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Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

Best mugshot ever

Defense attorneys for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton — whose indictment for felony securities fraud is now more than five years old — are again asking for a different judge to oversee the case. It’s the latest turn in a long-delayed prosecution that has bounced all the way from a trial court in North Texas to the state Supreme Court in Austin, and now sits in legal purgatory in Houston.

Paxton’s attorneys wrote Thursday that Judge Jason Luong should recuse himself from the case because the attorney general’s office is representing him — among a group of about 20 Harris County district court judges — in an unrelated lawsuit over bail practices. Robert Johnson, who oversaw the case until recently, voluntarily recused himself from the case for that reason earlier this summer. A Houston appeals court reassigned the case to Luong late last month.

“Judge Luong’s impartiality might be reasonably questioned” because Paxton is defending him, Paxton’s attorneys argued in a filing this week.

[…]

The prosecutors appointed to take Paxton to trial shot back Friday, arguing that Luong should remain on the case.

“Because Paxton’s palpable fear that Judge Luong will follow the law and keep these felony cases in Harris County does not come within a time zone of meeting the Draconian burden required for recusal, his motion is without merit and should be denied,” prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer wrote.

And they noted that last month, Paxton’s attorney Philip Hilder told the Houston Chronicle that Johnson “did not need to recuse himself on the matter since … the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity.”

See here for the previous update. I don’t think the Paxton argument about a potential conflict of interest due to the bail lawsuit is completely without merit, but I do agree that it’s a thin reed. I mean, the AG’s office is basically defending the office of Criminal District Court Judge in this lawsuit, and Jason Luong just happens to be in that category. It’s Jason Luong in his official capacity, not Jason Luong, person of Texas. It’s true that Judge Robert Johnson agreed to recuse himself on those grounds, but that doesn’t mean other judges would agree with that position. It’s also true that the question could be made moot, either by Judge Luong making like Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren and filing a motion in agreement with the plaintiffs, or by the presiding judge in the bail case granting the motion to dismiss that was recently filed. Of course, a ruling on that motion could take months, and we needn’t wait that long. The point is, though, that there are other ways to resolve this conflict, if one agrees that there is a conflict.

And I too would point out that Team Paxton was just the other day talking about how their guy is ready for his day in court and that the prosecutors should quit fighting the effort to move the case back to Collin County so we can get this show on the road already. Funny how one’s perspective can change on that. It’s been pretty much entirely the work of Team Paxton and his political supporters that have caused this case to drag on for now more than five years. The DMN, in its reporting on this latest action, provides a handy timeline.

The prosecutors, Paxton’s lawyers added, are improperly trying for a do-over on this change-of-venue decision.

“It simply defies belief that the State can get two bites at the apple on the critical jurisdictional issue that Judge Johnson already properly ruled on by allowing a new judge who is similarly situated with Judge Johnson (i.e., both represented by the Texas Attorney General in the same case) to review Judge Johnson’s prior ruling. This is the ultimate appearance of impropriety.”

In their response, the prosecutors said Paxton’s own lawyers already undercut their argument when they told the Houston Chronicle last month that Johnson never needed to step off the case.

“He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office,” Paxton attorney Philip Hilder told the Chronicle.

A Collin County jury indicted Paxton in July 2015. Since then, his case has been repeatedly delayed by fights over where the trials should take place, how much the prosecutors should make and what judge should preside. Paxton’s defense team spent more than a year attempting to have the charges against their client thrown out. They failed.

Hurricane Harvey also delayed the case and many others in Houston. The COVID-19 pandemic could further push any possible trial back.

Paxton is charged with two first-degree felonies over allegations that he persuaded friends to invest in a McKinney technology company called Servergy Inc. without telling them he received 100,000 shares of stock. He also is charged with a third-degree felony, accused of funneling clients to a friend’s investment firm without being registered with the state. The Texas State Securities Board reprimanded and fined Paxton $1,000 for this failure to register in 2014.

If found guilty, Paxton could face two to 10 years in prison for the third-degree felony and five to 99 years for each of the first-degree felonies, as well as fines. He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges.

When I started writing this post, I began with the post title, and I was pretty sure that it was Paxton who had demanded a new judge in the past, but I wasn’t sure and I knew it would take a lot of archive-diving find an answer. I’m thankful the DMN did that work for me. Who wants to bet this case will still be active when the voters go to choose an AG in 2022?

No eviction moratoriums

So opines Ken Paxton, and we all know what an unimpeachable source he is.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton advised Friday that local Texas governments’ attempts to delay evictions for renters grappling with the COVID-19 recession amounted to rewriting state law — something they can’t do, he said in nonbinding legal guidance.

“While local officials do possess certain emergency powers … statewide eviction procedures far exceed the requirement that those powers be exercised ‘on an appropriate local scale,’” Paxton said in a letter. “Government Code does not authorize local governmental entities operating under a declared disaster to independently rewrite state law as it applies to their jurisdiction to prohibit, delay, or restrict the issuance of a notice to vacate.”

Paxton’s letter, issued in response to a question from Republican state Sen. Brandon Creighton of Conroe, seems to chide local officials like Austin Mayor Steve Adler, who last month extended the eviction moratorium in the city until Sept. 30. Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe extended his ban until the same date. In other counties, like Harris and Dallas, some justices of the peace have decided to not hear evictions. It is unclear if Paxton’s opinion will influence those judges.

Adler said in a statement that his orders were lawful and “do not amend statewide eviction procedures,” but rather aim to “reduce person-to-person contact to slow the spread of COVID-19.”

Hector Nieto, a spokesperson for Travis County, said officials there are reviewing the opinion.

Paxton’s opinion could have weight if someone were to sue a local government over its eviction moratorium.

“I can’t say I’m shocked that the state attorney general would side with landlords. Nothing he has done to date shows us that we could expect something different,” said Sandy Rollins, executive director of the housing advocacy group Texas Tenants Union. “A lot of tenants are facing eviction in Texas by zero fault of their own, and putting protections that are normal in almost every other state should be allowed in this pandemic.”

As we know, AG opinions don’t carry the force of law, but they are an obstacle. As with other contentious matters on which Paxton has opined, someone will have to take this to court to force the issue. Of course, this is also something the Legislature can review and revise, and I’d say it needs to be on the ever-increasing list of things the Lege very much needs to do at its first opportunity. On a side note, this adds some context to the city of Houston’s rental assistance program, which has been offered instead of an eviction moratorium order, which a number of people advocated for. A moratorium would certainly have been a more comprehensive tool to keep people who have been affected by the pandemic and the economic devastation that resulted from it in their homes, but not if it could not be enforced. Whatever you think of Mayor Turner’s approach, it was not affected by this action.

Let the sun shine in

Make ’em disclose.

Empower Texans, the deep-pocketed conservative advocacy group, is well-known for its heavy hand in steering the Texas GOP further to the right and for its shadowy setup that hides its funding sources from the public.

But a court case seeking to force the group’s leader to register as a lobbyist could reveal more about the inner workings of the organization — and others like it in Texas — than ever known before, after the Texas Supreme Court last month ruled that it must divulge communications and financial records to the state ethics commission.

Empower Texans CEO Michael Quinn Sullivan, through his dark money group — made up of a web of political action committees and of nonprofits that aren’t required to report donors — has made $9.5 million in political contributions since 2007, state records show. All the while, Sullivan has been able to keep secret even basic information such as his own compensation, which a Hearst Newspapers analysis found was hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the salary reported on tax forms.

[…]

The suit stems from a 2014 fine the Texas Ethics Commission assessed against Sullivan for failing to register as a lobbyist starting in 2010. Sullivan appealed, and a series of delays have held up the case from going to trial, including a fight over the county where it should be held and attempts by Sullivan to have it dismissed.

Sullivan and his attorney, Tony McDonald, did not respond to requests for comment.

In a parallel court case, Sullivan is trying to gut the state agency, alleging that the Texas Ethics Commission does not have the legal authority to carry out actions such as levying fines for campaign finance law violations, saying only an executive branch agency, not a legislative branch agency, can enforce laws.

That suit, which is before the 8th Court of Appeals in El Paso, also has the potential to reorganize the ethics commission, which already has some of the weakest enforcement capabilities in the country.

But in a testament to the political influence of Empower Texans in Republican circles, Attorney General Ken Paxton has declined to defend the Ethics Commission in that suit.

Instead, Paxton, who has received more than $400,000 in campaign contributions from Empower Texans since 2009, has sided with Sullivan — saying he agrees with the group’s legal stand and has a “duty to uphold the Constitution,” despite his obligation by statute to defend challenges to state laws, state agencies and state employees.

The ethics commission has hired its own lawyers in the case.

I probably have some posts about this case in the archives, but I didn’t feel like spelunking for them. You already know everything you need to know about Empower Texans and MQS, truly the scum of Texas politics. The bottom line for me is that I do not understand the argument that this organization somehow deserves to be exempted from disclosure laws. Every single thing they do is for the purpose of influencing our government. The rest of us have a right to know who’s paying for that. It’s all just sophistry and special pleading after that.

Felony judges move to dismiss bail lawsuit

Of interest.

A group of district judges in Houston on Thursday argued for dismissal of a lawsuit alleging their felony bail practices are unconstitutional because they discriminate against poor people, keeping them jailed when they can’t pay bail.

Among the defendants are the 23 criminal district judges of Harris County, who argue that the plaintiffs lack standing, and the judges have immunity to the claims. They say the plaintiffs were all released on bail and they don’t have an injury that qualifies them to sue.

[…]

“The felony bail system in Harris County raises the same legal issues as the misdemeanor system, has the same devastating consequences for impoverished arrestees, is similarly coercive of guilty pleas, and is even more costly to the system,” said the second amended complaint in Russell v. Harris County.

The lawsuit argued that Harris County for felony bail must stop using a secured bail schedule to make release decisions and better ensure that detained defendants receive constitutional protections that will protect against “erroneous deprivation of the right to bodily liberty.”

The plaintiffs are all detained in Harris County because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. Their lawsuit seeks an injunction against the county’s felony bail practices. They say the county can’t base release decisions on money alone. It must make factual findings that a person is able to afford the bail, or if they can’t pay, that pretrial detention is necessary because there’s a specific, compelling government interest and there’s no less-restrictive alternative.

The 23 judge-defendants’ motion to dismiss said the plaintiffs in the case were released on bail and they don’t have an injury that would grant them standing to sue the judges. The judges also argue they have immunity, and that an exception to immunity for constitutional violations does not apply, because the plaintiffs haven’t alleged a colorable constitutional claim.

“Plaintiffs’ claims all rest on an alleged fundamental right to pre-trial release, but the Fifth Circuit has already made clear that there is no such right. Consequently, there is no colorable constitutional claim in this suit,” the judges’ motion to dismiss said.

See here for the last update, which is when the judges were added to lawsuit. The story notes both the settlement in the misdemeanor bail lawsuit, which took a dramatic turn following the 2018 election when the Democratic slate won en masse and followed through on a promise to settle this, as well as the fact that two of the felony court judges, Chuck Silverman and Brian Warren, have filed motions in support of the plaintiffs. We’re still very much in the early stages of this litigation.

Because the felony (criminal district) courts are state offices, the felony judges are represented by the AG’s office; the misdemeanor court judges were represented by the County Attorney. It’s unclear to me how much influence Harris County government will have in this lawsuit. County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, who favored the misdemeanor settlement, is a named plaintiff in both cases, so whatever influence there is will come via that. As far as I know, he has not yet spoken about this lawsuit.

I want this lawsuit to be settled as well, for the same reasons about equal justice for rich and poor, as well as serious concerns about jailing many non-violent offenders who have not been convicted of anything. It may be that the standing argument has merit – I’m not a lawyer, I don’t know – but that’s not really important to me. What I want is for the system to get a big dose of the reform it badly needs, and along the way I want these judges that I voted for to be part of the solution, not part of the problem like their now-former colleagues on the misdemeanor bench were. I’m willing to see how this plays out, but I need to see that we’re all moving towards a fairer and more equitable system. I’ll definitely be keeping this in mind the next time there are primaries.

We still need that equality bill in the Lege

That SCOTUS ruling was huge, but there’s still a lot of work to be done.

LGBTQ Texans marked a major victory Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that federal civil rights law prevents employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. But in Texas, which did not have such workplace safeguards, LGBTQ lawmakers and advocates say they are far from done fighting for other essential protections.

Employment discrimination protections, they say, are necessary but not sufficient for advancing the equal treatment of LGBTQ Texans. Thanks to Monday’s ruling, Texans can no longer be fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity, but there is no state law explicitly preventing landlords from refusing to rent homes to LGBTQ Texans, for example.

Members of the Texas House LGBTQ Caucus are setting their sights on a comprehensive set of nondiscrimination protections that would codify the employment protections in state law, as well as guarantee LGBTQ Texans equal access to housing, health care and other public accomodations.

It will not be an easy bill to pass.

[…]

“We can’t look at this as being a partisan or political issue — it’s a human issue,” said Democratic state Rep. Jessica González, vice chair of the LGBTQ Caucus. “And in order to create a change in mind, you need to create a change in heart.”

González announced in May that she would spearhead the fight for a comprehensive nondiscrimination bill during the next regular legislative session in 2021 with Republican state Reps. Sarah Davis of West University Place and Todd Hunter of Corpus Christi.

“We rolled it out early to start the conversation,” González said.

In pushing for comprehensive nondiscrimination protections, LGBTQ lawmakers and their allies are also making an economic case. Big businesses like Amazon and Google have been major advocates for LGBTQ Texans over the last few years, telling lawmakers that to attract the best talent to their Texas offices, they need to guarantee workers equal rights in their communities.

“It is the business community’s voice that has been one of the loudest and strongest advocates for the LGBT community over the years,” said Tina Cannon, executive director of the Austin LGBT Chamber of Commerce.

Still, advocates have acknowledged that Monday’s ruling, while exhilirating the LGBTQ community, may also stir up opposition.

“I do think this is going to galvanize the folks who don’t want us to be at the same level,” Shelly Skeen, a senior attorney with the LGBTQ rights group Lambda Legal, said during a virtual briefing after Monday’s ruling. “So we got even more work to do, but I think we got some great momentum behind us.”

LGBTQ Caucus members have already made major progress since 2017, when LGBTQ advocates spent much of the legislative session playing defense as they fought back a controversial “bathroom bill” that would have limited transgender Texans’ access to certain public spaces. It was championed by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and hardline conservative groups.

See here for more on that SCOTUS ruling, and here for more on the equality bill. Dems taking the House is probably the only path to this bill making it out of the lower chamber, where it will never get a hearing in the Senate. The best we can do is get everyone on the record, and fight like hell to elect more Democratic Senators in 2022, as well as un-electing Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton, by far the two biggest obstacles to getting a real equality bill enacted. Yeah, I’ve got Paxton there ahead of Greg Abbott, who I could sort of maybe imagine going with the flow if he gets enough pressure from business and the wingnut fringe has been somewhat neutered. Electing some Democrats to the State Supreme Court would also help, and that we can do this year as well. The things to remember are 1) this is going to take more than one session; 2) the more elections we win, the closer we will be able to get; and 3) we cannot ease up, not even a little, because it will always be possible to go backwards. Eyes on the prize, and get people elected to do the job. That’s what it is going to take.

State Supreme Court denies GOP effort to force convention to happen

Denied.

The Texas Supreme Court on Monday rejected the state Republican Party’s appeal of a lower court’s decision regarding its in-person Houston convention, all but ensuring that Mayor Sylvester Turner’s move to cancel the event will stand.

In an unsigned “per curiam” opinion, the court ruled that while the Texas GOP has the constitutional right to hold a convention, “those rights do not allow it to simply commandeer use” of the George R. Brown Convention Center, where the event was set to take place Thursday through Saturday.

“Houston First’s only duty to allow the party use of the center for its convention is under the terms of the parties’ agreement, not a constitution,” the opinion stated.

[…]

The Supreme Court also rejected a petition for a writ of mandamus — a court order requiring the city to reverse the cancellation — from Steve Hotze, a Houston Republican activist who challenged the convention cancellation along with three other plaintiffs.

Justice John Devine filed the lone dissenting opinion, arguing that the court had standing to rule on the Texas GOP’s case and that Houston First breached its contract with the party by canceling. Devine also dissented from the court’s decision to deny Hotze’s petition.

Meanwhile, Justice Jeff Boyd decided not to participate in the decision. He is one of four justices whom the Texas Democratic Party called on to recuse from the case, due to their sponsorship of the convention. The other three justices — Chief Justice Nathan Hecht and Justices Jane Bland and Brett Busby — opted not to recuse themselves.

See here, here, and here for the background. The ruling was more or less along the lines of that AG brief that supported the city’s position, that this was a matter of contract law, not election law. This was a writ of mandamus, asking for a quick ruling from SCOTX without waiting for the district court to issue a judgment. The denial of the writ means that the case goes back to the district court, but since this shindig was supposed to start on Friday – indeed, some preliminaries are already underway, presumably in virtual fashion – there ain’t much time for that. For their sake, I sure hope the RPT has its contingency plans for an online convention ready to go. You know, like the TDP had for its convention back in March. Mayor Turner’s statement is herer, and the Trib, the Press, and the DMN have more.

UPDATE: It’s official, the GOP will have a virtual convention. Here’s the updated Chron story.

AG sides with Mayor Turner in GOP convention litigation

But only in a limited and technical way, so cool your jets.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas Attorney General’s Office on Saturday sided with Mayor Sylvester Turner in a legal dispute over the state Republican Party’s in-person convention, arguing that the Texas Supreme Court should reject the party’s attempt to proceed with the event.

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court, Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins — the state’s top appellate lawyer — said that despite the party’s “troubling factual allegations,” the court should deny its petition for failing to “properly invoke [the court’s] mandamus authority.”

The legal proceedings began earlier this week after Turner ordered Houston First Corp., the city nonprofit that manages the convention site, to cancel the event over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic. The Republican Party sued Turner and Houston First, but a Harris County judge denied the party’s request for a temporary restraining order that would have blocked Turner from canceling the event. The party then filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the Texas Supreme Court.

In its petition, the party invoked a section of Texas’ election code that allows the court to issue orders that “compel the performance of any duty imposed by law in connection with the holding of an election or a political party convention.” In his brief, Hawkins argued that the party’s convention contract with Houston First does not apply, because the convention was to be held under a contract, not a law.

Prior Supreme Court rulings have “distinguished ‘a duty created under [a] contract’ as legally distinct from ‘a duty imposed by law,’” Hawkins wrote.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the AG’s brief. A copy of the original writ is here. As the story notes, the AG similarly opposed Steven Hotze’s petition on the matter, arguing Hotze has no business in this matter. The Court also has the matter of the motion for four of them to recuse themselves to sort out. I presume that has to happen first, since we have to have the question of who is ruling on the write of mandamus settled before the ruling can happen. Gonna be a busy couple of days at the SCOTX. Oh, and Paxton also opposed Hotze’s petition for a TRO against Judge Hidalgo’s latest face mask order, on the grounds that Hotze’s multiple challenges to the Texas Disaster Act may cause “irreparable harm” to the state’s sovreignty. I presume there will be a similar filing against Hotze’s lawsuit challenging Abbott’s face mask order, too. And yes, the correct response to all this is exasperation and exhaustion.

Move to Collin County on hold, Paxton judge recuses himself

Stay with me here.

Best mugshot ever

The Harris County state district judge who handed Attorney General Ken Paxton a big win by moving his criminal case back to Collin County two weeks ago is now recusing himself because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

Now Judge Robert Johnson’s quick exit is leading the attorneys prosecuting Paxton to question the decision to move the case back to Paxton’s home county.

Johnson, who did not respond to requests for comment, made the venue change decision on June 25. A day later, he and all 22 other Harris County felony judges were added as defendants in a lawsuit alleging that the region’s bail practices discriminate against poor defendants.

The Attorney General’s Office represents state agencies and individual employees of the state and officially became counsel to Johnson and 19 other judges on July 1.

[…]

Prosecutors in the case have appealed the move to Collin County, and the First Court of Appeals on Tuesday granted a motion for a stay of the proceedings during the appeal.

One of the prosecutors, Kent Schaffer, says the recusal raises questions about when Johnson knew he had a potential conflict of interest. He said he plans to look into the issue and will continue to push for the venue change to be voided.

“If we can show that he was already in conversations with the AG about representation, he should have recused himself at that point,” Schaffer said. “If he had a conflict, he shouldn’t have ruled on it to begin with.”

Johnson said in court documents on Monday that he was recusing himself out of a concern that his “impartiality might reasonably be questioned,” citing from the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.

Philip Hilder, an attorney for Paxton, said Tuesday that he has no doubt that Johnson’s decision to move the case should stand.

“The judge’s ruling was completely based in following the law and facts and (he) made the right decision by sending the case back to Collin County,” Hilder said. “He did not need to recuse himself on the matter since it had been ordered back to Collin County and the allegations against Mr. Paxton do not involve his official capacity but rather his individual capacity that predates his election to that office.”

Johnson had agreed with Paxton that the judge who moved the case to Harris County in 2017 did so after his term had expired and the decision therefore should not stand.

The case is out of Johnson’s hands for now until the appellate court rules — either upholding the move to Collin County or sending it back to his courtroom.

See here for the background. I agree that the addition of district criminal court judges to the bail reform lawsuit, for which they will be represented by the Attorney General’s office, is a complicating factor, and that it would have been better if Judge Johnson had either ruled or recused himself before that happened. I can’t quite articulate what the conflict of interest may be here, but as a matter of general principle it would be best to separate the two cases. Given the reasons why the case was moved in the first place, maybe moving it to Bexar or Fort Bend or some other large-but-not-Collin county is the better way to go; I’d guess no one was advocating such a position, however. As usual, this case gives me a headache, so I’m just going to leave this here and wait till the First Court of Appeals makes its ruling.

Checking on Metro’s mask mandate

I admit, I was a bit confused when I saw the earlier version of this story.

Metro wanted to make sure its mask requirement for all passengers passed legal muster, asking a Houston lawmaker to seek an opinion from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton.

That request may be moot after Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order Thursday requiring Texans to wear face masks while in public, under most conditions.

State Rep. Jim Murphy, a Republican who represents a west Houston district just south of Interstate 10 between Loop 610 and the Sam Houston Tollway, had asked the attorney general in a June 26 letter whether Abbott’s previous executive orders limiting local governments’ ability to enforce public health requirements apply to the Metropolitan Transit Authority.

Metro spokesman Jerome Gray on Thursday said Murphy posed the question at Metro’s request. Only certain people — prosecutors, county attorneys and state elected officials — can solicit an opinion from Paxton’s office.

“Given the various back-and-forth discussions about masks we thought it prudent to get some clarity from the AG’s office regarding our ability to deny service to anyone who does not wear a mask,” Gray said. “Gov. Abbott just issued a new order regarding masks and that appears to clear up any ambiguity.”

[…]

When masks became conditional to ride, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said transit officials had no intention of imposing criminal or even civil penalties. Those without a mask will be provided one by Metro staff, and if they refuse to wear it Metro will provide alternative transportation but will not allow them to remain on the bus or train, officials said.

While riders have reported some lax enforcement of the mask requirement on some buses, transit officials have said most riders are compliant with the change and there have been few incidents.

See here and here for the background on the mask mandate. As noted, Greg Abbott’s statewide mask order kind of makes this moot, but the basic question is still there. When I saw the early version of this story, I must have missed the bit about this request being made on Metro’s behalf – my reaction was like “what does Jim Murphy have against Metro?”, which surprised me because that’s not his brand. Briscoe Cain, sure, but not an establishment guy like Murphy. This at least makes sense, though now I’m worried what the answer Metro might be. Anyway, we’ll check back on this when the opinion is given, hopefully at a time when it’s moot for better reasons.

State ordered to pay plaintiffs’ fees in voter ID case

Pending appeal, of course.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Texas ultimately won the long-winding fight to keep its voter ID law on the books, but a federal judge has ruled the state is on the hook for nearly $6.8 million in legal fees and costs.

In a Wednesday order, federal District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos of Corpus Christi found the state must pay that sum to the collection of parties who sued over the 2011 restrictions the state set on what forms of photo identification are accepted at the polls. A spokesperson for the Texas attorney general indicated the state will appeal the ruling.

The voter ID case ricocheted through the federal courts for nearly seven years and over several elections, with Ramos first ruling in 2014 that lawmakers discriminated against Hispanic and black voters when they crafted one of the nation’s strictest voter ID laws.

Lawmakers eventually revised the voter ID law in 2017 to match temporary rules Ramos had put in place for the 2016 election in an effort to ease the state’s requirements as the litigation moved forward. After the state faced multiple losses in the courts, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately upheld Texas’ revised law.

But left intact were findings that the original law produced discriminatory results.

It is what it is, and the appeals process will take many more months. No one should be making detailed plans for the money, because even if it survives appeal it’s going to be awhile before any checks get cut. This is a consolation prize, and not that much of one, but it’s what we’ve got. Until we can take back the Lege and more and repeal this stupid law.

A bipartisan equality bill

I appreciate the effort, but we can’t expect too much to come of this.

Five Democratic and two Republican state legislators announced plans Wednesday to file a bill next legislative session that would bar discrimination against LGBTQ Texans in housing, employment and public spaces.

The bill, which has the early support of state Reps. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, and Todd Hunter, R-Corpus Christi, would extend protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity. There are 21 states that already have enacted such policies.

“Quite frankly, we are already behind the curve on this issue,” Davis said. “Nondiscrimination is not just good for LGBTQ community, but it’s good for all Texans.”

Lawmakers rolled out the bill during a virtual news conference where they touted an economic study that found a statewide nondiscrimination policy would generate $738 million in state revenue and $531 million in local government revenue next biennium. It also would add 180,000 new jobs in technology and tourism by 2025, the study found. The benefits, the authors said, largely would come from Texas’ greater ability to attract talent and heightened opportunity for tourism and conventions.

“We should want to treat people fairly because it’s the right thing to do, whether it has economic effects or not,” said Ray Perryman, a Waco-based economist who led the study. “This shouldn’t be the reason to do it, but it is a very important aspect of it in today’s society, and there are very significant economic costs associated with discrimination.”

The legislation likely will face strong headwinds in the Republican-controlled Senate. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who presides over the upper chamber, prominently opposed a similar measure that was rejected by Houston voters in 2015, and later backed the so-called bathroom bill opposed by LGBTQ advocates that would have required people to use facilities matching the gender identity on their birth certificates.

The lawmakers largely dismissed political concerns Wednesday, arguing instead that their early push for the bill — more than seven months before the session is slated to begin — heightens their odds of passing it.

“I think a lot of this is going to take talking to our colleagues and explaining the results of this study,” said Rep. Jessica González, D-Dallas, a member of the House LGBTQ Caucus and author of the bill. “It’s going to take a lot of groundwork.”

[…]

The bill faces good odds of passing the lower chamber, where Democrats have gained ground and some Republicans have moderated their positions, said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. He was less bullish on the bill’s chances in the Senate.

“It’s a different animal on that side of the chamber,” Rottinghaus said. “You do all the political calculations and it’s a tall order to get it passed. But, in some ways it’s a marker: these members see the future of Texas as one where the economy needs to be put front and center, and if that theory can get some grip among the members, then there’s hope for it in the future. But as it is now, it’s a pretty tough sell.”

That’s really about all there is to it. This bill may pass the House, but if so then Dan Patrick will stick it in a shredder, have the shredder blown up by the bomb squad, and then have the debris shipped to Oklahoma. We ain’t getting a bill like this passed while he’s Lite Guv, and that’s even before we consider getting it signed and then having it reasonably enforced by the Attorney General. It’s nice that there are two House Republicans willing to sign on to this – no, really, that is important and could very well matter if we oust Patrick in 2022 but still have a Republican-controlled Senate – but it will take either more of them than that to get this passed, or fewer Republicans in the House overall. I don’t know who our next Speaker will be, but I like the odds of this passing with a Democrat appointing committee chairs than with pretty much any Republican that could inherit the gavel. Needless to say, one way of getting the requisite number of Dems in the House is to oust Sarah Davis, as her seat is high on the list of pickup possibilities. Todd Hunter’s HD32 is on that list as well, but farther down; if he loses in November, Dems have had a very, very good day.

Let’s be clear that lots of substantive bills take more than one session to get passed, so bringing this up now even without any assurance that it could get out of committee is the right call. Start talking about this now – the real benefits a true equality bill would bring, the ridiculous arguments that opponents will throw at it, and very importantly the potential legal pitfalls that the true wingnuts and their sympathetic judges will try to exploit – and we’ll be better positioned when the timing is better. I can’t say when that might be – elections have consequences, I’m told – but it’s best to be prepared.

We don’t know enough about what’s happening at nursing homes

We’ve talked before about two of the main coronavirus hotspot types in Texas, prisons and meat processing plants. Now we’re going to talk about that third type, nursing homes.

As the death toll grows at Texas nursing homes, so has the number of requests for information kept by state health officials that would reveal which long-term care facilities have suffered coronavirus outbreaks during the worst pandemic in generations.

But the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, which regulates nursing homes and assisted living facilities, is attempting to keep its records secret, despite calls for more transparency from open-government advocates, some Texas lawmakers and family members worried about vulnerable residents.

“The public is being left in the dark, and we’re losing control of our ability to oversee the operations of our government,” said Joe Larsen, a lawyer with the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, which published an open letter last month urging the health commission to release its records on nursing home infections.

In a May 4 letter to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, Carey Smith, a lawyer representing the health commission, said the agency has received more than two dozen public records requests for nursing home data about coronavirus infections, but that federal and state laws prohibit the release of the information because it might identify infected residents and violate their privacy.

However, Texas legislators who wrote one of the laws cited by Smith said it doesn’t prohibit officials from releasing statistical information about COVID-19 in nursing homes.

“The statute was not intended to create a blanket protection for all health-related information,” said former Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who authored the bill in the Texas Senate last year.

The sponsor of the bill in the Texas House, Rep. Giovanni Capriglione, R-Southlake, said releasing statistical data from nursing homes could benefit both consumers and government authorities. And, like Watson, he said the bill they passed doesn’t prevent state officials from releasing that information.

“So long as you can’t get personal identifying information I don’t see why the current rules and statutes that we have don’t already allow that information to be released,” Capriglione said.

[…]

After facing criticism from families and advocates of nursing home residents, Texas began releasing statewide statistics that show the total number of coronavirus deaths at nursing homes, which provide round-the-clock care, and assisted living facilities, which are less intensive.

As of [May 1], 478 COVID-19 deaths — nearly half of the 1,042 reported in Texas — were at nursing homes or assisted living centers, records show.

But state health officials haven’t disclosed infection rates for each location, which has stymied families trying to protect their relatives. The lack of information also leaves hospice workers and other contract caregivers in the dark.

That story was from early May. Since then, we have gotten more numbers from the state.

More than 3,000 Texas nursing home residents have tested positive for the new coronavirus, as well as nearly 400 assisted living facility residents, according to data released Friday by the Texas Department of State Health Services.

Among the reported 311 nursing homes with confirmed cases, 3,011 residents have tested positive and 490 have died. Another 494 residents have recovered, according to the data. At 112 assisted living facilities in Texas with at least one confirmed coronavirus case, 382 residents have tested positive for the virus, and 95 have died.

Statewide, 1,272 people have died, but it was unclear late Friday if all of the long-term care facility patients’ deaths were included in that larger figure.

The state had previously released only the number of nursing homes with confirmed cases and fatalities, not the number of people who have tested positive.

The state is still not releasing the names of nursing homes with COVID-19 cases. Many families remain in the dark about whether their loved ones in nursing homes are at risk of exposure.

There are a lot of reasons why we need more and better reporting of this data. For one, just so that the people who have family and friends that live or work at these places can know what’s going on with them. For two, to better identify the places that are not up to standard on health and safety. For three, so we can learn from the places that are doing well as well as the places that are doing poorly, so the overall level of safety and care can be improved. This is not hard to understand, and at least it looks like there’s bipartisan agreement that the existing laws need to be upgraded for the future. Put that on the ever-lengthening to do list for the 2021 Lege.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.

Criminal complaint filed against AG Ken Paxton

I should say “another criminal complaint”, this one over his bullying tactics about vote by mail.

MOAR MUG SHOTS

Two voting rights advocates have filed a complaint with the Dallas County district attorney, alleging Attorney General Ken Paxton committed voter fraud in each of the state’s 254 counties by contradicting a judge’s order expanding the availability of mail-in voting during the pandemic.

“Attorney General Ken Paxton’s letter intentionally misled Texas elections officials about eligibility to vote by mail,” said Kendall Scudder, one of the complainants. “Mail-in ballots aren’t where the election fraud is happening, it’s happening in the office of our indicted attorney general.”

Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak on April 17 issued a temporary injunction stating that any voter concerned about exposure to the coronavirus can avoid in-person voting and request a mail-in ballot by claiming a disability.

Paxton, a Republican who has argued disability claims should be reserved only for those who currently fall under that category, wrote in a filing that same day that Sulak’s order was automatically stayed when he filed an appeal.

[…]

Two attorneys reached by Hearst Newspapers agreed with Paxton’s assessment that the April 17 order was stayed when Paxton appealed.

Any appeal of an order that grants a temporary injunction or denies a plea to the jurisdiction, both of which occurred in this case, places an immediate stay on that order, said Dallas appellate lawyer Chad Ruback. On top of that, the Attorney General’s office noted in its appeal that governmental entities are entitled to automatic stays in this situation, under Texas law.

In the Dallas County case, complainants Scudder and Woot Lervisit, who live and vote in the county, say that under the Texas election code, their complaint should trigger a criminal investigation of Paxton’s conduct.

See here and here for the background. You can see the press release relating to this action here, a copy of the complaint here, and a copy of the tweets submitted as supporting evidence here. This is another one of those times when I don’t feel qualified to evaluate the action, but if as the lawyers quoted in the story indicate, Paxton was correct to assert that the order was stayed, then I don’t know what the case is for action against him. I presume the Dallas County DA is better positioned to answer that question, and we’ll know his answer by the action he takes. In the meantime, it’s at least fun to note the irony of Ken Paxton being tripped up by a voter fraud charge. I don’t expect to get any more out of this than that, but we’ll see.

UPDATE: The DMN notes that Dallas County DA John Creuzot declined comment on the complaint. It also reports that Paxton has asked one of the Houston-area appeals courts to vacate the Sulak ruling. I don’t understand the jurisdiction there, given that the lawsuit originated in Travis County, but that’s all the story says.

First hearing for TDP federal vote by mail lawsuit set for next week

Here we go.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery has ordered a hearing on expanding vote-by-mail to all Texas voters in advance of the July 14 Democratic Party runoff election. The hearing, set for 9 a.m. May 15, will allow only one lawyer and one staff person from each side of the case, essentially the Texas Democratic Party (TDP) vs. the State of Texas, to make their arguments.

Also because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the public will not be allowed to attend and the number of journalists will be limited, though Biery’s order states that “to give due respect to our tradition of open courts and the public’s right to know, the Court will try to provide audio live streaming through the Court’s website.”

[…]

Biery’s order acknowledges that instituting statewide universal mail-in balloting might not be effective, given the likelihood that appeals in the case might take the final decision past the July 2 deadline for requesting mail-in ballots for the runoff.

That’s the only story I’ve seen so far, so those are all the details you get. As a reminder, this is about the TDP’s federal lawsuit to allow more people to request absentee ballots, at least for the July 14 primary runoffs and SD14 special election. The state lawsuit filed by the TDP, which AG Ken Paxton is currently throwing a hissy fit over, and the federal age discrimination lawsuit filed by a group of young voters, are separate actions. The TDP had filed a request for a ruling by May 15 that orders the state to allow anyone who wants one to request a mail ballot. As this is a morning hearing, and I presume both sides have filed their briefs, we could very well get some kind of order by the end of the day. Mark your calendars for next Friday the 15th.

You got to dance with them what brung ya

Kenny Boy Paxton is looking out for you. If you are one of his rich donors.

Best mugshot ever

When a small county in the Colorado mountains banished everyone but locals to blunt the spread of the coronavirus, an unlikely outsider raised a fuss: Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who called it an affront to Texans who own property there and pressed health officials to soften the rules.

“The banishment of nonresident Texas homeowners is entirely unconstitutional and unacceptable,” Paxton said in a news release April 9, when his office sent a letter asking authorities in Gunnison County to reverse course.

An Associated Press review of county and campaign finance records shows Paxton’s actions stood to benefit an exclusive group of Texans, including a Dallas donor and college classmate who helped Paxton launch his run for attorney general and had spent five days trying to get a waiver to remain in his $4 million lakeside home. Robert McCarter’s neighbors in the wealthy Colorado enclave of Crested Butte are also Paxton campaign contributors, including a Texas oilman who has given Paxton and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, more than $252,000.

Less than three hours after Paxton announced the letter, Gunnison County granted McCarter an exemption to stay, according to documents obtained by AP. The county says the timing was coincidental.

The depth of Paxton’s connections in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, which were not previously known publicly, raise questions about Texas’ top law enforcement officer using his office to lean on a secluded Colorado county as it scrambled to keep COVID-19 at bay. Paxton has at least nine donors in Texas who own property in Gunnison County, and who collectively have given him and his wife nearly $2 million in political contributions. He sent the letter even as his own state was requiring people arriving from New Orleans and New York to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Paxton spokesman Marc Rylander said in an email that “it is a normal practice for the attorney general to speak with multiple constituents from around Texas about issues pertinent to Texas residents.” Asked whether Paxton had spoken to McCarter or other donors before getting involved in Gunnison County, another spokeswoman, Kayleigh Date, said they could not reveal specific homeowners.

Here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter what Gunnison County did, or if this was a wrong that needed to be righted. The Attorney General, like all public officials, has a limited amount of time and resources to accomplish the things they want to accomplish. Do you think this was a good use of Ken Paxton’s time? Do you think it was an issue that was pertinent to the people of Texas? Lots of politicians do favors for friends. It’s the nature of politics and the nature of friendship. You can call it whatever you want, but the facts speak for themselves.

The fight over sick leave has to be at the state level

I get this, but it’s not going to work.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The coronavirus outbreak is sparking a debate over paid sick leave in Houston, the largest U.S. city without a law requiring businesses to provide paid time off for workers who fall ill.

Labor leaders say the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered their argument for a paid leave mandate, arguing such a policy would slow community spread of the disease here.

Mayor Sylvester Turner largely has ignored the push, making clear he will not take action on paid sick leave while the health and economic crisis continues to play out.

“Right now, the private sector is hurting, just like the public sector is hurting,” Turner said in an interview. “Businesses are taking it on the chin, and that’s been across the board: small, medium-sized, large. So, let’s get past this crisis, and then we’ll have an opportunity to have a robust discussion on the other side.”

As Houston and Harris County residents pass a month of stay-at-home restrictions to prevent local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed with patients, Turner and County Judge Lina Hidalgo are coming under intensifying pressure from business owners on the one hand who say they cannot survive more weeks of forced closures, and health officials on the other who say coronavirus testing remains too scarce to drop the restrictions.

Labor advocates and health experts have warned that many employees who lack paid sick leave will skirt federal guidelines and show up to work when they are ill because they cannot afford the lost wages from missing even a few days of work. Without a paid sick leave mandate, they say, “essential” Houston workers remain uncovered if their employers do not offer it and are exempted from a federal coronavirus paid leave package that contains broad loopholes.

“There is clear evidence from states and cities across the country that when workers have access to paid sick days, they’re more likely to stay home and take care of themselves,” said Vicki Shabo, a senior fellow for paid leave policy at the Washington, D.C., think tank New America.

[…]

Austin, Dallas and San Antonio have passed ordinances mandating paid sick leave, and each has been blocked or delayed by legal challenges that allege Texas’ minimum wage law preempts the ordinances.

Dallas’ paid sick leave policy, which would require employers to grant one hour of paid leave for every 30 hours an employee works, was halted by a federal judge March 30, two days before penalties for non-compliant businesses would have taken effect.

I’m sympathetic to the argument that now is a bad time for businesses to be asked to bear an extra expense. I’m even more sympathetic to the argument that now is a really really bad time to incentivize sick people to go to work. The problem is that as things stand now, there’s nothing the city of Houston can do about it. We could pass a sick leave ordinance, either by Council action or by referendum, and it would be immediately blocked by the courts, as it has been in those other cities. The only way forward is to change the state minimum wage law that is being interpreted by the courts as forbidding local sick leave measures. That’s not something that can be done in the short term. A Democratic-led House could pass such a bill next year, but as long as Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton are in office, it won’t go any farther than that.

So, as unsatisfying as it is to say, we have to win some more elections first before we can make this happen. The good news is that this is the best time imaginable to make the argument in favor of paid sick leave. The case for having sick workers stay home rather than infecting everyone they encounter has never been more clear, and likely will never be better received by the voters. Let the Republicans defend that position. There’s very much a fight to be had, and that’s where we need to have it.

Mask up

Time for the next step in virus mitigation.

Judge Lina Hidalgo

Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo on Wednesday ordered residents to cover their faces in public, the latest effort by local governments to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The new rules, which require residents 10 and older to cover their nose and mouth when outside the home, take effect Monday and last 30 days. Acceptable garments include a homemade mask, scarf, bandana or handkerchief. Medical masks or N-95 respirators are not recommended as they are most needed by first responders and health workers.

Under the order, the county’s 4.7 million residents must cover their faces at all times except when exercising, eating or drinking; the exemptions also include when individuals are alone in a separate single space, at home with roommates or family, or when wearing a mask poses a greater risk to security, mental or physical health. Violating the mask rules is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, though Hidalgo urged police to use discretion.

Unlike previous restrictions announced by the city and county executives, Hidalgo’s mask order drew fierce, partisan rebuke, highlighting what has become a national political divide over coronavirus restrictions.

[…]

Employers at businesses deemed essential under Harris County’s stay-at-home order must provide face coverings and training to workers whose jobs require them to come into contact with colleagues or the public. Hidalgo has yet to determine whether to extend the stay-at-home rules, which expire April 30.

Hospitalization data suggests the curve of new cases is flattening here, Hidalgo said at a news conference Wednesday. The region still is susceptible to another wave of infections, she warned.

“If we get cocky, we get sloppy, we get right back to where we started, and all of the sacrifices people have been making have been in vain,” Hidalgo said while wearing a homemade mask. “Let’s not get complacent. Let’s remember that we still have work to do.”

Hidalgo said the mask rules were spurred by her team’s realization the outbreak would require a long-term health response that extends beyond the end of stay-home rules.

Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner endorsed Hidalgo’s plan. He thanked residents for their sacrifices to date and said he would announce a plan Thursday to distribute 70,000 masks to vulnerable residents.

Masks are a crucial tool to prevent a surge in cases as businesses and public spaces reopen, said Firas Zabaneh, an infectious disease expert at Houston Methodist. He said they also serve as a visual reminder to maintain social distancing.

“The public will be safer with masks on,” Zabaneh said. “As we ease the restrictions, more and more people are going to be interacting with each other.”

The Centers for Disease Control recommends wearing masks when social distancing is not possible, such as at a grocery store. Many people who have coronavirus do not show symptoms, and the disease can be spread through speaking, coughing or sneezing.

I omitted all the partisan criticism, which included a particularly whiny response from the police union president, because sniveling is pathetic and life is short. As the story notes, Laredo and Dallas and San Antonio have issued similar orders without any of the fuss; I’ll leave it to you to decide why the same thing from Judge Lina Hidalgo inspired such vitriol. The police guy went running to AG Ken Paxton to ask if she was allowed to do that, and he demurred, while reminding the cops that they do have the discretion to not issue citations.

Anyway, look. The way forward with this pandemic, certainly until we have an effective treatment regimen and eventually a vaccine, is going to include things like masks, plus continued social distancing and universal testing and a whole lot more hand sanitizer and bleach wipes. This is the new normal, whether we like it or not. It would be nice if everyone went along with this willingly, but we’ve already seen that a significant portion of the population doesn’t take any of this seriously. This is where we are.

Galveston and Montgomery Counties have not followed suit. For what it’s worth, they were behind the curve in issuing stay-at-home orders, too. With Greg Abbott’s forthcoming order to “reopen” the economy, it’s possible that Hidalgo’s order will be quite short-lived, since Abbott seems to have remembered that he doesn’t like letting local governments do things. As is so often the case lately, I have no idea what happens next. Buckle up, it’s gonna be bumpy. The Press has more.

Another view of the lawsuit over expanded voting by mail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Still trying to do something about the coronavirus risk in the jail

Time is extremely limited for this.

A federal judge Friday asked lawyers to hammer out a plan for releasing about 1,000 indigent inmates detained on bonds of $10,000 or less amid fear of a COVID-19 outbreak at the third largest jail in the country. The judge indicated she would take up the fate of another 3,400 people in the Harris County Jail awaiting trial on higher bonds next week.

The instructions by Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal came in response to an emergency request Friday by the team of lawyers who challenged the county’s bail policies. They argued that thousands of poor defendants trapped in the jail simply because they couldn’t afford bail should be granted immediate bail hearings or be released.

The pleading laid a grave situation at the hands of a judge who has made many tough decisions in the criminal justice realm.

“A public health catastrophe of historic proportion looms in the Harris County Jail. Only this Court can avert it,” the motion says. “With every passing hour, the risk of disaster increases. All eyes turn to this Court in this dire moment.”

The bail lawsuit motion for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction seeks release of about half the jail’s population of nearly 8,000 if they cannot be afforded immediate bail hearings. This would mean thousands of people charged with nonviolent offenses would be allowed to await trial on bond outside the facility, as they would otherwise be able to do if they could post cash bond.

Other local officials, including the sheriff, state district judges and top county official have been tackling the potential public health threat from different angles over the past two weeks, seeking compassionate releases of medically vulnerable inmates, bonds for those accused of nonviolent offenses, or some cross-section of the two groups.

But early Friday lawyers from Civil Rights Corps, the Texas Civil Rights Project and pro bono counsel from Susman Godfrey, stepped in with a constitutional approach to the jail problem that could allow much more drastic cuts in the population than the compassionate release plans outlined by the sheriff and the county judge.

Rosenthal asked the lawyers for indigent defendants and attorneys for the sheriff and the county to assemble by Monday a list of thousands of people who might qualify for release based on their bond amounts, charges, criminal histories and risk factors. In addition, the judge indicated she would move swiftly on a subset of the indigent defendants who can’t pay their bond. She asked for confirmation that 1,000 or so people being held on bonds of up to $10,000 were not subject to other holds or detainers.

The sheriff and county officials told the judge that they had no objection to this first group being released if they fit the judge’s criteria. According to a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the only agency that opposed the release of those facing $10,000 bonds was the Texas Attorney General’s Office.

Sheriff Gonzalez had been working on this for the past week, trying to get individual judges to allow some inmates to be released, but the process was slow. County Judge Lina Hidalgo had been working on an executive order that would have released a larger number of inmates, but she shelved it after objections from the Attorney General’s office; you can read that story for the details. And I know, we’re all going to be murdered in our sleep by a rampaging horde of pot smokers and check kiters, but let’s do pause for a moment and consider what the alternative might be:

In another effort to address the issue, Harris Health System leaders on Friday sent a letter asking for the release of defendants with nonviolent offenses.

The county medical system’s president and CEO stressed that an outbreak in the Harris County Jail is not a matter of if, but when.

“The Harris County Jail and other large correctional facilities pose a real and immediate danger to the health of the community,” Esmaeil Porsa said. “An even limited outbreak of COVID-19 in the Harris County Jail has the potential to overwhelm our already overburdened hospital system. If this happened — and the likelihood is high — it could leave many vulnerable people in our community without access to care.”

Porsa urged the county to consider prioritizing inmates over 60 with pre-existing conditions such as cancer, diabetes, asthma and chronic pulmonary disease, heart disease and HIV. Jails are known to have higher concentrations of people in the high-risk group, he said.

He added that social distancing is nearly impossible, with dorm settings holding between 20 and 60 people in a close space. And quarantine is also unfeasible when inmates are booked in and out of the jail on a daily basis.

We could just let them all die, I suppose. I’m sure Dan Patrick would approve. I would rather not do that.

UPDATE: And now Greg Abbott is involved, and I’m confused.

As the first Harris County inmate tested positive for COVID-19 Sunday, Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order blocking any release of inmates from jails and prisons accused or convicted of violent crime.

“Releasing dangerous criminals from jails into the streets is not the right solution and doing so is now prohibited by law by this declaration,” Abbott said at an afternoon briefing.

The news comes as federal, state and local government officials continued to squabble over details of what a jail release would look like as they attempted to prevent a catastrophic outbreak among the approximately 8,000 people incarcerated at the downtown facility.

The governor was referencing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s motion to prevent Harris County from releasing 4,000 people awaiting trial on felonies, saying such a move would “allow dangerous criminals to roam freely and commit more crimes during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.”

“Protecting Texans is one of my highest priorities. It is vital that we maintain the integrity of our criminal justice system and continue to enforce state law during this pandemic,” Paxton said. “My office will not stand for any action that threatens the health and safety of law-abiding citizens.”

Hours earlier a federal judge convened an emergency hearing to address plans that plaintiffs in a federal civil rights case had hammered out over the weekend with lawyers for the sheriff and the county judge to release inmates accused of some nonviolent offense.

An official from Paxton’s office appeared telephonically at that hearing and said the AG planned to appeal an order by the federal judge to the 5th U.S. Circuit if it called for any blanket releases.

The judge set a hearing for Tuesday to address a possible appeal.

There wasn’t anything in the previous story about people accused or convicted of violent crimes, hence my confusion. I assume there are still plenty of people in the Harris County jail for misdemeanor charges, so it’s not at all clear to me what the extent of the dispute is. Maybe later versions of the story will make that more clear.

UPDATE: There’s now a more detailed version of the Chron story and also a Trib story, but this post is too long already. I’ll be back with more tomorrow.

Of course he thinks that’s “essential”

Doesn’t get any more on-brand than this.

Best mugshot ever

Gun stores are essential business and should be allowed to remain open during the COVID-19 pandemic, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said Friday.

Paxton said in his nonbinding opinion that state law prevents cities and counties from “adopting regulations related to the transfer, possession, or ownership of firearms, or commerce in firearms.”

Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, on Tuesday requested that Paxton’s office weigh in on whether firearm sales can be listed as essential businesses by local officials, as businesses across the state have shuttered due to shelter-in-place orders designed to slow spread of the new coronavirus.

“Having access to tools of self-protection, hunting and for keeping your property safe and secure is always essential. It’s even more essential for access during times of uncertainty and emergency,” Burrows said in a written statement.

Many cities and counties had not designated gun retailers, ranges or manufacturers as essential businesses in their stay-at-home orders, Burrows said in his letter. However, San Antonio and Dallas County did exempt the fire arms businesses.

“It does not appear that cities or counties have the authority to restrict the transfer of firearms, even during a natural disaster,” Burrows wrote in his request.

The opinion comes less than 72 hours after the agency received Burrows’ request — a remarkably fast turnaround on a process that routinely takes weeks or months.

That’s because this process normally requires research and inquiry, and leave open the possibility of an answer that doesn’t conform to one’s initial inclinations. Couldn’t take any chances on that here, obviously. People need to be able to defend themselves against that virus. I recommend very small-caliber bullets.

AG opinions are not binding, of course, so a city or county could go ahead and impose a ban on gun stores anyway if they wanted to. That would leave it up to a court to decide; there’s a fight over this already happening in California, where gun stores were (also not surprisingly) not classified as “essential”. I rather doubt any Texas municipality would want to expend that kind of effort when there are more important things to do, but they could if they chose to. The whole thing is ridiculous, but here we are.

Ken Paxton does Ken Paxton thing

Film at 11.

Best mugshot ever

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office is not defending a state agency that is being sued for punishing a judge who refuses to officiate gay marriages.

It’s the most recent in a handful of cases in which Paxton, a Republican, has stepped away from one of the basic requirements of his job because the state’s actions conflict with his views of the Constitution.

Just days after the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, Paxton issued a legal opinion arguing that Texas clerks and judges with religious objections could not be forced to officiate those marriages or process the paperwork. In the nonbinding opinion, Paxton, also pledged to “be a public voice for those standing in defense of their rights.”

That argument will be tested in Texas courts for the first time after Justice of the Peace Dianne Hensley of Waco sued the Commission on Judicial Conduct for issuing her a warning last year. Since 2015, the general practice in Texas has been that judges either perform all types of marriages or none, if they have religious objections to same-sex marriages. But Hensley argued she could continue officiating straight marriages while referring same-sex couples to others because of the conflict with her religious beliefs.

The attorney general would have been expected to represent the commission as part of his charge to defend state agencies, putting Paxton in the awkward position of arguing against his 2015 opinion.

Instead, the attorney general’s office is not representing the agency.

“We believe judges retain their right to religious liberty when they take the bench,” spokesman Marc Rylander said in a statement.

Jacqueline Habersham, interim executive director of the Judicial Commission, has so far acted as counsel for the commission in the case. Habersham declined to comment.

See here and here for the background. The Trib notes another dimension to this.

Paxton declined to defend a different state agency, the Texas Ethics Commission, in a lawsuit filed years ago by Empower Texans, a hardline conservative group that has been an important political ally to him. And he has opted not to defend state laws, like the Texas Advance Directives Act, when they conflict with his interpretation of the Constitution.

Hensley is represented in the case by the First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm with deep ties to Paxton’s office that reach back to the earliest days of his political career. Hensley’s lawyer, Jonathan Mitchell, is a former solicitor general of Texas. And Paxton and the First Liberty Institute have often been allies in religious liberty fights in Texas, collaborating on a lawsuit against the city of San Antonio after it banned Chick-fil-A from opening a location in its airport. Jeff Mateer, now Paxton’s top aide, worked as the firm’s general counsel before joining the attorney general’s office.

Kelly Shackelford, the group’s president and CEO, has endorsed Paxton and contributed to a legal defense fund Paxton has used to fight off a four-year-old criminal indictment for securities fraud.

Nothing ol’ Kenny won’t do to help his buddies. In this sense, it’s just as well that he’s peaced out of the litigation, because literally any alternate arrangement for the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, whether they represent themselves or hire an outside firm, would be better than having an attorney that’s biased against you as your advocate. The solution here is the same as it’s ever been – we need a better AG. We tried in 2018, we’ll need to finish the job in 2022. He’s not going to change, we have to swap him out.

We’re not going to get an independent redistricting commission

Nice to think about, but the set of circumstances that might lead to it are exceedingly narrow.

Most of the seven states that have independent commissions adopted them by a citizens’ initiative. Since Texas doesn’t have that option, the only way it would happen would be if lawmakers voluntarily gave up their redistricting power.

Kathay Feng, national redistricting director of the progressive government watchdog group Common Cause, said that’s unlikely to happen in Texas, but not impossible.

“The reality is that when a legislature is looking at potentially split control or the changeover of control from one party to another, they’re the most likely to entertain the possibility of redistricting reform,” Feng said.

Rice University political science professor Mark Jones said it would take a unique set of circumstances.

“It would take us reaching a tipping point where Republicans are pessimistic about their prospects for retaining a majority, but Democrats are also pessimistic about their prospects for taking a majority as well,” Jones said.

I think Jones’ assessment is basically accurate, but it’s important to understand what Republican pessimism about retaining a majority means. We’re talking about them being afraid that they might face unified Democratic government in 2031, the next time redistricting will come around. And not only must they fear this thing that might happen ten years and three statewide elections from now, they must conclude that their best option now would be to curb that future theoretical Democratic hegemony via the creation of an independent redistricting commission. All this happens following a Democratic takeover of the State House, because otherwise Republicans can do what they’ve done before, which is draw whatever districts they want without fear. You see what I mean by exceedingly narrow?

Let’s keep one other thing in mind here. If we do get a Democratic State House, Republicans can still push for whatever maps they want for the SBOE, the State Senate, and the State House. That’s because if the two chambers can’t agree on maps for those three entities, the job gets thrown to the Legislative Redistricting Board, which is the Lite Governor, the Speaker, the AG, the Comptroller, and the Land Commissioner. In other words, a Board on which Republicans would have a 4-1 majority, and thus no trouble passing those Republican maps. The one map that would still be up in the air would be the Congressional map. If there is no map passed legislatively, it gets thrown to a federal court, over which neither side would have any control.

There is room in this scenario for some compromise. Republicans would prefer not to let a court do this work. Democrats would of course like to have some influence in the mapmaking process. You can imagine an agreement to draw maps for all four entities – Congress, SBOE, Senate, House – that leans towards incumbent protection rather than greatly advantaging or disadvantaging one party over the other. If that happens, you could also imagine them including an independent commission as a bonus Grand Bargain, but that seems a bridge too far. But compromise maps that mostly don’t make any incumbents’ lives too difficult, that I can see maybe getting done.

Maybe. The situation I’ve just described here is like what happened in 2001, which was the last time Dems controlled the House. The LRB drew the state maps, which led to the massive GOP takeover in the 2002 election, and a court drew the Congressional map. And then, once Republicans had control of the House, they went back and redid the Congressional map. That was the original, stated motivation when Tom DeLay pushed for re-redistricting in 2003: The Congressional map should be drawn by the legislators, not by a court. Obviously, they wanted a map that was much more favorable to Republicans, but that was the original reason they gave. It seems to me that this is a very plausible outcome in 2021 as well – the Republicans decide to let a court draw the map, which in all likelihood would be quite deferential to incumbents anyway, then take their chances on retaking the House in 2022 and doing a new Congressional map again. Hey, it worked once before, and now they have a more favorable Supreme Court to back them up.

Honestly, this may be the single most likely scenario – the LRB draws the state maps, a court draws the Congressional map, and everything hinges on the 2022 election. Maybe Dems keep the State House. Maybe we manage to elect a Democratic Governor, who could then veto any new Congressional map. Maybe Republicans win and do their thing. Heck, even in the Great Map Compromise scenario, who’s to say that Republicans wouldn’t tear it all up and start over in the event they retake the House and retain the Governor’s Mansion? I’d put money on that before I placed a bet on a redistricting commission. 2031 is a long, long way away. It’s not at all irrational to prioritize the now over what maybe could possibly happen if everything goes wrong.

Who sues first?

It matters whether Harris County or the state of Texas is first to the courthouse against an industrial polluter.

As chemical plant explosions and fires have disrupted lives and raised air-quality concerns in the Houston area this year, the state and its most populous county have been jockeying to take the lead in penalizing polluters.

The state’s more active role has aroused suspicions among some local officials and environmentalists, who believe state leaders with a record of pro-business actions may be trying to take control to soften the blow of any court rulings against major corporations.

“It’s obvious there’s been an attempt to limit Harris County legal office from pursuing these cases,” said Neil Carman, a former air inspector with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality who now works with the Sierra Club’s Lone Star chapter.

The legal maneuvering reflects growing public concern about environmental disasters in the Houston area and the ongoing tug of war between the Republican-led state government and officials in major metro areas over the setting of policy.

Who sues first dictates not only where the case will be heard, but also where the money will go if there are civil penalties. If Harris County leads with the state being a party to its lawsuit, the money is split between both parties. But if the state sues without the local government’s involvement, it goes back to the state’s general revenue

County officials say they have to sue to have a role in the process and to make sure companies are held accountable for the damage they cause. State lawmakers say that such suits are redundant and that there needs to be a statewide approach; the Legislature has passed bills restricting local governments in such cases.

“It’s not efficient, and it’s not a good way to function,” said Rock Owens, special assistant Harris County attorney for environmental matters. “If you have an emergency that requires immediate attention, that’s a reason to move quickly. But I just have to move quickly to make sure Harris County keeps a seat at the table, and that’s an unnecessary use of resources.”

In the end, he added, “everybody loses.”

See here and here for some background. There’s no question that the state is doing this to block Harris County from taking stronger action against the big offenders. The track record could not be more clear. Harris County has done pretty well regardless, and if you listened to my interviews with the County Attorney candidates you should feel confident that that will continue, at least until such time as the Lege clips the county’s wings further. We all know what we need to do to keep that from happening.

Anti-gay Waco JP sues for the right to be an anti-gay JP

Ugh.

A Waco judge who received a public warning last month for refusing to officiate same-sex marriages filed a lawsuit against the state agency that issued the warning, claiming the governmental body violated state law by punishing her for actions taken in accordance with her faith.

The First Liberty Institute, a high-profile Plano-based religious liberty law firm closely aligned with the Texas Attorney General’s Office, will represent the judge, Dianne Hensley, in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in McLennan County District Court.

Shortly after the U.S. Supreme Court asserted the constitutional right for same-sex couples to marry in the landmark 2015 Obergefell decision, Hensley refused to officiate any weddings. But in August 2016, she decided to resume officiating weddings between men and women, and said she would “politely refer” same-sex couples who sought her services to others in the area.

“For providing a solution to meet a need in my community while remaining faithful to my religious beliefs, I received a ‘Public Warning.’ No one should be punished for that,” Hensley said in a statement.

Hensley, who claims the state violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is seeking a declaratory judgment from the court decreeing that any justice of the peace may refuse to officiate a same-sex wedding “if the commands of their religious faith forbid them to participate in same-sex marriage ceremonies.”

[…]

Ricardo Martinez, Equality Texas CEO, said in a statement that as a justice of the peace, Hensley took an oath “to serve all Texans.”

“These elected officials continue to waste taxpayer money in an obsession to discriminate against gay and transgender Texans. This is not what Texans want or expect from elected officials,” Martinez said. “Discrimination of any kind is unacceptable. Their actions are mean spirited, futile, a waste of taxpayer money and most importantly, it’s wrong.”

See here for the background. Look, if Judge Hensley had “politely referred” mixed-race couples to other JPs because her religious beliefs were that only people of the same race should get married, no one would take her seriously. If she were a clerk at the DMV who refused to process drivers license applications from women because her religious beliefs were that women should not drive, she’d be fired on the spot. As a public servant, she serves the whole public, not just the public she approves of. That means she can perform weddings for anyone who comes before her, she can perform no weddings as she had originally chosen, or she can find another line of work. It’s that simple.

This was filed in a state court, as the allegation is that the “public warning” violated a state law. I feel like this will eventually wind up as a federal case, especially if she wins. It’s an open question at this point whether the AG’s office will represent the defense, or the State Commission (which is authorized to defend itself) will do it. All things considered, I’d prefer the latter. This case is going to be a hot mess, so buckle up for it. The Waco Tribune has more.

Last bail lawsuit hearing

At least I assume it’s the last one. I’ve been thinking this was all over but for the formality for months now, so what do I know?

Dianna Williams has witnessed the “collateral damage” of jailing on the fabric of a family. The 61-year-old criminal justice advocate told a federal judge Monday that for generations, her relatives lived paycheck to paycheck and could not afford cash bail when her father and then her brother and her son were held pretrial on low level drug charges.

Mary Nan Huffman offered an opposing take to the judge presiding over a deal upending Harris County money bail for low level offenses. She recounted how her friend was walking with her 3-month-old when a man in a red truck trailed her and later showed up in her yard, masturbating with a knife in his hand. Under the new bail deal, the man would never see a judge and no one would hear that he was a three-time felon who’d been to prison for rape, indecent exposure or kidnapping, said Huffman, a spokesperson for Houston Police Officers’ Union.

Ultimately, the sheriff who oversees the third largest jail in the country sought to assuage fears of constituents on both sides of this contentious issue, telling Chief U.S. District Judge Lee H. Rosenthal the consent decree approved last summer provides fundamental guarantees of justice enshrined in American law and warning against the inclination to let scary scenarios involving particular cases be the foundation of a bail system.

“I don’t think it’s effective for us to develop public policy on outliers,” Sheriff Ed Gonzalez said during the court gathering known as a fairness hearing. “We have to rely on research and facts.”

The hearing attended by six misdemeanor judges who support the historic settlement and three commissioners court members, two of whom oppose it, and about 100 stakeholders lasted three hours, with the judge saying she would consider the input and issue an order soon.

[…]

In a typical class action, a fairness hearing offers class members a chance to express concerns with a settlement. The hearing Monday was unique in that nearly all the speakers were not parties in the lawsuit.

Here’s a preview story of the hearing. I think we all know the basic outline at this point, so all I really care about is when we’ll get the final order from Judge Rosenthal. And then we can relitigate everything in the 2020 elections.

Abbott and Paxton threaten transgender child

I’m utterly speechless.

Top Texas Republicans have directed the state’s child welfare agency to investigate whether a mother who supports her 7-year-old child’s gender transition is committing “child abuse” — a move that has alarmed an already fearful community of parents of transgender children.

Gov. Greg Abbott declared via tweet Wednesday that two state agencies, the Department of Family and Protective Services and the Texas Attorney General’s Office, are looking into a dispute between divorced North Texas parents who disagree on whether their child should continue the process of transitioning from male to female, a path that could culminate, when the child is years older, in medical interventions.

In a letter Thursday to the state’s child welfare agency, First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer declared that the child — who identifies as a girl, according to testimony from a counselor and pediatrician — is “in immediate and irrevocable danger.”

“We ask that you open an investigation into this matter as soon as possible and act pursuant to your emergency powers to protect the boy in question [from] permanent and potentially irreversible harm by his mother,” Mateer wrote, repeatedly referring to the 7-year-old as a boy. Mateer’s nomination to the federal bench was withdrawn in 2017 after revelations that he had called transgender children part of “Satan’s plan.”

A spokesman for DFPS said the agency’s “review of the allegations is already underway.”

The case’s path to public discourse began with the child’s father, Jeff Younger, whose blog has generated a maelstrom of right-wing outrage, including from U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who called the child “a pawn in a left-wing political agenda.” Younger, who also appeared at a rally at the Capitol this spring, does not agree with his ex-wife that his child is transgender. In blog posts, he has claimed his child could face “chemical castration.”

In reality, experts say, the transition process for prepubescent children does not involve medical intervention; instead, it consists of social affirmations like allowing children to wear the clothes they like, employ the names and pronouns they prefer, and paint their nails if they choose. During puberty, a transgender child might, with the consultation of a doctor, begin to take puberty blockers, reversible drugs that can stop puberty and the gender markers that come with it, like a deepening voice, the development of breasts or starting a period. Later on, experts say, transgender young adults might explore the option of surgery.

In a court ruling Thursday that granted the parents joint custody, Dallas Judge Kim Cooks noted that there was never a court order for the child to undergo medical treatment, according to The Dallas Morning News. Indeed, the mother, Anne Georgulas, had requested that Cooks require mutual consent before the child underwent any treatment, the Morning News reported.

So yes, this is Greg Abbott and Ken Paxton and Ted Cruz and the rest getting involved in a marital dispute. Am I the only one who remembers when Republicans claimed to be about getting government out of people’s lives? However true that may have been once, it sure isn’t the case now.

This is nothing short of an authoritarian move by Abbott. The governor appoints the head of the Department of Family and Protective Services. How much faith are you going to have in the outcome of that investigation? Or the investigation by the AG’s office, under Jeff “transgender people are satan’s spawn” Mateer, for that matter? Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned yet that they made the child’s name public, so everyone who agrees with them can force their own opinion on her as well. How lovely.

And all because they disagree with this child’s mother about what the child is allowed to wear, and they had the power to stick their noses in. They won’t stop this child from being transgender, any more than they could stop her from being left-handed or allergic to peanuts. They will cause a lot of damage trying, though. We cannot vote them out of office soon enough.

One thing our state loves spending money on

Defending unconstitutional anti-abortion laws in the courts.

As Texas defends abortion laws in federal court that mandate fetal burials and seek to outlaw certain medical procedures, the state has been ordered to pay pro-abortion attorneys $2.5 million — fortifying women’s reproductive rights groups that have repeatedly sued over restrictions passed by the state Legislature.

The August order from a federal judge in Austin is seemingly the final decision in a high-profile battle over a 2013 Texas abortion law the U.S. Supreme Court eventually struck down as medically unnecessary and thus unconstitutional. The law, which was in effect for three years, required abortion providers to comply with all the regulations for ambulatory surgical centers, forcing many to undergo expensive renovations, and required their physicians to obtain admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

The judge’s order brings the state’s total cost for defending those now-defunct pieces of the law to an estimated $3.6 million.

“Passing regulations that are blatantly unconstitutional, and then wasting people’s resources to fight them, costs money and precious resources and time. And people are harmed in the process,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, an abortion provider and lead plaintiff in the case who notes that half of the state’s abortion clinics closed before the Supreme Court’s 2016 ruling. “That is a precious resource of Texans’ dollars being used toward that.”

Because the state lost the case, U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel ruled it must pay the plaintiffs $2,297,860 attorney’s fees, $170,142 in nontaxable expenses and $95,873 in other costs. The amount represents nearly half of the $4.7 million in costs the plaintiffs say they incurred preparing and trying the case. The Texas attorney general’s office did not contest the judge’s ruling.

The award for the opposing attorneys is more than double the nearly $1.1 million the attorney general’s office reported spending on its own attorney’s salary, overhead, travel expenses and other costs associated with defending the law, according to open records obtained by the Texas Tribune in 2016.

Hardly the first time – that 2016 SCOTUS ruling cost the state even more – and until we get a different government, hardly the last time. The AG’s office declined to comment for the story, but we both know that Ken Paxton would gladly spend down the entire Rainy Day Fund in defense of these laws. It’s not really a cost, as far as they’re concerned. It’s an investment.

On a related note:

[Joe Pojman, executive director of the Texas Alliance for Life which advocates for stiffer abortion regulations,] said anti-abortion advocates need to think long-term if they want to overturn Roe v. Wade, which established legal precedent protecting a woman’s right to an abortion. The long-time activist said he is not confident the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court is favorable to overturning Roe v. Wade — but it could be in a few years.

“We are telling our people that they need to stay focused on re-electing President Donald Trump because he has a track record of nominating justices who are possibly willing to take an honest look at Roe v. Wade,” said Pojman.

I’ve lost count of the number of times that people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000 and people who voted for Jill Stein in 2016 have ridiculed the notion of judicial appointments as an electoral issue. Joe Pojman would like to thank them for their dedication to their principles.

Red flag

This seems like maybe it’s a problem.

A report out Wednesday by the San Antonio Express-News found that a gun owner in Texas had sent more than 100 pages of racist and violent letters to the Texas Attorney General’s office threatening to kill undocumented immigrants over the course of a year and a half, and that nothing was done to stop him or to communicate the threat to local authorities.

“We will open fire on these thugs,” the white man who allegedly sent the messages wrote in an email to the office. “It will be a bloodbath.”

Over the same period, local officers in San Antonio responded to 911 calls made by and about the man, and visited his house, on at least 35 occasions. However, because he had never seemingly committed a crime, police did not arrest him or take legal action. Nearby neighbors told the Express-News that the man’s home is covered in security cameras and that he often emerged holding a shotgun.

When alerted by a reporter at the Express-News of the threats made to the Attorney General’s Office, the police force did respond. “Since you’ve made us aware of those threats, our fusion center and our mental health unit have reached out to the AG’s office and are trying to work something to make a case against [the alleged suspect Ralph] Pulliam,” Sargent Michelle Ramos told the paper. “They’re going to investigate that.”

The threats and lack of communication by Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to local police takes on a new light in the wake of two mass shootings in Odessa and El Paso. The El Paso shooter had long written about his hatred for immigrants and his mother had reportedly called the police before the shooting because she did not think her son should own a gun.

“These messages are clearly threats of deadly force against San Antonians based solely on the color of their skin,” wrote State Representative Trey Martinez Fischer in a letter to Paxton. “It is deeply alarming to me that despite the large volume and explicit nature of the messages from Mr. Pulliam, the Office of Attorney General has taken so long to cooperate with local law enforcement.”

The story was published in the print edition of the Sunday Chronicle, but there’s no link for it yet on the Chron site and the E-N story is behind the paywall, so this is the best I can do. Do bear in mind that Ken Paxton has been actively encouraging people like this to report their complaints to his office, so it’s no wonder he’s being tight lipped about this. Dude’s one of his best customers. In the meantime, while we hope this guy doesn’t follow through on any of the many threats of violence he has made, let’s see if any of our Republican leaders, who have been trying to convince us that they might actually Do Something this time, will at least voice support for disarming this guy. I’m not going to hold my breath.

Here come the Rangers

I don’t know where this is going to go, but it sure will be fun getting there.

Rep. Dennis Bonnen

The Texas House General Investigating Committee voted Monday to request that the Texas Rangers look into allegations against House Speaker Dennis Bonnen and one of his top lieutenants in the lower chamber.

The committee vote, which was unanimous, followed roughly an hour of closed-door deliberations among the five House members who serve on the panel. At issue is whether Bonnen, an Angleton Republican, and state Rep. Dustin Burrows, R-Lubbock, offered hardline conservative activist Michael Quinn Sullivan media credentials for his organization in exchange for politically targeting a list of fellow GOP members in the 2020 primaries.

[…]

State Rep. Morgan Meyer, a Dallas Republican who chairs the House committee, said Monday that the Texas Ranger’s Public Integrity Unit “will conduct an investigation into the facts and circumstances surrounding” that meeting between Sullivan, Bonnen and Burrows. Meyer also requested that the Texas Rangers provide a copy of its final investigative report to the committee at the end of its investigation.

See here for the background. What might happen next could get complicated.

Aside from the quid pro quo aspect of the scandal, exchanging money in the Capitol or directing expenditures from a Capitol office has been a Class A misdemeanor ever since the Legislature reacted to a 1989 public outcry over the late chicken producer Lonnie “Bo” Pilgrim handing out $10,000 checks to nine senators in the Senate chamber during a hearing on workers compensation reform.

Besides the issue of whether there was bribery involved, there are also potential election law crimes, including not disclosing the source of campaign contributions directed by Bonnen. The Texas Democratic Party filed a lawsuit against Sullivan on Thursday, alleging nine different potential criminal violations of the Texas Election Code, each a Class A misdemeanor. The lawsuit seeks to preserve evidence and damages of $100,000.

Given the potential for criminal wrongdoing, what happens next?

First, consider the dramatic changes that the Texas Legislature made to how public corruption cases are handled in Texas. Under a state law passed in 2015, the Travis County public integrity unit no longer has jurisdiction over elected officials at the Capitol. Potential criminal cases must be investigated first by the Texas Rangers. As of Thursday, the Rangers had not been asked to investigate the Bonnen/Sullivan controversy, nor had they initiated an investigation on their own, according to a Texas Department of Public Safety spokesperson.

If the Rangers do investigate and decide further action is warranted, the case is referred to the home county of the public official. That means any corruption charges against Bonnen would have to be brought by the Brazoria County DA. For Burrows, it would be the Lubbock County DA. Travis County would retain jurisdiction only over Sullivan. In cases of multiple jurisdiction, the Texas attorney general’s office can take charge.

Funnily enough, Attorney General Ken Paxton is under indictment on securities fraud charges in his home territory of Collin County. Paxton is accused of failing to register as a securities agent as part of his private law practice. He claims he is innocent and that the case is politically motivated. Paxton counts among his allies the funders of Empower Texans. (The plot always seems to thicken in this scandal.)

You know what this would mean: Special prosecutors would be needed. Nothing could possibly go wrong with that approach. It’s almost as if abolishing the prosecutorial power of the Public Integrity Unit was a bad idea with all kinds of potentially unwanted consequences. We are getting way ahead of ourselves here, so let’s reel it in a bit and say we can’t wait to see what happens next. Ross Ramsey has more.

Lawsuit filed over mail ballot practices

We haven’t had a good voting rights lawsuit in a few months.

In a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday in San Antonio, [two] voters — George Richardson of Brazos County and Rosalie Weisfeld of McAllen — alleged that the state law that allows “untrained local election officials to arbitrarily and subjectively” reject mail-in ballots based on mismatching signatures violates the Fourteenth Amendment, the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.

Joined by groups that represent Texans with disabilities, veterans and young voters, they are asking a federal judge to either block election officials from rejecting mail-in ballots over signature doubts or require Texas to notify voters about an alleged mismatch in time for them to “cure” their ballot.

“Even though Texas’ mail in-ballot process should make voting easier for voters from these underrepresented groups, the current flawed process leads to the unlawful disenfranchisement of these Texas voters,” the lawsuit says.

Like other states, Texas offers voting by mail to various kinds of voters — people with disabilities, Texans who are 65 and older, voters who will be outside of the county during an election, such as college students, and those in jail during an election.

Before they are counted, a committee of local election officials reviews mail-in ballots 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 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.

The lawsuit claims at least 1,873 mail-in ballots were rejected on the basis of mismatched signatures during the 2018 general election; at least 1,567 were rejected in 2016.

See here for the TCRP press release, which contains a link to the lawsuit and a video explaining things. Ideally, this should lead to a settlement. Both parties make use of mail ballots, so it’s not a partisan issue the way voter ID is. And objectively, the standard being applied, such as it is, is ridiculously arbitrary. I can tell you that my signature has changed over the years, from something that was readable as my full name to a basically meaningless scrawl. I noticed it as it was happening, but it happened anyway. I doubt I could replicate one of my older signatures even if I tried. It’s still my hand scrawling it, and it makes no sense that some bureaucrat could decide that it didn’t represent me. I don’t think Ken Paxton’s office knows how to settle lawsuits like this, though, so I expect it to be fought out in the courts. I’ll be keeping an eye on it.

The Harris County bail lawsuit effect on Dallas County

The Trib looks to see if the recent Harris County bail lawsuit settlement might affect the bail lawsuit in Dallas County.

“Anytime one county settles, it could possibly provide a roadmap for another county, but I can’t say that it will,” said Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot, whose county’s bail practices have also been slammed by a federal judge. “The landscape of this lawsuit is different.”

A big piece of that is because Dallas’ lawsuit, like another in Harris and one in Galveston, targets bail practices not only for misdemeanor defendants, but for felony cases, too.

[…]

“I’ve been studying very closely what’s happening in Harris County, and I think that it’s a step in the right direction and something that we should … modify or use as a blueprint for felony cases,” said State District Court Judge Brandon Birmingham, a Democrat and defendant in Dallas’ lawsuit. He was especially interested in the idea of an open-hours court.

Adding felonies to the lawsuit against bail practices in Dallas brought a new complication, however. The judges work for the state, not the county, and are being represented by the Texas attorney general’s office, which claims they have no jurisdiction over early bail decisions. County officials, who are largely Democratic, have said the attorney general’s office, run by Republican Ken Paxton, has stalled settlement talks and reform efforts.

“The fact that felony judges are part of the lawsuit complicates resolution,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, a Democrat. “The AG office’s public positions on criminal justice reform and bail reform are not the same as the Commissioners Court or most of our elected judges.”

The attorney general’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In a court filing last month, Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins wrote that the Dallas lawsuit goes too far by including felony judges. He said bail decisions are set by county judicial officers before felony judges assume jurisdiction over criminal matters.

“Despite tens of thousands of words spilled in this case so far, [the plaintiff] has yet to articulate just what she expects the felony judges to do, going forward, to remedy her alleged harm,” Hawkins wrote.

But things appear to be moving toward resolution. Two district judges, including Birmingham, recently began conducting their own bail hearings every morning and hired a lawyer to represent them instead of the attorney general. Jenkins and Creuzot confirmed that the parties are now headed to mediation to hopefully come up with a settlement proposal or consent decree.

See here for more on the second Harris County lawsuit, the one involving felony cases. It was filed in January and I haven’t seen any updates as yet, nor do I know if the AG’s office has gotten involved. Be that as it may, it seems to me that the underlying principle is the same, and should be viewed through a similar lens by the federal court. This time, Harris will follow behind Dallas, so we’ll see where they lead us.