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First Court of Appeals

Not so fast on moving the Paxton trial back to Collin County

The special prosecutors have requested an en banc review of the three-judge panel ruling.

Best mugshot ever

Prosecutors in the felony fraud case against Attorney General Ken Paxton are asking the full 1st Court of Appeals to review a decision by a three-justice panel last month that moved the trial from Harris County back to Collin County, where Paxton lives, potentially adding another delay to a case that is nearly 6 years old.

In May, a panel of three Democratic justices in the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston allowed the case to return to Collin County on a vote of 2-1, ruling that the presiding judge who moved the case out of Collin County in March 2017 had no longer been assigned to the judicial region handling Paxton’s case. The ruling was a major victory for Paxton, who had asked the courts to be tried in his home county, a staunchly Republican area of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, are major political figures.

[…]

In a court filing Tuesday, prosecutor Brian Wice accused Paxton’s legal team of “sandbagging” the courts by withholding information about the judge’s expired assignment so they could later raise the issue in an attempt to move the case back to Collin County.

Tarrant County Judge George Gallagher was handed the Paxton fraud case in August 2015 after the original judge in Collin County recused himself. At the time, Gallagher was temporarily assigned to the Collin County administrative judicial region, which is in a different region from Tarrant County. But his assignment only ran through Jan. 1, 2017.

Gallagher continued as the presiding judge after that date and issued his ruling to move the case out of Collin County in March 2017. That May, Paxton’s legal team asked an administrative court to block Gallagher’s ruling and remove him from the case because his temporary assignment had expired at the beginning of the year.

In his Tuesday request, Wice argued that Paxton’s team failed to bring up Gallagher’s expired term until after the change-of-venue ruling did not go in their favor, and asked the full 1st Court of Appeals to stay the three-justice panel’s decision until the full nine-justice court could review the ruling. Wice threw doubt on the idea that Paxton’s team came upon Gallagher’s expired temporary assignment only “by happenstance” and said the burden was on the attorney general’s defense team to show when it learned of the judge’s expired term.

The majority opinion had already rejected that argument, ruling that “nothing in the record shows a lack of reasonable diligence in bringing the challenge.” But Justice Gordon Goodman, who dissented in part, noted in his opinion that the court had no evidence as to “how or when Paxton’s counsel discovered that Gallagher’s assignment had expired.”

Wice argued that while a review of a panel decision by a full appeals court is usually not favored, it is the right move in this instance.

See here for the previous entry. As the story notes, it took the three-judge panel seven months to rule on the initial appeal, so if we’re lucky we might get a ruling from the full panel by the end of this year. The odds of getting Paxton into a courtroom to actually litigate the charges against him before November 2022 seem slim, but there’s no way to go but forward. Let’s hope the full 1st Court of Appeals hustles this thing along.

Paxton trial to head back to Collin County

You can go home again, apparently.

Best mugshot ever

A panel of three justices ruled Thursday that Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s felony fraud charges should be held in Collin County — where he lives — instead of Harris County, after a yearslong back-and-forth over where his criminal case should be heard.

The lawsuit, now nearly six years old, has been shackled by procedural delays and has not yet gone to trial because of a number of appeals related to where the case should be heard and how much the prosecutors should be paid. The suit has loomed over Paxton for nearly his entire time as attorney general, including during his narrow reelection in 2018. If convicted, Paxton could face up to 99 years in prison.

Prosecutors in the suit claim Paxton persuaded investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it back when he was a member of the Texas House. Paxton denies any wrongdoing and says the accusations are politically motivated.

A panel of three all-Democratic justices in the 1st Court Of Appeals in Houston on Thursday allowed the case to return to Paxton’s home county on a 2-1 vote because of a technicality, affirming a lower court’s decision after nearly seven months of deliberation.

The case was originally to be held in Collin County but prosecutors argued that having the trial there would be unfair because of his political ties in that region. Paxton represented Collin County in the Texas Legislature for years, and now his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, represents the region.

The dissenting justice, Gordon Goodman, said no matter where the case is held, it is time it goes to trial.

“At this point almost six years has elapsed since Paxton was indicted. Whichever district court ultimately receives these cases should move them to trial as expeditiously as possible,” Goodman wrote in his dissent. “Further delay is anything but expedient.”

See here for the last update, which was in October. I don’t think there is anything in nature that moves more slowly than the court proceedings for this case. The prosecutors are seeking an en banc ruling, which I can understand given the split among the three-judge panel, but honestly I’m with Justice Goodman. Let’s get this show on the road, if we finally can.

And on that note, a word about this.

“If it gets moved back to Collin County, that certainly is advantageous for Paxton for two reasons: One, it’s more likely to go to a Republican judge as opposed to a Democratic judge in Harris County,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University who has studied the case, in an interview in 2019. “And any jury pool is going to be much more sympathetic to Paxton in Collin versus Harris.”

Yes, he’ll get a Republican judge in Collin County, though one would like to hope that the judge would be impartial regardless of where the trial was held. As for the jury, I think Professor Jones is overstating things a bit. Look at the numbers:

2016: Trump 55.6%, Clinton 38.9%
2020: Trump 51.4%, Biden 47.0%

2014: Paxton 66.0%, Houston 30.4%
2018: Paxton 52.7%, Nelson 44.7%

Paxton did worse than every other statewide Republican in Collin County in 2018 except for Ted Cruz, and he only beat Cruz by a tenth of a percentage point. It’s not crazy to think that Collin County could go for his opponent next year. It’s true that Collin County is considerably less Democratic than Harris County, and as such the jury pool will likely be Republican-leaning. It’s just nowhere near as Republican as it was when Paxton was first indicted in 2015. Maybe he should have gone for the speedy trial in the first place.

Appellate court redistricting bill withdrawn

I had a post all ready to go yesterday with more on the bill to redistrict the appellate courts, and then this happened on Thursday night:

This is not the end of it – there will be at least one special session on legislative redistricting, after all – but whatever does happen, it won’t be in this session. So the post that I had queued up for Friday morning became out of date, and so here we are. The original post is beneath the fold because it’s still worth reading, so click on for more. Whatever made this delay happen, I’m glad for it. Hopefully we will get a better bill out of this in the end, but we can’t take that for granted. The Chron story from Friday about this is here.

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Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

If that’s the Legislature’s goal, then this would be an effective way of accomplishing it.

A Texas Senate committee [heard] public comment Thursday on a controversial proposal to consolidate the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts into just seven, a move opponents have criticized as gerrymandering but that supporters say will make the courts more efficient and cure knotty court splits.

A committee substitute to S.B. 11 proposes dramatic changes to the organization of the state’s appellate districts: It would combine Houston’s two appellate courts, merge the Dallas and Austin districts together, lasso Waco and Eastland into a division with Texarkana and Fort Worth, and move two San Antonio justices to Midland in a district that would span roughly 500 miles — from Kendall County just southwest of Austin to the state’s western edge and include El Paso — among other changes.

The state’s current number and location of appellate courts largely reflects the state’s demographics, economy and travel conditions of the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
Hunton Andrews Kurth LLP partner Scott Brister wrote in a 2003 Houston Bar Association article.

Brister, who formerly served as a Texas Supreme Court justice and chief justice of the Fourteenth Court of Appeals in Houston, told Law360 the districts need to be updated and consolidated.

“I just think 14 is too many,” he said. “They’re not located where all the people and the cases are.”

Yet opponents of the consolidation plan say it is blatant gerrymandering, and the worst instance of it they’ve seen in the Texas judiciary.

Elsa Alcala, a former justice on the First Court of Appeals in Houston and Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals, took to Twitter to call out the plan, writing “This has nothing to do with justice and everything to do with electing Republicans to the bench.”

Since the 2018 general election, a wave of Democratic justices have ousted Republican from Texas appellate benches in record numbers, largely concentrated in urban population centers.

Alcala told Law360 that in the past the Legislature has changed jurisdictions one county at a time, but lawmakers have never proposed completely eradicating certain appellate courts like the proposed committee substitute bill does.

“This is the most significant and blatant change I’ve ever seen,” she said.

S.B. 11 originally called for a realignment of five counties that are currently under the jurisdiction of two appellate courts outside of the Houston district to eliminate overlapping jurisdiction between multiple courts.

Details for the new bill were leaked and spread on social media Tuesday, but the bill’s text [hadn’t] yet been made public. Law360 has reviewed a map detailing the new appellate districts as well as a bill summary and a table explaining how the 80 Texas justices would be distributed among the new districts.

According to the bill summary, consolidating the appellate districts would balance a “highly unbalanced” workload across the courts, an issue the Texas judiciary has dealt with for years through a docket equalization program that transfers cases when needed. The summary cites workload data showing that, between 2015 and 2019, the Eighth Court of Appeals in El Paso received an average of 79 appeals per justice compared to 158 appeals per justice in the Third Court of Appeals in Austin.

[…]

During her time on the First Court of Appeals, which has nine justices, Alcala said she would frequently review opinions handed down by her colleagues to make sure she didn’t have any qualms about their rulings. But on a court with 21 justices, it would be impossible to review all those decisions, she said.

Lawyers are also concerned that larger benches could cause issues at the ballot box.

Alcala said there’s already an issue with the public being able to make informed choices during elections about the various judges on the ballot. Expanding the court’s jurisdictions would mean more judges for the public to inform themselves about before voting.

Brister acknowledged that under the committee’s substitute, voting would look different. He would be concerned if he were a judge in Texarkana on the state’s eastern border with Arkansas, for example, because under the new district alignment, there’s a good chance voters from the more populous Fort Worth would control outcomes in the district and knock some small-town judges off the bench.

Christopher Kratovil, managing partner of Dykema Gossett PLLC’s Dallas office, told Law360 he can see both sides of the consolidation argument but believes the committee’s substitute isn’t the proper way to redistrict the state.

“I do think there are some good-faith efficiency arguments for reducing the number of intermediate appellate courts in the state,” he said. “That said, this is not based on efficiency. If we’re being honest about this, it is a partisan gerrymandered map to return control of the majority of the state intermediate appellate courts to the Republican party.”

Other attorneys, like solo appellate practitioner Chad Ruback, are upset that information about the committee substitute bill hasn’t been released ahead of Thursday’s public hearing. The original version of S.B. 11 is currently attached to agenda materials for the meeting.

“That doesn’t give the appellate judiciary — or appellate lawyers who regularly practice in front of them — much time to analyze the potential ramifications of the proposed changes in advance of the hearing,” he said. “That looks awfully suspicious.”

See here for the background. Not being transparent about the process or giving anyone the time to review the bill in question is on brand for the Republicans. To give you a sense of what this looks like, here’s a picture from the story:

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

Maybe the new Fifth Circuit, with Dallas and Travis Counties, or the Third, with Bexar County and South Texas, would lean Democratic. I’d have to do a more in depth analysis. Katie Buehler, the reporter of the story linked above, attended the hearing and reported that Sen. Nathan Johnson said it would be a 5-2 split. Whatever the case, I guarantee you that someone with strong Republican credentials has already done such an analysis, and these districts are drawn in a maximally beneficial way for Republicans. What would even be the point from their perspective if that wasn’t the case?

You’ve read many bloviations from me over the years about why calls to change the way we select judges from the current system of partisan elections to something else were mostly a smokescreen to disguise complaints about the fact that Democrats were now winning many of those elections. It has never escaped my notice that we only began seeing those calls for change after the 2008 election, when Dems broke through in Harris County, and it moved to DefCon 1 following the 2018 election. If nothing else, I thank Sen. Joan Huffman for putting the lie to the idea that the motivating factor behind those calls for change was a fairer or more equitable or more merit-based system for picking judges, or that “taking politics out of the system” had anything to do with it. No, it is exactly what I thought it was from the beginning, a means to ensure that as many judges are Republican as possible. There may well be legitimate merits to rethinking the appellate court system in Texas – I’m not an appellate lawyer, I have no idea – but it’s crystal clear that this ain’t it. This is a full employment program for Republicans who want to be judges. That’s what we’ll get if this bill passes.

Which it has now done from the Senate committee, on a partisan 3-2 vote. For a report from the committee hearing, where multiple appellate court justices from both parties testified against SB11, see Law360 and The Texas Lawbook. This is easily the biggest redistricting matter going on right now it’s getting very little attention so far. (The DMN has a story, but it’s subscriber-only, which limits the impact.) Let’s not let this slip through without being noticed.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story as well, and it contains this knee-slapper:

Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, also an attorney, asked Huffman if she took partisanship into consideration when making the maps.

“Some people think this is going to result in five Republican courts and two Democratic courts,” Johnson said. “Do you think that would accurately represent the partisan breakdown of this state?”

Huffman said she did not consider political makeup in drawing the maps and didn’t know how her plan might alter that.

Yeah, that’s obvious bullshit. Anyone with a list of counties per appellate district and access to recent state election results could tell you in five minutes what the likely orientation of each district would look like. Joan Huffman isn’t stupid, but if that’s what she claims then she thinks the rest of us are.

One more thing:

Another bill introduced by Huffman would create a statewide Court of Appeals that would have exclusive jurisdiction over civil cases of statewide significance filed by or against state agencies or officials. The justices on the court, seated in Austin, would be elected on a statewide ballot. No Democrat has won statewide office since 1994.

That bill was met with similar opposition and accusations of partisan motivation. It, too, was referred to the full Senate on a 3-2 party line vote.

This appears to be SB1529, and I heard about it yesterday for the first time. I have no idea what problem (real, imagined, or political) this is intended to solve. Any thoughts from the lawyers out there?

Precinct analysis: Fort Bend County, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1
Appellate courts, Part 2
Judicial averages
Other cities
District Attorney
County Attorney
Sheriff
Tax Assessor
County Clerk
HCDE
Fort Bend, part 1

This post is going to focus on the judicial races in Fort Bend County. There are a lot of them – seven statewide, four appellate, five district and county – and I don’t want to split them into multiple posts because there’s not enough to say about them, nor do I want to present you with a wall of numbers that will make your eyes glaze over. So, I’m going to do a bit of analysis up top, then put all the number beneath the fold for those who want a closer look or to fact-check me. I’ll have one more post about the Fort Bend county races, and then maybe I’ll take a crack at Brazoria County, which will be even more manual labor than these posts were.

The point of interest at the statewide level is in the vote differentials between the three races that included a Libertarian candidate and the four races that did not. Just eyeballing the totals and bearing in mind that there’s some variance in each group, the Republican candidate got an increase of a bit more than half of the Libertarian vote total in each district, while the Democrats were more or less around the same level. That comports with the general thesis that Libertarians tend to take votes away from Republicans more than Democrats, though the effect here was pretty small. It’s also a small sample, and every county has its own characteristics, so don’t go drawing broad conclusions. For what it’s worth, there wasn’t anything here to contradict that piece of conventional wisdom.

For the appellate court races, the thing I have obsessed over is the incredibly small margin in the election for Chief Justice of the 14th Court of Appeals, which Jane Robinson lost by 1500 votes, or 0.06 percentage points. We saw in Harris County that she trailed the two victorious Democrats, Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Amparo Guerra, who were part of a trend in Harris County where Latino candidates generally out-performed the rest of the ticket. That wasn’t quite the case in Fort Bend. Robinson again trailed Rivas-Molloy by a little – in overall vote total, Robinson trailed Rivas-Molloy by about two thousand votes, while Republican Tracy Christopher did an equivalent amount better than Russell Lloyd. But unlike in Harris, Robinson outperformed Guerra, by about a thousand votes, and Guerra barely beat out Tamika Craft, who was farther behind the pack in Harris County. I don’t have a good explanation for that, it looks to me just like a weird result that has no obvious cause or correlation to what we saw elsewhere. It’s also the case, as we discussed in part one of the Fort Bend results, that if Dems had done a better job retaining voters downballot, none of this would matter all that much.

Finally, in the district court races (there were four of them, plus one county court), the results that grabbed my attention were in a couple of contests that appeared one after the other. Republican Maggie Jaramillo, running for the 400th District Court, was the closest member of Team GOP to win, as she lost to Tameika Carter by ten thousand votes. In the next race, for the 434th District Court, Republican Jim Shoemake lost to Christian Becerra by twenty-two thousand votes. This was the difference between a three-point loss for Jaramillo, and a six-and-a-half point loss for Shoemake. Jaramillo was the top performing Republican candidate in any race in Fort Bend, while Becerra was sixth best among Dems, trailing Joe Biden, three statewide judicial candidates, and Sheriff Eric Fagan. You may have noticed that they’re both Latinos, though the effect appears to have been a bit greater for the Republican Jaramillo. Becerra was the only Dem besides Biden to carry Commissioners Court Precinct 1, though that may not have been strictly a Latino candidate phenomenon – Elizabeth Frizell had the next highest percentage, with Veronica Rivas-Molloy and Tina Clinton close behind. (Amy Clark Meachum and Staci Williams, both in three-candidate races, came closer to carrying CC1 than any other candidates, but their percentage of the vote was lower.) Again, no broad conclusions here, just an observation.

Click on for the race data, and remember I had to piece this together by hand, so my numbers may be a little off from the official state totals when those come out. County races are next. Let me know what you think.

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Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

Justices on the state’s 14 intermediate appellate courts are talking—some are concerned—about a pair of bills filed in the Texas Legislature that propose redistricting the courts’ boundaries.

House Bill 339 by Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, and Senate Bill 11 by Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, currently only propose minor tweaks to the Fifth, Sixth and 12th Courts of Appeal to remove their overlapping jurisdictions over five rural Texas counties.

However, multiple sources told Texas Lawyer that the current versions are only “placeholders” or “shell bills” that would change during the legislative session to make bigger changes to the appellate court boundaries.

King and Huffman each didn’t respond to phone calls seeking comment.

But the uncertainty about what the bills will wind up doing is leading to concern among justices.

“I can’t speak for 80 justices across the state, but I’d say there are certainly justices who are talking about it,” said Chief Justice Bonnie Sudderth of Fort Worth’s Second Court of Appeals, who is chairwoman of the Council of Chief Justices. ”What is there to talk about, until we see what it is?”

David Slayton, administrative director of the Texas Office of Court Administration, said that staff for the House and Senate committees that handle bills about the justice system have requested data from his office about the courts’ workloads and the number of appeals that are transferred between appellate courts.

“I think they are looking at it for those reasons,” he explained, adding that his office isn’t taking any position about redistricting. “We haven’t seen a plan. It’s hard to read or think of how it would affect the administration of justice, without seeing a plan.”

He added that the idea to redistrict the appellate court lines did not come from inside of the Texas judiciary.

“There’s some proposals out there from groups like Texans for Lawsuit Reform that reduce the number of appellate courts,” said Slayton.

[…]

That plan proposes:

  • First District: Merger of current First and 14th Courts of Appeal in Houston with 18 justices.
  • Second District: Merger of Third, Fourth and 13th Courts of Appeal in Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi with 19 justices.
  • Third District: Merger of Fifth and Sixth Courts of Appeal in Dallas and Texarkana, but without four counties that overlap in another district, with 16 justices.
  • Fourth District: Merger of Second, Seventh, Eighth and 11th Courts of Appeal in Fort Worth, Amarillo, El Paso and Eastland, with 16 justices.
  • Fifth District: Merger of Ninth, 10th and 12th Courts of Appeal in Beaumont, Waco and Tyler, with 11 justices.

The other proposals in the paper would create different mixes based on mergers of existing appellate districts.

The paper in question is here, and TLR’s priorities for the appellate courts are here. It should go without saying that Texans for Lawsuit Reform is a villain, and while some of their ideas in this instance may have merit, everything they do should be viewed with extreme suspicion.

George Christian, senior counsel with the Texas Civil Justice League, another tort reform advocacy group, said that the current districts aren’t in line with modern Texas. Redrawing the boundaries could make the judiciary more efficient. Yet he acknowledged redistricting involves politics and stirs up intense debate.

In recent elections, appellate courts in Travis, Harris and Dallas counties were swept by Democratic candidates. The discussion about redistricting the appellate courts now may lead to questions.

“There is a very legitimate question people will ask,” Christian said. “Why the sudden interest in the appellate courts, now that a lot of Democrats are winning those elections?”

I think we know the answer to that question. I’ve raised this point before, and it’s just another thing we have to watch out for. In theory, this could be done during the regular session, as these court districts are not based on Census data and don’t have a mandate to have equal sizes. We’ll know when and if HB339 and SB11 get committee hearings.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 2

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions
Appellate courts, Part 1

Here’s the more traditional look at the Court of Appeals races. Unlike the Supreme Court and CCA, all of these races just have two candidates, so we get a purer view of each district’s partisan measure.


Dist    Chris    Robsn  Chris%  Robsn%
======================================
CD02  184,964  152,768  54.77%  45.23%
CD07  157,736  147,670  51.65%  48.35%
CD08   26,431   14,916  63.92%  36.08%
CD09   39,195  119,621  24.68%  75.32%
CD10  104,717   59,540  63.75%  36.25%
CD18   62,244  178,810  25.82%  74.18%
CD22   22,412   20,080  52.74%  47.26%
CD29   51,407  100,718  33.79%  66.21%
CD36   84,772   47,797  63.95%  36.05%
				
SBOE4 111,462  333,791  25.03%  74.97%
SBOE6 398,123  345,585  53.53%  46.47%
SBOE8 224,293  162,545  57.98%  42.02%
				
SD04   56,898   22,562  71.61%  28.39%
SD06   59,896  116,837  33.89%  66.11%
SD07  241,721  170,662  58.62%  41.38%
SD11   79,273   46,425  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,578  158,975  19.93%  80.07%
SD15  118,283  192,558  38.05%  61.95%
SD17  122,640  122,169  50.10%  49.90%
SD18   15,589   11,734  57.05%  42.95%
				
HD126  39,903   33,263  54.54%  45.46%
HD127  55,384   34,979  61.29%  38.71%
HD128  49,071   21,878  69.16%  30.84%
HD129  49,357   34,835  58.62%  41.38%
HD130  71,485   31,992  69.08%  30.92%
HD131  10,547   44,331  19.22%  80.78%
HD132  51,970   48,189  51.89%  48.11%
HD133  52,531   35,414  59.73%  40.27%
HD134  51,636   55,503  48.20%  51.80%
HD135  37,498   36,828  50.45%  49.55%
HD137  10,775   20,855  34.07%  65.93%
HD138  32,788   30,669  51.67%  48.33%
HD139  16,375   44,551  26.88%  73.12%
HD140   9,795   21,511  31.29%  68.71%
HD141   7,493   35,952  17.25%  82.75%
HD142  14,378   41,649  25.66%  74.34%
HD143  12,559   24,038  34.32%  65.68%
HD144  14,250   16,410  46.48%  53.52%
HD145  15,600   26,725  36.86%  63.14%
HD146  11,819   43,211  21.48%  78.52%
HD147  16,024   52,771  23.29%  76.71%
HD148  23,255   36,320  39.03%  60.97%
HD149  22,187   30,741  41.92%  58.08%
HD150  57,197   39,304  59.27%  40.73%
				
CC1    97,397  278,086  25.94%  74.06%
CC2   154,992  143,474  51.93%  48.07%
CC3   234,325  208,116  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   247,164  212,247  53.80%  46.20%
				
JP1    97,730  161,507  37.70%  62.30%
JP2    35,419   48,550  42.18%  57.82%
JP3    53,112   67,814  43.92%  56.08%
JP4   239,927  183,854  56.62%  43.38%
JP5   210,230  213,175  49.65%  50.35%
JP6     8,570   26,891  24.17%  75.83%
JP7    19,569   99,806  16.39%  83.61%
JP8    69,321   40,326  63.22%  36.78%


Dist    Lloyd   Molloy  Lloyd% Molloy%
======================================
CD02  182,465  155,019  54.07%  45.93%
CD07  155,392  149,641  50.94%  49.06%
CD08   26,105   15,215  63.18%  36.82%
CD09   38,009  120,873  23.92%  76.08%
CD10  103,826   60,311  63.26%  36.74%
CD18   59,729  181,164  24.79%  75.21%
CD22   22,012   20,440  51.85%  48.15%
CD29   47,790  104,691  31.34%  68.66%
CD36   83,738   48,699  63.23%  36.77%
			
SBOE4 105,088  340,408  23.59%  76.41%
SBOE6 392,723  350,361  52.85%  47.15%
SBOE8 221,255  165,285  57.24%  42.76%
				
SD04   56,516   22,841  71.22%  28.78%
SD06   55,876  121,303  31.54%  68.46%
SD07  238,891  173,275  57.96%  42.04%
SD11   78,393   47,111  62.46%  37.54%
SD13   38,185  160,335  19.23%  80.77%
SD15  114,913  195,701  37.00%  63.00%
SD17  120,892  123,589  49.45%  50.55%
SD18   15,400   11,900  56.41%  43.59%
				
HD126  39,359   33,787  53.81%  46.19%
HD127  54,725   35,562  60.61%  39.39%
HD128  48,591   22,310  68.53%  31.47%
HD129  48,813   35,233  58.08%  41.92%
HD130  71,017   32,409  68.66%  31.34%
HD131   9,999   44,913  18.21%  81.79%
HD132  51,123   48,982  51.07%  48.93%
HD133  52,075   35,754  59.29%  40.71%
HD134  50,815   56,050  47.55%  52.45%
HD135  36,859   37,440  49.61%  50.39%
HD137  10,494   21,131  33.18%  66.82%
HD138  32,143   31,246  50.71%  49.29%
HD139  15,702   45,174  25.79%  74.21%
HD140   8,932   22,448  28.46%  71.54%
HD141   6,966   36,461  16.04%  83.96%
HD142  13,717   42,333  24.47%  75.53%
HD143  11,615   25,061  31.67%  68.33%
HD144  13,600   17,131  44.25%  55.75%
HD145  14,768   27,651  34.81%  65.19%
HD146  11,569   43,424  21.04%  78.96%
HD147  15,344   53,409  22.32%  77.68%
HD148  22,543   37,048  37.83%  62.17%
HD149  21,838   31,134  41.23%  58.77%
HD150  56,458   39,961  58.55%  41.45%
				
CC1    93,785  281,473  24.99%  75.01%
CC2   150,775  147,845  50.49%  49.51%
CC3   231,120  210,968  52.28%  47.72%
CC4   243,386  215,770  53.01%  46.99%
				
JP1    94,795  164,261  36.59%  63.41%
JP2    33,861   50,188  40.29%  59.71%
JP3    51,723   69,237  42.76%  57.24%
JP4   236,701  186,804  55.89%  44.11%
JP5   206,960  216,197  48.91%  51.09%
JP6     7,778   27,817  21.85%  78.15%
JP7    18,795  100,517  15.75%  84.25%
JP8    68,453   41,035  62.52%  37.48%


Dist    Adams   Guerra  Adams% Guerra%
======================================
CD02  184,405  152,836  54.68%  45.32%
CD07  157,212  147,381  51.61%  48.39%
CD08   26,351   14,919  63.85%  36.15%
CD09   38,998  119,778  24.56%  75.44%
CD10  104,820   59,234  63.89%  36.11%
CD18   61,326  179,332  25.48%  74.52%
CD22   22,218   20,211  52.37%  47.63%
CD29   48,121  104,386  31.55%  68.45%
CD36   84,501   47,871  63.84%  36.16%
			
SBOE4 107,293  337,920  24.10%  75.90%
SBOE6 397,124  345,286  53.49%  46.51%
SBOE8 223,535  162,743  57.87%  42.13%
				
SD04   56,904   22,386  71.77%  28.23%
SD06   56,357  120,880  31.80%  68.20%
SD07  241,466  170,348  58.63%  41.37%
SD11   79,098   46,319  63.07%  36.93%
SD13   39,476  158,887  19.90%  80.10%
SD15  116,690  193,656  37.60%  62.40%
SD17  122,412  121,729  50.14%  49.86%
SD18   15,549   11,745  56.97%  43.03%
				
HD126  39,813   33,289  54.46%  45.54%
HD127  55,237   34,999  61.21%  38.79%
HD128  48,957   21,899  69.09%  30.91%
HD129  49,340   34,653  58.74%  41.26%
HD130  71,559   31,806  69.23%  30.77%
HD131  10,266   44,574  18.72%  81.28%
HD132  51,808   48,208  51.80%  48.20%
HD133  52,597   35,086  59.99%  40.01%
HD134  51,370   55,317  48.15%  51.85%
HD135  37,274   36,945  50.22%  49.78%
HD137  10,724   20,876  33.94%  66.06%
HD138  32,559   30,808  51.38%  48.62%
HD139  16,147   44,644  26.56%  73.44%
HD140   8,966   22,430  28.56%  71.44%
HD141   7,254   36,084  16.74%  83.26%
HD142  14,142   41,863  25.25%  74.75%
HD143  11,744   24,953  32.00%  68.00%
HD144  13,658   17,072  44.45%  55.55%
HD145  14,824   27,584  34.96%  65.04%
HD146  11,928   43,032  21.70%  78.30%
HD147  15,656   53,073  22.78%  77.22%
HD148  22,757   36,812  38.20%  61.80%
HD149  22,195   30,784  41.89%  58.11%
HD150  57,176   39,156  59.35%  40.65%
				
CC1    95,892  278,971  25.58%  74.42%
CC2   152,017  146,563  50.91%  49.09%
CC3   233,933  207,769  52.96%  47.04%
CC4   246,110  212,648  53.65%  46.35%
				
JP1    95,938  162,864  37.07%  62.93%
JP2    34,099   49,931  40.58%  59.42%
JP3    52,405   68,430  43.37%  56.63%
JP4   239,343  183,827  56.56%  43.44%
JP5   209,649  213,147  49.59%  50.41%
JP6     7,852   27,792  22.03%  77.97%
JP7    19,566   99,631  16.41%  83.59%
JP8    69,100   40,329  63.15%  36.85%


Dist     Wise    Craft   Wise%  Craft%
======================================
CD02  187,076  150,161  55.47%  44.53%
CD07  160,323  144,461  52.60%  47.40%
CD08   26,468   14,814  64.12%  35.88%
CD09   39,255  119,480  24.73%  75.27%
CD10  105,224   58,786  64.16%  35.84%
CD18   62,464  178,398  25.93%  74.07%
CD22   22,479   19,942  52.99%  47.01%
CD29   51,350  100,685  33.78%  66.22%
CD36   85,152   47,195  64.34%  35.66%
				
SBOE4 111,160  333,956  24.97%  75.03%
SBOE6 403,452  338,891  54.35%  45.65%
SBOE8 225,179  161,076  58.30%  41.70%
				
SD04   57,202   22,111  72.12%  27.88%
SD06   59,943  116,758  33.92%  66.08%
SD07  242,902  168,936  58.98%  41.02%
SD11   79,698   45,696  63.56%  36.44%
SD13   39,579  158,895  19.94%  80.06%
SD15  119,640  190,784  38.54%  61.46%
SD17  125,186  119,108  51.24%  48.76%
SD18   15,641   11,636  57.34%  42.66%
				
HD126  40,122   32,983  54.88%  45.12%
HD127  55,653   34,618  61.65%  38.35%
HD128  49,175   21,666  69.42%  30.58%
HD129  49,744   34,245  59.23%  40.77%
HD130  71,894   31,468  69.56%  30.44%
HD131  10,420   44,469  18.98%  81.02%
HD132  52,080   47,898  52.09%  47.91%
HD133  53,487   34,292  60.93%  39.07%
HD134  53,678   53,121  50.26%  49.74%
HD135  37,617   36,577  50.70%  49.30%
HD137  10,841   20,738  34.33%  65.67%
HD138  33,111   30,252  52.26%  47.74%
HD139  16,338   44,533  26.84%  73.16%
HD140   9,677   21,649  30.89%  69.11%
HD141   7,162   36,255  16.50%  83.50%
HD142  14,336   41,735  25.57%  74.43%
HD143  12,465   24,123  34.07%  65.93%
HD144  14,238   16,400  46.47%  53.53%
HD145  15,761   26,507  37.29%  62.71%
HD146  12,019   42,980  21.85%  78.15%
HD147  16,327   52,404  23.75%  76.25%
HD148  24,026   35,407  40.43%  59.57%
HD149  22,369   30,513  42.30%  57.70%
HD150  57,250   39,088  59.43%  40.57%
				
CC1    98,291  276,873  26.20%  73.80%
CC2   155,580  142,504  52.19%  47.81%
CC3   236,903  204,782  53.64%  46.36%
CC4   249,017  209,766  54.28%  45.72%
				
JP1   100,430  158,362  38.81%  61.19%
JP2    35,440   48,448  42.25%  57.75%
JP3    52,981   67,919  43.82%  56.18%
JP4   240,598  182,662  56.84%  43.16%
JP5   212,371  210,308  50.24%  49.76%
JP6     8,629   26,793  24.36%  75.64%
JP7    19,649   99,743  16.46%  83.54%
JP8    69,693   39,690  63.71%  36.29%

If you just went by these results, you might think Dems did worse overall in Harris County than they actually did. None of the four candidates carried CD07, and only Veronica Rivas-Molloy carried HD135. They all still carried Harris County, by margins ranging from 6.0 to 8.7 points and 94K to 137K votes, but it’s clear they could have done better, and as we well know, even doing a little better would have carried Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft (who, despite her low score here still lost overall by less than 20K votes out of over 2.3 million ballots cast) to victory.

I don’t have a good explanation for any of this. Maybe the Libertarian candidates that some statewide races had a bigger effect on those races than we think. Maybe the incumbents had an advantage that enabled them to get a better share of the soft partisan vote. Maybe the Chron endorsements helped the incumbents. And maybe the lack of straight ticket voting did matter. The undervote rate in these races was around 4.7%, which is pretty low, but in 2018 it was around 2.7%. Picking on the Robinson race again, had the undervote rate been 2.7% instead of the 4.68% it actually was, there would have been an additional 36,154 votes cast. At the same 53.43% rate for Robinson, she would have received another 19,317 votes, with Tracy Christopher getting 16,837. That’s a 2,480 vote net for Robinson, which would be enough for her to win, by 1,291 votes. Tamika Craft would still fall short, but Dems would have won three out of four races instead of just two.

Of course, we can’t just give straight ticket voting back to Harris County and not the other nine counties. I’m not going to run through the math for each county, but given that Christopher did better in the non-Harris Counties, we can assume she’s net a few votes in them if straight ticket voting were still in effect. Maybe it wouldn’t be enough – remember, there were far more votes in Harris than in the other nine, and the Republican advantage wasn’t that much bigger, so the net would be smaller. It’s speculation built on guesswork, and it’s all in service of making up for the fact that the Democratic candidates could have done better in Harris County with the votes that were cast than they did. Let’s not get too wishful in our thinking here.

So does this affect my advice from the previous post? Not really – we still need to build on what we’re already doing, and figure out how to do better in the places where we need to do better. Maybe a greater focus judicial races is needed, by which I mean more money spent to advertise the Democratic judicial slate. As we’ve observed, these are close races in what is clearly very swingy territory, at least for now. With close races, there’s a broad range of possible factors that could change the outcome. Pick your preference and get to work on it.

Precinct analysis: Appellate courts, part 1

Introduction
Congressional districts
State Rep districts
Commissioners Court/JP precincts
Comparing 2012 and 2016
Statewide judicial
Other jurisdictions

My next two posts in this series will focus on the 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals. These courts are a little strange electorally, as the elections cover ten counties in all, and over the past few elections they have proven to be pretty darned balanced. As we know, turnout in Harris County has gone up a lot in recent years, and the county has gone from evenly split to strongly blue, yet the balance in these ten counties persists. In this post, I’m going to do a bit of a historical review, to look at the trends and see if we can spot the underlying metrics.


2008 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.58%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,111,642  70.74%   585,249  52.65%
Others     459,704  29.26%   209,510  45.57%

2012 - 14th CoA Pl 3 (47.74%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,137,580  69.82%   580,356  51.01%
Others     491,673  30.18%   197,511  40.17%

2016 - 1st CoA Pl 4 (48.95%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,273,638  69.00%   671,908  52.76%
Others     572,258  31.00%   231,702  40.49%

2018 - 1st CoA Pl 2 (50.93%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,187,403  68.63%   647,398  54.52%
Others     542,765  31.37%   233,693  43.06%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 3 (50.76%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,122  68.23%   856,056  54.35%
Others     733,364  31.77%   314,644  42.90%

2020 - 1st CoA Pl 5 (50.10%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,903  68.24%   845,951  53.75%
Others     732,455  31.76%   309,497  42.25%

2020 - 14th CoA Chief Justice (49.97%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,575,801  68.23%   841,923  53.43%
Others     733,698  31.77%   312,231  42.56%

2020 - 14th CoA Pl 7 (49.57%)

County   Tot Votes   Share  DemVotes    Dem%
============================================
Harris   1,573,716  68.25%   833,925  52.99%
Others     732,057  31.75%   309,115  42.23%

A couple of points of explanation here. For 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2018, I picked the top Democratic performer among the appellate court candidates. For 2008, that meant the one Democratic winner. In 2018, as every Dem won their race, I went with the candidate with the narrowest victory, since what I’m most interested in is the threshold needed to win. For 2020, I included all four candidates.

In each table, I separated out the total votes cast in that race from Harris County, and from all the other counties. “Share” is the share of the vote that came from Harris County, so in the 2008 race 70.74% of the total vote came from Harris County. “DemVotes” is the total number of votes the Democratic candidate got, in Harris and in the other counties, and “Dem%” is the percentage of the vote that Democratic candidate got.

We see that the share of the vote from Harris County has dropped every year, from over 70% in 2008 to a bit more than 68% this year. That doesn’t appear to be predictive of anything, as Dems swept these races in 2018 and won two out of four this year, with the lowest-performing Dem having (by a tiny amount) the largest Harris County vote share. The rise of Fort Bend County as a Democratic bastion has no doubt mitigated the shrinking contribution from Harris, but that points out again the importance of counties around Harris, as the reddening of Galveston and the smaller counties has kept these races competitive. One thing I hadn’t realized till I went through this exercise was that Waller County was quite close to even in 2008, but gave Republicans a 7K vote edge in 2020. Indeed, Dem candidates in Waller in 2020 were getting about the same number of votes as Dem candidates in Waller in 2008, after two cycles of failing to meet the 2008 number, as the Republican vote steadily climbed. As we have discussed before, Jane Robinson lost her race by 0.06 percentage points, or a bit more than a thousand votes out of over 1.5 million votes cast. In a race that close, you can point to many, many ways in which a small difference would have changed the outcome.

That’s one reason why these races interest me so much. For one, the appellate courts were a place where Dems made numerous pickups in 2020, yet still fell a bit short of expectations – I at least thought we’d win all four of these, given how well we’d done in 2018. But as you can see, it wasn’t quite to be. I don’t want to downplay the races we did win – Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra are both terrific candidates, and they are now the only Latinas on that court – I’m just greedy enough to have wanted more.

What’s frustrating to me is that I can’t tell what I think is the magic formula here. The difference between Guerra, who won by four thousand votes and 0.20 percentage points, and Robinson is tiny enough to be rounding error. The main difference is that Guerra won Harris County by ten thousand votes more than Robinson did, while Robinson did five thousand votes better in the other counties than Guerra did (she lost them by 421K while Guerra lost them by 426K). We know that Latinx candidates generally did better in Harris County this year than their peers, but that wasn’t the case outside Harris County. And even if it was, that’s not much of a lesson to learn. It was a game of inches, and we won one and lost one.

Ultimately, I think the path here is the same as the path I’ve described in the various “key counties” posts. We’re starting to move in the right direction in Brazoria County, and if we can keep that going that could be enough to tip the scales to the blue side on a longer-term basis. Basically, if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll likely be at least competitive in these races, and if we can step it up a bit, especially but not exclusively in Brazoria, we can do better than that. Maybe not the deepest insight you’ll ever read, but it’s what I’ve got.

(Assuming that the judicial districts don’t get redrawn, which I suppose they could. In 2004, the First and Fourteenth districts included Burleson, Trinity, and Walker Counties plus the current ten. We’d have zero chance of winning these races if those three were added back in. I have no idea what the process or criteria for defining the judicial districts is. I’m just saying that if Republicans decided to do something about this, they probably could.)

Next up, I’ll do the district breakdown for these four races in Harris County. After that, more judicial races and then on to the other county races. As always, let me know what you think.

Harris County posts updated election results

From Twitter:

You want to get my attention on Twitter, that’s a good way to do it. For comparison purposes, the unofficial final election night returns that the Clerk’s office sent out are here. The still-unofficial (because they haven’t yet been certified by Commissioners Court) results are here, though that URL may be temporary. A couple of highlights:

– Final turnout is now given as 1,656,686, an increase of 7,113 over the originally given total of 1,649,573. Turnout was 68.14% as a percentage of registered voters.

– Joe Biden’s lead over Donald Trump grew from 212,152 total votes to 217,563 total votes. The final score is now 918,193 to 700,630 for Biden.

– A couple of the close races changed by tiny amounts. Lizzie Fletcher’s margin of victory grew from 10,217 to 10,475 total votes. Jon Rosenthal lost 17 votes off his lead to Justin Ray to finish exactly 300 votes ahead, while Gina Calanni fell an additional 59 votes behind Mike Schofield.

– The two appellate court races cited by Adams-Hurta were of great interest to me. Amparo Guerra is leading on the SOS election night results page over Terry Adams by 1,367 votes out of 2.3 million votes cast. Meanwhile, Jane Robinson trailed Tracy Christopher by 4,311 votes. Could either of these races be affected? I had to check the other county election results pages as well, to see what final results were now in. This is what I got:


County       TC EN      JR EN      TC fin     JR fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,440      2,680      11,606      2,698     -148
Brazoria    91,378     57,684      91,378     57,684        0
Chambers    17,200      3,720      17,200      3,720        0
Colorado     7,351      2,281       7,351      2,281        0
Fort Bend  161,423    176,466     161,532    176,662       87
Galveston   94,759     54,178      95,355     54,623     -151
Grimes       9,305      2,647       9,318      2,650     - 10
Harris     734,315    838,895     733,878    841,923    3,465
Waller      14,245      7,501      14,302      7,556     -  2
Washington  12,852      3,905      12,852      3,905        0

Total    1,154,268  1,149,957   1,154,772  1,153,702

County       TA EN      AG EN      TA fin     AG fin   Change
=============================================================
Austin      11,468      2,632      11,632      2,649     -147
Brazoria    91,430     57,174      91,430     57,174        0
Chambers    17,180      3,656      17,180      3,656        0
Colorado     7,393      2,217       7,393      2,217        0
Fort Bend  162,238    175,460     162,338    175,664      104
Galveston   95,057     53,375      95,643     53,820     -151
Grimes       9,351      2,570       9,364      2,572     - 11
Harris     728,402    842,905     727,952    845,951    3,496
Waller      14,303      7,459      14,364      7,508     - 12
Washington  13,043      3,784      13,043      3,784        0

Total    1,149,865  1,151,232   1,150,339  1,154,995

The first table is Tracy Christopher (TC) versus Jane Robinson (JR), the second is Terry Adams (TA) versus Amparo Guerra (AG). The first two columns represent the Election Night (EN) numbers as posted on their SOS pages, the second columns are the final numbers now posted on the county sites. Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, and Washington still have their Election Night results up, so those have no changes. The Change column is from the Democratic candidates’ perspective, so a negative number means the Republican netted more votes.

Not surprisingly, the Harris results had the biggest effect, but in the end the winners were the same. Robinson now trails by an even smaller 1,070 vote margin, while Guerra has a bit more room to breathe with a 4,656 vote lead. Given the deltas in the other counties, my guess is that both Dems will see a small net loss. A real nail-biter in both cases, and it wouldn’t have taken much to change the outcomes. For what it’s worth, the two Dems who won these races this year were both Latinas, the two Dems that lost were not. Both Veronica Rivas Molloy and Amparo Guerra had larger leads in Harris County than Jane Robinson and Tamika Craft had, and that was what ultimately propelled them to victory. Maybe that would be different in a different years – Dems won all these races in 2018, remember – but this year it was consequential.

I suppose it’s possible there could be recounts in some of these races, but honestly, nothing is close enough to be changed. It’s a rare year that has no recounts, though, so we’ll see. Commissioners Court will certify the Harris County results on Tuesday, the statutory deadline.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

Wanted to clear up some loose ends from the late night/early morning post and add a couple of things I’d missed the first time around. I’ll have a longer “thoughts and reactions” post probably tomorrow.

– The district results from last night appear to be the same this morning, which means: No Congressional flips, Dems flip SBOE5 and SD19, Dems flip HD134 but lose HD132, for a net one seat gain the the Senate and zero seats in the House. I don’t know how many people would have bet on no net changes to Congress and the State House.

– One other place where Dems made gains was the Courts of Appeals. Dems won the Chief Justice seats on the Third (anchored in Travis and Williamson counties) and Fourth (anchored in Bexar but containing many counties) Courts of Appeals, plus one bench on the First Court (anchored in Harris, won by Veronica Rivas-Molloy) and three on the Fifth Court (Dallas/Collin, mostly). Dems fell short on three other benches, including the Chief Justice for the 14th Court, though the other result on the First Court was really close – Amparo Guerra trails Terry Adams by 0.12%, or about 3K votes out of over 2.25 million ballots. The key to Rivas-Molloy’s win was her margin of victory in Harris County – she won Harris by 133K votes, while Guerra won Harris by 114K, Jane Robinson (Chief Justice 14th Court) won Harris by 104K, and Tamika Craft (14th Court) won Harris by 90K. With Galveston, Brazoria, and Chambers County all delivering big for the Republicans, that big lead that Rivas-Molloy got in Harris was enough to withstand the assault.

– Final turnout was 1,649,457, which was 67.84%. That fell short of the loftier projections, but it’s still over 300K more votes than were cast in 2016. The new Election Night returns format at harrisvotes.com does not give the full turnout breakdown by vote type, but the PDF they sent out, which you can see here, does have it. The breakdown: 174,753 mail ballots, 1,272,319 in person early ballots, 202,835 Election Day ballots. Note that these are unofficial and un-canvassed numbers, and will change by some amount when the vote is certified, as some late overseas and military ballots arrive and some provisional ballots are cured.

– Another way to put this: 10.6% of all ballots were mail, 77.1% were early in person, and 12.3% were cast on Election Day. Just the early in person votes is a higher percentage of “before Election Day” tallies than any previous year. Will this be a new normal, at least for high-turnout even-year elections? I have no idea. Those extra days of early voting, plus all of the sense of urgency, surely contributed to that total. I don’t know that we’ll match this level going forward, but it won’t surprise me if the standard is now more than 80% of all votes are cast before Election Day (again, in even-year elections; who knows what will happen in the odd years).

– For what it’s worth, the closest countywide race was decided by about 76K votes; the next closest by about 90K, and the rest over over 100K. What that means is that if somehow all 127K of those votes cast at drive-through locations during the early voting period were suddenly thrown out, it’s highly unlikely to affect any of those races. I suppose it could tip a close non-countywide race like HD135, and it could reduce Veronica Rivas-Molloy’s margin in Harris County to the point that she’d lose her seat on the First Court of Appeals. I can’t see that happening, but I wanted to state this for the record anyway.

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

UPDATE: The SOS Election Night Returns site now shows Amparo Guerra leading by about 1,500 votes, or 0.06 points, in the First Court of Appeals, Place 5 race. Not sure where the late votes came from, but they helped her, and they helped Jane Robinson, who is still trailing but by less than 5,000 votes, or 0.18 points.

Paxton trial move back to Collin County on hold

Delay is the natural state of being in this saga. I don’t know why we’d ever expect anything else.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court has pressed pause on a ruling that would have allowed Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to stand trial for felony securities fraud in his hometown of Collin County.

That Oct. 23 ruling came three years after the case was first sent to Harris County, with prosecutors arguing they could not get a fair trial prosecuting Paxton in a part of the state where he and his wife, state Sen. Angela Paxton, are deeply politically connected.

Paxton is accused of persuading investors to buy stock in a technology firm without disclosing he would be compensated for it. He has maintained his innocence and dismissed the charges as politically motivated.

The 1st Court of Appeals in Houston has, for now, blocked the case from resuming in Collin County — likely further delaying the five-year-old case — as it considers the issues.

See here for the previous update. The Chron adds a few details.

The case was moved to Harris County after a judge ruled in 2017 that Paxton’s Republican political connections in Collin County would give him an unfair advantage at trial. But that decision has been under judicial review now for three years as Paxton’s defense team and the special prosecutors appointed in the case battle over the venue.

The prosecutors applauded the latest decision by 1st Court of Appeals Judge Gordon Goodman, a Democrat elected in 2018 as his party swept judicial races.

“The ruling of the court was not unexpected as the law and facts are very straightforward,” said Kent Schaffer, one of the prosecutors. “We are optimistic that the Court of Appeals will do the right thing, and Ken Paxton will face justice in front of a Houston jury.”

[…]

Paxton’s lawyers had argued that the case should have never been moved in the first place, because the judge made the decision after his assignment to the case had expired.

In June, Harris County state District Judge Robert Johnson ruled in Paxton’s favor and moved the case to Collin County. But the 1st Court of Appeals struck that order about a month later, after Johnson recused himself from the case because Paxton’s office is representing him in a separate suit.

The case was then reassigned to Harris County Jason Luong, a Democrat and former prosecutor with the Harris County District Attorney’s office.

Luong agreed the case should be sent back to Collin County based on his interpretation Johnson’s ruling, and he did not discuss where he believed Paxton would receive a fair trial.

The prosecutors had argued in their appeal that Luong misinterpreted the law.

Just to recap, and I’m totally relying on this Chron story rather than spending an hour digging through my own archives, but the case was first moved from Collin County to Harris County because the judge at the time, a Tarrant County jurist who had been appointed as a visiting judge precisely because no Collin County judge could handle the initial hearings, agreed with the prosecutors’ argument that Paxton would get preferential treatment in his home county. All the arguments since then have been about technicalities. It’s surely a safe bet that this current dispute will wind up before the Court of Criminal Appeals, just as the previous ones did. It’s not at all far-fetched to think that Paxton’s more recent legal troubles will see the inside of courtroom before this case does.

Idle yet hilarious thought: How much do you think Paxton will want to move the case back to Collin County if it flips blue and votes for Joe Biden this year?

Anyway. Settle in, or stay settled in if you never bothered to settle out. This will take awhile.

Judge sends Paxton case back to Collin County

Pending appeal, of course.

Best mugshot ever

A Harris County judge on Friday moved Attorney General Ken Paxton’s criminal case to Collin County, handing Paxton a major win by placing the case in his hometown, where legal experts say he’s more likely to face a sympathetic judge or jury.

Judge Jason Luong ruled that he did not have the authority to move the case, deferring to an earlier order moving the case to Collin County.

Special prosecutors Brian Wice and Kent Schaffer said Friday that they plan to appeal. Paxton’s attorneys could not immediately be reached.

The decision adds yet another layer of complication — and likely more delays — to a case that has dragged on for more than five years over numerous issues unrelated to the substance of the accusations against Paxton.

I’m going to jump in here to remind everyone that Judge Robert Johnson had ordered the case back to Collin County in June, agreeing with Paxton’s defense team that the judge who had sent the case to Harris County in the first place did not have the authority to do so. Johnson then recused himself from the case, because the AG’s office is representing the criminal district court judges in the felony bail reform lawsuit, though it is not clear that he had to do so, since Paxton is not directly involved in that case and the judges who are defendants are being sued in their official capacity, not as plain old citizens. The First Court of Appeals set that order aside in July (the technical legal term is “abated”), on the grounds that the new judge, Jason Luong, needed to have an opportunity to review Judge Johnson’s order and either agree with it or vacate it. (Team Paxton later tried to get Judge Luong removed, but that motion was denied and subsequently mocked.)

In his ruling Friday, Luong added that even if a higher court rules that he does in fact have authority, he agrees with Paxton’s lawyers that the judge who allowed the case to move to Harris in the first place lacked authority as well, meaning the case would remain in Collin County.

As it was explained to me, the same mandamus that had been filed with the First Court of Appeals to challenge Judge Johnson’s ruling will now be taken up for Judge Luong’s ruling. I should note that the First Court’s abatement was supposed to be for 45 days, but as with everything related to this Paxton case, things took longer than that. Lord only knows when the next thing will happen. In the meantime, of course, there is now the Nate Paul shitshow, and if that does not have an effect on this case somehow at some point, I will be puzzled and very, very disappointed – like, Susan Collins clucking her tongue at Donald Trump-level disappointed. What the world needed now, when not much else is happening, is some more Ken Paxton news, am I right? The Trib has more.

Endorsement watch: Judicial races

The Chron endorses two Dem challengers and one Republican incumbent for the Court of Criminal Appeals.

Judge Tina Clinton

A court’s legitimacy derives in part from its capacity to inspire trust in the minds of those who live by its rulings. “There cannot be a trust among the African American community that the system is fair when the judges dispensing that justice are all represented by just one group,” Judge Tina Yoo Clinton, a Dallas County district court judge whom we recommend for Place 4, said last month at a virtual forum organized by the Innocence Project of Texas. She was noting that there are currently no Black justices on the court, and just one of nine members is Latino.

It’s a valid point, but it’s also true that in the context of the Court of Criminal Appeals, diversity must also include a broader range of ideological perspective and of life experience. That’s because how a judge sees the law — and how he or she applies it to a particular case — is far more complex than sound bites about “activist judges” or labels such as conservative and liberal.

[…]

Place 4, Tina Yoo Clinton (D)
Tina Yoo Clinton, 50, has more than 14 years experience as a judge and 10 more as a prosecutor. She brings a combination of a veteran judge’s experience and the enthusiasm and fresh perspective of a newcomer. It’s exactly the mix the court needs.

For that reason, we recommend her over Justice Kevin Yeary, who has been on the court since 2014.

“Clearly when you look at what is going on in the United States within the criminal justice system, we have to recognize that even though we want justice to be colorblind, it is not colorblind,” Clinton said during last month’s candidate forum.

That’s a starting point that will help shape the discussions among the nine justices in ways that keep fairness at the center of the debate. Matched with her long experience and commitment to follow the law, we believe she will help render justice in which all Texans can have faith.

Place 9, Brandon Birmingham (D)
We recommend voters elect Dallas County criminal district court Judge Brandon Birmingham, 43, in Place 9, even at the high cost of losing Justice David Newell, whose voice on questions of actual innocence has been reasoned and refreshing.

But he adheres to the court’s overall emphasis on textualism, and approaches each case within a narrower view of what justice requires than would his opponent. The court’s nine members urgently need new perspectives, new sets of life experiences, and new vantage points from which to see the law and the facts in order to render decisions that have credibility with an increasingly skeptical public.

Birmingham would stretch the boundaries of that debate — and would do so using experience as a judge, a prosecutor and a change agent.

They also endorsed Justice Bert Richardson, who I will agree is a good judge, over challenger Elizabeth Frizell. At least here, the Chron did more than just nod in the direction of increasing the diversity of this court, as they did with the Supreme Court.

In the other judicial races, the Chron endorsed all four Republican incumbents on the First and Fourteenth Courts of Appeals, and five Dems and five Republicans (plus one abstention) for the district courts. I’m just going to say this: If there’s one thing we should take away from the Merrick Garland/Neil Gorsuch and Amy Coney Barrett experiences, it’s that the judiciary is to Republicans (with a huge push from the professional conservative movement) nothing but an expression of political power. Gorsuch was given, and Barrett almost certainly will be given, a lifetime tenure on the US Supreme Court, where they will consistently rule in favor of Republican and conservative positions, because the Republican-held Senate had the power to block Garland and install the other two.

Here in Texas, where we elect judges as part of the regular electoral process, there has been a call to move away from partisan elections of judges and towards some other, as yet undefined system, which may involve appointments or bipartisan panels or who knows what else. This push has emerged and grown as Democrats have begun to assert more political power in Texas – I’ve been documenting it since 2008, when we elected Democratic judges for the first time since the early nineties. What the voters want is more Democratic judges, and so it has become Very Important for the Republicans that still retain full power in this state to make sure they don’t get them.

As a matter of abstract principle, I would agree that we could do a better job picking judges than the current system we have, where judges are voted on by people who mostly have no idea who they are and what they do. I’m sure if we put a few sober and learned types in a room for a few hours, they would emerge with a perfectly fine system for selecting judges on pure merit. But we’ve had this imperfect system for a long time, and when it benefitted the Republicans it was just fine. It certainly benefits them right now, when questions about voting rights are being litigated. If more Democratic judges get elected this cycle, I consider that just to be some balance on the scales. When we get to a point of having solid Democratic majorities on the Supreme Court and the CCA, and there’s a Democratic Governor and Lt. Governor and Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, then come back with a fully-formed plan for non-partisan meritocratic judicial selections, and we can talk. Until then, I say elect more Democrats, including and especially Democratic judges. Politics has been a key part of this process from the beginning. The fact that the politics are slowly starting to favor the Democrats is not a compelling reason to change that. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Appeals court upholds District B ruling

We will finally get a runoff election in District B.

Cynthia Bailey

An appeals court ruled early Tuesday that Houston did not err when it declined to disqualify a District B city council candidate who had a felony conviction, clearing the way for a long-delayed runoff in the district.

Renee Jefferson-Smith, the third-place candidate in the race who filed the lawsuit, said she does not plan to appeal the ruling, which would effectively end the nine-month dispute.

“I am pleased with the court’s decision and I pray that Cynthia Bailey and Tarsha Jackson remain safe as they continue on with their campaigns to become the next City Council Woman for District B,” Jefferson-Smith said in a statement.

Tarsha Jackson

“It’s been long enough and the District deserves to know who will represent them. My family and I are truly excited about the opportunity to move forward and focus on what’s ahead in our lives.”

It is not yet clear when an election can be held. Attorneys involved in the case said they believe it will return now to the lower court, where visiting judge Grant Dorfman can order a new election date. In February, he ordered a May 2 election, which was derailed amid appeals.

One wrinkle is that the Texas Election Code mandates the runoff be held on the same day of the week as the original election, which was a Saturday, according to Assistant Harris County Attorney Doug Ray. That would mean the District B race cannot go on the Nov. 3 ballot, he said.

See here for my previous update. The law in question is quiet clear, mandating that a runoff election that was delayed by an election contest must be held on the same day of the week as the originally scheduled runoff. I hate the idea that this election can’t be held on the same day in November that everyone will be voting anyway, but I don’t know what can be done about it, other than Judge Dorfman saying “screw it” and daring someone to challenge him.

The central question of the case is whether Bailey, who finished second and qualified for the runoff with Jackson, is eligible for office despite her felony conviction.

Jefferson-Smith, who finished third and missed the runoff, had argued she is not. Jefferson-Smith filed two lawsuits seeking to have Bailey removed from the runoff ballot.

The Court of Appeals for the First District of Texas, like others that have handled the case, did not address directly the question of Bailey’s eligibility. A state statute says candidates cannot have felony convictions from which they have not “been pardoned or otherwise released from the resulting disabilities,” but it does not define that phrase, which has led to varying interpretations and enforcement.

Instead, the court addressed Jefferson-Smith’s claim that the City of Houston erred in administering the election by failing to declare Bailey ineligible. Her team had sent the city a packet of documents, after the election but before the vote was certified, proving Bailey was convicted.

A trial court judge said the packet did not conclusively prove Bailey was ineligible because it did not say whether she had been pardoned or otherwise released. (Bailey has argued she is released because she completed her sentence.)

In a decision posted after midnight, the three-justice panel of the First Court of Appeals agreed.

“Because the documents that Jefferson-Smith presented to the Mayor’s Office in connection with her Demand for Administrative Declaration of Ineligibility present a fact question—whether Bailey has been pardoned or otherwise relieved of her disabilities—that the Mayor had no authority to resolve, the Mayor had no ‘duty imposed by law’ to declare Bailey ineligible and made no ‘mistake’ in declining to do so,” Chief Justice Sherry Radack wrote.

Candidates who run for office in Houston check a box on their application form swearing they have not been finally convicted of a felony. The city verifies they have checked the box but does not vet their accuracy.

I’ve read the decision, and while it’s pretty dry and technical, it’s easy enough to understand. The takeaway I got from it is that Jefferson Smith might have prevailed had she taken somewhat different actions, but given what she did do, it wasn’t enough to meet the requirements of the law. I suppose it’s possible the Supreme Court could have seen it differently – for what it’s worth, the panel that ruled on the case was two Republicans and one Democrat – but Jefferson Smith ultimately chose to end her pursuit, and for that I thank her. Now let’s get this election scheduled. Houston Public Media has more.

Paxton (again) wants another judge on his case

Round and round they go.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hey, remember District B?

This makes me so mad.

Cynthia Bailey

For the last couple months, Tarsha Jackson has organized north Houston neighborhoods around criminal justice reform, helping to release a “Justice Can’t Wait” policy platform she said the city could enact immediately.

Cynthia Bailey has been working in the same communities, solving what she calls “neighborhood issues” and distributing masks and food amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected underserved communities like those in north Houston.

Renee Jefferson-Smith said she has helped ensure seniors there have hot meals and groceries.

They are familiar roles for candidates running for local office, but lately frustrating ones. Other candidates who ran on the same ballot last fall have been in office for seven months now, working within City Hall to enact policies they favor and helping to deploy city services to constituents that need them.

Tarsha Jackson

The election Jackson, Bailey and Jefferson-Smith ran in — the District B seat on city council — has been on hold since December amid an ongoing legal battle over the ballot.

District B, a majority Black and Latino area between just northeast of downtown to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, has been particularly challenged by the coronavirus pandemic.

Incumbent Jerry Davis, who ran unsuccessfully for a spot in the Texas House, has remained in the seat to ensure district residents have representation. Still, many residents and community leaders there feel left behind.

“They have gone from being upset about it, to trying to understand, to now they’re mad as hell,” said Angeanette Thibodeaux, president of the Acres Homes Super Neighborhood Council. “How ironic is this? How terrible is this? That in a time when we need representation and leadership and support, the one district that needs it more than any is disenfranchised once again. That hurts. In the pit of my stomach, that hurts.”

[…]

The candidates’ lawyers expect an appellate ruling in early August, perhaps as soon as next week, that they hope will settle the matter. Mayor Sylvester Turner has said the city will call an election as soon as the courts decide it can.

See here, here, and here for some background. First and foremost, I’m mad that our laws continue to punish people who have otherwise completed in full the sentence for whatever past crime they may have committed. Cynthia Bailey had as much right to be on that ballot as anyone. We need to fix these racist old laws.

Second, I’m mad at Renee Jefferson Smith for dragging this out. I can understand that she felt like the system wronged her, but the damage she has caused far outweighs any injury she may have received. At any point, she could have accepted the result, allowed the voters of District B to select their next Council member, and worked to change or clarify the law so that this situation would not happen again. She could have chosen to put the district’s needs ahead of her own, but she did not. She may prevail in court – I don’t think that would be a just outcome, because you cannot conclusively determine that she would have finished in the runoff had Cynthia Bailey never been on the ballot, but it is a possible ruling we could get – but if so she does not deserve to be rewarded for it. The only acceptable result at this point is for Tarsha Jackson or Cynthia Bailey to be the next Council member in B.

And just think, this situation could be even worse right now. If Jerry Davis had won his primary runoff against Harold Dutton, then District B would have no one sitting at the Council table for them, for however long it would take to get a court ruling. Even that could come with a down side, as the possibility still exists that someone will file a lawsuit over some vote or other action Davis has taken while serving as Council member-in-overtime, on the grounds that he was not legally able to serve past the end of his term. That hasn’t happened yet thank God, but it still could.

At this point, if we get a ruling before August 17, I think we can have the runoff on the November ballot. I’m assuming here a ruling that denies Jefferson Smith’s appeal and verifies that Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey are the only candidates for the office. I don’t know if this has to be approved by City Council or not, but if so we’ll need the ruling even sooner than that, say by August 10. It would be very nice to get that ruling this week. And if Jefferson Smith prevails and we need to have some kind of do-over…I don’t even want to think about it. Let’s just file this in the “Underappreciated Ways In Which 2020 Has Sucked” folder and go from there.

A whole lot of Paxton case news all of a sudden

Brace yourselves.

Best mugshot ever

A Houston appeals court on Monday abated a recent decision to move the criminal cases against Attorney General Ken Paxton from Harris to Collin County, giving a new judge on the case the chance to revisit that order.

The abatement is a win for special prosecutors Kent Schaffer and Brian Wice. It will also allow the judge, Jason Luong, to consider whether to reinstate pay to the prosecutors, who have not been paid since 2016. The prosecutors confirmed the appeals court decision to The News but declined to speak to the matter further.

Paxton’s lawyers said they were “disappointed” and “troubled” that the appeals court ruled without giving them a change to respond.

“Mr. Paxton’s response brief on the merits of returning the case to Collin County was due today and filed after the Court had already decided to abate the case,” Paxton defense attorney Bill Mateja told The News in a statement. “As such, we intend to ask the Court of Appeals to reconsider its ruling.”

I did not know that it was in play for the First Court of Appeals to “abate” the ruling that moved the Paxton case back to Collin County. (I also don’t exactly know what “abate” means here, and how it differs from “overturns or “reverses”. You lawyers out there, please chime in.) I did know that Robert Johnson, the judge in Harris County who ruled that the case should go back to Collin, then recused himself because the AG’s office will be representing criminal district court judges in Harris in the latest bail reform lawsuit. I had not known that a new judge – who, it should be noted, is in the same boat as Judge Johnson in re: the bail lawsuit, unless he decides to make like Chuck Silverman and side with the plaintiffs. I’m putting all that in here so as not to quote the whole damn story. Now back to the excerpt:

Paxton’s legal team applauded the decision [to move the case back to Collin County] at the time and said the attorney general is ready to have his day in court.

“We are gratified by the Court’s ruling and look forward to getting Mr. Paxton’s case back on track. This case has gone on far too long,” Paxton lawyer Dan Cogdell said in an emailed statement that day. Bill Mateja added: “The Prosecutors need to let Judge Johnson’s decision stand and allow Mr. Paxton to have his day in court.”

The special prosecutors appealed his decision.

In early July, the 1st Court of Appeals delayed moving the cases to Collin County until it could rule on the merits of the prosecutors’ arguments that they remain in Houston. Now, the prosecutors say the court has abated Johnson’s decision and allowed Luong, a Democrat, to revisit the move back to Collin County.

Luong, who is also being represented by Paxton’s office in the same separate case as Johnson, has not answered questions about whether he too will recuse himself from this case.

Did you know that the original Paxton indictments are now five years old? Let’s just say I don’t believe Attorneys Cogdell and Mateja in their assessment of how long this has taken and their client’s desire to see the inside of a courtroom, even one in front of a presumably friendly judge. It ain’t the not-paid-since-2016 special prosecutors who have dragged this out for so long. I have no idea what issue there may be for Judge Luong to decide in re: their pay, but 1) they deserve to be paid, and 2) any further action on that front will for sure drag this out until the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, the ball is literally in Judge Luong’s court, and we’ll see what the next action item is. The Chron has more.

UPDATE: I have been given the following explanation of what an “abatement” is:

A Texas appellate court “abates” a case when it decides that there is some action a trial judge must take before the case goes forward. The same word is used in other circumstances but it almost always means a court is pausing proceedings.

This is a mandamus in which the prosecutors are challenging Judge Johnson’s transfer order. A mandamus is technically a suit against the trial judge in their official capacity. The First Court’s order yesterday abated the case because it had learned Judge Johnson had recused himself and Judge Luong is the new judge. The case against Judge Johnson can’t proceed because there’s a new judge who must be given an opportunity to either agree or to vacate Judge Johnson’s order. If Judge Luong agrees with Judge Johnson, the mandamus will proceed against the new judge. If he vacates, it will be up to Paxton’s defense counsel to try the case here or appeal the new judge’s order.

This type of abatement is not unusual and is all but mandatory when there is a change in judges in the middle of a mandamus. It’s unfortunate that the appellate brief was filed after the abatement, but that happens sometimes. It would be unusual if the court of appeals had not abated the mandamus to allow Judge Luong time to rule.

That makes sense to me, and as you can see from the court order, the abatement is for 45 days. So, in the next six weeks or so we should know if the ruling to move the case back to Collin County is still in place or if it has been vacated. (This is assuming Judge Luong doesn’t recuse himself, in which case I presume the main effect would be to push the timeline further back, because sure, why not.) Once we have that, we’ll know who’s appealing what. Isn’t this fun?

Move to Collin County on hold, Paxton judge recuses himself

Stay with me here.

Best mugshot ever

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

District B lawsuit drags on

Double ugh.

Cynthia Bailey

It could be another four to five months before voters in Houston’s District B can select a new city council member, extending a delay that has held up a runoff there since December.

The Houston-based First Court of Appeals previously denied requests from top vote-getters Tarsha Jackson and Cynthia Bailey to expedite the appeal process of the legal case that has held up the runoff. On Tuesday, the appellate court also denied a request to dismiss the case outright.

Doug Ray, assistant Harris County attorney, said the two sides now will exchange briefs on a standard schedule, a process he said could take four or five months.

The runoff was supposed to be in December with a dozen other city contests, and the winner would have taken her seat in January. It was pulled from the ballot amid the ongoing litigation. Now, it will miss the May 2 ballot, as well.

“Who knows when there will be an election?” said Larry Veselka, the attorney representing first-place finisher Jackson. “It’s ridiculous.”

[…]

Oliver Brown, attorney for Cynthia Bailey, said Jefferson-Smith’s team is just “beating a dead horse.”

“That’s all they’re doing now,” Brown said. “They’re costing these candidates money, because they keep trying to ramp up their campaigns, and then they have to stop.”

See here and here for the previous updates. This week is the deadline for printing mail ballots, so the absence of an expedited ruling or a dismissal of the appeal means we continue slogging our way through the process. There’s a calendar date for the case for March 23, so the May election is right out at this point. Next up, barring an expedited election date granted by the state, is November. I don’t even want to think about what could happen to that possibility. What a freaking mess.

Judicial Q&A: Veronica Rivas-Molloy

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Veronica Rivas-Molloy

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Veronica Rivas-Molloy. I am honored and proud to ask for your support to become a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, Place 3.

I am a wife, a mother of three young sons, a proud immigrant to this country, and a practicing attorney of almost 20 years. I am the first person in my family to graduate from college, the first to obtain an advanced degree, and the first attorney. If elected, I will be the first judge in my family, the first Democratic elected Hispanic attorney to serve on the First Court of Appeals, and only the second Latina to serve on the court in 128 years, bringing much needed diversity to our appellate bench.

I have a degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish (with honors) from the University of Texas at El Paso. I graduated with honors and at the top of my law school class from the University of Houston Law Center. After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, gaining invaluable experience. For the last 17 years, I have worked at top-tier law firms representing my clients in litigation and appellate matters in Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have handled hundreds of complex litigation matters involving various industries and areas of the law, tried over 20 jury cases (including civil, criminal, and immigration matters), and counseled my clients on a variety of appellate matters. My experience is extensive and it has prepared me well for the position I now seek.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

There are 14 Courts of Appeals in Texas, each presiding over a specific geographic territory. The First Court of Appeals is located in Houston, Texas. The Chief Justice and eight Associate Justices preside over the court and hear civil and criminal (except death penalty) appeals originating from trial courts in 10 counties: Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I want to serve my community and give back to the legal profession that gave me a voice and the opportunity to advocate on behalf of others. I have a passion for what I do, and I want to use my skills and experience to give back to our community and serve our judicial system, for which I have profound respect. I also want to bring my wealth of experience and diverse voice to our appellate bench, where I feel I can make a meaningful contribution.

On a personal level, I also want to set an example for my children and diverse youth who may be considering a career in law. I want them to know the importance of civic duty and service, and for them to grow up knowing that immigrants, mothers, and diverse attorneys can be Justices and serve our communities with integrity, excellence, and hard work.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

I have practiced law for almost 20 years, handling a wide-variety of complex business disputes throughout Texas and other jurisdictions in the United States. I have represented numerous clients in state and federal courts, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and before domestic and international arbitral tribunals in disputes involving oil and gas operations, real estate, healthcare, construction, personal injury, employment matters, trade secrets, non-compete and restrictive covenants, and a diverse range of complex contractual and business-related matters. I have met the highest and most rigorous standards at all levels of my legal profession: student, law clerk, and legal practitioner.

I graduated with honors from the University of Texas at El Paso with a double degree in Criminal Justice and Spanish. I graduated from the University of Houston Law Center with honors and at the top of my law school class, where I served as an Article Editor on the Law Review, a Prosecutor on the Honor Court, the Vice President of the Hispanic Student Bar Association, and a Class Representative for the Student Bar Association.

After graduation, I secured a highly coveted position as a judicial clerk working for the Honorable Ewing Werlein, Jr. in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, where I gained invaluable experience working on a significant number of civil litigation matters. I worked on procedural and substantive matters assisting the court with trials, dispositive motions, jurisdictional disputes, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, injunction hearings, pre-trial matters, jury charges, findings of fact, and conclusions of law. I engaged in rigorous legal analysis and extensive brief writing, drafting recommendations on the myriad of cases and legal matters presented to the court over the course of two years.

Working in court also helped me understand not only the importance of having open access to our courts and the significance of the rule of law to our democracy, but also the importance of staffing and administration of a court’s docket to ensure efficient, fair and prompt resolution of pending cases. I also understood very early on that judges are servants of our judicial system, and, that as such, they have a duty to rule with impartiality, justice, equality, and with utmost respect for our judicial system. I learned the importance of having proper judicial temperament, and the importance of excellence, hard work and integrity.

Following my clerkship, I worked at the law firm of Baker Botts, LLP, where I continued to work on various litigation matters helping further refine my analytical, oral, and written advocacy skills. I represented clients across different industries in matters involving general commercial litigation and complex business disputes. I also served as a volunteer prosecutor for the City of Houston, where I managed the docket of the court (first-chair) once a week, engaging in various matters, such as plea bargaining, interfacing with defense counsel, working with court staff, officers, and witnesses, and trying numerous cases to the jury involving administrative and criminal matters.

For the last 10 years, I have worked at the law firm of Jones Walker, LLP, advocating for my clients and representing them on a diverse range of complex business disputes and appellate matters. I represent clients in state and federal courts across Texas, and other jurisdictions in the United States, including county courts at law, district courts, appellate courts, and arbitral tribunals. I have first-chair experience handling a significant number of bench and jury civil matters, helping my clients develop legal strategy and conduct fact discovery and investigations, motion practice, depositions, preparation and presentation of witnesses and experts, evidentiary hearings, expert challenges, legal briefs, jury charges, pre-trial matters, mediations, arbitrations, trial, and appeals in a wide-variety of complex business disputes.

My significant experience in civil litigation makes me uniquely suited to be a Justice on the First Court of Appeals, because more than half of all appeals filed before that court involve civil matters, including complex business disputes like the ones I have been handling for years. It is important to elect judges who have a robust civil litigation practice and experience in trial courts, from which these civil appeals originate. I have that experience. In addition, it is vital that we elect judges who have strong written advocacy skills. As a litigator and former law clerk, a significant part of my practice has been devoted to rigorous legal analysis and extensive written advocacy.

In addition to my litigation practice, I work directly with Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) providing pro bono representation to unaccompanied minors in their immigration and asylum proceedings. I also serve as General Counsel for Holy Trinity Episcopal School of Greater Houston, where I provide pro bono legal advice and representation to the school on various matters. I am also actively involved in my sons’ schools, having served on their parent teacher organizations, volunteering on multiple committees and special projects, and volunteering as their catechism teacher at our church.

5. Why is this race important?

Our courts of appeals hear significant cases that affect not only the parties before the court, but our communities at large. The decisions appellate courts render also influence our jurisprudence on a statewide level because they set the precedent our lower courts and legal practitioners apply and follow in their daily practice. It is important to elect judges who have a proven record of success, high qualifications for the job, and a commitment to doing the hard work necessary to give each case the attention it deserves for the parties, our communities, and the integrity of our judiciary and system of laws.

It is also vital that our courts reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. No attorneys of color presently serve on the First Court of Appeals, which presides over some of the most diverse counties and cities in our country. It is imperative that we improve the diversity of our appellate bench. Diversity not only enhances our judiciary by ensuring that different life perspectives and experiences form part of the decision-making process when ruling on significant legal issues, it also helps enhance the public perception and legitimacy of our judicial system.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have significant experience and the skill set necessary to be an excellent Justice on the First Court of Appeals. My record of success is a testament to the quality of work and commitment I will bring to the bench.

I have a strong work ethic and self-discipline, both of which have served me well and have resulted in my success as an attorney. I have achieved not only academic success in my career, graduating with honors and at the top of my law school class, but also professional success, securing a federal clerkship and working at top-tier firms, providing legal advice to my firm clients and also giving back by representing indigent clients on a pro bono basis in various matters. I will bring that same work ethic and discipline to the bench to ensure diligent, fair, and prompt resolution of matters before the court.

I have a reputation for producing high caliber legal work, and for professionalism, always working with the utmost respect for my colleagues, clients, and adversaries. I strive to work with integrity and the highest ethical standards at all times—values that are the foundation of my legal career and should be at the core of any judicial candidate or jurist. If excellence, hard work, and integrity are values that resonate with you, then I ask for your vote. Those values have defined me as a person and professional, and they will guide me as a Justice on the First Court of Appeal serving you and our community. I hope to earn your trust and your vote. It will be a privilege to serve you and our judiciary.

Judicial Q&A: Amparo Monique Guerra

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Amparo Monique Guerra

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

My name is Amparo Monique Guerra and I am running for Justice, First Court of Appeals, Place 5. I am a lawyer, judge, mom of three children, and wife. I am the first Hispanic partner in my law firm. I have 17 years’ experience as a litigator, at both the trial and appellate levels, in state and federal courts throughout Texas and the U.S. I handle complex cases for a wide range of clients, from individuals to large multi-national corporations. When I was originally appointed to be a Municipal Judge for the City of Houston in 2005, I was the youngest sitting judge on the court, having been appointed at 28 years old.

I am a graduate of Rice University (double-major in Sociology and Latin American Studies), where I was on the President’s Honor Roll. I obtained my J.D. from the University of Houston Law Center, which awarded me a Dean’s Merit Scholarship, as well as Public Interest Fellowships to work with Texas Rural Legal Aid, and with Farmworker Legal Services in Michigan.

I clerked for a U.S. District Judge immediately following law school. I look forward to bringing my background, strong work ethic, and experience as a lawyer and a judge to the Court of Appeals.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The intermediate courts of appeals hear civil cases (including, but not limited to, business, family, probate, and personal injury) and criminal cases (except death penalty cases, which are appealed directly to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals) from the trial courts throughout a ten-county district, which includes Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington Counties.

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

Public service has always been a passion of mine. My mother (Retired Justice Linda Yanez) was the first Latina on a court of appeals in Texas. I was a federal judicial law clerk for U.S. District Judge Filemon Vela immediately following law school. Judge Vela showed me that the duties of a judge include being an excellent jurist, but should also extend beyond the courtroom to the community it serves. He often had us law clerks speak at schools and at naturalization ceremonies. In addition, we were instructors in a pre-law academy for undergraduate students. He and my mom instilled in me how one can use a law degree to serve the community, and so as soon as I could be a judge, I became one at 28 years old. As a judge, I treat everyone with dignity and respect no matter who they are or where they come from.

I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm, and I have been promoting diversity on the bench for years. When I saw that Democrats could win seats at the courts of appeals here (which essentially had not happened in about 20 years), I was ecstatic, but when I looked at the composition of the bench, I noticed that the court sorely lacked the diversity that I know this community embodies. Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; however, our courts of appeals have no African American and no Hispanic justices. This is the perfect opportunity for me to utilize my unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge to serve my community in a greater capacity.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

In addition to the qualifications listed in response to Question 1, I am eminently qualified to be a justice on the court of appeals because I have a wide breadth of experience as a lawyer handling cases throughout Texasin federal and state, trial and appellate courts, and other states, and I have judicial experience in a criminal court.

My most notable strength is my ability to dive into complex legal issues, and quickly master and apply the law to the facts. I have a varied background representing all types of clients from individuals and families, to business of all sizes, including sole proprietorships and large multi-national corporations. In fact, for the past four years, I have served as lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience as a federal judicial law clerk, and as a trial court judge, having presided over many trials. Therefore, I know firsthand what it means to make decisions from the bench that effect litigant’s lives, and the profound responsibility that entails. I have a deep respect for the rule of law, and I strive to apply the law in the most just way possible.

I handily won the State Bar of Texas Judicial Poll, which shows that more lawyers prefer me and find me more qualified than my opponent in the primary. I am humbled by the outpouring of support I have received during this campaign from elected officials, and highly respected members of the bar, including criminal defense lawyers, civil litigators, personal injury lawyers, legal aid lawyers, appellate practitioners, criminal law and appellate law professors, in-house counsel, and a former Justice on the Court of Criminal Appeals (the highest criminal court in Texas).

5. Why is this race important?

As stated in my response to Question 2, this is a court of general jurisdiction that hears civil and criminal cases from its ten-county district. Unlike the Texas Supreme Court (Texas’ highest court for civil cases), and the Court of Criminal Appeals (Texas’ highest criminal court), which decide which cases to accept on a petition for review, the intermediate courts of appeals must issue opinions regarding each and every case that is appealed to them. Because fewer cases are appealed to our two supreme courts, and those courts do not accept review of every case, the intermediate courts of appeals are often the last word on many important legal issues. Where there is no opinion from the two supreme courts on an issue which an intermediate court of appeals is called to decide, that appellate opinion controls the lower/trial courts within the court of appeals district.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I have a wide breadth of experience in my seventeen years of practice, in addition to being a judge. I have worked in legal aid clinics, municipal and federal courts, as well as law firms of all sizes—small, mid-size, and large. I am the only judge, the only woman, and the only person of color in this race. I am the first Hispanic partner at my law firm. I have 3 children, 2 jobs, and a husband who is a tremendous partner.

I have an outstanding reputation among my peers for excellent research and writing and oral advocacy skills, as well as a keen ability to dive into complex legal issues, swiftly master and apply the law to the facts, and successfully advocate for my clients. I do all of this in an environment where I am typically the only woman and/or the only person of color among my colleagues and opposing counsel.

I have demonstrated I have judicial temperament on the bench. I am a vetted and trusted public servant. I was repeatedly reappointed to serve as a municipal judge because of my impeccable record of integrity, impartiality, and strong work ethic (I handle a demanding law practice full-time, and I serve on the municipal court part-time).

I have represented all types of clients from individuals and families, to businesses of all sizes, including sole proprietorships, small businesses, and national, as well as multi-national, corporations. In fact, I have been lead counsel for the largest corporation in the world for the past four years, handling cases for it in state and federal courts in Texas and Colorado.

I have experience handling very complex (and typically very high-dollar) matters, not just run-of-the-mill cases, in the following areas: business disputes including business torts and breach of contract cases in various industries, such as energy, oil & gas (including Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act matters), medical care, real estate, and insurance; employment and ERISA litigation and advice; consumer litigation; insurance coverage and bad faith; civil rights; receivership; Carmack Amendment; toxic/mass tort; and personal injury, including wrongful death. I also serve as a guardian ad litem in personal injury cases involving minors.

My education has been in highly competitive academic environments. I have always been a studious person ever since I was very young. When I was in seventh grade, I was selected based on my exemplary achievement test scores by the Duke University Talent Identification Program to sit for the SAT with high school students. My scores prompted interest in me by an organization called A Better Chance (ABC), which places academically gifted students in selective college preparatory schools throughout the country. Through ABC, I was accepted to and received a full scholarship to attend St. George’s School in Newport, Rhode Island as a boarding student. I attended St. George’s for all four years of high school and graduated with distinction. While in high school, I worked during one summer with Mano A Mano, a March of Dimes organization in Brownsville. I worked in medical clinics for indigent people in very impoverished areas on both sides of the border, and did community outreach to educate and disseminate information to women regarding proper prenatal health. This program was, in large part, a response to the prevalence of encephalitic births on both sides of the border. Working in clinics in Mexico and Brownsville without electricity or running water, and witnessing the lives of those much less fortunate than I impacted me greatly and reinforced my interest in public service. That experience showed me two worlds – one of extreme wealth in New England, and another of extreme poverty on the U.S.-Mexico border. That juxtaposition has stayed with me and informs much of what I do and how I think about social justice issues.

I am multi-lingual—an invaluable asset in this most diverse area of the country. I am fluent in Spanish from my family background and formal education. I have a Superior Certification in Legal and Commercial Spanish from the Chamber of Commerce in Madrid, Spain. I also speak Portuguese and Italian.

When I set my mind on a goal, I give it my all. My candidacy is no exception. My hard work is one of the many reasons I have been awarded every organizational endorsement granted to date in this race. My organizational endorsements are in addition to my many individual endorsements from elected officials and well-respected lawyers.

My election will change the face of the court of appeals where we sorely lack diversity. This court of appeals district includes ten counties, including Harris and Fort Bend. It is well-known that Houston is the most diverse city, and Fort Bend is the most diverse county in the country; yet, our courts of appeals do not reflect our rich diversity. We need diversity, not for diversity’s sake, but to have a mixture of backgrounds and ideas at the table on this multiple judge court. My mother, Retired Justice Linda Yanez, was the first Latina to serve on a court of appeals in Texas. She left a legacy I would be honored to continue here on the Houston court of appeals.

I will apply my strong work ethic, unique background, education, exceptional legal skills, and experience as a judge when I am elected to the court of appeals, where I will continue to be a hard-working judge ruling on cases expeditiously with respect for the rule of law.

Endorsement watch: The judges

After a couple of Republican endorsements, the Chron gives us a slate of judicial candidates for the Democratic primary in the district courts. A brief summary:

Singhal in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

We recommend Dinesh Singhal, 52, who has tried more than 25 cases and handled 19 appeals.

Hootman in Democratic primary for 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

We recommend Tim Hootman, 57, an experienced appellate lawyer who is known for having an atypical legal approach.

Robinson in Democratic primary for chief of the 14th Court of Appeals

We recommend Jane Robinson, 46, who is board certified in civil appellate law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization.

Kronzer in Democratic primary for 14th Court of Appeals Place 7

We recommend Wally Kronzer, 65, who has extensive appellate court experience in state and federal courts.

Weiman in Democratic primary for 80th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Larry Weiman, 64, who has been on this bench since 2008.

Harvey in the Democratic primary for the 164th Harris County District Court

We recommend Grant J. Harvey, 55, who is a highly regarded litigator who has participated in numerous trials and appeals.

Daic in the Democratic primary for the 165th Harris County District Court

We recommend Megan Daic, 34, for a court that needs a more efficient and decisive judge.

Acklin in the Democratic Primary for the 176th Harris County District Court

We recommend Bryan Acklin, 34, who is a former prosecutor and is now a criminal defense attorney.

Martinez in the Democratic Primary for the 179th Harris County District Court

We recommend Ana Martinez, 39, who gained a sterling reputation as a human trafficking prosecutor before she became a defense attorney.

Moore in the Democratic Primary for the 333th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Daryl Moore, 58, who may be the most respected incumbent running in Harris County.

Kirkland in the Democratic Primary for the 334th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent Steven Kirkland, 59, who has been on this bench since 2016 and served on another civil bench and a municipal bench before that.

Gaido in the Democratic Primary for the 337th Harris County District Court

We recommend Colleen Gaido, 39, who is a respected former prosecutor and current criminal defense attorney.

Bell in the Democratic Primary for the 339TH Harris County District Courts

We recommend Te’iva Bell, 39, who has served in the felony courts from three perspectives – as a prosecutor, a criminal defense attorney and a public defender. H

Powell in the Democratic Primary for the 351th Harris County District Court

We recommend incumbent George Powell, 54, who was elected to this bench in 2016.

Phillips in the Democratic Primary for the 507th Harris County District Court

We recommend C.C. “Sonny” Phillips, 59, who has been practicing family law, and occasionally appellate law, for 34 years.

They did actually say more about the candidates they recommend, and they noted who else was on the ballot. Go read all that for yourself. As noted, Weiman, Moore, Kirkland, and Powell are incumbents, while Harvey (Alex Smoots-Thomas), Daic (Ursula Hall), Acklin (Nikita Harmon), Martinez (Randy Roll), and Phillips (Julia Maldonado) are running against incumbents. Here are the Q&A’s I’ve run from candidates in these races:

Tim Hootman, 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Jane Robinson, Chief Justice, 14th Court of Appeals
Wally Kronzer, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Grant Harvey, 164th Civil Court
Megan Daic, 165th Civil Court
Bryan Acklin, 176th Criminal Court
Ana Martinez, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Steven Kirkland, 334th Civil Court

Q&A’s from candidates not endorsed by the Chron:

Tamika Craft, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. “Velda” Faulkner, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright, 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Cheryl Elliott Thornton, 164th Civil Court
Jimmie Brown, 165th Civil Court
Judge Randy Roll, 179th Criminal Court
Judge Julia Maldonado, 507th Family Court
Robert Morales, 507th Family Court

Q&A responses from Natalia Cornelio (351st Criminal Court) and Cheri Thomas (14th Court of Appeals, Place 7) are in the queue and will be published in the next couple of days. The Chron will do endorsements for the Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals separately, and will not be endorsing in the County Court, Justice of the Peace, and Constable races. That’s one way to get through this long list of candidates and races in a (mostly) timely fashion.

One last thing: As is often the case with these judicial endorsements, I agree with some and not so much with others. The one that surprises me is the endorsement of Judge Powell. After the big deal the Chron made about not endorsing any judge or judicial candidate who didn’t support bail reform in 2018, it’s a bit jarring to see no mention at all of that subject in this context.

Judicial Q&A: Tim Hootman

(Note: As I have done in past elections, I am running a series of Q&As for judicial candidates in contested Democratic primaries. This is intended to help introduce the candidates and their experiences to those who plan to vote in March. I am running these responses in the order that I receive them from the candidates.)

Tim Hootman

1. Who are you and what are you running for?

Tim Hootman, running for Justice of the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

2. What kind of cases does this court hear?

The First Court of Appeals reviews orders and judgments from all trial courts from ten counties (Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller, and Washington).

3. Why are you running for this particular bench?

I love appeals and am the most qualified candidate for the job.

4. What are your qualifications for this job?

Argued in the United States Supreme Court. Handled appeals in every appellate court in Texas. Handled 373 state appeals. Handled 17 federal appeals. Have over 80 published opinions. Handled dozens of state and federal jury trials in 19 Texas counties. Ex staff attorney in the First Court of Appeals. The specific details of my qualifications are on my website: www.HootmanForJudge.com.

5. Why is this race important?

This race is important because the judges reviewing the orders and judgments from the trial courts of ten counties should be done by the most qualified person possible.

6. Why should people vote for you in the primary?

I am the most qualified candidate running for the First Court of Appeals, Place 5.

Texas Lawyer’s judicial race coverage

As you know, I’ve been busy with judicial Q&As as usual, but this year I’m not the only one chasing down judicial candidates to ask them why they’d make good judges. Texas Lawyer, a part of the Law.com publication, is flooding the zone with its own Who’s Running For Judge In Texas Elections? 2020 Voters Guide. Normally you need to give Texas Lawyer your email address and are limited to three articles per month – they’ll send you a daily newsletter and breaking news, both of which have highlighted stories that I’ve blogged about that I hadn’t yet seen elsewhere – but they appear to have made this feature publicly available. They’ve got their own Q&As with the candidates, most of whom responded to them, which has some overlap with my own questions – not a surprise, there’s only so much you can ask them because there’s only so much they can ethically say. Anyway, a big thumbs up from me, so go check it out and annoy the critics of our current system by making informed choices in the upcoming primaries.

After-deadline filing review: Courts

Let’s return to the wonderful world of scoping out our candidates. Today we will concentrate on judicial races. Previous entries in this series are for the greater Houston area, Congress, state races, and the Lege.

Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals

I’ve actually covered all of these races, and given bits of info about the candidates, here and here. Go read those posts for the details, and here as a reminder are the candidates’ names and Facebook pages:

Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Amy Clark Meachum
Supreme Court, Position 1 (Chief Justice) – Jerry Zimmerer

Supreme Court, Position 6 – Brandy Voss
Supreme Court, Position 6 – Staci Williams

Supreme Court, Position 7 – Kathy Cheng
Supreme Court, Position 7 – Lawrence Praeger

Supreme Court, Position 8 – Gisela Triana
Supreme Court, Position 8 – Peter Kelly

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – William Demond
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Elizabeth Frizell
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 3 – Dan Wood

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 4 – Brandon Birmingham

Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Tina Yoo Clinton
Court of Criminal Appeals, Place 9 – Steve Miears

First and 14th Courts of Appeals

Covered to some extent here, but there has been some subsequent activity, so let’s get up to date.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Dinesh Singhal – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3
Jim Sharp – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 3

Rivas-Molloy and Singhal were mentioned previously. Jim Sharp is the same Jim Sharp that won in 2008 and lost in 2014.

Amparo Guerra – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5
Tim Hootman – 1st Court of Appeals, Place 5

Both candidates were also previously mentioned. This is the seat now vacated by Laura Carter Higley.

Jane Robinson – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice
Jim Evans – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 1, Chief Justice

Jane Robinson has been mentioned previously. Jim Evans was a candidate for Family Court in 2014, and was appointed as an associate judge on the 507th Family Court in 2017, making him the first openly gay family court judge in Texas. He doesn’t have a campaign presence yet as far as I can tell.

Wally Kronzer – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Tamika Craft – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Cheri Thomas – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
V.R. Faulkner – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Dominic Merino – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7
Lennon Wright – 14th Court of Appeals, Place 7

Not sure why this court has attracted so many contestants, but here we are. Kronzer was the only candidate I knew of in that previous post; Cheri Thomas came along a bit later, and the others were all later in the filing period. Texas Judges can tell you some more about the ones that don’t have any campaign presence.

Harris County District Courts

The following lucky duckies have no opponents in the primary or the November general election:

Kristin Hawkins (11th Civil)
Kyle Carter (125th Civil)
Mike Englehart (151st Civil
Robert Schaffer (152nd Civil)
Hazel Jones (174th Criminal)
Kelli Johnson (178th Criminal)
Ramona Franklin (338th Criminal)

The next time you see them, congratulate them on their re-election. The following almost-as-lucky duckies are in a contested primary for the 337th Criminal Court, with the winner of the primary having no opponent in November:

Brennen Dunn, who had been in the primary for the 185th Criminal Court in 2018; see his Q&A here.
Colleen Gaido.
Veronica Sanders.
David Vuong
John A. Clark, whom I cannot positively identify. I hope everyone sends in Q&A responses, but I’m not voting for any candidate I can’t identify. I hope you’ll join me in that.

The following do not have a primary opponent, but do have a November opponent:

Fredericka Phillips (61st Civil).
RK Sandill (127th Civil), who in 2018 was a candidate for the Supreme Court.
Michael Gomez (129th Civil).
Jaclanel McFarland (133rd Civil)
Elaine Palmer (215th Civil).

Natalia Cornelio is currently unopposed in the primary for the 351st Criminal Court following the rejection of incumbent Judge George Powell’s application. That may change pending the outcome of Powell’s litigation in the matter.

The following races are contested in both March and November:

Larry Weiman (80th Civil, incumbent).
Jeralynn Manor (80th Civil).

Alexandra Smoots-Thomas (164th Civil, incumbent). Formerly Smoots-Hogan, now dealing with legal issues of her own.
Cheryl Elliott Thornton (164th Civil), who has run for Justice of the Peace and County Civil Court at Law in the past.
Grant Harvey (164th Civil).

Ursula Hall (165th Civil, incumbent).
Megan Daic (165th Civil).
Jimmie L. Brown, Jr. (165th Civil).

Nikita Harmon (176th Criminal, incumbent).
Bryan Acklin (176th Criminal).

Randy Roll (179th Criminal, incumbent).
Ana Martinez (179th Criminal).

Daryl Moore (333rd Civil, Incumbent).
Brittanye Morris (333rd Civil).

Steven Kirkland (334th Civil, incumbent). It’s not a Democratic primary without someone challenging Steve Kirkland.
Dawn Rogers (334th Civil).

Te’iva Bell (339th Criminal).
Candance White (339th Criminal).
Dennis Powell (339th Criminal), whom I cannot positively identify.
Lourdes Rodriguez (339th Criminal), whom I also cannot positively identify.

Julia Maldonado (507th Family, incumbent).
Robert Morales (507th Family).
CC “Sonny” Phillips (507th Family).

That about covers it. I should do a separate entry for JPs and Constables, and I did promise a Fort Bend entry. So there will likely be some more of this.

UPDATE: I missed Robert Johnson, the incumbent Judge of the 177th Criminal District Court (the court that now has Ken Paxton’s trial), in the first go-round. Johnson had an opponent file for the primary, but that application was subsequently rejected. He has no November opponent, so you can add him to the list of people who have been re-elected.

Filing report update

We’re a week out from the official filing deadline for the 2020 primaries. There’s still a lot of known candidates who haven’t filed yet, but I expect there will be a mad flurry of activity this week, as is usually the case. Don’t be surprised if we hear of an out-of-the-blue retirement or two, as that is known to happen at this time as well. I’m going to take a quick look at where we stand now, and will provide other reports as needed before the deadline on Monday. My sources for this are as follows:

The Patrick Svitek spreadsheet.
The Secretary of State Candidate Information page, which is quite handy and reasonably up to date.
Texas Judges, whose provenance is unknown to me, but they have the most information I’ve found about candidates for statewide and Courts of Appeals judicial races.
Jeff Blaylock’s Texas Election Source – I may be too cheap to subscribe, but the free info he includes is always worth noting.

SBOE

We have a third Democrat in the race for SBOE6, Kimberly McLeod. She is Assistant Superintendent of Education & Enrichment at HCDE and a former professor at TSU. She joins former HCDE Board member Debra Kerner (who has filed) and teacher Michelle Palmer (who had not yet filed, at least according to the SOS, as of this weekend).

We have a filing for SBOE5, the most-flippable of the SBOE districts up for election this year, Letti Bresnahan. Google tells me that a person by this name was a Trustee at San Antonio’s Northside ISD (she is not on the Board now). She was elected in 2008, narrowly re-elected in 2012, and I guess didn’t run in 2016; the Bexar County Elections report for May 2016 doesn’t list the NEISD Position 6 race, so who knows what happened. In 2015, she voted to keep the name of San Antonio’s Robert E. Lee High school; it was subsequently changed to Legacy of Education Excellence (LEE) High School in 2017, by which time as far as I can tell she was no longer on the Board. That’s a whole lot more words than I intended to write about her or this race – and mind you, I can’t say for sure this is the same Letti (Leticia) Bresnahan. I noted this because I’ve been keeping an eye on this race – the district was carried by Hillary Clinton in 2016, it was the bluest of the Republican-held SBOE districts in 2018, and the incumbent is a wingnut. So I was gonna write something when a Dem filed, I just didn’t expect it to be this.

State Senate

Someone named Richard Andrews has filed as a Democrat against Sen. Borris Miles. The Svitek spreadsheet has him as a General Election opponent, but his website clearly says “Democrat”, and the SOS has him as a Democrat. He’s a doctor, and that’s all I know about him.

State House

Current SBOE member Lawrence Allen, Jr, who is the son of State Rep. Alma Allen, has filed in the increasingly crowded Democratic primary in HD26. It’s one of the nine GOP-held districts that Beto won in 2018. Rish Oberoi, Suleman Lalani, and 2018 candidate Sarah DeMerchant have also filed.

Travis Boldt has filed in HD29, in Brazoria County. That was one of two near-miss districts (Beto got 47.0%) in which no Dem was on the ballot in 2018; HD32, which does not yet have a candidate filed, was the other.

Sandra Moore, who lost in the 2018 Dem primary to Marty Schexnayder, has filed to run again in HD133.

Ashton Woods has changed the name of his Facebook page to indicate he plans to run in the primary for HD146, currently held by second-term Rep. Shawn Thierry. He has not filed as of this writing.

So far, no one else has filed to run in the primary for HD148, where Anna Eastman is in the runoff for the special election, and has made her filing for 2020.

First Court of Appeals

I hadn’t gotten into the Courts of Appeals in my previous discussions, but especially after the sweep of these races by Dems in 2018 (and not just on this court), they will surely be of interest to multiple candidates.

Veronica Rivas-Molloy, who has officially filed, and Dinesh Singhal are in the race for Place 3 against incumbent Russell Loyd, who was elected in 2014. The Texas Judges website also lists Keith F. Houston as a candidate, but he appears to have decided not to run.

Amparo Guerra and Tim Hootman have both filed for Place 5, which had been held by the now-resigned Laura Carter Higley. There are three Republicans running so far, and there may be another if Greg Abbott appoints someone to fill the still-vacant seat prior to the filing deadline.

14th Court of Appeals

Jane Robinson is the (so far, at least) lone Democrat running for Chief Justice. I saw her at the HCDP Friendsgiving last month but did not have the chance to walk up and say Hi. The position is held by Justice Kem Thompson Frost, who is not running for re-election. Justice Tracy Christopher, who holds Place 9, is running for Chief Justice. She was last elected in 2016, so she would not otherwise be on the ballot. My assumption is that if she wins, she will move over from Place 9, which will make Place 9 vacant, and Abbott will appoint someone who would then run in Christopher’s spot in 2022. If she loses, she’ll remain in her spot and run for re-election (or not, as she sees fit) in 2022.

Wally Kronzer, who has filed, and Cheri Thomas are running for Place 7. Kronzer ran for Place 5 on this court in 2010. Ken Wise, in his first term, is the incumbent.

District courts

I don’t see any primary challengers yet for incumbent Democratic district court judges. I have heard someone is circulating petitions to challenge Judge Alex Smoots-Thomas, which I think we can all understand. I’m not in a position to say anything more than that as yet.

County offices

Audia Jones has officially filed for Harris County DA. Christian Menefee and Vince Ryan have both filed for County Attorney. Michael Moore has filed for County Commissioner in Precinct 3; Kristi Thibaut and Diana Alexander both announced their filings on Facebook over the weekend, but the SOS has not caught up to those filings yet. Bill McLeod, of accidental resignation fame, has filed to win his old seat on County Civil Court at Law #4 back. Incumbent Judge Lesley Briones has not yet filed. We will have a contested primary for at least one of the two HCDE at large positions, as Erica Davis has filed in Position 5; here’s her appointment of treasurer. Andrea Duhon, who had run for a different HCDE position in 2018, has already filed an appointment of treasurer for this race. David Brown is running for the other spot, Position 7, and as far as I know has no Dem opponent as yet.

Now you know what I know. We’ll all know a lot more in a week’s time.

Justice Higley resigns

This is clearly the best course of action.

Justice Laura Higley

Justice Laura Carter Higley, who lives in West University and served on the Houston-based court, submitted her notice to Gov. Greg Abbott, the appeals court’s clerk confirmed Tuesday. In the letter, she did not offer a reason for stepping down from the bench, he said.

“Her service is appreciated by us and the state of Texas,” clerk Christopher Prine said.

The justice, a Republican, has held Place 5 on the court since 2002. She was re-elected in 2008 and 2014, with her term set to expire December 2020.

[…]

It’s unknown whether Justice Higley has been on the receiving end of any official complaints related to her work. Those would be brought to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct, the oversight group for judges, interim executive director Jacqueline Habersham has said.

See here for the background. Greg Abbott has accepted the resignation, and will appoint a new justice, who will be on the ballot in 2020 as Higley would have been. If recent patterns hold, he’ll appoint one of the Republican judges who were ousted in either 2016 or 2018. Regardless, I wish Laura Higley all the best with her health and care.

The case of Justice Laura Higley

This is a sad situation, one with potentially fraught political implications.

Justice Laura Higley

An appeals court justice serving Southeast Texas continues to sit on the bench as she suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, all while facing familial discord over the control of her $8 million estate, court records show.

Her sons launched an effort this month to become her legal guardians, alleging that Justice Laura Carter Higley, 72, is continuing with her daily routine in a manner contrary to the path of her failing cognitive health. That includes driving herself to work downtown and serving in her capacity on the First Court of Appeals based in Houston, said sons Garrett C. Higley and Robert Carter Higley.

“Due to the recent (and rapid) progression of her Alzheimer’s disease, Justice Higley’s mental state has deteriorated to the point that she is no longer able to care for her own physical health or manage her own financial affairs,” the Higley brothers said in the filing for guardianship.

Laura Carter Higley became the subject of the guardianship case in mid-October, just a week after receiving an official diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, according to documents filed in Harris County Probate Court No. 2. Her wellness issues began more than a year earlier with a diagnosis of an unspecified mild neurocognitive disorder, the sons said in their attempt to pull decisions regarding Higley’s care away from her husband, West University Place Mayor Bob Higley.

[…]

The judge began experiencing mild neurocognitive issues as early as November 2017, according to her sons’ filing. The unspecified disorder progressed to a mild neurocognitive disorder stemming from possible Alzheimer’s disease in March, which again worsened to a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease on Oct. 9, court records show.

The justice’s name is not listed next to any decisions made on appeals cases since her diagnosis earlier this month, according to the First Court of Appeals website. But she has been involved in hundreds of decisions on civil and criminal cases since March.

Higley is one of nine justices on the court, which serves Austin, Brazoria, Chambers, Colorado, Fort Bend, Galveston, Grimes, Harris, Waller and Washington counties. The judges mostly hear appeals on cases decided in lower district and county courts in their jurisdiction.

Lillian Hardwick, a Texas attorney who wrote the “Handbook of Texas Lawyer and Judicial Ethics,” said that judges may be fearful of leaving their bench too early while facing an illness. They might enjoy the work, be hesitant to cut off retirement benefits or may not know the scope of their problem.

On the other hand, a justice might feel they’re having issues remembering certain things at home, but “by golly, she can tell you the family law code backwards and forwards,” Hardwick said. Only in the event their disability impedes the ability to perform their duties would they be violating constitutional requirements.

“They should either be retired by somebody or they should be removed,” she said. “That judge is not able to be a judge, it’s pretty simple.”

The justice’s colleagues might be in the best position to notify the commission of a potential unfitness for office, said Jonathan Smaby, the executive director at the Texas Center for Legal Ethics.

The Texas Code of Judicial Conduct requires judges to be competent and diligent, he said, although the justice might not be aware of their own lack of competence.

“It’s not always obvious to the person when they’re suffering from age-related decline,” Smaby said. “To say it’s an ethics violation makes it sound like it’s intentional.”

There’s a lot more in there about the dispute between Justice Higley’s husband and sons. I don’t want to get into that, but we have to consider the implications of Justice Higley’s health. That assumes there is an issue with her health – we have allegations but no confirmation, so we’re in the realm of speculation, which is an uncomfortable place to be. I hope she is well, and I hope that if that changes, or if any of her colleagues has reason to believe that it has changed, that they take appropriate action with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The people who have cases before the First Court of Appeals deserve judges who are all at the top of their game.

In the meantime, Justice Higley will be up for re-election in 2020. It is certainly possible that she will step down and allow Greg Abbott to appoint someone to her seat, so that person would run instead. Like I said, all speculation. I expect we’ll hear something more in the near future.

Appeals court upholds dismissal of term limits lawsuit

Score one more for the city.

A Texas appeals court on Tuesday upheld a lower court ruling that struck down a lawsuit seeking to invalidate a 2015 voter-approved referendum extending term limits for city officials.

At issue in the suit was Proposition 2, a ballot measure that changed Houston’s charter to limit elected officials to two four-year terms instead of the previous cap of three two-year terms.

Community activists Phillip Paul Bryant and James Scarborough alleged in their lawsuit that former mayor Annise Parker and the city of Houston used “deceptive ballot language” to “selfishly expand term limits.”

Parker was term-limited out of office and did not receive a longer term due to the ballot referendum, which easily passed.

Eric Dick, an attorney for Scarborough, said he would appeal the case.

“I said from the beginning it’s going to be decided in the Supreme Court of Texas,” Dick said.

See here for the background, and here for a press release from the city. The court’s ruling is here, and the TL;dr version of it is “the district judge got it right when he ruled that the ballot language was sufficiently fine”. They rejected the plaintiffs’s argument that the ballot language was misleading. Obviously, the Supreme Court is gonna do what the Supreme Court is gonna do, but for now at least it’s all systems normal for this year’s election.

Appeals court affirms pension bond lawsuit

Hope this is now over.

Mayor Sylvester Turner

The Texas 1st Court of Appeals has struck down an appeal from a Houston businessman who contested the city’s 2017 pension bond referendum, appearing to end the legal challenge that began almost a year and a half ago.

Mayor Sylvester Turner’s office had denied former housing director James Noteware’s allegation that the mayor misled voters into approving the $1 billion bond sale with a “materially misleading ballot description.”

Noteware claimed that the election authorized the city to pay off the bonds by levying a tax that exceeds its voter-imposed revenue cap.

A state district judge last year dismissed Noteware’s claim without ruling on his motion for summary judgment in the case.

In the ruling, the judge agreed with the city’s argument that the court lacked jurisdiction because Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton had issued an opinion approving and validating the bonds, while Noteware’s claim “depends on contingent or hypothetical facts.”

See here, here, and here for the background, and here for the ruling. Noteware’s claims are summarized in the Chron story, while the city countered that 1) the Attorney General certified the bonds as being in compliance with the revenue cap; 2) the election was held, the bonds were sold, and the taxes to pay for them were levied, so there’s no action for the court to take; and 3) any claim that payment of the bond may violate the revenue cap in the future cannot be litigated now. The court accepted the city’s arguments and the appeals court upheld the ruling. Based on this ruling, it’s theoretically possible there could be future litigation over that last point, but if so it will most likely be someone else’s problem.

So you want to run for something in 2020

You’re an ambitious Democrat in Harris County. You saw what happened these last two elections, and you think it’s your time to step up and run for office. What are your options that don’t involved primarying a Democratic incumbent?

1. US SenateWe’ve talked about this one. For the record, I would prefer for Beto to try it again. He could win, and would likely be our best bet to win if he does. But if he doesn’t, and if other top recruits choose other options, this is here.

2. CD02 – Todd Litton ran a strong race in 2018 against Rep.-elect Dan Crenshaw, who was almost certainly the strongest nominee the GOP could have put forward for this spot. Crenshaw has star potential, and a much higher profile than your average incoming GOP freshman thanks to that Saturday Night Live contretemps, but he’s also a freshman member in a district that has move dramatically leftward in the past two cycles. In a Presidential year, with another cycle of demographic change and new voter registrations, this seat should be on the national radar from the beginning.

2a. CDs 10 and 22 – See above, with less star power for the incumbent and equal reasons for the districts to be visible to national pundits from the get go. The main disadvantage, for all three districts, is that this time the incumbent will know from the beginning that he’d better fundraise his butt off. On the other hand, with a Democratic majority, they may find themselves having to take a lot of tough votes on bills involving health care, climate change, voting rights, immigration, and more.

3. Railroad Commissioner – There are three RRC seats, with six year terms, so there’s one on the ballot each cycle. Ryan Sitton will be up for re-election if nothing else happens. Kim Olson may be making noises about this race, but so far that’s all we know.

4. Supreme Court and Court of Criminal Appeals – Nathan Hecht (Chief Justice), Jeff Boyd, and whoever gets named to replace the retiring Phil Johnson will be up for the former, and Bert Richardson, Kevin Yeary, and David Newell will be up for the latter. We really should have a full slate for these in 2020. Current judges who are not otherwise on the ballot should give it strong consideration.

5. SBOE, District 6As we have seen, the shift in 2018 makes this look competitive. Dan Patrick acolyte Donna Bahorich is the incumbent.

6. SD11 – As I said before, it’s not competitive the way the Senate seats of interest were competitive in 2018, but it’ll do. It may be closer than I think it is, at least as far as 2018 was concerned. I’ll check when the full data is available. Larry Taylor is your opponent.

7. HDs 138, 126, 133, 129, and 150 – More or less in that order. Adam Milasincic might take another crack at HD138, but it’s up for grabs after that.

8. 1st and 14th Courts of Appeals – There are two available benches on each, including the Chief Justice for the 14th. Justices do step down regularly, and someone will have to be elevated to fill Phil Johnson’s seat, so the possibility exists that another spot will open up.

9. HCDE Trustee, At Large, Positions 5 and 7 – Unless a district court judge steps down and gets replaced by Greg Abbott in the next year and a half or so, the only countywide positions held by Republicans on the 2020 ballot are these two, which were won by Jim Henley and Debra Kerner in 2008, then lost in 2014. Winning them both would restore the 4-3 Democratic majority that we had for two years following Diane Trautman’s election in 2012. It would also rid the HCDE Board of two of its least useful and most loathsome members, Michael Wolfe and Don Sumners. (Ridding the board of Eric Dick will require waiting till 2022, and a substantive shift in the partisan makeup of Precinct 4.) Get your engines ready for these two spots, folks.

10. JP Position 1 and Constable, Precincts 4, 5, and 8 – Dems came close to winning Constable in Precinct 5 in 2016, losing by about one percentage point, but didn’t field challengers in any of the other races. All three precincts were carried by Beto O’Rourke this year, so especially given the limited opportunities elsewhere, one would think these would be enticing options in 2020. And hey, we didn’t field any challengers for JP Position 2 in any of these precincts this year, so there will be another shot in 2022, too.

11. Harris County Attorney – Yeah, I know, I said options that don’t involve primarying an incumbent. Vince Ryan has done an able job as County Attorney, and is now in his third term after being elected in 2008. He has also caught some heat for the role his office played in defending the county’s bail practices. We can certainly argue about whether it would be proper for the person whose job it is to defend the county in legal matters to publicly opine about the wisdom or morality of the county’s position, but it is a fact that some people did not care for any of this. I can imagine him deciding to retire after three terms of honorable service as County Attorney, thus making this an open seat. I can also imagine him drawing one or more primary opponents, and there being a contentious election in March of 2020. Given that, I didn’t think I could avoid mentioning this race.

That’s how I see it from this ridiculously early vantage point. Feel free to speculate wildly about who might run for what in the comments.

Omnibus election report

It’s after midnight, I’ve mostly posted stuff on my long-dormant Twitter account (@kuff), and I will have many, many thoughts in the coming days. For now, a brief recap.

– As you know, neither Beto nor any other Dem won statewide, thus continuing the shutout that began in 1996. However, as of this writing and 6,998 of 7,939 precincts counted, O’Rourke had 3,824,780 votes, good for 47.86% of the total. In 2016, Hillary Clinton collected 3,877,868 votes. It seems very likely that by the time all is said and done, Beto O’Rourke will be the biggest vote-getter in history for a Texas Democrat. He will have built on Hillary Clinton’s total from 2016. That’s pretty goddamn amazing, and if you’re not truly impressed by it you’re not seeing the whole picture. We’re in a different state now.

– Beto may not have won, but boy howdy did he have coattails. Colin Allred won in CD32, and Lizzie Fletcher won in CD07. Will Hurd is hanging on to a shrinking lead in CD23, up by less than 1,200 votes with about 14% of the precincts yet to report. He was leading by 6,000 votes in early voting, and it may still be possible for Gina Ortiz Jones to catch him. Todd Litton (45.30% in CD02), Lorie Burch (44.21% in CD03), Jana Lynne Sanchez (45.25% in CD06), Mike Siegel (46.71% in CD10), Joseph Kopser (47.26% in CD21), Sri Kulkarni (46.38% in CD22), Jan McDowell (46.91% in CD24), Julie Oliver (44.43% in CD25), and MJ Hegar (47.54% in CD31) all came within ten points.

– Those coattails extended further down the ballot. Dems picked up two State Senate seats, as Beverly Powell defeated Konni Burton in SD10 (Wendy Davis’ old seat) and Nathan Johnson trounced Don Huffines in SD16. Rita Lucido was at 46.69% in SD17, but she wasn’t the next-closest competitor – Mark Phariss came within three points of defeating Angela Paxton in SD08, a race that wasn’t really on the radar. Oh, and in an even less-visible race Gwenn Burud scored 45.45% in SD09, while Meg Walsh got to 41.60% against Sen. Charles Schwertner in SD05 (he was just over 55% in that race). We could make things very, very interesting in 2022.

– And down in the State House, Dems have picked up 11 seats:

HD45, Erin Zwiener
HD47, Vikki Goodwin
HD52, James Talarico
HD65, Michelle Beckley
HD102, Ana-Marie Ramos
HD105, Terry Meza
HD113, Rhetta Bowers
HD114, John Turner
HD115, Julie Johnson
HD135, Jon Rosenthal
HD136, John Bucy

Note that of those seven wins, a total of four came from Denton, Hays, and Williamson Counties. The Dems have officially gained a foothold in the suburbs. They also lost some heartbreakingly close races in the House – I’ll save that for tomorrow – and now hold 12 of 14 seats in Dallas County after starting the decade with only six seats. This is the risk of doing too precise a gerrymander – the Republicans there had no room for error in a strong Democratic year.

– Here in Harris County, it was another sweep, as Dems won all the judicial races and in the end all the countywide races. Ed Emmett lost by a point after leading most of the evening, while the other Republicans lost by wide margins. Also late in the evening, Adrian Garcia squeaked ahead of Commissioner Jack Morman in Precinct 2, leading by a 112,356 to 111,226 score. Seems fitting that Morman would lose a close race in a wave year, as that was how he won in the first place. That means Dems now have a 3-2 majority on Commissioners Court. Did I say we now live in a different state? We now live in a very different county.

– With 999 of 1,013 precincts in, Harris County turnout was 1,194,379, with about 346K votes happening on Election Day. That puts turnout above what we had in 2008 (in terms of total votes, not percentage of registered voters) but a hair behind 2012. It also means that about 71% of the vote was cast early, a bit less than in 2016.

– Oh, and the Dems swept Fort Bend, too, winning District Attorney, County Judge, District Clerk, all contests judicial races, and County Commissioner in Precinct 4. Maybe someone can explain to me now why they didn’t run candidates for County Clerk and County Treasurer, but whatever.

– Possibly the biggest bloodbath of the night was in the Courts of Appeals, where the Dems won every single contested race in the 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th, 13th, and 14th Courts. I count 16 incumbent Republican judges losing, with several more open Republican-held seats flipping. That is utterly amazing, and will have an impact far greater than we can imagine right now.

– Last but not least, both Houston propositions passed. Expect there to be a lawsuit over Prop B.

The Courts of Appeals

The other judicial races where Dems have a chance to gain ground.

Republicans dominate Texas politics — but their stranglehold is especially noticeable in the courts.

Republicans hold all 18 seats on the state’s two high courts. Of the state’s 14 appeals courts, Democrats hold majorities on just three. On the other 11 courts, Democrats have no seats at all.

Democrats are hoping to flip that advantage on Election Day. In their eyes, the stars have aligned. They have a high-profile liberal darling running a competitive race for U.S. Senate at the top of the ticket. They have a controversial Republican president expected to generate backlash in his first midterm election. And enough judicial seats are up for election that Democrats could flip the four sprawling appellate court districts that serve Austin, Dallas and Houston. Hillary Clinton won those districts in 2016, but the courts are currently held entirely by Republicans.

If Democrats can sweep those races in 2018, they’ll take control of half the state’s appeals courts. And strategists say that goal is in sight.

[…]

No Democrat has been elected to the Dallas-based 5th Court of Appeals since 1992. The six-county district includes liberal-leaning Dallas, but also some of Texas’ most reliably red areas. In Dallas, as in Houston and Austin, large, urban centers contribute the lion’s share of the judicial district’s electorate, but right-leaning rural and suburban voters in surrounding counties have handed victories to Republicans for the past several election cycles. Only the 4th Court of Appeals, based in San Antonio, has a partisan split with Democrats in the majority. The Legislature controls these maps; the districts have changed only twice since 1967, most recently in 2005.

[…]

Ken Molberg, a district judge in Dallas, ran for 5th Court of Appeals in 2014 and came up nearly 72,000 votes short. This year, in another attempt, he’s confident things will be different. Molberg, a former Dallas County Democratic Party chair, has accumulated several hundred thousand dollars — an impressive sum for such an unstudied race — and said his region of the state is “ground zero for the party this go around.”

“The potential to switch this court in one election cycle is there, and it would be somewhat earthquake-like if that happened,” Molberg said. “It’s a tough race all the way around, but my analysis is that it can be done.”

Molberg is the best-funded of the eight Democrats battling Republicans for seats on the 13-justice court. But he said the slate will likely succeed or fail as a group.

“I don’t think individual campaigns have any effect at the court of appeals or district court level. …That’s an example of where you’re almost entirely dependent on straight-ticket voting,” said Jay Aiyer, a political science professor at Texas Southern University. “At the courthouse level, it’s easier for one party to dominate.”

[…]

“There is a real conformity, a uniformity of judicial thought on these courts that I think would really benefit from different experience,” said Meagan Hassan, who’s running as a Democrat for the Houston-based 14th Court of Appeals. She pointed to the tiny fraction of dissenting opinions written by Houston-area appellate judges, arguing that ideological balance is needed for the critical decisions these courts make.

In Tyler, for example, an all-Republican court of appeals struck down as unconstitutional the state’s new “revenge porn” law. The 3rd Court of Appeals is currently weighing the city of Austin’s paid sick leave ordinance. And state appellate courts are the last appellate stop for the vast majority of criminal cases in the state — yet many state appellate judges have no background in criminal law.

Democratic wins, Hassan said, “would bring balance to the court that hasn’t existed there in 25 years.”

That’s a theme several of the CoA candidates mentioned in the Q&As I did with them this year. They also point out that a lot of the Court of Appeals rulings stand because they don’t get heard by the Supreme Court or the CCA. I wrote about these races in 2016, when there were several pickup opportunities available, in part due to the wipeout of 2010. Dems did gain one seat each on the 4th and 13th Courts of Appeals in 2016, the latter being one they lost in 2010. They had gained three on the 4th and lost one on the 3rd in 2012, with all of those being up for re-election this time around.

For the 1st and 14th Courts, which are the ones that include Harris County, Dems lost the CoA races by a wide margin in 2014 but came much closer in 2016. Here’s an example from 2014 and an example from 2016. The deficit was close to 150K votes in 2014 but only about 40K votes in 2016. The formula for a Democratic win is pretty straightforward: Carry Harris County by a lot, break even in Fort Bend, and limit the damage in Brazoria and Galveston. That’s all very doable, but it’s likely there won’t be much room for error. It all starts with running up the score in Harris County (or Travis County for the 3rd, and Dallas County for the 5th). If that happens, we can win.

Endorsement watch: Don’t forget the judges

The Chron got some national buzz for their blanket non-endorsement of judges who support the current bail structure, but overall they’re supported a large number of Republican incumbents on the bench. Not all by any means, but well more than a majority. I want to highlight three races where they endorsed Democratic challengers, as in all three cases the Republicans (two incumbents, one running for an open seat) are truly deserving of defeat.

For Supreme Court, Place 4, the Chron endorsed RK Sandill:

RK Sandill

District Judge R.K. Sandill is running for our state’s highest civil judicial office on a platform of moderation. We don’t usually hear that from judicial candidates, but most don’t run against an incumbent like John Devine.

Devine gained a reputation as an ideologue when he campaigned for district court with the promise to “put Christianity into government.” As a district judge, he cemented his reputation as a hard-right jurist when he fought to keep the Ten Commandments on display in his Houston courtroom. More recently, Devine wrote a bizarre dissent to a decision by his colleagues not to hear a case involving same-sex spousal benefits for city of Houston employees.

Devine wrote that government is justified in treating same-sex couples differently because “opposite-sex marriage is the only marital relationship where children are raised by their biological parents.” He completely ignored that the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the case of marriage.

But you don’t have to rely on our assessment of Divine’s bias. Almost half of the attorneys polled in the Houston Bar Association 2017 judicial evaluation questionnaire gave him the lowest possible rating for impartiality. Sandill received more favorable votes on the Houston Bar Association preference poll than the one-term Devine — a rare occurrence of a challenger beating an incumbent. In the State Bar of Texas poll, Sandill received 2,446 votes to Devine’s 1,957.

Add our endorsement to the list.

Devine has been an embarrassment since he knocked off a perfectly fine district court judge in Harris County in 1994. He doesn’t belong anywhere near a bench. The Chron also endorsed Steven Kirkland for Place 2, but at least the incumbent he opposes isn’t a complete travesty.

For Presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, the Chron endorsed Maria T. (Terri) Jackson:

Terri Jackson

The editorial board has faced so many tough decisions in our judicial endorsements that it’s a relief to have an easy choice. Voters should confidently pull the lever for Maria T. Jackson, 54, in this race for presiding judge on Texas’ highest criminal court. Jackson has been the criminal district court judge in Houston for more than a decade, handling thousands of cases ranging from low-level drug offenses to capital murder. She told us she’s only been reversed twice by the court she’s seeking to join.

The former municipal judge is proud of the many people she has helped to rehabilitate, but she first experienced transforming lives in the 1980s as director of a school that helped juvenile offenders and gang members.

Overall, Jackson’s approach reflects a blend of toughness and compassion. After she adopted more stringent probation policies for DWI defendants, the entire county soon followed her example.

The graduate of Texas A&M School of Law, formerly Texas Wesleyan School of Law, noted that people don’t tend to care about judges until they need them. But voters should care about ethics questions concerning the current presiding judge of Texas’ highest criminal court, Sharon Keller.

I trust you are familiar with Sharon Keller and her disgraceful body of work. If we want real criminal justice reform, we need some change at the top of the judicial heap as well as in the district courts and DA offices.

Finally, for First Court of Appeals, Place 7, the Chron endorsed Julie Countiss. They begin with the story of how outgoing Justice Terry Jennings switched to the Democratic Party just before the 2016 election, saying the GOP had left him behind:

Julie Countiss

Candidate Terry Yates, on the other hand, seems to fit in with the party Jennings abandoned.

Yates filed an amicus brief asking the 14th Court of Appeals not to construe the right to same-sex marriage to apply to equal partner benefits for city of Houston employees.

Counsel should have the right to advocate for the positions of their clients, but when we asked him about the legality of same-sex marriage during an editorial board meeting, Yates said he didn’t have a deep enough understanding of the overarching Supreme Court case to weigh in.

Throughout the meeting he dodged and weaved when we asked about his political activities and relationship with Steve Hotze — a political activist who once proclaimed that all the gays needed to be driven out of Houston and whose organization has been declared a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The close ties to Hotze is more than enough to disqualify Yates. Countiss only got one paragraph in the Chron endorsement, but it’s enough. Her Q&A with me is here. If you have Republican friends who are willing to split their ticket here and there, these are three races you can pitch to them for that.