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Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals

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.

Update on that other vote by mail lawsuit

From Daily Kos:

A federal judge has rejected Republican Secretary of State Ruth Hughs’ motion to dismiss a case brought by several Texas voters and civil rights organizations seeking to expand access to absentee voting for the November general election.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to order the state to prepay the cost of postage; require officials to count ballots postmarked by Election Day and received within a few days afterward (currently, they must be received by the day after the election); prevent the state from using arbitrary standards to reject absentee ballots for allegedly non-matching signatures without giving voters a chance to fix any problems; and allow third parties to collect and turn in completed absentee ballots.

Based on a schedule the judge previously set out, a ruling on plaintiffs’ requests is not likely until after Labor Day.

See here for the background. This lawsuit, unlike the TDP lawsuit that is awaiting action from the Fifth Circuit or the age discrimination lawsuit, which is also on hold pending action with the first lawsuit (info per the DKos Elections Litigation Tracker), is not about who is allowed to vote by mail. It is about the barriers that exist for those who are eligible to vote by mail. Here’s a summary of the plaintiffs’ claims, from the court ruling (the first link in my excerpt above):

First, Plaintiffs challenge Section 86.002 of the Texas Election Code’s failure to provide prepaid postage for mail-in voters. Id.; Tex. Elec. Code § 86.002 (“Postage Tax”). Second, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement mail-in ballots be postmarked by 7:00 p.m. on election day and then received by the county no later than 5:00 p.m. on the day after the election in order to be counted. See Tex. Elec. Code § 86.007 (“Ballot Receipt Deadline”). Third, Plaintiffs challenge the requirement that voters must submit two signature samples that “match,” according to local election officials, in order to have their early voting ballots counted. Id. § 87.027 (“Signature Match Requirement”). Fourth, Plaintiffs challenge the criminalization of a person assisting a voter in returning a marked mail ballot. Id. § 86.006 (“Voter Assistance Ban”).

The effect of this lawsuit, if the plaintiffs prevail, would be to make it easier for the people who can vote by mail to do so, and would likely reduce the number of ballots rejected for not having a legally accepted signature. That would be fairly small in the aggregate, but it would be quite meaningful for some number of people. The defense had also filed a motion opposing an expedited schedule, which the judge (Orlando Garcia, whom you may recall from previous redistricting cases) also rejected. The last filing in that schedule is for September 4, so perhaps we’ll get a ruling not too long after that. I have also read somewhere – it may have been on Daily Kos, I just don’t remember – that the Fifth Circuit is going to expedite the appeals hearing for the TDP vote by mail case, so who knows, maybe we will get some clarity before November. Doesn’t mean it will be good clarity, but it ought to be something.

2020 Primary Runoff Early Voting, Second Wednesday: This is all the vote by mail we’re going to get

I’m going to start this update off with a bummer of a legal analysis from Vox’s Ian Millhiser:

The Texas case, meanwhile, is Texas Democratic Party v. Abbott, and the stakes in that case are simply enormous.

Texas law permits voters over the age of 65 to request absentee ballots without difficulty. But most voters under the age of 65 are not allowed to vote absentee. During a pandemic election, that means that older voters — a demographic that has historically favored Republicans over Democrats — will have a fairly easy time participating in the November election. But younger voters will likely have to risk infection at an in-person polling site if they wish to cast a ballot.

This arrangement is difficult to square with the 26th Amendment, which provides that “the right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on account of age.”

The Court’s order in Texas Democratic Party is subtle, but it most likely means that Texas will be able to deny or abridge the right to vote on account of age, at least during the November election.

Last month, the conservative United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit blocked a trial judge’s order that would have allowed younger Texans to vote absentee. Although this Fifth Circuit order is not the appeals court’s last word on this case, it is quite unlikely that the plaintiffs in Texas Democratic Party will prevail before the Fifth Circuit, which is among the most conservative courts in the country.

So those plaintiffs asked the Supreme Court to hear their case on an expedited basis. On Friday, the Supreme Court denied that request. As a practical matter, writes SCOTUSBlog’s Amy Howe, this refusal to expedite the Texas Democratic Party case “all but eliminated the prospect that the justices will weigh in on the merits of that dispute before the 2020 election in November.”

Thus, even if the Supreme Court ultimately does decide that Texas’s age discrimination violates the 26th Amendment, that decision will almost certainly come too late to benefit anyone in November.

The Supreme Court’s orders in Merrill and Texas Democratic Party fit a pattern. Last April, in Republican National Committee v. Democratic National Committee, the Supreme Court granted a request from the Republican Party, and ordered all ballots mailed after a certain date in Wisconsin’s April elections to be tossed out — a decision that, in practice, likely forced thousands of voters to risk infection in order to cast an in-person ballot.

The Court’s decision in Republican National Committee was also 5-4, with all five Republican justices in the majority and all four Democrats in dissent.

In recent weeks, the Court has handed down a handful of left-leaning decisions — including a narrow decision temporarily preserving the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and an even narrower decision striking down a Louisiana anti-abortion law.

But on the most important question in a democracy — whether citizens are empowered to choose their own leaders — this Supreme Court remains unsympathetic to parties seeking to protect the right to vote, despite the greatest public health crisis in more than a century.

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern drew similar conclusions. None of this means that these cases won’t get heard on their merits – this one, the other one that directly challenged the 65-and-over provision on 26th amendment grounds, and the lawsuit alleging other obstacles to voting – will get their day in court, and the age discrimination claims will have a decent shot at prevailing. Just, not before this election. It’ll happen eventually, in the fullness of time, because obviously there was no pressing need to address this matter now. Who ever heard of such a thing?

Anyway. Here are the updated early vote totals:


Election     Mail    Early   Total   Mail %
===========================================
D primary  19,400   66,318  85,718    22.6%
R primary  20,393   55,489  75,882    26.9%

D runoff   38,066   40,301  78,367    48.6%
R runoff   23,589   11,795  35,384    66.7%

The Wednesday runoff EV file is here, and the final EV turnout report from March is here. Today happened to be a quiet day for mail ballots on the Dem side, but a new high for in person votes. It’s possible Dems will get to 100K by the end of the EV period. My guess is that a large majority of the vote will be cast early, but we’ll see.

No fast track on vote by mail lawsuit

I confess, I hadn’t been aware that this was in the hopper.

The U.S. Supreme Court won’t fast-track a bid by Texas Democrats to decide whether all Texas voters can vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, leaving in place the state’s current regulations for the upcoming July 14 primary runoff election.

But the case, which now returns to a lower court, could be back before the Supreme Court before the higher-stakes, larger-turnout general election in November. Current law allows voters to mail in their ballots only if they are 65 or older, confined in jail, will be out of the county during the election period or cite a disability or illness. But Texas Democrats have argued that voters who are susceptible to contracting the new coronavirus should be able to vote by mail as the pandemic continues to ravage the state.

Thursday’s one-line, unsigned order denying the Democrats’ effort to get a quick ruling comes a week after another minor loss for them at the high court. On June 26, the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a federal judge’s order that would immediately expand vote-by-mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

A spokesperson for the Texas Democratic Party, which brought the case, said the party will “continue to fight tooth and nail for everybody’s right to vote.”

See here for the background, and Rick Hasen for a bit more explanation of what happened. As Michael Li notes, the case now goes back to the Fifth Circuit. I do think this will wind up before SCOTUS prior to November, and the question of the 26th Amendment will be decided, and that’s the more important matter. Given that we’re already voting in the primary runoff and the deadline for requesting a mail ballot has now passed, I don’t think there was much effect of this denial of certiori. If we don’t have an answer for November, that will be a problem.

No relief from SCOTUS on vote by mail

This is not really a surprise.

The U.S. Supreme Court has rejected an initial bid by state Democrats to expand voting by mail to all Texas voters during the coronavirus pandemic.

Justice Samuel Alito — whose oversight of federal courts includes cases coming through Texas — on Friday issued the court’s denial of the Texas Democratic Party’s request to let a federal district judge’s order to expand mail-in voting take effect while the case is on appeal. U.S. District Judge Fred Biery ruled in May that Texas must allow all voters fearful of becoming infected at polling places to vote by mail even if they wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail-in ballots under state election law. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed Biery’s order while Texas appeals his ruling.

The decision means the state’s strict rules to qualify for ballots that can be filled out at home will remain in place for the July 14 primary runoff election, for which early voting starts Monday. Under current law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

Still left pending is the Democrats separate request for the justices to take up their case before the November general election. The party’s case focuses primarily on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

See here for the background. As noted in the story, Justice Sotomayor added a comment saying that she hoped the appeals court would take up the merits of the case in time for November. We’ll see if they’re listening. In the meantime, do what you were going to do for this runoff. Rick Hasen has more.

TDP appeals to SCOTUS on vote by mail

Here we go.

After a series of losses in state and federal courts, Texas Democrats are looking to the U.S. Supreme Court to expand voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

The Texas Democratic Party on Tuesday asked the high court to immediately lift the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals’ block on a sweeping ruling that would allow all Texas voters who are seeking to avoid becoming infecting at in-person polling places to instead vote by mail. Early voting for the July 14 primary runoff election begins on June 29.

The fight to expand who can qualify for a ballot they can fill at home and mail in has been on a trajectory toward the Supreme Court since Texas Democrats, civil rights groups and individual voters first challenged the state’s rules months ago when the new coronavirus reached Texas. Under existing law, mail-in ballots are available only if voters are 65 or older, cite a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period or are confined in jail.

“Our constitution prevents our government from discriminating against voters due to age. Especially during this pandemic, why should we be penalized for being under age 65?” said Brenda Li Garcia, a registered nurse in San Antonio and plaintiff in the case, during a virtual press conference announcing the appeal to the Supreme Court. “To protect a certain group and to give only certain ages the right to vote by mail is arbitrary, discriminatory and unconstitutional.”

[…]

The effect of the Democrat’s request on the upcoming election is uncertain. In their appeal, the Democrats are asking Justice Samuel Alito — who oversees cases coming through the 5th Circuit — to undo the hold on Biery’s order while the runoffs move forward. Democrats are also asking the justices to take up the case on the claim that the state’s age restrictions for voting by mail violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age. If Alito does not immediately allow the lower court’s ruling to go into effect, the Democrats are asking the court for a full review of the case on an expedited timeline.

“Otherwise, millions of Texas voters will face the agonizing choice of either risking their health (and the health of others) to vote in person or relinquishing their right to cast a ballot in two critical elections,” the Democrats said in their filing.

The court is expected to soon go into recess until October.

In order for someone to vote by mail in the July 14 primary runoffs, counties must receive their application for a mail-in ballot by July 2. A favorable decision for Democrats by the Supreme Court by early October could still allow for a massive expansion in voting by mail during the November general election.

See here for the background. You know how I feel, about the merits of this case. The arguments for the state’s restrictions on voting by mail make no sense, not that that matters. I don’t know what effect, if any, this motion will have on the other lawsuits. I’m not going to make any predictions, or get my hopes up. Rick Hasen thinks this is a “risky” move that has the potential to make bad law. We’ll see what happens. The Chron has more.

Fifth Circuit extends block on vote by mail expansion

Not unexpected, unfortunately.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals extended its order Thursday blocking a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

With early voting for the primary runoff elections starting later this month — and the Texas Supreme Court also blocking expanded voting by mail in a separate case —Thursday’s ruling effectively eliminates the possibility that Texas voters will be able to legally request mail-in ballots solely because they fear a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus will put them at risk if they vote in person.

The issue is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery issued a preliminary injunction in late May expanding mail-in voting, but the appellate panel almost immediately put it on administrative hold while awaiting legal briefings from both sides. Thursday’s ruling keeps Biery’s ruling on ice while Texas appeals it.

[…]

Siding with Paxton, the 5th Circuit panel in part found that requiring Texas officials to institute voting by mail for all against their will would present “significant, irreparable harm” to the state. The panel pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s standing that lower federal courts should “ordinarily not alter the election rules on the eve of an election.”

See here and here for the background. As noted in the State Supreme Court ruling, there’s still nothing to prevent someone from requesting and receiving a mail ballot if they claim a disability. It’s just the risk they take if someone like Ken Paxton or a GOP activist charges that their claim is illegal because it’s based on coronavirus concerns. It’s hard to assess that risk, but so far at least nearly all of the people who have requested a mail ballot so far in Harris County are people 65 years old and older.

Rick Hasen breaks down the ruling.

Judge Smith’s opinion simply excoriates the sloppy and poorly written district court decision; it was the most unhelpful way for the district court to have written a decision to be reviewed by a much more conservative 5th circuit.

Judge Smith’s opinion helpfully rejects the argument, which was advanced by a federal district court in Georgia, that these cases raise nonjusticiable political questions. But on the merits, the opinion rejects a challenge to Texas’s absentee voting rules, which allow voters over 65 to vote by mail without an excuse but everyone else must present an excuse (and lack of immunity to Covid-19 does not count under Texas law) to do so. The court held the equal protection challenge was rejected by the Supreme Court in the McDonald case, which rejected a challenge to failing to give pre-trial detainees in Illinois the right to cast an absentee ballot. (I explain why I do not believe McDonald controls in the Covid situation in footnote 171 of this draft.) The court then takes McDonald and applies it directly to reject a 26th amendment age discrimination argument, despite the fact that the 26th amendment was not an issue in that case. The court drops a footnote recognizing that there is a large dispute over the full scope of the amendment.

Judge Ho joined the majority opinion, but spent some pages trying to explain the supposed great risk of voter fraud with mail-in ballots.

Judge Costa concurred only in the result, noting that the district court did not wait for the state courts to first interpret the meaning of Texas’s absentee ballot law. Judge Costa would have said the district court should have abstained, and he would have remanded the case back for reconsideration now that the Texas courts have interpreted the statute in light of Covid. He would not have reached the merits.

There are still the other two federal lawsuits in the works, one of which directly challenges the age restriction on 26th Amendment grounds. I don’t know where they are on the calendar and I’m not sure how to evaluate that bit in Judge Smith’s opinion that Hasen cites, but it’s probably irrelevant for these purposes anyway. We’re too close to the July election for the courts to allow a major change in procedure at this point. There may still be time for that for November, but every day that passes makes that schedule a little bit tighter. For now, proceed as you see fit. Mark Joseph Stern has more.

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.

State Supreme Court issues confusing ruling in vote by mail case

Let’s unpack this.

The Texas Supreme Court on Wednesday ruled that a lack of immunity to the new coronavirus does not qualify a voter to apply for a mail-in ballot.

In the latest twist in the legal fight over voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the court agreed with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that the risk of contracting the virus alone does not meet the state’s qualifications for voting by mail.

“We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a ‘disability’ as defined by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

Texas voters can qualify for mail-in ballots only if they are 65 years or older, have a disability or illness, will be out of the county during the election period, or are confined in jail. The Texas election code defines disability as a “sickness or physical condition” that prevents a voter from appearing in person without the risk of “injuring the voter’s health.”

Though the court sided with Paxton’s interpretation of what constitutes a disability, it indicated it was up to voters to assess their own health and determine if they met the state’s definition.

“The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of ‘disability’,” the court said in its order.

The high court also rejected Paxton’s request to prevent local election officials from sending mail-in ballots to voters who were citing lack of immunity to the coronavirus as a disability. Those officials denied they were operating outside the law and argued they cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus.

When voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot. The state ultimately conceded that officials can’t reject those voters.

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. Let me quote the opening two paragraphs, because the main points of this ruling are right there.

Under the Texas Election Code, qualified voters are eligible to vote by mail only in five specific circumstances.1 One is if the voter has a “disability” as defined by statute.2 In this original proceeding, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, and with elections upcoming in July and November, the parties ask us to determine whether a voter’s lack of immunity from the disease and concern about contracting it at a polling place is a “disability” within the meaning of the statute.3 Petitioner, the State of Texas, argues that the answer is no and seeks mandamus relief prohibiting respondents, five county clerks and election administrators (the Clerks),4 from misinforming the public to the contrary and improperly approving applications for mail-in ballots. The Clerks deny that they have misinterpreted or misapplied the law, either because the State’s position is incorrect or because they have taken no position to the contrary.

Limitations on voting by mail have long been a subject of intense political debate, in this State and throughout the country. We, of course, take no side in that debate, which we leave to legislators and others. The question before us is not whether voting by mail is better policy or worse, but what the Legislature has enacted. It is purely a question of law. Our authority and responsibility are to interpret the statutory text and give effect to the Legislature’s intent. We agree with the State that a voter’s lack of immunity to COVID-19, without more, is not a “disability” as defined by the Election Code. But the State acknowledges that election officials have no responsibility to question or investigate a ballot application that is valid on its face. The decision to apply to vote by mail based on a disability is the voter’s, subject to a correct understanding of the statutory definition of “disability”. Because we are confident that the Clerks and all election officials will comply with the law in good faith, we deny the State’s petition for writ of mandamus.

Emphasis mine, and I’ll get to that in a minute. There’s a discourse on the history of absentee voting in Texas, which was first allowed in 1917, and a summary of the arguments made by all the county clerks. There are three concurring opinions to the main opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Nathan Hecht. I refer you to this Twitter thread by Michael Li highlighting the key points of the majority opinion and noting the differences in the various concurrences.

So what is the practical effect of this decision? First, it basically ends the state lawsuit. While this was a writ of mandamus, and there was never a hearing on the merits of the original case, just a motion to allow voters to request mail ballots in the interim, by defining what is and isn’t a “disability”, the main legal questions have been answered. I expect the hearing in Travis County currently scheduled for after the July election will be cancelled. And of course, there are still the federal lawsuits, which are on a completely different track. This litigation was about the interpretation of state law, the federal lawsuits are about broader voting rights and age discrimination. Whatever happens there will be the ultimate answer for all this.

In the meantime, the Supreme Court’s answer more or less leaves the situation where it was before, with an important caveat. It’s still the case that a voter can request a mail ballot on the grounds of disability, and it’s still the case that their county election administrator has no means or obligation to question that. Look at that bolded sentence from the opinion. The decision to apply for a mail ballot is the voter’s. If you ask for a mail ballot and claim a disability, you will get the mail ballot. As far as that goes and as far as I as a non-lawyer can tell, nothing has changed.

Now for that caveat. The Supreme Court has made it clear what the law is, and what is – or, more to the point, is not – a disability. Your county clerk will send you a mail ballot if you ask for one, but Ken Paxton could have you arrested, or some wingnut activist like Alan Vara could file a complaint against you, if you request one because of COVID concerns. I think the risk of the former is small unless you make yourself a target, but the latter is non-trivial since who gets a mail ballot is a matter of public record. That doesn’t mean that your local DA will agree to press charges, or that they would be able to get a conviction, but who wants to deal with that? We know how vindictive the legal system can be to people charged with violations of the electoral code, especially to voters of color. I’m planning to vote in person regardless, but if I had been thinking about applying for a mail ballot, this would definitely make me reconsider. You have to decide for yourself what your risk of exposure is.

Rick Hasen, writing in Slate, summarizes the position potential absentee voters are in:

Again, this is a recipe for disaster. It will lead Paxton to publicize the argument that lack of immunity and fear of getting the disease is not a valid excuse to vote by mail, and that anyone who advises someone else to claim disability to vote by mail is engaged in a criminal conspiracy to commit voter fraud. Some voters may get in trouble because they could be accused of voting by mail while understanding that it is illegal. Only the ignorant can vote by mail without fear of prosecution, assuming they can later prove their ignorance. Meanwhile, if a voter has a serious underlying condition or comorbidity that increases the risk of serious complications—or death—from COVID-19, the ruling fails to give guidance on whether she is allowed to cite the condition in lawfully voting by-mail in order to avoid the risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. This would seem to leave open the possibility for Paxton to frighten possibly qualifying voters into not voting, or to go after those who do.

That said, and as Hasen notes, there is still the federal litigation, and I expect we’ll get some action on those cases soon. By this time next week the whole thing could be flipped on its head. And of course if you are 65 or over, there is nothing stopping you from applying for a mail ballot if you want one. My advice at this point is don’t panic, don’t freak out, and for sure don’t lose hope. This isn’t over, not by a long shot. The DMN has more.

UPDATE: The following is quoted with permission from a lawyer friend of mine, who sent me a copy of the opinion and answered my questions as I was prepping this:

It doesn’t automatically end the state litigation, but for all practical purposes it does. No litigant can argue now that a lack of immunity by itself is a disability after this decision. (Technically, there are different lawsuits on file and each of them may involve some motions and litigation on just what this means.) It’s clear than Nathan Hecht considered this an important legal question that needed to be answered, and this is his way of answering the question definitively. The Court did a pretty good job of splitting the baby with an analysis that reaches the conclusion sought by Paxton, ends the litigation, and provides deniability that their analysis is partisan.

I think the most pressing question is whether voters who consider themselves disabled will be the final judge of their own condition, or whether the State has the authority to prosecute individual voters. I’ve now skimmed the opinions and notice that Jeff Boyd’s concurring opinion says: “Voters who claim to have a disability under section 82.002(a) merely because they lack immunity to COVID-19 or have a fear or concern about contracting the virus would do so in violation of the statute.”

Now we wait for what I hope will be clarity and a better outcome from the federal cases.

UPDATE: Here’s the Chron story.

Fifth Circuit flips the switch

It’s what they do.

A federal appeals court has temporarily put on hold a lower court’s sweeping ruling that would have allowed all Texas voters to qualify to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday blocked a preliminary injunction issued just a day before by U.S. District Judge Fred Biery. The move could prove to be a temporary win for the state. The appellate panel granted what’s known as an administrative stay, which only stops Biery’s ruling from taking effect while the court considers if it will issue an injunction nullifying it during the entire appeals process.

Also on Wednesday afternoon, Paxton’s office tried to convince the Texas Supreme Court to issue an order blocking local election officials in Texas from facilitating efforts by voters obtain absentee ballots if they fear getting sick from voting in person. The court did not issue a ruling, but it grappled with the question of who gets to decide if a voter has a disability under Texas election law.

[…]

In issuing the preliminary injunction, Biery cited the irreparable harm voters would face if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remained in place for elections held while the new coronavirus remains in wide circulation. In his request to the 5th Circuit, Paxton argued that Biery’s injunction threatened “irreparable injury” to the state “by injecting substantial confusion into the Texas voting process mere days before ballots are distributed and weeks before runoff elections.”

The appeals court ordered the Democrats to file a response to the state’s request to block the ruling by Thursday afternoon.

See here for the background. I mean, this was to be expected, so let’s move on to the other thing that happened yesterday, also from this story.

In a virtual hearing Wednesday, the justices’ interrogations of Paxton’s lawyer and those representing the counties returned frequently to a gaping hole in Paxton’s request — when voters cite disability to request an absentee ballot, they’re not required to say what the disability is. The voters simply check a box on the application form, and if their application is properly filled out, locals officials are supposed to send them a ballot.

Texas Solicitor General Kyle Hawkins conceded to the court that officials cannot deny ballots to voters who cite a disability — even if their reasoning is tied to susceptibility to the coronavirus. Hawkins said the state was only arguing for applications to be rejected if a voter wrote in extraneous information on their application that indicated they feared infection but were “otherwise healthy.”

Local election officials can reject an application if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disabilities. They argued as much in briefs filed to the court ahead of the hearing.

“These officials move the Court to mandamus local election officials to do something the Legislature has never required of them: police voter disability claims for mail in balloting,” El Paso County argued in its brief.

Conducting an inquiry into individual voters’ reasons for checking the disability box could violate both state and federal law, Cameron County officials argued in their brief. In its brief, Dallas County argued Paxton’s request would force election administrators to look “behind the claimed disability in each case” or require a voter to include information the nature of their disability in their applications — both of which would go beyond the Texas Election Code.

Still, the solicitor general asked the court to order election officials to abide by the state’s direction that fear of the virus or lack of immunity to the virus cannot constitute a disability under the election code, and they cannot encourage voters to request a mail-in ballot on that basis.

Barbara Nichols, an attorney representing Dallas County, argued it was unnecessary for the Supreme Court to order anything of the county’s election administrator because she had not indicated she would go beyond existing laws for voting by mail.

“As we sit here right now, your honor, the election administrator has not take any action whatsoever in which to justify the exercise of jurisdiction over her,” Nichols said. “And the state cannot point to any such evidence in the record.”

See here for the previous update. Harris County was also a respondent in this hearing – I have a copy of their brief here. I mean, the law here is pretty clear, so much so that even the Solicitor General had to admit it. The question is, what will the Supreme Court do about it? I will note that this is a writ of mandamus, not an appellate action, so they could just swat it away and let the lower courts do their thing before they weigh in. Remember, the state lawsuit hasn’t even been heard yet, we’ve just had a ruling on the motion to allow people to apply for mail ballots while the litigation is in progress. Just take a pass, that’s all I’m saying. We’ll see what they say. The Chron and the Signal have more.

Federal court issues order to allow voting by mail

Here we go again.

A federal judge opened a path for a massive expansion in absentee voting in Texas by ordering Tuesday that all state voters, regardless of age, qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Days after a two-hour preliminary injunction hearing in San Antonio, U.S. District Judge Fred Biery agreed with individual Texas voters and the Texas Democratic Party that voters would face irreparable harm if existing age eligibility rules for voting by mail remain in place for elections held while the coronavirus remains in wide circulation. Under his order, which the Texas attorney general said he would immediately appeal, voters under the age of 65 who would ordinarily not qualify for mail-in ballots would now be eligible.

Biery’s ruling covers Texas voters “who seek to vote by mail to avoid transmission of the virus.”

In a lengthy order, which he opened by quoting the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, Biery said he had concerns for the health and safety of voters and stated the right to vote “should not be elusively based on the whims of nature.”

“Two hundred forty-years on, Americans now seek Life without fear of pandemic, Liberty to choose their leaders in an environment free of disease and the pursuit of Happiness without undue restrictions,” Biery wrote.

“There are some among us who would, if they could, nullify those aspirational ideas to return to the not so halcyon and not so thrilling days of yesteryear of the Divine Right of Kings, trading our birthright as a sovereign people for a modern mess of governing pottage in the hands of a few and forfeiting the vision of America as a shining city upon a hill,” he said.

[…]

The Democrats argued that the age limitation violates the U.S. Constitution because it would impose additional burdens on voters who are younger than 65 during the pandemic, and Biery agreed. Biery also found the plaintiffs were likely to succeed in proving the rules violate the 26th Amendment’s protections against voting restrictions that discriminate based on age.

In a statement, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said he would seek immediate review of the ruling by the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

“The district court’s opinion ignores the evidence and disregards well-established law,” Paxton said.

In ruling against the state, Biery cast aside arguments made by Paxton’s office that he should wait until a case in state district court is fully adjudicated. In that case, state District Judge Tim Sulak ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under the state election code. The Texas Supreme Court put that ruling on hold last week.

During a hearing last week in federal court, Biery scrutinized the state’s argument that it had a significant interest in enforcing existing absentee voting requirements to preserve “the integrity of its election” and to prevent voter fraud.

The attorney general’s office had submitted testimony from the long-winding litigation over the state’s voter ID law that touched on instances of fraud involving the mail ballots of voters who are 65 or older or voters in nursing homes.

“So what’s the rational basis between 65 and 1 day and one day less than 65?” Biery asked.

In his ruling, Biery said the state had cited “little or no evidence” of widespread fraud in states where voting by mail is more widely used.

“The Court finds the Grim Reaper’s scepter of pandemic disease and death is far more serious than an unsupported fear of voter fraud in this sui generis experience,” Biery said. “Indeed, if vote by mail fraud is real, logic dictates that all voting should be in person.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the order is here, and I recommend you read it, because the judge is clearly not having it with the state’s arguments. Let me just say, the hypocrisy of the state’s case, in particular their pathetic wails of “voter fraud!”, is truly rich. I for one am old enough to remember when Texas passed its heavily restrictive and burdensome voter ID law, in which voting by mail – which at the time was primarily the purview of Republicans – was specifically exempted, a fact noted by the various plaintiffs in the lengthy litigation against that odious law. The Republican argument at the time was that voter ID was needed to combat “voter fraud”, yet those same Republicans saw no need to include any similar requirement for those who voted by mail, presumably because they had no concerns about “fraud” from those voters. And now they want to claim voting by mail is a threat to election integrity? I’m sorry, but that’s all kinds of bullshit and it deserves to be labeled as such.

Now, none of this means that Paxton’s handmaidens at the Fifth Circuit will care about that. As nice as this ruling is, I figure we have a day, maybe two, before that cesspool rubber stamps an emergency petition from the AG to put this ruling on hold. I will of course be delighted to be proven wrong, but I know better than to invest any faith in the Fifth Circuit. So enjoy this for now, but don’t go counting any chickens just yet. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: Rick Hasen provides more objective reasons why the Fifth Circuit will likely put a hold on this order.

Abortion clinics say “ban’s over, we’re back”

I’m sure this will be left alone.

Right there with them

Texas clinics resumed offering abortions Wednesday after a strict bar on nonessential medical procedures was loosened at midnight.

The ban on nearly all abortions in Texas has been the subject of weeks of litigation — starting in late March when the governor postponed all surgeries not “immediately medically necessary” to preserve medical resources for coronavirus patients. Attorney General Ken Paxton said the ban extends to abortions, and the politically conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has largely sided with state officials.

The legal fight is ongoing. Abortion providers have accused state officials of political opportunism, saying abortions rarely result in hospitalization and require little or no protective equipment.

A new order from Republican Gov. Greg Abbott that took effect Wednesday allows more procedures to resume in health care facilities that agree to reserve a certain number of beds for coronavirus patients and to refrain from seeking scarce protective equipment from public sources.

Abbott demurred when asked last week if abortions could proceed under his latest directive, saying it was a decision for the courts and “not part of this order.”

But abortion providers said Wednesday that they meet the criteria he laid out.

See here and here for the background. I assume this will wind up in court again, and the main question will be what ridiculous justifications the Fifth Circuit will come up with to agree with the state’s position. Until then, this is where we are today.

UPDATE: It appears that the state has agreed that the expiration of the order means that there is no further restriction on abortions. So that’s a relief.

Fifth Circuit flips off abortion rights again

I’m so sick of this shit.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court has again banned most abortions in Texas amid the coronavirus pandemic, though the ruling will only be in effect for two days.

The ruling on Monday by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals prohibits medication and surgical abortions for nearly all women except those nearing the state’s 22-week legal gestational limit to obtain one. The court had ruled last week that medication abortions could proceed.

But the court’s ruling will expire Tuesday night.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott issued a new order loosening restrictions on nonessential surgical procedures — presumably including abortions — starting Wednesday, though neither he nor Attorney General Ken Paxton have clarified how abortions will be impacted.

Abbott’s original order restricted procedures to only those that require “immediate” response to protect a life or serious adverse medical outcome. The new order replaces “immediate” with “timely.” Physicians are left to determine whether the criteria is met.

Paxton has no plans to clarify how the new order applies to abortions, according to a spokeswoman. He has previously threatened criminal action against doctors who perform them during the ban.

In its ruling, the Fifth Circuit said medication abortions use masks and other critical protective gear needed for frontline doctors to respond to the coronavirus crisis. Abortion providers are required to meet with patients before and after providing them pills to terminate a pregnancy, the court wrote, and should be wearing protective gear during those visits.

“The question, then, is not whether medication abortions consume (personal protective equipment) in normal times, but whether they consume PPE during a public health emergency involving a spreading contagion that places severe strains on medical resources,” it wrote.

It was one week ago that the court allowed medical abortions to continue, so if you’re feeling some whiplash, you’re not alone. It boggles my mind that restrictions could be re-imposed by the court at a time when they are being eased up by the state, but that’s Fifth Circuit logic for you. What happens tomorrow when this order expires? Who the hell knows? It’s been bullshit from beginning to end. If we ever want to get off this demonic roller coaster, it’s going to require a new Governor and a new Attorney General, at the very least. The Trib has more.

Abbott and Paxton continue to play politics with abortion

This is exactly the problem with that Fifth Circuit ruling.

Right there with them

Though Gov. Greg Abbott loosened a ban on nonessential surgeries, he said Friday it would be up to courts to decide if his order restores access to abortions — the subject of a weekslong legal brawl — as the state continues to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

“Ultimately, obviously that will be a decision for courts to make,” Abbott said, adding, that an allowance for abortion is “not part of this order. The way that the order is written is in terms of what doctors write about the type of treatment that is provided.”

The Republican governor issued an order last month barring medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary” to preserve protective equipment and hospital beds for coronavirus patients. His directive extends through April 21 and Abbott said Friday the restrictions would be relaxed starting April 22.

But Attorney General Ken Paxton has declared Abbott’s first order applies to all abortions except those needed to protect the life or health of the woman. The near-total ban prompted a lawsuit from abortion providers, who accused state officials of political opportunism and argued the procedure does not usually require hospitalization nor extensive protective gear.

See here for the last entry. This is exactly what I meant when I said that if all it takes is a declaration of an emergency for the state to shutter abortion clinics, then there is no right to abortion in Texas and the law as it now exists is a sham. Abbott is on the one hand saying that we can start easing up on shutdown orders and we have plenty of hospital capacity (not that abortion has anything but a negligible effect on that), but hey, it’s not up to him to decide whether any of this means that reproductive health care can go back to its usual business even if other medical services that are deemed “non-essential” can resume. It’s cynical and chickenshit on his part, and it again shows that there has to be some kind of consistency. And it again shows why the Fifth Circuit sucks.

Fifth Circuit allows medical abortions to proceed

Well, this is a pleasant surprise.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Monday blocked Texas from enforcing a ban on medication-induced abortions as part of the state’s curbs on certain medical procedures during the coronavirus pandemic.

As a result of fast-moving litigation over Texas’s abortion restrictions, women seeking to terminate an unwanted pregnancy may do so through the use of medicine, but only women nearing their 22nd week of pregnancy may undergo a surgical abortion.

In its Monday ruling, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals said it sided against Texas because it was unclear if the state’s public health order halting nonessential medical procedures applied to medication-induced abortions.

“[Abortion providers] argue that medication abortions are not covered by [the order] because neither dispensing medication nor ancillary diagnostic elements, such as a physical examination or ultrasound, qualify as ‘procedures,’” the three-judge panel wrote.

“Given the ambiguity in the record, we conclude on the briefing and record before us that [Texas officials] have not made the requisite strong showing [necessary for] relief,” the panel said.

The panel’s decision partially reinstates a lower court ruling that limited the Texas health order’s impact on abortions.

Following the 5th Circuit’s ruling, abortion providers on Tuesday withdrew an application submitted to the Supreme Court over the weekend that had asked the justices to intervene.

See here and here for the background. It’s still far less than great, in that it accepts the premise that abortions aren’t essential health care and can be routinely delayed for political reasons, but at least it recognizes that dispensing medication is in no way a threat to the supply of PPEs. From this godforsaken court, that counts as a ringing victory. SCOTUSBlog and the Trib have more.

And so we go to SCOTUS

Pardon me while I gird my loins for whatever happens next.

Right there with them

Texas abortion providers have taken a back-and-forth legal battle with the state of Texas over its temporary ban on the procedure to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The groups on Saturday requested an emergency stay from the high court, asking that it overturn a federal appeals court decision and allow medication-induced abortion services, and surgical abortions in limited circumstances, while the case proceeds.

The request comes amid the longest period that women in the state have ever been without access to abortion since the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade case that legalized the procedure, as the more than two-weeklong legal saga continues.

The battle began when Gov. Greg Abbott on March 22 banned elective surgeries during the coronavirus state of disaster in a move intended to conserve personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic, and the groups quickly filed suit. The Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who is representing the state, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Saturday.

The state has argued that personal protective equipment would still be needed with medication abortions and that those could even require hospitalizations if complications followed. Paxton said in an interview with CBS on Wednesday that he figured that the case would rise to the nation’s highest court.

Legal battles are brewing in several other states where abortion rights groups have sued over similar bans, including Alabama, Ohio and Oklahoma, but Texas’ case is the first to reach the Supreme Court.

See here for the previous update. It’s possible that SCOTUS will react the way they did following the recent Louisiana case where that state passed an anti-abortion law nearly identical to the one SCOTUS had struck down from Texas in the Whole Women’s Health decision, with the message going to the Fifth Circuit that “you don’t get to overturn Roe v Wade, only we get to do that” (hat tip to Dahlia Lithwick for the concept). If that’s the case, they’ll allow the hold on the executive order to stay in place until they can rule on the issue, in which case they have whatever rein they want to restrict abortions. I mean, let’s be clear, if all it takes to shut down clinics across the state is for the governor to declare a state of emergency, then what’s stopping him from declaring a permanent state of emergency? Or at least saying that until there’s a broad-based coronavirus vaccine that meets whatever arbitrary standard of effectiveness that Texas would choose, all such restrictions must stay in place? A right is not a right if it can be revoked on a whim, and there has to be some clear and compelling reason for it to be restricted in the first place. We’ll see what SCOTUS makes of this, but we need to be prepared for some bad news.

Do I need to tell you that the Fifth Circuit did it again?

I’m going to tell you anyway, because it’s what happened.

Right there with them

In the latest turn of a whiplash-inducing federal court battle over Texas GOP officials’ near-total ban on abortion during the novel coronavirus outbreak, a federal appeals court on Friday once again lent support to state officials and prohibited the procedure under all but a few narrow circumstances.

For now, the higher court said, the only patients who may terminate their pregnancies in Texas are those who would pass the legal gestational limit for abortions while a gubernatorial emergency order barring elective medical procedures remains in place. The news comes just a day after a federal district judge in Austin ordered that those patients, as well as others planning to undergo “medication abortions,” which involve ingesting pills, should be permitted to terminate their pregnancies as planned.

Texans bans abortions starting 22 weeks after a patient’s last menstrual period, meaning some patients would have been unable to terminate their pregnancies at all.

Providers said the newest order from the federal appeals court makes abortion “largely inaccessible” and said they will weigh every legal option — including seeking emergency relief from the U.S. Supreme Court.

“The court is unjustifiably forcing women to wait until the 11th hour to get the time-sensitive, essential healthcare that they are constitutionally guaranteed,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights. “We will pursue all legal options to ensure no women are left behind.”

Already, hundreds of patients have seen their planned abortions disrupted, and providers have been thrust into uncertainty as the legal status of the procedures they perform has changed as many as three times during a single week.

The litigation is far from complete, with deadlines as soon this weekend for attorneys on both sides of the case to make more arguments before the court.

See here for the previous update. Someone whose galaxy brain is bigger than mine is going to have to explain to me the rationale for banning medication abortions, since as far as I can tell that imposes no burden on the healthcare system. I don’t know what else there is to say. The Chron has more.

Abortion ban partially lifted

Here we go again.

Right there with them

In a second rebuke to Texas GOP officials who have said a ban on nearly all abortions is essential as the state battles the novel coronavirus, a federal judge in Austin ruled Thursday that some abortions may proceed.

U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel narrowed Texas’ prohibition to allow certain abortions to proceed while a gubernatorial emergency order barring medical procedures that are not “immediately medically necessary” still stands. The ruling will allow Texas abortion providers to proceed with medication abortions — which involve patients ingesting pills and do not consume scarce medical protective equipment — as well as procedural abortions for patients who risk meeting the state’s gestational age cutoff for abortions before Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order is lifted.

[…]

Abbott’s emergency order is set to expire later this month, but it may be extended as the state prepares for a peak in coronavirus cases that may not come for weeks. In Texas, abortions are prohibited starting 22 weeks after a patient’s last menstrual period — meaning even if Abbott’s order lifts in April, patients who wait might not have the opportunity to obtain a legal abortion in Texas at all.

U.S. 5th Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan had said the order was best understood not as an “absolute ban” but as a “temporary postponement” in line with delays for many medical procedures, like colonoscopies. But Yeakel argued that because abortions, unlike colonoscopies, are time-limited, “to women in these categories, the executive order is an absolute ban on abortion.”

See here for the last update. If you’re feeling a little whiplashed, I understand. I also caution you to hold on, because this revised restraining order is headed right back to the Fifth Circuit, where we will see if this is what they had in mind, or if they move the goalposts again. I’m not making any predictions. The Chron has more.

The Fifth Circuit sticks the shiv the rest of the way in

The worst court in the country does its thing again.

Right there with them

A New Orleans-based federal appeals court will, for now, allow Texas to enforce a ban on almost all abortions as the state battles the coronavirus pandemic.

Overturning the decision of a lower court, a three-judge panel on the politically conservative U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the state may continue to prohibit all abortions except those for patients whose pregnancies threaten their lives or health — a restriction GOP state officials have insisted is necessary for preserving scarce hospital resources for COVID-19 patients.

Citing precedent from the U.S. Supreme Court, U.S. Circuit Judge Kyle Duncan, an appointee of President Donald Trump, wrote that “individual rights secured by the Constitution do not disappear during a public health crisis, but … Rights could be reasonably restricted during those times.”

“When faced with a society-threatening epidemic, a state may implement emergency measures that curtail constitutional rights so long as the measures have at least some ‘real or substantial relation’ to the public health crisis and are not ‘beyond all question, a plain, palpable invasion of rights secured by the fundamental law,’” he wrote.

U.S. Circuit Judge James Dennis, appointed to the court by Bill Clinton, dissented.

Abortion providers have characterized the state’s lawsuit as political opportunism. Most abortions do not take place in hospitals, and according to providers, they generally do not require extensive personal protective equipment, like the masks and gloves in short supply for doctors and nurses fighting COVID-19.

[…]

Duncan said Yeakel was wrong to characterize Abbott’s order as an outright ban on abortions.

“Properly understood,” he wrote, the executive order is a “temporary postponement” of many procedures, like colonoscopies.

But Texas bans abortions after 20 weeks, meaning prohibiting the procedure for any length of time leaves many patients unable to terminate their pregnancies at all. Abbott’s order is set to expire April 21 but can be extended.

The case now heads back to federal court in Austin, where a hearing is scheduled next week. The 5th Circuit had already paused Yeakel’s order blocking the ban, but Tuesday’s opinion threw it out entirely.

Further litigation is all but guaranteed. States including Ohio, Oklahoma and Alabama have imposed bans similar to Texas’, and similar lawsuits are playing out across the country.

See here for the background. I don’t know why there’s any pretense that the Fifth Circuit is an unbiased arbiter of the law. They rubber-stamp these appeals on the flimsiest of pretexts. I don’t know if they honestly believe there’s no difference between an abortion and a colonoscopy or if they just think we’re too stupid to understand the difference. The sheer arrogance of it is breathtaking. If Democrats manage to beat Trump and take the Senate in November, I’d be in favor of appointing about a hundred new judges to this court, to ensure as best as possible there’s never another Republican majority on any three-judge panel. This crap cannot continue.

The Fifth Circuit does what the Fifth Circuit always does

The fix, as ever, is in.

Right there with them

A federal appeals court on Tuesday temporarily reinstated Texas’s ban on abortions amid the coronavirus outbreak, saying it needs time to review arguments about its impact.

The ruling is the latest in a ricocheting legal battle that began last week after the governor postponed non-essential surgeries, and the attorney general declared abortions to be included.

The Republican-led state is one of several that have moved to block abortions, arguing that providers are draining critical medical supplies that could be used to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two of the conservative justices on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals issued the ruling, and gave both sides until Friday to respond, meaning the ban will remain in effect at least through this week.

In a dissent, Circuit Judge James Dennis noted that a federal judge in Austin had declared a day earlier that “irreparable harm would flow from allowing the (governor’s) order to prohibit abortions during this critical time.”

See here for the background. I wish these predictions weren’t so easy to make, but this is literally what the Fifth Circuit does. I’m going to go walk my dog and hurl curses in their direction. You go read Mark Joseph Stern and Mother Jones for more details about this.

Latest abortion ban halted for now

We follow the script.

Right there with them

A federal judge on Monday temporarily blocked Texas’ ban on abortions, a prohibition state officials said was necessary to preserve medical resources during the coronavirus pandemic.

The ruling came less than a week after Texas abortion providers announced a lawsuit against top state officials, challenging Attorney General Ken Paxton’s assertion that Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive order banning all procedures deemed to be not medically necessary should be interpreted to include abortions.

The court granted the abortion providers’ motion to temporarily block the state from enforcing the order, which was set to expire April 21, as it relates to abortions. The temporary restraining order will expire April 13.

“Regarding a woman’s right to a pre-fetal-viability abortion, the Supreme Court has spoken clearly,” wrote U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “There can be no outright ban on such a procedure.”

Yeakel also wrote that people seeking abortions would “suffer serious and irreparable harm” if the ban were allowed and that temporarily blocking the executive order “will not disserve the public interest.”

“The attorney general’s interpretation of the Executive Order prevents Texas women from exercising what the Supreme Court has declared is their fundamental constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before a fetus is viable,” Yeakel wrote.

See here for the background. The next page of this script is the state appealing to the Fifth Circuit, and the Fifth Circuit inventing some reason to give the state what it asked for. After that it gets a little murky, but by then it almost doesn’t matter because the state gets to do what it wants in the interim. In theory, once the emergency order is lifted then the justification for this ban goes away, but if you don’t think there’s some way that Abbott and Paxton might try to work around that, you’re not thinking hard enough. The Current and Slate have more.

ACLU sues the “abortion sanctuary cities”

This was expected.

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

The next round in the Motor Voter 2.0 lawsuit

Score one for the plaintiffs.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

Finding Texas in violation of federal law, a U.S. judge gave civil rights lawyers a small win Thursday — fueling hopes of a wider victory in a continuing fight over the state’s online voter registration practices.

U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia said the 1993 National Voter Registration Act requires that Texans be able to register to vote at the same time they go online to renew or update a driver’s license.

Visitors to the Department of Public Safety website, however, must click through to another website, download a form, print it out, fill it in and mail it to their county registrar — extra steps that violate the federal law’s “motor voter” provision designed to encourage voter participation, Garcia said in a written order.

“Congress lifted these burdens to make voter registration easier, not more confusing and difficult,” he wrote.

Noting that Monday is the deadline to register to vote in the March 3 primaries, Garcia limited the scope of his order. He required state officials to update the voter registrations of three Texans who sued over the motor voter law, using the information already provided to DPS when they renewed their driver’s licenses.

Longer-term solutions remain under consideration and will be ruled on in the future, the judge said.

See here for the background. An earlier storylaid out the arguments.

Pressing for speedy action with a key voting deadline only days away, civil rights lawyers returned to federal court Tuesday to argue that Texas continues to violate a U.S. law designed to make voter registration easier.

Under the “motor voter” provision of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act, Texans who renew their driver’s license online must be allowed to simultaneously register to vote or update their registration with a new address, Beth Stevens with the Texas Civil Rights Project argued.

For years, however, Texas has required potential voters to take extra steps in violation of the law, Stevens said, urging U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia to take action against the state.

“It will refuse to comply with federal law until it is forced to do so, Texas voters be damned,” Stevens said during a 2½-hour hearing in Garcia’s San Antonio courtroom.

Under the state system, Stevens estimated, more than 735 Texans lost the right to vote in 2018.

[…]

The Texas Civil Rights Project recently filed a new lawsuit with three voters who had moved, renewed their driver’s license online but are still registered to vote at their old address. Two nonprofits, MOVE Texas and the League of Women Voters of Texas, also joined the newest lawsuit, arguing that they have standing because they are forced to spend time and money signing up voters who should have been able to update their registrations on the DPS website.

Stevens said the new lawsuit still seeks to require simultaneous voter registration, but she asked Garcia to issue an order no later than Friday to require state officials to let the three plaintiffs register to vote using the information already provided to DPS to renew their driver’s licenses.

Monday is the last day to register to vote in the March 3 Texas primaries, she noted.

The state argues that nothing is stopping these three people from registering by other means. That’s true, but also not the point. The point is that the law says that they are supposed to be registered this way. In the initial lawsuit, the Fifth Circuit said the plaintiffs didn’t have standing because by the time the lawsuit was filed they had been registered and thus there was no injury claim to remediate. If that’s the case, then the state is arguing that the plaintiffs should invalidate their own case. As we now see, that didn’t work. I would expect the court to rule in the plaintiffs’ favor on the larger question at some future date, and from there we’ll see if the Fifth Circuit admits that they fixed the problem with the first lawsuit or finds some other pretext to throw out this one. In the meantime, kudos to all for a job well done. A press release from the Texas Civil Rights Project is here, and from the TDP is here.

“Motor voter” lawsuit 2.0

Try, try again, this time hopefully addressing the cause of the Fifth Court of Appeals’ rejection of the first lawsuit.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

The first time former English professor Jarrod Stringer was told he couldn’t vote in a Texas election, he sued. A federal appeals court tossed his case on a technicality, but one of the judges ended up admonishing state officials to not let it happen again.

Yet it did, and now Stringer and other frustrated Texans are taking the state back to federal court.

In a federal lawsuit filed Tuesday in San Antonio, they are arguing anew that the state continues to disenfranchise an unknown number of voters by violating the motor voter law, a federal requirement that people be allowed to complete voter registration when they get a driver’s license. Stringer is the lead plaintiff in the second legal chapter of a fight over Texas’ resistance to online voter registration.

The state allows driver’s licenses applicants to complete their voter registration when they physically appear at a Texas Department of Public Safety office, but does not allow the same result when residents update or renew licenses online. At least 1.5 million Texans use the state’s online driver’s license portal a year, according to Stringer’s lawyers, though it’s unclear how many also attempt to re-register.

Stringer first encountered the prohibition after moving back to his hometown of San Antonio in 2014. He updated his driver’s license and mistakenly thought he had re-registered to vote at the same time. But after standing in line at an early voting polling place set up on the University of Texas at San Antonio campus, he discovered he was not on the voter roll.

“Having the option to vote was something that I have taken seriously,” Stringer said in an interview. “Voting is just a fundamental act of expression of citizenship.”

[…]

In their new lawsuit, Stringer, two other voters, along with two nonprofits that work to register Texans to vote, have revived the arguments from the first lawsuit, pressing virtually the same legal claims that prompted Garcia’s initial favorable ruling.

This time, to avoid the legal pitfall over standing to sue, Stringer and the other voters in the case are filing their legal challenge while remaining off the voter rolls in the counties where they now live, and Stringer has noted that he has plans to move in 2020 — a point at which he will again run into the limitations of the online DPS system.

But while they’re working to address the issues found by the 5th Circuit last year, the Texas Civil Rights Project doesn’t plan to ask the plaintiffs to sit out the upcoming election. With the three individual voters in the case expected to reregister before the Feb. 3 deadline for the March primaries, the lawsuit could ultimately serve as a test case of what sacrifices a voter must make at the ballot box to challenge a system that they see as impeding their access to it.

In the interest of not quoting the whole story I cut out a bunch in the middle that recapped the first lawsuit and why it was dismissed – you can read this post for my own link-filled “previously on…” segment. This story reminded me that the Fifth Circuit wasn’t necessarily hostile to the first lawsuit, perhaps just overly pedantic. If that’s the case, and this isn’t a “Lucy and Charlie Brown and the football” situation, then maybe we can get a different result. There’s every reason to believe that the district court will rule in favor of the plaintiffs again. The question is what happens after that. With any luck, we’ll find out soon.

Stockman denied on appeal

At least one thing in this world is still righteous and wholesome.

Best newspaper graphic ever

A federal appeals court summarily rejected what it called a “self-serving” appeal by disgraced former U.S. Congressman Steve Stockman, finding the lower court properly convicted him of 23 felony counts in a massive fraud scheme involving illegal spending of more than $1 million in charitable donations.

The 5th U.S. Circuit on Friday slammed the “somewhat tortuous” argument by the ex-lawmaker that the trial judge erred by failing to acquit him and by improperly instructing jurors. The 18-page opinion was riddled with stinging barbs.

Stockman’s lawyer picked apart the lengthy jury instructions on appeal, but the court said those arguments were “confected on a foundation of sand” and found “ample support” for conviction. Each of six claims that the trial judge improperly instructed the jury lacked merit, the appellate panel found, in an opinion dripping with sarcasm.

“Stephen E. Stockman served four years in Congress and now faces ten years in prison,” begins the opinion written by Sen. U.S. Judge E. Grady Jolly. “He seeks to avoid this career detour.”

The opinion goes onto say that the Republican ex-congressman argued “that prison should not be the next item on his résumé because the convictions were tainted by improper jury instructions and unsupported by the evidence.” The appellate court strongly disagreed, in the ruling joined by Judges James E. Graves, Jr. and Stephen A. Higginson.

[…]

Stockman’s appellate lawyer David A. Warrington previously served as counsel to the 2016 Trump campaign at the Republican National Convention and describes himself on his firm’s website as “one of the leading Republican lawyers in the nation.” He argued in court documents that prosecutors failed to prove Stockman intentionally defrauded two major GOP donors when he solicited donations to pet projects.

“Stockman was convicted for nonprofit fundraising and political activities subject to protection under the First Amendment,” Warrington wrote, asking the court to dismiss the case because “The Government’s case against him turned his failure to achieve completion of certain nonprofit political activism and projects into fraud.”

However, the appeals court responded last week by referencing the painstakingly detailed evidence of money transfers showing the ex-congressman perpetrated “a scheme to separate wealthy donors from their money and to spend that money at Stockman’s pleasure and direction.”

The ruling ends with a final decisive punch:

“In sum, the judgment of the district court is, in all respects, AFFIRMED.”

See here and here for the background. This is a work of art and you should enjoy it as such.

Another voter registration lawsuit filed

This time, the point of contention is electronic signatures.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

In a federal lawsuit filed Monday in San Antonio, the Texas Democratic Party and the campaign arms for Democrats in the U.S. House and Senate allege that Texas is violating the U.S. Constitution and federal and state law by rejecting voter registration applications without an original signature.

The legal challenge springs from a 2018 electoral kerfuffle over the Texas secretary of state’s rejection of more than 2,400 registration applications filled out by voters using Vote.org, a website run by a California nonprofit. That online application asked Texans to provide personal information and a picture of their signature to auto-populate a paper voter registration form that was then mailed to county registrars.

Days before a registration deadline that year, the secretary of state’s office indicated that applications submitted through the website should be considered invalid because they included electronic signatures, not physical ones.

In the lawsuit, the Democrats argue the secretary of state’s signature requirements are unconstitutional and impose “an arbitrary requirement that limits access to the franchise.” While the state allows eligible Texans to submit registration applications in person, by mail or by fax, Texas law “makes no reference” to requiring an original signature, they argue in the legal challenge.

[…]

In suing the state, the Democrats pointed out that the secretary of state does allow for one kind of electronic signatures — those submitted on voter registration applications received through the Texas Department of Public Safety. That agency allows Texans obtaining or renewing a driver’s license in person to enter their signatures on electronic keypads, which then may be used to populate voter registration applications. (Texas has been wrapped up in separate litigation for more than a year over claims it is violating federal law by not allowing voters who deal with their driver’s licenses online to reregister to vote.)

Bolstered by Republicans’ narrowing margins of victory and polls showing that Texas might be at least slipping from the GOP, Democrats have signaled they see voting rights litigation — and the voters that might be helped through it — as part of their long-term strategy in the state.

See here for more on that “motor voter” lawsuit, which like all good things went to the Fifth Circuit to die. This same Democratic coalition has also filed a lawsuit over the law banning temporary voting locations, one of two such suits in the courts. You know my feeling about pursuing voting rights litigation in this climate, with the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS standing in the way, but I do agree that pursuing these cases anyway sends a strong signal to voters about who stands for making it easier for them to vote. And honestly, who has not electronically signed dozens of documents by now? One of the original (and silly) arguments for voter ID was that if you have to show a drivers license to rent a movie from Blockbuster (this is a truly old-school argument), there’s nothing wrong with having to show your drivers license to vote. Well, I’ve electronically signed documents at bounce house and indoor skydiving places affirming that I forsake my right to sue them if me or my kids wind up getting maimed by their services. If that’s legally binding, then an electronic signature on a voter registration form should be plenty good enough for the Texas Secretary of State. See the TDP press release for more.

Fifth Circuit overturns “motor voter” lawsuit verdict

Bummer. Totally expected and completely on brand for the Fifth Circuit, but a bummer nonetheless.

Still the only voter ID anyone should need

A federal appeals court has overturned a previous ruling that could have opened the door to online voter registration in Texas.

In a Wednesday court order, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a federal district judge’s ruling that Texas was violating federal law by failing to register residents to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses online. The panel of three federal judges that considered the case did not clear the state of wrongdoing but instead determined that the three Texas voters who had brought the lawsuit did not have standing to sue.

The case revolved around a portion of federal law, often called the motor voter law, that was designed to ease the voter registration process by requiring states to give residents the opportunity to register to vote at the same time they apply for or renew their driver’s licenses.

The legal dispute came after three Texas voters who moved from one county to another were unable to reregister to vote when they updated their driver’s licenses through the state’s online portal. Although the state follows the law for individuals who renew their driver’s licenses in person, Texas does not allow for online voter registration.

[…]

Two of the voters who sued the state believed they had registered and didn’t discover they were not on the voter rolls until they tried to vote in 2014. They were allowed to cast provisional ballots, but their votes were not counted. The third voter also believed he was registered to vote and only discovered he wasn’t when he sought help from county officials to determine his polling location for a 2015 election.

But the 5th Circuit sided with the state’s argument that the voters could not take the issue on in court because they had since successfully registered to vote and were no longer harmed by the state’s practice.

The federal appeals court found that [District Court Judge Orlando] Garcia erred when he reasoned that court-ordered compliance with federal law was needed to “prevent repetition of the same injury” to the three voters and others because the state’s challengers had not sufficiently proved the online system would continue to be a problem for them in the future.

I have a lot of links for this. The lawsuit in question was filed in 2016, and the initial ruling came two years later. Judge Garcia ordered the state to come up with a fix, which could have led to a partial implementation of online voter registration to comply. (Note how the main opposition to this, in mid-2018, came from the Harris County Clerk’s office. Elections matter, y’all.) The state said “nah, we’re good, no fixes needed or offered”, appealed the ruling, asked for an emergency stay of the order, which they received, thus putting everything on ice. And now here we are.

The fact that this was overturned on grounds of standing rather than on the merits suggests that maybe another go at this might be successful, if the right plaintiffs can be found. Which is still kind of ridiculous, since the claim wasn’t that people couldn’t get registered at all but that the state wasn’t following federal law and thus made it more of a pain to register and more likely that people would honestly think they had had their registration updated when they hadn’t. One of the plaintiffs was denied the opportunity to vote in the 2014 election, which sure seems to me to be a legitimate harm for a court to address. I’m not sure what a “correct” plaintiff looks like in this context. Be that as it may, it took over three years to get from the original filing to this ruling, and with no guarantee that a second try would work, or would succeed at SCOTUS even if it got past the Fifth Circuit, this is once again something that’s just gonna have to be solved by winning elections and passing laws, and in this case maybe also installing a DPS director that cares about complying with federal law. I wish it didn’t have to be this hard to secure basic rights and services from our state government, but it is, and we’re the only ones who are going to be able to do something about it. The Texas Signal has more.

How anti-choicers have won even as they’ve lost

The number of clinics that provide abortion care in Texas will never be what it was before HB2 was passed, despite the SCOTUS ruling that struck it down.

Right there with them

It’s been three years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down parts of Texas’ controversial abortion law – and yet, most of the clinics forced to close after it first passed haven’t reopened.

The law, known as House Bill 2, was seen as one of the most restrictive crackdowns on abortion clinics in the country. It required clinics to operate like surgical centers and that doctors performing abortions have admitting privileges at a nearby hospital.

Like many other clinics across the state, the Planned Parenthood in San Angelo found the new requirements almost impossible to comply with. Shortly after the law passed, the clinic closed its doors.

“I really do miss it,” said Susanne Fernandez, who managed the clinic for more than two decades. “[We] were helping women be seen for their needs.”

The former clinic looks a lot like it used to, Fernandez said on a visit to the building earlier this month. The only difference is it’s been painted gray.

“Even the blocks in front of the building that have inscriptions on them, they are all still there,” she said. “They are just covered up.”

The clinic was the last abortion provider in that part of West Texas, a mostly rural, expansive part of the state, hundreds of miles away from any major city.

Fernandez said she knew many of the women the clinic served – who were largely low-income – would be greatly affected by its closure.

“The last day was sad; it was somber,” she said. “We did a lot of cleaning up. We all knew that was it.”

Fernandez said she still runs into women who used to come to the clinic.

“There is that thing in the back of your mind – where did these women go?” she said. “Where do they go now? I don’t believe a lot of them found any other health care afterward.”

I guarantee you, the legislators who voted for HB2 have never given that a single thought, and neither have the “pro-life” zealots who enable them. The unsung villain in all this is, as is so often the case, the Fifth Circuit, which not only overruled the district court that had sided with the plaintiffs, they also removed the temporary restraining order, thus allowing HB2 to be enforced while the case was being litigated. The upshot of that was that Texas got to put a lot of clinics out of business with what in the end was an unconstitutional law. See what I mean about winning even as they lose? There will never be a just remedy for this wrong.

The Fifth Circuit Obamacare hearing

Remember, the Fifth Circuit is where hope goes to die. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

On the left was Judge Carolyn Dineen King, an appointee of Jimmy Carter; on the right sat Judge Kurt Engelhardt, a nominee of Donald Trump, and in the center sat Judge Jennifer Walker Elrod, the George W. Bush appointee expected to represent the critical swing vote on a three-judge panel now charged with deciding the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

It was that perhaps fitting seating arrangement that greeted attorneys for Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the state and its allies asked this three-judge panel on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to strike down the sweeping health law known as “Obamacare,” a legal means to a political end that has eluded conservatives for the better part of a decade.

Texas won a major victory in its bid to end the law in December, when a federal district judge in North Texas sided with the state, declaring that the law is unconstitutional in its entirety after Congress in 2017 gutted one of its important provisions, a tax penalty for individuals who chose to remain uninsured. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a highly unusual move, has declined to defend the law.

A California-led coalition of blue states that has stepped in to oppose Texas in the lawsuit quibbles with that question of “severability,” arguing that even if one slice of the law must fall as unconstitutional, its other hundreds of provisions — including a host of popular patient protections — should stand. The question of how much of the law may rightly be salvaged was a focal point of court discussions on Tuesday.

Texas’ odds of total vindication remain in question after nearly two hours of questions before the three judges.

Most of the unusually-large courtroom audience of journalists and interested but unaffiliated attorneys focused on Elrod at the center. By far the most vocal judge of the three, Elrod probed both sides on the issue of standing — whether they have the right to participate in the lawsuit at all. And she seemed highly focused on her court’s options for ordering a remedy, seeming to weigh options for sending the case back to a lower court for further consideration.

Engelhardt, who is among the newest appointees to the court, was harsh and occasionally sarcastic, asking more questions of the blue state coalition than he did of the Texas-led team. He seemed skeptical of the standing of both the California-led coalition and the Democratic-majority U.S. House of Representatives, which intervened in the case although the Republican-majority U.S. Senate did not.

The Senate, Engelhardt remarked, “is sort of the 800 lb. gorilla that’s not in the room.”

King, meanwhile, did not speak at all.

See here and here for the background. The legal basis of this lawsuit is so ridiculous that anything short of tossing it and its lawyers out of court is insufficient, but given where we are I could find a way to live with the idea of sending it back to the idiot district court judge for reconsideration. I fear we’ll get some kind of split-the-baby decision that strikes down parts of the law but leaves some crippled skeleton of it intact, which dumbass pundits will then call a “moderate compromise”, in the same way that the midpoint between “I murder you and burn down your house” and “I leave you alone” is a moderate compromise. Not much to do at this point but wait and work your ass off voting these morons out in 2020. NBC News, CNN, Daily Kos, Mother Jones, and Think Progress have more.

The lawsuit to kill Obamacare has its hearing at the Fifth Circuit today

Brace yourselves.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Last year, after a federal judge in Texas declared the entirety of the Affordable Care Act unconstitutional, throwing into question millions of Americans’ health coverage, the state’s Republican leaders promised they would come up with a plan to replace it.

But on Tuesday, after a legislative session that seemed to have no room for issues other than property tax reform and school finance, Texas will ask a federal appeals court in New Orleans to end the law in its entirety — without offering a replacement plan.

The conservative crusade against portions of the act, known as Obamacare, has spanned a decade. But Texas’ latest lawsuit, filed in February 2018, became an existential threat to the law after U.S. District Judge Reed O’Connor ruled in December that it is unconstitutional in its entirety. At stake: the subsidized health coverage of roughly 1 million Texans, sweeping protections for patients with preexisting conditions, young adults staying on their parents’ insurance plans until age 26 and a host of low-cost benefits available to all people with health insurance, including those covered through their employers.

Texas already has the highest uninsured rate in the nation.

In a highly unusual — if not entirely surprising — move, the U.S. Department of Justice has declined to defend the federal law, leaving a California-led coalition of blue states to protect it. As the case proceeds, Obamacare has remained in place, and likely will until the litigation is finally resolved.

Attorneys for the state of Texas argue the health law cannot stand since the Republican-led Congress in 2017 zeroed out Obamacare’s individual mandate — a penalty imposed on people who chose to remain uninsured. Democrats had favored the penalty as a way to induce more people to purchase health insurance, with the goal of reaching near-universal coverage. Without it, Texas argues, the whole law must fall.

But the state’s Republican leaders have offered few ideas about what should replace Obamacare, a law that touches practically every aspect of health care regulations and includes several popular protections for patients. Gov. Greg Abbott — a vocal critic of the law — pledged in December that if the law remained struck down on appeal, “Texas will be ready with replacement health care insurance that includes coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

Since then, he’s been quiet on the issue, including during this year’s 140-day Texas legislative session. Abbott did not respond to questions for this story.

See here for the background. And of course Greg Abbott doesn’t have a single thing to say about reducing the extremely high uninsured rate in Texas. That’s because Abbott’s plan to reduce the uninsured in Texas, supported by Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton and the rest of the Republicans, is for more of them to die. Just as a reminder, Republicans have been in complete control of Texas government since 2003. Not once during that time have they taken any steps to improve access to health care in the state. Indeed, on multiple occasions, beginning in 2003 with the savage cuts to CHIP and continuing through their assault on women’s health via attacks on Planned Parenthood, they have time and time again make accessing health care harder. That’s what is at stake here. The only fix, regardless of the ruling in this case, is to vote them out. The WaPo, the Chron, and Think Progress have more.

House passes a bail reform bill

For what it’s worth.

Rep. Kyle Kacal

The Texas House gave an initial stamp of approval Thursday to a bill that addresses bail practices, which courts recently deemed unconstitutional in the state’s two most populous counties for discriminating against poor criminal defendants who can’t pay for their release from jail.

But a last-minute amendment actually limits who can be released from behind bars without having cash.

Reform advocates have called for a system that could get poor, nonviolent defendants out of jail before their trial, but the amendment by state Rep. Oscar Longoria, D-Mission, is more restrictive than current law on no-cost releases. It would not allow judicial officers to release defendants on no-cost bonds for numerous reasons, including if they haven’t shown up to a court hearing in the previous two years, were charged with a violent offense or were charged with a crime that involves more than 4 grams of a controlled substance.

House Bill 2020 was one of several bail reform measures filed this year after federal court rulings, jail deaths and a state trooper’s murder drew attention to Texas’ pretrial jailing practices after the last legislative session. As it was presented to the chamber, the bill would have required officials to consider a defendant’s risk of danger or skipping court before making bail decisions. The successful amendment nixed that requirement if a defendant is released on a preset bail amount.

The bill’s author, state Rep. Kyle Kacal, R-College Station, said he worked in coordination with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s office on the measure, but it has changed significantly since it was filed in March. One of the most notable revisions before coming to the floor was that it no longer puts the power over systemic bail changes under the governor’s office.

[…]

Longoria’s amendment drastically alters the bill, but he emphasized that the move to restrict release for defendants on personal bonds — which have no upfront cost — for some defendants was based on safety, noting that it limited no-cost release for sexual assault and family violence offenses.

“It was more of a community safety issue,” he told The Texas Tribune after the bill passed. “A lot of judges don’t have the proper training to basically admonish the defendants and set proper bond.”

The amendment went against what many advocates have pushed for, and Marc Levin with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said he would push to have the Senate remove it if the bill finally passes the House.

“It certainly would contribute to inequality in the system, and it could contribute to dangerous people who have money being released when they shouldn’t,” he said.

Some bail reform advocates have also criticized the bill for still relying on money bail instead of presuming release on no-cost bonds for nonviolent defendants. At a hearing last month, the criminal justice advocacy group Texas Fair Defense Project claimed the bill at that time didn’t adequately address federal court rulings that said Harris and Dallas counties’ bail practices kept people in jail simply because they were too poor to pay their bonds, and the group called for individual bail hearings within two days. The organization also said the bill’s requirement of a risk assessment would prohibit judges from automatically releasing from jail most misdemeanor defendants on a no-cost bond. Newly elected judges in Harris County adopted that practice amid legal woes the county faced from the federal ruling.

“We would like to see … that they’re still allowed to make a decision to automatically release defendants on really low-level, nonviolent offense,” Emily Gerrick, a staff attorney for the organization, said at the hearing.

Amendments to allow counties to release defendants on no-cost bonds before a risk assessment and to address the court rulings that called for individualized bail hearings failed Thursday.

See here and here for the background. Earlier bills by Rep. Andrew Murr and Sen. John Whitmire appear to be dead at this point, so it’s this bill or nothing. Grits believes none of these bills were going to address the main constitutional flaws in the existing system, which should be clarified in the coming months by the Fifth Circuit. After reading through this story, I’m inclined to agree. If this bill falls short of what the court is likely to order, what’s the point? Whatever the case, it’s up to the Senate now.

Trump goes all in against health care

Game on.

It’s constitutional – deal with it

The Trump administration wants the federal courts to overturn the Affordable Care Act in its entirety, an escalation of its legal assault against the health care law.

The Justice Department said in a brief filed on Monday that the administration supports a recent district court decision that invalidated all of Obamacare. So it is now the official position of President Trump’s administration that all of the ACA — the private insurance markets that cover 15 million Americans, the Medicaid expansion that covers another 15 million, and the protections for people with preexisting conditions and other regulations — should be nullified.

When combined with Trump’s endorsement of the various Republican legislative plans to repeal and replace Obamacare and other regulatory actions pursued by his subordinates, the Trump administration’s clear, consistent, and unequivocal position is that millions of people should lose their health insurance and that people should not be protected from discrimination based on their medical history.

The Justice Department had previously said that only the ACA’s prohibition on health insurers denying people coverage or charging people higher premiums based on their medical history should fall in the lawsuit being brought by 20 Republican-led states. But their latest brief removed that subtlety, saying that the entire law should go.

Legal experts dismiss the states’ argument as “absurd,” yet they have worried it could find a receptive audience among conservative jurists, given the prior success of anti-Obamacare lawsuits thought to be spurious that still found their way to the Supreme Court.

The argument has already won in the US district court in northern Texas, after all, though that decision is on hold pending appeal.

See here and here for some background. Did we mention this ridiculous lawsuit got its start in Texas? Bad lawsuits seem to be our main export these days. There’s not much we can do about what the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS will do, but in the meantime, health care is once again a huge issue for the next election. We won once on that, we need to do it again.

Fifth Circuit wants to see how much it can gut abortion rights before it acts

That’s the takeaway you should have from this.

A Texas law banning a common second-trimester abortion procedure will remain blocked after federal judges Wednesday postponed a decision until the Supreme Court takes action on a similar case.

A federal district court in 2017 struck down the ban, which was passed as part of state Senate Bill 8. Attorney General Ken Paxton and other officials then appealed the decision to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

[…]

But the Supreme Court has yet to decide whether it will take up that case, which was launched by abortion provider June Medical Services. The case challenges a Louisiana law that required doctors who perform abortions to have hospital admitting privileges.

See here for some background. Rewire brings the details.

In November 2017, a federal district court declared the provision of SB 8 that bans D and E abortions unconstitutional and permanently blocked the measure from taking effect. The decision, authored by Judge Lee Yeakel, was a rock-solid win for abortion rights. Yeakel determined that Texas had failed to offer any evidence to support its claims that banning D and E abortions promoted its interest in fetal life without unduly burdening a patient’s right to choose. According to Yeakel’s findings, the evidence failed to show that the other methods advanced by the state for terminating an abortion were available and safe. Therefore, Yeakel ruled, the D and E ban had the effect of banning most second-trimester abortions and was an undue burden on abortion rights.

Naturally, the state of Texas appealed Yeakel’s decision. During oral arguments in November, it was clear the conservative members of the Fifth Circuit were looking for a way to reverse Yeakel’s decision and allow the D and E ban to take effect. But then came the Roberts Court’s order in [June Medical Services v.] Gee in February: a reprimand, of sorts, to the Fifth Circuit for trying to unilaterally overturn a district’s court factual findings in order to allow a patently unconstitutional abortion restriction to take effect. The judges on the Fifth Circuit are conservative and bold, but they are not stupid. They are not going to risk setting themselves up for another opportunity for the Roberts Court to reel them in, just a month later.

At issue in Gee—the case the Fifth Circuit is waiting on the Roberts Court to resolve—is Act 620, a Louisiana law that would require any physician providing abortion services in Louisiana to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of the procedure. Act 620 was specifically modeled after one of the provisions in Texas’ HB 2 that was eventually declared unconstitutional in 2016 in Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt.

A federal district court blocked Act 620 from taking effect following a six-day trial, issuing detailed findings of fact as to the undue burden Act 620 would place on abortion rights. But the Fifth Circuit disagreed and reversed the district court, ruling the law should take effect.

[…]

When the Supreme Court decided in February to stay the Fifth Circuit’s decision in Gee, it likely did so not because it disagreed with the court on the merits of its decision, but to send a message. The Fifth Circuit had so wildly and intentionally flouted abortion rights jurisprudence in its application of Whole Woman’s Health to uphold Act 620 that Chief Justice John Roberts joined with his liberal colleagues to temporarily block their ruling. Roberts’ voting record makes it clear he is no fan of abortion rights. So it’s reasonable to interpret his decision as a message to appellate courts like the Fifth Circuit that if anyone is going to be rewriting abortion rights jurisprudence, it will be the conservative justices on the Supreme Court under his guidance.

All this could explain Wednesday’s short order in Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton delaying any decision in that case pending an outcome at the Supreme Court in Gee.Gee is allowed to take effect. Presumably, the Fifth Circuit would rule in short order to allow Texas’ D and E ban to take effect as well.

Should the Roberts Court take Gee, then the outcome of the Whole Woman’s Health v. Paxton remains in limbo until Gee is resolved.

I noted this in passing when I wrote about how whatever else happens, some new bit of anti-abortion legislation will pass this session. It’s just a matter of whether things get worse from there, and if so by how much.

Of course some anti-abortion bill will pass this session

Passing bills restricting abortion is one of the reasons the modern Republican Party exists, so of course some bill (or bills) which do that in some fashion will be passed in this legislative session. It’s as safe a bet as there is.

Right there with them

Texas lawmakers have filed more than a dozen bills that would further restrict abortion rights, including an outright ban on abortion and legislation that would forbid Texas cities from contracting with Planned Parenthood – possibly the next step in pulling government funding from the women’s health group that’s also an abortion provider.

While top state officials say they’re largely swearing off divisive social issues this legislative session in favor of focusing on school funding and property tax relief, advocates on both sides of the abortion debate are getting ready for the next round.

Texas is one of the leading states in the nation for curtailing access to abortion. Both the governor and lieutenant governor have reiterated their support for protecting the unborn in the past week. Newly appointed House Speaker Dennis Bonnen has a sterling record of supporting anti-abortion legislation.

[…]

Political analysts expect the Republican-dominated Legislature to keep pressing.

“Abortion is still a meaty gold standard for conservative Republicans,” said Brandon Rottinghaus, a political science professor at the University of Houston. “It is not going away. It is too central to the organizing and the politics of the Republican Party … they can’t avoid it because it will be seen as complete abdication of Republican Party principles.”

In the Texas House, any abortion bills would likely go through Dade Phelan, a Beaumont Republican and the new chairman of the State Affairs Committee. He has a stellar anti-abortion voting record, according to Texas Right to Life. The majority Republican committee is made up of 12 men and 1 woman. More than half of the members have at least a 90 percent voting recording with the anti-abortion group.

But while he says he’s not trying to dictate the actions of the committee, Phelan doubts that an outright ban of abortion would be passed into law.

“I don’t see us passing legislation that’s unconstitutional at this point in time. Passing something that will not stand up to a constitutional challenge, I don’t think that’s in the best interest of the Texas House,” Phelan said.

Speaker Bonnen’s record on reproductive choice isn’t relevant here. I will remind you that the omnibus anti-abortion bill that was eventually overturned by SCOTUS in the Whole Women’s Health decision was passed while Joe Straus was Speaker. Straus’ appeal in the first place was that he allowed the will of the House to take precedence, unlike Tom Craddick and his iron-fist, top-down approach. Bonnen will follow that path, which means that other than a bathroom bill that seems unlikely to stalk the halls this session, he’s gonna let the Lege do what the Lege does. And what the Lege does is pass anti-abortion bills. I don’t know when the last session was that didn’t include at least one anti-abortion bill.

Of greater and more immediate concern is whether the Whole Women’s Health decision, which affirmed Roe v. Wade and the undue burden standard, will continue to have any meaning. The Louisiana legislature last year passed a bill very much like Texas’ overturned HB2, and the Fifth Circuit, being the garbage collection of lousy judges that it is, allowed it to stand on the grounds that it was not quite as bad as HB2. An appeal to SCOTUS to put enforcement of the Louisiana law on hold while the case goes through the courts is pending, and if SCOTUS allows it to be enforce in the interim, it will be a clear message that it’s open season on choice. Ian Millhiser and Mark Joseph Stern have the gory details. Keep an eye on this, because the fanatics in and around the Lege sure will.