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August 26th, 2022:

Paxton issues deranged opinion on access to ballots

This is utterly chaotic. And completely out of the blue.

Best mugshot ever

A legal opinion released by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton last week will almost certainly throw county elections offices into chaos after November, experts say, exposing election clerks to possible criminal charges and materially reducing the security of every ballot cast in the state.

Federal and state law require that ballots be kept secure for 22 months after an election to allow for recounts and challenges — a time frame Texas counties have had set in place for decades. Paxton’s opinion, which doesn’t stem from any change to state law, theoretically permits anyone — an aggrieved voter, activist or out-of-state entity — to request access to ballots as soon as the day after they are counted. Such requests have been used by activists all over the country as a way to “audit” election results.

The opinion from Paxton doesn’t carry the force of law, but experts say it will almost certainly serve as the basis for a lawsuit by right-wing activists. The opinion has already impacted elections administrators across the state, who told Votebeat that they’ve seen an onslaught of requests since Paxton released it.

“[Paxton’s office wants] to throw a monkey wrench into the operations of vote counting, especially if they think they might lose, and Paxton is in a close race as far as I can tell,” said Linda Eads, a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law and a former deputy attorney general for litigation for the state of Texas. She said she was “shocked” by the opinion.

[…]

Paxton’s office sought input from the secretary of state’s office prior to issuing the decision, which was requested by state Sen. Kelly Hancock and state Rep. Matt Krause, both Republicans. In no uncertain terms, the secretary of state’s office  — which is run by a Republican appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott — recommended keeping the current waiting period.

“The voted ballots are the core of the election process and the prohibition on disturbing the ballots (except in limited circumstances as permitted by the Election Code) preserves the integrity of the election itself,” wrote Adam Bitter, general counsel for the office, in a letter obtained by Votebeat through a public records request. “Handling of the voted ballots themselves opens up the possibility of accidental or intentional damage or misplacement that could call into question the election after the fact.”

Paxton’s office did not respond to specific questions about why he disagreed with Bitter’s conclusion, nor did he respond to requests for comment.

For months, election administrators in Texas and across the country have been fielding records requests from activists intent on re-examining every ballot cast in every election since November 2020 — or, in some cases, even earlier. In Tarrant County, volunteers with a conservative group occupied a room in the elections office for weeks this summer, examining 300,000 ballots from the March 2020 primary, which were made available by the county 22 months after the election.

Ballots are kept in secure lock boxes for 60 days, and then transferred to another secure facility for the remainder of the waiting period in order to comply with the Civil Rights Act of 1960, a federal law which, in part, requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months. In 2017, the Republican-dominated Texas Legislature even amended state law to specify “22 months,” updating state standards to mirror federal requirements.

In the letter to the attorney general’s office, Bitter, the general counsel for the secretary of state’s office, wrote that an election clerk may effectively have to break state law in order to comply with a request for ballots so soon after an election.

Texas law says that if the ballots’ legal custodian, typically a local election official, “makes unauthorized entry into the secure container containing the voting ballots during the preservation period, or fails to prevent another person from making an unauthorized entry, the custodian has committed a Class A misdemeanor,” Bitter wrote.

Paxton’s opinion, experts say, does not appropriately address the potential criminal exposure.

Matthew Masterson, who previously served as the Trump administration’s top election security official and now is Microsoft’s director of information integrity, said that Paxton’s opinion will make it impossible for election administrators to appropriately ensure that ballots are kept secure. The security controls exist for a good reason, he said, and undermining them has serious implications.

“If you open up the floodgates and give anyone access to the ballots throughout that process, you have broken that chain of custody to the point where you would not be able to prove that this was the ballot a given voter cast,” Masterson said.

The opinion itself provides little guidance as to how long or for what reasons election administrators can block access to such ballots, leaving administrators across the state concerned about their ability to appropriately comply.

“If I read this literally as a layman, I think I’m required to provide ballots the day after an election before the results have even been canvassed,” said Chris Davis, elections director in Williamson County, who said such a release would make it impossible for counties to confidently conduct recounts that would stand up to legal scrutiny.

“I don’t know if the drafters of this opinion have a firm grasp on how ballot security and ballot processing is done at the county level,” he said.

There’s more, go read the whole thing, and add on this tweet thread from story author Jessica Huseman. There’s absolutely no justification for this – state and federal law are clear, and nothing has changed about them. It’s just chaos intended to give a boost to Big Lie enthusiasts, and as the story notes later on, it’s potentially a conflict of interest for Paxton since he himself is on the ballot this year, and everyone agrees it’s likely to be a close race.

County election officials around the state are already reporting getting a bunch of requests, some of which appear to be part of a coordinated effort. I think Harris County has the right response here.

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee says the county is not releasing the ballots, arguing the opinion Paxton issued in the name of election integrity last week runs afoul of the law.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton is distorting the law to fuel conspiracy theories, encouraging reckless behavior that erodes public trust in our democratic process,” Menefee said in a statement. “The law is clear that these voted ballots are confidential and it’s a crime for anyone to access them unless authorized by law.”

Menefee said Harris County had received more than three dozen requests to inspect ballots since Paxton issued his opinion. The county attorney’s office did not respond to a request for more information about the requests, including who submitted them.

[…]

Federal and state laws requires ballots be securely stored for 22 months after an election, in part to preserve them for recounts or challenges to election results. Menefee said Paxton’s opinion “directly contradicts” a separate opinion his office issued last month, as well as an opinion issued by the AG’s office more than 30 years ago, which both concluded that ballots are confidential for 22 months following an election.

“Our election workers should not have to fear being criminally prosecuted because the attorney general wants to play politics and try to rewrite laws,” Menefee said. “Everyone who has closely read the law agrees the ballots are confidential: the Secretary of State’s Office, counties across the state, and his own office just a month ago. Harris County will continue to follow Texas law, not the Attorney General’s ‘opinion.’”

That’s what I, a non-lawyer who has no responsibilities in these matters, would have done. It is highly likely that a lawsuit will result. No one wants that, but sometimes having the fight is the most straightforward way to resolve the dispute. If that’s what we have to do, then so be it.

A different EMTALA ruling in Idaho

As expected. You know where this goes from here.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked Idaho from enforcing a ban on abortions when pregnant women require emergency care, a day after a judge in Texas ruled against President Joe Biden’s administration on the same issue.

The conflicting rulings came in two of the first lawsuits over Biden’s attempts to keep abortion legal after the conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized the procedure nationwide.

Legal experts said the dueling rulings in Idaho and Texas could, if upheld on appeal, force the Supreme Court to wade back into the debate.

[…]

In Idaho, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill agreed with the U.S. Department of Justice that the abortion ban taking effect Thursday conflicts with a federal law that ensures patients can receive emergency “stabilizing care.”

Winmill, who was appointed to the court by former Democratic President Bill Clinton, issued a preliminary injunction blocking Idaho from enforcing its ban to the extent it conflicts with federal law, citing the threat to patients.

“One cannot imagine the anxiety and fear (a pregnant woman) will experience if her doctors feel hobbled by an Idaho law that does not allow them to provide the medical care necessary to preserve her health and life,” Winmill wrote.

The Justice Department has said the federal Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act requires abortion care in emergency situations.

“Today’s decision by the District Court for the District of Idaho ensures that women in the State of Idaho can obtain the emergency medical treatment to which they are entitled under federal law,” U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a written statement.

“The Department of Justice will continue to use every tool at its disposal to defend the reproductive rights protected by federal law,” Garland said. The DOJ has said that it disagrees with the Texas ruling and is considering next legal steps.

See here for the background. TPM goes deeper into the two rulings and also provides copies of them, but the bottom line is that the Texas judge said that the federal guidance went too far, didn’t go through the formal rule-change process (even though it was guidance on an existing rule and not a change), didn’t take the rights of the fetus into account, and could only apply when the mother’s life was in danger, not just when her health was threatened. The Idaho judge didn’t do any of that.

Both rulings will be appealed, and as Idaho is in the more liberal Ninth Circuit, there’s a very good chance that this ruling will be upheld. The same is true for Texas, where the radical and lawless Fifth Circuit will get its paws on it. While it is usually the case that a split in the appellate courts means that SCOTUS will weigh in, it seems possible to me that they will duck the issue, perhaps on the grounds that this is really a dispute over state laws, and since the Texas case applies only to Texas, there’s no need for them to step in. I’m just guessing, I could easily be wrong. We’ll know soon enough. DAily Kos has more.

Paxton’s State Bar disciplinary hearing

We are slowly moving towards finally having some kind of result in this saga.

Best mugshot ever

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton argued Wednesday that a Kaufman County judge should toss a lawsuit alleging he acted unethically in a legal challenge that sought to overturn the 2020 presidential election.

The first public hearing in the case inside a near-empty Kaufman County courtroom was not to determine the merit of the lawsuit lodged by a disciplinary commission of the state bar, but whether the group can seek sanctions against Texas’ top lawyer.

Paxton’s lawyers said the case, which could threaten his law license, is an unconstitutional attempt to control his office’s work and could have a chilling effect on future attorneys general. But an attorney for the commission countered that all lawyers should be subject to the same rules of professional conduct, no matter their position.

Judge Casey Blair, a Republican, did not issue a decision from the bench Wednesday. The outcome could establish the limits of the commission’s power to sanction lawyers who serve in high-ranking elected positions.

Any ruling will likely be appealed, meaning it could be months before the bar’s complaint over Paxton’s 2020 election lawsuit is heard in court, if ever.

[…]

In the hearing Wednesday, Christopher Hilton, a state attorney representing Paxton, argued that if the court allows the lawsuit to go forward, then “every future attorney general will have to fear for their law license rather than represent the state of Texas to the best of their ability and the way their voters expect that they would do.

“They would be hamstrung on unelected bureaucrats,” he said.

Royce LeMoine, a lawyer for the commission, said Paxton is being sued for his actions as a lawyer, not as the state’s attorney general, and that this is not a “select prosecution.”

“The commission’s disciplinary rules do not violate the respondent’s ability to advocate for his clients and the state of Texas,” LeMoine told the judge.

See here, here, and here for the previous updates. The Chron had a preview story on Tuesday.

“I hope it proceeds,” said Jim Harrington, one of the Texas lawyers who filed the State Bar complaint. “I hope [the judge] bites the bullet and denies the plea because it’s the right thing to do.”

[…]

In seeking to dismiss the disciplinary case, Paxton’s lawyers argue that it would violate the separation of powers doctrine for the Texas courts to “police” what they say was an executive branch decision. They also claim Paxton is protected by sovereign immunity, the legal principle that generally shields public officials from lawsuits.

In a separate motion, the attorney general’s office is asking the judge to allow the agency to intervene in the case on Paxton’s behalf.

The 2020 suit was not “dishonest, fraudulent, or deceitful,” they write in filings, and the State Bar’s issues with it essentially amount to a “political disagreement.”

“If Texans disapprove of the how the Attorney General exercises his authority, the remedy is to vote him out of office,” Paxton’s attorneys write. “The bar has no veto over how the Attorney General exercises his constitutional authority.”

Paxton was not the first attorney general to be asked to spearhead the case, and lawyers in his own office, including then-Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, had argued against it, according to the New York Times. Hawkins, who would normally represent the state in such litigation, had no involvement in the case when it was filed and resigned within a month.

Top lawyers at the Florida attorney general’s office ridiculed the suit as “bats—t insane,” emails revealed.

Recent polls have shown the attorney general’s race is highly competitive between Paxton and his Democratic opponent Rochelle Garza, a former ACLU attorney. Garza, who has portrayed herself as the candidate who will bring integrity to the attorney general’s office, isn’t buying Paxton’s legal argument in this case.

“Political disagreements have to do with policies, not facts,” Garza said in a statement. “Even first-year law students know that legal accusations of wrongdoing require evidence, yet two years later, Paxton continues peddling his baseless lies about the 2020 election. Texans deserve an attorney general who believes in the rule of law and ethically uses the power of the office to serve Texans, not for their own political ends.”

Any decision in the case could foreshadow the result of a suit filed against Paxton’s First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster by the Texas Bar for his involvement in the 2020 Supreme Court petition. Webster is also seeking to dismiss his case, and a hearing will be held Sept. 6 in Williamson County.

Paxton and Webster are being represented by lawyers from the attorney general’s office, as well as outside counsel. The office has not responded to questions about why they need both. The cost to taxpayers so far is over $46,000, and that’s before today’s initial proceedings.

The attorney general’s office has said the four in-house attorneys working on the case are not keeping track of their billable hours. The office did not explain why no timekeeping was done, despite its policy of doing so for other types of cases.

“To me, it’s really outrageous they’re using taxpayer money,” Harrington said. “This has nothing to do with his role as attorney general, absolutely nothing. It’s only his role as an attorney. Even if the State Bar disbars him, it has no effect on him being attorney general.”

You will not be surprised to know that I am on the State Bar’s side in this dispute. Paxton’s argument has merit to the point that elected officials should not be held accountable for political decisions by non-political offices like the State Bar. Where that falls apart is that he was also acting as a lawyer, and in doing so was violating the ethical and professional rules that lawyers are supposed to abide by. The evidence for that is overwhelming, from the sheer brazen falsity of the the claims he was making to the way similar lawsuits had been routinely batted aside by a myriad of courts to the fact that his own Solicitor General, whose job it is to make these arguments in court, refused to participate. If he can’t be held accountable for that then he has a blank check to do anything. That cannot be the right answer.

Anyway. If Paxton is found guilty, he will be subject to discipline from the State Bar, which could be anything from a scolding to being disbarred. While the latter seems unlikely to me – from what I have observed, it’s usually lawyers that do things like misappropriate clients’ money that get the boot – I don’t think it would be inappropriate given the seriousness of the issue. If that did happen, Paxton would still be able to hold the office of Attorney General. We’re not getting rid of him that easily. I don’t know what to expect and I don’t know how long it might take. With Paxton, we’re used to waiting on these things. Reform Austin has more.

Arredondo fired

Took awhile, but there it is.

The Uvalde school board agreed Wednesday to fire Pete Arredondo, the school district police chief broadly criticized for his response to the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, in a vote that came shortly after he asked to be taken off of suspension and receive backpay.

Arredondo, widely blamed for law enforcement’s delayed response in confronting the gunman who killed 21 people at Robb Elementary, made the request for reinstatement through his attorney, George E. Hyde. The meeting came exactly three months after a gunman killed 19 students and two teachers at the school.

“Chief Arredondo will not participate in his own illegal and unconstitutional public lynching and respectfully requests the Board immediately reinstate him, with all backpay and benefits and close the complaint as unfounded,” Hyde said in a statement.

Arredondo didn’t attend the meeting, citing death threats made against him.

But about 100 people, including relatives of the shooting victims, showed up for the vote. Many chanted “coward” and “no justice, no peace.” Four people spoke during a public comment period before the seven-member board went into closed session to deliberate Arredondo’s employment, criticizing the decision to not discuss the matter in front of the public.

[…]

In his statement Wednesday, Arredondo’s lawyer said that the school district violated his constitutional due process rights by failing to provide him notice of the complaints against him and conduct an investigation of his response to the mass shooting ahead of the termination hearing.

Arredondo’s lawyer said that he received an email from the district on July 19, recommending his termination based on his failure to establish himself as the incident commander during the shooting, but argued the letter should have been sent earlier and in a physical format.

Arredondo was listed in the district’s active-shooter plan as the commanding officer, but the consensus of those interviewed by the House committee was that Arredondo did not assume that role and no one else took over for him, which resulted in a chaotic law enforcement response.

See here and here for some background. I wasn’t particularly inclined to be sympathetic to Pete Arredondo, though I do agree that not all of the blame for the law enforcement response at Robb Elementary is his and I will push back against DPS’ self-serving efforts to scapegoat him, but that’s about as far as I’ll go. Seeing him refer to this as a “lynching” and whining about his “constitutional rights” in an employment matter confirms to me that I’m in the right place. Go away and find another line of work, dude. We’ll all be better off that way.