former means another couple of months that the lawsuit is on ice, but the odds of success are low. The latter is more likely to get a favorable ruling for Paxton, but if he loses he’s out of options and we move on to the next phase. I’m guessing he would rather avoid discovery, because it seems very likely that a weasel like Paxton has stuff to hide, so we’ll see if he decides to draw it out or not. Maybe, if we’re very lucky, we’re a step closer to Ken Paxton facing a bit of accountability for once in his life. The Chron has more.

Elections of interest elsewhere in Texas

Early voting has started for the special election runoff in HD118.

Frank Ramirez

Early voting began Monday in San Antonio to see who will replace former state Rep. Leo Pacheco, a two-term Democrat who resigned from Texas’ 118th district in August to teach public administration at San Antonio College.

The special election to replace Pacheco has produced two runoff candidates who continue to campaign against each other ahead of election day on Nov. 2, Democrat Frank Ramirez and Republican John Lujan.

Ramirez told the Signal he’s running to represent the community he grew up in and bring more infrastructure and education dollars to the region.

“I’m from the district through and through,” Ramirez said. “I grew up in the southside of San Antonio and I went to elementary, middle, and high school in the Harlandale Independent School District.”

After graduating from the University of Texas in 2016, Ramirez served as the chief of staff and legislative director to former state Rep. Tomas Uresti, a Democrat who briefly occupied the seat for one term during the 2017 session, the infamous bathroom bill session.

“Recognizing that our state has a lot of work to do to catch up educationally, to catch up in terms of business and property taxes and infrastructure. That was the motivating factor for me,” Ramirez said of running.

“And even though I saw a lot of bad things happen in the 2017 session, we also saw a number of good things happen,” Ramirez said. “85% of the bills that are filled in the Texas House of Representatives are bills that fit within the scope of an individual’s districts, and they’re doing good for as many Texans as possible.”

Ramirez then spent almost four years serving as the zoning and planning director of San Antonio City Councilwoman Ana Sandoval before departing in August to run for district 118.

The south San Antonio district has traditionally voted for Democrats. In 2020, Pacheco defeated his Republican opponent by almost 17 percentage points, a similar margin to Pacheco’s 2018 victory over Republican John Lujan.

I’ve covered this before, and there’s not much to add. It would be very nice to win this race, if only because the discourse that would follow a loss will be annoying as hell. It will still be the case that the outcome will have basically no effect on anything the Lege does at this point, even if there is another special session, and it will also be the case that the incumbent will have to run in a more normal environment next year in a district that still leans Democratic; it was made less Democratic by redistricting, but the trends remain in Dems’ favor. Frank Ramirez would become the youngest member of the House if he wins, and that’s cool.

Meanwhile, in Austin, there’s a contentious ballot proposition to deal with.

Early voting for the November 2021 election starts Monday and there are two Austin propositions on the ballot.

The most controversial is Proposition A. If approved by voters, it would increase Austin police staffing to two officers per 1,000 citizens, increase yearly training and increase minority hiring and community engagement.

The City said it would cost between $54.3 million and $119.8 million per year for the next five years, which is added on top of the department’s budget of $443 million city council approved for this fiscal year.

The Austin firefighter and Austin-Travis County EMS unions, as well as the local American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employee Voting are against Prop A.

“This unfunded mandate that is on the ballot will cause severe layoffs, and it will also put a burden on the taxpayers,” said AFSCME Business Manager Carol Guthrie.

On the other side, the driving force behind Prop A, Save Austin Now, said the city has enough money to implement the initiative without hurting other departments.

“We know we need 300 to 350 more,” said president of Save Austin Now Matt Mackowiak.” We don’t believe that will happen in one year, but we should try.”

Mackowiak is either the current or a recent past Chair of the Travis County Republican Party (I can’t remember and I’m too lazy to look it up), and if you follow Scott Braddock on Twitter, you know he’s also a thin-skinned twerp. Prop A is yet another response to the recent actions by the Austin City Council to try to effect some modest reforms on policing and their police budget, and as with the Legislature it’s over the top and would hamstring the city’s budget for the foreseeable future. See these posts from Grits for Breakfast and this one from Keep Austin Wonky that cast doubt on the pro-Prop A cost estimates. I probably don’t have to tell those of you who live in Austin and read this blog to vote against Prop A, but I’m going to anyway. KUT has more.

On Rice and the AAC

It’s a great move for Rice. It also means they will need to step it up in men’s athletics.

On the job a few months in early 2014, Rice athletic director Joe Karlgaard met with alumni at a fundraiser in Boston.

On the trip, Karlgaard made the 50-mile drive to Providence, R.I., to meet with Mike Aresco, commissioner of the American Athletic Conference, the newest league in college athletics that debuted a few months earlier. The informal meeting included lunch at The Capital Grille and a brief tour of the AAC offices.

Over the next eight years, Karlgaard forged relationships everywhere he could, all part of a strategic plan to position Rice for the next round of conference realignment.

“Throughout the time, I’ve tried to build the right relationships, tried to listen very well to what it is that may better position us,” Karlgaard said. “The opportunity hasn’t always presented itself like it did the last several weeks.”

Calling it a “historic new direction” for the school’s athletic department, Rice accepted an invitation to join the American Athletic Conference on Thursday.

With the addition of six schools, all from Conference USA, the AAC will become a 14-team football league as early as 2023. Two other Texas schools — UTSA and North Texas — will join Rice, along with Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte and Florida Atlantic to comprise a new-look AAC that will have a 10-state footprint.

[…]

The move will provide an increase in revenue for Rice, which received a $500,000 annual payout in C-USA. This past year, AAC schools received about $7 million.

Karlgaard pointed to ticket sales, sponsorships and fundraising as areas Rice should receive a financial bump from the change in conference. Rice will also receive increased visibility with the AAC’s deal with ESPN.

“I think it will have a significant economic impact,” he added. “I believe our distribution will be significantly better from the American Athletic Conference than they have been – ever, no matter what conference we’ve been affiliated with.”

[…]

Rice has made campus-wide facility upgrades in recent years, most notably the $31.5 million Brian Patterson Sports Performance Center in 2016.

Rice president David Leebron, who will retire in 2022 after 18 years, vowed to “invest more in the athletic program’s success.” At the top of the list on needed upgrades: 71-year-old Rice Stadium.

“We know our stadium needs some investment,” Leebron said. “But virtually everywhere else we have invested in major facilities and renovations. We’re in really good shape.” He added the move to the AAC “reflects stability in what our future looks like.”

See here for the background. Rice football hasn’t been a factor since the early David Bailiff years, the men’s basketball team last played in an NCAA tournament game in 1970, and the baseball team is trying to rebuild after a long decline (from an admittedly high peak). The women’s teams have been much more successful in recent years, so it’s up to the men to prove that they can be competitive in a tougher conference. More exposure and more money can help, but they’re not enough on their own. I speak for a lot of long-suffering Rice fans when I say we’ve been waiting a long long time for something good to happen. I sure hope this is a step in that direction.

That said, the alternative of being left behind as this was happening would have been a death knell. I have a lot of sympathy for our soon-to-be-former conference mates.

That future does not look as bright for C-USA, which is now left with eight schools: UTEP, Old Dominion, Southern Mississippi, Marshall, Louisiana Tech, Middle Tennessee, Western Kentucky and Florida International. Earlier this month, C-USA commissioner Judy MacLeod sent a letter to Aresco proposing an alliance of sorts between the two leagues. Instead, the AAC raided C-USA and the league reportedly could lose some of the remaining members to other conferences.

I feel especially bad for UTEP, who was an original WAC member when we joined that (now basically dead) conference in 1996, and for LaTech, which joined the smaller WAC after a bunch of the other schools split off to form the Mountain West Conference. At this point, I have a lot more affinity for them than for most of our former SWC rivals. Whatever happens with C-USA, I hope they land on their feet, and I hope we schedule them for some non-conference action going forward.

UPDATE: Also, too:

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