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ACLU of Texas

Abbott’s migrant roundup order still blocked

Good.

A federal judge in El Paso on Friday extended her order blocking Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to state troopers to pull over drivers transporting migrants “who pose a risk of carrying COVID-19.”

U.S. District Judge Kathleen Cardone lengthened her restraining order by another two weeks after a hearing Friday, according to a court filing. Her original order on Aug. 3 was set to expire Friday.

In July, Abbott ordered state troopers to pull over civilian drivers giving rides to recent immigrants who may be infected with the virus and redirect the drivers to their origin point. If the driver didn’t comply, the troopers should seize their vehicles, the order said.

Soon after, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Texas and Abbott, describing the governor’s executive order as “dangerous and unlawful.”

In the lawsuit, the DOJ said Abbott’s order would disrupt federal immigration officials’ network of contractors and nongovernmental organizations that help host recently arrived migrants while their legal cases are pending.

See here and here for background on the suit filed by the Justice Department. There’s also now another lawsuit filed by the ACLU on behalf of several groups; as far as I know there has not yet been a hearing for that. In keeping with my earlier posts, I don’t know how this is likely to play out, but as a rule any time Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton lose in court, it’s probably a good thing.

State follows through on Abbott’s attack on trans kids

Revolting, though fortunately not particularly consequential. For now, at least.

The Texas Department of Family and Protective Services has responded to Gov. Greg Abbott’s request for an interpretation of state law sent last Friday, agreeing that some gender confirmation surgeries for transgender children constitute child abuse.

According to the letter, signed by DFPS commissioner Jaime Masters, allegations of such surgeries “will be promptly and thoroughly investigated and any appropriate actions will be taken,” though it’s unclear what impact the ruling will have.

Medical experts said gender-affirming care for transgender children rarely, if ever, includes use of the surgeries — orchiectomies, hysterectomies and mastectomies — that Abbott cited in his letter Friday to Masters. Most care for transgender children includes social transitioning and puberty blockers, which are reversible.

Abbott vowed last month to take action to restrict transition-related medical care for transgender minors in Texas. The move comes after a bill that sought to define several types of gender-affirming health care as child abuse was passed by Texas Senate during the regular session before gaining little traction in the House.

Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the Texas division of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the letter seems to carry little weight or merit.

“It seems to us that this is mainly a political attack and political stunt as a way to attack transgender kids,” Klosterboer said. “…This letter, it is official in the sense that what the commissioner says might influence how DFPS does their work, but it doesn’t change the law in this area.”

Rep. Erin Zwiener, D-Driftwood, a founding member of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus, said legislation would have to be passed to change the Texas Family Code for there to really be any major change. However, the letters could present detrimental affects to transgender children seeking gender-affirming care.

“This opens the door to any parent of a trans kid being accused of child abuse,” Zwiener said.

[…]

Ricardo Martínez, CEO of Equality Texas, said rhetoric within the letters from Abbott and DFHS, which include the term “genital mutilation,” are an attempt to institute fear mongering and do not reflect actual gender affirming care.

“I think that it’s important to address that current best practice, health care approach for transgender children is a social transition which requires no medical intervention,” Martinez said. “I think that the letters that have been changed between Governor Abbott and the state agency are really not taking that into account. For older adolescents and teens the prevailing standards of care best practices and guidelines, look nothing like the contents of those letters.”

See here and here for the background. It’s good that this new directive means little in terms of actual policy change, but that’s of limited comfort when you remember that anti-trans bills are on the agenda for the special session. Abbott is not going to give up on this. He cares way more about hurting trans kids than he does about protecting kids in general, as his utter failures on COVID make clear. The Chron has more.

As it happens, this news story came out on the same day that one of my cousins sent an email to a bunch of family members. It was a reply to an email he had sent five years ago, announcing the birth of his first child, a son. In this email, he informed us that his partner is pregnant with their second child, and also that their first child had been telling them since they were three that they were not a boy but a girl. It took my cousin and his partner, a couple of Brooklyn hippie types, some time to understand what this meant and come to terms with it, but they had done so and were re-introducing the larger family to their daughter and her new name. He included a picture, which was lovely. I’m happy for my cousin and his family, and I hope they never live in a place where the government is actively trying to harm their children. No one should have to deal with that.

Another lawsuit filed against Abbott’s migrant transport order

Bring them on.

Immigrant rights groups backed by the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuit against Texas Governor Greg Abbott over his executive order restricting the transportation of migrants, claiming it goes against federal law and amounts to racial profiling at the southern border.

The legal challenge was brought by the nonprofit Annunciation House, a migrant shelter provider in El Paso, along with immigrant advocacy groups Angry Tias & Abuelas of the Rio Grande Valley and FIEL Houston,. They are represented by attorneys with the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas.

This lawsuit, filed late Wednesday in El Paso federal court, comes six days after the U.S. Department of Justice sued Abbott to block the order. On Tuesday, a federal judge in that case issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the order until a hearing on an injunction can be held.

Echoing the DOJ’s claims, the ACLU and immigration groups allege that the order violates the supremacy clause of the U.S. Constitution by attempting to regulate the movement of migrants, which is for the federal government to decide. They also say the order unlawfully attempts to regulate the federal government.

[…]

In Wednesday’s lawsuit, the ACLU argues the order will directly impact people who have been released from the federal government’s custody into the country to await their immigration hearing. Those people will be unable to get any form of transportation after being released from CBP custody, according to the complaint, which points out that state law enforcement officials would be taking migrants back to CBP after the agency released them.

The groups also claim the order allows Texas police to racially profile travelers along the border region.

“It directs state officers to make their own determinations about passengers’ immigration status, wholly independent of the federal government, and to impose harsh penalties based on those unilateral immigration decisions,” the lawsuit states. “It opens the door to profiling, standardless detention, questioning, vehicle seizure, rerouting, and heavy fines. The executive order is already having a profound chilling effect on people’s movement in border communities and throughout the state.”

In addition, the immigrant advocacy organizations say they will be directly affected by the order if it is allowed to be enforced. Annunciation House transports migrants who have been released from federal immigration custody to its facility, which houses migrants in the El Paso area. Angry Tias funds numerous services for migrants, including a taxi service that is kept on retainer. Both groups say they would be unable to provide such services under the governor’s order, would face having their vehicles impounded and would be left with no way of assisting migrants.

See here and here for background on the suit filed by the Justice Department. As before, I don’t really know enough to say much of value – I’m not fully clear on the differences in the claims made by the two groups of plaintiffs. It may be that this suit winds up getting combined with the other one, as often happens. Whatever the case, I’m rooting for the plaintiffs. The Texas Signal and Daily Kos have more.

The arrest of Hervis Rogers is a travesty

You should be very mad about this.

Hervis Rogers

A Houston man who made headlines last year for standing in line six hours to vote at Texas Southern University was charged this week by Attorney General Ken Paxton with casting that ballot illegally while on parole.

Just a day before Republicans forced a special session of the Texas Legislature to tighten voting restrictions, Hervis Rogers, 62, was jailed on $100,000 bail in Montgomery County on two counts of illegal voting, court records show, even though he lives and voted in Harris County. Rogers is due back in court on July 20 in what a legal expert called a “symbolic prosecution.”

“The argument of voter fraud is very hot right now, the statistics don’t seem to bear out that it is widepsread but this case will certainly stick, I suspect, in people’s memories as a cautionary tale of why you should never consider doing it,” according to criminal defense attorney Christopher Downey, who is not affiliated with this case.

An indictment filed last month with the Montgomery County District Court claims Rogers was still on parole for a 1995 burglary conviction when he voted in both the March 2020 Democratic primary and November 2018 general election.

He had been released from prison in May 2004 after serving nine years of a 25-year sentence, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He voted in the March elections less than four months before his parole was set to expire on July 1, 2020.

Texas Election Code states that someone on parole for a felony conviction is ineligible to register as a voter, and that violations of election law may be prosecuted in the county where the alleged crime was committed, or an adjoining county. Because Rogers has three prior convictions between 1986 and 1995 — all for burglary or robbery — he is potentially facing between 25 years to life in prison, Downey said.

The charges against Rogers are “extremely unusual” to Downey, who said in his nearly 30 years in criminal law he’s never come across a voter fraud case. The choice to prosecute in more conservative Montgomery County instead of Harris County, where the alleged fraud occurred, also “reeks of forum shopping” and “strengthens the argument that its a symbolic prosecution,” even if the move is legally sound.

If Rogers was indeed ineligible, his only point of contention could be that he was unaware of the restrictions on his eligibility, Downey said, though he noted that ignorance of a law does not amount to much of a legal defense.

“The Hervis case demonstrates why we need to make sure people who have been disenfranchised fully know their rights when it comes to voting, but we also need to change the laws to fully restore voting rights.” said Stephanie Gomez, associate director at Common Cause Texas, a self-described “pro-democracy” group. “There is already a lack of clarity around voting rights restoration for people who have been disenfranchised by the criminal justice system.”

[…]

“When you push forward bills that criminalize our elections, that hurts Texans and people like Hervis,” Gomez said. “It’s not lost on me that the governor has called a special session where they are chasing these claims of widespread voter fraud across Texas … the timing is not lost on me at all.”

See here for when we first met Hervis Rogers. Note that he is being held on $100,000 bail.

Really tells you something about Ken Paxton’s priorities, doesn’t it? I can’t think of a valid reason to hold this guy, or anyone like him, on that level of bond. Among many other things, this is a good example of why the cash bond system is unconstitutional and needs to be completely overhauled.

Look, we all know the reason Ken Paxton is doing this, and why he’s doing it now, more than a year after Hervis Rogers cast that vote, and why he picked Montgomery County as his preferred venue. Hervis Rogers didn’t hurt anyone. In nearly half the states in the country, he’d have been free to vote at this point in his life. He did nothing wrong, and he’s in danger of having his life destroyed for a mistake by a deeply corrupt Attorney General who wants to make and example of him. As a schoolkid I used to hear about this sort of thing happening in scary totalitarian places like East Germany and the Soviet Union. And now it’s happening here. I’m sick just thinking about it. KUHF, which was first to report this, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: Thankfully, Hervis Rogers has now been released on bail. Everything about this is still a goddamned travesty.

UPDATE: Here’s the Trib story.

ACLU warns counties to stay away from the Abbott wall

From the inbox:

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sent letters today to 34 counties informing top officials that implementing Gov. Greg Abbott’s unlawful plan to engage in immigration enforcement would violate the U.S. Constitution.

The letters, sent to the counties targeted by Abbott, advise against local law enforcement participation in Abbott’s unilateral efforts to set federal immigration policy, arrest and detain immigrants, and deter people from seeking protection in the United States. Noncitizens in the U.S. have the legal right to seek asylum and other protections. Arresting and detaining immigrants due to their immigration status or as a result of enforcing or altering federal immigration law is unconstitutional.

“Gov. Abbott cannot seek to enforce his own version of immigration policy,” said Kate Huddleston, attorney at the ACLU of Texas. “County officials will be in violation of the law if they enforce the governor’s plan. The federal government, not states or local governments, sets immigration policy and enforces immigration law. Yet again, the governor is targeting immigrants and inciting fear and xenophobia in our state. These moves are a cruel distraction from the real problems facing the state, such as fixing the failing state electrical grid.”

The letters also request under the Texas Public Information Act information about guidance that local officials have received from the state, as well as local cooperation with state efforts to arrest immigrants to date, including any arrests or prosecutions by their locality.

In addition, the letters advise localities to train local law enforcement officers to ensure they do not violate the Constitution or federal law when interacting with immigrants. The ACLU of Texas is asking agencies to adopt policies that comply with constitutional policing and limitations on immigration enforcement, including training officers to refrain from making stops based on perceived immigration status, race, ethnicity, or language.

The 34 counties that received the letter are: Brewster, Brooks, Cameron, Crockett, Culberson, Dimmit, Duval, Edwards, El Paso, Goliad, Gonzales, Hidalgo, Hudspeth, Jeff Davis, Jim Hogg, Kenedy, Kinney, La Salle, Lavaca, Maverick, McMullen, Pecos, Presidio, Real, Reeves, Starr, Sutton, Terrell, Uvalde, Val Verde, Webb, Willacy, Zapata, and Zavala.

See here and here for the background. A copy of the letter is here. It seems clear that this is a precursor to a lawsuit, serving both as a warning to the counties that if they follow along with Abbott’s folly they will be named in the suit as well, plus an early effort to gather evidence. The Public Information Act request in this letter specifically asks for the following:

1. Any and all records regarding the May 31, 2021 disaster declaration and its implementation;

2. Any and all records regarding Operation Lone Star and its implementation;

3. Any and all records regarding your locality’s participation in or cooperation with Texas Department of Public Safety officials engaged in Operation Lone Star or any other immigration enforcement efforts; and

4. Any and all records regarding arrests and/or prosecutions pursuant to Operation Lone Star, the May 31 disaster declaration, or for immigration-related enforcement purposes by your locality from March 6, 2021, to the present, including but not limited to arrests and prosecutions for criminal trespass, smuggling, or human trafficking.

We’re unlikely to get any of that information from Greg Abbott, so no matter what else happens this should be valuable.

Lawsuit against Lubbock “abortion sanctuary city” ordinance dismissed

This is gonna get weird.

Right there with them

A federal district judge dismissed on Tuesday a lawsuit to block a voter-approved abortion ban from taking effect in Lubbock, saying Planned Parenthood did not have standing to sue the city.

The decision comes just weeks after Planned Parenthood filed a lawsuit to stop the Lubbock ordinance, which outlaws abortions and empowers “the unborn child’s mother, father, grandparents, siblings and half-siblings” to sue for damages someone who helps others access an abortion. The “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance was passed by voters in May, after being shot down by city council members who said it conflicted with state law and could be costly to defend. It took effect June 1.

Abortion rights advocates typically sue to prevent government officials from enforcing an unconstitutional abortion restriction. But the Lubbock ordinance is solely enforced by private citizens, not state or local actors. That enforcement structure has not been extensively tested in the courts, but the judge said his rulings could not prevent private parties from filing civil lawsuits in state court.

“Because the ability to remedy a plaintiff’s injury through a favorable decision is a prerequisite to a plaintiff’s standing to sue — an ability absent here — the Court dismisses the case for lack of jurisdiction,” Judge James Wesley Hendrix wrote.

[…]

The ruling is a window into how courts may receive lawsuits about a newly passed state law that bans abortions as early as six weeks. It follows the same blueprint as the Lubbock ordinance by barring state officials from enforcing the law. But it is far broader, allowing anyone to sue those who assist with an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected, like by driving someone to a clinic or paying for the procedure. People who sue do not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or be residents of Texas. The law is set to take effect in Sept. A legal challenge is expected.

See here for the background. I confess, when I blogged about this before, I totally missed the part about this law being enforced via private lawsuits and not the city, which as all of the coverage has noted it can’t enforce because of Roe v Wade. The Lubbock ordinance only allows family members to file suit, while the state law gives that power to any rando who has a weird desire to meddle in the personal affairs of complete strangers. What this ruling says to me is that we won’t be able to begin answering questions about these two laws until someone uses one of them to file such a lawsuit. This is assuming that the reproductive rights groups in Texas don’t come up with an argument to fight the state law in federal court; I’ve not seen any writing yet to suggest a strategy, but that doesn’t mean one isn’t being developed.

In the meantime, the ordinance has had the effect its advocates envisioned, at least for now. It’s a certainty that someone will eventually sue, either there or somewhere else in Texas after the state law is put into effect. After that, who the hell knows. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal has more.

The House is working on the omnibus voter suppression bill.

They started last night, and who knows when they may finish. If it comes to a vote, I expect this Trib story will be updated to reflect it. One of the justifications given by Republicans for banning all-night voting hours is that “nothing good happens after midnight”. In this one specific instance, I would agree.

If it doesn’t come to a vote, you can thank Democrats and their ability to wield the rulebook.

Hoping for the best. We should know by the time we wake up. I’ll add an update when we do.

Meanwhile, there was another dose of poison in SB7 that I hadn’t mentioned before:

Despite no evidence of substantial voter fraud in Texas, Republicans are preparing to pass sweeping voting legislation with new provisions that make it easier to overturn an election in which fraudulent votes are suspected and to lower the standard for proving fraud in criminal court.

The burden of proof for voter fraud charges in Texas is “clear and convincing evidence.” The bill would change that standard to “preponderance of the evidence.”

A related measure would allow a judge to overturn an election if the total number of ballots found to be fraudulent exceeds the margin of victory. In such cases, a judge could “declare the election void without attempting to determine how individual voters voted.”

“If you don’t have to show that they would have made a difference, then even ‘illegal votes’ or ‘fraudulent votes’ for your side get factored into that equation,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “This is just a perpetuation of the Big Lie, and as we’ve seen throughout the nation, this is a further weakening of the institutional strength of our democracy.”

The new provisions are last-minute additions to Senate Bill 7, legislation that has drawn the ire of Democratic and civil rights groups that have called it voter suppression since its first draft. The final version of the bill hadn’t been posted online as of early Friday evening — and was not made available to the public — but the Houston Chronicle obtained a copy.

Nothing says “election integrity” like making it easier for the loser of an election to get a judge to throw out the result of that election.

And nothing is certain but death, taxes, and litigation over this abomination of a bill if it passes.

If the bill passes the state House of Representatives and is signed by Gov. Greg Abbott—both of which are expected—the Texas chapter of the NAACP will immediately file a lawsuit against it, chapter President Gary Bledsoe said at a news conference Sunday afternoon, the Dallas Morning News reports.

The bill would ban drive-through voting and 24-hour voting, both of which were used extensively last year in and around Houston, according to the New York TimesAmong its many restrictions, the bill would limit voting by mail for people with a disability, add new ID requirements for mail-in voting, and make it a felony for election officials to send mail-in ballots to voters who did not request them. And it would set limits on early-voting hours, such as requiring polls to open at 1 p.m., not 9 a.m., on Sundays—which could impact popular “Souls to the Polls” held by many Black churches, the Morning News notes.

As it happens, early voting hours in Harris County were 1 PM to 6 PM for Sundays, at least before 2020. I imagine that was more out of tradition than anything else, and there may have been some issues with getting enough poll workers for the Sunday-morning-go-to-church hours, but that is a surmountable challenge and there’s no real reason beyond that. As Sen. Royce West noted during the debate over SB7, we can now buy booze on Sundays starting at 10 AM. Why can’t we vote earlier than 1 PM? (Spoiler alert: We all know the reason for that.)

Anyway. As I sign off, the status of SB7 in the House is unknown. Look for an update below if you didn’t stay up all night following the action live or on Twitter. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: Well, this was dramatic.

The sweeping overhaul of Texas elections and voter access was poised from the beginning of the session to pass into law. It had the backing of Republican leaders in both chambers of the Legislature. It had support from the governor.

Democrats who opposed the bill, chiding it as a naked attempt of voter suppression, were simply outnumbered.

But on Sunday night, with an hour left for the Legislature to give final approval to the bill, Democrats staged a walkout, preventing a vote on the legislation before a fatal deadline.

“Leave the chamber discreetly. Do not go to the gallery. Leave the building,” Grand Prairie state Rep. Chris Turner, the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said in a text message to other Democrats obtained by The Texas Tribune.

Senate Bill 7, a Republican priority bill, is an expansive piece of legislation that would alter nearly the entire voting process. It would create new limitations to early voting hours, ratchet up voting-by-mail restrictions and curb local voting options like drive-thru voting.

Democrats had argued the bill would make it harder for people of color to vote in Texas. Republicans called the bill an “election integrity” measure — necessary to safeguard Texas elections from fraudulent votes, even though there is virtually no evidence of widespread fraud.

Debate on Senate Bill 7 had extended over several hours Sunday as the Texas House neared a midnight cutoff to give final approval to legislation before it could head to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk to be signed into law.

In between their speeches opposing the bill, Democrats seemed to be trickling off the floor throughout the night, a number of their desks appearing empty. During an earlier vote to adopt a resolution allowing last-minute additions to the bill, just 35 of 67 Democrats appeared to cast votes. Around 10:30 p.m., the remaining Democrats were seen walking out of the chamber.

Their absence left the House without a quorum — which requires two-thirds of the 150 House members to be present — needed to take a vote.

By 11:15 p.m. about 30 Democrats could be seen arriving at a Baptist church about 2 miles away from the Capitol in East Austin.

The location for Democrats’ reunion appeared to be a nod at a last-minute addition to the expansive bill that set a new restriction on early voting hours on Sundays, limiting voting from 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. Over the last two days, Democrats had derided the addition — dropped in during behind-closed-door negotiations — raising concerns that change would hamper “souls to the polls” efforts meant to turn out voters, particularly Black voters, after church services.

Standing outside the church, Democrats said the walkout came only after it appeared Democrats’ plan to run out the clock on the House floor with speeches wasn’t going to work because Republicans had the votes to use a procedural move to cut off debate and force a final vote on the legislation.

“We saw that coming,” said state Rep. Nicole Collier, a Fort Worth Democrat and chair of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus. “We’ve used all the tools in our toolbox to fight this bill. And tonight we pulled out that last one.”

With about an hour left before the midnight deadline, House Speaker Dade Phelan acknowledged the lost quorum and adjourned until 10 a.m. Monday morning. Midnight was the cutoff for the House and Senate to sign off on the final versions of bills that have been negotiated during conference committees.

A couple of things to note here. One is that this is almost certainly a temporary victory. There’s going to be at least one special session already for redistricting, and so this will be on that session’s agenda or there will be another special session, possibly right away, just for this. We know that this is a top Republican priority and they are not going to just accept defeat, in the same way that they are not accepting Trump’s loss in 2020. They have the power to try again and they have the numbers to make it happen.

But the only reason the Republicans are in this position in the first place is because it took them so long to produce the final version of SB7. They had to suspend their own rules in the Senate to bring the bill to the floor for a vote there on Saturday because they were running out of time. The quorum break happened at 10:30 last night – I actually saw a tweet or two to that effect before I went to bed – which meant they were down to the last 90 minutes of available time. You wait till the last minute, things can happen, you know?

I had been wondering why this obvious priority of theirs had been seemingly stuck in conference committee for so long. Surely the Democratic amendments that had watered down some of the more stringent provisions that were later reinstated didn’t have enough supporters in the committee to make this difficult. My thinking was that the Republicans were sitting on this bill, which by now was as bad as the original SB7 that had begun to draw strong criticism from the business world, precisely because they wanted to sneak it through over the holiday weekend, when fewer people would be paying attention. It’s the explanation that makes the most sense to me, because they had to know that the Democrats would do everything they could to make them miss the deadline. Why risk that if you didn’t have to? They had full control over the schedule. Cover of darkness is the best explanation. And it deservedly blew up in their faces.

As noted, they’ll get their second shot at this. But now there’s time for everyone to pay attention again, and for the activists to get businesses and other organizations engaged. The Republicans will get their bill but the Democrats bought themselves some time, and gave their base a big feel-good moment. That’s a trade I’ll take.

Think of the kids today

Today, the anti-trans sports bill SB29 is on the House calendar. Hopefully, it will fail to make it to the floor before midnight, which is the deadline for Senate bills to be passed by the House. Whatever the case, spend a few minutes today thinking about the kids who have been targeted by these bills and have had to spend weeks at the Capitol trying to persuade a bunch of uncaring Republican legislators about their humanity, because as much as this session has sucked overall, it’s really sucked for them.

Houston mother Lisa Stanton says every parent’s instinct is to keep their children safe.

When she and her young daughter, Maya, earlier this year traveled to the Texas Capitol to testify against two bills restricting transgender children’s access to transition-related medical care, including hormone therapy and puberty suppression treatment, she worried for her daughter’s well-being — both physical and mental.

“We don’t want our kids to face adversity,” Lisa Stanton said. “And that’s the thing I struggle about the most.”

Maya was scared, too. At just 10 years old, she faced a difficult task: convincing a conservative-leaning group of legislators not to advance legislation that would label her mother a child abuser and revoke the license of her doctor for providing gender-affirming medical care.

The Stantons are among the transgender Texans, parents and advocates who have spent late nights and early mornings fervently testifying, holding rallies and lobbying legislators not to support bills targeting transgender people this session.

Texas is one of at least 20 states that have considered bills limiting access to transgender health care in 2021, according to the ACLU, and one of at least 31 states with bills that would limit the school sports teams they can join. But according to Equality Texas, there have been more anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in Texas this legislative session than any other state.

[…]

While no legislative proposal can be considered dead until both chambers gavel out, those missed deadlines spell doom for some of the major bills focused on transgender Texas children. And it doesn’t leave much time for the school sports bill. But LGBTQ advocates say the mere specter that such measures could become law has already done damage.

In The Trevor Project’s 2021 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, 94% of LGBTQ youth responded that recent politics had negatively impacted their mental health. That figure is higher than in previous years, according to Sam Brinton, vice president of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project.

Over the last year, the organization — which offers crisis counseling for LGBTQ youth — has received over 9,400 crisis contacts from Texas.

“Young people are listening,” Brinton said.

There’s more, and the Chron had a similar story a few days back. This is as the story notes very much part of a concerted national effort by anti-trans activists, pushing basically the same bills in multiple states because they think it’s good politics. Writing these posts always takes me a long time because they make me so mad, I have to stop and collect myself every couple of minutes. The level of cruelty and depravity it takes to victimize children – children who are telling you, as loudly and clearly as they can, that you are hurting them – all for political gain, I cannot fathom it. I don’t know how these people sleep at night.

Anyway. Watch the clock today and give a thought to these kids and their parents, who have had it much rougher than anyone should have had over these past few months. And then remember that there will be a special session this fall, currently to deal with redistricting and appropriating federal CIVID relief funds, but there’s no reason there couldn’t be other items on the agenda. We saw that in 2017 with the bathroom bill. These kids won’t be safe until we’re past all of that, too.

Lawsuit filed against Lubbock “abortion sanctuary city” ordinance

Looks like this kind of tactic will finally be tested in court.

Right there with them

Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas sued the city of Lubbock on Monday over a voter-approved “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that seeks to outlaw abortions in the West Texas city’s limits.

The ordinance — which the lawsuit says is unconstitutional — was passed by local voters in May over the opposition of City Council members who warned it could not be enforced and would prompt a costly legal fight.

The lawsuit was filed in a federal district court and seeks to stop the abortion ban from taking effect on June 1.

Some two dozen cities have sought to ban abortions in their limits. Most of them have been in Texas but Lubbock is the largest and the first to have an abortion provider — making it a legal test case for the burgeoning “sanctuary city for the unborn” movement. Planned Parenthood opened a clinic to offer birth control and other services there last year, and began providing abortions this spring.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar measures, but those cities weren’t home to abortion providers and had differently worded ordinances. The lawsuit was dropped.

The Lubbock ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws. It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits. Family members of a person who has an abortion can sue the provider or someone who assists them in getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic, under the ordinance.

The ordinance does not make an exception for people pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

See here for some background. As things stand now, it seems likely Lubbock will lose this lawsuit. Not that such a loss will dissuade the ordinance’s fanatical supporters of anything – among other things, they won’t be on the hook for the legal bills – but it’s something. Of course, a fresh new challenge to Roe v. Wade is now on the SCOTUS docket, so how things are now may not be how they will be as of sometime next year. It’s a lot of not great.

Abbott signs massive anti-abortion bill

We’ll see who sues who first.

Right there with them

Gov. Greg Abbott signed into a law Wednesday a measure that would prohibit in Texas abortions as early as six weeks — before some women know they are pregnant — and open the door for almost any private citizen to sue abortion providers and others.

The signing of the bill opens a new frontier in the battle over abortion restrictions as first-of-its-kind legal provisions — intended to make the law harder to block — are poised to be tested in the courts.

Abortion rights advocates have promised to challenge the new law, which they consider one of the most extreme nationwide and the strictest in Texas since the landmark Roe v. Wade decision. It would amount to an outright ban on abortions, as the six-week cutoff is two weeks after a missed menstrual cycle, opponents say.

The law takes effect in September.

[…]

Instead of having the government enforce the law, the bill turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue.

Proponents of the new law hope to get around the legal challenges that have tied up abortion restrictions in the courts. While abortion providers typically sue the state to stop a restrictive abortion law from taking effect, there’s no state official enforcing Senate Bill 8 — so there’s no one to sue, the bill’s proponents say.

“It’s a very unique law and it’s a very clever law,” said Josh Blackman, a constitutional law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston. “Planned Parenthood can’t go to court and sue Attorney General [Ken] Paxton like they usually would because he has no role in enforcing the statute. They have to basically sit and wait to be sued.”

Legal experts have been divided on the strategy, and abortion rights advocates have said they plan to fight regardless.

Elisabeth Smith, chief counsel for state policy and advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights, which has represented abortion providers who have sued Texas officials, said it and other abortion rights organizations are “not going to let this six-week ban go unchallenged.”

Drucilla Tigner, policy and advocacy strategist of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the “governor’s swipe of a pen can’t change the Constitution.”

While the law amounts to the most extreme abortion ban in the country, “abortion is both legal in Texas and supported by the majority of Texans,” Tigner said.

Abortion rights advocates and lawyers say the new law would allow for a cascade of lawsuits against abortion providers, that would sap their time and money even if they ultimately won in court.

Family members, abortion funds, rape crisis counselors and other medical professionals could be open to lawsuits, under the broad language in the bill, according to legal experts and physicians who opposed the measure. People who sued would be awarded at least $10,000, as well as costs for attorney’s fees, if they won.

“Every citizen is now a private attorney general,” Blackman said. “You can have random people who are against abortion start suing tomorrow.”

See here for the previous update. Not really much else to say until someone files a lawsuit one way or the other. Either this law as designed is a diabolically clever tactic for which there is no good countermove and thus gets replicated in states across the country, or it gets blocked and the zealots have to go back to the drawing board. In the meantime, winning more elections so laws like these don’t get passed in the first place would be nice. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Senate is right back on the anti-trans agenda

In case you were wondering.

The Texas Senate on Monday quickly revived and advanced a bill banning gender-affirming health care for children under 18, days after a similar House bill failed to advance in the lower chamber.

Under Senate Bill 1311, any physician who prescribes hormone therapy or puberty suppression treatment for the purpose of gender transitioning would have their medical license revoked and could not be covered under liability insurance. It would also apply to doctors who perform transition-related surgeries for children, which is rarely used before puberty. The Senate gave the bill initial approval in a 17-13 vote. The bill still needs a final approval in the upper chamber before it can be considered by the House.

LGBTQ advocates have decried the bill as unconstitutional and criticized its negative impact on mental health. In a Senate State Affairs committee hearing, transgender Texans and medical experts testified that access to gender confirmation care is key to reducing the elevated risks of suicide and depression among transgender Texans. Businesses leaders also singled out S.B. 1311 as a bill they say may scare workers and businesses away from Texas.

The bill’s author, Edgewood Republican Bob Hall, said its intent was to improve the mental health of Texans who may later come to regret their transition, citing statistics that many children may cease to experience gender dysphoria later in life.

However, experts have said those studies often include children who aren’t transgender, but just don’t conform to typical gender norms, such as a boy who plays with dolls.

[…]

Last week, Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Texas vowed to challenge in court House Bill 1399, the House’s version of the ban, if it passed. Though the bill later failed to meet a deadline in the House last week, Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney for Lambda Legal said the bills were “nearly identical” and presented similar legal issues.

See here for the previous update. Two things you need to keep in mind. One is that Bob Hall is a hydroxychlorquine humper, which among many other things makes him completely unqualified to offer any medical opinions about anything. And two, I’ll let Ross Ramsey explain.

[L]awmakers have a sprint in front of them as they hurry to finish the work they promised voters earlier in the session. They have two weeks left on the calendar, but earlier deadlines loom on their internal calendars. It’s already too late for a House bill to be considered for the first time in the House; another deadline — for Senate bills — comes next Tuesday.

The legislation promised and proposed after February’s storm and the outages that came with it — from a warning system for the state when something like that is approaching to weatherization that would help electric plants stay in operation — still hasn’t won legislative approval.

The state budget is pending, but on track. But lawmakers haven’t explained how they’ll spend billions in federal relief money that isn’t included in that budget. That’s still on the list. So are many of the police reforms promised by Abbott and others after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd almost a year ago.

The list of things still undone is formidable — a regular feature of this stage of a legislative session.

Lawmakers haven’t finished yet, but they haven’t had to. Now they’re up against a hard deadline. That’s when we find out what they really think is necessary.

This is what the Senate has prioritized. Never forget that. This is what 2022 has to be about.

Not sure where we are with the anti-trans bills

In limbo, to be honest.

A controversial bill that would ban gender-affirming health care for transgender children missed a key deadline Thursday for consideration in the Texas House.

But a similar Senate bill still has time to be approved by both chambers before the legislative session ends May 31. Senate Bill 1311 also bans gender-affirming treatment and mandates the revocation of a physician’s medical license if someone performs or prescribes such treatment. That bill passed out of committee nearly a month ago. Hours before the House’s deadline to pass many of its own bills, the Senate legislation appeared on a list of bills that could let the upper chamber take up the measure as soon as Friday.

House Bill 1399 targeted gender-confirmation surgery, hormone therapy and puberty suppression treatments. Bill supporters say children could later regret such medical care, which is considered best practice by several major medical associations. Under the bill, physicians who performed or prescribed those treatments could face disciplinary action or be denied a medical license.

“It’s harmful to debate anybody’s basic human and civil rights and to bring humanity into question as something that is not valid,” said Adri Perez, policy and advocacy strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “That has a lasting impact on people and whether or not they can conceptualize a future for themselves in the state of Texas.”

Shelly Skeen, senior attorney for Lambda Legal, called the bill “one of the most extreme anti-transgender bills in the country” in a statement. Lambda Legal and the ACLU of Texas had decried the bill as unconstitutional and vowed to challenge it in court if it had become law.

There has been a slate of anti-transgender bills in the Texas Legislature this session, many of them still active. Senate Bill 1646, which would label the treatments as child abuse, passed the Senate and is waiting to be heard by the House Public Health Committee that approved HB 1399.

This story is a bit confusing, and I haven’t found anything relevant on Twitter to clarify matters. As I understand it, the Friday deadline was for House bills that have passed out of committee to be brought to the floor. Any House-originated bills that hadn’t been approved by the House by Friday night at midnight were no longer eligible to be voted on by the Senate. That appears to be the fate of HB1399, the bill to deny medical treatment to trans kids. That’s good news, but SB1311 does more or less the same thing, but has not yet been voted on by the Senate. It would need Senate approval and to go through the full House process, which means it is short on time. There’s also SB1646, the bill that defines giving medical treatment to trans kids as child abuse, which has passed the Senate and is awaiting a House hearing. The goal here is for it to never make it out of committee, and I expect that’s where advocates will spend much of their energy. Finally, there’s SB29, the anti-trans sports bill that Harold Dutton resuscitated in a fit of pique, and which is farthest along. All it needs is approval from the House, and then possibly a conference committee if the House amends it in some way.

That, as far as I can tell, is where we stand with the headline bills. There are other bills out there that didn’t get as much attention, and if they originated in the House and didn’t get passed on Friday, they’re mostly off the table. There’s always the possibility of an otherwise dead bill getting attached to some other piece of legislation, which can work but can also subject the bill to death by point of order. These last two weeks are where most of the shenanigans occur, so stay awake and be ready to respond to a sudden call to action. The Chron has more.

Other May election results

Roundup style, mostly.

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg easily wins a fourth term.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg

Mayor Ron Nirenberg vanquished the ghost of repeat challenger Greg Brockhouse in Saturday’s City election and secured his third term in office with a win of historic proportion.

Nirenberg is now on course to become the city’s first four-term mayor since his mentor, former Mayor Phil Hardberger, led a successful campaign in 2009 to relax term limits from two, two-year terms to four, two-year terms.

That longevity in office should give Nirenberg the time and space to forge the kind of legacy established by Hardberger and Julián Castro before him.

Hardberger can point to completion of the San Antonio River’s Museum Reach, acquisition of Hardberger Park, redevelopment of Main Plaza, and jump starting the transformation of Hemisfair Park after it lay idle for 50 years. He recruited Sheryl Sculley to become city manager. Her long tenure led to the modernization of the city’s financial practices, ambitious five-year bond cycles to address critical infrastructure needs, and a new level of professional standards for city staff.

Castro, then the youngest mayor of a Top 50 city, led efforts to bring early childhood education to the forefront, well in advance of national trends, with successful passage of Pre-K 4 SA. He launched SA2020 and with it, the Decade of Downtown. Castro joined forces with Sculley to take on the powerful police union and address runaway health care costs. His growing national profile earned him a cabinet seat as Housing and Urban Development Secretary in the Obama administration.

Nirenberg is poised to establish his own legacy. Voters chose him by a 31-point margin, 62% to 31%, over Brockhouse, with the remainder going to a dozen other names on the ballot, a definitive verdict on Nirenberg’s second-term record. A Bexar Facts poll conducted with the San Antonio Report and KSAT-TV in late March accurately predicted as much. The reason: Nirenberg’s strong leadership through the pandemic.

Nirenberg won by a much wider margin against Brockhouse this time. When I look around at current Mayors for future statewide potential, Nirenberg certainly belongs on the list, but for whatever the reason I haven’t heard his name bandied about. Maybe that will change now.

San Antonio had a high-profile ballot proposition, which would have stripped the city’s police union of it collective bargaining power. It was narrowly defeated, but its proponents are encouraged they did as well as they did, and expect to continue that fight.

Austin had its own slew of ballot propositions, with a particularly contentious one that would outlaw the public camps that homeless people are now using. That one passed, and we’ll see what happens next.

The folks behind Proposition B, the citizen initiative to re-criminalize public camping in Downtown Austin and near the UT Campus, got the victory they sought for the more than $1 million they spent. With all votes counted Saturday night, the measure backed by Save Austin Now prevailed by 14 points, 57.1%-42.9%.

That’s a slightly weaker showing than was predicted before polls closed by SAN co-founder Matt Mackowiak, also chair of the Travis County Republican Party, but a win’s a win:

Those who have been paying attention will note that Mayor Steve Adler and much of Council have already decided that the June 2019 vote that Prop B reverses was a failed experiment, and have moved on to other strategies to house Austin’s unsheltered poor. Perhaps SAN will catch up soon. Whatever its merits as policy, the campaign for Prop B did almost certainly boost turnout, which all told was 22.55% countywide (just under 90% of that was city voters). That’s the highest Austin’s seen in a May election since 1994.

Even CM Greg Casar, the politician most directly rebuked by tonight’s results, is looking ahead: “I do not believe Austin is as divided as this election makes it seem. The overwhelming majority of Austinites share a common goal, no matter how folks voted on Prop B. We all want to get people out of tents and into homes,” Casar said in a statement. “Our community must come together after this election & house 3,000 more people.”

I’ll leave it to the Austin folks to figure this out from here, but from my vantage point one obvious issue here is the ridiculously high housing prices in Austin, which is fueled in part by way more demand for housing than supply. I hope the city can find a way forward on that.

Fort Worth will have a new Mayor, after a June runoff.

Fort Worth voters will chose a new mayor for the first time in a decade in June with Mattie Parker and Deborah Peoples apparently headed to the runoff.

Mayor Betsy Price’s decision not to seek an unprecedented sixth term sparked 10 candidates to run, including two council members, the Tarrant County Democratic Party chairwoman and a slew of political newcomers.

According unofficial results in Tarrant County, Peoples, a former AT&T vice president, led with 33.60% of the vote Saturday night while Parker, a former Price chief of staff, had 30.82%, with all 176 vote centers reporting. Council member Brian Byrd was in third place with 14.75%.

Parker and Peoples maintained the upper hand with results for Denton County. There, Parker took 35.17% of the vote compared to 16% for Peoples. In Parker County, Parker had 42% of the vote followed by Byrd’s 23.3%. Peoples had 12.5%.

The runoff will be June 5.

Here are the Tarrant County results – scroll down to page 21 to see the Fort Worth Mayor’s race. There were 1,106 votes cast in total in this race in Denton County, and 176 total votes cast in Parker County, so Tarrant is really all you need to know. In 2019, Peoples lost to Mayor Betsy Price by a 56-42 margin. Adding up the votes this time, counting Ann Zadeh as progressive and Brian Byrn and Steve Penate as conservative, the vote was roughly a 55-42 margin for the Republican-aligned candidates. We’ll see how it goes in the runoff.

And then there was Lubbock.

Lubbock voters on Saturday backed a “sanctuary city for the unborn” ordinance that tries to outlaw abortions in the city’s limits, likely prompting a lawsuit over what opponents say is an unconstitutional ban on the procedure.

The unofficial vote, 62% for and 38% against the measure, comes less than a year after Planned Parenthood opened a clinic in Lubbock and months after the City Council rejected the ordinance on legal grounds and warned it could tee up a costly court fight.

The passage of the ordinance makes Lubbock one of some two dozen cities that have declared themselves a “sanctuary … for the unborn” and tried to prohibit abortions from being performed locally. But none of the cities in the movement — which started in the East Texas town of Waskom in 2019 — has been as big as Lubbock and none of them have been home to an abortion provider.

It’s unclear when the ordinance will go into effect, and if it will be challenged in court.

The push to declare Lubbock a “sanctuary city for the unborn” began in the last two years and was galvanized by the arrival of a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2020. Anti-abortion activists gathered enough signatures to bring the ordinance to the City Council — where it was voted down for conflicting with state law and Supreme Court rulings — and to then put it to a citywide vote.

Ardent supporters of the measure, who liken abortion to murder, say it reflects the views held by many in conservative Lubbock. They believe the ordinance would stand up in court and say they have an attorney who will defend the city free of charge if it is challenged.

But the strategy of bringing the abortion fight to the local level has divided even staunch anti-abortion activists, and Texas towns like Omaha and Mineral Wells have voted down similar ordinances or walked them back under advice from city attorneys.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which previously sued seven East Texas towns that passed similar ordinances, has said they were watching the vote closely and hinted at a lawsuit in a statement Saturday.

Drucilla Tigner, a policy and advocacy strategist with the organization, said the “ACLU has a long history of challenging unconstitutional abortion bans and will continue to fight to protect the fundamental rights of the people of Lubbock.”

[…]

The Lubbock ordinance outlaws abortions within the city, and allows family members of a person who has an abortion to sue the provider and anyone who assists someone getting an abortion, like by driving them to a clinic.

There isn’t an exception for women pregnant as a result of rape or incest.

The ordinance would not be enforced by the government unless the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, or made other changes to abortion laws.

It instead relies on private citizens filing lawsuits.

Richard D. Rosen, a constitutional law professor at Texas Tech University, expects someone would sue Planned Parenthood and the legal fight would go from there.

“As long as Roe is good law I think these suits will ultimately fail, but it [could make] abortion providers … expend money for attorneys fees and it takes time,” he said.

See here and here for the background. The lawsuit that was filed against those seven towns was later dropped after the ordinances to remove language that declared the Lilith Fund and the Texas Equal Access Fund “criminal entities”. The language banning abortions in those towns remains, however. Lubbock is in a much different position than those tiny little towns, and I have no idea what happens from here. It can’t be long before someone files a lawsuit for something.

Finally, I’m sorry to report that Virginia Elizondo lost her race for Spring Branch ISD. I wish her all the best in the future.

Poll shows opposition to the extreme anti-abortion bills in the Lege

From the inbox:

Today, the Trust Respect Access coalition is releasing data from polling on abortion laws and anti-abortion bills in the Texas Legislature. The poll includes approval ratings as well as opinions on legislative priorities and House Bill 1515/Senate Bill 8, companion bills that would ban abortion at six weeks gestation, before many people even know that they are pregnant. HB 1515/SB 8 would also allow anyone to sue an abortion provider or anyone who helps someone obtain an abortion.

The poll jointly commissioned by Trust Respect Access partners offers insights by Texans from across the political spectrum. The following are key findings:

Across the political spectrum, Texans are united against extreme proposals

A majority of all respondents – including a majority of ideological subgroups – are opposed to anti-abortion measures currently being considered in the Texas Legislature. These unpopular proposals include HB 1515/SB 8, a six-week abortion ban that would allow out-of-state people to sue Texans who help someone access abortion. HB 1515/SB 8 also includes a “rapist rights” provision that would allow rapists to sue a doctor who performs an abortion on their victim.

It is worth noting that it is rare to see Trump voters, Democrats, and Independents on the same side of an issue – this survey shows that the combined opposition transcends ideology.

“Texans from across the political spectrum are categorically rejecting these extreme anti-abortion measures,” said Diana Gómez, advocacy manager at Progress Texas. “Roe v. Wade is still the law of the land, but extremist politicians are hoping to challenge existing law with dangerous bills like HB 1515 and SB 8. Not only would these bills ban abortion before most people know they’re pregnant, but they would allow for anyone to enforce the rule, meaning a rapist could sue their victim’s doctor and reap a cash reward. Texans deserve better than these attacks on our rights. If passed, these laws would be some of the most extreme abortion restrictions in the country. Texans want our legislators to protect access to essential health care, and that includes abortion.”

Double-digit opposition

Texans have differing ideologies and opinions, but when it comes to the anti-abortion measures currently under consideration at the Legislature, voters expressed opposition by wide margins. In the bipartisan survey, only 33% of respondents identified as Democrats while 68% identified as a Republican or Independent. Even so, the poll found the combined opinions as follows:

Measure to ban abortion: 51% oppose, 36% favor, 12% not sure
Out-of-state lawsuits: 63% oppose, 19% favor, 18% not sure
“Rapists rights”: 76% oppose, 12% favor, 13% unsure
Carrying non-viable pregnancies to term: 64% oppose, 20% favor, 15% unsure

“These polling results reveal that Texans overwhelmingly reject extreme anti-abortion bills,” said Caroline Duble, political director at Avow. “HB 1515/SB 8 is so egregious that it allows ‘any person,’ Texan or not, to sue another person for providing abortion care or helping someone access abortion care. This means that a neighbor could sue a mother for driving their child to an abortion procedure, or a classmate could be sued for giving a friend $20 to help pay for an abortion. The bill is written so broadly that it would even allow rapists to sue their victim’s doctors and loved ones — something that 76% of Texans from across the political spectrum oppose.”

Misplaced priorities by the Legislature

When asked what they think the number one priority should be for the Legislature, the top issue voters chose was ensuring a stable energy grid. That was followed by public schools and healthcare (covid response, hospitals, and vaccines). Texans do not believe that abortion should be a top priority in the Legislature.

“The evidence is loud and clear, Texans want access to safe abortion care,” said Carisa Lopez, policy director for Texas Freedom Network. “For years, data consistently shows that people all over Texas from all-sides of the political spectrum don’t want additional barriers to safe reproductive health care. Legislators need to align themselves with the priorities of the voters who gave them their seat at the legislature. If not, they won’t have that seat for long.”

To emphasize just how distant abortion restrictions are from Texans’ minds, when asked what the Legislature’s top priority should be, 17% responded “not sure” whereas only 10% said abortion regulations. Getting outranked by “not sure” is not good in any poll.

“By trying to ban abortion in Texas, the Legislature is pandering to anti-abortion extremists and ignoring the will of the majority of Texans,” said Drucilla Tigner, Policy & Adocacy Strategist, ACLU of Texas. “Most Texans want our leaders to focus on the real issues they face every day and are tired of elected leaders playing political games. Instead of insisting on banning abortion, the Texas Government should focus on trying to keep the lights on for everyone.”

Black and Brown voters continue leading the way in progress on reproductive rights

When breaking down responses to the poll by race, there is more support for abortion rights and a greater opposition to restrictions amongst Black and Brown Texans in many of the questions.

63% of Hispanic/Latino respondents and 58% of Black respondents say abortion laws should be less restrictive or stay the same, compared to 49% of white respondents. 60% of both Hispanic/Latino voters and Black voters also oppose HB 1515/SB 8’s measure banning abortion compared to 46% of white voters.

“Abortion restrictions disproportionately harm Black Texans and other Texans of color, folks in rural communities and those with lower incomes. Texas legislators are fixated on advancing their political interests rather than fighting for the will of the people,” said Marsha Jones, executive director at The Afiya Center. “Texans want access to safe abortion care and the polls show Texans reject harmful anti-abortion bills like HB 1515/SB 8. This political grandstanding continues to put lives at risk and the weird obsession with the relentless attempts to deny bodily autonomy and healthcare harms the state’s most marginalized populations, especially Black women. If Texas legislators want to focus on abortion legislation, let it be only to ensure the safety of those seeking abortions and increase opportunities for quality care.”

Voters want the state to move on from this issue

By a combined total of 54%, voters say that Texas abortion laws should stay the same or be less restrictive, while only 33% are interested in more restrictions. This is consistent with findings from a Progress Texas poll in March that showed that 52% of Texans generally support abortion rights. If conservatives aren’t listening to the will of the voters, exactly who are they listening to?

“Pushing forward the most extreme abortion bans in the country is a purely political move that is not supported by the majority of Texans,” said Dyana Limon-Mercado, Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Texas Votes. “These bills are part of a nationwide, extremist strategy to ban abortion by pushing access to care completely out of reach. HB 1515/SB 8 would outright ban abortion at six weeks — before many Texans even know they are pregnant — with no exceptions. For decades, politicians who have created medically unnecessary barriers to abortion access have simultaneously ignored the real health needs of every day Texans, such as Medicaid expansion, providing COVID-19 relief or addressing Black maternal mortality.”

Poll results: Full poll results including questions, responses, and crosstabs

The survey was conducted by Public Policy Polling from April 23-24, evenly divided between landline and text message, and includes responses from 593 registered Texas voters with a +/- 4% margin of error.

About Trust Respect Access The Trust Respect Access coalition envisions a Texas where everyone — regardless of their age, income, zip code, gender identity, immigration status, or whether they are incarcerated or detained — has access to all reproductive health care options including abortion.

The coalition includes: ACLU of Texas, The Afiya Center, Avow, Counter Balance, Deeds Not Words, Fund Texas Choice, Jane’s Due Process, Lilith Fund, National Latina Institute for Reproductive Justice, Planned Parenthood Texas Votes, Progress Texas, Texas Equal Access Fund, Texas Freedom Network, West Fund, Whole Woman’s Health, Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, Dr. Bhavik Kumar, and Dr. Ghazaleh Moayedi.

You can see the polling data here. The sample seems reasonable – they reported voting 51-45 for Trump over Biden, and they give Biden a 43/48 approve/disapprove mark. The first abortion-related question asked was “Generally speaking, do you think that laws regarding abortion access in Texas should be more restrictive, less restrictive, or kept the same as current state law?”, and “more restrictive” was the plurality choice, with 33% picking that answer, to 31% for “less restrictive” and 23% for “kept the same”.

We have discussed before the challenges in polling about abortion – while basic attitudes towards Roe v Wade have been remarkably stable over time, you can get a lot of variance in polls by how questions are worded, and people can give answers that may appear to be contradictory. The questions in this poll accurately reflect what is in the bills that have been put forth, and I think the numbers are also an accurate reflection, but it’s important to remember two things. One is that in real life, the side that favors these bills gets a chance to describe them in terms they believe are more accurate (and thus favorable to them), and that will have an effect on how people perceive them. Two, even if people do ultimately reject the premise of these bills even after they are fully informed, that doesn’t mean they’ll vote in a manner that is consistent with that belief. People can and do put a higher priority on other things. Making them care enough about your thing, enough to change their voting behavior, is a tall, tall task.

I say this not to be a bummer, but to be a realist, and believe it or not to be a bit of an optimist for the longer term. The realist says that just because we may have opinion on our side on this issue doesn’t mean we’ll win the next election because of it. It’s more complicated than that, and while there are definitely people we can sway with this kind of argument, we need to be attuned to what is of higher value to them as well. There are two pieces of good news to accompany that. One is that public opinion is on our side of some other hot button issues, like permitless carry and voting restrictions and Medicaid expansion, so we have plenty of options to sway the folks who need to be swayed. The other is that once Democrats do have power in Texas, they can and should feel free to repeal these laws in bulk, for the same reason why the Republicans feel empowered to pass them: For the most part, it’s not what the voters will act on when they next express their preferences. We already know that to be true, and I expect it will still be true when we are in a position to act on it.

Making voting worse

I’ve spent a lot of time this year writing about how Republicans in the Legislature want to make it harder to vote. That’s undeniably true, but it doesn’t fully capture what’s going on. Voting is a thing that most of us do, and the process of voting is basically a service that your local government provides. The goal of the Republican bills in the Legislature, both the omnibus HB7 and SB6 but also the smaller and crazier bills that have garnered much less attention so far, is to make that service worse, now and in the future, and especially when external circumstances like a global pandemic make it harder to vote to begin with.

This Trib story is a straightforward analysis of what SB6 and HB7 do, and there’s also a good explainer in Vox, which I want to highlight.

The Senate bill imposes new rules limiting precinct placement that only apply to large urban counties. It punishes county registrars who don’t sufficiently purge the voter rolls, threatening a repeat of a 2019 fiasco in Texas in which nearly 100,000 recently naturalized citizens were pushed off the rolls. And it prohibits practices pioneered in Democratic-leaning counties designed to improve ballot access during the pandemic, like 24-hour voting.

The House bill, meanwhile, makes it nearly impossible to kick partisan poll watchers, who have historically been used to intimidate Black voters, out of precincts.

“SB 7 looks at what made it easier for people to vote in 2020, particularly communities of color — and then with a laser focus goes and removes those [rules],” says Thomas Buser-Clancy, a staff attorney at the Texas ACLU.

They weren’t rules (I don’t know what Buser-Clancy actually said), they were innovations. These innovations – 24-hour voting, curbside voting, multiple drop boxes for mail ballots, sending mail ballot applications to eligible voters – were things that were allowed in the sense that they weren’t explicitly forbidden. When election administrators, mostly but not exclusively in the big urban counties and exemplified by Chris Hollins, used their creativity and their desire to make it easier and safer to vote, that was the line in the sand that was crossed. Where their actions were upheld by the courts, it was because what they did was allowable under the law as it was. The point here is to remove any possibility of future innovations.

The Senate and House bills both contain a large number of revisions affecting different aspects of state election law — some trivial, others potentially significant.

One of the most notable, according to experts and activists, are the Senate bill’s new rules about the placement of voting precincts and the allocation of election resources, like staff and voting machines.

Under current law, Texas counties have significant discretion about where to set up precincts and where to put their resources. The Senate bill changes these rules, but only for counties with more than 1 million residents. There are five such counties in Texas, all of them urban Democratic strongholds: Harris County (Houston), Dallas County (Dallas), Tarrant County (Fort Worth), Bexar County (San Antonio), and Travis County (Austin).

In these five counties, SB 7 would require that precincts and resources be allocated proportional to the percentage of the county’s eligible voters living in specific areas. This method has two major features that are likely to make voting in Democratic-leaning areas harder.

First, any measure of “eligible voters” would have trouble accounting for very recent population change — likely undercounting younger, heavily minority areas with high growth rates while overcounting older, whiter ones. Second, many Texans vote near their place of work in the city center, so allocating resources by population would underserve urban areas with lots of offices.

The result? In the big Democratic-leaning counties, precincts will be less conveniently located and more likely to have long lines. This could have an effect on outcomes: Studies of elections in California and Texas have found that cutting the number of precincts in a county leads to a measurable decrease in local voter turnout.

“Harris County and Travis County did a good job at distributing polling places in areas where there was a high number of potential voters and where there was a likelihood of higher turnout among ethnic and racial minorities,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a political scientist at the University of Houston. If SB 7 is passed, “that’s going to change.”

Another important provision of SB 7 requires county registrars to check their voter logs against state data on individuals “determined to be ineligible to vote because of citizenship status.” The registrar must remove voters on these lists from the voter registration lists; they would be personally fined $100 for each name they left on the voter rolls.

Voting rights activists worry that this is a backdoor effort to revive a 2019 voter purge struck down in court, an effort that tried to kick tens of thousands of recently naturalized voters off the rolls by using outdated citizenship status for them. The provision would also serve as a deterrent to people working as volunteer registrars — nobody wants to be fined hundreds of dollars for simple mistakes — which would significantly undermine the in-person voter registration drives that depend on their work.

“It’s kind of underrated but might be the biggest provision of SB 7,” says Joseph Fishkin, an election law expert at the University of Texas Austin. “There’s a real partisan skew as to who benefits from drying up the pool of new voters.”

wThe two bills would also significantly expand the powers of poll watchers, partisan operatives who observe the voting process to protect the party’s interests.

SB 7 allows poll watchers to film voters while they are getting assistance from poll workers, potentially intimidating voters with disabilities and non-English speakers. They are nominally prohibited from distributing their footage publicly, but there’s no enforcement mechanism or punishment — so there’s nothing really stopping them from sending misleading footage to fringe-right websites and claiming they prove “fraud.”

HB 6 makes matters worse by making it impossible to kick out poll watchers for any reason other than facilitating voter fraud, even if they are disrupting the voting process in other ways. The experts I spoke to said this applies even in extreme cases: a drunk and disorderly poll watcher, for example, or a jilted spouse who starts a fight when their ex shows up to vote.

It’s hard to say how these provisions would affect elections; poll watchers have had little impact on recent American elections. But the history of the practice gives us reasons to be skeptical about expanding their powers: Watchers have historically menaced Black voters trying to exercise their rights.

And there are many other notable aspects of the two laws.

Remember those ridiculously long lines at the TSU early voting location during the 2020 primaries? That was the result of having the same number of Republican and Democratic voting machines at a site that was heavily Democratic (remember, this was a primary). The effect of SB6 and HB7 will be to make more places have such lines. Really, that’s the idea in general: Fewer locations, shorter hours, longer lines, more disruption, and a total clampdown on any bright ideas that local officials may have to make the experience better. Make voting worse. That’s what it’s all about. Go read those stories and give it a thought in those terms. When I’ve said that Democrats in 2022 should campaign on making it easier and more convenient to vote, this is what they’d be campaigning against.

More local pushback against SB7 and HB6

From the inbox:

Mayor Sylvester Turner invited a diverse group of elected officials, community leaders, and business executives to stand in solidarity against voter suppression bills in the Texas Legislature.

More than 50 individuals and organizations have vowed to fight Senate Bill 7 and House Bill 6, which would make voting more difficult and less accessible to people of color and people with disabilities.

“The right to vote is sacred. In the 1800’s and 1900’s in this country, women, and people of color had to fight to obtain that right to vote,” Mayor Turner said. “In 2021, we find ourselves again fighting bills filed in legislatures across this country that would restrict and suppress the right of people to vote. These bills are Jim Crow 2.0.”

In addition to elected and appointed officials from Harris and Fort Bend Counties, prominent attorneys, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith-based leaders joined the mayor Monday afternoon.

Representatives from the following organizations were also present:

NAACP, Houston Area Urban League, Houston LGBT Chamber of Commerce, Houston Asian Chamber of Commerce, League of Women Voters Houston, Houston in Action, FIEL, ACLU, Communications Workers of American, IAPAC, Mi Familia Vota, Houston Black Chamber of Commerce, Southwest Pipe Trades Association, National Federation for the Blind of Texas, Houston Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Employment & Training Centers, Inc. and others.

Watch the entire voter suppression news conference here.

I’ll get to the Chron story on this in a minute. The TV stations were at this presser, and KTRK had the best coverage.

Mayor Sylvester Turner hit at a GOP-led effort that lawmakers say protects the integrity of Texas ballots, but what leaders around Houston believe do nothing but suppress the right to vote.

Turner was joined by leaders including Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo and Fort Bend County Judge K.P. George at the George R. Brown Convention Center on Monday.

Multiple major corporations based in Texas have already spoken out in opposition to Republican-led legislative proposals to further restrict voting in Texas.

[…]

Both measures are legislative priorities for Texas Republicans, who this year are mounting a broad campaign to scale up the state’s already restrictive voting rules and pull back on local voting initiatives championed in diverse urban centers, namely in Harris County, during a high-turnout election in which Democrats continued to drive up their margins. That push echoes national legislative efforts by Republicans to change voting rules after voters of color helped flip key states to Democratic control.

Click over to see their video. One more such effort came on Tuesday.

The press conference was convened by the Texas Voting Rights Coalition and included statements from MOVE Texas, Black Voters Matter, Texas Organizing Project, Texas Civil Rights Project and the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute. Beto O’Rourke, who traveled to the Texas State Capitol to testify against HB 6, and Julián Castro also spoke at the press conference.

This latest move comes after American Airlines became the largest Texas-based company to announce their opposition to voter suppression bills in Texas. Several of the speakers specifically called out Dallas-based AT&T for their silence in the wake of voter suppression legislation.

Cliff Albright from Black Voters Matter, which is based out of Georgia but has several statewide chapters, cited the corporate accountability campaign that took place in his own state after the governor signed sweeping legislation targeting the right to vote, which prompted Delta Airlines and Coca-Cola to belatedly issue statements against that legislation. “If AT&T can convince folks to upgrade a phone every few months, certainly they can convince folks that voter suppression is bad,” Albright said. He also mentioned companies with a national profile should be speaking out in favor of voting rights legislation, like H.R. 1, which recently passed the U.S. House of Representatives.

O’Rourke also leaned into the pressure that Texans can place on companies like AT&T. He also mentioned several other Texas-based companies like Toyota, Frito Lay, and Southwest Airlines as organizations that should lend their voice against voter suppression. “Reach out to these companies, you are their customer you have some leverage, ask them to stand up and do the right thing while we still have time,” he said.

Castro was blunt about SB7 and HB6. “This is a Republican party power grab,” he said. Castro also called on companies to develop a consciousness regarding the right to vote. “Companies in the state of Texas and outside of it who do business here can choose to either stand on the side of making sure people have the right to vote and are able to exercise that right, or they can stand on the side of a party that is only concerned with maintaining its power and want to disenfranchise especially black and brown voters to do that.”

Castro also emphasized that the legislation in Texas is also about voter intimidation. The former mayor of San Antonio pointed out that one of the provisions in the legislation allows for the videotaping of any voter suspected of committing fraud, even though voter fraud almost never happens.

Mimi Marziani, the President of the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP), also spoke about the grave effects this legislation would have on communities of color. Marziani highlighted some findings that TCRP is releasing later in the week from renowned economist Dr. Ray Perryman that shows that voter suppression leads to less political power, lower wages, and even decreased education.

Marziani also mentioned that voter suppression bills have a track record of impacting states and their ability to generate tourism. “Big event organizers might choose to avoid a state altogether and avoid any appearance of approving a controversial policy,” she said. Marziani cited the decision of Major League Baseball to relocate their All-Star Game out of Atlanta as a recent example.

In terms of direct action towards Texas-based companies, the event organizers indicated that there are going to be several ongoing calls to actions including email campaigns and phone drives. Jane Hamilton, from the Barbara Jordan Leadership Institute, said her organization (along with the Texas Organizing Project) would be holding a press conference outside of AT&T’s Dallas headquarters later this week to engage with them directly.

And one more:

Major League Baseball’s decision to pull the 2021 All-Star Game from Atlanta over Georgia’s recent controversial voter law is sparking calls for other organizations to do the same but in Texas.

Progress Texas says that the NCAA should reconsider holding men’s basketball games in Texas in the coming years due to election bills currently on the table in the Texas Legislature.

[…]

“Since Texas Republicans insist on pushing Jim Crow voter suppression efforts, the NCAA basketball tournament should insist on pulling next year’s first and second-round games out of Fort Worth and San Antonio,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director at Progress Texas in a release. “The NCAA can join American Airlines, Dell, Microsoft, and Southwest Airlines and send a message to Texas lawmakers: we won’t stand for voter suppression.”

[…]

According to the NCAA’s men’s basketball calendar, Texas Christian University in Fort Worth and the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio are currently set to hold preliminary rounds in 2022, and Houston and San Antonio are set to host the national championship games in 2023 and 2025 respectively.

The NCAA has previously pulled games due to controversial legislation. In 2016, the NCAA relocated seven previously awarded championship events from North Carolina over the since-repealed HB 2, a law that required transgender people to use public bathrooms that conform to the sex on their birth certificate.

Swing for the fences, I say. All this is great, and I’m delighted to see companies like AT&T come under increased pressure. There’s a lot to be said about the national response from businesses in favor of voting rights, and the whiny freakout it has received in response from national Republicans, but this post is already pretty long.

I applaud all the effort, which is vital and necessary, but it’s best to maintain some perspective. These bills are Republican priorities – emergency items, you may recall – and they say they are not deterred.

State Sen. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, the author of SB7, said some of the bill’s anti-fraud measures are being lost in the “national narrative” about it. He pointed to improved signature verification rules to make sure absentee ballots are thrown out when they don’t match. Another provision would allow people to track their absentee ballots so they can see that they arrived and were counted.

Still, critics have focused on how the legislation will end drive-thru voting and 24-hour early voting locations, both of which were popular in Harris County during the 2020 election, which saw record turnout statewide.

One of those businesses trying to make itself heard is American Airlines.

“To make American’s stance clear: We are strongly opposed to this bill and others like it,” the carrier said in a statement released Friday.

[Lt. Gove Dan] Patrick fired back a short time later.

“Texans are fed up with corporations that don’t share our values trying to dictate public policy,” Patrick said. “The majority of Texans support maintaining the integrity of our elections, which is why I made it a priority this legislative session. Senate Bill 7 includes comprehensive reforms that will ensure voting in Texas is consistent statewide and secure.”

Patrick is scheduled to hold a news conference Tuesday to further defend the election reform bill against such criticism.

Hughes said he’s willing to listen to the business leaders upset with the bill, but he said many haven’t been clear about exactly what they want changed in the legislation.

“They haven’t told us what about the bill they don’t like,” Hughes said.

We’ll get to Dan Patrick in a minute. As for Sen. Hughes, the problem with signature verification rules is that there’s no standard for matching signatures, it’s just the judgment of whoever is looking at the ballot. People’s signatures change over time – mine certainly has, from a mostly-readable cursive to an unintelligible scrawl. More to the point, various studies have shown that the mail ballots for Black voters get rejected at a higher rate than they do for white voters. As for what the corporations don’t like about SB7, that’s easy: They don’t like the bill. It’s a kitchen sink of bad ideas for non-problems. Just take out everything except for the provision to allow people to track their absentee ballots online.

I am generally pessimistic about the chances of beating either of these bills, but there may be some hope:

Legum notes that there are at least two House Republicans who have publicly voiced criticisms of SB7 and HB6, and if they are actual opponents of the bills it would only take seven of their colleagues to have a majority against them. Still seems like a steep hill to climb, but maybe not impossible. If you have a Republican representative, you really need to call them and register your opposition to these bills.

As for Dan Patrick and his Tuesday press conference, well…

Is there a bigger crybaby in Texas than Dan Patrick? None that I can think of. His little diatribe was also covered, with a reasonable amount of context.

CCA to review Crystal Mason’s conviction

Good.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has agreed to review the illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, a Tarrant County woman facing a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters granted Mason’s petition on Wednesday, elevating the profile of a case that could test the extent to which provisional ballots provide a safe harbor for voters amid questions about their eligibility. Her 2016 vote was never counted.

After discovering she was not on the voter roll, Mason submitted a provisional ballot in that year’s presidential election on the advice of a poll worker. Because she was still on supervised release for a federal tax fraud conviction, she was not eligible to participate in elections and her vote was rejected. Throughout the case, Mason has said she had no idea she was ineligible to vote under Texas law and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom. But Tarrant County prosecutors pressed forward with charges, arguing Mason’s case came down to intent.

A trial court judge convicted her of illegally voting, a second-degree state felony, relying on an affidavit Mason signed before casting her provisional ballot. The affidavit required individuals to swear that “if a felon, I have completed all my punishment including any term of incarceration, parole, supervision, period of probation, or I have been pardoned.” Mason said she did not read that side of the paper.

The all-Republican court’s decision to review Mason’s case is notable. The Court of Criminal Appeals isn’t required to review non-death penalty convictions, and it rarely grants requests to do so. However, the court indicated it won’t hear oral arguments in the case and instead rely on legal briefs.

Mason turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals late last year after a state appeals court panel affirmed the trial court’s judgement.

In her petition to the court, Mason’s lawyers argued the appeals court erred in upholding her conviction because the state’s illegal voting statute requires a person to know they are ineligible to vote and Mason did not. In its ruling, the three-judge appeals panel wrote that the fact Mason did not know she was ineligible was “irrelevant to her prosecution.”

“The State needed only to prove that she voted while knowing of the existence of the condition that made her ineligible,” Justice Wade Birdwell wrote in the court’s opinion. In other words, Mason’s knowledge that she was on supervised release was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction.

Mason’s lawyers argued that letting that finding stand “eviscerates” a voter’s right to cast a provisional ballot under the Help America Vote Act, which established provisional ballots as a way for people whose registration is in doubt to record their votes and allow local officials to later determine if those ballots should be counted.

“These issues have far reaching implications for Texas voters who make innocent mistakes concerning their eligibility to vote and could potentially be prosecuted for such mistakes, including the tens of thousands of voters who submit provisional ballots in general elections believing in good faith they are eligible to vote but turn out to be incorrect in that belief,” their brief read.

See here and here for some background. We can argue about whether Mason should have been convicted, and we can argue about whether people in Mason’s position should be able to vote (spoiler alert: my answers are “no” and “yes”, in that order), but if you believe a five-year prison sentence fits this “crime”, you’re just wrong. There are plenty of murderers and rapists who get off more easily than that. And by the way, if the various voter suppression worming their way through the Lege get passed, the state will have a lot more power to throw basically harmless people in jail for similar violations of made-up rules. The CCA is hardly known for being lenient on defendants, but I hope this time they do the right thing.

Deportation freeze still on hold

Grrrrrrrr.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has put an indefinite halt to President Joe Biden’s 100-day ban on deportations after issuing a preliminary injunction late Tuesday.

The ruling by Judge Drew Tipton comes after he had already temporarily paused the moratorium twice. The ban is nationwide and is in place as the case continues to play out in courts.

The ruling is a victory for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who sued to block Biden’s order three days into the Biden administration. Paxton’s office argued the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released into the state because of costs associated with health care and education, and said the moratorium would also lure others to come to Texas.

Tipton, a Trump appointee to the federal bench, wrote in his order that Texas would also incur costs for detaining immigrants within its state. “Texas claimed injury from unanticipated detention costs is sufficiently concrete and imminent. The harm is concrete or de facto because Texas incurs real financial costs in detaining criminal aliens,” he wrote.

It’s unclear whether the Biden administration will appeal the ruling to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Texas’ federal benches.

See here, here, and here for the background. This continues to be a load of crap, though as noted before one that seems to have a fairly limited impact. I don’t know what the argument is for not appealing. You can find a copy of the order here.

Deportation pause still on hold

Another pause for the pause, which is as dumb and annoying as it sounds.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas has extended the block on President Joe Biden’s deportation moratorium for two more weeks as the case continues to play out in court.

Judge Drew Tipton said in an order dated Monday the extension was necessary for “the record to be more fully developed” in the case brought by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who challenged Biden’s 100-day pause on deportations.

Tipton originally issued a 14-day suspension of Biden’s moratorium on Jan. 26. The pause in deportations was part of Biden’s attempted day one overhaul of several of former President Donald Trump’s immigration policies. But Paxton quickly filed a lawsuit in response to Biden’s moratorium, claiming the state would face financial harm if undocumented immigrants were released from custody, because of costs associated with health care and education.

In his order, Tipton, a Trump appointee who took the bench last year, said Texas would face more harm than the federal government if the extension was not granted.

See here and here for the background. Not clear to me why this is taking so long, or even if this counts as “so long” at this point. I started to write that I wasn’t sure why there hasn’t been an appeal yet, but this tweet by Aaron Reichlin-Melnick answered that question, and suggested now one may be forthcoming . Beyond that, all I know is we’re still waiting.

A different focus on human trafficking

This story might have slipped past you last week.

Christian Menefee

Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee — who was elected on a promise to transform the region’s approach to criminal justice — removed 36 suspected sex workers Thursday from a proposed injunction aimed at shutting down street trafficking on the Bissonnet Track, a notorious hub in Southwest Houston.

Menefee said suing these newly identified human trafficking victims was not a solution to curbing illegal activities in the neighborhood, and it only compounded the harm for vulnerable people. His office is also “taking a hard look” at dozens of others still named in the lawsuit, although some suspected pimps — both male and female — will remain for the time being as defendants. None of the removed defendants are believed to be traffickers, he said.

“One thing we do know is targeting sex workers, many of which have been confirmed to be victims of human trafficking, is not a sound approach to solving the issues that are faced on the Bissonnet Track,” he said.

He believes that in the case of a known hub for human trafficking, the government should prioritize ending these crimes while protecting victims.

“This lawsuit did not achieve those goals,” he said. “It proved to be ineffective and the proposed injunction would likely create another layer of harm for victims”

In the 2018 lawsuit, announced to great fanfare by Menefee’s predecessor, Vince Ryan, Mayor Sylvester Turner and Police Chief Art Acevedo at a packed City Hall gathering, officials sought to prevent 86 people accused of engaging in the sex trade from entering an “anti-prostitution zone.”

The sweeping injunction they envisioned never came to fruition. Only a handful of defendants made progress by presenting evidence the county should drop the charges or by agreeing to steer clear of criminal conduct within the few-block circuit.

A copy of the press release from the County Attorney’s office is here. I thought I had written about this at the time, but if I did I wasn’t able to find it. I do know it was an issue in the primary for County Attorney last year, and County Attorney Menefee discussed it in the interview I did with him for that race. As the story notes, groups like the ACLU and experts on human trafficking disagreed with the injunction on the grounds that Menefee cited. In the end, Vince Ryan himself ultimately agreed with that assessment:

Ryan said Thursday he thought the injunction was the right move to address a glaring problem for the local management district his office represented by bringing a lot of attention to it.

“It’s always easy to look backwards and say we coulda, shoulda,” he said. But in time, he came to believe that the real problem was the pimps and it didn’t make sense to punish the people being sold. He said he spoke briefly with Menefee about the policy shift and he supported the new thinking.

“It’s a different time now than it was then,” he said.

Hopefully this step will help refocus the effort and get things moving in a better direction. It’s a thorny problem, with no easy solutions, but at least now we’re more united about what to try.

Federal judge blocks the deportation pause

Infuriating, but possibly less than it appears.

Best mugshot ever

A federal judge in Texas temporarily blocked the Biden administration from moving forward with a 100-day pause on many deportations across the US, saying Tuesday that it was not adequately reasoned or explained to the public.

The temporary restraining order represents an initial setback for the Biden administration, which has vowed to reform agencies like Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) by restricting who is arrested and deported.

“This is a frustrating loss for an administration that was trying to set a different tone than the chaos and rapid changes of the prior four years,” said Sarah Pierce, an analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. “The order makes it clear that the moratorium may face significant legal hurdles.”

Judge Drew Tipton, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump, ordered the Biden administration to immediately stop enforcing its moratorium on many deportations, which had gone into effect on Friday before Texas sued. The temporary restraining order is in effect for 14 days as the case proceeds.

On Jan. 20, the Biden administration issued a pause on deportations for many undocumented immigrants who have final orders of removal. The memo states that the 100-day pause applies to all noncitizens with final deportation orders except those who have engaged in a suspected act of terrorism, people not in the US before Nov. 1, 2020, or those who have voluntarily agreed to waive any right to remain in the US.

But Tipton said the memo issued by David Pekoske, acting secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, appeared likely to violate the Administrative Procedures Act and that it was not adequately reasoned or explained.

“Here, the January 20 Memorandum not only fails to consider potential policies more limited in scope and time, but it also fails to provide any concrete, reasonable justification for a 100-day pause on deportations,” he wrote, while adding that Texas had shown evidence it would suffer if Biden’s moratorium was not blocked.

Tipton said Texas had demonstrated “that it pays millions of dollars annually to provide social services and uncompensated healthcare expenses and other state-provided benefits to illegal aliens such as the Emergency Medicaid program, the Family Violence Program, and the Texas Children’s Health Insurance Program.”

The state claimed that those costs would rise if the moratorium continued.

But Pratheepan Gulasekaram, an immigration law professor at Santa Clara University Law School, said the decision appeared to be vulnerable to an appeal.

“Federal administrations can and should be able to set their own enforcement policy as long as it is not forbidden by federal law. This allows a state to stop the federal government from reassigning resources and personnel and deciding the optimal level of enforcement,” he said. “This is not the way our federalism in the constitution is structured. States don’t have veto ability.”

See here for the background. Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern, who notes that Judge Tipton admitted his own ignorance of immigration law in the ruling, goes into some detail.

There are several remarkable aspects of Tipton’s decision. First, it applies nationwide—even though conservative jurists and Republican politicians spent the last four years decrying nationwide injunctions as illicit and unlawful. Trump’s Department of Justice launched a campaign against these injunctions, complaining that they unconstitutionally interfered with executive power. Right-wing judges condemned them as lawless power-grabs that promote “gamesmanship and chaos.” Republican lawmakers proposed legislation bringing them to a heel. Intellectuals in the conservative legal movement accused “resistance judges” of using them to sabotage the president. Now, six days into Biden’s term, a conservative judge has issued a nationwide injunction at the behest of a Republican politician.

Second, it is extremely difficult to determine the harm that Biden’s memo inflicted on Texas—and, by extension, why the state has standing to bring this case at all. In his lawsuit, Paxton failed to identify any concrete harm to Texas that actually flows from the deportation pause. Instead, he rehashed general complaints about the state’s expenditures on immigrants eligible for deportation—using estimations from 2018—and asked the court to assume that Biden’s memo would raise these costs. Paxton offered zero evidence that this specific memo would raise costs to Texas. Tipton gave the state standing anyway.

Third, and most importantly, Tipton’s decision is utterly divorced from both the entire framework of federal law governing deportation and the removal system as it functions on the ground. The thrust of Tipton’s reasoning is that a federal statute says the government “shall remove” an immigrant who has been “ordered removed” within 90 days. But, as the Supreme Court recognized as recently as last June, federal law also gives DHS sweeping discretion to determine which immigrants to deport, and when. A slew of statutes and regulations recognize this authority and address immigrants who are not removed within 90 days, a clear signal that this deadline is not, in fact, an iron rule.

Moreover, the deportation process is complex and time-consuming: It involves not only legal appeals but also tedious pragmatic considerations, like how an immigrant will actually be transported out of the country. The government has to plan this transportation on a mass scale, and it does not have a travel agency at its disposal that can guarantee an international flight full of deported immigrants within 90 days or your money back.

In short, if immigration law meant what Tipton says it does, then every president has violated it every day of their term, including the one who appointed him. Luckily, it does not. And there is therefore a very good reason to doubt that Tipton’s order will cause many, if any, deportations. The judge blocked Biden’s general policy of non-enforcement—but he did not, and could not, force the government to actually ensure that every immigrant who is eligible for removal be deported within 90 days. Biden’s DHS can merely exercise its authority to pause deportations on an immigrant-by-immigrant basis by granting an administrative stay of removal. It can halt travel arrangements and cancel deportation flights. Biden’s memo might be on hold, but it is perfectly lawful for the government to freeze deportations under its existing discretionary powers.

Others noted that the order is pretty limited in scope:

Everyone’s favorite question of standing was also brought up. It was not clear as I was drafting this if the Biden administration was going to ask the judge to put his order on hold, or if they were just going to appeal directly; either way, things may change before this runs in the morning, or shortly thereafter. It’s important to remember that the point of this lawsuit first and foremost is Ken Paxton’s fundraising, which works to his advantage whether he wins or loses. Given that, he may as well lose, that’s all I’m saying. Daily Kos, the Chron, and the Trib have more.

Paxton sues over deportation pause

That didn’t take long.

Best mugshot ever

Three days into the Biden administration, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has filed his first lawsuit against the federal government. The lawsuit seeks an halt to one of the president’s executive actions on immigration, a 100-day pause on some deportations.

The moratorium, issued the same day as the presidential inauguration, was one of a flurry of early executive actions from the new administration. It is part of a review and reset of enforcement policies within Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agencies as the Biden administration “develops its final priorities,” according to a statement from the Department of Homeland Security.

Paxton said the moratorium violates the U.S. Constitution and various federal and administrative laws, as well as an agreement between Texas and DHS.

“When DHS fails to remove illegal aliens in compliance with federal law, Texas faces significant costs,” reads the complaint, which was filed in federal court in the U.S. Southern District of Texas. “A higher number of illegal aliens in Texas leads to budgetary harms, including higher education and healthcare costs.”

The filing also alleges various other violations, including against posting-and-comment rules, as well as failure to ensure laws are “faithfully executed.” In a statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeland Security said they were “not able to comment on pending litigation.”

The moratorium excludes any immigrant who is “suspected of terrorism or espionage, or otherwise poses a danger to the national security of the United States,” those who entered after Nov. 1 and those who have voluntarily waived any rights to remain in the country, according to a DHS memo. It also retains an enforcement focus on people who have been convicted of an “aggravated felony” as defined by federal immigration law.

The first question one should ask of any lawsuit filed by Ken Paxton at this time, especially a politically-motivated lawsuit like this one, is whether it has any merit or if it’s just theater designed to rile up the rabble. Neither this story nor the Chron story examines that, though the latter does touch on some of the legal questions.

The case is before U.S. District Judge Drew Tipton, a Trump appointee who took the bench in Corpus Christi last June and previously practiced law in Houston. In a hearing held via Zoom on Friday, Tipton did not immediately rule on Texas’ request for a temporary restraining order. Instead, he said he would take the matter under advisement and vowed to make a decision quickly.

Administration officials did not respond to a request for comment, and a DHS spokesperson declined to comment on pending litigation. But in a memo issued Wednesday, DHS Acting Secretary David Pekoske said the moratorium was implemented as the agency shifts staff and resources at the southwest border, and to protect the health and safety of DHS personnel amid the pandemic.

“We must ensure that our removal resources are directed to the department’s highest enforcement priorities,” Pekoske added.

The order does not apply to noncitizens who: have engaged in or are suspected of terrorism or espionage or who otherwise pose a national security risk; were not in the U.S. before Nov. 1; or voluntarily signed a waiver to rights to remain in the U.S. as long as they’d been given “a meaningful opportunity to access counsel” beforehand. It also gives the acting director the discretion to allow deportations on a case-by-case basis.

The agreement Paxton refers to is one that the department, while still controlled by the Trump administration, signed preemptively with multiple jurisdictions, including the state of Arizona, that required the agency to give them six months to review and submit comments before moving forward on any changes to immigration policy, as Buzzfeed News first reported. The legal enforceability of those documents, however, has yet to be seen.

[…]

In the virtual hearing Friday, Will Thompson, an attorney for the state, argued that the DHS agreement was valid and precluded it from enacting policy changes before the 180-day feedback period has ended. Thompson also said Texas would suffer irreparable harm from the pause on deportations, such as increased education and health care costs for undocumented immigrants.

Department of Justice attorney Adam Kirschner raised several legal arguments for why the agreement is not enforceable, among them that it violated Article II of the Constitution by giving Texas, at least for 180 days, “veto power over immigration law,” which is within the jurisdiction of the federal government. Kirschner also said the state failed to identify injury that the policy would cause, other than “general budgetary concerns.”

At least you have an idea what they’re arguing about, but it’s still pretty dry. Daily Kos gets more into the merits.

Paxton “says Biden administration is violating the agreement TX signed w/ Trump’s DHS, which said the agency would check in with Texas before making changes,” BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleazis tweeted. Paxton’s threat demands DHS immediately rescind the memo, as well as “an immediate response or we will seek relief to enjoin your order, as contemplated by the Agreement.”

To put it plainly, Ken Paxton can eat shit. Legal experts like Santa Clara University School of Law professor Pratheepan Gulasekaram have criticized the agreements, calling them “completely unmoored from legal, constitutional ways of implementing policy,” BuzzFeed News previously reported. “The agreements, as Ken Paxton well knows, are blatantly illegal,” tweeted Aaron Reichlin-Melnick. “Of course, that’s never stopped him before. The Biden administration seems likely to take the correct step here; tell him to pound sand. The federal government can’t contract away its right to make policy changes.”

Not to mention that Cuccinelli was unlawfully installed at DHS! A federal court had already previously ruled that the truly very strange Cuccinelli had also been unlawfully appointed to head U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Reichlin-Melnick noted at the time that the previous administration had since dropped its appeal of that ruling, yet was still “letting him go to work every day.” Perhaps because they knew he’d be willing to put his signature to ridiculous policies like the one now trying to tie up the new administration.

The full thread is here, and you should also read this thread by Buzzfeed News immigration reporter Hamed Aleaziz, who suggests that federal judge Tipton could put the Biden order on hold as the suit is being heard. The ACLU and ACLU of Texas have filed an amicus brief in opposition to Paxton’s suit. This may be an early test of just how much Trump-appointed judges will abet in acting as roadblocks to anything President Biden wants to do.

Fifth Circuit upholds Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limits

Because of course they did. Why would you have expected anything else?

In a ruling issued late Monday night, a federal appeals court upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that limited counties to one mail-in ballot drop-off location.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, all appointed by President Donald Trump, rejected arguments from civil and voting rights groups that claimed Abbott’s order suppressed voting rights by making it harder to cast a ballot, particularly for elderly and disabled voters who are the most likely to use mail-in balloting.

In reality, the judges said, Abbott expanded voting options by suspending a state law that allows mail-in ballots to be hand delivered only on Election Day — a July 27 order that Abbott merely refined on Oct. 1 by closing multiple ballot drop-off sites in Travis and three other large counties, the panel said.

“That effectively gives voters 40 extra days to hand-deliver a marked mail-in ballot to an early voting clerk. And the voter still has the traditional option she has always had for casting a mail-in ballot: mailing it,” Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan wrote for the panel.

The ruling blocked Friday’s injunction from U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman, who said Abbott’s order placed an unacceptable burden on voters who are most vulnerable to COVID-19.

[…]

The panel criticized Pitman for vastly overstating the magnitude of the burden on voting rights caused by Abbott’s “partial refinement” of an earlier order that made it easier for eligible Texans to hand deliver a ballot before Nov. 3.

“How this expansion of voting opportunities burdens anyone’s right to vote is a mystery,” Duncan wrote. “Indeed, one strains to see how it burdens voting at all.”

Texans still have “numerous ways” to participate before the Nov. 3 election — by voting early beginning Tuesday because Abbott added six days to the early voting period as a pandemic safety measure, by hand delivering completed mail-in ballots before Election Day, and by dropping their ballot in the mail, Duncan said.

See here and here for the background. Never mind the fact that the state of Texas had previously affirmed that multiple dropoff locations were legal, never mind the fact that Abbott issued this order a week before early voting began and more than two months after Harris County had announced its plan for multiple locations, and of course never mind the global pandemic that has everyone seeking to mitigate their own personal risk. Abbott extended the early voting period, so what are you peasants complaining about?

I mean, look. The Harris County Clerk used legal means to make voting easier and more accessible. The Governor used a false pretext to overrule him, and did so late in the process after people had been led to expect what the Clerk had implemented. The fact that the Governor had indeed taken steps to expand voting access isn’t relevant. The fact that most other counties hadn’t taken similar action as Harris isn’t relevant – they could have and in many cases should have, and if the Governor thought that was unfair to the voters in the slacking counties, he could have used the same authority he exercised here to try to spur those other counties to action. The point is that Harris County stood for making it easier and more convenient to vote, and the state of Texas said no, you can’t do that. In response, the Fifth Circuit said “we don’t see the problem here”. That’s what we’re up against.

I should note that there is still that state lawsuit, which will have a hearing this week. I don’t expect much at this point, but duty compels me to point this out. I presume the other federal lawsuit – as I observed before, this was a combination of two federal lawsuits, but did not include the third – is now moot. As we have seen over and over again, the way forward is going to require winning more elections first.

Judge briefly halts Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff locations

Late Friday breaking news, which lasted until the early afternoon on Saturday.

A federal judge ruled Friday that Texas counties can have multiple drop-off locations for absentee ballots heading into the Nov. 3 general election, blocking the enforcement of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order that sought to limit counties to just one such location.

Saying Abbott’s order confused voters and restricted voter access, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman granted an injunction late Friday barring its enforcement. With an unprecedented number of Texas voters requesting mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, and concerns about the reliability of the U.S. Postal Service, some large, Democratic counties had set up numerous locations to accept the ballots before Abbott’s order.

“By limiting ballot return centers to one per county,” Pitman wrote, “older and disabled voters living in Texas’s largest and most populous counties must travel further distances to more crowded ballot return centers where they would be at an increased risk of being infected by the coronavirus in order to exercise their right to vote and have it counted.”

[…]

The Texas Democratic Party called Friday’s ruling a “common sense order [that] followed well-established law and stopped the governor from making up election rules after the election started.”

Before Friday’s ruling, Democrats had denounced Abbott’s order, labeling it voter suppression in a state that has repeatedly been knocked in federal court for intentionally discriminating against voters of color. Voting rights advocates and civic groups quickly sued Abbott in federal court, arguing the order was based on invalid security concerns and places an unconstitutional and unequal burden on the right to vote.

The Texas and national League of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters filed suit the night of Abbott’s order, and another lawsuit was filed the next day by the Texas Alliance for Retired Americans, the get-out-the-vote group Bigtent Creative and a 65-year-old voter.

“Cutting these mail-in voting locations was wrong and done solely to attempt to steal the election from the rising Texas electorate,” said Gilberto Hinojosa, chair of the Texas Democratic Party. “A county, like Harris County, with more than 4.7 million Texans should have more than one hand delivery location. Limiting counties like Harris is a desperate Republican attempt to hold onto power.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a copy of the ruling. Looking at the plaintiffs, it appears that the first lawsuit and the second lawsuit were combined. That leaves one other federal lawsuit, plus the one state lawsuit for which there is a hearing next week.

One presumes this will be appealed, and as we all know the Fifth Circuit is where all good things go to die. I think there’s a strong argument to be made that allowing Abbott’s order, which was made more than two months after counties had begun making plans to have multiple dropoff locations and after the state Solicitor General filed a brief saying that state law allowed for this, is the thing that would improperly disrupt the election at this late date. I also think the Fifth Circuit can rise to the occasion of brushing such an objection aside. Travis County, one of the places that had multiple dropoff locations in place prior to the order, has said it will wait to see what the Fifth Circuit does before reopening them. It’s hard to fault them for that. The Chron and the Statesman have more.

UPDATE: As expected, Paxton has filed an emergency motion for a stay of the judge’s ruling. You can read that here. The smart money always says that he gets what he asks for from this court, so it’s a matter of how quickly they have a hearing and issue a ruling.

UPDATE: Faster than you can say “Anything you want, Kenny”, the Fifth Circuit grants Paxton’s motion. Now we wait for a hearing. See why Travis County decided to wait before reopening any of those dropoff locations? Here’s the Chron story about the granting of the stay.

First hearing for mail ballot dropoff locations

Hopefully we’ll get some action quickly.

Lawyers for voters and voting rights groups asked a federal judge Thursday to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s recent order limiting counties to one location where voters can hand-deliver mail-in ballots.

Abbott waited too long to issue his order on Oct. 1, they argued, not only because it came the same day Travis County opened four drop-off locations after a monthlong public information campaign, but also because voting had already begun in the Nov. 3 general election.

“It is too late and too dangerously burdensome to change election rules midstream,” lawyer Chad Dunn told U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in a hearing that was held via Zoom as a pandemic precaution.

Other lawyers argued that Abbott’s order placed a disproportionate burden on Texans who are most likely to vote by mail — those who are 65 and older or have a disability — by forcing many to endure longer and more difficult travel to ensure that their votes are submitted in a time of decreasing confidence in the U.S. Postal Service.

“It’s ironic and sad,” lawyer John Devaney said. “Now, after voting has started, the plug has been pulled.”

Lawyers for Abbott disputed claims that his order limited voting rights, saying the governor acted to expand opportunities and options for voters during the pandemic.

Abbott’s first election-related order, issued July 27, added six days of early voting and suspended a state law that allows voters to hand-deliver mail-in ballots only on Election Day, lawyer Eric Hudson told the judge.

In effect, Abbott gave voters almost 40 extra days to hand-deliver their ballots, Hudson argued.

“That’s not provided for in Texas law, and without Gov. Abbott’s proclamation, that right … would not be possible,” he said.

Pitman broke in to ask: “Is it the governor’s position that we’ve given you so much it’s OK to take back a little?”

“I don’t think we’ve taken anything back, your honor,” Hudson replied.

This hearing was for the first lawsuit, filed by LULAC and the League of Women Voters. Earlier in the day, the ACLU and the Lincoln Project announced they had filed amicus briefs in support of the plaintiffs. Courthouse News has some further details.

Representing LULAC, San Antonio attorney Luis Vera said the fears of election fraud have already been discredited and voters had already turned in their ballots for four days until Abbott’s order.

“The state of Texas wants one set of rules for [the] one party they represent and one set of rules for the others,” he said.

Attorney Chad Dunn, with Brazil & Dunn in Houston, asked the judge to issue a preliminary injunction to “preserve the status quo.” He cited federal courts’ reluctance to change the terms of an election so close to Election Day.

“This case is about more than drop-box locations in a county. It is about whether the public believes the results of the election will be honored,” he said.

Attorney John Devaney, with Perkins Coie in Washington, told Pitman the individual voter plaintiffs have standing in the case because of the risk they face voting at the polls and contracting Covid-19, and because they will have to travel further to reach their county’s one absentee drop-off location.

He argued that LULAC and the League of Women Voters have standing as organizations due to the burden of having to reallocate their resources at the last-minute to account for Abbott’s order.

“They will need to change their website, their educational materials and contact their new members” with the new information, Devaney said.

In response to the judge asking if the state also faces a burden if he decides to block Abbott’s order, Devaney responded the state’s burden to maintain the status quo would be smaller than that of the plaintiffs.

“Voters tend to wait until the end of an election to request a ballot. It’s not just procrastination,” Devaney said. “In an election this heated, voters want to wait. There’s going to be a surge of absentee votes … given the two-week period for the USPS, people are going to have to turn in their ballots because they don’t trust the Postal Service.”

Judge Pitman asked the plaintiffs if there was any difference between the drop-off locations closed by Abbott’s order and the still-operation sites in terms of election security.

Attorney Susan Hays, representing Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins, responded the county’s shuttered annex locations are “typical business offices” that are more secure than other public places due to employees receiving election security training. She said they are “much more secure because they must show ID before handing over the ballot.”

Pitman said he would issue his ruling “as soon as possible” given the close proximity to Election Day. Early voting locations are scheduled to open on Oct. 13.

It wouldn’t shock me if we get a ruling by Monday, but we’ll see. This is now the fourth lawsuit filed against the Abbott order, with three of them in federal court. According to the Statesman story, there’s a hearing scheduled for the state lawsuit next week.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story:

During a hearing Thursday, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman appeared unconvinced by the idea that eliminating the additional locations would have no impact on voting accessibility.

The suit before Pitman is one of several challenging Texas election laws and Abbott’s pandemic executive orders amending them that are still swirling, even as the start of early voting approaches.

[…]

The pool of voters using this method appears to be relatively small so far, though mail-in voting is up across Texas, so demand could rise.

In Harris County, for example, just 0.2 percent of 85,922 absentee voters hand-delivered their ballots during the low-turnout July primary runoff; 39 of the 404 ballots for the Nov. 3 election that have been returned through Thursday were dropped off by voters. Those dropoffs ceased when Abbott’s order went into effect with less than 24 hours notice.

It should be noted that dropoff boxes were basically never mentioned as an option for the July primary runoffs, so the fact that almost no one used them is no surprise. And since 39 out of 404 is almost ten percent, it sure looks like we were on our way to a significant increase in the use of this method. I point these numbers out because one can make an argument about how much of a burden Abbott’s order is based on them.

Where are we with the lawsuit to stop Harris County from sending out vote by mail applications?

Thanks for asking, we had the hearing in district court yesterday.

Voting in person will be safe across Texas in this fall’s general election despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the state’s elections director asserted in a Harris County courtroom Wednesday

Keith Ingram, with the Texas Secretary of State’s office, made the statement while testifying against Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county.

“Voters who want to vote by mail, and qualify to vote by mail, they should. And voters who want to vote in person, we would encourage them to do so,” Ingram said. “It’ll be safe for them to do so, and the counties will have a good experience for the voters.”

The Attorney General’s Office called Ingram as a witness in an injunction hearing seeking to halt Hollins’s plan while the underlying case makes its way through the courts. Attorney General Ken Paxton sued Hollins on Aug. 31.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill made no immediate ruling on the injunction, though at times appeared skeptical of the state’s arguments.

At the heart of the case is whether Hollins would exceed his authority as county clerk by sending mail ballot applications to each voter, which Harris County never has done. In the four-hour online hearing, lawyers for the state and county described starkly different consequences of carrying out the plan.

Ingram said Harris County’s plan would confuse voters and encourage some to vote fraudulently, undermining the public’s trust in the integrity of elections. He noted that lying on a mail ballot application is a state jail felony and residents could be prosecuted well after this fall’s election.

“When something strange, or unusual happens, voters are very concerned that this is an opportunity for fraud, and when they think the other side is cheating, they tend to stay home, Ingram said. “That’s the concern about a mass mailing like this.”

Hollins said he simply is trying to help as many eligible voters cast ballots as possible, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when many would feel safer voting by mail. The top of each application would feature a checklist explicitly explaining the eligibility rules. Hollins dismissed the state’s argument that voters would be confused as absurd.

“It would be a very bizarre and highly unlikely outcome that somehow, someone would unfold this fully, go to the very bottom, and think ‘I need to fill this out,’ without ever having looked up here,” Hollins said, pointing to a draft mailer in his hand.

See here and here for the background. You already know how I feel about this, and there’s nothing in this story to suggest that the state has improved on its weak arguments. I’m glad to see that Judge Sandill pointed out to the state that they had no objections before when Hollins sent applications to every over-65 voter in the county. There’s an edge of desperation in this lawsuit, and while one could argue it’s not the best use of the county’s money to do this, the law as interpreted by the Supreme Court seems pretty clear.

Several organizations have taken action to support the County Clerk or oppose the state. The League of Women Voters of Texas, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project filed an amicus brief, as HEB executive Charles Butt had previously done. The NAACP of Texas and the Anti-Defamation League Southwest Region filed a petition to intervene in opposition to the state, saying an injunction would harm the people they represent. Clerk Hollins’ response to Paxton is here. We should get the ruling by tomorrow, but we all know it will be appealed.

Speaking of such thing, here’s Hollins’ response to Hotze, from that ridiculous mandamus. The arguments are what you’d expect, and given the courtroom action in Houston I’d expect the Supremes to deny the writ, since there clearly is the time to litigate the matter. When they take action is of course anyone’s guess. Stay tuned.

Introducing the George Floyd Act

Coming this spring to the Legislature.

Black lawmakers at the Texas Legislature unveiled on Thursday the George Floyd Act, a sweeping police reform proposal that would ban chokeholds across the state and require law enforcement officers to intervene or render aid if another officer is using excessive force while on the job.

The legislation, spearheaded by members of the Texas Legislative Black Caucus, is named after Floyd, a Black man killed in Minneapolis police custody. Floyd died after a white police officer knelt on his neck for several minutes until and after he lost consciousness.

His death in May set off protests across the country and renewed debate over police brutality and racial inequity. And at the Legislature, which is set to meet again in January 2021 for a regular session, Floyd’s death has sparked new calls for policing and criminal justice reforms — including proposals that have failed at the Texas Capitol in recent years, often after opposition from police unions.

“We acknowledge that the road to justice in Texas — particularly for Black and brown people in Texas — has been fraught with dead ends, dead ends of white supremacy, racial hatred and bigotry,” state Rep. Harold Dutton, a Houston Democrat who chairs the caucus, said as he kicked off a virtual press conference, which included Floyd’s youngest brother, Rodney Floyd. “These dead ends have to go — and particularly the dead ends that relate specifically to law enforcement.”

The bill would also address qualified immunity, which shields government officials from litigation, by allowing civil lawsuits at the state level “for deprivation of rights under color of law,” according to a caucus summary of the legislation. Another provision would end arrests for fine-only offenses like theft under $100, a version of which died dramatically in 2019 after union opposition.

“Those police officers who do wrong by unlawfully harming our families or our constituents, who violate the constitutional rights of others, will be held accountable and legally liable for their actions,” said state Rep. Shawn Thierry, D-Houston.

It’s unclear if the outcry sparked by Floyd’s death will provide enough momentum in 2021 to push past resistance from law enforcement and unions. It’s also unknown whether the legislation will win Gov. Greg Abbott’s support, which would be crucial in turning it into law.

Abbott has previously said he is committed to working with Floyd’s family on legislation, and has even floated the possibility of a George Floyd Act at the Legislature. While he has not offered specifics on what proposals he would support, Abbott has emphasized a proposal that has also been pushed by police union officials: strengthening law enforcement training before officers are allowed to go on patrol.

It’s still too early to pre-file bills, since after all we don’t know for sure who will be serving in the next session, but it’s never too early to announce them. The Chron adds some details.

Groups including the Texas NAACP, Mothers Against Police Brutality, ACLU of Texas, Texas Coalition of Black Democrats, Black Lives Matter Houston and Texas Organizing Project have already thrown their support behind the bill.

Gov. Greg Abbott has publicly condemned Floyd’s death and promised to work with state legislators to pass reforms, though he did not discuss specifics. State Rep. Senfronia Thompson, D-Houston, and state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, who plan to carry the legislation, said Thursday they had not yet spoken with Abbott about it.

“It would be a great signal if he made this an emergency item and that we pass this in the first 90 days of the Legislature,” said state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas. “Hopefully he will partner with us on this legislation.”

The 19-member caucus that introduced the bill Thursday includes a single Republican, Rep. James White of Hillister.

While some local police and sheriff’s departments have implemented some tenets of the bill, such as requirements for officers to attempt de-escalation before using force, none of them are required for all 2,000 police agencies in Texas.

Further, the bill would require officers to demonstrate that they use lethal force only when in “imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death” or when “no other lesser level of force could have worked” and their actions present no risk to bystanders, according to a draft of the law that the caucus released Thursday. The use of force must stop as soon as the threat diminishes.

The bill states that “all force must be proportionate to the circumstance and the seriousness of the offense … and must be accompanied by (an) attempt to de-escalate.”

[…]

Charley Wilkison, the executive director of CLEAT, one of the largest law enforcement union in the state, said his organization is open to many of the concepts in the proposed bill, including banning chokeholds and ending arrests for fine-only offenses.

Other areas may require a more nuanced conversation, such as qualified immunity, as Wilkison said he believes it allows enough latitude — “It’s ‘qualified’; it’s not blanket” — under current law for citizens to sue officers for misconduct. Wilkison said he agrees with setting a statewide use-of-force policy, as long as officers retain discretion.

“If we’re allowed to be in the chain of communication, we’ll share and do our due diligence to take honest action in the Legislature,” Wilkison said.

As both stories note, some of what is in this proposed bill had been in the Sandra Bland Act originally. I don’t know that Abbott will care enough to make this bill an emergency item, but I do expect that he’ll support some form of this, and I do expect that something will pass. It’s mostly a question of how much of the bill as filed makes it to the finish line, and whether anything that is less desirable makes it in along the way. The potential for messiness, heated debate, and at least one idiot member of the Freedom Caucus saying something deeply stupid and offensive is quite high. But in the end I do expect something to pass, and we’ll feel good about what we do get. The question is how good, and how much more there will be to do in a future session. Reform Austin has more.

Pro-choice groups sue that “abortion sanctuary cities” guy

Good.

Three abortion support organizations – The Lilith Fund, the Texas Equal Access Fund, and The Afiya Center – are hitting back at anti-choice activist Mark Lee Dickson and the group he leads, Right to Life East Texas.

Those two are now the defendants in a defamation lawsuit, after labeling the pro-choice groups “criminal” and spewing lies about abortion care to – in their eyes – purposely “confuse, intimidate, and dissuade” abortion-seeking women in Texas. Dickson and Right to Life are behind the string of abortion bans passed recently by small Texas towns, many of which were also sued earlier this year by the ACLU of Texas.

“With this lawsuit, we are saying enough is enough,” said Marsha Jones, executive director of the Afiya Center, a reproductive justice group that addresses the health disparities black women and girls face. “We have been at the hands of those seeking to distort our purpose by damaging our standing in the community. Going after organizations like ours will not stop us from helping black folk; it will only cause confusion in our communities and create barriers to people seeking abortion care. The women that we serve have already been marginalized and disenfranchised and we are saying enough already. To be labeled as a ‘criminal entity’ presents a clear and present danger to the life of this organization.”

[…]

In February, the ACLU of Texas, representing the Texas Equal Access Fund and the Lilith Fund, filed suit against seven towns that passed the ordinance, arguing they violated pro-choice advocates’ First Amendment rights. By ideologically designating those groups as criminal entities, the towns are illegally imposing punishment without a fair trial, they argued. By May, the ACLU dropped the lawsuit after the cities backed down and revised ordinance language to stop calling such groups “criminal.”

Even with that partial victory, the plaintiffs believe a lot of damage is already done. They want to make sure Dickson and Right to Life East Texas are held accountable for disrupting and confusing communities who have a right to abortion care. Though the cities themselves have amended their ordinances, Dickson and his group continue in defamatory conduct as they “refuse to stop lying and refuse to correct the false record,” attorneys write in legal challenges filed today. (Afiya and TEA have filed suit in Dallas County while the Lilith Fund filed in Travis County district court.)

“The Lilith Fund has been defamed because Defendants have falsely accused it of assisting in the commission of the specific crime of murder,” the suit reads. “Ultimately, defamation is the purpose of the ordinance; Dickson’s campaign is designed to confuse people about the legal status of abortion and abortion advocacy, and paint abortion rights organizations like the Lilith Fund as criminals.”

See here and here for the background. Accusations of criminal activity, when done with malicious intent, is not protected speech. I look forward to these groups taking that guy to the cleaners. KUT, the Dallas Observer, and this TEA Fund Twitter thread have more.

The current status on local police reform efforts

Well, the budget amendment process didn’t do much.

CM Letitia Plummer

City Council on Wednesday unanimously approved Mayor Sylvester Turner’s $5.1 billion budget for the next fiscal year, slightly increasing funds for the Houston Police Department even as some cities are under pressure to cut law enforcement spending amid nationwide protest over police violence and the death of George Floyd.

As the council took up budget, chants of “Black lives matter” and “No justice, no peace” could be heard from protesters outside City Hall. Dozens of police reform advocates had asked city council the day before to divert funding from HPD’s massive budget to other services, such as health care and affordable housing.

Instead, the $965 million approved for HPD represents a 2 percent, or $19 million, increase over the current year. The overall city budget is up 1 percent.

The police department takes up more than a third of the tax- and fee-supported general fund, which pays for most of the city’s day-to-day operations. Much of the HPD increase is due to a 3 percent raise for officers under a 2018 labor contract that expires in December.

Turner, who later Wednesday signed an executive order on police reform, offered a passionate defense of the HPD budget, arguing that Houston has a shortage of police officers compared to other large cities. He often has pointed out that Houston, with a population of 2.3 million people and an area of more than 650 square miles, has 5,300 officers; Chicago, with a population of 2.7 million and 275 square miles, has about 12,000.

[…]

At-Large Council member Letitia Plummer proposed an amendment that would cut 199 vacant positions in the police department and redirect that money toward a slew of reforms, including giving the Independent Police Oversight Board subpoena power and boosting funds for mental health units and re-entry programs. Plummer’s amendments failed without the support of any other council member.

At one point, Plummer held up a heavily redacted HPD use-of-force policy, which she said the department gave her office when it requested a copy.

“We started the conversation on police reform. Not one of my amendments passed but I know that I stand on the right side of history,” said Plummer, who addressed the protesters outside after the vote. “That is the most important takeaway. I answer to the people who elected me. I will be holding the (mayor’s) task force accountable.”

The mayor did support an amendment from Councilmember Ed Pollard that would set up a public website where residents could browse complaints about police misconduct. The mayor said the site could work alongside the executive order he signed later Wednesday, and Pollard’s amendment was referred to the legal department for implementation.

I’ll get to the executive order in a minute. I know folks are upset by the failure of CM Plummer’s amendment. It is disappointing, but it’s not surprising. Stuff just doesn’t happen that fast in Houston. There’s almost always a need to build a broad base of support for significant changes, and that takes time. The good news is that CM Plummer’s proposals, especially redirecting certain kinds of 911 calls away from police and towards social workers, has a lot of merit and should garner a lot of support as more people learn about them. Making this a goal for the next budget is very doable, I think.

Now, as for that executive order:

The executive order embraces some measures laid out in the #8cantwait campaign, including: requiring officers to de-escalate, give a verbal warning and exhaust all other options before using deadly force; mandating that they intercede when they witness misconduct; forbidding choke-holds and firing at moving vehicles; and reporting all use of force to the Independent Police Oversight Board.

It also prohibits serving no-knock warrants unless the chief or his designee approves them in writing. A botched raid on Harding Street last year left two people dead, several officers wounded and two narcotics officers charged with crimes. It also has prompted the Harris County district attorney’s office to review and seek the dismissal of scores of drug cases involving one of the indicted officers, Gerald Goines.

“This is not the end,” Turner said, adding that thousands of residents protesting the May 25 death of Houston native George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis made his executive order possible. “In the absence of people that stood up, marched, protested, this would not be happening.”

Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, bans on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving weapons — were already HPD policies, and some experts have cast doubt on whether the #8cantwait reforms have resulted in measurable progress in the cities that have adopted them.

Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo said the reforms were meaningful in that they now are codified at City Hall. A new chief cannot come in later and undo the policies without going through the mayor’s office, he said.

“I think it is a huge, watershed moment,” he said.

See here for the background. A group called the #Right2Justice coalition put out this statement afterward:

“Mayor Turner promised bold reform on policing in Houston. Instead, his executive order on use of force is largely a restatement of existing policy. It makes little meaningful progress at a moment when tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets demanding change. Several of the requirements — the duty-to-interfere requirement, a partial ban on choke-holds, and prohibiting firing at moving vehicles — were either restatements of police best practices or already Houston Police Department policy or practice. Last year, the Houston Police Department forcibly entered a home to search it without warning. Two residents were killed, and four officers were shot. The executive order does nothing to prevent this kind of no-knock raid from happening again.

“The Houston Police Department has killed six people in the last two months. This moment demands meaningful change: new policies to require automatic release of body cam footage of police misconduct and eliminate no-knock warrants, and significant investments in diversion like those Harris County made yesterday. This executive order is not the meaningful reform we need.”

This coalition includes ACLU of Texas, Anti-Defamation League, Houston Immigration Legal Services Collaborative, Immigrant Resource Legal Center (IRLC), Texas Appleseed, Texas Civil Rights Project, Texas Organizing Project, and United We Dream. I checked several websites and Twitter feeds and could not find this statement on any of them. The ACLU of Texas Twitter did retweet Chron reporter Jasper Scherer, who tweeted an image of the statement. I feel like there is room for improvement here.

Anyway. I agree with Chief Acevedo that this means the next HPD Chief can’t just come in and throw this stuff out, and that’s good. But the next Mayor could throw it out, so we need to keep that in mind. A big question here is what happens when someone violates this order in some fashion. What are the consequences, and how will they be enforced? That needs to be addressed.

Also, too, that task force. I saw somewhere, but now can’t remember where, that Mayor Turner expects them to give a report in three months. That’s good, we need to have a deadline and a promise of a report, but that’s still just a starting point. There needs to be a plan to enact whatever this task force recommends as well.

Did you notice that bit in the budget story about the police union contract, which expires in December? That’s another opportunity to make positive changes, as Ashton Woods opines:

Under Article 30 of the contract, when a complaint is filed against an officer, the accused officer receives all copies and files associated with the complaint against them. They then have 48 hours to review the complaint against them, talk to a lawyer, and get their story together. All of this happens before they are required to give a statement to their supervisor. This “48-hour rule” insulates them from questioning and gives cops a privilege that no civilian gets.

Article 26 grants a committee of officers the power to appoint the 12 “independent hearing examiners” who get the final say in officer discipline for misconduct. But these examiners are not actually independent, as half of them are appointed by the police chief and the other half by the union. In other words, when an officer has been disciplined for misconduct and appeals that discipline, these cop-appointed examiners get to make the final call. Because the union gets to pick 50 percent of the examiners, they effectively have veto power. This gives the police union, the most outspoken opponent of police reform, a startling amount of control over officer discipline.

You may have noticed that there’s a huge piece of the puzzle missing: community oversight. While Houston technically has an Independent Police Oversight Board, this board has no subpoena power and no direct discipline authority, making it one of the weakest and least effective community oversight boards in the nation. According to the City of Houston website, the board can’t even take complaints directly from civilians. All complaints are reviewed by HPD.

As noted before, District B candidate Tarsha Jackson has recommended these and other changes as well. As much as anything, the key here is paying attention and making clear what we want to happen.

Finally, there was action taken by Commissioners Court.

Harris County’s sheriff and eight constables voiced support Wednesday for some of the policing and criminal justice reform measures approved by Commissioners Court hours after George Floyd, a longtime Houstonian killed by Minneapolis police was laid to rest.

In a session that stretched past midnight, Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved 10 reform-minded items inspired by the nationwide protests following Floyd’s May 25 video-recorded death, including a pledge to examine how to create a civilian oversight board with subpoena power, adopt a countywide use-of-force policy for officers and establish a database of use-of-force incidents.

Precinct 4 Constable Mark Herman said all eight constables met for several hours Wednesday morning to discuss the proposals. The group was unanimous in favor of adopting a universal use-of-force policy and sharing documents, including video, to help the county create a public log of violent police encounters.

“We’re in agreement to work with Judge Hidalgo’s group and be transparent and show any use of force we have,” Herman said.

Precinct 3’s Sherman Eagleton, one of two African-American constables, said the group did not come to a conclusion about welcoming more civilian oversight. He said Floyd’s killing had already spurred the constables to review their policies, though the group needs more time to evaluate the Commissioners Court proposals.

“That civilian review board might be a good thing once we find out more about it,” he said.

[…]

During the discussion Tuesday evening on creating a database of use-of-force incidents, First Assistant County Attorney Robert Soard warned court members they were perilously close to exceeding their authority by setting policy for other elected officials.

County Judge Lina Hidalgo agreed to amend the item to make clear that participation by agencies would be voluntary. She said video footage, however, often is crucial in exposing misconduct by police, as was the case in Floyd’s killing.

“How many times has this kind of thing happened and it just so happens that no one was taking a video, and so we didn’t know?” she said.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis said he was open to testing the limits of the court’s power even if that meant an issue needed to be resolved in state court. He said Commissioners Court’s passage of the items also could force the elected law enforcement officials to confront those issues.

“We do have the right to put the public pressure on, you got me?” Ellis said.

See here for the background. This is a good step forward, and it clearly does require the cooperation of the constables. As with the Houston items, we need to keep track of the progress made, and revisit these items in a year or so to ensure they have had the desired effect, with an eye towards doing more as needed.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

TDP gets initial win in vote by mail lawsuit

It’s a good start, but we’ve got a long way to go.

A state district judge on Wednesday said he will move forward with an order easing restrictions for voting by mail in Texas in light of the new coronavirus pandemic.

After conducting a video conference hearing in a lawsuit filed by state Democrats and civic organizations, Judge Tim Sulak told the attorneys he will issue a temporary injunction allowing all voters fearful of contracting coronavirus if they vote in person to ask for a mail-in ballot under a portion of the Texas election code allowing absentee ballots for voters who cite a disability. His ruling, which is almost certain to be appealed by the state, could greatly expand the number of voters casting ballots by mail in the upcoming July primary runoff elections.

[…]

During the hearing, those plaintiffs offered up two expert witnesses — a local doctor and an epidemiologist — who testified to the risks for transmitting the virus that would come with in-person voting. Meanwhile, the risks tied to mail ballots are “negligible,” said Catherine Troisi, an epidemiologist with the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health.

The Texas attorney general’s office, which intervened in the case, argued against the expansion, claiming the vote-by-mail disability qualifications apply to voters who already have a “sickness or physical condition” and not those who fear contracting a disease “whether it be COVID-19 or the seasonal flu.”

Just as the hearing was wrapping up, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton made public an “informal letter of advice” that further teed up what is expected to be a drawn out court battle over expanding voting by mail ahead of the runoffs and the November election.

Paxton stated that an individual’s sole fear of contracting the virus was not enough to meet the definition of disability to qualify for a mail ballot, and that those who advise voters to apply for a mail ballot based on that fear could be criminally prosecuted.

See here and here for the background; there is also a federal lawsuit over the same issues, for which I don’t know the status. The Chron adds some more detail.

State law currently allows voters to claim “disability” and apply for an absentee ballot if showing up at a polling place risks “injuring the voter’s health.”

“Mail ballots based on disability are specifically reserved for those who are physically ill and cannot vote in-person as a result,” Paxton wrote in a letter on Wednesday. “Fear of contracting COVID-19 does not amount to a sickness or physical condition as required by the Legislature … The integrity of our democratic election process must be maintained, and law established by our Legislature must be followed consistently.”

The state’s elections director earlier this month issued guidance to elections officials in all 254 counties pointing to the election code’s disability clause, which voting rights advocates had claimed as a victory.

Attorneys for the Democratic Party argued in court on Wednesday that the disability clause “plainly provided for circumstances such as this when public health makes it dangerous to vote in person.”

But they said the courts need to make that clear as county officials are currently wrestling with how to conduct the upcoming runoff elections in July, when voters will pick a Democrat to challenge U.S. Sen. John Cornyn.

“This is a total muddled mess,” said Glen Maxey, the Texas Democratic Party’s primary director, who administers elections in dozens of counties, as he testified about the guidance during a court hearing on Wednesday. “We’re going to have a mishmash of who can vote and who cannot vote by mail in this election.”

But Anna Mackin, an assistant attorney general, argued that the law clearly does not cover those afraid of COVID-19 and urged state District Judge Tim Sulak “not to allow this global crisis to be manipulated as a basis for rewriting a provision of the election code.”

Yes, Paxton’s “letter” does indeed seem to fly in the face of that SOS advisory. Is that a lack of communication between branches, or a real difference of opinion? Hard to say. Bear in mind, there’s nothing in state law that allows the Governor to order the cessation of abortions in the state. AG Ken Paxton interpreted the Abbott emergency order that initiated a shutdown of non-essential businesses and services to include abortion providers, which the exigent circumstances allowed. Here, however, he’s arguing that these same exigent circumstances do not allow for an interpretation of the state’s absentee ballot law that includes voting by mail for people who claim under that law that they are unable to vote in person. It’s not that these interpretations are indefensible, but the two of them together sure suggest a strictly partisan motive. (Add in the ruling that gun shops do count as “essential” for some extra zest.)

In a vacuum, I think people of good faith could reasonably differ on the interpretation of our vaguely-worded state law, and one could make a principled argument that it’s the role of the Legislature to make such a significant change in how it should be read and enforced. But Ken Paxton is not making a good faith argument, he’s simply doing what he always does, advancing his partisan interests over anything else. He certainly may win, in both venues. Let’s just be clear about what he’s doing. The TDP (a plaintiff in the case), the ACLU of Texas (an intervenor), and the Texas Signal have more.

UPDATE: More from Texas Lawyer:

The dispute—which asks whether all Texans should be able to vote by mail because of social distancing restrictions and the risk of contracting the coronavirus—was headed to a higher court. Acknowledging that, Judge Tim Sulak of the 353rd District Court ruled from the bench that he would grant a temporary injunction, and reject jurisdictional arguments by the state of Texas.
The judge will issue a written order once it’s prepared.

Sulak said that if voters didn’t get clarity on whether the Texas vote-by-mail law applied to them, they might face a choice of having to vote in person, and accept the risk of getting sick. Or they could try to apply for a mail-in ballot. However, if the government later found their mail-in ballot inappropriate, voters could face prosecution, or find that their ballot was not counted, the judge said.

Also, if Sulak didn’t grant relief, he said there was a risk of future conflicts involving candidates filing election contests to challenge the voting results.

“Some of that could lead to the unstable, unsettled, uncertain situation about: Who are our elected representatives,” Sulak said. “Especially now that we are in this disaster scenario, where we don’t have courts running as efficiently as they have previously, it could result in some very serious governance issues, very serious jurisprudential issues.”

[…]

The plaintiffs sought a temporary injunction, and eventually a permanent injunction, that would require the defendants to accept and tabulate mail-in ballots from voters who are practicing social distancing to stop the spread of the virus.

On the other hand, the state of Texas, which intervened as a defendant, argued that the court didn’t have jurisdiction. The state claimed that a voter wouldn’t qualify to vote by mail just from having a fear of contracting the coronavirus. Also, the claim wasn’t ripe, since no one knows if the contagion will still be present in July, when the primary runoff elections are scheduled.

However, during a hearing Wednesday on the application for a temporary restraining order, an infectious-disease epidemiologist who testified for the plaintiffs said that it’s highly likely that the coronavirus will continue to spread in Texas through the summer.

“Once social distancing guidelines are relaxed, in my expert opinion, it’s inevitable we will see a rise in cases,” said Cathy Troisi, a professor at the University of Texas School of Public Health in Houston.

Voters going to the polls will be at risk of infection because they’ll come into close contact with other people, and they’ll touch voting machines that many voters have touched, Troisi explained. Election workers would be at a higher risk, because they stay at polling locations all day and have contact with many more people, she added.

When asked if voting by mail carries a risk of infection, Troisi replied, ”Voting by mail does not, so yes, voting by mail would protect the public health and public safety of Texans.”

Sulak rejected the state’s jurisdictional arguments, which also included claims that the plaintiffs’ interpretation of the vote-by-mail law was significantly expanding the statute the Texas Legislature wrote.

“I respect the separation of powers. We’ve got a choice here between arguments from that perspective and arguments from something that has seminal, fundamental, individual constitutional rights: that is, free people making full choices and having full access to have choices about their government,” Sulak said.

The judge asked plaintiffs’ counsel to draft an temporary restraining order, and to submit a proposed order denying the state’s plea to the jurisdiction.

And now we wait for the appeal, and for a hearing in the federal case.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

From Ian Millhiser at Vox, who is decidedly more pessimistic about the plaintiffs’ chances. He starts by noting how restrictive Texas’ existing vote-by-mail law is.

The law only allows Texas voters to obtain an absentee ballot under a very limited list of circumstances. Voters may obtain an absentee ballot if they plan to be absent from their home county on Election Day, if they have a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents them from voting in person, if they are over the age of 65, or if they are jailed.

It is far from clear that a healthy person who remains at home to avoid contracting coronavirus may obtain an absentee ballot.

Texas Democratic Party v. Hughs, a lawsuit filed by the state Democratic Party, seeks to fix this law — or, at least, to interpret the law in a way that will ensure healthy people can still vote. But the lawsuit potentially faces an uphill battle in a state court system dominated by conservative judges.

All nine members of the state Supreme Court are Republicans, and Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton filed a motion seeking to intervene in the lawsuit — a sign that he intends to resist efforts to prevent this law from disenfranchising voters.

The stakes in this case are astoundingly high. As Texas Democrats note in their complaint, voters are “now heavily discouraged” from even leaving their homes “by various government orders and are being discouraged in an enormous public education campaign.”

Even if the pandemic were to end by July 14, when the state plans to hold several runoff elections, “certain populations will feel the need and/or be required to continue social distancing.” Millions of voters could potentially be forced to choose between losing their right to vote and risking contracting a deadly disease.

[…]

Whether these Texans can get an absentee ballot could end up depending on how the courts interpret the phrase “physical condition.”

On the one hand, the law explicitly labels this provision as an accommodation for people who have a “disability.” The words “physical condition” also appear in conjunction with the word “sickness,” which implies that those words should be interpreted to refer to some sort of disabling condition that only a subset of Texans possess. Often, when a law uses a general term in the context of other, more specific terms, courts will assume that the general term should be given a narrow reading — one similar to the specific terms.

On the other hand, the literal meaning of the words “physical condition” is much more expansive. As a team of civil rights lawyers, including several from the ACLU, argue in a motion suggesting that the state law should be read expansively, “everyone has a physical condition” that prevents them from appearing at their polling place during a pandemic — the physical condition of being susceptible to coronavirus.

Either one of these interpretations of the Texas law is plausible, and a judge could reach either conclusion using methods of statutory interpretation that are widely accepted as legitimate. One judge might argue that the words “physical condition” should be read expansively, because that is the ordinary meaning of those words. Another might argue that they must be read in context with words like “sickness.”

The problem facing the Texas Democratic Party is that, when a fair judge acting in good faith could legitimately read a law in two different ways, it is very easy for a partisan judge to choose the interpretation they prefer. And every one of the nine justices on the Texas Supreme Court is a Republican.

Because older voters tend to prefer the GOP, the Texas Republican Party has a clear interest in preserving a legal regime that allows voters over 65 to obtain an absentee ballot but makes it much harder for younger voters to do so.

That said, if Democrats lose this particular lawsuit, that does not necessarily mean millions of Texans will lose their right to vote. It’s possible a federal court could rescue Texas voters in a separate lawsuit — one that most likely has not even been filed yet — holding that the unique burden the coronavirus pandemic imposes on voters renders Texas’s strict absentee ballot law unconstitutional.

This was written before the TDP filed its federal lawsuit, so bear that in mind as you read. I appreciate the analysis, which is the first in-depth look at the crux of the issue that I’ve seen. It’s a little crazy that it all hangs on the interpretation of two words, but here we are. I agree that in normal times one could reasonably interpret this either way, but if there’s ever a time for a bit of leeway, this is it. It’s not terribly surprising to me that the AG’s office has petitioned to intervene in the case – this is standard procedure for when the state gets sued, though the SOS does have its own attorneys. I’m more keen to know what if anything Greg Abbott thinks – if there’s going to be some influence on the court, it’ll come from him. There are definitely plenty of Republican elected officials who are in denial about the situation, and that could lead to pressure on Abbott to take a line-in-the-sand stance. Hasn’t happened yet, but that doesn’t mean it can’t or it won’t.

It’s also possible that the delayed July 14 primary runoffs will go off without any problems and in-person voting is fine, thus leading to a sense of complacency for November. Or maybe things will still be bad, or at least bad in the more-Republican rural areas, and that might make some people more aware of the fact that everyone has something to lose if we don’t plan better. That recent SOS advisory leaves me with some hope for a settlement in the existing litigation. The real tell will be if and when the usual agitators on the right start whipping up a frenzy. Remember also that the Republicans are busy trying to register voters this year – they have a stake in getting whatever new voters they sign up to the polls, too. Like I said, I have hope for a settlement, but it’s too early to tell which way the wind will blow.

Abbott’s stay-in-jail order blocked and then unblocked

This was Friday.

A state district judge in Travis County has temporarily blocked enforcement of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order to limit jail releases during the new coronavirus pandemic. She cited unconstitutional provisions and overreach of executive power in the gubernatorial order.

State District Judge Lora Livingston issued her ruling Friday night after a lawsuit this week challenged the governor’s order that prohibited judges from releasing some inmates without paying bail. Abbott’s order was prompted by some local officials moving to reduce the number of people locked up in disease-prone county jails. He said “releasing dangerous criminals in the streets is not the solution.”

Abbott’s order banned the release of jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime on no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas argued in their lawsuit filed Wednesday that Abbott’s order violates the constitutional separation of powers and keeps only poor defendants in jails. The plaintiffs, represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project, asked the court to declare Abbott’s order unconstitutional and an overreach of his power.

[…]

In a virtual hearing Friday, Livingston repeatedly questioned how the governor’s order affected public safety and whether he could make a widespread decision to take away judges’ authority to individually assess defendants.

“I’m just trying to understand how this order without regard to any particular specific information about a case can blanketly decide that a personal bond is not necessary or appropriate or required in a particular situation,” she said. “I’m troubled by the sort of blanket nature of that order in the same way that apparently the governor was concerned about a blanket order from judges that hasn’t yet happened but could theoretically be entered.”

[…]

“What confusion is solved by the governor taking action in this way when in my mind, and apparently in the mind of the Harris County district judges, there’s no confusion at all?” she asked Biggs. “I think the judges do what they do and that Harris County order seemed to bear that out: This is what judges do everyday and we will handle it, thank you very much.”

She later added that the county judge can’t tell local judges how to make decisions. “That’s not how separation of powers works; that’s not how reality works.”

See here for the previous update. Judge Livingston more or less addressed the question I had raised, which is that given how the judges in Harris County had already said they were going to operate, what was Abbott’s order even doing? This ruling was to in effect until April 24, at which time there will be another hearing. But then the Supreme Court stepped in:

The Texas Supreme Court has revived Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the coronavirus pandemic.

On Saturday, the high court stayed a state district judge’s ruling from Friday night that blocked Abbott’s order. The district judge cited unconstitutional provisions and an overreach of executive power in her temporary order against Abbott. The Supreme Court’s order is also temporary, with responses due to the court Monday evening.

The legal battle stems from an Abbott order issued last month during the state disaster. The governor’s order prohibits judges from releasing jail inmates accused or previously convicted of a violent crime without paying bail — banning no-cost, personal bonds which can include conditions like regular check-ins. Under Abbott’s order, those accused of the same crimes and with the same criminal history could still be released from jail if they have access to cash. A no-cost release can still be considered for health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, though some attorneys said that can take weeks.

A copy of Judge Livingston’s ruling is here. I would refer you to the Grits for Breakfast analysis of why the plaintiffs should win on the merits, which now we have to hope that the Supreme Court is able to recognize as well. The Chron has more.

Another lawsuit filed over Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

There’s no slowdown in the litigation business, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s order restricting the release of some jail inmates during the new coronavirus pandemic is facing a second court challenge arguing his order violates the constitutional separation of powers and discriminates against poor criminal defendants.

Harris County’s misdemeanor judges, criminal defense organizations and the NAACP of Texas sued Abbott and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Wednesday in Travis County district court. The plaintiffs are represented in part by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Last month, Abbott issued an executive order that suspended much of the state’s bail laws and prohibited the release of people in jail accused or previously convicted of violent crimes without paying bail. The order largely banned judges across the state from releasing such defendants on no-cost, personal bonds, which can include conditions like drug testing and regular check-ins. The attorney general’s office has said no-cost release could be considered for individuals based on health or safety reasons after a chance for a hearing is given, which some attorneys said takes weeks.

But, under Abbott’s order, people accused of the same crimes with the same criminal history could still quickly be released from jail if they had access to cash. The lawsuit argues Abbott’s order ignores constitutionally-mandated separation of powers by taking away judges’ discretion. It also states the system put in place under the order creates an unconstitutional wealth-based system, similar to those that federal courts have slammed in Texas counties.

“The harms of this order are not abstract: poor people are being detained pretrial with no way to escape a possible jail outbreak,” said Amanda Woog, executive director of the Texas Fair Defense Project, in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “The governor has overstepped his legal authority, and this is causing significant harm on the ground.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the lawsuit is here and the full statement from the ACLU is here. I get that this lawsuit is over the authority Abbott has to suspend various criminal laws, but it’s a little unclear to me what the actual stakes are. The misdemeanor court judges, who are plaintiffs in this suit, have already said they will continue to abide by the bail lawsuit agreement, while the felony court judges are doing their own thing. I guess we’ll find out when we start having hearings. If you’re a lawyer and want to help clarify this for me, please do. Grits has more.