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ACLU of Texas

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.

Intervening in the mail ballot expansion lawsuit

From the inbox:

The ACLU of Texas, American Civil Liberties Union, and Texas Civil Rights Project on Wednesday joined a case seeking to declare that under Texas law all registered voters qualify to request a mail-in ballot as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis.

The lawsuit states that in order to prevent wide-scale disenfranchisement during this public health crisis, the court should declare that the Texas Election Code’s definition of “disability” in the vote-by-mail provision – one of the basis of eligibility to vote-by-mail in Texas – currently encompasses all registered voters. The suit further states that the court should order that all mail-in ballots received by eligible voters under this category due to the pandemic be accepted and tabulated.

Because of the current COVID-19 public health crisis and the need to be confined at home, all individuals cannot physically appear at a polling place on Election Day without a risk to their health. Texas has 3,997 confirmed cases as of today. The latest guidance from the Trump administration advises against gatherings of more than 10 people, and many Texas counties have ordered restaurants and bars closed.

“Public safety must be prioritized during the coronavirus pandemic,” said Edgar Saldivar, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “If we don’t address how COVID-19 will affect our access to the ballot, people will find themselves balancing their civic duty to vote and their need to stay healthy. Clarifying that all Texans may vote-by-mail during this crisis under current state law is unquestionably the most effective and immediate way to ensure we protect both public safety and voting rights. Our state leaders must act fast so we can educate the public about how they can safely exercise their right to vote.”

The civil rights organizations are asking for the court’s declaration that the vote-by-mail provision applies to all Texans in light of the pandemic to allow for public education and planning to process an increase of mail ballots.

“Texans should not be asked to choose between their physical well-being and their fundamental right to vote, when we already have an election code that can accommodate a public health emergency,” said Joaquin Gonzalez, lead attorney on the case in the Voting Rights Program at Texas Civil Rights Project. “The secretary of state has been shockingly silent when our clients have been seeking her leadership and guidance the most. I know we’re in isolation, but you can send an email.”

“States all across the country are making vote by mail available because they know it is a common-sense solution to protect democracy and people’s well-being during this public health crisis,” said Sophia Lin Lakin, deputy director of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, citing states such as West Virginia, Indiana, Delaware, and Virginia, among others. “In failing to issue guidance making clear that all Texans are eligible to vote by mail due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Texas is forcing a false choice between protecting public health and allowing Texans to exercise their right to vote. Vote-by-mail for all eligible voters allows for both. Texas can and should make this common-sense solution explicit.”

The plaintiffs in this filing include the League of Women Voters of Texas, MOVE Texas, League of Women Voters of Austin Area, Workers Defense Action Fund, and University of Texas student Zach Price.

A copy of the motion to intervene is available here.

See here for the background. Again, the arguments are straightforward and have been discussed before. It’s mostly a question of how the state will oppose them, and what the courts do from there. As the Chron editorial board notes, the Secretary of State could simply agree to the plaintiffs’ demands and be done with it, but I think we both know that Abbott and Paxton won’t let that happen. We’re going to need a ruling soon for this to matter for the primary runoffs. The Texas Signal has more.

UPDATE: And as soon as I finished drafting this, I got the following in my mailbox:

On Wednesday, Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’s office responded to Progress Texas’ petition calling on Texas to implement universal vote-by-mail. So far, the petition has received roughly 3,000 signatures from voters across the state.

In the response, the Secretary of State’s office hinted at the possibility that Texans who are concerned for their health may meet the disability requirements currently in place to apply for a ballot by mail. However, the vague response is open to interpretation and requires clarity in the form of an official proclamation or agreed court order from Secretary of State Ruth Hughs or Governor Greg Abbott.

“Right now, no voter we know of has immunity to COVID-19, and physical polling places could risk exposure and cause injury by way of sickness,” said Ed Espinoza, executive director of Progress Texas. “We have to make our upcoming elections as safe as possible. We believe that election law provides a remedy for all voters to vote-by-mail, but we need clarity from the state. Texas already allows no-excuse vote-by-mail for voters aged 65 and up, and we need our statewide lawmakers to step up and expand the benefit to everyone.”

“Being terrified of catching a virus that’s killing hundreds of thousands of people should obviously qualify as a legitimate reason for Texans to want to vote by mail, but we need an advisory from Secretary Hughes to make that official,” said Anthony Gutierrez, executive director at Common Cause Texas. “This email communication seems to indicate the Secretary of State agrees with our position, but this needs to be explicitly stated.”

Secretary of State Ruth Hughs office’s response states:

“One of the grounds for voting by mail is disability. The Election Code defines ‘disability’ to include ‘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.’ (Sec. 82.002). If a voter believes they meet this definition, they can submit an application for ballot by mail.

“As the situation changes, we will be updating our guidance. We hope this information has been helpful.”

Progress Texas and Common Cause Texas call on Secretary Hughs and Gov. Abbott to act in the interest of Texans’ health, safety, and voting rights to officially expand vote-by-mail universally through an official proclamation or agreed court order as soon as possible.

We all agree on what the law says. What matters is what it means. If, as we have previously discussed, the state agrees that anyone can claim the disability allowance, then great! We’re done here. If not – and clearly, I think they won’t, though I’ll be happy to be proven wrong – that’s where we need the court to step in and issue a ruling. The clock is ticking.

More on Abbott’s stay-in-jail order

Here’s that more detailed Chron story I referenced yesterday. I’m just going to quote the newer information about Greg Abbott’s executive order that attempts to basically stop most releases of inmates from the jail regardless of the coronavirus situation.

The newly appointed monitor over Harris County’s misdemeanor bail protocol, Duke law professor Brandon Garrett, said the decree violated “many state and federal constitutional provisions.”

Alec Karakatsanis, a civil rights attorney who represents thousands of indigent defendants awaiting trial at the lockup on felony charges, called the governor’s stance illegal and perilous.

“The edict is dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic, and a flagrantly unconstitutional attempt to infringe fundamental constitutional rights,” he said. “If enforced it would have catastrophic public health consequences.”

[…]

The governor’s order suspends portions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure and statues related to personal bonds, barring any personal bonds for anyone with a prior violent conviction or a conviction involving the threat of violence. He also outlawed releasing inmates with prior violent convictions on electronic monitoring.

In a barely veiled reference to the preparations taking place by Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo, the governor suspended portions of the Texas Government Code permitting a county judge, mayor or emergency management director from releasing people outlawed under his new order. He said criminal court judges who handle misdemeanor and felony cases may still consider such releases on an individualized basis for health or medical reasons proper notice to prosecutors.

Among prison inmates, Abbott suspended portions of the state criminal code related to commuting sentences for anyone convicted of violence or threats.

Multiple plans for lowering the jail population have evolved in the past two weeks, including an executive order by Hidalgo that never came to fruition and a request by the lawyers who sued the county over its bail practices. District Attorney Kim Ogg also entered the discussion, telling the sheriff and presiding district judge that she wanted to weigh in and expedite releases of low-risk inmates in the “high likelihood” of a federal court order dictating either substantive bail hearings or outright release on personal bonds.

“As the legal representatives of the State of Texas, we also have the duty to be advocates for victims and the community in a full and fair bail hearing related to the proposed release of individuals who do pose a substantial risk to public safety,” Ogg wrote, in the letter obtained by the Houston Chronicle.

Hours before Abbott’s announcement, Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal convened an emergency hearing by phone to address incomplete plans by plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case to craft the a release order for people accused of some nonviolent offenses, along with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge.

An official from Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office told the federal judge that Paxton was poised to appeal any order by Rosenthal that called for blanket releases of inmates.

See here for the previous post. The Trib adds on.

Abbott’s order applies to inmates who have been accused or convicted of “a crime that involves physical violence or the threat of physical violence,” which defense attorneys called a vague and subjective standard. Abbott’s directive also appears to apply to inmates with any history of violent offenses — meaning a person arrested on a nonviolent drug charge last week could be held if he had a decades-old conviction of a violent offense.

Though the order bans release of inmates on no-cost, personal bonds, it does not set a standard for how high a bail amount must be. Presumably, judges could still release inmates on bonds of $1, defense attorneys said.

Legal experts questioned the order’s validity, and it drew immediate rebukes from Democrats and bail reform advocates, who argued the order discriminates against poor people. Several Texas counties, including Harris and Dallas, have in recent years had their bail practices deemed unconstitutional for discriminating against poor defendants.

“It is a dangerous, unprecedented, chaotic and flagrantly unconstitutional edict that if enforced would expose many people around the state of Texas to a public health catastrophe,” said Alec Karakatsanis, executive director of the Civil Rights Corp, which has been at the helm of Harris County’s federal bail lawsuits.

El Paso Democrat Joe Moody, a state representative and former prosecutor and defense attorney, said “if followed, this order will see jails bursting at the seams [with] minor drug offenders, homeless people whose most recent ‘crime’ was something like simple trespass & everyday citizens picked up on the flimsiest of allegations.”

According to Abbott’s order, a judge may consider a defendant’s release for health or medical reasons, after the district attorney is notified and there is an opportunity for a hearing.

You can see the executive order here, and a brief analysis of why it doesn’t pass constitutional muster here. Rep. Gene Wu was on a call with Abbott and reports that the Governor is either misinformed or not telling the truth about his own order. The ACLU of Texas has responded to Abbott’s order, and I presume we’ll have some action in the federal court today. I should note that Ken Paxton jumped out in front of this parade ahead of Abbott’s order, which prompted a couple of folks to observe that Ken Paxton is himself under a felony indictment and out free on bail. Hey, irony went into hospice care sometime back in 2002, so just keep swimming. The Texas Observer has more.

Abbott delays primary runoffs

So this was originally going to be a post about what various groups have been advocating for the primary runoffs. And then Greg Abbott went and pushed the runoffs back to July without addressing any of the other concerns that had been raised. So here’s my post about that, and then because I spent a lot of time writing the other post, I’ve included that beneath the fold, so you can see what would have been.

Texas is postponing its May 26 primary runoff elections to mid-July to help prevent community spread of COVID-19, Gov. Greg Abbott announced on Friday.

State officials had been trying to decide whether to convert that election to an all-mail-ballot, but Abbott on Friday said the state will instead move the election.

“Holding the runoff in May would cause the congregation of large gatherings of people in confined spaces and cause numerous election workers to come into close proximity with others,” a statement from Abbott’s office said. “This would threaten the health and safety of many Texans.”

The election will be moved to July 14 with early voting starting on July 6.

[…]

Some lawmakers had been pushing Abbott to convert the May runoff election into an all-mail election. Because the turnout out is typically low, they said Texas could easily get ballots to people who want to vote in the runoffs.

I mean, this could be adequate. Lord knows, we all hope that we’re finished with social distancing and coronavirus is more or less under control by then. If it’s not, though, then what’s Plan B? I can understand why Abbott might have wanted to take the easy way out, but he doesn’t really have control over that. Hope for the best, I guess. Anyway, read on for what this post was going to be. The Trib has more.

(more…)

ACLU sues the “abortion sanctuary cities”

This was expected.

The ACLU filed a lawsuit against seven Texas cities on Tuesday for passing ordinances that aim to ban abortion by outlawing providers and advocates from doing business in their towns.

The suit, brought by the ACLU of Texas and ACLU National, contends the cities are violating the free speech of the eight banned groups, which include abortion providers and organizations that help people who need abortions. The ordinances label the groups “criminal organizations” and make it unlawful for them to operate within city limits.

“These ordinances are unconstitutional,” said Anjali Salvador, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Abortion is legal in every city and state in the country. Cities cannot punish pro-abortion organizations for carrying out their important work.”

The ordinances subject groups that would aid women seeking an abortion to illegal punishment without a fair trial, according to the lawsuit. The Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two of the eight groups banned from operating in the cities, are among the plaintiffs. Other banned organizations include Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance.

The ordinances make it unlawful for the organizations to offer services of any kind in the city, rent office space, purchase property or establish a physical presence. On the other hand, the ordinances acknowledge that cities cannot ban abortion under current law unless the U.S. Supreme Court were to overturn abortion protections guaranteed in Roe v Wade.

[…]

Waskom, a small town on the Texas-Louisiana border, became the first city in the state to ban abortion this way, although it had no abortion clinics. City officials voted unanimously in favor of the ordinance, fearful a Louisiana law banning abortions once a fetal heartbeat is detected could push clinics to relocate in Texas. Six other small cities in East Texas have passed similar ordinances: Naples, Joaquin, Tenaha, Rusk, Gary and Wells.

The ordinances make it illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion. They also offer families of an aborted fetus the ability to sue abortion providers.

See here for some background, and here for a copy of the lawsuit, which was filed in federal court. I haven’t blogged about most of these ordinances because there’s not much new to say for each, and so far all of the “cities” involved have been tiny towns that have no clinics in them. You’d think that just the provision making it “illegal to provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on having an abortion” would be unconstitutional – would a city also be allowed to make it illegal to “provide transportation, instructions or money to someone intent on” gambling in Louisiana, or smoking weed in Colorado, or visiting the Bunny Ranch in Nevada, all things that are presumably also frowned upon by the people of Waskom? In theory, the Uber driver who takes you to the Greyhound station for a trip to Planned Parenthood in Houston would be guilty under this law, as would the driver of the Greyhound bus. You can’t stop someone from engaging in a perfectly legal pursuit.

As is always the case with this sort of thing, I agree completely with the intent of the lawsuit, and I’d love to see these towns get socked with large legal bills for their exercise in unconstitutional frivolity, that they may serve as grim examples for the next burg that might find itself tempted by the zealous anti-abortion grifters that sold them on it. But I admit to having some concerns as well. Do we really want to 1) provide another opportunity for Ken Paxton to grandstand (which, even though the state is not a party to the lawsuit, you know he will), 2) provide the Fifth Circuit with an opportunity to invent a reason why this is all hunky dory, and 3) provide SCOTUS with another opportunity to kneecap Roe v. Wade without explicitly overruling it? I shouldn’t have to feel this way – these ordinances are so obviously wrong there should be no cause for concern – but this is the world we live in. I just don’t love the risk/reward profile on this, and I hate myself for saying that. The Trib has more.

Appealing the Crystal Mason illegal voting conviction

This continues to be an appalling travesty.

When Crystal Mason got out of federal prison, she said, she “got out running.”

By Nov. 8, 2016, when she’d been out for months but was still on supervised release, she was working full-time at Santander Bank in downtown Dallas and enrolled in night classes at Ogle Beauty School, trying, she said, to show her children that a “bump in the road doesn’t determine your future.”

On Election Day, there was yet another thing to do: After work, she drove through the rain to her polling place in the southern end of Tarrant County, expecting to vote for the first female president.

When she got there, she was surprised to learn that her name wasn’t on the roll. On the advice of a poll worker, she cast a provisional ballot instead. She didn’t make it to her night class.

A month later, she learned that her ballot had been rejected, and a few months after that, she was arrested. Because she was on supervised release, prosecutors argued, she had knowingly violated a law preventing felons from voting before completing their sentences. Mason insisted she had no idea officials considered her ineligible — and would never have risked her freedom if she had.

For “illegally voting,” she was sentenced to five years in prison. Now, as her lawyers attempt to persuade a Fort Worth appeals court to overturn that sentence, the question is whether she voted at all.

Created in 2002, provisional ballots were intended to serve as an electoral safe harbor, allowing a person to record her vote even amid questions about her eligibility. In 2016, more than 66,000 provisional ballots were cast in Texas, and the vast majority of those were rejected, most of them because they were cast by individuals who weren’t registered to vote, according to data compiled by the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. In Tarrant County, where Mason lives, nearly 4,500 provisional ballots were cast that year, and 3,990 were rejected — but she was the only one who faced criminal prosecution.

In fact, Mason’s lawyer told a three-judge panel in North Texas last Tuesday, hers is the first known instance of an individual facing criminal charges for casting a ballot that ultimately didn’t count.

Her case, now pending before an all-Republican appeals panel, is about not just her freedom, but about the role and risks of the provisional ballot itself.

Prosecutors insist that they are not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake. Despite those assurances, voting rights advocates fear the case could foster enough doubt among low-information voters that they’ll be discouraged from heading to the polls — or even clear a path for prosecutors to criminally pursue other provisional ballot-casters.

“There are a lot of people who have questions about whether they can vote or where they can vote,” said Andre Segura, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas. “You want all of those people to feel comfortable going in and submitting a provisional ballot.”

[…]

Tarrant County prosecutors have brushed off concerns the Mason case could lead to voter suppression. “The fact that this case is so unique should emphasize why this case should in no way have a ‘chilling effect’ on anyone except people who knowingly vote illegally,” Jordan said.

But during the 2019 legislative session, some Republican lawmakers pushed to erase Mason’s legal defense for future defendants by making it easier to prosecute people who cast ballots without realizing they’re ineligible.

Currently, to commit a crime, voters must know they are ineligible; under the proposed law, they would commit a crime just by voting while knowing about the circumstances that made them ineligible. In other words, Mason would have been illegally voting because she was aware of her past felony conviction — even if she was not aware her “supervised release” status made her ineligible.

The fact that Mason’s provisional ballot wasn’t actually counted would have also been ruled out as a legal defense under the proposed changes to state law. That legislation ultimately failed in the House amid major opposition from Democrats.

See here for some background. The appellate hearing was last week, and it drew national coverage. There are three legal justifications given by the ACLU on behalf of Crystal Mason why her attempt to vote was not illegal, but even if you think those arguments are insufficient, there’s still no possible justice in a five year prison sentence for this. I mean, there’s plenty of other crimes that are punished far, far less. This is about scaring certain people so they don’t feel confident about voting. This is why reversing the tide of voter suppression laws has to be a priority for the next Democratic Legislature. Further reading about the case from the ACLU is here and here, and the Observer has more.

Galveston ordered to provide counsel at bail hearings

Sure seems like the proper thing to do.

Add Galveston to the list of Texas counties that have been court ordered to change their bail practices.

A federal district judge on Wednesday issued a temporary injunction in a 2018 lawsuit where attorneys for inmates have called Galveston County’s money bail system discriminatory against poor criminal defendants. The court’s order doesn’t target the entire pretrial system — which has largely changed since the suit was filed after federal rulings against Harris County. But it requires poor arrestees to have a lawyer at their first court appearance, where their bail is set to determine the monetary or other conditions under which an arrestee can be released from jail before trial.

The ACLU of Texas, which represents Galveston County inmates in the lawsuit, said in a statement after the order that it was the first court in the country to conclude that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees a right to counsel, requires defense attorneys to be provided at initial bail-setting hearings.

“It’s a matter of basic fairness that you should get a lawyer before a judge decides whether to lock you in jail,” said Trisha Trigilio, senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas. “Unsurprisingly, without lawyers to advocate for their release, many people wind up in jail who shouldn’t be there. And even a short time in jail can have devastating repercussions on someone’s life.”

[…]

Since the lawsuit was filed — and as the two most populous counties in the state were repeatedly slammed by federal judges for their bail practices — Galveston County has transformed its pretrial practices. The district attorney’s office still recommends bail amounts from a schedule, but the judicial officer setting bail now has financial information the defendant provided before the first court appearance. Defendants who want to request a lower bond amount for financial reasons can get a second bail review hearing, typically within 12 hours of their first court appearance, where a defense attorney is present to represent all the defendants before the judge in that time slot.

U.S. District Judge George Hanks Jr.’s injunction, however, said the county needs to have a lawyer not just at the review hearings, but at the initial court appearance. He clarified that the order applies to those arrested without warrants and that are first seen in court through Galveston County jail. Hanks adopted the recommendation of magistrate judge Andrew Edison, who said having a defense attorney at a hearing where the court determines how, if at all, to release a defendant before trial, is “a no-brainer.”

See here and here for the background. A copy of the ruling is here and a copy of the magistrate’s recommendations is here. I have to say, I don’t know what the argument against providing an attorney for defendants at bail hearings is, but we’ll find out if there’s an appeal. The Chron has more.

Anti-Israel boycott law amended

For whatever this is worth.

Gov. Greg Abbott this week signed a bill into law that limits the scope of a controversial anti-Israel boycott law, just weeks after a federal judge temporarily blocked its enforcement in an ongoing First Amendment lawsuit.

The 2017 law — which seeks to combat the Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement, an international protest over Israel’s treatment of Palestinians — prohibits state agencies from investing in and contracting with companies that boycott Israel. It also requires anyone contracting with the state to pledge in writing that it will not boycott Israel.

The changes Abbott signed into law Tuesday make it only applicable to contracts of at least $100,000 with companies with 10 or more full-time employees. Legislators who support the law have said they never intended for it to impact individuals or small businesses.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who had appealed the preliminary injunction to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, did not waste time in filing a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit brought by several Texas contractors who claimed it violated their right to free speech.

In the motion filed Wednesday, Paxton argued that “this legislative enactment is exactly the kind of development that the Fifth Circuit has recognized will render a case moot.”

ACLU of Texas spokeswoman Imelda Mejia said the agency, which is representing some of the plaintiffs in the suit, said the agency is “analyzing the new law and its possible implications on our case.”

[…]

Federal judges have struck down laws in Arizona and Kansas and upheld one in Arkansas; all are on appeal but the Kansas law.

There, after the Kansas Legislature made nearly identical changes to those signed by Abbott on Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union, lacking an affected plaintiff, agreed to dismiss its lawsuit.

See here for the background. Given that the lawsuit in question involved an individual who would no longer be affected by the law, it probably is the case that a motion to dismiss would succeed. That said – and here I put on my I Am Not A Lawyer hat – I don’t think the change to the law fixes the underlying constitutional problem. We’ll see if the court agrees.

Settlement officially reached in lawsuits over bogus SOS advisory

Great news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Three months after first questioning the citizenship status of almost 100,000 registered voters, the Texas secretary of state has agreed to end a review of the voter rolls for supposed noncitizens that was flawed from the start.

The deal was announced Friday as part of an agreement to settle three legal challenges brought by more than a dozen naturalized citizens and voting rights groups against the state. The groups alleged that the voter citizenship review, which was launched in late January, was unconstitutional and violated federal protections for voters of color.

Secretary of State David Whitley — who has yet to be confirmed by the Texas Senate amid the fallout over the review — agreed to scrap the lists of registered voters his office had sent to county voter registrars for examination. Whitley’s office will instruct local officials to take no further action on the names of people it had classified as “possible non-U.S citizens,” and county officials will be charged with notifying voters who received letters demanding they prove their citizenship that their registrations are safe.

The state is also on the hook for $450,000 in costs and attorney fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers.

The agreement must still be approved by the federal judge overseeing the case, and the state will have five days after the judge dismisses the plaintiffs’ legal claims to officially rescind the list. But the settlement amounts to a profound defeat for the state leaders who had defended the review even though it had jeopardized the voting rights of tens of thousands of naturalized citizens.

“Today’s agreement accomplishes our office’s goal of maintaining an accurate list of qualified registered voters while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on naturalized U.S. citizens,” Whitley said in a statement Friday. “I will continue to work with all stakeholders in the election community to ensure this process is conducted in a manner that holds my office accountable and protects the voting rights of eligible Texans.”

See here for the background. I thought at the time that this was a resounding defeat for the state of Texas, and I very much still think that. Honestly, I’m stunned that the state gave up like this instead of taking their chances with the ever-pliable Fifth Circuit. Did they think their case was such a loser that even the Fifth Circuit wouldn’t bail them out? It’s mind-boggling. Anyway, here are the statements from the various plaintiffs in the suit, courtesy of the ACLU’s press release:

“After months of litigation, the state has finally agreed to do what we’ve demanded from the start — a complete withdrawal of the flawed and discriminatory voter purge list, bringing this failed experiment in voter suppression to an end,” said Andre Segura, legal director for the ACLU of Texas. “The right to vote is sacrosanct, and no eligible voter should have to worry about losing that right. We are glad that the state has agreed to give up this misguided effort to eliminate people from the voter rolls, and we will continue to monitor any future voter purge attempt by the state to ensure that no eligible Texan loses their voice in our democracy.”

“Three months after the state released a discriminatory and flawed voter purge list, they have finally agreed to completely withdraw the advisory that risked throwing tens of thousands of potentially eligible voters off the rolls,” said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director with the Texas Civil Rights Project. “State officials have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars and struck fear and confusion into thousands of voters in order to pursue their voter suppression agenda. We are glad that this particular effort was stopped in its tracks and we will remain vigilant to ensure that not one single voter loses their right to vote due to the actions of state officials.”

“While we are glad to see this program scrapped, it’s important to remember that the state not only began to disenfranchise tens of thousands of eligible voters, but also threatened them with criminal prosecution,” said Brendan Downes, associate counsel with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law’s Voting Rights Project. “Naturalized citizens are, by definition, Americans. It’s time for the state to start treating them that way.”

“Secretary Whitley’s agreement to scrap what the court called a ‘ham-handed’ process and implement these common sense changes will go a long way to protecting eligible naturalized citizens from being improperly purged from the rolls,” said Sophia Lakin, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project. “We will continue to monitor the secretary and counties to protect eligible Texas voters from discriminatory barriers to the ballot box.”

“This settlement acknowledges that naturalized Americans have full and equal voting rights — they cannot be singled out and purged from the rolls due to their status,” said Chiraag Bains, director of legal strategies at Demos. “The settlement is a victory for our clients and all in Texas who were wrongfully deemed ineligible to vote. The secretary’s actions were reckless and misguided, and we hope that other states will take note and avoid similar unlawful actions.”

“The League regrets that it took a lawsuit to remind our state officials that naturalized citizens have a right to vote and to fully participate in our democracy,” said Grace Chimene, president of the League of Women Voters of Texas. “We are hopeful that new procedures will prevent naturalized citizens from being treated as second class citizens. We will continue to work with the secretary of state, as the chief election officer for Texas, to protect all citizens’ right to vote.”

“When the secretary of state tried to discriminate against eligible voters in a dangerous voter purge, we stood up to challenge this egregious act of voter suppression. Today, we won,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas Civic Fund. “Young naturalized citizens no longer have to worry about this reckless voter purge impacting their constitutional right to vote. We will continue to fight for all young voters across the state.”

The whole thing is also visible at the Texas Civil Rights Project webpage. The Secretary of State – who by the way still needs to be someone other than the deeply incompetent David Whitley – will still conduct reviews of voter rolls to look for non-citizens, it will just need to be done under this new framework. The one remaining question is what will happen with the voters whose names were referred to AG Ken Paxton for possible criminal investigation. We’ll just have to see what Paxton does – I can’t imagine him turning down an opportunity to grandstand, but he may be just smart enough to decline to pursue cases that will be tough to win given the questionableness of the evidence. With him, it could go either way. The Chron, the Dallas Observer, and Slate have more.

Injunction granted against Texas anti-Israel boycott law

From the inbox:

A federal court today ruled that a Texas law that requires government contractors to certify that they are not engaged in boycotts of Israel or companies that do business with Israel is unconstitutional. The judge ruled that the law, HB 89, which went into effect in 2017 violates the First Amendment’s protection against government intrusion into political speech and expression.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for the free speech rights of all Texans,” said Tommy Buser-Clancy, staff attorney for the ACLU of Texas, who argued the motion to block the law in court. “The right to boycott is deeply ingrained in American tradition, from our nation’s founding to today. The state cannot dictate the views of its own citizens on the Israel/Palestine conflict – or any issue – by preventing them from exercising their First Amendment right to boycott.”

“We applaud this decision, though nothing about it surprises us; in its decision the court has affirmed its understanding that this law was intended to chill the expression of personal opinion,” stated Terri Burke, executive director of the ACLU of Texas. “By any name, that’s free speech and free speech is the north star of our democracy. It’s foundational, and this decision underlines that no issue of importance can be addressed if the speech about it is stymied, or worse, silenced.”

The ACLU of Texas filed its lawsuit challenging the law on behalf of four Texans who were forced to choose between signing away their right to boycott or forgoing job opportunities and losing income. Those plaintiffs are represented by attorneys from the ACLU of Texas, the ACLU Speech Privacy & Technology Project, and Kevin Dubose of Alexander Dubose Jefferson & Townsend LLP in Houston.

“I’m very happy that the judge has decided to support our right to hold our own political beliefs and express them as we see fit,” said John Pluecker, a plaintiff in the ACLU of Texas lawsuit. “This ruling goes beyond just the plaintiffs – this law needed to be challenged for everyone. People in Texas need to know that our ability to earn our livelihoods won’t be threatened by the state because of our political positions.”

More information on the case is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/en/press-releases/aclu-texas-files-first-amendment-challenge-anti-boycott-law

A copy of today’s decision is available here: https://www.aclutx.org/sites/default/files/4-25-19_bds_order.pdf

The first paragraph in that press release is inaccurate. This was not a final ruling, it was a ruling on a motion for a temporary injunction, as well as a ruling on motions to dismiss by the defendants. The court granted the motion for the injunction and enjoined the state from enforcing HB89, while denying the motions to dismiss. I noted this lawsuit in passing in this post about the Texas-versus-AirBnB matter. This NYT profile of plaintiff Bahia Amawi has some good information if you want more. A law like this just seems unconstitutional on its face – it restricts speech in a clear and direct manner – but as we know by now, the federal courts can be a strange place. Just keep this law in mind the next time you hear Greg Abbott or someone like him prattle on about supposed efforts to curb “free speech” on college campuses. See the Chron and the Trib for more.

LULAC settles its SOS lawsuit

Good news.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The state of Texas is ending a program to purge voters it claimed were noncitizens in order to settle lawsuits brought by civil rights groups over the plan.

The deal was reached following a meeting Monday in San Antonio between acting Secretary of State David Whitley and the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs.

The groups brought three separate lawsuits — filed in San Antonio, Corpus Christi and Galveston — alleging the program illegally targeted immigrant voters and resulted in voter intimidation. The suits were consolidated into one in San Antonio with the lead case, which was filed by LULAC and Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center.

As part of the deal, Whitley and his staff will tell county voter registrars and local election administrators to take no further action on any data files the state had sent them in late January, but may start a new program that won’t demand voters prove their U.S. citizenship.

[…]

As part of the settlement, the state will scrap the data it used for the first program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

The state will also work with LULAC and the other plaintiffs groups on the plan by sharing the methodology and data used.

The process will enable the state to remove voters who shouldn’t be on the rolls, while being the least disruptive to those who are U.S. citizens, LULAC said.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

See here, here, here, and here for the background. As noted, both of the other two lawsuits were joined with this one, so what happens here is going to be the final word. I Am Not A Lawyer, and I was not able to find a copy of the settlement, but this sure looks like a big win for the plaintiffs. Honestly, just the fact that the state is settling and not taking its chances with the Fifth Circuit tells you something. Kudos to the plaintiffs for forcing some accountability into this mess.

UPDATE: It’s not fully done, but it’s close.

A deal was about “99 percent” done Monday, after Secretary of State David Whitley met in San Antonio with members of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund and other plaintiffs, said Luis Vera, LULAC’s national legal counsel.

As part of the tentative agreement discussed Monday, the state would scrap the data it used for the first voter purge program and begin a new one that, “to the best of its ability, assures that all United States citizens not be affected with the undue burden of having to prove their citizenship,” according to LULAC.

“It’s not going to be perfect, but it’s nowhere near the disaster of the first one,” Vera said. “It allows us to have some input in the process.”

The parties were to return to the table Tuesday to hammer out additional terms before taking the final deal to a judge for review.

Sam Taylor, communications director for the secretary of state, said that while there is no official settlement yet, progress was made Monday.

“We are encouraged by the positive and constructive progress we have made with the plaintiffs, and we remain committed to our goal of maintaining accurate voter rolls while eliminating the impact of any list maintenance activity on eligible Texas voters,” Taylor said.

Stay tuned.

Judge blocks any voter purges from the SOS advisory

Good. Let’s hope this lasts.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a major victory for voting rights groups, a federal judge has ordered that no Texas county should purge suspected noncitizen voters from the rolls or issue letters demanding that they prove their citizenship “without prior approval of the Court with a conclusive showing that the person is ineligible to vote.”

The Wednesday order from U.S. District Judge Fred Biery comes a month after the Texas secretary of state flagged nearly 100,000 voters for citizenship review — and a flurry of civil rights groups filed three lawsuits to block state and county officials from purging voters based on what has proven a deeply flawed set of data.

Biery ordered that as the litigation continues, counties can “continue to find out if in fact someone is registered who is not a citizen” — some local officials have proposed comparing lists of flagged voters with names of individuals made citizens at recent naturalization ceremonies, for example — but may not communicate directly with any particular individual on the list. Reaching out to a voter to demand proof of citizenship starts the clock on a process that can lead to that voter being purged from the rolls.

[…]

Biery’s order directly addresses the more than a dozen counties that are named defendants in the flurry of lawsuits. It also directs the state to inform Texas’ other 200-plus counties that they may not purge voters or demand proof of citizenship without his approval.

Last week, eight counties agreed voluntarily to halt their efforts, and on Monday, Biery extended that order to a total of 15 counties.

[…]

Much like his remarks in court this week, Biery’s order contained harsh words for the state’s bungled attempt to review its rolls, and good omens for the civil rights groups aiming to prove that Texas has treated two groups of people, native-born citizens and naturalized citizens, differently.

“Notwithstanding good intentions, the road to a solution was inherently paved with flawed results, meaning perfectly legal naturalized Americans were burdened with what the Court finds to be ham-handed and threatening correspondence from the state which did not politely ask for information but rather exemplifies the power of government to strike fear and anxiety and to intimidate the least powerful among us,” Biery wrote. “No native born Americans were subjected to such treatment.”

Biery also wrote — as civil rights groups and voting experts have long maintained — that “there is no widespread voter fraud” in Texas and that an attempt to root out noncitizens on the voter roll forces officials to figure out “how to ferret the infinitesimal needles out of the haystack.”

State officials have said that moving forward, they plan to watch for noncitizens who are registered to vote by comparing voter rolls with more recent lists of individuals who present proof of legal status, but not citizenship, at DPS. Biery’s Wednesday order allows that process to proceed but advises that officials may not purge those voters or demand proof of citizenship without approval from him.

See here, here, and here for the background. As a reminder, this is just the wrangling over an injunction, to determine whether or not the state and counties can continue to pursue this purge while the case is being litigated. It’s not a decision on the merits, just a stop sign for the state until a decision is reached. Assuming the Fifth Circuit doesn’t step in and screw things up as it usually does, of course. No word as of the publication of that story as to whether or not the state would appeal. Judge Biery made a good call, but as always this is far from over. The Lone Star Project, which picks out some highlights from Biery’s order, has more.

Three times a lawsuit

Hat trick!

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A group of civil and voting rights organizations is suing the state’s chief election officers and local election officials in five counties, claiming Texas’ voter citizenship review efforts are unconstitutional because they intentionally target naturalized citizens and voters of color.

In a lawsuit filed Monday in a Galveston federal court, the MOVE Texas Civic Fund, the Jolt Initiative, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the Texas NAACP allege that the state’s move to flag tens of thousands of voters for review using faulty data violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. They claim the effort places an undue burden on the right to vote and treats naturalized citizens differently than those born in the county.

The groups also allege that the state violated the Constitution and the federal Voting Rights Act by acting at least in part with the goal of discriminating against voters of color when it advised counties to verify the citizenship status of the voters it flagged.

The lawsuit against Texas Secretary of State David Whitley, Director of Elections Keith Ingram, and local election officials in Galveston, Blanco, Fayette, Caldwell and Washington counties is the third one filed against state officials since Jan. 25, when the state announced that it was sending counties a list of approximately 95,000 registered voters who told the Texas Department of Safety they were not citizens when they obtained their driver’s licenses or ID cards.

[…]

In their complaint, the plaintiffs — represented by the ACLU of Texas, the national ACLU, the Texas Civil Rights Project, Demos and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law — argue that Whitley “declined to include safeguards” in the process that would ensure naturalized citizens weren’t erroneously included on the list.

“The right to vote is a fundamental and foundational right, possessed equally by U.S. born and naturalized citizens,” the complaint reads. “The Secretary of State’s purge treats those who have been naturalized as second-class citizens whose right to vote can be uniquely threatened and burdened solely because at some point in the past, these individuals were not U.S. citizens.”

See here and here for the scoop on the other lawsuits, and here for a copy of the complaint. I had speculated in yesterday’s post about Lawsuit #2 that we could get this one as well, as the groups representing these plaintiffs had had specifically said they would sue if the SOS didn’t back all the way off. Gotta follow through when you say stuff like that, so folks will know you don’t mess around. At this point, we’re waiting to see what the courts will say. In an ideal world, they will force the state to do what these plaintiffs asked in the first place, which is to get their crap together before they put out baloney like this. Here’s hoping. On a related note, Mayor Turner released a statement urging Harris County Tax Assessor Ann Harris Bennett to reject the SOS advisory, which you can find here.

As the SOS advisory numbers get revised down

This really can’t be emphasized enough.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

I included that bit at the tail end of yesterday’s post, but it needed to be its own entry. More than sixty percent of the names the SOS gave Harris County had to be removed because the SOS had failed to do any kind of due diligence. I’ve checked around and we don’t have solid numbers for this kind of correction elsewhere in the state (not that I can find, anyway), so perhaps Harris County was an outlier. I see no reason to give the SOS any benefit of that doubt. They need to recall the entire list, do their actual freaking job to vet it properly, and then get back to the counties with whatever is left. And put out a big statement walking back everything they said on Friday, which has been trumpeted far and wide by Republicans who desperately want to believe they need to take drastic measures to stop hordes of non-citizens from voting. This was both 100% grade A bullshit and some extremely convenient cover for whatever anti-voting bills that get pushed this session. Like I said yesterday, we can’t sue them hard enough.

A trio of updates about that bogus SOS letter

Most counties reacted skeptically, as well they should.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The Texas Tribune reached out to 13 of the 15 counties with the most registered voters on Monday; Galveston was the only one that indicated it would immediately send out letters, even as more than a dozen civil rights groups warned the state and local election officials that they risked violating federal law by scrutinizing the voters flagged by the state.

[…]

Bruce Elfant, Travis County’s tax assessor-collector and voter registrar, indicated he was concerned about the accuracy of the data because the county has previously received data from DPS that was “less than pristine.” County officials vowed to review the list of 4,547 registered voters they received but were still trying to convert the data into a usable format.

He said he also wanted more information about the methodology the Texas Secretary of State’s office used to compile the list, pointing out that naturalized citizens may have obtained their driver licenses before becoming citizens.

“The state is responsible for vetting for citizenship” during the voter registration process, Elfant said. “I would be surprised if that many people got through it.”

Other county officials echoed Elfant’s point about naturalized citizens. Collin County’s election administrator, Bruce Sherbert, said they had received a list of approximately 4,700 names and would consider them on a case-by-case basis, checking for cases in which a voter might have already provided some form of proof they are citizens.

“It can be a process that takes several months to go through,” Sherbert said. “We’re just at the front side of it.”

Facing a list of 2,033 individuals, Williamson County officials said they were considering ways in which they could determine citizenship without sending notices to voters. Chris Davis, the county’s election administrator, said some naturalized citizens could have registered to vote at naturalization ceremonies in other counties, so their files might indicate their registration applications were mailed in from there.

“We want to try to avoid sending notices to folks if we can find proof of their citizenship, thereby they don’t have to come in and prove it themselves or mail it,” Davis said.

Election officials in Fort Bend County said they had received a list of about 8,400 voters, though they noted some may be duplicates. El Paso County officials said their list included 4,152 voters.

Harris County officials did not provide a count of voters the state flagged on its rolls, but Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney, said they were treading carefully because of previous missteps by the state.

“To be quite frank, several years ago the secretary of state did something very similar claiming there were people who were deceased,” Ray said. “They sent us a list and the voter registrar sent confirmation notices and it turned out a lot of people identified on the list were misidentified. A lot of the people who received notices were very much alive.”

See here and here for the background. I’m certainly glad we have county officials now in Harris County that care about protecting the right to vote, but the reaction from places like Collin and Williamson was a pleasant surprise. As for Galveston, well. There’s one in every crowd.

If common sense and a principled commitment to the right to vote wasn’t enough to treat the SOS advisory with skepticism, there’s also this.

After flagging tens of thousands of registered voters for citizenship reviews, the Texas secretary of state’s office is now telling counties that some of those voters don’t belong on the lists it sent out.

Officials in five large counties — Harris, Travis, Fort Bend, Collin and Williamson — told The Texas Tribune they had received calls Tuesday from the secretary of state’s office indicating that some of the voters whose citizenship status the state said counties should consider checking should not actually be on those lists.

The secretary of state’s office incorrectly included some voters who had submitted their voting registration applications at Texas Department of Public Safety offices, according to county officials. Now, the secretary of state is instructing counties to remove them from the list of flagged voters.

[…]

It’s unclear at this point how many counties have received these calls. County officials said Tuesday they had not received anything in writing about the mistake. It’s also unclear how many people will be removed from the original list of approximately 95,000 individuals flagged by the state. The secretary of state’s office did not respond to questions Tuesday about how much this would reduce the initial count.

In a statement Tuesday, Sam Taylor, a spokesman for the secretary of state, said the state was providing counties with information as “part of the process of ensuring no eligible voters were impacted by any list maintenance activity.”

“This is to ensure that any registered voters who provided proof of citizenship at the time they registered to vote will not be required to provide proof of citizenship as part of the counties’ examination,” Taylor said.

I dunno, maybe next time check for that sort of thing before rushing to publish? Just a thought. I’m sure Ken Paxton et al will duly correct any now-inaccurate assertions they may have made about the initial advisory.

And then, the least surprising update to all this.

In a lawsuit filed in federal court in San Antonio, lawyers for the League of United Latin American Citizens’ national and Texas arms alleged that Texas Secretary of State David Whitley and Attorney General Ken Paxton violated a portion of the federal Voting Rights Act that prohibits the intimidation of voters.

They point to an advisory issued Friday in which Whitley’s office said it was flagging individuals who had provided the Texas Department of Public Safety with some form of documentation — including a work visa or a green card — that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or ID cards. The state put the number of registered voters who fell into that category at approximately 95,000 — 58,000 of whom had voted in one or more elections from 1996 to 2018.

In its announcement, the secretary of state’s office said it had immediately turned over the data to Paxton’s office. On the same day, Paxton posted the news on Twitter prefaced with “VOTER FRAUD ALERT,” the lawyers noted in the lawsuit.

“These two Texas officials have carefully crafted and orchestrated a program that combines an election advisory ostensibly directed at ensuring that all those registered to vote in the May election are citizens eligible to vote with the use of data that is suspect on its face and a blackout on public access to the data,” LULAC’s lawyers wrote in the complaint.

I mean, someone was going to have to sue eventually. Why wait? Texas Monthly and the Observer have more.

Before you go, here’s a little story from my archives that might be of interest to you. It involves an actual, by-God case of a non-citizen voting, right here in Harris County, in a high profile and hotly contested election. You might be surprised how it turns out. Enjoy!

UPDATE: How bad was that original list of alleged non-citizens? This bad:

State officials on Tuesday acknowledged widespread errors in their list of 95,000 Texas voters flagged as potential non-citizens, reinforcing the concerns of advocates who say the state’s effort amounts to illegal voter suppression.

In Harris County alone, officials said, more than 60 percent of nearly 30,000 names on a list the state supplied last week are being removed after new guidance from state officials. Voter registrars in several other counties reported getting similar calls Tuesday from the Texas Secretary of State’s office, which last week said its review showed that 95,000 registered voters did not appear to be U.S. citizens.

[…]

On Tuesday, officials in Harris County and several other counties were told to remove from their lists names of people who registered to vote at Texas Department of Public Safety offices. Harris County officials also were advised to remove those who registered to vote at a naturalization ceremony, said Douglas Ray, a special assistant county attorney who specializes in election issues.

With the new criteria, Harris County was able to remove more than 60 percent of the names off the nearly 30,000-voter list it was sent. Only about 11,000 names remain.

“Our experience with these mass lists from the secretary of state’s office is that they’re very questionable, so we have to treat them very carefully,” Ray said.

And that’s before any of the counties do their own checking. We can’t sue these clowns hard enough.

Civil rights groups push back on bogus SOS letter

Good.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Lawyers with 13 organizations — including the Texas Civil Rights Project, the ACLU of Texas, the League of Women Voters of Texas and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund — are demanding that the state rescind an advisory sent to local election officials regarding the individuals whose citizenship status the state says the counties should consider checking. In a letter sent Monday, the groups requested a response by Jan. 30, claiming that the state’s data was flawed and demanding more information about the methodology it used.

Some of the groups are considering litigation against the state, said Beth Stevens, voting rights legal director for the Texas Civil Rights Project.

The letter comes three days after the Texas secretary of state’s office announced it would send local election officials a list of 95,000 registered voters who had provided the Texas Department of Safety some form of documentation, such as a green card or a work visa, that showed they were not citizens when they were obtaining driver’s licenses or an ID cards.

“Using such a data set to review the current citizenship status of anyone is inherently flawed because it fails to account for individuals who became naturalized citizens and registered to vote at any point after having obtained their driver license or personal identification card,” the lawyers wrote.

In their letter, the groups point to efforts in Florida that used similar methodology to create a list of approximately 180,000 registered voters that officials claimed were noncitizens based on records used when they obtained driver’s licenses. That fight ended up in federal court after more than 2,600 were mistakenly removed from the rolls after being classified as noncitizens. About 85 voters “ultimately proved actionable,” the lawyers wrote.

See here for the background. The letter to the SOS is here, and the letter they sent to all 254 county election administrators is here. The latter is both a public information request for “all records relating to the Advisory, including but not limited to the list of all individuals identified by the Secretary of State or Department of Public Safety as potential non-citizens, the Voter Unique Identifier for each of those individuals, and all communications and correspondence with the Secretary of State concerning the Advisory”, and a plea to not take any action “unless and until the Secretary of State has provided greater transparency on its procedures and ensured there are adequate safeguards for not identifying lawfully registered naturalized citizens.” The letter to the SOS lays out their demands for more information, and drops a little math on them:

Given that Texas Driver Licenses and ID Cards do not expire for a full six years after they are issued, the odds are quite high that this list of purported non-citizens includes tens of thousands of people who are now US citizens entitled to vote. Indeed, each year, between 52,000-63,000 Texans become naturalized citizens (roughly the same number of potential non-citizens you claim have voted in Texas elections over a 22-year period).1 Given that newly naturalized citizens have voter registration rates around 50%,2 it is reasonable to conclude that at least 25,000 newly naturalized Texans are lawfully registering to vote each year. Even if one assumes that not all naturalized citizens previously obtained driver licenses, and not all registered naturalized citizens registered immediately, it is easy to see how this would result in your office obtaining over 90,000 incorrectly identified matches.

Read them both. Given that Ken Paxton was sending out email earlier the same day screaming about thousands of illegal voters, I think the odds are very high this will wind up in court.