Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Florida

You can donate to Ted Cruz’s 2024 opponent now

Kudos to Daily Kos for being out ahead of the curve.

Not Ted Cruz

We’re not gonna lie: Holding the Senate in 2024 is going to be hard. Democrats are defending 23 seats to just 11 for Republicans, and three of those are in states Trump won. Several more are in swing states.

But Democrats have defied political gravity before. In 2020, against all odds, we flipped not one but two seats in Georgia in those epic runoffs, enough to retake the majority. And in 2022, we gained a seat by flipping Pennsylvania, despite the fact that the party in power almost always loses ground in midterm years.

That means only one thing’s for sure: You can’t draw any foregone conclusions about what the coming election cycle may hold.

What’s more, there are two races where we can go on offense in ’24, targeting two of the most odious Republican senators who escaped with just narrow wins when they were last on the ballot: Ted Cruz in Texas and Rick Scott in Florida.

We also have a plan that’ll allow us to start preparing for battle right now—we don’t need to wait. Thanks to ActBlue’s nominee funds, we can donate funds to all of the top races immediately.

Those funds hold all donations in escrow and then give them to the winner of each Democratic primary. That gives our nominees a huge boost just when they’ll need it most, ensuring they can hit the ground running and make the strongest possible case to voters.

Right now, we’re starting with Texas and Florida as well as the open Democratic seat in Michigan, but we’ll be adding more races as the election develops.

Please donate $10 or even $20 apiece to each of these races to help Democrats keep the Senate blue in 2024!

We need to find an opponent, or at least start talking about one, soon. As noted, Rep. Colin Allred’s name is out there, but you know the rules: Until we hear those words from his lips or keyboard, it’s all just rumor. But at least it’s a start. And look, Texas and Florida are the two best, and possibly only even remotely plausible, Democratic pickups in 2024. To say the least, there’s a lot of work to be done. May as well get started.

Universal Studios to open a theme park in Frisco

Of interest, at least to those in the target demographic.

Another major development is coming to Frisco.

City business leaders on Wednesday morning announced that a new Universal Studios theme park is planning to come to the booming Collin County suburb.

The park will be a kids-themed park with immersive experiences and rides involving Universal movies, leaders said.

Universal operates five theme parks and several more resorts.

The Frisco park will sit on 97 acres near the Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway. The park will be about one-fourth of the size of Universal’s main theme parks, officials said. The Frisco park will be “a scale appropriate for our young family audience,” officials said at the press conference.

Officials did not announce an expected opening date.

It’s been a few years, but I’ve been to the Universal Studios park in Florida. It was fun – I was there as part of a business trip, which these things are quite conducive to. This one will be pitched a little differently, per the Dallas Observer.

The new park will be built on the northeast corner of Dallas North Tollway and Panther Creek Parkway, just a few miles east of the Grandscape entertainment and shopping district in The Colony. The 97-acre park, tentatively named Universal Kids Florida, will be “a one-of-a-kind theme park, unlike any other in the world, specifically designed to inspire fun for families with young children,” according to a statement released by Universal Parks & Resorts.

“We have a portfolio of terrific attractions that appeal to young families around the world and we had an idea to bring all those together and create a destination that is specifically designed to appeal to families with young children,” said Mark Woodbury, chairman and chief executive officer of Universal Parks & Recreation at Wednesday’s press conference after revealing the first artist’s rendering of the new theme park. “That’s what you’re seeing in this illustration now, and that’s what we hope to bring to Frisco.”

Universal’s new Frisco location will also have an adjacent hotel themed to the park’s kid-friendly design, with room for expansion for future attractions and services. Universal released an artist’s rendering of an overview of the theme park showing possible attractions. These include a boat ride on a lake at the center of the property, a land with a medieval castle, a visitors center and playground space that looks similar to buildings in the film Jurassic Park and the Netflix kids’ animated series Camp Cretaceous, based on the Jurassic Park and Jurassic World films.

Woodbury described the park as “a lush landscape environment [with] four or five themed lands, each one of them full of attractions, interactive experiences, discovery experiences, exploration, learning opportunities and just a rich, rich experience for families to enjoy together.”

So far, neither the city of Frisco nor Universal have released any further details regarding construction or a possible opening date, nor which movie or television properties and attractions will be included in the new theme park concept. Universal noted in its statement that the park is “intended to have a completely different look, feel and scale than Universal’s existing parks and will appeal to a new audience for the brand.”

The new Universal Studios concept in Frisco is aimed at younger visitors, and will be the first American expansion made by the theme park in the almost 33 years since Universal Studios Florida opened in Orlando.

Click over the see the artist’s rendering. I have to assume that the name will have “Texas” in it and not “Florida”, because that would just be weird. But who knows. It will surely be a few years before this thing opens. What do you think, is this something you’ll be first in line to experience or something you’ll avoid like the plague? TPR, the Chron, the Current, and CultureMap have more.

It’s going to be a brutal legislative session for LGBTQ folks in Texas

I really wish this weren’t the case, but it is. It’s going to be bad.

Two bills that would ban classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity in Texas public schools before certain grade levels are poised to receive top Republican backing in this year’s legislative session. But critics warn that the legislation could further marginalize LGBTQ students and families while exposing teachers to potential legal threats.

The two bills — authored by Reps. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands, and Jared Patterson, R-Frisco — closely resemble legislation out of Florida that critics dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” lawHouse Bill 631 and House Bill 1155 are among a flurry of anti-LGBTQ legislation awaiting lawmakers when they return to the Capitol on Tuesday.

Florida’s law prohibits schools from teaching about sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten through third grade. Both Texas bills mirror such a ban. Toth’s HB 631 would expand the restriction until fifth grade. Patterson’s HB 1155 would extend it to eighth grade.

Their proposals would also prohibit lessons on sexuality and gender identity at any grade level if they are “not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate.” Patterson’s bill doesn’t define what is appropriate for various age groups. Toth’s bill requires the lessons to align with state standards but doesn’t specify which standards.

Like Florida’s law, the two Texas bills don’t explicitly ban the use of the word “gay” in schools. The bills’ authors also maintain that the legislation would protect “parental rights” by allowing parents to more directly control what their children learn in school, including the existence of different sexual orientations and gender identities.

“Parental rights are paramount to the safety and well-being of a child,” Patterson said in a Jan. 3 tweet introducing his bill. “Therefore, I filed HB 1155 to ensure no school teaches radical gender ideology to any child from K-8th grade, and where parents must review and sign off on any health-related services.”

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has signaled that he would support passing a Texas version of the Florida law — even before these bills were filed.

“I will make this law a top priority in the next session,” he said in a campaign email last April.

Critics of the legislation argue that the bills’ vague nature would suppress discussion related to LGBTQ issues and representation.

“The reality is that everybody has a gender identity and sexual orientation; avoiding those conversations is incredibly difficult,” Adri Pérez, an organizing director with Texas Freedom Network, told The Texas Tribune. “What it becomes is a tool to be leveraged specifically against LGBTQIA+ people, because what stands out is not the people who fit in but the people who are being specifically targeted and attacked as being different.”

[…]

Chloe Kempf and Brian Klosterboer, attorneys with the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said the bills could pose explicit risks to teachers and school districts in the form of lawsuits from parents who believe they’re not following the law.

Toth’s bill outlines a mechanism for parents to sue school districts for violating his proposals, which includes the parental notification portion of that bill. Experts say that part of these bills could require teachers to potentially out their students, and parents could sue districts if teachers don’t comply. School districts would be saddled with the cost of those lawsuits, experts say.

More broadly, Kempf said, the bills would pose risks to schools and educators in the form of potential ultra vires claims, which enable citizens to sue public officials who violate state laws. Although it’s not clear if these types of lawsuits would be successful, Klosterboer said, the larger impact is more confusion and headaches for schools.

“When a law is vague, it allows for discriminatory and targeted enforcement. And it also creates a very hostile and chilling atmosphere where people … go out of their way to self-censor,” Kempf said.

The bills’ vague language could also present challenges for schools trying to protect teachers from potential lawsuits.

“[Schools] might not even know what to tell teachers and staff how to actually protect themselves and protect the school district,” Klosterboer said.

Klosterboer added that it seems “very likely” that if Gov. Greg Abbott signs one of the bills into law, it would invite legal challenges.

[…]

Ultimately, LGBTQ advocates argue that these legislative actions are just another attack on an already marginalized population. As of last week, Texas Republican lawmakers have already filed 35 anti-LGBTQ bills for the 2023 session, far outnumbering the number of such bills that were filed ahead of the 2021 session, according to [Ricardo Martinez, CEO of Equality Texas].

“The legislation is meant to stigmatize LGBTQ people, isolate LGBTQ kids, and make teachers fearful of providing safe and inclusive classrooms,” he said.

There is ongoing litigation over Florida’s “don’t say gay” law. It will eventually be decided by SCOTUS. So yeah, that’s going great, too.

I would like to say something encouraging here. For sure, plenty of smart and passionate and dedicated people will do everything they can to fight these terrible bills, and you should do everything you can to help them. But the reality is that the Republicans have the numbers. They can pass whatever bills they want. This is what they want to do, and they believe they have a mandate after the 2022 election. They’re not going to stop until they’re voted out. Again, I wish I could tell you something else, but I can’t. It’s going to be a very rough six months. The Observer has more.

Lawsuit filed to keep The Former Guy off the 2024 ballot

Good luck with that.

Former president Donald Trump is facing a legal challenge to his 2024 bid for the presidency from a fellow Republican.

John Anthony Castro, an attorney from Texas and long-shot candidate for president in 2024, filed the lawsuit in federal court on Friday arguing that Trump was constitutionally ineligible to hold office under Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

Known as the “Disqualification Clause,” the section prohibits anyone who engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” against the United States from holding “any office, civil or military, under the United States.” Castro is arguing that Trump’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection should disqualify him from holding public office again.

“The framers of Section 3 of the 14th Amendment intended the constitutional provision to be both self-executing and to provide a cause of action,” Castro, who’s representing himself, wrote in the complaint. “More specifically, the Union sought to punish the insurrectionary Confederacy by making their ability to hold public office unconstitutional.”

The Disqualification Clause mostly sat dormant since 1869 until last fall, when a New Mexico judge ousted Cowboys for Trump founder Couy Griffin from his position on the Otero County Commission for breaching the Capitol complex on Jan. 6.

Several advocacy groups, including Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), have vowed to pursue similar legal action against Trump during his 2024 run.

“The evidence that Trump engaged in insurrection is overwhelming,” CREW President Noah Bookbinder wrote in a letter to the former president on Nov. 3, before he declared his candidacy. “We are ready, willing and able to take action to make sure the Constitution is upheld and Trump is prevented from holding office.”

Castro was among the giant herd of candidates who ran in the CD06 special election in 2021. He won 5.51% of the vote, which was probably in the top half of performers. I saw another story about this that described him as a “long shot candidate”, and I’d say that’s accurate. He filed this lawsuit in Florida, and ironically drew the Trump-toadiest judge out there, Aileen Cannon; he says he plans to disqualify her from hearing the case, which checks out. He also noted that the advocacy groups that intend to file their own lawsuits will do so later in the year, and he wanted to get out ahead of things. I don’t expect anything to happen with this lawsuit, but it ought to be fun to watch regardless. Bloomberg has more.

Look to the state legislatures for the next frontiers in forced birtherism

The state of Texas will of course be on the forefront of this, but it will surely follow examples from other states as well.

As statehouses across the country prepare for next year’s legislative sessions — most for the first time since Roe v. Wade was overturned — Republican lawmakers are pushing for further restrictions on reproductive health, even in states where abortion is already banned.

But fissures are already emerging. Now, anti-abortion lawmakers must decide if they will push new abortion bans — a subject of debate among some abortion opponents — if they will amend existing bans to allow for abortions in cases of rape of incest, or if they will move to other reproductive health issues such as contraception. Abortion opponents have struggled to agree on all of them, especially with total abortion bans proving unpopular among voters.

“We will see this split in the Republican Party around following essentially their base, which wants to ban abortion without any exceptions, and the larger public,” said Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state policy for the Guttmacher Institute.

Near-total abortion bans are in effect in 13 states, and others have limited access: In Georgia, the procedure is banned for people later than six weeks of pregnancy, and in Florida and Arizona, it is banned after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Bans in seven other states have been temporarily blocked but could take effect pending state court rulings.

With Republicans controlling the U.S. House, federal abortion legislation — whether a ban or national protection — is unlikely to pass. State legislatures are the likeliest source of new abortion policy, and most work only part-time, meeting to consider bills for a few months either every year or every other year. The legislative year typically starts in January, but lawmakers are starting to prefile bills, offering a first glimpse into what they hope to accomplish next year.

Two bills in Texas, one of the few states that has bills prefiled, show how legislation could prevent people from leaving the state to access abortion.

Republican lawmakers have put forth a bill that would prohibit government entities from giving someone money that might be used to travel out of state for an abortion. Another bill would eliminate state tax breaks for businesses in the state that help cover their employees’ travel costs associated with getting an abortion outside of the state.

Though no other states have similar bills yet, those could, if passed, offer a model for other states seeking to restrict abortion access further without directly banning interstate travel. Texas has already banned abortion completely, and it was the first state to eliminate access to abortions after six weeks, even before Roe v. Wade was overturned.

In Missouri — which, prior to Roe’s overturn had some of the most restrictive abortion policies in the country — lawmakers have begun to pre-file bills intended to keep people from accessing abortion. The procedure is already banned there, but no state law prevents people from getting medication abortion pills from another state, or from traveling out of state for an abortion.

If passed, these bills could change that. One would make it a felony to transport drugs that are intended to be used to induce an abortion, though the bill would not criminalize pregnant people. (Similar legislation last year did not pass.) Another bill would treat a fetus as a person — legislation that could effectively equate abortion with murder. Both could pass this session, Nash said, though it’s hard to tell what abortion bills lawmakers will prioritize until they come back to the capitol.

There’s more, so read the rest. We are well aware of the split between public opinion and Republican action on abortion, but as yet that has not caused the Texas GOP any electoral problems, so there’s no reason to believe they will be held back in any meaningful way. We also know that actual legislation is not required if threats and bullying do the heavy lifting for you. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading through legislative previews and stories of pre-filed bills because I know it’s going to be a massive shitshow and I’m trying to stay sane during the holidays. Just know that what happens in one Republican-dominated legislature will be copied by another, and it will work its way to the federal stage as well.

Perla Huerta added to migrants’ lawsuit against Ron DeSantis

Noted for the record.

A Boston-based law firm suing Florida’s governor for his scheme to transport asylum-seekers from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses has added Perla Huerta — the San Antonio woman accused of recruiting the migrants — as a defendant in its class-action lawsuit.

Lawyers for Civil Rights, the law firm that filed the lawsuit in a federal court in Massachusetts in September, initially had known Huerta only as “Perla.” The firm amended its lawsuit on Tuesday, saying “Huerta was the lead recruiter tasked with finding immigrants in San Antonio and transporting them to Martha’s Vineyard.”

The New York Times and other news outlets had previously identified the woman as Perla Haydee Huerta, 43.

Three migrants represented by lawyers are identified in the lawsuit as Yanet, Pablo and Jesus Doe. They are requesting damages, as well as an injunction blocking Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”

The lawsuit claims Huerta lied to the migrants about the help they would receive at their destination, including help getting jobs and with their immigration cases, if they agreed to get on the planes. The lawsuit says the migrants felt helpless, confused and anxious after they landed on the small island and when they reached out to Huerta by phone, she ignored or dismissed their concerns.

[…]

The amended complaint also cites text messages between Huerta and staffers for DeSantis detailing their plans to recruit migrants.

The Florida governor’s office didn’t immediately respond to an email from The Texas Tribune seeking comment.

The lawsuit claims that the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, and Florida’s public safety adviser, Lawrence Keefe, who are also listed as defendants in the lawsuit, were part of the plan. Uthmeier also texted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s former chief of staff, Luis Saenz, saying that Keefe would be the point of contact about the operation, the lawsuit says.

Keefe had come to San Antonio with Huerta in early September to scope out places where they could find migrants to recruit, such as churches, a transportation office and a convenience store parking lot, the lawsuit says.

See here and here for some background. There are also multiple investigations going on, with the one by Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar being of greater potential peril for Perla. I don’t expect Ron DeSantis to face any real accountability for his actions, but a functionary like Perla has more exposure, and being added to this lawsuit may provide some incentive for her to make a deal and spill some beans. We’ll see. The Current has more.

Two DeSantis updates

From the Express News:

Top aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis were directly involved in arranging chartered flights that took 48 South Americans from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last month, records show.

Texts from Larry Keefe, DeSantis’ public safety czar, and the governor’s chief of staff, James Uthmeier, show Keefe was in San Antonio making arrangements more than a week before the Sept. 14 flights. They also show he was operating with Uthmeier’s knowledge and approval.

Keefe, a former U.S. attorney in north Florida, was on the ground in San Antonio on the day of the two flights and apparently was on one of them, at least for the first leg of the journey, the records show. The flights took off from Kelly Field and stopped briefly in the Florida Panhandle before continuing on to Martha’s Vineyard, a resort island off the coast of Massachusetts.

More than a week before the flights, Keefe texted Uthmeier that he was “back out here” in San Antonio.

“Very good,” Uthmeier texted back on Sept. 5. “You have my full support. Call anytime.”

“Copy. Thanks,” Keefe replied.

The newly released documents include nearly 150 pages of text messages, photos of migrants boarding the chartered aircraft and waivers in which they purportedly agreed to be transported from Texas to Massachusetts. The signatures of the migrants — dated Sept. 13 — were blacked out. Some of them listed Venezuela and Peru as countries of origin.

[…]

The raft of documents was released by the DeSantis administration after the Express-News and other news organizations requested public records related to the flights. The involvement of Keefe and Uthmeier was first reported by Florida news organizations and Politico.

The records include photos showing that a Bexar County Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicle was on-site when the migrants boarded the planes at Kelly Field. The sheriff’s office acknowledged Monday that a deputy was at the scene.

The deputy was off-duty and had been hired to provide security for the operation with a luggage-sniffing K9, a sheriff’s official said. Deputies are permitted to take on after-hours jobs to earn extra income. The deputy has told his supervisors that he — like the migrants — was misled about the purpose of the flights and his role, the official said.

The deputy is now a witness in the sheriff’s investigation into whether the organizers of the flights committed any crimes in Bexar County.

In a statement to the Express-News, the sheriff’s office said: “We are aware a deputy was at the scene. Early in the investigation, this deputy came forward with information he witnessed which corroborated some of the information supplied by many of the migrants. He is considered a cooperating witness in the case and is not suspected of any wrongdoing at this time.”

Sheriff Javier Salazar said last week that information gathered so far by investigators suggests the migrants may have been victims of “unlawful restraint.” The Texas Penal Code defines unlawful restraint as controlling the movements of another person through force, intimidation or deception — including by transporting the person from one place to another.

See here, here, and here for some background. I don’t know what will ultimately come out of this – Sheriff Salazar has said that DeSantis himself is not under investigation, so the ceiling here is not that high – but at least we’re getting a fuller picture of what did happen. It’s funny how secretive and cloak-and-daggery these guys are about something they otherwise like to brag about. In a story from late last week Sheriff Salazar says he has identified some potential suspects, so perhaps in the near future we’ll get the rest of the story, at least as it is now known. Link via the Current.

From TPM:

Perla Huerta, the woman running the recruitment operation in San Antonio, is an employee of Vertol systems, the military contractor the DeSantis administration hired to run its flights. Huerta was only weeks out of the Army, in which she had served for 20 years. The DeSantis operation was apparently her first assignment working for Vertol. There were several other Vertol employees, most or all retired military, also overseeing the operation in Houston. At Vertol the operation was overseen by top executive Candice Wahowski, an Air Force veteran who had been a military police officer in the Air Force. Wahoswki was also on location in San Antonio. Many of the migrants recruited in San Antonio had met with her.

Much of the article is based on the story of “Emmanuel,” another Venezuelan migrant Huerta hired to help her recruit. In one of the many telling details, she paid him in cash in what amounted to dead drops — money stashed behind dumpsters which he was to retrieve as his compensation.

“The money is going to be in the Bill Miller [restaurant] near your house. It’s going to be behind the dumpster outside in a white envelope.”

Around the whole operation there was a climate of secrecy enforced by Vertol — no recording devices that could capture the voices or images of Vertol employees and so forth. Former employees said the whole company is tinged by an air of paranoia and secrecy. It was this which warned some of the migrants off, fearing that they were being snared in some kind of government operation, which of course was precisely what was happening.

In a notable irony, as Perla and her crew quickly closed down their operation as the flights became a national story, they had a plane ticket to Florida for Emmanuel to get him out of town ahead of any investigation. In other words, the state of Florida ended up footing the bill for Venezuelan asylum seeker Emmanuel’s flight to Florida, the kind of Texas-to-Florida trip DeSantis’s operation was notionally aimed at preventing. A short time later Emmanuel returned to Texas to cooperate with the Bexar County sheriff’s ongoing investigation.

All that is summarized from a Miami Herald story. Again, the spy-versus-spy nature of all this – seriously, using a Bill Miller Barbecue dumpster as a dead drop – is so absurd that it couldn’t possibly fly as fiction, because no one would believe it. I mean, Carl Hiassen writes for the Herald, and he would have thought twice about such a plot detail. It’s precisely because of these comic attempts at secrecy that I’m convinced there’s some actual wrongdoing in there somewhere, just because normal people going about normal business don’t do that kind of thing. It’s time-consuming, easy to screw up, and you look ridiculous when other people hear about it. If there isn’t something there that’s worth covering up then these people are even weirder than I can imagine. Daily Kos has more.

UPDATE: The hits just keep on coming.

Treasury Department investigating DeSantis

Noted for the record.

The Treasury Department is now investigating whether the taxpayer money Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) spent to fly Venezuelan migrants to Martha’s Vineyard for political theater last month came from federal COVID-19 relief.

Richard Delmar, the department’s deputy inspector general, sent a letter to a congressional delegation of Massachusetts lawmakers on Friday saying that his office was reviewing Florida’s use of the Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund (SLFRF) that was established by the American Rescue Plan.

“We will review the allowability of use of SLFRF funds related to immigration generally, and will specifically confirm whether interest earned on SLFRF was utilized by Florida related to immigration activities, and if so, what conditions and limitations apply to such use,” Delmar wrote.

The Treasury official said the department planned to “get this work underway as quickly as possible.”

Delmar’s letter, which was released by Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) on Wednesday, came in response to the request Markey and five other Massachusetts lawmakers had sent on Sept. 16 asking for a probe into DeSantis’ potential abuse of the aid.

“States should not be permitted to use COVID-19 relief funds for any parochial interest unrelated to the pandemic, particularly for naked political conduct that imposes severe and unjust harms on disadvantaged groups of individuals,” the lawmakers wrote.

While the $12 million DeSantis poured into the gambit didn’t come directly from Congress’ COVID-19 relief funds, it did come from the interest his state had earned off the aid, per the Washington Post.

See here and here for some background. Daily Kos adds some details.

The civil rights organization Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) had this past June urged the Treasury Department to open a probe into the Florida governor. DeSantis had not yet launched his cruel stunt dumping migrants across the country, but he had been seeking to use $12 million in federal coronavirus funding to aid his anti-immigrant platform. SPLC had warned in its letter that the “proposed misuse of these funds reinforces anti-immigrant policies,” as well as “sets a dangerous precedent.”

Damn, was that on money. DeSantis had already signaled last fall that he was going to make a scandal out of entirely routine flights that the federal government carries out, including under the insurrectionist president. When that didn’t stick long enough to his liking, he went to Texas to just carry out his own flights.

Markey’s office said it has been in contact with federal, state, and local officials regarding DeSantis’ cruel transportation of dozens of migrants to Martha’s Vineyard, with support from nonprofits like the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition and the Venezuelan Association of Massachusetts. Markey’s office noted efforts to ensure that vulnerable children and adults transported by DeSantis from Texas to Massachusetts have been met with “continued care.”

DeSantis is not the only anti-immigrant governor under investigation by the Treasury watchdog, as a matter of fact. This past spring, Delmar said the department would be launching a probe into whether Texas Gov. Greg Abbott misused federal pandemic funds to keep his illegal Operation Lone Star border stunt operational. The Washington Post reported possible misuse of as much as $1 billion.

Congressional lawmakers led by Texas’ Joaquin Castro and Veronica Escobar had urged the watchdog to investigate Abbott using federal funds like his personal ATM for racist hate, writing that he was diverting money from critical public sector resources. “It is negligent and irresponsible for Governor Abbot to direct additional funding to Operation Lone Star, especially if the funding in question was intended to help Texans rebuild from the pandemic,” they wrote.

This story has just a tangential Texas connection, but I’m following it anyway out of sheer curiosity. Mostly, I want to see if it’s even possible for there to be consequences for would-be authoritarians like DeSantis, who will otherwise keep pushing boundaries since there’s apparently nothing to stop them. Along those lines, we also have this.

Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar on Thursday certified that 49 migrants who were flown to Martha’s Vineyard by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis last month were victims of a crime. The move clears a pathway for those migrants to get a special visa to stay in the country that they otherwise would not have received.

Rachel Self, a Massachusetts attorney working with the migrants, told radio station WGBH that the move by Salazar is a key part of the migrants’ applications for a “U visa,” which is reserved for victims of crime or people who witnessed a crime. In a statement, Salazar said his office had submitted documents with the federal system “to ensure the migrants’ availability as witnesses during the investigation.”

Attorneys like Self are seeking the visas for the migrants on the grounds that they were taken to Martha’s Vineyard under false pretenses.

“Based upon the claims of migrants being transported from Bexar County under false pretenses, we are investigating this case as possible Unlawful Restraint,” Salazar said in a statement.

Salazar said his office has identified witnesses in the case but could not release their names because the investigation is ongoing.

DeSantis’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Salazar’s statement hinted that no action would be taken against the Republican governor, saying that “only those who were physically in our jurisdiction at the time of the offense are considered suspects.”

While it is no surprise that there were laws broken in this process, the idea that DeSantis himself could have been targeted by law enforcement was always a big stretch. He’d have plenty of cover even if there were a good circumstantial case to be made. Maybe if Perla does some singing if and when she’s ever hauled in, that could change, but again I would not bet on it. Perhaps just the idea that his own actions led to these migrants getting a long-term stay in the country will serve as a deterrent to future stunts like this by DeSantis. I’ll take what I can get. The Current has more.

UPDATE: Things get even more complex.

District of Columbia Attorney General Karl Racine has opened an investigation into whether southern border state governors misled immigrants as part of what he called a “political stunt” to transport them to Washington.

Racine told ProPublica and The Texas Tribune his office is examining whether immigrants were deceived by trip organizers before boarding buses for Washington, including several hundred who were bused from Texas under instructions from Gov. Greg Abbott and dropped near the official residence of Vice President Kamala Harris. Racine’s office has the authority to bring misdemeanor criminal charges or to file civil fraud cases.

Racine said that in interviews with his investigators, arriving immigrants “have talked persuasively about being misled, with talk about promised services.” He offered no specifics about the inquiry, including whether it is being handled by his office’s criminal or civil divisions. The attorney general’s office declined to answer further questions.

Various state and federal laws could apply to transporting immigrants across state lines. Racine’s office could look into whether anyone committed fraud by falsely promising jobs or services, whether there were civil rights violations or whether officials misused taxpayers’ money.

[…]

Racine’s involvement ratchets up the pressure on the governors over their actions.

Elected as a Democrat, Racine criticized the Republican governors for using “people as props. That’s what they’ve done with the immigrants.”

Racine’s office can prosecute certain misdemeanors, and felonies are handled by the U.S. Attorney’s Office. But its highest profile work has been bringing civil fraud lawsuits against nonprofits and businesses. In May, it reached a $750,000 settlement in a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, alleging that it had abused donors’ funds by overpaying for rentals at the Trump International Hotel.

The governors have said they have done nothing wrong in transporting immigrants to “sanctuary cities” that may be better equipped to care for them. They say they want the rest of the nation to share the burden of what they call the Biden administration’s open border policies.

[…]

Domingo Garcia, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said that some immigrants who were sent from Texas to Harris’ residence in Washington have told his team they were misled about their final destination. The immigrants believed they were bound for Union Station, the city’s central transportation hub, where many hoped to connect with family or trains and buses to other locations. Instead, he said, they were dropped off at about 6 a.m. in an unfamiliar spot, where a church group quickly organized to pick them up.

“I think they are being tricked and being used,” Garcia said.

Since the spring, buses have arrived almost daily at Union Station, where immigrants can now seek support from a new city Office of Migrant Services. So far, Texas taxpayers have spent about $14 million on migrant transportation, according to state records. Buses into Washington have continued in recent days, with several additional arrivals at the vice president’s residence.

As I said above, I don’t know how much actual accountability this can force, but it’s something.

The nightmare hurricane scenario

Sorry, but we have to think about it.

Eric Berger, meteorologist, Space City Weather editor and senior space editor at Ars Technica, said when it comes to hurricanes there are three principal threats to worry about: storm surge, winds and rainfall.

“Typically, with a hurricane you might get one or two of these threats in a particular area,” Berger said.

Ian is different though.

“The reason I say this is a nightmare storm is because for a sizable chunk of Florida it brought all three threats,” Berger said.

He said it is absolutely possible for this kind of storm to hit the Houston area.

“The odds of it happening in any given year are pretty low — probably one in 100. But absolutely it could happen in any given hurricane season,” Berger said.

Surges generally only affect coastal areas or areas within 10 to 15 feet above the water’s surface level. In Houston, those would be places like Galveston and Seabrook, Berger said.

Unlike storm surges, wind can have a wider effect. Wind damage can extend 100 miles inland in the Houston area, Berger said. He noted Hurricane Ike in 2008, when winds were enough to take down the power grid for about two weeks.

For Ike, he said there was a fairly large storm surge along the coast and there was some wind damage, but inland rainfall wasn’t a major issue. For Harvey, he said there was not much wind or storm surge issues in Houston, but there was about 50 inches of rainfall. Houston has yet to see a triple threat like Ian with a damaging storm surge, powerful winds and heavy inland rainfall.

Berger said a storm like Ian would be the worst case scenario for Houston.

“It would really change our community forever,” he said.

He said the immediate impacts would be devastation to parts of Galveston island, Bolivar Peninsula and coastal communities, along with wind damage at least up to Interstate 10. Wind damage would rip roofs off buildings, knock trees down and cause power outages lasting weeks to months. A storm surge threatens to cause environmental catastrophe since many chemical facilities along the Houston Ship Channel are only built up to about 15 feet, meaning there could be facility flooding with toxic leakages in the environment, Berger said. All of this would amount to hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

“It would be very difficult for this population to come back as vibrant as it is now,” Berger said.

We hope that the long-awaited Ike Dike will help mitigate the effect of a large storm surge. Wind and rain, there’s only so much we can do and most of it is in planning and construction – engineer buildings to withstand high winds, and don’t build things in areas prone to flooding. Maybe there’s more than that, but it feels like mostly hope to me. And if something has a one percent chance of happening in a given year, then over a fifty-year span the odds it will happen at least once are about 40%. Not the most comforting thought.

So did Ron DeSantis break Texas law or not?

A couple of lawyers try to figure it out.

Bexar County, Texas Sheriff Javier Salazar has announced a criminal investigation into Venezuelan migrants being induced in San Antonio to board chartered planes and flown to Martha’s Vineyard. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has taken credit for the stunt. The sheriff has said, “I believe there is some criminal activity involved here, but at present, we are trying to keep an open mind and we are going to investigate to find out and to determine what laws were broken if that does turn out to be the case.”

In this analysis, we look at the potential Texas state law charges that might apply. Our analysis may be a useful guide – for criminal investigators, press, potential whistleblowers or witnesses, the public and other stakeholders. We discuss what exactly might be investigated as a possible crime based on currently available information and what additional facts might be developed.

We first set out what we understand to be the relevant facts, drawing from public reports and a class action complaint filed in federal court in Massachusetts. We then turn to the potential charges and their elements, applying the law to the facts known at this time. Should further investigations or reports reveal additional or contradictory evidence, that could of course affect our analysis.

As discussed below, the conduct might violate multiple Texas criminal statutes, including unlawful restraint, exploitation of a child or elderly person, and certain fraud statutes, not to mention conspiracy and aiding and abetting. That said, the criminal investigation is at an early stage, facts are still being developed, and it is too soon to conclude that crimes were committed – or to rule that out.

See here for the background, and read the rest for the analysis. The short answer is that they believe there’s a good likelihood that various laws were broken, though that is clearer about the people who actually lured the migrants onto the plane than it is for DeSantis. Perhaps now that the mysterious Perla has been identified it will be easier to verify some things. Assuming she is arrested and made to testify under oath, which LULAC is pushing for. The bottom line, per the authors, is that “the allegations are serious ones which merit close attention”. It’s getting plenty of attention, it will just take awhile before we begin to get the answers.

The professional vote-deniers are out there

They’re probing the systems for weaknesses, a line that reminds me of the velociraptors in the original Jurassic Park. Except that the ‘raptors were sleek and efficient predators, while these guys are basically Pennywise with canned scripts and a huge wingnut-funded budget. The malice is still there, though.

Two of Donald Trump’s most prominent allies in his fight to overturn the 2020 election are leading a coordinated, multi-state effort to probe local election officials in battlegrounds such as Michigan, Arizona, and Texas ahead of the November election.

The America Project, an organization founded by Michael Flynn, a retired three-star general and former national security adviser, and former Overstock CEO Patrick Byrne, has so far interviewed or attempted to interview officials in nearly 200 counties across eight swing states, according to copies of notes, recordings of the interviews, and other documents Votebeat found on web pages associated with the organization. The survey questions reflect the same debunked conspiracies and misleading information about elections that Flynn and Byrne have been propagating for years.

The survey questions appear intended to detect potential weaknesses in local election systems and gather detailed information about how elections are run. Election experts say the information could easily be used to fuel misinformation campaigns, disrupt voting, or challenge results.

“It seems consistent with their efforts to really understand how to manipulate the machinery of election administration in this country,” said Ben Berwick, counsel at national nonprofit Protect Democracy, a research and advocacy group.

In 2020, Byrne and Flynn were among the Trump loyalists who devised a plan to seize voting machines across the country and dig up enough evidence of fraud to persuade state lawmakers, Congress, or the vice president to overturn the election results. Now, they are focusing their efforts on the midterm election, with new strategies. A group backed by The America Project, for example, is attempting to purge voter rolls in Georgia ahead of the election.

The surveys are part of The America Project’s latest mission, dubbed “Operation Eagles Wings,” which is organized on foramericafirst.com, with web pages for each of the swing states the group is focused on. Key to the effort is building relationships with local election officials, according to two manuals for local volunteers on the organization’s websites. The officials are asked their opinions on debunked conspiracy theories, perhaps to determine whether they are like-minded individuals. Interviewers are also marking down which clerks are particularly helpful.

Berwick points out that it’s the mission of prominent Trump supporters to fill positions of power — from governors down to local clerks — with people who believe their allegations of election fraud and improprieties. Noting who does and does not support the cause, he said, may be the group’s way of determining “who will be sympathetic to their efforts in the future.”

Election officials have generally been friendly to their interviewers, but have also repeatedly assured them that their elections are fair, voting machines are secure, and voter rolls are accurate.

[…]

A key goal of Operation Eagles Wings is to create small volunteer teams across the country who observe the entirety of the election process, starting in part with the surveys, according to the manuals Votebeat found.

It’s the expansion of what they have dubbed “the Virginia model,” which refers to the work of Cleta Mitchell’s Election Integrity Network in Virginia to create a network for the state’s 2021 election, according to the manuals.* The America Project provided funding to that effort.

The larger Operation Eagles Wings initiative is aimed at educating “election reform activists on everything from grassroots training to election canvassing and fundraising,” according to The America Project’s website. The site claims the group provides training “for Americans who want to make sure there are no repeats of the errors that happened in the 2020 election.”

“We need to do everything in our power to protect the voting process from election meddlers who care only about serving crooked special interest groups that neither respect nor value the rule of law,” the homepage says.

Along with the surveys, the initiative encourages election skeptics to serve as poll workers and observers, perform in-person “voter registration audits,” and to visit “large farms, factories, businesses and especially care homes,” and ask residents whether anyone is forcing them to vote, according to the manuals.

It’s a long story and Votebeat does its typically thorough job of documenting the atrocities. I don’t know what the best way to respond to this is, but I do know that if we don’t figure it out, and find a way to fund it, we’re going to be screwed.

Of course people are harassing the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office now

This is the world we live in.

Hate mail and calls are rushing into the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office after Sheriff Javier Salazar announced an investigation into how 48 South American migrants were “lured” onto a flight to Martha’s Vineyard.

A sheriff’s office spokesman said the agency received an influx of calls to both the dispatch and administrative offices, along with hateful emails.

He said precautionary measures will be taken for the safety of all personnel, as is done in any instance when the office receives “threats.”

On Monday, the sheriff said its organized crime division is working to determine what crimes were committed — possibly human trafficking — in Bexar County by a person who was paid a fee to recruit 50 migrants on Sept. 14 from the city’s Migrant Resource Center, 7000 San Pedro Ave.

Salazar said the migrants, many Venezuelan asylum-seekers, were preyed upon by someone from out of the state and offered jobs and a stay at a hotel in Massachusetts. Instead, they were shuttled onto two chartered jets for what was ultimately a photo opportunity, which the sheriff said was wrongdoing from a human rights perspective.

See here for some background. A reminder, in case anyone needs it, the people at the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office who are answering the phones and maintaining their Facebook and Twitter pages are not the decision makers. Hurling racist abuse and violent threats at them is like threatening a McDonald’s cashier because the Shamrock Shake is not a year-round menu item. Not that you should ever hurl racist abuse or violent threats at anyone, of course. You are a terrible person if you do those things, and if the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office decided to make what you said public and/or arrest you for the threats, they would be entirely justified in doing so. Also, too, there may also be a Homeland Security/Justice Department investigation of the DeSantis debacle, so just stopping the Bexar County Sheriff won’t be enough. So there. TPM has more.

Three migrants sue Ron DeSantis

I’m venturing a little from the core mission of covering Texas politics, but this was too irresistible, and there is a Texas connection.

Three Venezuelan migrants flown from San Antonio to Martha’s Vineyard last week filed a federal class-action lawsuit against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and other Florida officials Tuesday after the firebrand Republican’s move to transport migrants to a Democrat-controlled state sparked national controversy and a criminal investigation.

The lawsuit alleges the migrants were tricked into traveling on the airplane with false promises of money, work, housing and food.

DeSantis and other officials “designed and executed a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting this vulnerability for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests,” the suit claims.

DeSantis sent the planes to Martha’s Vineyard last week, mimicking Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s monthslong practice of busing migrants to Democrat-led cities.

The suit alleges an elaborate scheme of unidentified individuals who lured migrants to travel on the planes. This included providing hotel rooms, McDonald’s gift cards, hundreds of dollars in cash and false promises of their ultimate destination. Migrants on the flight last week said a woman going by the name of Perla approached them outside San Antonio’s Migrant Resource Center and promised them jobs and shelter. Some said they were told they were going to Boston. But they arrived in Martha’s Vineyard, where local officials were caught off guard.

Republicans frequently refer to those taking the trips as “illegal immigrants,” but many of them are asylum-seekers who have been allowed to enter the country pending the outcome of their legal cases.

The suit says the unidentified individuals identified and targeted the migrants “by trolling streets outside of a migrant shelter in Texas and other similar locales, pretending to be good Samaritans offering humanitarian assistance.”

The migrants are asking to be awarded damages, as well as an injunction blocking DeSantis and the state from coercing immigrants to travel by “fraud and misrepresentation.”

See here for a bit of background. To really appreciate the absurdity of all this, as well as to highlight the Texas connection, here’s Josh Marshall:

This new video of Ron DeSantis’s 10th explanation of who he was funding in Texas really has to be seen to be believed. (Video below.) He says that he can’t ship migrants from Florida, as the state legislature authorized money to do, because there aren’t enough migrants coming into the state. There’s no “mass movement”. It’s just one or two people at a time driving to Florida. There’s no way to deal with that efficiently because there aren’t enough people. (Needless to say, however people are entering the state, if the state is overrun you just pick them up locally.) But, he says, he has “intelligence” operatives in Texas and they have learned that from “30% to 40%” of migrants in Texas intend to come to Florida.

In other words, there’s a tidal wave of people apparently about to come. Just not yet. Follow? Good.

So what to do? The most efficient way to deal with this is to go to Texas, profile people who seem likely to later come to Florida and fly them to states run by Democrats. That means “the chance they end up in Florida is much less.”

I guess if you want to be really, really generous you might say that people might be less willing to get bamboozled into being flown north if they’re already in Florida where they want to be as opposed to in Texas. But I think it goes without saying that the cost and inefficiency of the DeSantis plan is great enough to eliminate any benefit. And also: if you hoodwink migrants into going to Boston they can also just get on a bus to go to Florida. San Antonio to Miami is almost as far as Boston to Miami.

The barbarity of DeSantis’s actions should not obscure the hilarity of what is clearly an after the fact explanation of what happened and why? We can be pretty confident that the reason he’s resorting to this explanation is because he really, really doesn’t want to discuss who he’s working with in Texas. What individuals? What activist groups? Again, the explanation is absurd on its face. There’s no mass migration of migrants into Florida. So to move them at scale you need to get them in Texas and send them north.

As Marshall put it on Twitter, the “logical next step for DeSantis is to lure people in Caracas on to planes &ship them to Boston to truly prevent them from getting to Florida.” We truly live in amazing times.

Do I think this is likely to ever see the inside of a courtroom, let alone get to a trial or settlement? No, I seriously doubt it will survive a motion to dismiss. But it at least has accomplished the task of putting some focus on just how deranged and inhumane this stunt was. And maybe, the more DeSantis talks, the better it will be for Sheriff Salazar’s investigation. Daily Kos and Vice News have more.

Bexar County Sheriff to investigate the “immigrants lured to Martha’s Vineyard” saga

Good, because this whole thing is not only weird and creepy but it’s not hard to see how at least some aspects of it could have been illegal.

Sheriff Javier Salazar said Monday the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office is opening an investigation into whether people who “lured” migrants onto planes to Martha’s Vineyard did so “under false pretenses.”

Two flights of migrants departed San Antonio’s Kelly Field last week and landed at the Massachusetts resort island. A 27-year-old Venezuelan migrant told the San Antonio Report a woman paid him to recruit other migrants for the flights, telling him the people would be sent to “sanctuary states.”

Some of the migrants who made the trip said they were promised jobs, English classes and housing, none of which materialized.

“What infuriates me the most about this case is that here we have 48 people who are already on hard times, right?” Salazar said via a hastily called Zoom press conference.

“They are here legally in our country, they have every right to be where they are, and I believe they were preyed upon. Somebody … preyed upon these people, lured them with promises for a better life, which is what they were absolutely looking for.”

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has taken credit for the flights, saying, according to NPR, that the migrants who accepted the flights had been identified as wanting to relocate to Florida. The state has allocated $12 million “to facilitate the transport of unauthorized aliens out of Florida.”

None of the migrants who spoke to the San Antonio Report mentioned wanting to relocate to Florida or being asked whether they were planning to go to Florida. All said they were excited by the prospect of getting work.

Salazar said he believes there is a “high possibility” that Texas laws had been broken, and perhaps federal laws as well. “We will work with any and all agencies” that might also be investigating the incident, he said.

I don’t know what will come of this. If in the end this goes nowhere, it won’t surprise me. But the basic idea here is that these folks were transported across state lines under false premises, and that sounds awfully sketchy to me. There’s already been a lot of reporting and talk on Twitter about this – TPM has been on it and has cited the San Antonio Report a couple of times. There’s now a cash reward being offered to identify “Perla”, the person who initially approached the migrants with the false promises that led them to board the plane. I’ll be interested to see where this goes, that’s all I’m saying. And if there were laws broken along the way, sure seems to me that enforcing some consequences for that would have a bunch of salutary effects. NPR and the Trib have more.

Fifth Circuit upholds Texas’ ridiculous social media censorship law

Back to you, SCOTUS.

A Texas law prohibiting large social media companies from banning users’ posts based on their political viewpoints will go into effect after a federal appeals court on Friday lifted a block placed on the statute.

NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association sued Texas after the law, known as House Bill 20, was passed last year, arguing that internet companies have a First Amendment right to curate content posted on their platforms and decide which types of speech they saw fit to be there.

In its ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with the plaintiffs’ argument that the law was unconstitutional, saying they were seeking protection to “muzzle free speech.”

“Today we reject the idea that corporations have a freewheeling First Amendment right to censor what people say,” the ruling says.

The CCIA said the ruling forced tech companies to give equal treatment to all manners of speech, including extremist views.

“We strongly disagree with the court’s decision. Forcing private companies to give equal treatment to all viewpoints on their platforms places foreign propaganda and extremism on equal footing with decent Internet users, and places Americans at risk,” the group said. “‘God Bless America’ and ‘Death to America’ are both viewpoints, and it is unwise and unconstitutional for the State of Texas to compel a private business to treat those the same.”

See here for the previous update, in which SCOTUS blocked the law pending the Fifth Circuit’s ruling on the appeal, and here for a copy of the opinion. I think this sums it all up:

You and me both. We’ve now reached that point, and as everyone expects this to be appealed it will be back to SCOTUS for the final word. I have no idea what to expect. The Chron has more.

Texas will get a lot from the Inflation Reduction Act

Thanks, Biden!

Texas’s clean energy sector is expected to be one of the largest beneficiaries of the climate and health care legislation President Joe Biden has signed into law, according to estimates released by the White House Wednesday.

Over the next eight years, Texas is expected to see $66.5 billion in investment through the legislation, expanding wind and solar energy, advanced batteries and other sources of clean electricity — more than CaliforniaNew York or Florida.

Named the Inflation Reduction Act, the bill provides almost $370 billion in federal funding for the clean energy sector, with government officials hoping to spur far larger investment from the private sector.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Michael Regan described the legislation in a press conference Wednesday as, “the linchpin to putting us on path to reach net zero (greenhouse gas emissions) no later than 2050.”

“It invests in American workers, the back bone of this country, by spurring supply chains for clean energy,” he said.

Texas has long led the nation in clean energy, with three times as many wind turbines as the next closest state. And while California still has the most solar energy capacity, Texas is beginning to catch up, with more installations last year than any other state, according to the Solar Energy Industry Association.

Here’s a quote of interest from Bloomberg: “Of the top 10 congressional districts in the country for operating and planned wind, solar and battery capacity, four are in Texas, more than in any other state and including the No. 1 district, Texas’ 19th.” So of course every Republican voted against it. Which won’t stop them from claiming credit for the good things that will happen. It’s the circle of life.

Fortunately, at least some of the goodness should go places that can honestly claim credit.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee wants environmental justice funds in the Inflation Reduction Act to flow into northeast Houston as freely as the concrete batch facilities that have come to plague the predominantly Black area.

Legislation passed Friday includes $60 billion for environmental justice programs that can help communities such as Trinity and Houston Gardens fight polluters and reduce emissions, the congresswoman said during a Sunday event at Trinity Gardens Church of Christ attended by around 25 community advocates and concerned residents.

Issues such as the illegal dumping of industrial trash, cancer clusters stemming from creosote used by rail companies and air and water contamination from a growing number of industrial sites make the city’s northeast corner “a fitting example” of communities the legislation aims to help, Jackson Lee said.

The bill also earmarks $3 billion for community centers that can “address disproportionate environmental and public health harms related to pollution.” Northeast Houston should have one such center, she said, describing the area as the new “concrete batch Mecca.”

The bill offers a hand to advocates in communities across Texas, where restraints on polluters are lax. Earlier this month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said it was investigating state environmental regulators accused of violating residents’ civil rights when Texas updated its standard permit for concrete batch plants.

The plants have become infamous in the community for billowing dust clouds and concrete-laced water seeping into neighboring properties. There are three schools within a half-mile of the plants, said Keith Downey, super neighborhood president representing Kashmere Gardens.

Jackson Lee told advocates the new federal funds can offer relief for a community fighting these fights largely by themselves.

That would be great. Rooting for this to happen.

More on the seafaring abortion clinic

There were a couple of stories on that proposed abortion clinic on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico, which will operate in federal waters and thus be outside state jurisdiction. The clinic is intended to serve women in the Gulf Coast states, all of whom are living in states that are hostile to abortion rights (though it is still legal in Florida for now), and as Dr. Meg Autry, the creator of the idea who is now busy fundraising for it, it would be a lot closer geographically for a lot of these women than other states with legal clinics would be.

All of that is in the two stories. I want to focus on what I fixated on in my original post, which is the security and legal threats to this idea. I’m just going to pull from those sections of the stories. We’ll start with NPR:

Autry and her nonprofit are also hesitant to provide too much detail about how people will be able to access the vessel, citing safety concerns. Without elaborating, she says she anticipates that her group will be a part of the many existing networks trying to coordinate abortion care for people who can’t get it in their state.

People seeking or providing an abortion could face prosecution or, Autry fears, violence. She calls security her group’s top concern.

And she says that while their team is secure in their understanding of the law, it’s bracing for potential legal challenges “along the way, all the time.” That’s in part because of ever-changing laws and lawsuits unfolding in restrictive states.

Amanda Allen, senior counsel and director at the Lawyering Project — which represents PRROWESS — tells NPR over email that there’s no doubt about the legality of providing abortions at sea, because states don’t have jurisdiction over the care provided in federal or international waters. She compares it to the way that an abortion provider in New York would care for a patient traveling from a restrictive state.

Still, she says their team is exploring the same questions that they would look at in the case of a provider looking to open a clinic in a state where abortions are not banned.

Those include whether there are rules governing the facility where the care is provided, and what kind of licensure and staffing is required. They’re also looking at the threats that could face abortion providers — floating or otherwise — who treat patients traveling from restrictive states.

“Given the climate of abortion access post-Dobbs, nothing is zero-risk,” Allen writes. “Because of that we are concerned about the same types of extraterritorial questions that are already creating chaos and legal uncertainty onshore. While a state’s criminal laws should not reach a provider at sea, a rogue prosecutor could choose to target PRROWESS, or a hostile state authority could open an investigation.”

And here’s Yahoo News.

So what does maritime law say about abortions at sea? “Maritime law, by its own force, doesn’t speak to abortions provided at sea,” Matthew Steffey, a professor of law at Mississippi College specializing in maritime law, tells Yahoo Life. “In theory, a maritime treaty could cover the subject, but I don’t know of one that would. Assuming the vessel is outside state territorial waters, a state’s laws would not apply. Outside of waters controlled by a state or nation, the ship’s flag determines the source of law. So the ship’s home country’s laws apply.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t risks. While Steffey adds that it’s “entirely possible” an “aggressive” district attorney could “seek to bring charges to someone who travels from their jurisdiction to an offshore abortion provider,” he points out that “there is a very good chance that those charges would be ultimately dismissed as violating the U.S. Constitution. Otherwise, a local DA could prosecute anyone for conduct legal in the state where the conduct occurred — such as consuming cannabis, gambling, etc. — once they returned home.”

That said, Steffey notes that “someone who operates a tender vessel to take patients from shore to ship would be taking a great legal risk, as they’d be operating inside the state.”

Autry isn’t willing to share the details on how exactly patients would be ferried from shore to ship for security purposes, but she says, “What we’re most worried about are the patients. Our plan is that our vessel and the provider and the crew will never touch a restricted state. But obviously, the patients have to get there.”

It is one of the many logistical issues that abortion providers and abortion rights advocates are facing right now. “Abortion providers, policymakers and so many others across the country are dedicated to finding ways to ensure people can get the care they need,” Gretchen Borchelt, vice president for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, tells Yahoo Life. “But the court’s decision has unleashed legal chaos, and as more and more states ban abortion, we face a host of unknown questions about criminal liability, surveillance and potential prosecution.”

Borchelt adds: “We are all navigating a dangerous, appalling and rapidly evolving landscape to help people get care that should be legal, affordable and available but instead is criminalized.”

Slate had an interview with Dr. Autry a few days before those stories; it didn’t have anything to say about the security and legal stuff, so I hadn’t linked to it before now. That line about “the patients have to get there” is as I’ve said the single biggest point of vulnerability for this clinic and its patients. We’ve seen what Republican and other forced-birth fanatics in Texas are willing and planning to do. I believe they will push the legal envelope on this as far as they can, secure in the knowledge that even if SCOTUS eventually trims them back a bit, the Fifth Circuit will ensure that there won’t be an injunction against whatever crazy laws they pass while the matter is being litigated. I guarantee that SB8, the bounty hunter law, will be fully utilized. It’s going to be super duper ugly and expensive.

I don’t say any of this to be a bummer, but to be a realist. This is what we’re up against, and it will remain that way until we get 1) a federal law that can block at least some of this bullshit; 2) a different (which in any near-term context means “expanded”) SCOTUS that re-reverses itself; or 3) a Texas government that is able to undo all of this legislative harm. Of those three, that last one is guaranteed to not be in the cards in the near term. We can elect Beto and prevent further damage, but until we can also flip both the House and the Senate, we’re stuck with the laws we have. Maybe flipping the State Supreme Court might help as well, but that’s a minimum of two cycles at least. If we’re very lucky, we can get that federal law in 2023. Until then and otherwise, this is where we are.

The religious freedom argument for abortion

Hope this works. For obvious reasons, I’m not terribly optimistic. But it’s worth a shot.

The rabbi whose progressive synagogue sued the state of Florida over a bill that would ban abortions after 15 weeks, arguing that it infringes on religious liberty, has created an initiative to help other faith organizations — and atheists — push back against anti-abortion legislation across the U.S.

Rabbi Barry Silver’s initiative, Helping Emancipate Abortion Rights Today (HEART), seeks to “restore abortion rights in a post-Roe v. Wade world” and defy the “theocratic tyranny” of laws that clash with the Jewish belief that abortion is a basic right and life begins at birth, not conception, he said in a phone interview Tuesday.

The initiative is designed to be able to allow any person of any belief system to challenge the anti-abortion laws on religious grounds,” Silver said. “It’s the height of chutzpah for people to tell the Jewish people what the Bible means and lecture the Jewish people on the sanctity of life.”

Silver’s synagogue, Congregation L’Dor Va-Dor, sued this month challenging Florida’s anti-abortion law, which is scheduled to take effect Friday. In the Jewish legal tradition, the suit says, “abortion is required if necessary to protect the health, mental or physical well-being of the woman.”

Silver said HEART will allow religious and atheist leaders in other states to essentially copy the text of his lawsuit, editing it as needed to fit the specifics of their communities and state laws. HEART will also be on hand to advise anyone who is interested in fighting anti-abortion bills on religious freedom grounds.

[…]

In the eyes of many Jewish leaders, anti-abortion laws are particularly distressing because they contradict Jewish halakha — the laws drawn from the Torah, the Mishnah and the Talmud, the most sacred and authoritative texts in the tradition — according to Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Los Angeles.

This story was from a couple of weeks ago, and I haven’t seen any further news for it. Court cases take their time. It’s easy to find all kinds of massive logic holes in the Dobbs decision and I certainly appreciate the efforts to expose and try to exploit them, but let’s keep our expectations in check. There is likely rhetorical value in this exercise, and hopefully some political and electoral value, but we are not going to get this lawless and arbitrary Supreme Court to admit to any error. They will have no trouble deciding the case in the manner that suits them, in the same way I’d expect them to bat aside any SB8-like legislation that targets assault weapon ownership or voter suppression. It’s going to take a bigger fulcrum than that to make the changes we need.

Big Law versus the Forced Birth Caucus

Place your bets.

The Texas Freedom Caucus may have kicked a hornet’s nest when it threatened Sidley Austin partners with civil and criminal penalties and disbarment in a letter last week, according to firm leaders in Texas and managing partners at firms with Texas offices.

Firm chair Yvette Ostolaza received the letter July 7 after Sidley signaled its intent to reimburse employees who sought abortions in other states. The letter, signed by Texas Rep. Mayes Middleton, a Republican, said litigation was already underway to determine whether Sidley had already participated in illegal abortions, including out-of-state drug-induced abortions in which employees took the second of two pills after returning to Texas.

The managing partners, who requested anonymity because they had not yet received similar demand letters from the Republican legislative caucus, said the threats were more likely to strengthen the conviction of lawyers and law firms that have already chosen to support the reproductive rights of their employees.

“I don’t know how smart it is to go after a bunch of lawyers,” said the managing partner of an Am Law 100 firm with offices in Texas. “We can all spend endless time and energy playing it through, and it might not play out as well for them as it would if they went after a less well-funded organization or people less involved with making legal decisions than law firms.”

Another Am Law 100 managing partner said they found the letter incredibly offensive, but didn’t believe it would scare law firms that already knew where they stood. “From my experience, it would only embolden them. And it’s not unlike getting threatening letters when you support civil rights—look at Jim Crow laws in the South,” the partner said. “It’s the same playbook, by my personal view, of a racist segment of society.”

[…]

While no one seems to worry about offending the Freedom Caucus, managing partners said they know that choosing to support abortion rights as a firm will alienate some lawyers and staff at all levels. Absent the cultural artifact of water cooler chatter, law firms in the hybrid work setting are being defined by the core values they display on polarizing issues, one managing partner said.

Kent Zimmermann, a consultant for Zeughauser Group, said law firms are in a tough spot on highly charged political issues that have seemingly become more salient in the workplace over the years. He said like other businesses, firms have people and clients with opinions across the spectrum, and that it’s “tough to play all sides of some of these bedrock issues.”

But he also noted opinion polls still show Americans are generally in favor of abortion access, and that firms and their leaders are compelled by multiple trends pushing them toward favoring access as well—they’re more competitive than ever with each other, and the talent they’re trying to draw is younger, more diverse and more consistently wants to work at an organization with values they agree with.

He added these dynamics could change the map of legal industry investment.

“I don’t think it’s a today, turn-on-a-dime type of change for most firms,” Zimmermann said. “But I think over time, if there’s a lot more human rights available in some places versus others, that will change where the talent is and where the industry goes.”

An Am Law 100 firm leader with several Texas offices said he’d grant employees’ wishes to leave Texas if the Caucus is able to pass its proposed legislation, which includes felony criminal penalties for employees who assist in abortions regardless of where they take place. The Caucus also stated its ambition to enact civil penalties that mirror the state’s Heartbeat Act, granting Texans the right to sue any person who provides payment or reimbursement for another Texan’s abortion, no matter where it occurred.

“Let’s take it two ways: Either everybody does it and we win and we’re allowed to do it, or we lose and they uphold it,” the managing partner said. “It would certainly put a damper on doing business in Texas. I’d probably say that whoever wants to move out of there, that’s great. I wouldn’t look at Texas as a growth area for us after that.”

See here for some background. I’ll be delighted to see these firms go into “pissed off lawyer” mode against whatever crap the fanatics throw at them, but as I said before they’re at a disadvantage in that their foes can change the rules on them. I don’t know how to handicap that fight, especially if nothing much changes in state government. I can certainly see the possibility of many firms taking Texas off of their “growth area” lists, but that’s a long term trend, and it will likely hurt the effort to make Texas a less toxic place politically.

Which brings up the point that what I don’t see in this story is any suggestion of engaging in this fight on the politics field and not just the legal field. That’s messy and carries a lot of risk (not that the legal fight wouldn’t be either of those things as well), but in the end it’s a surer path to getting some stability. It’s just that it may take a long time for that to happen, and in the short term you’d need to fight the legal battles anyway. All I’m saying is that if joining the political fight isn’t on the menu of options, these firms are limiting themselves. We need all the help we can get, y’all.

More on finding Baby Holly

Everything about this story continues to fascinate me.

How did investigators find Holly Marie Clouse?

It all came down to a question about spelling — and a birth certificate.

In January, genealogists identified the bodies of Harold Dean Clouse and Tina Gail Linn, a young couple murdered and whose bodies were dumped in the woods east of Houston back in early 1981.

It was a significant break in a decades-old cold case. But that discovery led to a question — what had happened to the couple’s infant daughter?

The answer would come much more quickly. Last week, six months after the identities of the couple were made public, officials from the Texas Attorney General’s Office announced they’d found Holly, safe and well, living in Oklahoma.

During a brief news conference on June 9, First Assistant Attorney General Brent Webster provided some of the information officials had about what had happened to Holly, saying that two women who identified themselves as “members of a nomadic religious group” left Holly at a church in Arizona.

That meant the child hadn’t been killed alongside her parents and was probably still alive.

Making the connection between the meeting at the church and Holly’s present-day whereabouts in Oklahoma came down to a question about spelling, people familiar with the case said.

After two genealogists identified the remains found in east Harris County as belonging to Dean and Tina, authorities in Lewisville opened up a missing person’s case related to Holly. It would eventually include investigators in Houston, Florida and Arizona.

As investigators and genealogists continued digging back into the case, they weren’t sure of how to spell Holly’s name: relatives had spelled it both as “Hollie” and “Holly.”

That confusion prompted genealogist Allison Peacock and one of Holly’s aunts to request the (now-grown) woman’s birth certificate from the Florida Department of Vital Records.

[…]

Holly — whose last name has changed — has not yet spoken publicly about her experiences. Her adoptive parents are not suspects in her birth parents’ killings, authorities have said.

Peacock, one of the two genealogists who investigated the mystery of Dean and Tina’s identity, said the saga showed the importance of seeking out documents and reviewing the record.

“In our wildest dreams we couldn’t have had any idea Holly’s birth certificate was attached to a legal adoption,” she said. “And certainly that a quest for the proper spelling of Holly’s name — and being a stickler for details — would end up leading to her being found alive and well.”

While two mysteries related to the murders of Tina and Dean have been solved, significant questions remain unanswered: who killed them and what did the killers have to do with the baby being left at a church in Arizona? Or did other people rescue the child and take her to safety?

One significant avenue of investigation that cold case detectives are examining is the group whose members gave Holly up at the church and other contacts the slain couple might have had with a cult or religious group.

See here, here, and here for the background. It took awhile and some political muscle to wrest the birth certificate from Florida because it had an adoption record attached to it. That’s a subject that will deserve a longer examination in the future prestige podcast or HBOMax series that I seriously hope comes out of this. As to tracking down the murder suspects and the weird religious people that dropped Holly off at the church, I have no idea what the prospects are for that. But we’ve come this far, so who knows. I’ll be ready to read about it when the next chapter drops.

SCOTUS puts Texas’ stupid social media censorship law back on hold

Good.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday blocked a Texas law that prohibits large social media companies, such as Facebook or Twitter, from banning or removing users’ posts based on political viewpoints.

The justices, in a 5-4 vote, granted NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association’s request to reinstate a block imposed by a federal district judge as the lawsuit makes its way through the courts. The justices who voted to reverse the lower court’s ruling didn’t give a reason for their decision — a standard practice when the court is ruling on emergency applications.

Matt Schruers, president of the Computer & Communications Industry Association, one of the two groups that sued to block the law on claims that it violates companies’ First Amendment rights, celebrated the court’s decision.

“No online platform, website, or newspaper should be directed by government officials to carry certain speech,” he said in a statement. “This has been a key tenet of our democracy for more than 200 years and the Supreme Court has upheld that.”

[…]

The two industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall. In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and prevented the law from going into effect, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and calling parts of the law “prohibitively vague.”

As a result, Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the law.

Three conservative justices, Samuel A. Alito Jr., Clarence Thomas and Neil M. Gorsuch, said in a dissent that they would have let Texas’ law stand for now. Justice Elena Kagan, a liberal, said she would have also let the order stand but didn’t provide a reason.

Alito wrote in the dissent that it is “not at all obvious how our existing precedents, which predate the age of the internet, should apply to large social media companies.” Still, he wrote, the case is “of great importance” and the Supreme Court would have to review the arguments at some point.

“Social media platforms have transformed the way people communicate with each other and obtain news,” he wrote. “At issue is a ground-breaking Texas law that addresses the power of dominant social media corporations to shape public discussion of the important issues of the day.”

See here for the previous update and here for a copy of the order. With the Florida law being knocked down by the 11th Court of Appeals, there’s a circuit split, which means that Alito is correct and SCOTUS is going to have to deal with this sooner or later. At least it will be on hold until then. The Chron has more.

Florida’s stupid social media censorship law knocked down by appeals court

With an opinion from a Trump judge, no less.

A Florida law intended to punish social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter is an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment, a federal appeals court ruled Monday, dealing a major victory to companies who had been accused by GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis of discriminating against conservative thought.

A three-judge panel of the Atlanta-based 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously concluded that it was overreach for DeSantis and the Republican-led Florida Legislature to tell the social media companies how to conduct their work under the Constitution’s free speech guarantee.

“Put simply, with minor exceptions, the government can’t tell a private person or entity what to say or how to say it,” said Circuit Judge Kevin Newsom, an appointee of former President Donald Trump, in the opinion. “We hold that it is substantially likely that social media companies — even the biggest ones — are private actors whose rights the First Amendment protects.”

The ruling upholds a similar decision by a Florida federal district judge on the law, which was signed by DeSantis in 2021. It was part of an overall conservative effort to portray social media companies as generally liberal in outlook and hostile to ideas outside of that viewpoint, especially from the political right.

[…]

As enacted, the law would give Florida’s attorney general authority to sue companies under the state’s Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act. It would also allow individual Floridians to sue social media companies for up to $100,000 if they feel they’ve been treated unfairly.

The bill targeted social media platforms that have more than 100 million monthly users, which include online giants as Twitter and Facebook. But lawmakers carved out an exception for the Walt Disney Co. and their apps by including that theme park owners wouldn’t be subject to the law.

The law would require large social media companies to publish standards on how it decides to “censor, deplatform, and shadow ban.”

But the appeals court rejected nearly all of the law’s mandates, save for a few lesser provisions in the law.

“Social media platforms exercise editorial judgment that is inherently expressive. When platforms choose to remove users or posts, deprioritize content in viewers’ feeds or search results, or sanction breaches of their community standards, they engage in First-Amendment-protected activity,” Newsom wrote for the court.

You can see a copy of the ruling here, and contrast it to the wordless garbage the Fifth Circuit spewed out to allow Texas’ law to stand. This means that SCOTUS will have to get involved to resolve the dispute. It’s going to get ugly in here. Reuters, CNET, and Techdirt, which shows the parts of the lower court’s ruling that were upheld and the parts that were vacated, have more.

Texas asks SCOTUS to not block its stupid social media law

As you’d expect.

The Supreme Court should allow a sweeping Texas law to remain in effect that restricts the ability of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to moderate their platforms, according to the state’s attorney general.

In a filing to the Court on Wednesday, Texas argued that its law, HB 20, which prohibits large social media firms from blocking, banning or demoting posts or accounts, does not violate the First Amendment.

It contrasts with claims by opponents, including the tech industry, that the legislation infringes on the constitutional rights of tech platforms to make editorial decisions and to be free from government-compelled speech.

[…]

A group of states led by Florida has also submitted a Court filing defending Texas’s law. The friend-of-the-court brief, which was authored by a dozen states including Alabama, Arizona, Kentucky and South Carolina, among others, reflects how the legal battle over HB 20 has nationwide ramifications.

Justice Samuel Alito is currently considering whether to grant an emergency stay of a lower court decision that had allowed the law to take effect last week. The law is being challenged by advocacy groups representing the tech industry.

[…]

The case has already drawn “friend of the court” briefs from interested third parties including groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, who urged the court to block the law, arguing it will “transform social media platforms into online repositories of vile, graphic, harmful, hateful, and fraudulent content, of no utility to the individuals who currently engage in those communities.”

Also seeking to file a third-party brief was former Rep. Chris Cox, co-author of the tech platform liability shield known as Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a federal law that explicitly permits websites to moderate content and which has become a lightning rod in the wider battle over digital speech.

Social media operators have repeatedly cited Section 230 to successfully nip many suits in the bud concerning user-generated content. But HB 20 conflicts with Section 230 by saying platforms can be sued in Texas for moderating their online communities, raising questions about the future of the federal law that’s been described as “the 26 words that created the internet.”

See here and here for some background. Alito will either issue a decision on his own or refer the matter to the full court. Insert shrug emoji here.

SCOTUS asked to again block that stupid social media censorship law

Please save us from the lawless Fifth Circuit. Having to make such an ask of this SCOTUS sure is a jaw-grinding experience.

Lobbying groups representing Facebook, Twitter, Google and other tech companies filed an emergency request with the U.S. Supreme Court on Friday, seeking to block a Texas law that prohibits large social media platforms from banning users based on their political views.

The Texas law went into effect on Wednesday when the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals granted the state’s request for a stay of a district judge’s injunction blocking the law.

The law forbids social media companies with more than 50 million active users per month from banning members based on their political views and requires them to publicly disclose how they moderate content.

[…]

Internet lobbying groups NetChoice and the Computer & Communications Industry Association filed a lawsuit against the measure, and U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman in Austin, Texas, issued a preliminary injunction in December.

Pitman had found that the law would harm social media companies’ free speech rights under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The tech groups, in their emergency request, asked the Supreme Court to “allow the District Court’s careful reasoning to remain in effect while an orderly appellate process plays out.”

See here for the previous update, and here for a more detailed analysis of why the Fifth Circuit’s no-words ruling was so bad. You know how much faith I have in this court to ever do the right thing, but maybe this was a bridge too far. Maybe. Ars Technica and The Verge have more.

That stupid social media censorship law has been unblocked

The Fifth Circuit continues to debase itself.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday reinstated a Republican-backed Texas law that prohibits large social media companies from banning users over their political viewpoints.

The decision hands a win to Republicans who have long criticized social media platforms such as Twitter for what they call anti-conservative bias — disapproval that was amplified when President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter for violating the platform’s rules on inciting violence during the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol.

The order did not evaluate the law on its constitutionality but instead allows the law to go back into effect while the case proceeds in district court, according to a statement from one of the plaintiff groups. The ruling came from a three-judge panel on the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which is often considered the most conservative appeals court in the country — and was not accompanied by a written opinion explaining the decision at the time of publication.

Two large industry trade groups that represent companies such as Google and Twitter sued to block the law last fall.

In December, a federal district court judge ruled in favor of the groups and blocked the law while the lawsuit continues, reasoning that the First Amendment protects a company’s right to moderate content and called parts of the law “prohibitively vague.” As a result, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton appealed the district judge’s decision to the circuit court.

Passed during a special session last year, House Bill 20 also requires social media platforms with more than 50 million monthly users to publicly disclose information about content removal and account suspensions.

“HB 20 is an assault on the First Amendment, and it’s constitutionally rotten from top to bottom,” Chris Marchese, counsel for the NetChoice industry trade group, tweeted after the ruling. “So of course we’re going to appeal today’s unprecedented, unexplained, and unfortunate order by a split 2-1 panel.”

See here, here, and here for the background. I’ve been beaten down by the constant flow of atrocities from this outlaw court, so I’m going to hand it off to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys:

Which means we have to hope there are still a few people on that bench who understand what the First Amendment says. I don’t have any faith, but what are you gonna do? Slate and Reform Austin have more.

Biden administration to appeal airplane mask mandate order

Good.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration said on Tuesday it would appeal a judge’s ruling ending a mask mandate on airplanes if public health officials deem it necessary to stem the spread of COVID-19.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to whom the administration was deferring, said that it would continue to study whether the mandates were still needed. The mandates apply to planes, trains and other public transportation and, prior to Monday’s ruling, had been due to expire on May 3.

“We will continue to assess the need for a mask requirement in those settings, based on several factors, including the U.S. COVID-19 community levels, risk of circulating and novel variants, and trends in cases and disease severity,” a CDC spokesperson said in a statement on Tuesday.

The Justice Department said it would appeal Monday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, if the CDC determined the mandate was needed to protect public health.

See here for the background. For what it’s worth, the public still supports masking on airplanes. Airlines and their employees have not been very fond of it, which is understandable given the amount of petulance and rage they have had to deal with from unhinged mask-haters. Maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to let any of those folks back on board, but that’s just my opinion. It’s true that airplanes have excellent filtration and ventilation, which make them pretty safe from a COVID transmission perspective, though not entirely. And getting on and off the airplane, not to mention being in the airport, is much riskier. Masking up is still your best bet. Slate and Vox have more.

Mask mandate lifted for planes and trains

And other forms of mass transportation.

The Biden administration will no longer enforce a U.S. mask mandate on public transportation, after a federal judge in Florida on Monday ruled that the 14-month-old directive was unlawful, overturning a key White House effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

Soon after the announcement, all major carriers including American Airlines AAL.O, United Airlines UAL.O and Delta Air Lines DAL.N, as well as national train line Amtrak relaxed the restrictions effective immediately. Read full story

Last week, U.S. health officials had extended the mandate to May 3 requiring travelers to wear masks on airplanes, trains, and in taxis, ride-share vehicles or transit hubs, saying they needed time to assess the impact of a recent rise in COVID-19 cases caused by the airborne coronavirus. Read full story

Industry groups and Republican lawmakers balked and wanted the administration to end the 14-month-old mask mandate permanently.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle, an appointee of President Donald Trump, came in a lawsuit filed last year in Tampa, Florida, by a group called the Health Freedom Defense Fund. It follows a string of rulings against Biden administration directives to fight the infectious disease that has killed nearly one million Americans, including vaccine or testmandates for employers.

Judge Mizelle said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had exceeded its authority with the mandate, had not sought public comment and did not adequately explain its decisions.

A U.S. administration official said while the agencies were assessing potential next steps, the court’s decision meant CDC’s public transportation masking order was no longer in effect. The administration could still opt to appeal the order or seek an emergency delay in the order’s enforcement.

“Therefore, TSA will not enforce its Security Directives and Emergency Amendment requiring mask use on public transportation and transportation hubs at this time,” the official said in a statement.

“CDC recommends that people continue to wear masks in indoor public transportation settings.”

The ruling came down on Monday, issued by one of the lesser Trump judges, which is honestly saying something. For us in Houston, this also means that masking at IAH and Hobby airports and on Metro buses and trains is no longer required. It continues to be “encouraged”, which means that some vaccinated people and immunocompromised people who can’t avoid being in that situation will wear them. We’ll be flying a couple of times this summer, including the trip to take daughter #1 to college, and we’ll have our KN-95s on because honestly, why wouldn’t we? It is what it is at this point. Protect yourself and hope for the best.

Dan Patrick wants a “Don’t Say Gay” bill for Texas

Of course he does.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick said Monday he will prioritize passing Texas legislation that mimics the recently signed Florida bill referred to as the “Don’t Say Gay” law.

That state’s controversial law prohibits classroom lessons on sexual orientation or gender identity for kids below the fourth grade or any instruction that is not “age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate” for older students. It has come under heavy scrutiny as opponents of the bill say it will harm LGBTQ children.

While Texas’ next legislative session doesn’t start until January, the issue will be addressed in Education Committee hearings before then, Patrick said in a campaign email.

“I will make this law a top priority in the next session,” he said.

Patrick’s office did not immediately respond to a request late Monday.

Enforcing Florida’s law falls to parents, much like Texas’ restrictive abortion law, Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy.

A parent can sue a school district for damages if they believe it has broken the law. If they win, parents will receive money and recoup attorney fees. In Florida, the law’s supporters portrayed it as a way to give more rights to parents. Gov. Greg Abbott has similarly said parents should have more rights concerning their children’s education as he campaigns for a third term.

Val Benavidez, executive director of the Texas Freedom Network, said in a statement to The Texas Tribune that Patrick’s promise to bring similar legislation to the state is a “stain on Texas.”

“Gender expression by children is not something that is scary or harmful. What is scary is that political activists are grasping at power by overstepping into the lives of Texas families and education of students,” Benavidez said. “While politicians use hate speech that is far from center to harm our vulnerable youth, we will continue to love our children and make sure that all families are uplifted in public life.”

Look, we know Dan Patrick means what he says when he says crap like this. He hates LGBTQ people, and he’s going to do everything he can to make their lives miserable, especially now that he’s seeing other states do things that Texas doesn’t do. We can either vote him out, or we can watch him do what he says he’s going do. Not much else to say about it.

Social media censorship law blocked

For now. As long as the outlaw Fifth Circuit exists, we can’t say more than that.

A federal judge on Wednesday blocked a Texas law that seeks to restrict how social media companies moderate their content and was championed by Republicans who say the platforms are biased against conservatives.

The law, signed by Gov. Greg Abbott on Sept. 9, would ban platforms with more than 50 million monthly users in the U.S. from removing a user over a “viewpoint” and require them to publicly report information about content removal and account suspensions. It was set to take effect Dec. 2.

In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Robert Pitman wrote that the First Amendment protects social media platforms’ right to moderate content and rejected the defendants’ argument that such companies are “common carriers.” Pitman also ruled that some aspects of the law were “prohibitively vague.”

“This Court is convinced that social media platforms, or at least those covered by [House Bill] 20, curate both users and content to convey a message about the type of community the platform seeks to foster and, as such, exercise editorial discretion over their platform’s content,” Pitman wrote.

[…]

Supporters of the law say it ensures that users’ political views go uncensored. State Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park — who authored the bill, known as House Bill 20 — compared tech companies to “common carriers” like phone companies or cable providers, which are barred from customer discrimination.

But a federal judge who blocked a similar Florida law in June said such comparisons aren’t accurate. Thomas Leatherbury, the director of the First Amendment Clinic at Southern Methodist University Dedman School of Law, told The Texas Tribune in September that the Texas law is “clearly unconstitutional,” with the same flaws as the Florida law “and then some.”

By targeting only the largest social media platforms, Leatherbury said the law violates the equal protection clause. The law largely prohibits electronic mail service providers from blocking messages based on their content, which Leatherbury said restricts email services’ First Amendment rights.

See here and here for the background. You can see the court order here, some commentary on it here, and NetChoice’s press release here. As with all things, Texas is sure to go running to the Fifth Circuit to get them to ratify their lawlessness, and the usual bet is that the Fifth Circuit will provide room service for them. Maybe this time it will be different since the law attacks businesses instead of just people, but conservatives have decided those particular businesses are Bad for them, so the usual bet is still probably the correct one. But for now, at least this is one terrible new law that won’t get a chance to be enforced. For now.

Feds officially investigating Texas mask mandate ban

Good.

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday launched a civil rights investigation into Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in schools, making Texas the sixth state to face a federal inquiry over mask rules.

The investigation will focus on whether Abbott’s order prevents students with disabilities who are at heightened risk for severe illness from COVID-19 from safely returning to in-person education, in violation of federal law, Suzanne B. Goldberg, the acting assistant secretary for civil rights wrote in a letter to Texas Commissioner of Education Mike Morath.

The investigation comes after the Texas Education Agency released guidance saying public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in light of Abbott’s ban on mask mandates.

[…]

Goldberg wrote that the Office for Civil Rights will examine whether TEA “may be preventing school districts in the state from considering or meeting the individual educational needs of students with disabilities or otherwise enabling discrimination based on disability.”

The department previously opened similar investigations into mask policies in Iowa, South Carolina, Utah, Oklahoma and Tennessee. But the agency had not done so in Texas because of court orders preventing the state from enforcing Abbott’s order. The new TEA guidance changed that, however.

See here and here for the background. The TEA’s new directive made me scratch my head.

In newly released guidance, the Texas Education Agency says public school systems cannot require students or staff to wear masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

A statement released by the agency Friday says Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order banning mask mandates precludes districts from requiring face coverings.

“Per GA-38, school systems cannot require students or staff to wear a mask. GA-38 addresses government-mandated face coverings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the statement reads. “Other authority to require protective equipment, including masks, in an employment setting is not necessarily affected by GA-38.”

The agency previously had said it would not enforce the governor’s ban until the issue was resolved in the courts.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued several school districts for imposing mask requirements on students and teachers, and some districts have sued the state over the governor’s order. The lawsuits have produced mixed results with some courts upholding districts’ mask mandates and some siding with the attorney general.

TEA officials on Tuesday did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the new guidelines and questions about how the agency would enforce the ban on mask mandates. The agency has not yet clarified what prompted the new guidelines, given that the legal battles regarding the order are ongoing.

Hard to know exactly what motivated this, but “pressure from Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and Ken Paxton” would be high on my list of suspects. If I were to advise school districts that currently have mask mandates, as HISD does, or are thinking about imposing one, I would say go right ahead, and keep the mandates you have. This is a toothless threat, and the courts have not yet weighed in on the issue in a meaningful way. We know that having the mask mandates promotes safety, and if that isn’t the highest priority I don’t know what is. Do not waver.

Anyway. The Trib has an explainer about the state of mask mandates and lawsuits around them, but it doesn’t indicate when the legal cases may be having hearings, which admittedly would be a big task to track. The federal lawsuit will have a hearing on October 6, and we may get some clarity out of that. In the meantime, keep the mask mandates. We need them, and (a couple of district court judges aside) no one is stopping school districts from having them. The Trib has more.

It’s not too late to pass a voting rights bill

Look, we have one queued up.

Senate Democrats are close to an agreement on updated voting rights legislation that can get the support of all 50 Democratic-voting senators, three Democratic aides familiar with negotiations said.

The For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act were introduced in Congress in 2019 and 2021, respectively. Since their introductions, both have been voted on along party lines.

The member-level discussions are complete, a source said, but staff members are going through the text to fix technical issues. No further details have been shared.

The legislation would require the votes of 60 senators, including 10 Republicans, and it’s unlikely that Democrats will get enough Republican supporters.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia.

Senators, who return from their August recess this week, face a number of items, such as a voting rights measure and an ambitious infrastructure spending package.

“We’ve been talking to quite a few different Republicans who are very interested in doing something that makes sense,” Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., said Sunday on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Manchin said he has been working with Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, on the issue but didn’t elaborate.

Well, Sen. Murkowski plus fifty Democrats is still well short of 60. Might there be some other option?

With a make-or-break vote looming in the Senate on a sweeping voting-rights and anti-corruption bill, President Joe Biden and his advisers have said in recent weeks that Biden will pressure wavering Democrats to support reforming the filibuster if necessary to pass the voting bill.

According to three people briefed on the White House’s position and its recent communications with outside groups, Biden assured Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that he was ready to push for filibuster reform. Biden’s pressure would aim to help Schumer convince moderate Democrats to support a carveout to the filibuster, a must for the party if it’s going to pass new voting protections without Republican votes. According to a source briefed on the White House’s position, Biden told Schumer: “Chuck, you tell me when you need me to start making phone calls.”

The Senate returns to work this upcoming week, and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer intends to call a vote on the For the People Act, the most ambitious reform bill in decades and the Democrats’ best shot at countering the wave of state-level GOP voter suppression laws this year. But to get the bill out of Congress, Senate Democrats will almost certainly need to change the filibuster, the procedural tactic used by the minority party to block many types of legislation.

Publicly, there are two centrist Democrats who have stated their opposition to changing or abolishing the filibuster, Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. Activist groups and fellow Democratic senators say Manchin and Sinema are the likely 49th and 50th votes both on any voting-rights legislation and especially any filibuster reforms. Sources say both senators are likely targets for when Biden launches his final push to pass a compromise version of the For the People Act.

“I think there’s a clear recognition the president will have a role to play in bringing this over the finish line, and if in order to do that, we need [filibuster] rules reform, then so be it,” says Rep. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), who helped write the original version of the For the People Act. “I think Joe Biden with his long history and experience in the Senate can see that.”

[…]

Some outside activist groups say Biden and his administration haven’t done enough to make the case for a new voting-rights bill in Congress. “For a long time there was no engagement,” says Fred Wertheimer, president of the government-reform group Democracy 21. Tiffany Muller, president of the anti-corruption group End Citizens United, told Rolling Stone earlier this summer that the lack of urgency from the administration felt even more acute given the energy and organizing happening outside of Washington in support of the For the People Act. “We need that same effort and help (from the Biden administration) on this,” Muller said at the time.

That frustration extended to Biden’s top allies in Congress. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.), whose timely endorsement helped rescue Biden’s flailing presidential campaign in early 2020, begged Biden to endorse a filibuster carve-out for voting rights. During a late-July meeting in the Oval Office, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi pressed Biden to do more on voting rights; Democrats needed action from him, according to a person briefed on the meeting.

In that Oval Office meeting, the source says, Biden made a pledge: If Pelosi and Schumer tried every option they had to pass a voting-rights bill with Republican votes and got nowhere, Biden would get involved himself and lobby the handful of moderate Democrats to convince them to weaken the filibuster so that the For the People Act could pass without any Republican votes.

Since then, the tenor has shifted in the White House in the last month, multiple sources tell Rolling Stone. The White House has devoted more staff to the issue. More importantly, it has given assurances to outside supporters that Biden now plans to push for filibuster reform when necessary. “They have really engaged in a way that can make a difference both on substance and particularly on process as we get closer to this day of reckoning,” Rep. John Sarbanes says. “They appreciate that the electorate that showed up for Joe Biden in 2020 now wants to see Joe Biden show up for them in 2021.”

Here’s where I shrug my shoulders and mumble something about how I hope Joe Manchin, who is one of the sponsors of the John Lewis Act in the Senate, might prefer to do something to help pass his own bill than let it die by inaction. I have no idea what he’ll do and neither does anyone else, but I do like this theory about what animates a Joe Manchin.

So we have all these theories: Manchin is a crypto-Republican; he’s doing the work of his funders; he and Biden have a secret understanding and it’s all going to work out. My own theory is a bit different. It’s not even my theory. Someone mentioned it to me several months ago. But I can’t remember who. The theory is this: all of Manchin’s actions hold together and make sense if you imagine he got up on a particular day, absorbed the CW of the moment and said the first or second thing that came into his head.

This is admittedly a somewhat diminishing read. But Manchin clearly likes the limelight and he doesn’t pretend to be an ideologue. If you use this framework all the various shifts and turns start to make sense. Manchin is the quintessential Washington player, very much a creature of Washington insider culture with all its shibboleths and conventional wisdoms.

It doesn’t get us any closer to where we need to be, and it doesn’t do anything to keep my head from exploding, but at least it makes some sense. As for the rest, light a candle, throw some salt over your shoulder, avoid stepping on any cracks, and hope for the best. Mother Jones and Daily Kos have more.

Morning Consult also finds a decline in Abbott’s approval rating

Now we have two points.

Two Republican governors famed for their antagonistic approach to some COVID-19 safety measures have seen their popularity decline this summer as they presided over some of the country’s worst COVID-19 spikes. But for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, the virus’s toll has hardly hurt either of them with their party’s base as they look toward their political futures.

According to Morning Consult Political Intelligence polling conducted Aug. 21-30, 48 percent of voters in Florida and Texas approve of their governor’s job performance, while similar shares disapprove. The downturn since daily polling that concluded on July 1, before COVID-19’s delta variant spread rapidly across their states and prompted concerns about accessibility of hospital beds and oxygen, has been especially stark for DeSantis.

The first-term Florida governor’s net approval rating – the share of voters who approve of his job performance minus the share who disapprove – has fallen 14 percentage points since the beginning of July, larger than the 7-point drop in sentiment about Abbott over the same time period.

[…]

Roughly 4 in 5 GOP voters in Florida and Texas approve of their Republican governors. The figure has dropped slightly for DeSantis (from 87 percent to 83 percent) since July 1, while it went virtually unchanged for Abbott (from 80 percent to 79 percent).

Most Republican voters in Florida (59 percent) still “strongly” approve of DeSantis — down 7 points over the course of two months but more than 10 points above where he began the year.

In Texas, where Abbott is facing at least two major conservative challengers for re-election next year, the incumbent is a bit weaker with the GOP base compared with DeSantis: 42 percent of Republicans strongly approve of his job performance, compared with 47 percent who did so at the beginning of July.

Abbott’s numbers in this poll are 48 approve, 47 disapprove. That’s better than in the Texas Politics Project poll, but as with that one it represents a decline from the months before. The trend graph shows a steady decline, and in the accompanying table, Abbott was at 51-43 in the July 1 poll. The specific numbers aren’t what’s of interest, it’s the direction they’ve been going. As noted, that can certainly change, and two data points aren’t that much better than one. But so far at least we’re getting a consistent story. Via Harvey Kronberg.

Feds take first steps in the mask mandate fight

Coming attractions.

The U.S. Department of Education is opening civil rights investigations to determine whether five states that have banned schools from requiring masks are discriminating against students with disabilities, the agency said on Monday.

The department is targeting Iowa, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee and Utah, all Republican-led states, in its investigations. It said it was concerned that their bans on mandatory masking could leave students with disabilities and underlying health conditions more vulnerable to COVID-19, limiting their access to in-person learning opportunities.

“It’s simply unacceptable that state leaders are putting politics over the health and education of the students they took an oath to serve,” U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

“The Department will fight to protect every student’s right to access in-person learning safely and the rights of local educators to put in place policies that allow all students to return to the classroom full-time in-person safely this fall.”

[…]

Florida, Texas, Arkansas and Arizona are four other Republican-led states that have banned mandatory masking orders in schools. The Education Department left those states out of its inquiry because court orders or other actions have paused their enforcement, it said in a news release.

The department says it is monitoring those states and would take action if local mask-wearing policies are later barred from going into effect.

See here for the background, and here for the press release. It’s too early to say how this might go, and that’s before we get a resolution in the reams of mask mandate-related lawsuits that are still working their way through our system. Suffice it to say that the good guys have a lot of fight left in them.

Driverless Lyft service coming to Austin

We’ll see what the demand is.

People in Austin who use the ride-hailing service Lyft will have the option of selecting a self-driving car starting in 2022. But, at least initially, two humans will sit in the front as “test specialists” in case anything goes wrong.

Ford’s self-driving vehicles, including the Escape Hybrid SUV, are powered by technology from Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based company that includes Ford and Volkswagen as major investors.

The vehicles will launch first in Miami later this year. They’re scheduled to arrive in Austin in the first half of 2022.

The number of self-driving Lyft vehicles operating on Austin streets will be relatively small at first. Ford, Lyft and Argo AI are giving themselves five years to get “at least 1,000 autonomous vehicles on the Lyft network” across multiple cites, they said in a joint press release. More details about the size of the fleet in Austin will be revealed closer to launch, a Lyft spokesperson said.

“This is a technology that is going to roll out in pockets,” said Jody Kelman, who leads product management for the consumer arm of Lyft’s self-driving division. “We always see that there will be a huge place for [human] drivers on our network.”

Ford started testing self-driving cars in Austin three years ago. The auto-maker had initially planned to launch its commercial self-driving service in 2021, but last year pushed the date back to 2022, citing the pandemic.

Driverless cars have long been seen as a key part of the Uber/Lyft future, since it eliminates the expense of drivers for them. It would also mean that the companies would have to own, maintain, and store the vehicles they’d use, which is a much more significant expense than the drivers are. As such, I have no idea how big a piece of that future this is, or how it would change their basic business model.

Here in the present day, I wonder how appealing the driverless Lyft service is for their customers versus the standard person-driven automobile. If you’re the type that prefers never having to interact with the driver, then this would have appeal. I’m the type that would be more worried about what happens if something unexpected comes up – car trouble, the programmed route becoming unavailable for some reason, an accident, whatever. Maybe I get a call while I’m in the ride and my plans have changed and now I need to go someplace else. Who do I tell to make that happen? Am I stuck there until I get to my destination and then have to call for another ride? Low-probability events, to be sure, but I’m certain there are plenty of other folks who would think this way.

One other potential factor in the not-yet-post-COVID world is that not being in the car with a complete stranger has more value now, even if you might be giving up some level of service assurance. I pondered this issue with the rise of automated grocery and pizza delivery services, and the same considerations apply here. There’s more room in the marketplace for these kinds of services than I would have originally thought, but it’s still all a bit puzzling to me. What do you think? There’s a longer version of this story in the Statesman, if you can get past their paywall (it was in a print version of the Chronicle a couple of weeks back, in the business section), and The Verge has more.