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Attorney General

Time to check in on Ken Paxton again

It’s good to know, in times of crisis, that there are friendly fake media outfits one can run to to deny all the allegations against you.

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When Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton decided to break his silence about accusations by his top aides that he had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office, he turned to a little-known legal outlet called the Southeast Texas Record.

In the exclusive interview, he trashed the aides and claimed that before his top deputy resigned, Paxton had planned to put him on leave anyway.

The website where that interview was posted has been identified as part of a national network of some 1,300 pay-for-play news websites that publish on-demand coverage for Republican political campaigns and public relations firms. According to The New York Times, those websites, whose names sound like ordinary local news outlets, have received at least $1.7 million from Republican political campaigns and conservative groups.

Ian Prior, who promoted the story for the Paxton campaign, denied to The Texas Tribune that the campaign had paid the outlet to run the story — “definitive no,” he said — saying he had merely reached out to set up an interview with an outlet that had already covered the story.

The Southeast Texas Record describes itself as a legal outlet focused on informing readers about the courts, with a weekly print edition published on Sundays.

After the interview was published, Prior shared it with reporters via email.

He declined to answer questions about why the campaign chose a little-known legal publication as opposed to a news outlet with wider readership, such as The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle or Austin American-Statesman, which had all been following the Paxton story closely.

“Appreciate the question but not going to get into [public relations] strategy/discussions,” Prior said in a text message Tuesday.

[…]

In the Oct. 13 Paxton story, the Record foregrounds Paxton’s point of view in the ongoing scandal and elaborates less on the allegations against him, which remain murky, with federal authorities refusing to confirm whether there is an investigation into Paxton’s behavior at all. The author, David Yates, writes that Jeff Mateer — the top Paxton deputy who resigned after accusing his boss of criminal wrongdoing — did not return requests for comment.

It gives no indication that the author attempted to reach David Maxwell or Mark Penley, two top aides whose work is questioned in the story and whom Paxton placed on leave from the agency.

And the story elides details that raise questions about Paxton’s role in the scandal. In an internal email that was obtained by the Tribune, top aides alleged Paxton was using the power of his office to help a donor, real estate investor Nate Paul, who accused federal authorities of wrongdoing after the FBI raided his home and office in 2019. Paxton has claimed his office was investigating Paul’s allegations merely because local authorities in the Travis County district attorney’s office referred the complaint to the agency. But Travis County DA Margaret Moore has disputed that timeline, telling reporters that Paxton sought a meeting with her office about the complaint before it was referred.

The Record story does not include those details, nor does it extensively detail the accounts of the seven senior aides who have leveled accusations against Paxton.

The strategy is obvious: Talk to friendly people who won’t ask any embarrassing questions, and avoid any outlets that will probe or push back. That way, the core supporters will only hear your side of the story and can thus dismiss anything that comes out elsewhere, since it’s not from a “trusted” source. This doesn’t stop all the bad information from getting out, but it does put a barrier up to it for the base.

Also, the retributions have begun.

Lacey Mase, one of the top aides who accused Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, has been fired, she told The Texas Tribune on Tuesday evening.

“It was not voluntary,” she said, but declined to comment further.

Mase was hired in 2011 and worked most recently as the deputy attorney general for administration. Paxton’s office did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

[…]

Mase’s personnel file, obtained through a public records request, shows she rose quickly through the agency’s ranks, earning frequent promotions. She was promoted as recently as Sept. 1, 2019, earning a nearly 12% pay bump to $205,000 annually. When Mase was promoted in April 2018, a supervisor wrote that she “consistently exceeded standards” in all her roles at the agency. Her salary has multiplied over the past few years, from $50,000 in 2013 to more than $200,000 most recently.

Texas law “protects public employees who make good faith reports of violations of law by their employer to an appropriate law enforcement authority,” according to the Texas attorney general’s website. “An employer may not suspend or terminate the employment of, or take other adverse personnel action against, a public employee who makes a report under the Act.”

Firing Mase so soon after she and the other top aides made their report is “suspicious,” said Jason Smith, a North Texas employment attorney who has handled whistleblower cases and who worked in the attorney general’s office in the 1990s.

“This looks and smells like classic whistleblower retaliation,” Smith said. “This situation looks like what the Texas Whistleblower Act was designed to prevent. And the timing looks bad.”

Smith said the aides appear to have taken all the proper steps to invoke whistleblower protections, reporting suspect behavior to “an appropriate law enforcement authority” as specified in the law, and making their employer aware of the allegations through the letter to human resources. The aides used that exact language — “appropriate law enforcement authority” — in their Oct. 1 letter to the agency.

I mean, maybe there was a reason for this, but it sure looks suspicious, and there’s no way Ken Paxton deserves any benefit of the doubt. And hey, now there’s a pattern.

A second whistleblower has been fired from the Texas attorney general’s office after reporting his boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, to law enforcement for crimes including bribery and abuse of office, according to a former senior official with the agency who had knowledge about the firing but did not want to be named for fear of legal repercussions.

Blake Brickman, who had served as deputy attorney general for policy and strategy initiatives for less than a year, was fired Tuesday, the official said.

[…]

Brickman and Mase were among seven top aides in Paxton’s office who alerted law enforcement weeks ago that they believed their boss had run afoul of the law. In internal emails obtained by the Tribune, they accused Paxton of using the power of his office to serve the financial interests of a donor, Nate Paul.

I mean, once you’ve fired one whistleblower, why not go all in and fire another? In for a penny and all that. I hope Ms. Mase and Mr. Brickman find themselves some good employment attorneys. The Chron has more.

Your handwriting should not jeopardize your vote

Jesus Christ.

Texas election officials may continue rejecting mail-in ballots if they decide the signature on the ballot can’t be verified, without notifying voters until after the election that their ballot wasn’t counted, the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Monday.

The appeals court halted a lower court’s injunction, which had not gone into effect, that would have required the Texas secretary of state to either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature-comparison process, or require them to set up a notification system giving voters a chance to challenge a rejection while their vote still counts.

Requiring such a process would compromise the integrity of the mail-in ballots “as Texas officials are preparing for a dramatic increase of mail-in voting, driven by a global pandemic,” reads the Monday opinion issued by U.S. Fifth Circuit Judge Jerry E. Smith.

“Texas’s strong interest in safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud far outweighs any burden the state’s voting procedures place on the right to vote,” Smith wrote.

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

The state election code does not establish any standards for signature review, which is conducted by local election officials who seldom have training in signature verification.

Voters must be notified within 10 days after the election that their ballot was rejected, but state election law does not require affording them an opportunity to challenge the rejection, the appeals court ruling noted.

[…]

Plaintiffs said they will now push counties to voluntarily give early notice to voters whose ballots are rejected for signature-match issues, allowing them a chance to rectify the situation and let their vote count.

“It will affect this 2020 election, so voters will not be notified in time, and so I think the main thing we’re trying to do now is notify counties that ballot boards are not required to give pre-election day notice, but they can,” said H. Drew Galloway, executive director of MOVE Texas, a plaintiff. “We encourage them to follow the original intent of the lower courts here so folks (whose ballots were rejected) can go vote in person, or contest that decision.”

See here for the background. That ruling had been stayed pending this appeal, so in that sense nothing has been lost. It’s another typical hatchet job from the country’s worst court. Let me bullet-point this, because I’m tired and this shit needs to stop.

– We all know that if this had a disproportionate effect on white voters, the concern about “safeguarding the integrity of its elections from voter fraud” would be a mere footnote. Some voters are more equal than others.

– On the very same day that this turd was handed down, a state court in North Carolina ruled that “voters whose absentee ballots have problems with their envelopes can now expect contact from board of elections offices in order to fix their ballots by Election Day”. We need uniform national standards that prioritize and protect the rights and ability of all citizens to vote. That needs to be very high on the to do list of the next Congress.

– Can we please give some serious consideration to packing the Fifth Circuit? Quite a few Trump-appointed judges are there because vacancies were not allowed to be filled during Obama’s terms. This court is in serious need of reform.

– On a more practical note, Drew Galloway is correct: We need to be talking to local election officials to get them to agree to try to fix these problems in advance. The court didn’t say that they couldn’t do this, just that they didn’t have to. Well, if it’s a choice, then let’s make sure they make the right choice.

That’s all I’ve got. This effing court. The Chron has more.

Paxton accuses his accusers

Well, that’s one way to do it.

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In Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton’s first interview since seven of top aides accused him of accepting bribes and abusing his office, he said Tuesday that he was about to put one of them, first assistant attorney general Jeff Mateer, on administrative leave when Mateer made those accusations and resigned instead.

“I think he found out about it and decided he wanted to leave and set the narrative,” Paxton told the Southeast Texas Record.

Paxton also told the paper that he has placed two remaining executive employees — David Maxwell, director of law enforcement, and Mark Penley, deputy AG for criminal justice, who were among his seven accusers — on administrative leave while he investigates their actions.

Paxton’s statements on Tuesday provide the public’s first glimpse into how he is handling the matter inside the office of the Attorney General, where more than half of the executive staff has accused him of committing crimes.

[…]

In his interview Tuesday, Paxton reiterated his counterclaims against the whistleblowers, saying that they were trying to impede a legitimate investigation of the law enforcement agencies.

“It seems like my office did everything possible to stop an investigation of some law enforcement agencies,” Paxton said. “I can only come to the conclusion that there was an effort to cover up the reality of what really happened. This wasn’t supposed to be a complicated investigation.”

[…]

Paxton also backed accusations by Paul’s attorney, Michael Wynne, who said in a letter released late Sunday that Maxwell, a former Texas Ranger, berated Paul for even bringing the complaint. Paxton said he watched a video of the meeting between Maxwell and Paul.

“It was not a good interview — it was pretty harsh,” he said. “It was clear he had no interest in doing an investigation.”

In the interview, Paxton said Mateer also insisted that the attorney general did not have the authority to sign contracts and that only he, as first assistant, did. Paxton said he reviewed support documentation provided by Mateer and found it to be false.

“I don’t know why there’s so much turmoil over this investigation. I’m not impugning every law enforcement agent,” Paxton said. “We all should be held accountable. We all have to follow the law.”

Well, he was going to defend himself one way or another, and given what the accusations were, a defense of “no, they’re the real criminals” seems like the best option. That would then lead to the question of how it is Paxton managed to hire so many bad actors for high-ranking positions in his office, but that’s a problem for another day. For now, keeping his own ass out of trouble is the main goal.

Here we must pause and note that so far all we know is there were a bunch of accusations leveled against Paxton. We don’t know if there’s an investigation into the actions he’s alleged to have taken, much less if he did do the things he’s accused of. We do know that his accusers are fellow travelers in conservative circles, and that former Paxton lieutenant Chip Roy sided with them. We know that folks like Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and John Cornyn have been in full “wait and see” mode, which may suggest that they genuinely don’t know what to make of all this, or that they’ve heard enough scuttlebutt to think there’s something to it, but they’re either not ready to throw Paxton overboard, or they’re seeking a more graceful way out of this mess. A lot of information has come out so far, none of which looks great for Paxton, but nothing yet that would force him to resign. That may be what this is like for awhile, and then either the feds do something to make it clear they’re going after him, or we get a press release saying he’s in the clear. Until then, this is what we have to sustain ourselves.

Well, there’s also this.

[Brandon] Cammack declined to answer questions about his work for the agency or speculate as to why Paxton called him about the job. But said he “rose to the occasion” in accepting a major assignment from the state’s top lawyer and that the fallout has been “unexpected.”

“When one of the highest elected officials in the state reached out to me to go conduct this investigation, knowing what my background and knowing what my experience was, with regards to state law claims… I took it seriously,” Cammack told The Texas Tribune Tuesday.

“I don’t know anything about office politics… I don’t know anything about [the relationship] between people. I was called to duty. I showed up for duty,” he said.

Cammack’s work for the attorney general’s office has ended, though he said it was “beyond” him to know if the review would go forward in someone else’s hands.

[…]

Legal experts have questioned the precise nature of Cammack’s job — Paxton described him as both an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel” — and asked how he was able to issue subpoenas that aides said “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul.”

They also raised concerns that Cammack — who is connected to [Nate Paul’s attorney Michael] Wynne through their involvement in the Downtown Rotary Club of Houston and the Houston Bar Association — lacked the experience for such a high-profile assignment.

Cammack said the subpoenas were issued by a Travis County judge and that he never went before a grand jury. He submitted an application for subpoenas to the Travis County district attorney’s office and they assisted in getting them issued, he said. He declined to answer other questions about the subpoenas, including which judge issued them, and his role.

Cammack also disputed the notion that he lacked experience, saying he’d had a “successful practice” in Houston for about two and a half years, handling primarily criminal defense work. His investigation for the attorney general’s office centered on violations of the Texas penal code — “something I’m very well versed in having handled hundreds of cases for hundreds of families here in Harris County and contiguous counties.”

He said he was “not friends” with Wynne, but declined to say why Wynne was present when at least one subpoena was delivered. He also would not specify Paxton’s involvement in his work or provide specifics about his investigation.

Cammack said he was interviewed for the outside counsel position on Aug. 26 by Paxton and Mateer. He declined to provide specifics about the conversation, but said he understood there were a few other candidates for the job, and that Paxton asked about his educational and professional history.

A few days later, Cammack received a call from Ryan Vassar, deputy attorney general for legal counsel, about his contract, he said. Signed in early September, the agreement says Cammack would be paid $300 an hour to investigate a complaint and compile a report about any potential criminal charges. It did not give him the authority to indict or prosecute, and said he could work only as directed by the office of the Attorney General.

Cammack’s work on the case largely ended in late September when he received a cease and desist letter from Penley, the deputy attorney general for criminal justice, and then Mateer.

I mean, we still don’t know much, but what we do know just looks sketchy. And so we wait for more.

Nate Paul strikes back

Just when I think this can’t get any better.

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When Ken Paxton announced Friday his office was dropping the investigation into an Austin real estate investor’s claims of mistreatment during a federal raid of his home and business, the attorney general may have hoped the questions swirling around his relationship with Nate Paul would dissipate.

But a letter released late Sunday by Paul’s attorney that appears to be laying the foundation for a lawsuit against Paxton’s office dispelled any notion the controversy would go away soon.

[…]

Until now, Paul and his attorney, Michael Wynne, have remained mostly silent. But Sunday’s letter, in which Wynne demands that the attorney general’s office preserve documents related to the investor’s contact with Paxton’s office, flips that narrative.

In it, Wynne asserts that, far from helping his client’s cause, deep dysfunction inside Paxton’s office scuttled his client’s legitimate claim of abuse at the hands of federal investigators and has led to “A chaotic public spectacle of allegations.”

In Wynne’s telling, investigators’ behavior during the August 2019 raid against Paul were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials that I have witnessed in my professional experience.” The searchers tampered with records and then gave testimony contradicted by documents, he wrote.

Paul took his complaints to District Attorney Margaret Moore, who advised him that Paxton’s office was the correct agency to conduct any investigation of wrongdoing on the part of the searchers, including the FBI. But when Paul detailed his complaints, Paxton’s staff was dismissive and abusive, Wynne wrote.

At a July meeting, Paul’s team was “met with open hostility,” Wynne wrote. Paxton’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted my client for bringing the complaint.”

Wynne said additional meetings with Paxton’s staff yielded the same “hostile attitude.”

Paxton personally attended a third meeting, Wynne wrote. At it, Paul demonstrated that the attorney general’s review of his complaint had been cursory and contained several errors, and that “this appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne recounted in the letter.

Oh, my. Paul and his attorney are mad about the way Paxton’s office handled his demand for an investigation into the way he was treated by the feds, whom you will recall were investigating him for various alleged financial misdeeds. The seven senior members of Paxton’s staff found Paul’s complaint to be without merit, and the fact that Paxton proceeded – including the hire of the inexperienced and unqualified Brandon Cammack – is what led to them sending Paxton a letter alleging that he was taking a bribe. Maybe this is Paul’s way of saying he expected better service at that price.

The Trib adds some details.

Wynne’s letter places the blame for the debacle on the attorney general’s office, alleging top aides there failed to investigate his client’s claims as they should have and “deprived [Paul] of a proper review.”

“The mishandling of this complaint as outlined below has risen to an alarming level,” Wynne wrote in the letter, which also demands that the agency retain all related documents and files in preparation for potential litigation.

[…]

Wynne questioned the attorney general’s office’s basis for closing the inquiry, accused employees in the attorney general’s office of making “numerous inappropriate and false statements to the media” and said their handling of Paul’s complaint culminated in a “chaotic public spectacle of allegations, mudslinging, and an apparent power struggle” within the agency last week.

Top aides to Paxton have said internal investigations showed that Paul’s complaint lacks “any good-faith factual basis” and have accused their boss of serving a donor’s interest by hiring an outside attorney to pursue it.

Wynne said the circumstances of the federal search were “among the most egregious examples of inappropriate behavior by government officials” that he had witnessed.

In May 2020, Paul “sought guidance on the protocol for reporting a complaint” about the search and was told by Paxton to file it with the Travis County district attorney’s office.

The next month, the district attorney’s office referred the complaint back to Paxton’s agency after determining it would be “inappropriate” to send it to the Department of Public Safety, which was named in the complaint.

Wynne said “seven weeks of inaction” were followed by a series of meetings between him, Paul and officials in the attorney general’s office, whom he accused of being “hostile.”

At a meeting on July 21, the attorney general’s director of law enforcement, David Maxwell, “berated and insulted” Paul for bringing the complaint and attempted to intimidate them into dropping the matter, Wynne alleged.

He wrote that Maxwell and another top official — Mark Penley, one of the signatories on the letter about Paxton — attended a second meeting, in which Maxwell at one point yelled at Paul and asked “who [does] he think he is?”

At a third meeting, personally attended by Paxton, the review was found to be flawed and “appeared to be an embarrassment to your office,” Wynne alleged.

The Karen-like “I want to speak to your manager” energy out of this is strong, isn’t it? I’m dying for them to file a lawsuit against the AG’s office over this, because discovery is sure to be a hoot. The capacity this scandal has had to surprise and amaze me has been quite the source of joy these past few days.

And speaking of Brandon Cammack, the Paxton special prosecutors have some thoughts – and a motion – about how much Paxton paid him.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has argued that $300 an hour is too much to pay the two special prosecutors appointed to take him to trial in a long-running felony securities fraud case — but that’s the rate his agency is paying the inexperienced attorney Paxton hired last month to investigate a complaint by a political donor.

[…]

The prosecutors, Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer, pointed out that irony in a spirited filing Friday before Harris County District Judge Jason Luong, asking that they be compensated at the same rate as Cammack, whom they dismissed as “an untested and unqualified rookie.”

“If this hourly rate sounds familiar, it should: it is the very rate the Pro Tems were promised when they were appointed,” they wrote in a Friday filing. “If the defendant’s choice to pay Cammack $300 an hour appears to be disingenuous, it is only because it is: in successfully derailing this prosecution by spearheading a concerted effort to defund it, the defendant has repeatedly referred to the Pro Tem’s $300 hourly rate in his filings as unreasonable and unwarranted.”

Wice and Schaffer, who told the court that between them, they have 80 years of experience in the criminal justice system, questioned why they should not be entitled to the same sum as Cammack, “whose own experience, training and expertise, compared to the Pro Tems, is virtually microscopic.”

Paxton can “run but not hide” from his “concession that $300 an hour is reasonable,” Wice and Schaffer argued.

In their own filing to the court, Paxton’s defense attorneys told the judge that Cammack’s contract is irrelevant to the issue of pay for the prosecutors.

[…]

The issue of prosecutor pay in the securities fraud case against Paxton was raised by a Paxton donor, Jeff Blackard, in December 2015, when he sued, calling the fees exorbitant. Since then, the issue has dragged through the courts for years, bouncing all the way up to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, the state’s highest court for criminal matters.

Paxton’s defense attorneys told Luong he should rely on the high court’s ruling — which found the $300 hourly rate fell outside legal limits — in determining how much Wice and Schaffer should be paid.

Nothing in the prosecutors’ filing, “which contains unsubstantiated gossip about an irrelevant matter and no legal argument, authorizes this court to disregard the holding of the CCA and grant the relief requested by the pro tems,” Paxton’s attorneys wrote.

I don’t know if Wice and Schaffer’s motion can be a justification to essentially overturn that CCA ruling, but it certainly shows (again) why that ruling was ridiculous, and why the current system for hiring special prosecutors is fundmentally flawed. They may not be able to do more than score political points, but even just a reminder of how much Paxton has been coddled and protected by his political buddies all these years is useful. The Chron and Rick Casey, who notes a connection between Michael Wynne and Brandon Cammack, has more.

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.

Why did Ken Paxton hire a newbie attorney to be a “special prosecutor” or whatever he meant to call him?

The Trib has some questions.

Best mugshot ever

It was a baffling, perilous, perhaps unprecedented task.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hired an outside lawyer last month to look into a complaint of misconduct by a host of state and federal officials, including the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and a U.S. attorney’s office. The claim had been made by a Paxton donor whose home and office were reportedly raided by federal agents last year.

Some legal experts say the investigation should never have been in the hands of the attorney general’s office at all. But if it was, longtime Texas attorneys say, it’s a job for a seasoned prosecutor, perhaps someone with years of experience as a U.S. attorney or district attorney, someone who’d already established a reputation, someone who’d taken dozens of cases all the way from investigation to sentencing.

Instead, Paxton personally signed off on a $300 hourly rate for Brandon Cammack, a 34-year-old Houston defense attorney with ties to the donor’s attorney and five years of experience whose docket, court records show, largely comprises cases involving driving while intoxicated, low-level theft or assault.

Paxton’s office abruptly ended that investigation Friday after political backlash from both parties and criminal allegations from his own top aides. But questions about Cammack’s role — and the process of his selection — persist.

“That’s the $64,000 question: How did Paxton come to hire this particular lawyer?” said Tim Johnson, a former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Texas. “You’d expect, for something that would have the possibility for serious consequences, that you’d want to have somebody that had a great deal of experience in the criminal justice system. And it doesn’t appear that they did that.”

Equally inscrutable is the precise job Cammack was hired to perform for the attorney general’s office. Paxton has described him both as an “outside independent prosecutor” and as “independent counsel,” and one subpoena obtained by The Texas Tribune refers to Cammack as a “special prosecutor.”

But Cammack’s contract, which Paxton released this week, shows that Cammack was never independent, nor was he a prosecutor. Cammack can investigate “only as directed by the [Office of the Attorney General],” and his contract specifies that he will not be involved in any indictment or prosecution born out of his investigation. He’s submitted an invoice for more than $14,000 of work, according to media reports.

I’ll get back to this article in a second, but I should note that it’s a pretty good overview of the story so far, and includes a lot of new details. Because this is a sprawling story that’s being told in multiple places, it also covers some stuff we’ve already talked about. No one is going to be able to write a short article for anything related to this just because recapping the backstory will take at least six paragraphs.

Legal experts and lawyers who’ve worked with Cammack, including his estranged father, questioned whether he has the experience needed to take on such a high-profile assignment.

As recently as 2018, a judge appointed a more senior attorney to assist Cammack when he was working as a defense attorney on a felony manslaughter case.

Mark Hochglaube, the longtime prosecutor and defense attorney who was brought in, said it wasn’t clear whether the judge or Cammack himself considered the young lawyer too inexperienced to handle the case alone — but that both were on board with getting Cammack some help.

Their client, who was found guilty of manslaughter, was sentenced to 50 years.

He praised Cammack’s effort on the case but questioned his selection for the high-profile appointment.

“If I were the attorney general, and I was in this predicament, would the name Brandon Cammack be the first name that popped into my mind? No, it wouldn’t,” Hochglaube said.

Young attorneys can often punch above their weight and rise quickly through the ranks, Hochglaube said, but he added, “I have a hard time saying, based on my experience with Brandon, that I would’ve thought this was suitable for him.”

[…]

Beyond questions about Brandon Cammack’s qualifications, the scope of his role is murky, too.

Why, some legal experts wondered, would a state attorney general be investigating claims against federal authorities at all? Some called the situation unprecedented.

“I guess every politician is limited only by his imagination,” said longtime Houston defense attorney Rusty Hardin, “but that’s a pretty unique event.”

Edward Loya, a Dallas attorney and former federal prosecutor for the U.S. Department of Justice, said FBI agents are not above the law, and, in principle, there is nothing wrong with the state attorney general looking into FBI misconduct for violations of Texas law.

But he added that it is unusual — and raises serious ethical questions — for a state attorney general to take on an investigation of FBI misconduct in a case involving alleged criminal activity of one of the attorney general’s donors. The prudent course, he said, would have been to refer the matter to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General, an independent division within DOJ that probes such claims made against DOJ employees.

“I can’t imagine that’s ever happened before,” said Johnson, the former U.S. attorney, adding that if he had been asked to fill Cammack’s role, “I would’ve stayed as far away as I could.”

“Anybody with half a brain would’ve gotten as far away from this as they possibly could,” Johnson said. But Cammack “may not have had enough experience to realize this is something he really shouldn’t want to get involved with.”

Lawyers interviewed by The Texas Tribune said Cammack’s official role as outside counsel raises questions about whether he had the authority to issue subpoenas, a power limited to prosecutors and assistant attorneys general. His actions in the case could open him up to legal liability if he usurped his authority, and Phelps, the former official in the attorney general’s office, questioned whether the issuance of the subpoenas amounted to a criminal offense.

“An outside counsel is not a ‘special prosecutor’ and has no authority to issue subpoenas, appear in front of a grand jury, or prosecute a criminal case,” said Phelps, who also worked for a decade as first assistant district attorney in Brazos County, and head of a special prosecutions division under Morales.

“I wish someone would pull that Brandon Cammack aside because I think he’s being used, because of his inexperience,” Phelps said.

I skipped over a couple of paragraphs that describe Brandom Cammack’s relationship with his father, who is also an attorney and who comes across as an abusive. It’s icky stuff.

After several days and a whole lot of reading, I’ve been thinking about how to summarize what we know so far, so if we get into a conversation with someone who knows nothing about this other than a vague recollection of some headlines or Facebook posts, we can help them understand. The basic gist of it is that a real estate hotshot in Austin named Nate Paul had been the target of an FBI investigation into his finances, which involved raids on his offices. Paul filed a complaint about the investigation and searches of his properties with the office of Attorney General Ken Paxton, to whom he had contributed $25K in the last election. Paxton did open an investigation, going through the Travis County DA’s office first with a somewhat shady legal pretext to get the investigation handled by his office instead of the DA. He then hired Brandom Cammack, an inexperienced attorney, in a role that is not clearly defined but is something like a special prosecutor, except that Cammack was not independent of Paxton, and no one thinks he had the qualifications or experience for the job. All of this looked like Paxton doing some legal work on behalf of Nate Paul but with the official seal of the AG’s office. That caused a revolt among Paxton’s senior assistants, who told him all of this was highly inappropriate at the least. In the end, seven top assistants to Paxton asked for a federal investigation of Paxton’s involvement in the Nate Paul situation, accusing him of being paid off by Paul to help Paul defend himself against the feds in their investigation of him. Whew!

That’s where things stand now, and there are various subplots and unanswered questions and who knows what else. You can see what I mean when I say that it will be impossible any time soon to write a short article relating to this. I feel like there are still some big shoes to drop, but I couldn’t even guess at what that might mean. It’s becoming quite the political hot potato, as US Rep. Chip Roy – a former top lieutenant to Paxton – has called on him to resign (as have a couple of newspaper editorial boards), and Sen. John Cornyn, himself a former AG, has expressed his disappointment in Paxton’s handling of this. I have to believe that this will be an issue in 2022, in a bigger way than the existing Servergy indictments of Paxton ever were.

One more thing, just to expand on an item noted in the story above: Paxton has officially closed the Nate Paul investigation that started all this, shortly after Travis County DA Margaret Moore told him her office was not going to be involved any more in any way.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said his office is closing its investigation into a complaint made by one of his donors, hours after the Travis County District Attorney formally distanced itself.

Also on Friday, the Texas Department of Public Safety said it was not investigating allegations by aides in Paxton’s office that he committed bribery and other corruption crimes but instead the matter had been referred to the Federal Bureau of Investigations. A DPS spokesman said the Texas Rangers are available to assist.

Paxton had argued that he only pursued an investigation urged by the donor, Austin real estate investor Nate Paul, after getting a referral from Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore’s office. Moore already told the Houston Chronicle that it was Paxton who first brought Paul’s request for an investigation to her and not the other way around.

A letter she sent Paxton Friday upped the ante and made clear her office is cutting all ties to the probe. Moore noted all the revelations that have come out in recent days — revelations that demonstrate Paxton has more than gone out of his way to assist Paul and his troubled real estate dealings.

“Any action you have already taken or will take pursuing this investigation is done solely on your own authority as provided by Texas law,” Moore said. “The newly surfaced information raises serious concerns about the integrity of your investigation and the propriety of your conducting it.”

She said the referral of the Paul matter from her office to his — until now in the hands of an outside Houston lawyer Paxton hired — “cannot be used as any indication of a need for an investigation …or an endorsement of your acceptance of the referral.” She also said she had instructed her employees “to have no further contact with you or your office regarding this matter.”

Paxton said in a statement Friday that he closed the investigation because his office “can only investigate in response to a request for assistance from the District Attorney’s office.”

I wonder if we’ll hear some more about this from the perspective of someone in Moore’s office, now that they are free of any constraint. We’re almost a week into this story and it’s still a total firehose of new information. The Statesman has more.

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.

More on Nate Paul

This Trib story delves into the life and times of Nate Paul, the young Austin real estate entrepreneur whose relationship with Ken Paxton is the underpinning of the current scandal surrounding Paxton. The story goes into some detail about Paul’s life, which includes a habit of stiffing creditors and a general dickishness that I find crummy but which apparently don’t bother Paxton, but the key bit is right here:

Best mugshot ever

Meanwhile, Paxton’s office has come to Paul’s defense in at least one other legal matter, records show. Paul’s World Class firm works through a complex web of more than a dozen affiliated business partnerships, which jointly own properties with investors.

A dispute arose two years ago between companies affiliated with World Class and the Roy F. and Joann Cole Mitte Foundation, which invested in multiple Austin properties with the companies. The foundation is an Austin-based nonprofit that provides grants to charitable organizations and academic scholarships for students with financial needs.

The Mitte Foundation sued Paul in 2018, claiming he wasn’t sharing financial information on their jointly owned investments that Paul’s businesses managed. The case went to arbitration, and on July 1, 2019, a company affiliated with World Class agreed to buy out Mitte’s interest in the real estate partnerships for $10.5 million with payment due that August.

It never came, said Ray Chester, the lawyer representing the Mitte Foundation in the case.

In October 2019, the judge in the case ordered a receiver to take over the business partnerships, which would compel Paul to reveal the financial records that Chester said still hadn’t been shared with the Mitte Foundation. Chester said that within days, Paul “blatantly defied” the arbitrator’s ruling and said he had sold the partnerships at less than half of their market value.

But the sale was to another company affiliated with Paul, Chester said.

“He basically sold it to himself at below market value,” Chester said, although court records show the sale was never consummated.

As Paul’s firm cycled through teams of attorneys and held back on making the $10.5 million payment, Paxton’s office intervened in the case on behalf of World Class and its business affiliates this June, court records show. Paxton argued that his office needed to “protect the interests of the public” because the suit involved a charitable trust.

In July, Paxton asked a judge to halt the case. During that time, Chester said Paxton’s office called him five to 10 times per day to try to get him to settle for “pennies on the dollar,” calls that Chester characterized as “vaguely threatening.”

On Sept. 20, less than two weeks before news broke about the allegations against Paxton, the attorney general’s office reversed itself and announced its intention to step away from the case, which is still ongoing.

After filing for bankruptcy in August, the World Class affiliate handling investments in the property did not pay the $10.5 million or turn over the records, Chester said. But a clause in the settlement agreement does allow the Mitte Foundation to take a valuable, larger ownership share in the downtown property, Chester said.

One can certainly see some parallels to another well-known real estate personality, but that’s not what caught my interest. The obvious question here is why was Ken Paxton inserting himself into this particular dispute? It sure seems like a standard fight between a creditor and a debtor, so what was the state’s interest? I didn’t publish this post on Thursday because of Too Damn Much Other News, which is just as well because I then saw this Statesman story, which helped with some of these questions. As noted above, Ray Chester is an Austin attorney who has been representing the Mitte Foundation in its legal battles against Nate Paul and World Class, and apparently also Ken Paxton.

Chester contends the attorney general’s office exerted undue pressure to push for a settlement financially advantageous to Paul — or “pennies on the dollar” compared with what the foundation was owed under a previous $10.5 million settlement reached in 2019.

“We suspected all along that something fishy was behind the AG’s intervention in our case,” Chester said. “There is no legitimate reason why they would be helping Mr. Paul’s companies at the expense of a charity.”

The limited partnerships are called WC 1st and Trinity LP and WC 3rd and Congress LP, named after the locations of their properties. The 1st and Trinity partnership owns prime waterfront land on East Cesar Chavez, next to the Four Seasons Hotel and across from the Austin Convention Center. The WC 3rd and Congress partnership owns several tracts around the Austonian high-rise condos downtown.

In court documents and in an interview with the Statesman, Chester said Paul didn’t pay the $10.5 million settlement.

And as things continued to “go south” for Paul, Chester said Paxton started taking an interest in the legal fight.

Any time a charity is involved in litigation, the charitable trust division of the attorney general’s office must be notified because it has a right to intervene on behalf of the public interest in the charity.

But the only reason the attorney general should get involved in such cases “is to help the charity — not help the criminal guy against the charity,” Chester said. “And that’s what happened here, and that’s what’s made it so unusual.”

Michael Wynne, an attorney for Paul, told the Statesman that the foundation “refused to engage in any meaningful resolution” to the litigation, however, and also “colluded” with a court-appointed receiver in the case, squandering “over a million dollars in legal fees to line their lawyers’ pockets.”

Those are the among the reasons Paul brought the case to the attention of the attorney general’s charitable trust division, he said, disputing a contention by Chester that Chester’s office did so when the lawsuit was first filed — as it was required to do by law.

Wynne also said he is unaware of anyone from the attorney general’s office attempting to pressure Mitte to accept a settlement.

“We were obviously not privy to any of those conversations and have no basis to comment on them,” he said.

This at least helps me understand the claim that the AG needed to step in because the case involved a public trust. I’d love to hear from someone with actual experience what they think about all this.

Paxton mounted an investigation into allegations made by Paul that federal agents with the FBI and U.S. Department of Treasury acted unlawfully during [2019 searches of some of his properties]. Paxton tapped an outside attorney, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, to conduct that probe.

Seven senior Paxton aides — including his first assistant, who recently resigned — subsequently filed a criminal complaint against the attorney general that they say stems from his dealings with Paul, who donated $25,000 to Paxton’s reelection campaign in 2018. They’ve asked federal agents to investigate their boss for potential crimes that include bribery, abuse of office and improper influence.

Cammack’s appointment was among the actions that prompted the complaint. Paxton’s intervention in the Mitte case also has sparked controversy.

A senior official in the attorney general’s office recently voiced concerns to the American-Statesman about Paxton’s involvement in the Mitte lawsuit, saying attorneys in the agency’s charitable trust division were instructed by Paxton to weigh in, even though Paxton doesn’t typically take such a hands-on approach.

“I saw just no interest why our office should get involved in this thing,” the official said. “Legally, and just the optics of doing something for a guy who is under FBI investigation — I am like, ‘This is reckless.’”

Documents obtained by the Statesman indicate Paul prodded some staffers of the attorney general’s office to discuss with him their handing of the Mitte case and what Paul alleged to be improprieties by the foundation.

“Your decision to not even respond to my emails has only amplified my concern about your bias toward helping the Mitte Foundation,” Paul wrote in a July 1 email to Josh Godbey, head of the attorney general’s charitable trust division. “I have raised many issues and you have chosen not to respond.”

In a July 23 email, Paul complained to Jeff Mateer — Paxton’s former first assistant who recently resigned — about Godbey’s lack of action. Mateer responded to Paul’s attorneys, asking that all communications be conducted through them, and he also attempted to make clear the agency’s position on such matters.

“It is not our role to assist a party adverse to a charity in pending litigation or provide status updates on those matters,” Mateer wrote in a July 24 email. “Any such non-privileged communications subject to public disclosure might be perceived as questioning our office’s necessary impartiality, which we carefully guard at all times.”

Chester said his firm notified Paxton’s office about the lawsuit as required when it was filed, but was told the agency’s involvement wasn’t needed.

“A junior attorney called me, asked me a few questions and said, ‘You’re fine, we don’t need to intervene,’” Chester recalled.

That was the end of it, he thought.

But subsequently, Paul suffered a series of setbacks in the case. In addition, the court-appointed receiver started making plans to sell the 1st and Trinity property.

“The next thing you know, (the attorney general’s office) intervened,” Chester said. “At that point, we knew there was some connection between Nate and the attorney general’s office.”

“We quickly started getting pressure to settle the case,” Chester said, and “for much less” than the 2019 agreement of $10.5 million.

“They were strong-arming us to settle,” Chester said. “It was very uncomfortable and very threatening. Multiple people told me the pressure was coming straight from Paxton.”

There’s been a lot more reporting on this saga, which I have covered in another post. This is going to be a challenge to follow because multiple publications are all chasing different leads and advancing the story in a variety of ways. We still don’t have a clear picture of what was happening, and some facts are in dispute. But boy, everything we’ve seen so far looks deeply sketchy. I have no idea what Ken Paxton is thinking, but I suspect he’s in for some very rough times. And deservedly so.

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.

Paxton’s first line of defense

Settle in, folks, this is going to be a long one. We’ll start with the Dallas Morning News.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is defending his decision to bring on an outside lawyer to look into a complaint from real estate developer and campaign donor Nate Paul.

In an unusual step Wednesday, Paxton’s office released documents to beat back accusations by his own top deputies that the outside attorney, Brandon Cammack, is acting without authority. The records show Cammack is billing the state $300 an hour and that Paxton personally signed his hiring document.

The records — released through the agency’s Twitter account — signal Paxton is digging in for a fight after seven of his most senior employees accused him of bribery and abuse of office. The staff have raised concerns over Paxton’s relationship with Paul, whose home and businesses were raided last summer by the FBI.

Multiple senior officials in the agency told The Dallas Morning News late Wednesday they believed Paul was attempting to use the power of the office of the attorney general for personal and financial gain. And in a document obtained Wednesday by The News, Paxton’s deputy warned Cammack his employment agreement was invalid and may have been signed by Paxton “under duress.”

“The document appears to be signed by Attorney General Ken Paxton. To be clear this office has no record authorizing such a retention under our agency’s operating policies and procedures,” then-First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer wrote in a letter dated Oct. 1.

“We believe this purported agreement is unlawful, invalid, unenforceable, against public policy, and may have been executed by the Attorney General under duress,” Mateer wrote, without elaborating.

“Under duress”? UNDER DURESS? Holy mother of Ann Richards. What does this even mean?

Cammack, 34, told The News on Tuesday that Paxton reached out to him in August to gauge his interest in working as outside counsel. He was asked to look into a complaint from Paul alleging misconduct by state and federal employees that was referred to Paxton’s agency by the Travis County District Attorney in June.

On Thursday, Travis County DA Margaret Moore said Paxton personally asked her to look into the complaint. After her office held a meeting with Paxton, Paul and Paul’s attorney, Moore referred the complaint to the Office of the Attorney General.

“The scope and nature of the complaints comprised matters that the D.A.’s Office would normally refer to a law enforcement agency with the resources necessary to conduct the investigation,” Moore said in a statement. “The entities complained against included the FBI and the Texas Department of Public Safety, so the only appropriate agency left to whom we would typically make the referral was the Office of the Attorney General.”

But the agency’s investigation into Paul’s complaint stalled. Multiple senior officials told The News on Wednesday they recommended not proceeding further with the probe because they found that the agency had no authority to investigate the claims in the complaint or that they lacked merit. They believed that Paul was attempting to use the office for personal and financial gain.

Paxton reached out reached to Cammack, the lawyer told The News, to pick up the investigation. On Wednesday, the statement from Paxton’s office said he decided to hire Cammack as outside counsel because his own employees impeded the investigation and “because the Attorney General knew Nate Paul.”

But multiple senior officials who would have needed to sign off on outside counsel told The News on Wednesday that they vigorously opposed Cammack’s hiring.

We should note that as some other outlets reported, Paxton made it sound like Travis County DA Margaret Moore approached his office to handle this complaint. Moore has released a statement making it clear that Paxton approached her, and the referral back to his office was because it was legally the only appropriate way to proceed. Once again, my jaw is hanging open.

The way Cammack was brought on is highly unusual, according to a person familiar with the agency’s policies and procedures, who said all contracts must be approved by several divisions and senior officials. It’s unclear whether that occurred in this case.

While Paxton has said he decided to bring on outside counsel because he knows Paul, the agreement released Wednesday does not give Cammack independence from Paxton and requires him to conduct an investigation only as directed by the Office of the Attorney General.

The hiring documents Paxton released Wednesday include an employment agreement and job description, which Paxton said “legally authorized [Cammack] to act.”

Paxton’s office also released emails between Cammack and one staff member, in which the two discussed a draft of a hiring agreement. That staff member, Deputy Attorney General for Legal Counsel Ryan Vassar, is one of the seven employees who lobbed criminal allegations against Paxton.

Cammack has said that his work is still going on. Who even knows what that means.

All that is a lot, but there’s still more. The Chron finds some more oddities about Brandon Cammack and how he came into the picture.

While a contract released by the attorney general’s office explains how outside counsel Brandon Cammack came to be hired, it leaves questions unanswered about how the arrangement allows Cammack to be independent of Paxton, who is at the helm of the agency and signed the contract.

“They may very well be allowed to do it,” said Larry McDougal, president of the Texas Bar and a former prosecutor. “I’ve just never actually seen it … Thirty years of being a lawyer, and I’ve never had that come up.”

We’re off to a great start. Now we look at the meeting with Travis County DA Margaret Moore again, and the way that Paxton’s office came to be involved in this investigation that he wanted.

Some lawyers interviewed said Paxton could also have declined the case or referred it to another law enforcement agency. All said it’s unclear what part of the law Paxton leaned on when bringing on Cammack.

Paxton’s office has described Cammack as “outside independent counsel,” but in at least on subpoena, obtained by Hearst Newspapers, he is called a “special prosecutor.”

“I was very surprised to hear that he was appointed as a special prosecutor only because I, candidly, don’t know that the Attorney General’s office has the authority to do so,” said Chris Downey, a Houston-based criminal defense attorney who has been an attorney pro tem three times before. “I think that’s a point of concern and potential exposure.”

The contract released Wednesday by Paxton’s office shows that Cammack was hired to investigate but not prosecute. That differentiation could mean legal consequences for Cammack if a court later finds that he was acting without authority.

In July 2020, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that prosecutors aren’t shielded with immunity from lawsuits when they are performing investigative functions.

Attorneys interviewed also raised questions about the choice of Cammack, who graduated from University of Houston law school in May 2015, was licensed in November of that year and has been in private practice for about five years. He’s also the chair-elect of the Houston Bar Association.

“Normally, when you do bring on someone as a special prosecutor, you do so because you’re trying to tap into that person’s unique skill set,” Downey said. “I would be surprised given that he’s been a lawyer for five years that he has a defined skillset that they couldn’t find within the attorney general’s office.”

Everywhere you turn, more and more questions. Many more questions than answers, that’s for sure.

My previous blogging on this topic can be found here, here, and here. I’ll have a separate post on the Nate Paul side of things, because this is all Just Too Much.

The Trib also covered this topic, but the DMN had the most comprehensive story, while the Chron has been running down other angles as well. One more detail in all this is that Paxton’s contract with Cammack pays him $300 and hour. You know who else is supposed to get paid that much? The special prosecutors against Paxton in the Servergy case. The same guys who have been fighting Paxton, his army of cronies and minions from Collin County, and the Republican-dominated courts to actually get that pay, which Team Paxton et al have claimed is extravagant. I expect the rotting corpse of Irony to turn up any day now.

UPDATE: Damn, there’s a lot happening with this story.

Five senior officials in the Texas Attorney General’s Office accused their boss, Ken Paxton, on Wednesday of subverting his office to serve the financial interests of a political donor, according to an email obtained by The Texas Tribune.

The aides are doubling down on accusations they made last week to law enforcement — that Paxton had committed crimes including bribery and abuse of office — even as the second-term Republican says he’ll forge ahead as the state’s top lawyer under a fresh cloud of criminal allegations and as some in his party call on him to resign.

“It would be a violation of our own public responsibilities and ethical obligations to stand by while the significant power and resources of the Texas Attorney General’s Office are used to serve the interests of a private citizen bent on impeding a federal investigation into his own alleged wrongdoing and advancing his own financial interests,” the aides aides wrote in the email. “We urge you to end this course of conduct immediately.”

[…]

The damning Oct. 7 email was addressed to Paxton and his new First Assistant Brent Webster and sent by five of the same senior aides and whistleblowers — Ryan Bangert, Blake Brickman, Lacey Mase, Darren McCarty and Ryan Vassar— who reported allegations of criminal activity to law enforcement last week. Two of Paxton’s aides, including former First Assistant Jeff Mateer who reported him to law enforcement have since resigned.

Their concerns stem from Paxton’s hiring of a special prosecutor to investigate claims made by Nate Paul, an Austin real estate investor and donor, of alleged impropriety by federal and state authorities. But several subpoenas served by the prosecutor, the aides said in the email, were “related to private business concerns of Nate Paul” — and were not the subject of the “narrow criminal referral” he was appointed to investigate.

“This office’s continued use of the criminal process, in a matter already determined to be without merit, to benefit the personal interests of Nate Paul, is unconscionable,” they wrote.

They’re bringing the heat, I have to say. It really is mind-boggling what these top assistants are saying about their boss, and sharing with the press. It’s also easy to imagine that there’s more coming. In the meantime, John Cornyn gets on the Concern Train, on which he will Wait And See before drawing any conclusions. Better buckle in, John.

Win one, lose one at SCOTX

The win:

Early voting in Texas can begin Oct. 13, following the timeline the governor laid out months ago, the Texas Supreme Court ruled Wednesday, rejecting a request from several top Texas Republicans to limit the timeframe for voters to cast their ballots.

In July, Gov. Greg Abbott ordered that early voting for the general election in Texas begin nearly a week earlier than usual, a response to the coronavirus pandemic. But a number of prominent Republicans, including state party Chair Allen West, Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller and several members of the Texas Legislature, challenged that timeframe in September, arguing that Abbott defied state election law, which dictates that early voting typically begins on the 17th day before an election — this year, Oct. 19.

Abbott added six days to the early voting period through an executive order, an exercise of the emergency powers he has leaned into during the virus crisis. The Republicans who sued him argued this was an overreach.

The state’s highest civil court, which is entirely held by Republicans, ruled that the GOP officials who sued challenging Abbott’s extension waited until the last minute to do so, when he had already extended early voting in the primary election and announced he would do the same for the general months ago. Chief Justice Nathan Hecht noted also that the election is already underway.

“To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion,” he wrote in the opinion.

See here and here for some background, and here for the opinion. After noting that Abbott has “issued a long series of proclamations invoking the Act as authority to address the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on a wide range of activities in the State” since his disaster declaration in March, the Court notes that the relators (the fancy legal name for “plaintiffs” in this kind of case) took their sweet time complaining about it:

Relators delayed in challenging the Governor’s July 27 proclamation for more than ten weeks after it was issued. They have not sought relief first in the lower courts that would have allowed a careful, thorough consideration of their arguments regarding the Act’s scope and constitutionality. Those arguments affect not only the impending election process but also implicate the Governor’s authority under the Act for the many other actions he has taken over the past six months. Relators’ delay precludes the consideration their claims require.

The dissent argues that relators acted diligently because they filed their petition in this Court four days after they received an email confirming that the Harris County Clerk intended to comply with the Governor’s July 27 proclamation. But relators’ challenge is to the validity of the proclamation, not the Clerk’s compliance.16 Relators could have asserted their challenge at any time in the past ten weeks. The dissent also argues that the Court has granted relief after similar delays. But none of the cases the dissent cites bears out its argument.17

Moreover, the election is already underway. The Harris County Clerk has represented to the Court that his office would accept mailed-in ballots beginning September 24. To disrupt the long-planned election procedures as relators would have us do would threaten voter confusion.

[…]

Mandamus is an “extraordinary” remedy that is “available only in limited circumstances.”20 When the record fails to show that petitioners have acted diligently to protect their rights, relief by mandamus is not available.21 The record here reflects no justification for relators’ lengthy delay.

The “dissent” refers to the dissenting opinion written by Justice John Devine, who was all along the biggest cheerleader for the vote suppressors. I have no particular quibble with this opinion, which seems correct and appropriate to me, but the grounds on which the mandamus is denied are awfully narrow, which gives me some concern. The Court may merely be recognizing the fact that there are several outstanding challenges to Abbott’s authority to use his executive powers in this fashion, relating to mask and shutdown orders as well as election issues, and they may simply want to leave that all undisturbed until the lower courts start to make their rulings. That too is fine and appropriate, but I can’t help but feel a little disquieted at the thought that maybe these guys could have succeeded if the timing (and their lawyering) had been better.

That ruling also settled the question of counties being able to accept mail ballots at dropoff locations during the early voting process – the relators had demanded that mail ballot dropoff be limited to Election Day only. None of this is related to the issue of how many dropoff locations there may be, which is being litigated in multiple other lawsuits, four now as of last report. We are still waiting on action from those cases.

On the negative side, SCOTX put the kibosh on County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters in Harris County.

The state’s highest civil court ruled Wednesday that Hollins may not put the applications in the mail. The documents can be accessed online, and are often distributed by political campaigns, parties and other private organizations. But for a government official to proactively send them oversteps his authority, the court ruled.

“We conclude that the Election Code does not authorize the mailing proposed by the Harris County Clerk,” the court wrote in an unsigned per curiam opinion.

The Republican justices sent the case back to a lower court in Harris County to issue an injunction blocking Hollins from sending the mailers.

The county has already distributed the applications to voters who are at least 65, who automatically qualify for absentee ballots, and has also begun sending out the applications to other voters who requested them. An attorney for Hollins estimated last week that the county would send out about 1.7 million more applications if the court allowed.

See here and here for some background, here for a statement from Hollins, and here for the unanimous opinion, which is longer than the one in the first case. The Court goes into the many ways in which the Legislature has expressed its intent that most people should vote in person, and then sums up its view Clerks getting creative:

Hollins’ mass mailing of ballot applications would undercut the Secretary’s statutory duty to “maintain uniformity” in Texas’ elections, the Legislature’s “very deliberate[]” decision to authorize only discrete categories of Texans to vote by mail, and its intent that submission of an application be an action with legal gravity.43

Authority for Hollins’ proposed mass mailing can be implied from the Election Code only if it is necessarily part of an express grant—not simply convenient, but indispensable. Any reasonable doubt must be resolved against an implied grant of authority. Mass-mailing unsolicited ballot applications to voters ineligible to vote by mail cannot be said to be necessary or indispensable to the conduct of early voting. Even if it could be, doubt on the matter is certainly reasonable and must be resolved against recognizing implied authority. We hold that an early voting clerk lacks authority under the Election Code to mass-mail applications to vote by mail. The State has demonstrated success on the merits of its ultra vires claim.

I’ve discussed my views on this before, when the appeals court upheld the original order, and I don’t have anything to add to that. I agree with Michael Hurta that this case will be cited in future litigation that aims to limit what Texas localities can do to innovate, which is what Hollins was doing here. It’s basically another attack on local control, and as I replied to that tweet, it’s another item to the Democrats’ to do list when they are in a position to pass some laws.

I hate this ruling for a lot of reasons, but that right there is at the top of the list. The Court based its ruling in part on the fact that Hollins was doing something no one else had thought to try – “all election officials other than Hollins are discharging this duty in the way that they always have”, they say as part of their reasoning to slap Hollins down” – and while I can see the logic and reason in that, we’re in the middle of a fucking pandemic, and sometimes you have to step outside the box a bit to get things done in a manner that is safe and effective. I get where the Court is coming from, and I admit that allowing County Clerks to experiment and freelance has the potential to cause problems, but it sure would have been nice for the Court to at least recognize that Hollins’ actions, however unorthodox they may have been, did not come out of a vacuum. Clearly, the fact that the arguments in this case were heard via Zoom didn’t sink in with anyone.

On a practical level, I don’t know how many people would have voted via absentee ballot who would not have otherwise participated. Some number, to be sure, but I really don’t think it’s all that much. It’s the principle here, one part making it harder to vote and one part keeping the locals in line, that bothers me. As has been the case so many times, we’re going to have to win more elections and then change the laws if we want some progress. You know what to do. The Chron has more.

More on the motion to dismiss the felony bail lawsuit

Should get a ruling soon.

The bulk of Harris County’s felony judges sought Monday to get the federal case against them dismissed, saying they should not be party to the challenge on how bail is determined for thousands of poor people accused of crime.

Lawyers for Gov. Greg Abbott, Attorney General Ken Paxton and 19 Democratic district judges argued at a packed online hearing that the judges are protected by immunity, the federal courts don’t have jurisdiction and the indigent arrestees behind the case no longer have standing to sue.

The 2019 civil rights case challenges the county’s policy of setting bond that results in the jailing of people who can’t afford cash bail. Nearly 80 percent of the current jail population are people awaiting trial, mostly on felonies.

Although the group of judges asked for the entire case to be dismissed, or alternatively, their removal as parties to the case, the bail challenge is likely proceed regardless of the court’s ruling, since the remaining defendants — the county, Sheriff Ed Gonzalez and four felony judges who hired their own lawyers — are not seeking dismissal.

[…]

The state Attorney General’s Office, arguing on behalf of the majority of the felony judges, said the bail process is constitutional because it adheres to ODonnell v. Harris County, the county’s landmark misdemeanor bond case that was resolved through a seven-year consent decree.

But the plaintiffs say the felony bail case, Russell v. Harris County, raises new constitutional issues that the court never had a chance to address in ODonnell.

See here and here for the most recent updates. I will reiterate what I said in that last link: I want this system to be reformed in a manner similar to the misdemeanor case, I want the Democratic judges to be part of the solution and not an obstacle to it, and I will remember who is who and who does what. We’ll see what happens next.

Here, have a Paxton scandal roundup

At first I couldn’t decide if I wanted to put the juiciest bit up front or at the end. I decided to put it at the end, to hold your interest throughout.

From the Trib, life and business tries to go on at the AG’s office.

Best mugshot ever

It had already been a difficult fall for the Texas attorney general’s office.

The sprawling agency, which employs some 4,000 people in more than 100 offices across Texas, has for months had to contend with the added challenges of the coronavirus, many staff members working from home and others deployed as legal backup to Gov. Greg Abbott in coronavirus-related lawsuits on everything from abortion rights to business closures.

Communications director Marc Rylander departed more than a month ago, and Nick Moutos, an assistant attorney general, lost his job at the agency in early September after revelations that he had shared racist rhetoric and QAnon conspiracy theories on social media. Meanwhile, top state attorneys are juggling a handful of fast-moving election-related lawsuits — When will early voting begin? Will Texas ballots allow for straight-ticket voting? — and gearing up for a Nov. 10 argument before the U.S. Supreme Court, the culmination of a yearslong effort to strike down the Affordable Care Act.

But things hit a fever pitch this weekend as seven of the agency’s most senior staff members accused their boss, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, of crimes including bribery and abuse of office, as the Austin-American Statesman and KVUE-TV first reported Saturday night. One of the whistleblowers, Jeff Mateer, abruptly resigned his position as Paxton’s top aide Friday after telling a human resources administrator at the agency that he and other aides “have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses.”

But Paxton, who has pledged to forge ahead as attorney general, pointed the finger back at the seven aides.

“Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations I will continue to seek justice in Texas and will not be resigning,” Paxton said.

Now, agency staff will have to juggle coordinating child support payments, open-records requests and major court dates under the cloud of fresh allegations against their boss, without Mateer, and with an internal battle quietly raging between Paxton and many of the most senior aides who remain.

Yes, so many distractions they must deal with as they work so hard to take away your health care and restrict your access to the ballot box. I don’t know how they manage to do it all.

A spokesperson for the agency, Kayleigh Date, said Saturday that the top aides made the allegations against Paxton “to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office.”

And she seemed to suggest that state officials hope to investigate or even prosecute the whistleblowers.

“Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law,” Date added.

Date declined to provide any further details about the investigation or how the agency will run amid the chaos. She also did not respond to questions about how many of the seven remain employed at the agency.

For his part, Paxton worked Monday to signal business as usual, appointing Brent Webster, a former assistant criminal district attorney in Williamson County, to replace Mateer in the critical role of first assistant attorney general.

Paxton also had lunch at an Austin barbecue restaurant with Bill Miller, a friend and longtime lobbyist, who said Paxton was surprised and puzzled by the allegations and maintains that he has not done anything wrong.

Miller said Paxton hadn’t heard from law enforcement or retained an attorney on the matter and pointed out that the aides leveling accusations against Paxton have yet to publicly show evidence: “There’s a lotta smoke; where’s the fire?”

Paxton doesn’t understand where the claims came from, and “he isn’t going anywhere,” Miller said, but is committed to forging ahead with the agency’s work with Webster as the new first assistant.

Yes, it would be nice to know what if anything is happening with these accusations. As per usual custom, there won’t be any comment from the FBI or US Attorney’s office, so unless someone leaks to the press, or until people with badges and search warrants show up at the office, all we can do is wait and speculate. I hate to say it, but there may not be much news on this for awhile.

The Chron goes into the politics and gets some detail on one of the more alarming charges.

Texas political analyst Mark Jones of Rice University, who has studied the felony case that has been hanging over Paxton for five years now, said these allegations are different.

“This isn’t an accusation that comes completely out of left field regarding a public servant who has an unblemished track record,” Jones said. “This is someone, from when he arrived in the state House, moved to the state Senate, moved to the office of the attorney general, has had a trail of questionable ethical behavior.”

Jones added: “We’re talking about the chief law enforcement official in the second-largest state in the country.”

Most state Republicans, watching as Paxton has weathered such allegations in the past, have backed him or stayed silent over the years. This time likely will be different, Jones said.

Hearst Newspapers reported Sunday that Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, whom Paxton hired as a special prosecutor, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, according to a senior attorney general’s office official. There were 37 subpoenas that targeted actions of federal authorities in an August 2019 raid of Paul’s home and offices, the Austin American-Statesman reported Monday.

One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state District Court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to quash them was granted Friday, records show.

Many questions remain about the nature of the alleged bribery and how Cammack came to work for the office in a move that has been opposed by half of Paxton’s executive staff.

Paxton has not responded to questions about any contract the office had with Cammack, when he was hired, how much he is being paid or any other details.

Hearst Newspapers has filed open records requests for records of payments to Cammack as well as any agreement the office had with him.

This right here is what I want to know more about, and it won’t be dependent on any loose lips or federal action. Let’s get those records and see what they tell us.

The Chron also has a timeline of Paxton’s malfeasance and pettifoggery. The MontBlanc pen episode is probably my favorite of them. The Trib reminds us that AGs in Texas often go on to run for other things, though not always with success. I don’t see much of a future in higher office for Paxton, but he went from the House to the Senate to the AG’s office pretty quickly, so it’s not like it couldn’t happen.

And finally, the bit you’ve been waiting for, from Law.com:

Appointed prosecutors who have been pursuing felony securities fraud charges against Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton for five years are researching new allegations that Paxton committed crimes in office.

If Paxton gets charged with new crimes, the prosecutors would seek to revoke his bond.

[…]

“We’re making contact with the individuals involved to determine what exactly happened and what evidence exists that suggests he was involved in misconduct,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the appointed prosecutors in Paxton’s pending case.

If Paxton does get charged with new criminal offenses, the prosecutors in his current felony case would file a motion to revoke Paxton’s bond, explained Schaffer, partner in Schaffer & Carter in Houston.

“When you’re under indictment in a felony case and you’re on bond, if you get a new violation, then your bond can be revoked and you can be held without bond,” he noted. “I’m not saying it’s going to happen. So far, we don’t have any evidence. He is not charged in a new case.”

Also, if Paxton eventually goes to trial in the securities fraud case, and he were also charged for crimes related to the new allegations, then Schaffer said the prosecutors would tell the jury about the new alleged crimes during the sentencing phase of the trial in order to argue for a harsher sentence.

Now, this could all be many months off, if it happens at all, but still. Enjoy the thought for a moment. You deserve it.

Chip Roy calls on Paxton to resign

Interesting.

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U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, a former top aide to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, called on his former boss to resign from his post after top members of Paxton’s staff said the attorney general should be investigated for multiple crimes, including bribery.

“For the good of the people of Texas and the extraordinary public servants who serve at the Office of the Attorney General, Attorney General Ken Paxton must resign,” he said in a statement. “The allegations of bribery, abuse of office, and other charges levied against him by at least 7 senior leaders of the Office of the Attorney General are more than troubling on the merits.”

“But, any grace for him to resolve differences and demonstrate if the allegations are false was eliminated by his choice instead to attack the very people entrusted, by him, to lead the office – some of whom I know well and whose character are beyond reproach.”

Roy called the office of the attorney general “too critical to the state and her people to leave in chaos.”

“The Attorney General deserves his days in court, but the people of Texas deserve a fully functioning AG’s office,” he added.

Roy served as Paxton’s initial first assistant attorney general during Paxton’s first term, but resigned upon Paxton’s request in a major shake-up of senior staff in 2015. He was elected to Congress as a Republican in 2018.

See here and here for the background. I have some speculation about this, but before I get to that let me answer a question here that was raised in the comments to the previous post. If Paxton does resign, Greg Abbott will appoint a new AG. That person will serve until the next election, which in this case is the 2022 election, when Paxton’s term would be up. Had this all happened earlier – if, say, Paxton had stepped down in January, for example – then Abbott’s appointed AG would have been on the ballot this November as well, in the same way that there’s an election for Harris County Clerk to replace Diane Trautman. Because of the timing here, if Paxton does resign then whoever is appointed in his place will serve out the rest of his term.

Now then. Chip Roy, a former top lieutenant to Paxton, is the first prominent Republican to call for him to resign; as noted before, Abbott and Dan Patrick both issued very milquetoast “wait and see” statements in that Chron story. What might be the reason for this? Three possibilities I can think of:

1. It’s a principled move by someone who has seen enough evidence of wrongdoing and believes in the office enough to want to protect it. Yes, I know, my eyes are rolling as well, but we wouldn’t be in this position if it hadn’t been for the principled action of multiple people who are – or were, anyway – closely aligned with Paxton. I think very little of Chip Roy, but he didn’t have to put out a statement at all, or if he did he could have followed in Abbott and Partick’s extremely timid footsteps. I’m about to give two much more cynical reasons for this, but even if one or both of these other reasons are true, the fact remains that Chip Roy didn’t have to do this, and will almost certainly suffer some blowback for it. Give credit where credit is due.

2. Locked in a tight race for his Congressional seat, in a year where Donald Trump is doing his best to wreck Republican political careers around the country, the last thing Chip Roy needs is for people to think of him as a onetime head honcho for the consistently corrupt Ken Paxton. Getting out ahead of that mushroom cloud of scandal and putting as much distance between himself and Paxton is just Survival 101.

3. Did I mention that part about Greg Abbott appointing a replacement AG if Paxton does step down? And that part about Chip Roy maybe losing his re-election? Now who would be a better and more obvious choice to step in for Ken Paxton than a former Top Man in the office who was the first Republican to call on him to resign, thus giving him the cred he’ll need to clean up after Paxton’s mess and restore some faith in the Attorney General? Don’t tell me Chip Roy isn’t keeping his options open.

By the way, Ken Paxton says he ain’t resigning, but that’s what you’d expect him to say, and it’s what he says now, when we have very little information about these allegations. Let’s see what happens when we all learn more.

Anyway. Speaking of appointments, Paxton has named a replacement for his departed First Assistant AG, Jeff Mateer. Good luck with that, dude. I may need to seriously rewrite this entry if more Paxton news breaks this afternoon, but in the meantime you can read this Texas Signal story that recaps what we know so far. Catch up if you need to, I have a feeling there’s a lot more to come. The Chron, Texas Monthly, and Reform Austin have more.

UPDATE: The Chron editorial board joins the “Paxton should resign” bandwagon.

More details emerge about the latest Paxton allegations

The Chron advances the ball.

Best mugshot ever

The top state officials who staged a mutiny against Attorney General Ken Paxton warned that he was using his office to benefit campaign donor Nate Paul, an embattled Austin real estate investor.

Paul, a once high-flying businessman whose offices were reportedly raided by the FBI last year, gave Paxton $25,000 ahead of the attorney general’s hard-fought re-election battle in 2018.

The No. 2 official in the attorney general’s office, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, put Paul at the center of allegedly illegal activities by Paxton in a text message sent Thursday. Mateer, who resigned Friday, joined six other high-ranking employees in accusing Paxton, the state’s top law enforcement officer, of abuse of office, bribery and improper influence.

“Each of the individuals on this text chain made a good faith report of violations by you to an appropriate law enforcement authority concerning your relationship and activities with Nate Paul,” Mateer wrote in the text message, which was obtained by Hearst Newspapers.

The group requested an immediate meeting with Paxton, but the attorney general said he was “out of the office” and asked them to email him with their concerns. The Austin American-Statesman, which first reported on the allegations against Paxton, published a letter the officials sent to the attorney general’s human resources office on Oct. 1.

Neither Paul nor his attorney returned calls or messages left on their voicemail.

Paxton said in a statement Sunday: “The Texas attorney general’s office was referred a case from Travis County regarding allegations of crimes relating to the FBI, other government agencies and individuals. My obligation as attorney general is to conduct an investigation upon such referral. Because employees from my office impeded the investigation and because I knew Nate Paul, I ultimately decided to hire an outside independent prosecutor to make his own independent determination. Despite the effort by rogue employees and their false allegations, the AG’s office will continue to seek justice in Texas.”

The uprising against Paxton crystallized when a special prosecutor he appointed, Houston lawyer Brandon Cammack, issued grand jury subpoenas last week targeting “adversaries” of Paul, a senior AG official told Hearst Newspapers.

The official who spoke with Hearst Newspapers said those subpoenas spurred the seven top deputies in the attorney general’s office into action. One of the signatories on the letter accusing Paxton, deputy attorney general for criminal justice J. Mark Penley, filed a motion in state district court in Austin to halt the subpoenas. The motion to “quash” them was granted on Friday, records show.

In filing the subpoenas, Cammack “represented that he was acting on behalf of the office of the Attorney General as a Special Prosecutor,” Penley’s motion said. “He is not properly authorized to act as a Special Prosecutor, and … has no authority to appear before the grand jury or issue grand jury subpoenas.”

See here for the background. The information about the special prosecutor appointed by Paxton who’s been issuing subpoenas that “target adversaries” of this Nate Paul character is what really made my hair stand on end. If there is any truth to that, then this is a massive violation of the AG’s office and I can see why his top lieutenants rebelled the way they did. Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick are quoted in the story issuing “this sounds bad but let’s wait an see” statements – which, in all honesty, is reasonable enough for now – but the pressure is going to be on them, too.

There’s more in the story about Nate Paul, who sounds like a typical “more money than brains or ethics” sort, and I’ll leave that to you to read. This is the other bit that had me going “hmmmm”:

Kent Schaffer, a special prosecutor in [the long-running financial fraud case against Paxton], said Saturday that the latest accusations, if they leads to charges, could imperil Paxton’s odds of securing any kind of deal to resolve the criminal case.

“We were trying to get this case resolved, but if this guy’s out committing crimes while he’s on bond, then it’s going to become an extremely serious matter,” Schaffer said. “I’m not saying that he has — I don’t know the specifics, (but if he has) then it’s game on.

“Maybe the people that reported him are not shooting straight, but I want to hear from both sides, if possible. We’re going to do what we can to investigate.”

Schaffer said he contacted the Texas Rangers on Saturday immediately upon hearing the news. He declined to comment on whether the agency mentioned any existing investigation on the matter.

Paxton has also been accused by his staff of accepting bribes in the past.

Those 2016 bribery allegations did not lead to charges, though they did give us all a momentary thrill. The idea that the special prosecutors in the current case against Paxton might be able to get some leverage against him from this scandal-in-the-making is also giving me a thrill. I should know better by know, but I can’t help myself.

The revelations over the weekend appeared to have shaken the agency, where Ryan Bangert, deputy first assistant attorney general and one of the seven officials who reported Paxton to the authorities, sent out a letter of reassurance to staff.

“I write to assure you that the executive team remains committed to serving you, this office and the people of Texas,” Bangert wrote. “Your work, your sacrifice, and your dedication to this office inspire us all.”

Jordan Berry, Paxton’s political adviser, said he resigned after news of the allegations broke.

Watch what the people around Paxton do. We could be in for a mass exodus. I will try to stay on top of things. The Statesman has more on Nate Paul, and there’s national coverage from Bloomberg and CNN.

Federal bribery complaint alleged against Paxton

Holy moly.

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Top aides of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton have asked federal law enforcement authorities to investigate allegations of improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential crimes against the state’s top lawyer.

In a one-page letter to the state agency’s director of human resources, obtained Saturday by the American-Statesman and KVUE-TV, seven executives in the upper tiers of the office said that they are seeking the investigation into Paxton “in his official capacity as the current Attorney General of Texas.”

The Thursday letter said that each “has knowledge of facts relevant to these potential offenses and has provided statements concerning those facts to the appropriate law enforcement.”

Paxton, a 57-year-old Republican, was elected in 2014. His office said in a statement Saturday evening: “The complaint filed against Attorney General Paxton was done to impede an ongoing investigation into criminal wrongdoing by public officials including employees of this office. Making false claims is a very serious matter and we plan to investigate this to the fullest extent of the law.”

The statement did not elaborate.

The letter to human resources was signed by Paxton’s first assistant, Jeff Mateer, who resigned Friday, as well as Mateer’s deputy and deputy attorneys general overseeing divisions that include criminal investigations, civil litigation, administration and policy.

“We have a good faith belief that the attorney general is violating federal and/or state law including prohibitions related to improper influence, abuse of office, bribery and other potential criminal offenses,” the letter states.

Their decisions to report possible illegal activity involving their employer represents a stunning development in an agency that prizes loyalty, particularly from within Paxton’s inner circle. It places a renewed spotlight on Paxton, who is already under indictment for alleged securities fraud.

The complaint concluded by saying that they notified Paxton in a text message Thursday that they had reported the alleged violations to law enforcement.

The whistleblowers, who notified human resources to protect their jobs, offered no other details about the allegations and did not describe what they believe Paxton did that was illegal. Efforts to reach them were unsuccessful Saturday.

Mateer’s inclusion in the complaint letter, and his departure as Paxton’s second in command, was particularly significant, coming from a political ally who shared a conservative Christian perspective on many social and legal issues.

“Stunned” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel about this news. This is a bombshell, and it’s a question of how big it is. The fact that this accusation was made by Paxton’s staffers, including an ideological ally like Jeff Mateer, makes it all the more momentous. I cannot wait to see what happens next.

Paxton’s defense appears to be “I’m not doing illegal stuff, it’s these staffers of mine who are the bad guys”. Not sure how well that will work out, but as we do not have any details from either side as yet, it is very likely there’s more to this, and we’re just going to have to wait to see what else there is. Neither this story nor the KVUE story has a copy of the letter, so what you see here is what we’ve got. Stay tuned. See Jessica Shortall on Twitter for more.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter. Doesn’t say anything that wasn’t already quoted, but you can see who signed it. The Trib has more.

Lawsuit filed over Abbott’s order to limit mail ballot dropoff locations

As expected.

Voting rights advocates and civic groups have rushed to the courthouse in a bid to block Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s Oct. 1 order allowing Texas counties no more than one drop-off location for voters casting absentee ballots, calling the directive an unconstitutional burden on the right to vote that will disproportionately impact voters of color in the state’s biggest cities.

The Texas and National Leagues of United Latin American Citizens, the League of Women Voters of Texas and two Texas voters asked a federal judge in Austin in a lawsuit filed late Thursday to overturn the governor’s order, which forced Travis and Harris counties — two of the state’s most important Democratic strongholds — to shutter a number of drop-off sites they had already opened this week.

“The impact of this eleventh-hour decisions is momentous, targets Texas’ most vulnerable voters—older voters, and voters with disabilities—and results in wild variations in access to absentee voting drop-off locations depending on the county a voter resides in,” attorneys for the groups argued. “It also results in predictable disproportionate impacts on minority communities that already hit hardest by the COVID-19 crisis.”

Attorneys also pointed out that Abbott was making a major change to election procedures just weeks away from an election — an action the state and its attorneys argued was improper in a separate federal lawsuit over straight-ticket voting.

[…]

The lawsuit will have to move quickly, with early voting set to begin in less than two weeks on Oct. 13.

Harris and Travis counties had each set up multiple locations for accepting absentee ballots and had already begun accepting them before Abbott issued his order shutting down the satellite locations. Voting rights experts say access to these locations is especially important given concerns over U.S. Postal Service delays and that closing them will disproportionately impact voters with disabilities or without access to reliable transportation. Harris County is home to 2.4 million registered voters and stretches across some 1,700 square miles, more than the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ralph Edelbach of Cypress, an 82-year-old voter among those suing Abbott, had planned to drop his ballot off at a Harris County location that was 16 miles from his home — but now will have to travel 36 miles, nearly 90 minutes round trip, to reach the only location Abbott has allowed to stay open, according to court documents.

At a press conference Friday morning, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said he could reopen the shuttered locations “at the drop of a dime.”

“Ultimately, anything that’s done to decrease voter convenience, to put obstacles in the way of the voter, is voter suppression, and will lead to disenfranchisement,” he said.

Abbott’s order, which came a day after the Texas solicitor general approved Harris County’s plan for multiple locations under earlier guidance from the governor, also said counties must allow poll watchers to observe goings-on at ballot drop-off sites. Voting rights advocates fear that poll watchers, who are selected by candidates or political parties, will seek to intimidate voters, as has been documented in the past.

Abbott claimed the limits on drop-off locations were necessary to ensure election integrity. But he provided no evidence that the drop-off sites enable voter fraud, which experts say is rare.

And the procedures for delivering an absentee ballot are strict. Voters must present an approved form of identification, show up during specified hours and can only deliver their own ballots.

See here for the background and here for a copy of the complaint. The “approval” from the Solicitor General’s office to the Hollins plan is in reference to the brief filed by Paxton’s office in response to the Hotze mandamus that had already challenged what Harris County was doing. Have fun squaring that circle, y’all.

The Chron adds some details.

The suit, filed in federal court in Austin, alleges that the order violates the Voting Rights Act and First and Fourteenth Amendments, which guarantee equal protection of the right to vote, and will disproportionately affect minorities and older citizens who are at higher risk of serious complications from COVID-19.

[…]

Thursday’s move by Abbott was made in stark contrast to a legal argument that Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins had made in response to a lawsuit the day prior. Then, Hawkins argued in a brief to the Texas Supreme Court that nothing in previous orders disallowed the interpretation of the clerks’ “office” to include annex offices, and the Secretary of State had told local officials that any clerk’s office sufficed for dropoff.

It marked the latest instance of Abbott reversing course under political pressure over his response to the pandemic.

Abbott had spent months holding off on a statewide mask mandate, but later enacted one in line with other states. He similarly resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until cases began to surge.

Following an uproar from conservatives over a Dallas salon owner who faced jail time as indirect result of her keeping her business open in violation of Abbott’s stay-at-home order, he limited punishment to fines.

[…]

“As many states are expanding ballot drop off options to ensure voter confidence this year, it is vile to see Texas’s attempts to do the opposite,” said Celina Stewart, senior director of advocacy and litigation for the League of Women Voters.

The Texas director of AARP, which represents more than 2.3 million seniors in the state, said Friday that she was “deeply concerned” about the new restrictions on ballot dropoff.

“During a pandemic, now more than ever, older voters need confidence that they can vote safely,” Tina Tran said. “Texas voters, especially those 50-plus, do not need another impediment to voting.”

Despite Texas having some of the most restrictive voting and vote-by-mail laws in the country — it’s one of just five states where voters have to provide an excuse other than COVID-19 to request a mail ballot — counties have reported higher-than-normal levels of interest in the practice.

To manage the influx, Harris County had planned on having locations at the main county clerk office and 11 annex offices throughout the 1,777-square-mile county to collect mail ballots. Neighboring Fort Bend County had planned to open five locations, and Travis County had planned on having three in addition to its main office.

Dallas County told CBS 11 News that it had planned to open multiple locations but is now prohibited.

County officials said they were given no notice of the order, which took effect within 24 hours.

This will have to be litigated quickly for obvious reasons. I will say, even with all of his often-craven flip flops, Abbott has generally used his executive powers under the Disaster Act to mitigate or halt the spread of the coronavirus. Extending early voting to a third week was one such example of that. There’s nothing in this order that conforms to that goal – limiting mail ballot dropoff locations will force more people to one location and may wind up making more people vote in person – and so on that principle it would seem to me that Abbott’s underlying rationale is legally suspect. I don’t know that that’s an issue here – that would seem to be more of a claim for state court. Who knows, maybe there will be another lawsuit that does go that route. In the meantime, this is what we have. Reform Austin has more.

SCOTX hears mail ballot case arguments

Here we are.

Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins’ plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters in the county far exceeds what the state Election Code allows, the attorney general’s office argued before the Texas Supreme Court Wednesday.

In oral arguments before the high court, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins said the part of the Election Code requiring clerks to send applications to any registered voters who request them means the distribution of applications is limited to those voters. Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins, he warned, cannot claim powers the Election Code has not expressly granted him.

“If Hollins’s actions are allowed to proceed, it will fundamentally upset the balance of power between states and counties,” Hawkins said. “That conception of power has existed for a century.”

[…]

Susan Hays, a private attorney representing Harris County, said the purpose of the Election Code is to make voting safe and accessible to all registered Texans. Requiring applications to be sent to voters who request them is a minimum requirement, she argued, not a limit.

“A statute that says we have to give an application to someone if they ask doesn’t prohibit implicitly giving it to people because we think it’s a good management practice and we think it will make this election safe,” Hays said.

The eight justices in attendance peppered both attorneys with questions during their 20-minute arguments.

Responding to a question about whether the county’s plan would be out of step with how other parts of the state are handling mail ballots, Hays said all 254 counties should send mail ballot applications to registered voters. In an amicus brief, the Dallas County clerk argued the same.

Justice Eva Guzman asked Hays if Harris County’s plan would create more opportunities for voter fraud. Hays said it would not, noting that each ballot is reviewed by a bipartisan committee to ensure the signatures on the ballot and application match.

Justice Brett Busby asked Hawkins if the state’s position that clerks only have power explicitly granted by state law would bar them from developing new, innovative ways of providing services to customers.

“This is going to have ramifcations outside this case,” Busby said. “How do we tread that line to ensure clerks can continue to do, as they see it, good customer service?”

Hawkins said clerks would be fine so long as they are able to connect every action to a “specific grant of power” from the Legislature.

See here for the previous update. I don’t have any new insights, I still think the state’s arguments are crap, but it’s not up to me. All I ask at this point is a quick decision.

PPP/TDP: Trump 48, Biden 48

More polls.

A new poll of likely voters found that President Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden are tied in Texas. The poll, commissioned by the Texas Democratic Party through Public Policy Polling, is the latest reflecting a dead heat race in the state.

Trump and Biden both received 48% support with 4% of respondents undecided.

Trump has led six of the last seven statewide polls in Texas, according to a tracker of 2020 presidential polls compiled by the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas. Before that, Biden had led five of seven polls.

[…]

The poll also found an underwater approval rating for Trump in Texas, 47-to-48. Trump and Biden will participate in the first 2020 presidential debate on Tuesday.

Polling data is here. They did not include a question about the Senate race, unfortunately. Biden wins 2016 Clinton voters 93-3 and the “Other/Did not vote” contingent 66-25, while Trump carries his voters from 2016 by an 89-8 margin. (The sample reported voting for Trump in 2016 by 50-41.) Biden wins Democrats 88-7, Trump wins Republicans 87-11, and Biden wins independents 54-41. Biden wins Black voters 88-7, Latinos 63-32, and “Other” voters 68-19, while Trump takes white voters 66-32. Voters 18 to 45 go for Biden 56-41, voters 46 to 65 go for Trump 49-47, and voters older than 65 back Trump by a 58-37 margin. None of those data points stand out as being out of whack with other polling.

I should note that the aforementioned poll tracker shows an August 22 PPP poll done for the TDP that had Biden up 48-47. I either missed that one or didn’t get around to it. I have a June 5 PPP/TDP poll that also had a 48-48 tie, which the tracker does not include. For whatever the reason, some polls get Chron/DMN/Trib coverage, while others do not. There is a lot of news out there, I get it.

Along those lines there was a Data for Progress poll from last week that was interesting in a couple of ways.

For this November’s election, Biden trails Trump by 1 point in Texas. Senator John Cornyn maintains a 2-point lead over his Democratic challenger, MJ Hegar. In the Senate race, it is notable, however, that a significant block of voters (22 percent) say they’re not yet sure for whom they will vote. In the GCB, Democrats trail by five-points.

In 2022, Texas will hold elections for governor and attorney general. These positions are held by Republicans Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton, respectively. Currently, Abbot enjoys a 12-point lead over a generic Democratic challenger. In the 2018 race for attorney general, Democrat Justin Nelson ran against Republican incumbent Ken Paxton, and when we retested this race, we found that Paxton leads Nelson by 4 points. Like with our other 2022 polling, about one in five voters remains unsure for whom they will be voting.

The numbers, which they are only showing in graphical form, are 46-45 for Trump, 40-38 for Cornyn, and 46-41 for the Generic Congressional Ballot (GCB). There was a Data for Progress poll done in early September for the HDCC that had Biden up 48-45, so this isn’t a terrific result when put next to that, but it’s in line with most other polls. DfP also polled Florida (three point lead for Biden) and Arizona (one point lead for Trump, which is better for Trump than other polls).

The 2022 polling is interesting but not worth taking too seriously. Greg Abbott may be leading a generic Democrat 46-34, but he’s very likely not going to have a generic Dem running against him, at least not if all the candles I’ve been lighting for Julian Castro have any effect. Ken Paxton’s 41-37 lead over Justin Nelson makes some sense, but as of today Paxton’s opposition comes in the form of Joe Jaworski, though as that post notes Jaworski is sure to have company in the primary, and it would shock no one if that company includes Justin Nelson. Take this all for pure entertainment value and check with me again in a year or so.

The 2022 election has officially started

And Joe Jaworski is the first candidate out of the box.

Joe Jaworski

Joe Jaworski, a mediator and former Galveston mayor, is not a fan of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a Republican first elected to statewide office in 2014.

“I have always thought the attorney general should be the attorney for the people, not a particular political party or ideology,” he told me Tuesday.

That may sound naive to Texans who’ve followed state politics in recent years. But Jaworski, a Democrat, has a unique vantage point as the grandson of the late Leon Jaworski, the Houston lawyer and one-time Nuremberg prosecutor who gained fame as the second special prosecutor during the Watergate scandal.

Jaworski said his grandfather — “the Colonel,” to family members — put country over party. A Democrat, he became disillusioned with the party after Lyndon Johnson’s administration and voted for Richard Nixon twice. His legal clash with Nixon over Oval Office audio recordings culminated in Nixon’s resignation in 1974.

“Leon Jaworski was always on the right side of history, and that is a meaning that I feel very strongly about,” Joe Jaworski said of his grandfather.

Joe Jaworski announced his own bid for attorney general last week, getting an early start in a bid to unseat Paxton, a Republican, in 2022. Jaworski doesn’t expect to be the only Democrat vying for the job.

But Paxton might as well be on the ballot this cycle, Jaworski argued. Some of Paxton’s peers in statewide office have laid low this election cycle, or focused their efforts on fundraising for downballot GOP candidates. But the attorney general, who continues to fight his own five-year-old indictment for felony securities fraud, has vigorously inserted himself into the political fray.

We are familiar with Paxton’s actions. I met Joe some years ago and did an interview with him for his 2008 race for State Senate in SD11. He’ll be an energetic campaigner and I suspect a decent fundraiser. I’m not surprised that he expects company in the primary – I can imagine 2018 AG candidate Justin Nelson giving it another shot, and there will likely be others out there – but it’s exciting to think about a compelling lineup of primary contests. Lord knows, there will be no shortage of issues to highlight in a race against Ken Paxton, even if he still hasn’t seen the inside of a courtroom for his alleged misdeeds by then.

Jaworski’s got a campaign Facebook page up, which I had come across a couple of days ago, before Erica Greider wrote that column. Obviously, what’s happening this November is the top priority, and the legislative session that follows will be next in line. But the 2022 election has a chance to be truly transformative in Texas, and even if you think that’s an overbid, there will surely be a hotly contested effort to take or maintain control of the House, plus all 31 Senate seats will be up. The sooner we can get some quality folks out there for the statewide positions, the better.

Appeals court sides with Hollins in mail ballot applications case

It’s up to SCOTX now.

A Texas appeals court on Friday upheld a district court ruling that denied Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to block Harris County officials from sending mail ballot applications to the county’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Despite the decision, Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins remains barred from sending out the applications under a Texas Supreme Court ruling earlier this week. Paxton has sought a writ of mandamus and an injunction from the high court to permanently block the mailout, both of which remained pending Friday.

In the appellate ruling, 14th Court of Appeals Justices Charles Spain, Meagan Hassan and Meg Poissant wrote that the state failed to prove Hollins’ plan would cause irreparable injury to voters. State officials have argued that by sending mail ballot applications to every registered voter, Hollins would be “abusing voters by misleading them and walking them into a felony.” County attorneys noted that Hollins planned to attach a brochure to each application informing voters of the eligibility requirements to vote by mail.

“The State’s argument is based on mere conjecture; there is, in this record, no proof that voters will intentionally violate the Election Code and no proof that voters will fail to understand the mailer and intentionally commit a felony, or be aided by the election official in doing so,” the justices wrote.

The justices also cited an exchange between Hollins’ attorney and Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram, during which Ingram was asked how a voter could knowingly or intentionally cast a fraudulent ballot after reading the information on the clerk’s brochure.

“I don’t know the answer to that question. I mean, for most voters, I agree this is sufficient, but not for all of them,” Ingram said, adding that some voters may “have the attitude, well, I’m not really disabled, but nobody is checking so I’m going to do it.”

The justices cited Ingram’s response in concluding that a voter who “intends to engage in fraud may just as easily do so with an application received from a third-party as it would with an application received from the Harris County Clerk.”

See here, here, and here for the background. The 14th Court’s opinion is here, but you can just read the excerpt in Jasper Scherer’s tweet to get the main idea. Basically, the court said that the state needed more evidence than just Keith Ingram’s claims of mass hysteria if Hollins sent out the applications. It’s not a whole lot deeper than that.

So now it goes to the Supreme Court, and as noted in the story, the previously granted order preventing Hollins from moving forward with the sendout of applications to the not-over-65 voters is still in effect, until such time as SCOTX rules on the appeal (we know it will be appealed, because of course it will). This provides them an opportunity to play politics without necessarily appearing to play politics. Hollins had intended to begin sending out the applications by now, because as we all know, people are going to want and need to get and return their mail ballots early in order to ensure that they get counted. As such, a ruling from SCOTX on, say, September 25 is a lot more meaningful than the same ruling on October 25. Will they take the weasel’s way out and slow-walk this to a resolution, or will they dispose of it in a timely manner? Only one way to find out. The Trib has more.

Harris County preps to print mail ballots

How many they have to print remains an open question at this time.

For the first time, Harris County will pay a third-party vendor to print mail ballots, a move intended to help the county clerk handle what is expected to be a record number of requests for absentee voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Commissioners Court on Tuesday approved $1.5 million to hire Arizona firm Runbeck Election Services to print up to 1.5 million ballots for this fall’s presidential election. That figure may end up smaller, however, because Attorney General Ken Paxton so far has thwarted Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

To date, the County Clerk’s Office has received 187,552 mail ballot applications; the deadline to apply is Oct. 23. County Clerk Chris Hollins said the 1.5 million figure is the high estimate, so the county can ensure it can handle any volume of mail ballots.

Planning to use an outside vendor to print ballots began last year, as the county prepared for potentially record turnout in a presidential election, Hollins spokeswoman Elizabeth Lewis said.

[…]

During the July primary runoff, the first since COVID-19 arrived in March, 36 percent of voters cast mail ballots. If a similar proportion do so in the general election, using Harris County’s 2016 turnout of 61 percent, 529,000 mail ballots would be cast.

That number, however, may be determined by a lawsuit filed by Paxton against Harris County. Mail ballot applications are available online, though Hollins had planned to send one to each registered voter as a way to encourage more participation.

See here for the background. There were about 84K mail ballots returned in the primary runoffs, the first post-COVID election in the county. In the 2016 and 2018 general elections, there were about 100K mail ballots returned. Some 400K ballot applications have been sent so far to the over-65 crowd. How many more wind up getting sent depends on the outcome of the current litigation.

Whether the latest stay would be lifted or the case resolved before the election remains unclear. An appeals court is expected to rule on the merits of the case this week, though the case is likely to end up before the Supreme Court

Martin Siegel, a Houston appellate lawyer who has practiced before the high court, said he expected the justices to rule well before the Oct. 23 mail ballot application deadline. If recent history is any indication, he said, the attorney general is likely to prevail.

“I’m confident the court will make its decision on the merits, but so far they’ve construed the vote-by-mail right quite narrowly despite a raging pandemic, and the fact that the court is made up entirely of justices from the party that’s tried so hard to constrict voting rights in Texas these many years won’t give people any comfort,” Siegel said.

Siegel was a candidate for the 14th Court of Appeals in 2008, and as noted he practices before the Supreme Court. It’s actually kind of shocking to see him speculate like that. I hope his initial confidence is accurate, but we should bear what he’s saying in mind.

SCOTX extends stay in Harris County vote by mail case

I was set to be super outraged about this, but as you will see it’s not quite as bad as it first looked.

The Texas Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked Harris County from sending mail ballot applications to all registered voters in the county, granting Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request hours earlier for the high court to step in before a different order halting the mailout was set to expire.

Paxton, a Republican, has argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan to send applications to each of the county’s 2.4 million registered voters would confuse voters and lead to potential fraud. A state district judge rejected that argument Friday, and Paxton swiftly appealed to Texas’ 14th Court of Appeals.

The appellate court denied Paxton’s request for an order blocking the mailout, deciding instead to speed up the trial by ordering Hollins and Paxton to submit arguments by Wednesday afternoon. Under an agreement between the state and county offices, Hollins was barred from sending out mail ballot applications until 11:59 p.m. Wednesday.

Paxton, who noted that the appeals court “offered no assurance” it would issue a ruling by then, argued in a court filing Tuesday afternoon that the Texas Supreme Court should prevent Hollins from sending out applications once the clock strikes midnight Thursday morning. The court granted Paxton’s request, ordering Hollins not to send unsolicited applications “until further order of this court.”

The state Supreme Court already had blocked Hollins from mailing out applications to voters under 65 through a similar lawsuit filed by the Harris County Republican Party and conservative activist Steven Hotze. However, Paxton noted, the court’s stay order will expire before the state and county agreement is up Wednesday evening.

Hollins was not immediately available for comment.

The clerk’s office already has mailed applications to voters who are 65 and older, all of whom are eligible to vote by mail under Texas law. The state election code also allows voters to cast mail ballots if they are disabled, imprisoned or out of their home county during the voting period.

Emphasis mine, and see here and here for the background. You can see the court’s order here, a statement from County Clerk Chris Hollins here, and the filings in the appeal to the 14th Court here. (You might also note that the three judges in the panel are all Dems, which may have influenced Paxton’s actions.) There should be a hearing today, and one presumes a fairly quick ruling, after which point this will go back to SCOTX and they’ll have to rule one way or the other on the actual case, not on what can happen while the case is being appealed. So as Samuel L. Jackson once said, hold onto your butts. The Trib and Reform Austin have more.

Now we wait on SCOTX

Shouldn’t have to wait too long to get a resolution to the “Harris County Clerk wanting to send out mail ballot applications to all registered voters” question.

Chris Hollins

A day after a court ruled against him, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed on Saturday an order that allowed mail-in ballot applications to sent to all of Harris County’s 2.4 million registered voters.

Paxton indicated in a press statement that he expects the court should rule by Monday.

“The proposed mass mailing would sow confusion because applications would go to all registered voters, regardless of whether they legally qualify to vote a mail ballot and regardless of whether they even want to vote by mail,” says a news release from Paxton’s office. “Texas law requires the clerk to send applications to voters who specifically request them.”

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins said Saturday that applications to voters under 65 are in production and will be sent out soon. His office has already sent out vote-by-mail applications to registered voters 65 and older.

“We’re disappointed that the attorney general is fighting so hard to keep information and resources out of the hands of Harris County voters, but, sadly, we aren’t at all surprised,” Hollins said. “The Harris County Clerk’s Office will continue to do everything we can to protect Texans’ right to vote, and we know that the law is on our side.”

See here for the background. Judge Sandill’s ruling very clearly addressed Paxton’s claims, so it’s really just a question of whether the Supremes want to put a thumb on the scale for Paxton or not. I keep coming back to their original ruling in the TDP vote by mail lawsuit, and I don’t know how you get to Paxton’s desired outcome without really warping the meaning of the existing law. Which doesn’t mean that they won’t do it, just that it should be clear what it would mean if they did. I don’t know what else to say.

One lawsuit about voting locations thrown out

This was filed just a couple of months ago.

Continuing to fend off attempts to alter its voting processes, Texas has convinced a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit that sought sweeping changes to the state’s rules for in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic.

U.S. District Judge Jason Pulliam dismissed a legal challenge Monday from Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters who claimed the state’s current polling place procedures — including rules for early voting, the likelihood of long lines and Gov. Greg Abbott’s decision to not require voters to wear masks — would place an unconstitutional burden on voters while the novel coronavirus remains in circulation.

In his order, Pulliam noted that the requests were not unreasonable and could “easily be implemented to ensure all citizens in the State of Texas feel safe and are provided the opportunity to cast their vote in the 2020 election.” But he ultimately decided the court lacked jurisdiction to order the changes requested — an authority, he wrote, left to the state.

“This Court is cognizant of the urgency of Plaintiffs’ concerns and does respect the importance of protecting all citizens’ right to vote,” Pulliam wrote. “Within its authority to do so, this Court firmly resolves to prevent any measure designed or disguised to deter this most important fundamental civil right. At the same time, the Court equally respects and must adhere to the Constitution’s distribution and separation of power.”

The long list of changes the plaintiffs sought included a month of early voting, an across-the-board mask mandate for anyone at a polling place, the opening of additional polling places, a prohibition on the closure of polling places scheduled to be open on Election Day and a suspension of rules that limit who can vote curbside without entering a polling place. Other requested changes were more ambiguous, such as asking the court to order that all polling places be sufficiently staffed to keep wait times to less than 20 minutes. The lawsuit named Abbott and Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs as defendants, but the suit targeted some decisions that are ultimately up to local officials.

The plaintiffs argued the changes were needed because the burdens brought on by an election during a pandemic would be particularly high for Black and Latino voters whose communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, there is now a third week of early voting, and at least the larger counties like Harris have been making plans to greatly expand the number of in-person voting locations, both for early voting and Election Day, so the plaintiffs didn’t walk away with nothing. Harris County will also have expanded curbside voting; I don’t know offhand what other counties are doing. That’s not the same as a statewide mandate, but it will be good for the voters who can experience it. The mask mandate seems like the most obvious and straightforward thing to me, and anyone who would argue that being forced to wear a mask in order to vote is an unconstitutional violation of their rights will need to very carefully explain to me why that’s a greater obstacle than our state’s voter ID law. I would have liked to see this survive the motion to dismiss, but at least we are all clear about what the to-do list for expanding voting rights in the Legislature is. Reform Austin has more.

County Clerk can send his vote by mail applications

Good.

Chris Hollins

A judge on Friday rejected Attorney General Ken Paxton’s request to halt Harris County’s plan to send mail ballot applications to all 2.4 million registered voters.

State District Judge R.K. Sandill denied Paxton’s request for a temporary injunction, stating that nothing in the Texas Election Code bars Harris County Clerk Christopher Hollins from carrying out the plan.

Sandill was unpersuaded by the state’s argument that sending applications to voters, accompanied by eligibility rules, would lead residents to apply for mail ballots for which they do not qualify. Texas Elections Director Keith Ingram warned that this would lead to voter fraud and potential felony prosecutions of residents.

“This Court firmly believes that Harris County voters are capable of reviewing and understanding the document Mr. Hollins proposes to send and exercising their voting rights in compliance with Texas law,” Sandill wrote in his opinion.

The case now will be decided on its merits, with Hollins free to send the applications in the meantime. His spokeswoman said the mailings to voters under 65 would be sent starting Saturday.

See here for the background. The ACLU sent out a link to a copy of the ruling, which is short and straightforward. There were two claims made by the plaintiffs, that County Clerk Chris Hollins was acting ultra vires, which is the fancy Latin term for “outside his authority”, and that sending the applications could cause fraud by luring unsuspecting voters who did not qualify for the mail ballot to commit fraud. On that second point, the embedded illustration of the ballot application makes exceedingly short work of that concern:

As for the ultra vires claim, let me quote from the ruling:

The Legislature has spoken at length on the mechanisms for mail-in voting. There are no fewer than 42 Election Code provisions on the subject. See TEX. ELEC. CODE, Chs. 84, 86 & 87. In those provisions, the Legislature has made clear that in order to vote by mail a voter first “must make an application for an early voting ballot.” Id. at § 84.001. But, as to how the voter is to obtain the application, the Election Code is silent.

There is no code provision that limits an early voting clerk’s ability to send a vote by mail application to a registered voter. Section 84.012 contains no prohibitive language whatsoever, but rather, requires the early voting clerk to take affirmative action in the instance a voter does request an application to vote by mail. That the clerk must provide an application upon request does not preclude the clerk from providing an application absent a request.

Indeed, there are a number of code provisions that demonstrate the Legislature’s desire for mail voting applications to be freely disseminated. For example, section 1.010 mandates that a county clerk with whom mail voting applications are to be filed (e.g., Mr. Hollins) make the applications “readily and timely available.” Id. at § 1.010. In addition, section 84.013 requires that vote by mail applications be provided “in reasonable quantities without charge to individuals or organizations requesting them for distribution to voters.” Id. at § 84.013. Further, the Court notes that, consistent with these provisions, both the Secretary of State and the County make the application for a mail ballot readily available on their respective websites.

Against the backdrop of this statutory scheme, the Court cannot accept the State’s interpretation of section 84.012. To do so would read into the statute words that do not exist and would lead to the absurd result that any and every private individual or organization may without limit send unsolicited mail voting applications to registered voters, but that the early voting clerk, who possesses broad statutory authority to manage and conduct the election, cannot. Mr. Hollins’s contemplated conduct does not exceed his statutory authority as early voting clerk and therefore is not ultra vires.

I made pretty much the same argument, so yeah. This was a weak case, and I’d hate to have been the attorney that was forced to make it. They had to know it was a loser, but I guess once you’re all in for stamping out voter convenience, you’ve got to take it to the finish line. The state has filed its appeal, so one presumes they are hoping to get lucky with the Supreme Court.

Which brings me to the larger point that needs to be made here. As with the age discrimination claim, there is a clear and straightforward legislative solution to this. Unlike that age discrimination case, the legislative solutions go both ways. What I mean by that is that with this ruling in the books, the Republicans have a planet-sized incentive to close this gaping loophole (as they see it) in the law. If the Republicans maintain control of the House, I guarantee you – guarantee you – they will pass a bill that severely restricts the ability to send out vote by mail applications to anyone who does not expressly ask for them. One could argue, given recent legislative history, the only reason such restrictions don’t already exist is that they hadn’t thought of it before. (And to be fair, up until very recently vote by mail was very much the province of Republican candidates and campaigns. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, there’s a reason why voting by mail was excluded from the voter ID law, and that reason is because at the time, voting by mail was seen as a boon to Republicans. Now that any form of convenience for voters is seen as pro-Democratic, it’s open season.)

So, either we flip the House to Democratic control, and prevent a bill like that from passing, or Republicans maintain control and voting by mail becomes that much more obstacle-laden. Maybe they will find a way to add mail ballots to the voter ID law, perhaps by requiring all mail ballots to include a notarized signature. The Republicans have made it clear what they want to do. We have one chance to stop them. The Trib has more.

Fifth Circuit rejects age discrimination claims in vote by mail lawsuit

This is pretty much the end of the line, at least as far as the courts are concerned.

A three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Thursday that Texas can keep its strict eligibility rules for voting by mail.

Siding with the state’s Republican leadership, the appellate judges rejected the Texas Democratic Party’s effort to expand eligibility for voting by mail to all registered voters based on their argument that the state’s age restrictions for such voting violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting rules that discriminate based on age.

The panel of appellate judges ultimately found that “conferring a privilege” to some voters — in this case the option of voting by mail to voters 65 and older — does not alone violate the 26th Amendment.

“In sum, the plaintiffs based their Twenty-Sixth Amendment claim on the argument that differential treatment in allowing voters aged 65 and older to vote by mail without excuse constitutes, at least during the pandemic, a denial or abridgment of a younger citizen’s right to vote on account of age,” the panel wrote. “This claim fails because adding a benefit to another class of voters does not deny or abridge the plaintiffs’ Twenty-Sixth Amendment right to vote.”

The federal panel vacated a lower court’s sweeping ruling that found Texas voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail were in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. On Thursday, state Democrats indicated they would push forward with their challenge at the lower court, where the appellate court sent the case for further consideration of the party’s remaining arguments against the state’s restrictions.

[…]

“Rejecting the plaintiffs’ arguments, we hold that an election law abridges a person’s right to vote for the purposes of the Twenty-Sixth Amendment only if it makes voting more difficult for that person than it was before the law was enacted or enforced,” the judges wrote.

The panel was made up by Judges Carolyn Dineen King, who was appointed to the bench by President Jimmy Carter; Carl Stewart, who was appointed by Bill Clinton; and Leslie H. Southwick, who was appointed by George W. Bush.

Dissenting in part to the majority opinion, Stewart wrote that the state’s eligibility rules fail to “treat members of the electorate equally with regard to mail-in voting.”

“This unequal treatment is discriminatory in normal times and dangerous in the time of a global pandemic,” Stewart wrote. “Though all individuals can seemingly vote in person, those without the opportunity to vote by mail have less opportunity to participate than others.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Michael Hurta has a good brief analysis of it. As to what happens next, Rick Hasen thinks the original trial judge will find for the plaintiffs again, which will trigger another appeal. As such, this isn’t really the end of the line as I’ve suggested above, but it seems very unlikely to me that there will be a ruling that favors the plaintiffs any time before the November election. Whatever ultimately happens with this will not happen until at least 2021. I don’t care for this ruling, and this was about as friendly a three-judge panel as we were gonna get. It’s hard for me to see how the outcome changes.

Which means, as I have been saying over and over again, the ultimate fix rests within the legislative process. Just add this to the ever-increasing list of things that a Democratic Legislature, in conjunction with a Democratic Governor, will need to fix. The Republicans have made their position crystal clear. There’s no bipartisan solution. The only way out is through, and that means electing a better government. The Chron has more.

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.

A win for those with lousy signatures

Some good news on the voting litigation front.

As Texas prepares for an expected deluge of mail-in votes in November, a federal judge has found that one facet of the state’s signature verification rules for those ballots is unconstitutional and must be reworked for the upcoming election.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia ruled Tuesday that the state’s process for determining whether there is a mismatch between a voter’s signature on their ballot envelope and the signature the voter used on their application to vote by mail “plainly violates certain voters’ constitutional rights.”

In his order, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to inform local election officials within 10 days that it is unconstitutional to reject a ballot based on a “perceived signature mismatch” without first notifying the voter about the mismatch and giving the voter a “meaningful opportunity” to correct the issue.

Additionally, to “protect voters’ rights” in the upcoming election, Garcia said the Texas secretary of state must either advise local election officials that mail-in ballots may not be rejected using the existing signature comparison process, or notify them that they are required to set up a rejection notification system that would allow voters to challenge a rejection.

[…]

Before mail-in ballots are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews them to ensure that a voter’s endorsement on the flap of a ballot envelope matches the signature that voter used on their application to vote by mail. They can also compare it to signatures on file with the county clerk or voter registrar that were made within the last six years.

But because the state election code does not establish any standards for review, the plaintiffs argued that the law is applied unequally, with each county “necessarily” developing “its own idiosyncratic, arbitrary, and ad hoc procedure to determine that a ballot should be rejected” with no requirement to notify voters about the rejections until 10 days after Election Day.

To correct course ahead of the November general election, Garcia ordered the Texas secretary of state to either halt all rejections based on a “perceived signature mismatch” or implement an “immediate remedial plan” that requires local election officials to notify a voter within one day of determining a perceived mismatch and allow the voter to challenge the rejection.

Under that plan, voters must be mailed notices of rejection within one day of a mismatch determination by the local review board. Those who provided phone numbers on their applications must be called at least once within one day of the decision.

See here for the background, and observe how adorably optimistic I was that this shouldn’t be a partisan issue since both parties use voting by mail. What can I say, it was 2019, you had to be there. I don’t have much to say now that I didn’t say then – this ruling makes total sense, the “standard” that was used was arbitrary and needlessly harsh, and it really is in everyone’s interests to make an effort to count these ballots. I assume Ken Paxton will appeal this because that’s what he does, but until then let’s be happy we got what we got. The Chron has more.

Good riddance to a bad person

We should all be thoroughly disgusted by this.

A Texas assistant attorney general sent dozens of tweets over the past several months threatening violence against progressives, spouting racist and transphobic rhetoric, casting doubt over the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and sharing QAnon conspiracy theories. On Thursday, he lost his job with the state agency after national media reported on his social media activities.

Nick Moutos, whose racist tweets were reported Thursday morning by Media Matters, threatened Black Lives Matter protesters and has regularly referred to the organizers as “terrorists.” He called Islam a “virus” and trans people an “abomination.”

“As of today, this individual no longer works for the Office of the Attorney General,” Kayleigh Date, spokesperson for the attorney general’s office, told The Texas Tribune.

[…]

This isn’t the first time a staffer in the attorney general’s office has been in hot water over their social media presence. In 2018, the communications director for the office deleted his Twitter account after sharing tweets mocking sexual misconduct allegations brought against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. In 2017, an associate deputy attorney general resigned after a Dallas Morning News story drew attention to comments he made about #MeToo survivors.

And don’t forget Jeff “Satan’s Plan” Mateer, another hateful asshole that your tax dollars pay for. They are really not sending their best to the AG’s office. This particular jackwad has been quite prolific and not at all discreet about it on Twitter, which makes me wonder how it is that it took so long to identify him and get his ass out of there. This guy worked for the public, while having loads of contempt and revulsion for large portions of the public. That’s just not acceptable, in any form or fashion. We really, really need to do some housecleaning in 2022.

When HEB is on your side

Who could be against you?

Charles Butt, the billionaire owner of the San Antonio-based grocery chain H-E-B, sent a letter to the Texas Supreme Court this week, siding with Harris County on its plan to send mail ballot applications to all registered voters ahead of the November election.

In the letter, Butt argued that Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ plan was permissible under the Texas Election Code.

“Clerk Hollins’s efforts to make absentee ballots widely available trusts voters, protecting those who are vulnerable from unnecessary exposure in this new Covid world in which we’re living,” Butt wrote. “It’s always been my impression that the more people who vote, the stronger our democracy will be.”

[…]

“Based on our experience at H-E-B, many people, including those of all ages, are nervous about contracting the virus,” Butt wrote. “By extension, in my opinion, many would be anxious about voting in person. Clerk Hollins has reasonably given these voters a chance to guard against perilous exposure in a manner consistent with this Court’s opinion and the Election Code.”

Butt previously has weighed in on political debates, and he is a top contributor during election cycles. His campaign contributions cross party lines.

That letter was being quote-tweeted all over the place on Wednesday. One could look at this and furrow one’s brow at the intervention by a wealthy individual, one who does play a fair amount in Texas politics, in a court case like this. One could also shrug one’s shoulders and say that this looks an awful lot like an amicus brief, except it was released on Twitter instead. I lean towards the latter, and given the overheated and frankly harmful rhetoric being unleashed by Trump and Paxton and the like, I’m glad that Charles Butt decided to speak up and inject a little sanity into the discourse. Your mileage may vary. Reform Austin has more.

Supreme Court issues possibly pointless stay in mail ballots case

This story doesn’t quite say what it seems to say, as we will see.

The Texas Supreme Court has temporarily blocked Harris County from sending mail-in ballot applications to all its voters for the November election.

The decision Wednesday came in response to a lawsuit filed days ago by Republicans in the state’s largest county. Attorney General Ken Paxton has since launched his own legal challenge to the plan.

Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins announced last month that the county would send applications to its more than 2.4 million registered voters, an effort to make it easier to participate in the election due to the coronavirus pandemic. After being sued by Paxton, Hollins said he would only send applications to voters 65 and older, who are eligible to vote by mail under state law, pending the litigation.

The Harris County GOP lawsuit alleges that Hollins is a “rogue clerk who is abusing the application to vote by mail process and compromising the integrity of elections in Harris County.” The lawsuit was brought by the county party, conservative activist Steve Hotze and judicial candidate Sharon Hemphill.

See here and here for the background. Before we go on, let’s look at the actual order released by SCOTX:

The Emergency Motion for Temporary Relief is GRANTED in part. In conformance with the Rule 11 agreement in State of Texas v. Hollins (No. 2020-52383, 61st Judicial District Court, Harris County), Real Party in Interest Hollins is ordered to refrain from sending applications to vote by mail to registered voters under the age of 65 who have not requested them until five days after a temporary injunction ruling in State of Texas v. Hollins. The Real Party in Interest should inform the Court of any developments in State of Texas v. Hollins that may affect this order.

[Note: The petition for writ of mandamus remains pending before this Court.]

Emphasis mine. This is of course what Hollins had agreed to do, so functionally there are no changes since yesterday. The reason for this stay is that it came from the Hotze mandamus action, whereas Hollins’ agreement to suspend any mailings to under 65 voters came from the state lawsuit. Note also that this does not in any way affect the mandamus itself – as the Court says, that’s still pending. There should be a hearing on the state lawsuit early next week, which corresponds with the timeline for this order as well. Bottom line, nothing has changed here.

One more thing:

Amid the latest legal chapter Wednesday, Democrats called Republicans hypocrites for apparently sending out their own mail-in ballot applications while fighting Harris County’s plan in court. Hollins tweeted pictures from a mailer, paid for by the Texas GOP, that says President Donald Trump “is counting on you” and urges recipients to fill out an attached mail-in ballot application after confirming they are eligible.

“Much like Trump, Texas Republicans have been exposed as hypocrites to the highest degree,” state Democratic Party spokesperson Abhi Rahman said in a statement. “Voting by mail is safe, secure, and convenient.”

Remember how much the Republicans whined about straight-ticket voting in 2018, even as they were exhorting their own voters to vote a straight Republican ticket? It’s like that. Pay no attention to the noise machine.

County Clerk scales back mail ballot application sendout for now

Seems like a wise tactical move.

Chris Hollins

The Harris County clerk is holding off his plan to send ballot applications to every registered voter in Harris County.

County Clerk Chris Hollins said for now he is going to send ballot applications to everyone 65 and older.

Hollis added he will wait for the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to work its way through the court to see if he can send ballot applications to other people in the county.

Hollis also said he tried to discuss this with the Texas Secretary of State but a discussion did not take place. Then Paxton filed his lawsuit on Monday, according to a report from the Texas Tribune.

See here for the background. Sending an application to all the 65-and-over voters is what Clerk Hollins did for the primary runoffs, and no one raised a fuss about it. It seems clear that Hollins has the law on his side, as confirmed by Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht in a recent chat with the Chron editorial board, but politics plays a role as well, and one could argue that turning down the heat a bit is in Hollins’ best interests. One could also argue that getting the state to do something stupid isn’t a bad idea either, but I’ll set that debate aside for now. For now, we wait for some action in the courtroom. The Chron and the Press have more.

(On a side note, Bexar County will be sending vote by mail applications to all of its 65-and-over voters as well. As I said before, this sort of thing should be the norm going forward.)

Fifth Circuit hears arguments on vote by mail case

One more try before it’s too late to make a difference for this year.

The Texas Democratic Party’s lawyer argued today before a federal appeals court that the state is unlawfully discriminating against the majority of the voting-age population by requiring only those under the age of 65 to have an excuse to receive a mail-in ballot.

It’s one of several last-minute battles playing out in the months leading up to the 2020 election, which is expected to yield historic turnout despite the coronavirus pandemic.

[…]

The Democrats’ federal case is expected to make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but the clock is ticking. The deadline to request a mail-in ballot in Texas is October 23, leaving just about seven weeks for the appellate court and high court to rule on it.

At Monday’s hearing, Chad Dunn, representing the Texas Democratic Party, told the court that the Texas mail-in voting law violates the 26th Amendment, which says the right to vote can’t be “denied or abridged” on account of age.

Dunn said previous elections have shown that voters will likely be waiting in long lines in November.

“We’re asking voters — certain ones of them get excused from that endurance test and others, based purely on their age, are to suffer through it,” Dunn said. “The fact of the matter is that when individuals’ characteristics are used by the government to divvy up who gets to vote, those are prohibited” by the Constitution.

The state, represented by Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins, argued that Supreme Court precedent exists to show that the Texas law does not violate the 26th Amendment.

“It does not deny or abridge the right to vote to make voting more available to some groups as opposed to others,” Hawkins said. “To abridge the right to vote does not mean giving other groups more options; it means taking away something from a certain group.”

See here for the previous update. As noted, the other vote by mail-related lawsuit recently survived a motion to dismiss. We should get a ruling of some kind in this lawsuit before the deadline to mail out overseas ballots, which is September 18. I have no idea if there’s time for any action on the other one.

This Statesman story from earlier in the day on Monday has some more background info on the case.

Monday’s arguments will focus on the U.S. Constitution’s 26th Amendment, which was ratified in 1971 to lower the voting age to 18, saying the right to vote cannot be denied or restricted “by any State on account of age” for those 18 and older.

Just as other constitutional amendments ensure that voters cannot be treated differently based on race or gender, the 26th Amendment uses identical language to extend voting protections based on age, said Chad Dunn, who will argue Monday on behalf of Democrats before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

“I am confident that we will ultimately ensure that everybody, regardless of age, has the right to vote by mail,” Dunn told the American-Statesman.

[…]

The age question has drawn the interest of at least one influential observer: Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.

When Texas Democrats raised the issue at the high court this summer, the nine justices declined to accept the case. Sotomayor was the only one to discuss the reason.

The Democrats’ challenge, she wrote in late June, “raised weighty but seemingly novel questions regarding the 26th Amendment.”

However, justices balked at addressing those questions for the first time at the high court, and Sotomayor urged the 5th Circuit Court to make a speedy decision in the matter.

Many others hope for a quick resolution as well. In Texas, voting for the November election begins in less than seven weeks.

[…]

The case before the 5th Circuit Court will determine the fate of a May order by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery, an appointee of President Bill Clinton who required mail-in ballots to be sent to any registered Texas voter who requested one while “pandemic circumstances” continue.

“One’s right to vote should not be elusively based on the whims of nature. Citizens should have the option to choose voting by letter carrier versus voting with disease carriers,” Biery wrote.

Paxton appealed, and the 5th Circuit Court responded by blocking enforcement of Biery’s order until the appeal can be decided.

That ruling by a three-judge panel at the 5th Circuit was notable for its harsh criticism of Biery for wading into election decisions that belong to “politically accountable officials,” not judges.

“The spread of the virus has not given unelected federal judges a roving commission to rewrite state election codes,” wrote Judge Jerry Smith, who was appointed by President Ronald Reagan.

A different three-judge panel, however, will hear Monday’s oral arguments and decide whether the 26th Amendment bars Texas from denying mail-in voting to those under age 65. Two of the judges on the new panel were appointed by Democratic presidents — Carolyn Dineen King and Carl Stewart — while the panel’s third member, Leslie Southwick, was appointed by President George W. Bush.

A ruling won’t come Monday, but with the election looming, the appeals court has placed the matter on an expedited schedule.

The Texas Democratic Party’s challenge has drawn considerable interest, with additional legal briefs filed by liberal and conservative public interest groups, health professionals, advocates for the disabled, other states and local political parties.

Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir also submitted a brief with election officials from Harris, Cameron and Fort Bend counties that begged the 5th Circuit Court to accept the 26th Amendment arguments and expand mail-in voting.

“Unless access to vote by mail is increased significantly, providing a safe election will be impossible because of the expected high volume of in-person voters this presidential year,” their brief said.

On the one hand, almost 30 doctors and nurses, including epidemiologists and front-line health workers, told the court that it is essential to reduce the number of people gathering on Election Day to protect voters, poll workers and the community from COVID-19, while the Texas NAACP argued that the state’s Republican leaders adopted a needlessly restrictive interpretation of mail-in voting law to impose a severe and unacceptable burden on the right to vote.

On the other hand, a brief from conservative legal interest groups argued that Biery improperly interfered with the state’s authority to regulate the time, place and manner of elections in favor of widespread mail-in voting, which should be allowed in only limited circumstances because it is more vulnerable to fraud than traditional voting.

Originally, there were two lawsuits, one filed by the TDP that argued COVID vulnerability was sufficient to be considered a “disability” and allow anyone who claimed that to get a mail ballot, and one filed by other groups that argued the existing limit of vote by mail to those 65 and over (plus those who claim a disability, which as we know was not clearly defined and is being argued about in other venues) violates the 26th Amendment, which is the one that lowered the voting age to 18. Both were combined into this lawsuit, and as you can see the 26th Amendment claim is the main thrust from the plaintiffs. We’ll see what we get.