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SCOTx hearing on state redistricting lawsuits

The state lawsuits over the “county line rule” in Cameron County and the Eckhardt/Gutierrez “decennial redistricting only in a regular session” contention had a hearing before the State Supreme Court over whether these suits can be heard in state district court.

Attorneys representing a group of Democratic state lawmakers faced off Wednesday with the state attorney general’s office in the latest partisan battle over redrawn political maps passed by the Texas Legislature in 2021.

The arguments before the Texas Supreme Court were part of a case filed against Gov. Greg Abbott by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, or MALC, that allege Texas Republicans violated the Texas Constitution when they redrew political boundaries after the 2020 U.S. Census.

Attorneys for MALC and what are collectively called the Gutierrez plaintiffs — state Sens. Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt, House District 37 candidate Ruben Cortez, and the Tejano Democrats — alleged in state court that the Texas Legislature violated what is known as the “county line rule” when political maps were redrawn in 2021. That rule requires counties with sufficient populations to be kept whole during the process.

They argue the Legislature violated that rule when it passed House Bill 1, the lower chamber’s redistricting bill, because it split the Cameron County line twice when maps were redrawn. It did so by including districts that went in two different directions into two counties to create part of separate House districts, according to a court filing.

The arguments Wednesday centered on whether the courts are a proper venue for the debate, something the state argued against. In December, a three-judge panel denied a request by the attorney general’s office to dismiss the case based on that argument.

“This court has repeatedly recognized that redistricting is a uniquely legislative task,” said Lanora Pettit, an attorney with Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office. Pettit said that a previous ruling by the court stated it could only intervene in “exigent circumstances” but the current lawsuit didn’t qualify.

“This is not such a circumstance,” she said. “Plaintiffs who lack standing seek an order that is a function of the [Texas] Constitution.”

Justice Jeff Boyd said the broad argument seemed “hard to swallow.”

“Challenging new maps on these grounds raises a very important constitutional issue and I hear the state arguing ‘Yeah. Well, so sorry. There is nobody that gets to raise that,” he said.

Later attorney Wallace Jefferson, a former Republican state supreme court chief justice, said that if the plaintiffs did not have standing to sue the state on the issue of redistricting, it would essentially mean that nobody could challenge perceived violations of the Texas Constitution.

“If these voters and these candidates lack standing, no one could ever sue to enforce mandatory provisions of the Texas Constitution,” he said.

See here and here for the background. I had thought at one point that these lawsuits might have affected the primaries this year, but that was not to be. If the plaintiffs prevail, the first election in which we’d see the effects would be 2024, or possibly later depending on how the appeals go. I am of course rooting for the plaintiffs here, but the state’s argument here really does seem very broad. Doesn’t mean they won’t win anyway, but it would be a significant matter if they did, at least on this point. I hope that SCOTx decides to let the issue play out in court before they have to step in, but you never know.

Here’s a Twitter thread from MALC, one of the plaintiffs, about the arguments. A brief interview with MALC attorney Joaquin Gonzalez is in the Texas Signal, and you can find relevant case documents at Democracy Docket. KVUE has more on this part of the case.

As for the Eckhardt/Gutierrez challenge, it’s a bit confusing.

Texas lawmakers are bound by state law to open a fresh round of redistricting in 2023, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office asserted Tuesday in a Texas Supreme Court hearing.

The assertion came from an appellate attorney with Paxton’s office during a hearing related to multiple lawsuits challenging district maps approved during a special session last year.

Lanora Pettit, Texas’ principal deputy solicitor general, argued that the lawsuits were moot, as plaintiffs including Democratic state Sens. Sarah Eckhardt and Roland Gutierrez as well as the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, are asking for the court to order the Legislature to take up redistricting next year.

“The state takes the position that the Legislature is required to redistrict again in January of 2023 and as a result, because (the plaintiffs) are not seeking to change the outcome — the map — for this election cycle, then whatever this court would be to order would not have an effect on a real world election,” Pettit said.

Democrats are also arguing that the Legislature needs to take up redistricting again in 2023, but believe that a court needs to order it or else Republicans, who led the effort and created a highly favorable map for their party, would not do it otherwise.

The main claims Democrats have in this case revolve around two provisions in state law.

The suit from Eckhardt and Gutierrez points to a provision in the Texas Constitution that requires redistricting to occur during the first regular session of the Legislature following the release of the once-a-decade census.

Because of COVID-19 delays, census redistricting numbers were not released until after 2021′s regular legislative session was adjourned. The process instead took place during a special session.

I guess it comes down to whether the Lege has to redistrict, which would presumably be on terms more favorable to at least some Democrats, or it gets to redistrict, in which case the Republicans get to choose. I’d rather not find out what that looks like. If the suits survive the effort to dismiss them, they will go back before that three-judge panel that first heard arguments in December.

Supreme Court to hear whether state redistricting lawsuit can proceed

Here’s the update I’ve been waiting for. Not what I was hoping for, but it is what it is.

The state’s bid to toss a legal challenge arguing last year’s GOP-led redistricting effort violated the Texas Constitution is headed to the state Supreme Court, which accepted the case Friday.

The all-Republican Supreme Court set oral arguments on March 23, well after the March 1 primary election.

The Legislature’s GOP mapmakers last fall approved new political lines that could cement Republicans’ grip on power for the next decade and blunt the voting strength of nonwhite voters who fueled Texas’ population surge.

As federal lawsuits over the new maps pile up, some Democrats are focusing on fights in state court. In two combined cases, a group of mostly Democratic, Latino lawmakers from both chambers challenged the constitutionality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.

After two days of oral arguments in December, a three-judge state district court ruled against temporarily blocking the new legislative maps, but set a trial for January. Texas then appealed the court’s denial of its motions to dismiss the case, putting the trial on hold.

The lawmakers’ attorneys said they don’t seek to overturn the maps for the 2022 election cycle but argued for expedited resolution of the appeal “to allow sufficient time for the parties to litigate the merits before the 2023 legislative session.”

“For decades, MALC has defended the freedom to vote and equal access to the ballot box. We are not surprised that (Texas Attorney General) Ken Paxton would attempt to undermine our members and the millions of Texas voices they represent,” said state Rep. Rafael Anchia, chair of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, one of the challengers against the maps.

[…]

The consolidated case was assigned to a special three-judge panel of Democrat Karin Crump and Republicans Emily Miskel and Ken Wise. If the state Supreme Court affirms the lower court’s decision, “the parties need sufficient time to return to the special three-judge district court, obtain a final judgment, and complete any appeal from that judgment,” the challengers said in a filing.

See here for the previous update. I’ve been scouring the news for the past two weeks because I knew that proposed trial date was coming up. I had not seen an item about the state’s appeal, so the lack of news about the trial was confusing to me – was this really not being covered, or was there a delay of some kind. Turns out it was the latter. Maybe if I’d spent more time on Twitter I might have seen something to that effect, but too much time on Twitter is its own hazard. Point is, this litigation will not derail the March primaries. Like the litigation over Harris County Commissioners Court redistricting, it may eventually end with a ruling that will force a change to the new maps, but it cannot and will not affect this election.

Anyway, so SCOTx will decide whether to toss the two combined lawsuits or to allow the trial to proceed. Hopefully they will do this in a timely manner, so that we might have a resolution in time for the 2023 legislature to address any remaining questions. Which, let’s be clear, could be a double-edged sword, though at least on the county line question it’s more likely to be good for Democrats if the plaintiffs win and the districts in Cameron County need to be redrawn. And speaking of timing, SCOTx accepted this appeal on the same day that they also accepted the SB8 litigation from the Fifth Circuit. Thanks, I hate it.

One more thing, on a side note:

That’s the Sen. Powell lawsuit. So there is still one thing that could throw a kink into the March primaries. I’ll keep an eye on that.

Supreme Court rejects mandamus over Commissioners Court redistricting

The primary will proceed as scheduled, but the issue could be revisited sometime after the 2022 election.

The Texas Supreme Court rejected an effort by Republican commissioners and voters to block Harris County’s recent redistricting plan on Friday, suggesting another challenge still in the works will meet a similar fate.

In their challenge, the petitioners argued that the new maps amounted to illegal Democratic gerrymandering. The new precincts approved by Harris County leaders last year resulted in dramatic shifts that the challengers argued would disenfranchise voters in the upcoming primaries.

But in a narrow ruling, the justices found that they likely couldn’t provide any relief to the challengers because the wheels of the election were already in motion.

“(N)o amount of expedited briefing or judicial expediency at this point can change the fact that the primary election for 2022 is already in its early stages,” their opinion read. “This Court and other Texas courts are duty-bound to respond quickly to urgent cases that warrant expedited proceedings, but even with utmost judicial speed, any relief that we theoretically could provide here would necessarily disrupt the ongoing election process.”

The result is that the new precinct maps will be allowed to stand. The Democratic majority on commissioners court adopted the maps on a 3-2 party line vote in October.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion, which is also embedded in the story. It’s fairly brief and pretty straightforward, so let me summarize:

– The current map violates federal law because of population differences among the four precincts. It was not an option for the court to order that the current map be used while the appeals played out.

– The court ruled that their role in redistricting is limited, and that they did not have nearly enough facts to go on, as many of the plaintiffs’ claims remain in dispute. The burden required to make them step in and halt or change the election, which is already underway, was far too high for them to take action on such a short notice.

– Regarding the (ridiculous) claim about people being disenfranchised because they would have to wait until 2024 to vote when they had been expecting to vote in 2022, the court noted that some number of people will always be in that position when redistricting occurs. The Constitution requires the State Senate (which like Commissioners Court has staggered four-year terms) to have everyone run after redistricting, but there’s no such requirement for Commissioners Courts, which moved to four-year terms by an amendment in 1954. Ordering all four precincts to be on the ballot in 2022 was rejected because of the limited time for anyone who might run in the other precincts to get going. The court also noted that any short-term remedy for Harris County might cause problems with other counties, if people could make similar claims about being disenfranchised.

– Given all that, the court said it had no choice but to reject the writ of mandamus and allow the 2022 election to go forward as planned. The court did not make any claims or judgments about the merits of the plaintiffs’ arguments, and said that if the matter comes back to them after going through the lower courts, they can evaluate them at that time.

So there you have it. There is still the Radack lawsuit out there, but as the story notes it seems extremely unlikely that will succeed at affecting this election based on this ruling. The Cagle/Ramsey lawsuit was dismissed in Harris County district court, so I presume the next step would be for the dismissal, which was made on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked jurisdiction (this is what the story said, perhaps this should be standing), to be appealed. Success for the plaintiffs would mean sending the case back to a district court, hopefully (for them) to get a hearing and ruling on the merits, which would naturally be appealed by whoever lost. My guess is that this whole process would take a few years if everything proceeds at its normal pace. While the Supreme Court allowed for the possibility of an all-precinct election (under another new map) in 2024, or even a special election presumably before then, I wouldn’t hold my breath on it. Same thing for the Radack lawsuit, which as far as I know has not had an initial hearing yet.

Finally, while this story does not mention it, I wonder if this may also signal the death knell for the two state court redistricting challenges, on the same grounds of not having enough time to do something before people begin voting. That last update suggested the possibility of a trial this week, but I am not aware of any news to that effect. The cases are in Travis County district court, if anyone wants to try to figure that out.

The state of the state redistricting lawsuits

A good update, and a reminder that not all of the action is in federal court.

In two cases heard [December 14 and 15], a group of mostly Democratic, Hispanic lawmakers from both chambers challenged the legality of when and how Republicans drew the boundaries.

“All we’re asking is for Republicans, who claim to be constitutionalists, to start acting like it, and follow the plain meaning and reading of the Constitution,” said Roland Gutierrez, one of two Democratic state senators who are suing Texas.

Focusing on the timing are Gutierrez and Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, who sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. Also at issue are rules for keeping counties intact when drawing Texas House districts.

Similar to a suit they filed in federal court before redrawing began, the senators’ attorneys argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

That makes the newly drawn state House and state Senate plans invalid, argued the legal team for Gutierrez and Eckhardt, of San Antonio and Austin, respectively.

The senators’ lawyers pointed to a provision in the state Constitution that requires the redistricting process to start in the first regular session after the decennial Census has been published, asking the court to block the new plans from being used.

State lawyers argued the provision does not prohibit apportionment at other times, and warned that blocking the map will disrupt the 2022 election process that is already in motion.

“The Legislature … is perfectly free to redistrict whenever it wants,” Will Thompson, the attorney general’s deputy chief for special litigation, said at the Dec. 15 hearing in district court in Travis County.

[…]

The senators’ legal team also argued the new state House map violated the “county line rule” of the Texas Constitution, which requires that counties with sufficient population be kept intact in drawing Texas House districts.

The second challenge, mounted by the Mexican American Legislative Caucus in the Texas House, made a similar case that the rule was broken, arguing it was designed to ensure people have local representation.

As lawmakers this fall debated the new House lines late into the night, they narrowly adopted a major change in South Texas. House District 37 was redrawn from a seat President Joe Biden won by 17 percentage points, to a seat the president won by only two points over former President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

That amendment, developed by Kingsville Republican Rep. J.M. Lozano, was denounced by some Valley lawmakers. State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Brownsville, called the change a “disingenuous, last-minute attempt to do a grab.”

The plaintiffs’ legal team argued the county line rule requires that two districts be wholly contained within Cameron County. Yet Lozano’s tweaks give Cameron County just one wholly contained district, with two that connect to adjoining counties.

The state’s lawyers argued the new boundaries do not dilute votes in Cameron County, and that Cameron got the number of districts it was constitutionally entitled to. The plaintiffs’ attorney rejected that interpretation of the rules.

“There is no doubt that to whatever extent Cameron County voters are a cohesive group … they get to elect the candidates of their choice,” said Thompson, one of the state’s lawyers.

District 37 Democratic candidate Ruben Cortez Jr. joined the senators’ suit, along with political organization Tejano Democrats. The new version of the district was joined with adjacent Willacy County.

“This Republican redistricting scheme is robbing the voice of Cameron County voters,” Cortez, also a member of the Texas State Board of Education, said in a news release.

The caucus’ complaint asked the court to block the Texas House map from being used in upcoming elections and allow for the creation of alternative boundaries.

Both sides discussed a full trial beginning Jan. 10.

It’s unclear, if the judges rule in favor of the plaintiffs on the county line rule, whether they would delay Texas House primary elections just for South Texas, or the entire state. The plaintiffs’ legal team asked the court to delay the primary to May 24.

Thompson, the state lawyer, said he expects the 2023 Legislature to have to revisit the maps.

The Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit was originally filed in federal court, but at a hearing in October it was agreed that the plaintiffs would first pursue the matter in state court. The state lawsuit was filed on November 22, judging from the stamp on the document. The lawsuit over HD37 and Cameron County was one of two lawsuits filed by MALC, with the other being a broader federal lawsuit. I was not aware until this story that they had been combined, as the federal lawsuits (with the exception of the federal version of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit) have been.

The cases are being heard by an interesting three-judge panel: Karin Crump, a Democrat and district court judge in Travis County, who is presiding; Ken Wise, a Republican was was re-elected to the 14th Court of Appeals in 2020; and Emily Miskel, a Republican district court judge from Collin County who is running for the 5th Court of Appeals in 2022. I assume this is the work of the Texas Multidistrict Litigation Panel, though that name is not mentioned in the story. Funny how once you become aware of something new you begin to see it everywhere.

As for the cases, with the standard I Am Not A Lawyer proviso, both of them seem pretty straightforward. Either the Lege is only allowed to embark on the decennial redistricting process in a regular session that follows the Census or it’s not, and either the county line rule means that a county with sufficient population to have more than one State House district in it has only one partial district in it, with the other(s) being fully within that county. Looking at the district viewer, I don’t see any other example of a county that has one complete district and more than one partial districts in it. There are no such examples in the current map, either – Cameron has all of HDs 37 and 38 and part of 35. It seems likely to me that previous legislatures didn’t think this was something they could do. And as for whether Cameron County voters get to elect the candidate of their choice, that’s nice and all but it’s not the question that was asked, nor is it relevant to the county line rule.

As for the claim that the Lege is free to redistrict whenever it wants, then it could in theory redraw new lines after every election. (The 2003 DeLay re-redistricting was only for Congress, which is outside the scope of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit. That same claim was made about “mid-decade” Congressional redistricting, and I don’t believe there was ever a federal ruling on that question.) Surely there are some limits on what the majority party can do.

The weakness of the state’s arguments suggests to me the possibility the plaintiffs could prevail, but we are getting way ahead of ourselves. I do think the state can reasonably claim it wasn’t their fault that the Census data was late, and that it’s less disruptive to redistrict in a special session so new maps can be in place for the intended election than to wait an entire cycle. The counter to that would be that this is what the Legislative Redistricting Board is for, though here I would say it’s not clear to me that the outcome would be any more favorable to the plaintiffs unless the LRB is restricted to just tweaking districts to equalize population. In other words, can the LRB draw whole new maps, in which case I’d expect them to come up with something exactly like what was adopted by the Lege, or must they use the existing maps and make only the minimal changes necessary to fix population imbalances? The Gutierrez/Eckhardt plaintiffs might “win” but not achieve anything, depending on how the court views that question. Someone with real legal experience should probably step in at this point and stop me from digging this hole any deeper.

Anyway. We might at least get an initial answer to these questions before voting begins, which would be nice. We might also get a split primary for at least part of the state, which is more than a little chaotic. Isn’t this fun?

Redistricting litigation update

Reform Austin shows that the state’s legal defense strategy against the various redistricting lawsuits is “You can’t sue us!”

Because of the clear racial gerrymandering, multiple groups are launching legal challenges under the Voting Rights Act. The state has now responded to the one being brought by the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Mi Familia Vota, the Mexican American Bar Association, and others, asking for a dismissal. Among many other claims, the state alleges that private citizens do not have standing to sue under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.

“The Supreme Court has never decided whether Section 2 contains an implied private cause of action,” reads the filing.

Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act makes it illegal to gerrymander a district for the purpose of suppressing voting power based on race. Strictly political gerrymandering was deemed acceptable in a 2019 Supreme Court case, but the two intentions are often intermingled. The majority of minorities tend to vote Democrat, making any political gerrymandering also racial almost by definition.

The filing by the state does admit that some legal opinions have implied that Section 2 does give private citizens standing to sue but says that these implications are inconsistent with other Supreme Court decisions. The case specifically cited is Alexander vs. Sandoval, which found that regulations enacted under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not confer the right to legal action in a case of non-intentional discrimination. The filing also claims that the Voting Rights Act did not actually create a right to vote in spite of the discrimination, and therefor there is no right to be contested under its statute.

Not a whole lot to say here, as Texas has employed a variation on that strategy in a whole host of lawsuit defenses lately. I don’t know what the district and appeals courts will make of that, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it get a warm welcome at SCOTUS. Hey, have I mentioned lately that a new and updated federal voting rights law would be a good idea? Just checking.

Reading that article made me go Google news hunting for anything else I could find on redistricting litigation, since not all developments make their way into the sources I read regularly. In doing so I found that all but one of the existing federal cases against the redistricting maps have been consolidated into one, the LULAC v Texas case, as it was the first one filed. You can see all of the filings related to this omnibus case here. When I read the order combining the cases, the motion for which had been partially opposed, I learned that there were two other lawsuits that I had missed the first time around. Let me sum up here. The cases that I knew about that are now under this banner: The LULAC/MALDEF suit, the Voto Latino suit, the federal MALC suit, the Senator Powell lawsuit over SD10, and the Fair Maps Texas Action Committee lawsuit.

The cases that I missed the first time around: The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, representing the Texas State Conference of the NAACP, and Damon James Wilson, formerly an inmate in Dallas County, representing himself as he was counted in one Congressional district while incarcerated but intends to return to his actual domicile in another CD when released, and says he should have been counted in that district.

The one federal case that remains separate from the others is the Gutierrez/Eckhardt suit, which the court rejected for consolidation on the grounds that about whether the Lege was allowed to draw maps at all, and not about the composition of the new maps.

So, for those of you keeping score at home, we now have two federal lawsuits challenging different aspects of Texas redistricting, and one state lawsuit that focuses on the county line rule and how it was allegedly violated in Cameron County in the drawing on HDs 35 and 37. You’ll be quizzed on this at a later date, so please make sure you take good notes.

A brief update on the Gutierrez/Eckhardt redistricting lawsuit

First news we’ve had in awhile.

Plaintiff: Democratic state Sens. Roland Gutierrez and Sarah Eckhardt

What the lawsuit argues: Ahead of lawmakers’ third special session, two Democratic state senators sued to block the Legislature from redistricting in a special session this year. The senators argued the Texas Constitution requires that redistricting be done in a regular session that won’t happen until 2023.

If successful, the federal lawsuit by Sens. Eckhardt of Austin and Gutierrez of San Antonio, with political organization Tejano Democrats, would require judges to create interim redistricting plans for the Legislature to use in the 2022 election cycle.

What’s next: The case, filed Sept. 1 in federal court in Austin, has been assigned to a three-judge panel of Reagan appointee Jerry Smith, Obama appointee Robert Pitman and Trump appointee Jeffrey Brown.

State lawyers have asked the court to consolidate the LULAC case with the senators’ case, and asked the court to abstain from a state matter. The officials also argued the plaintiffs misinterpreted the state constitution and cannot challenge the old maps.

On Tuesday, both sides indicated that the plaintiffs intend to pursue similar claims in state court. The three-judge panel then ordered the parties to file a joint status report “when they have determined the impact of the litigation in state court on this case.”

See here for the background on this lawsuit. The LULAC case is the one filed in mid-October after the maps were passed but before they were signed into law, with LULAC and several other groups as plaintiffs, and with MALDEF doing the filing. That lawsuit challenged all of the maps, including the Congressional map – the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit only challenged the legislative maps, as they are the ones that are covered by the state constitution.

What this sounds like to me is that the two Senators will file a new lawsuit in a state court, and action on the federal side will be put on pause until there is some kind of ruling there, at which point the three-judge panel will consider what its next steps are. I’ll keep an eye out for any news about that filing.

On a side note, this story also had a brief update about the Voto Latino lawsuit. That one was also assigned to a three-judge panel, and it too had an Obama appointee, a Trump appointee…and Jerry Smith. Who was involved in (I believe) the consolidated redistricting cases from the last decade. Do they keep him on ice just for these situations, or is is the luck of the draw? I am mystified. Reform Austin has more.

Senate passes Congressional map

Start the litigation countdown. Yes, I know, this still has to pass the House, but still.

The Texas Senate approved a map Friday that would largely protect incumbents in Congress while reducing the number of districts in which Black and Hispanic residents make up the majority of eligible voters — stymieing the growth of the state’s Democratic Party representation in Washington, D.C.

The congressional map is focused more on protecting incumbents than on growing the power of the dominant Republican Party in the state by flipping districts from blue to red. But the map, proposed by GOP state Sen. Joan Huffman of Houston, helps Republicans by increasing the number of districts that would have voted for Donald Trump in the 2020 presidential election and decreasing those that would have gone for Joe Biden.

In anticipation of federal challenges to the map, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican who presides over the Senate, said in a statement Friday that the proposal approved by the chamber was “legal and fair” and represented a “commitment to making sure every Texan’s voice is heard in Washington, D.C.”

[…]

State Sen. Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio, proposed a map that would create three additional districts where Hispanics made up the majority, bringing the number of those districts to 10.

But Republicans rejected the proposal, with Huffman saying the amendment had been drafted less than 24 hours before the Senate’s vote on the maps and would result in a “detailed and painstaking racial gerrymander” in North Texas to draw a new Hispanic-majority district in the same area as the current Congressional District 33, represented by U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth.

Gutierrez accused Republicans of racially discriminating against voters of color.

“How else do we describe a situation where Texas gains new political power because of the physical presence of millions of Black, Brown, and Asian bodies, and yet the political establishment does not give those very Texans the ability to elect more candidates to represent them?” he said in a statement. “It is an insult to the foundations of our democracy.”

Under the proposed maps, voters of color may end up with less representation in the congressional delegation. The new map drops the number of districts in which Hispanics make up a majority of eligible voters from eight to seven, and the districts in which Black Texans make up a majority of eligible voters from one to zero.

The number of districts where whites make up a majority of eligible voters goes up to 23 although the state’s white population — which increased by just 187,252 — was swamped by the growth of people of color.

See here for more on the initial map, which looks to be largely the same as the final map. Which we know is totally fair and representative because Dan Patrick says it is. The House will likely make some changes, but it seems unlikely to be substantively different. I’ll say this much, they’ve given Harris County Democrats a new district to target, and I feel confident that any Republican who wins the new CD38 is never going to get a free pass. I’ll be interested to see who files for this on the Democratic side.

As for the coming litigation, the arguments are clear, it’s just a matter of what SCOTUS will allow in the post-Voting Rights Act world that it wants. I will say again, it’s not too late for a new Voting Rights Act to be passed. We’re going to need an upgrade in the US Senate to make that happen, I fear.

Speaking of litigation, I would love to know what the status of the Gutierrez/Eckhardt lawsuit is. That had to do with the legislative maps, not the Congressional map, but given the speed with which those maps are moving along, we will be reaching a point of no return soon. Let’s at least have a hearing on this one before events make it moot, OK?

UPDATE: I should have spent more time looking at the District Viewer, because I have just now realized that this map moves me out of CD18, where I’ve been for 30 years, and into CD29. I feel a little weird about that.

Get ready for redistricting

The next special session starts Monday, and we should expect to see proposed redistricting maps. It’s going to be a rough few weeks, in part because the guardrails are gone, which will allow Republicans to run amuck.

The 2020 census captured a Texas that does not exist in its halls of power: a diverse state that is growing almost exclusively because of people of color and where the Hispanic and white populations are nearly equal in size.

But when the Texas Legislature convenes Monday to do the work of incorporating a decade’s worth of population growth into new political maps, the Republicans in charge — nearly all of whom are white — will have a freer hand to cement their power and try to shield themselves from the change that growth represents.

The 2021 redistricting cycle will mark the first time in nearly half a century that a Legislature with a lengthy record of discriminating against voters of color will be able to redraw political districts without federal oversight designed to keep harmful maps from immediately going into effect.

And now, once those maps are enacted, the voters of color and civil rights groups that for decades have fought discrimination in the courts may face a federal judiciary less willing to doubt lawmakers’ partisan motivations — even if they come at the expense of Hispanic and Black Texans.

“I hate to be an alarmist. I want to look for the silver lining, but I don’t see one,” said Jose Garza, a veteran civil rights attorney who has represented the Texas House’s Mexican American Legislative Caucus for a decade. ”I think that this is a time of great opportunity for the Republicans.”

You can read the rest – none of it is unfamiliar. Tensions are already high due to the quorum break plus the general unhinged racism from state leadership. The early word is that State Senators have already seen a draft map, which will be drawn to be 20-11 for the Republicans, a net loss of two seats for the Dems if it works out that way. The Cook Political Report expects the eventual Congressional map to add two Republican seats to the existing total. It’s going to be fun, just wait and see.

All this assumes that the Lege is allowed to draw non-Congressional maps, which remains a matter of dispute.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed by two Democratic state senators against Gov. Greg Abbott over his plan to redraw political districts during an upcoming special session of the Legislature.

In a Wednesday motion, the attorney general’s office argued that the lawsuit is “wrong about Texas law” and is “inconsistent with past practice and judicial precedent.” It asks that the lawsuit be dismissed or suspended until after the redistricting process is concluded.

The lawsuit — filed Sept. 1 by Sens. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, and Roland Gutierrez, D-San Antonio — argues that the state constitution explicitly requires political districts in the state to be redrawn during the first regular session after the publication of the U.S. census.

[…]

The lawsuit argues that a federal judge has the “exclusive obligation” to draw temporary maps to be used in the 2022 elections and that the legislative redistricting process should wait until 2023, when the next regular session is scheduled to occur.

The senators’ “theory — which seeks to exploit delays in the federal census caused by the COVID-19 pandemic — turns the Texas Constitution on its head,” reads the motion from the attorney general’s office. “That provision prescribes what the Legislature must do, but neither it nor any other provision prohibits the Legislature from redistricting at other times when circumstances call for it.”

See here for the background. I have to assume some kind of ruling is close at hand, if only to prevent future messes. I have not seen any indication of a hearing date, however, so who knows. In any event, enjoy your last weekend before new maps get drawn.

Special session 3.0

Yeah, we knew it was coming. Still too soon.

Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday announced a third special legislative session that will begin on Sept. 20 and tackle redistrictingrestrictions on transgender student athletes and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“The Texas Legislature now has the opportunity to redraw legislative and congressional districts in accordance with the new census numbers,” Abbott said in a statement. “In addition to redistricting, there are still issues remaining that are critical to building a stronger and brighter future for all Texans.”

Lawmakers, who will meet in Austin for the fourth time this year, will also be tasked with allocating $16 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds and with deciding whether state or local governments can mandate COVID-19 vaccines. Abbott also included on his five-item agenda a bill that would ban the tethering of dogs outside with heavy chains, which he had vetoed earlier this year. Abbott asked lawmakers to address concerns he had about the specificity of the bill and “over-criminalization.”

The Legislature just wrapped its second overtime round on Thursday, delivering on major conservative priorities like an elections law that restricts how and when voters cast ballots, a ban on how teachers can talk about race and history in classroomsbillions of dollars in additional border security funding and further restricting abortion access.

But lawmakers failed to deliver on two issues pushed by the GOP base: requiring transgender student athletes to play on teams based on the gender assigned to them at or near birth, and banning COVID-19 mandates.

Abbott had asked lawmakers to ban mask mandates in schools during the second special session but lawmakers could not get that proposal over the hump. Now, Abbott is asking the Legislature to decide whether state or local governments can mandate COVID-19 vaccines.

The bills about transgender student athletes and COVID-19 mandates will likely turn up the heat on an already contentious 30-day session. Lawmakers will take up their decennial redrawing of the state’s political maps, meaning some legislators will be fighting for their political lives. (Redistricting usually takes place during the first legislative session after the census, but it was delayed this year because of setbacks spurred by the coronavirus and the Trump administration’s handling of the census data.)

Like I said, we knew it was coming. I don’t know if the lawsuit that was filed by two State Senators to stop legislative redistricting will be successful, but I have to assume there will be a ruling of some kind before this session gets underway. The continued assault on trans kids is sadly unsurprising; the lack of a fraudit item is at least temporarily hopeful. I mean look, none of us want another special session. I’m sure that wearing us all down is part of the plan. But here we are anyway. Oh, and Abbott et al will try to do a bit of cleanup on the so-called “heartbeat bill” since none of them know how to talk about the lack of a rape or incest exemption. So we have that to look forward to as well.

First redistricting lawsuit

Faster than a speeding bullet

The first volley in what is expected to be a fierce war over Texas redistricting kicked off Wednesday in the form of a federal lawsuit filed by two Democratic state senators who argue that state lawmakers cannot legally redraw the state’s legislative maps this fall.

State Sens. Roland Gutierrez of San Antonio and Sarah Eckhardt of Austin are asking a federal district court in Austin to take over the work of drawing up new political maps for the Texas House and Senate to reflect the state’s growth in the last decade. Joined in their lawsuit by the Tejano Democrats, a political organization, the senators argue the Legislature cannot constitutionally carry out that work in a special legislative session.

The Texas Constitution states the Legislature “shall” redraw the state’s legislative maps “at its first regular session after the publication” of each decennial census. But significant holdups in finalizing the 2020 census delayed the release of the detailed population numbers needed to redraw those districts for several months — far past the end of the regular legislative session in May.

Having a court redraw legislative maps could help Democratic chances for a more favorable map compared with what the Legislature’s Republican majority might draw up in a bid to hold power for the next decade in a state that is demographically moving away from the party.

Congressional and state House and Senate districts need to be reconfigured before the 2022 elections to account for the state’s explosive growth in the last 10 years. The census’ August data delivery showed people of color accounted for 95% of the state’s population growth of nearly 4 million residents since 2010. The suit does not challenge the Legislature’s ability to draw a new Congressional district map in special session. Lawmakers must rework that map to add the two additional districts Texas earned because of its fast growth.

Because the Legislature lacks the authority to redraw the legislative districts now, the lawsuit argues, that obligation falls to the court to ensure the maps won’t violate the 14th Amendment’s “one person, one vote” principle for the 2022 elections. The Legislature’s next regular legislative session won’t take place until January 2023.

State legislative districts are meant to be close to equal in population, but the state’s booming — and uneven — growth in the last decade means that population counts in the districts are significantly out of balance.

It’s an interesting argument, and one that has been a part of the discussion of how Greg Abbott’s defunding of Article X in the budget could screw with the redistricting process in this fashion. I have no idea what the odds of success are, but there’s one very interesting tidbit in this that Michael Li highlights:

That’s Republican Former Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court Wallace B. Jefferson acting as co-counsel for the plaintiffs. Lawyers have to make a living and all that, but this is nonetheless a very interesting choice of case for him to take. Given the likelihood that he’s set some bridges aflame, and given the level of esteem in which he is generally held, I have to think there’s some merit to this. We’ll see. The Chron has more.

Do not give Ken Paxton any more power

Seriously, WTF?

Best mugshot ever

A new bill would give Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton greater prosecutorial authority over abuse-of-office charges — the very crime for which the FBI is reportedly investigating the state’s top attorney.

The bill, proposed by state Sen. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, would allow Paxton’s office to prosecute the charges without consent from local prosecutors, as is required now.

Paxton, a Republican who has been awaiting trial in a separate, unrelated felony securities fraud case for five years, has also been also under investigation by federal law enforcement after seven former aides accused him of using the powers of his office to help campaign donor, Nate Paul, an Austin-based real estate developer. Paxton has maintained his innocence in all cases.

His office did not respond to a request for comment.

Bettencourt’s bill was inspired by an unusual case in Harris County, in which Precinct 1 Commissioner Rodney Ellis, a Democrat, was found to have stored more than 1,200 privately owned pieces of African artwork, free of charge, at a county warehouse for more than three years.

Ellis pushed the Commissioners Court to sign a 2018 deal for 14 pieces for display in county buildings, but that agreement lapsed in January. His precinct later accepted more than 1,400, few of which have ever been shown publicly. The cost of storage over those three years is estimated at between $432,000 and $576,000, according to quotes from Houston art storage facilities.

A new contract has yet to be approved, and Ellis has not been charged with any crimes, though political foes allege that it constitutes an illegal abuse of office.

The Harris County District Attorney’s office is investigating the matter. The FBI is also reportedly investigating, according to KPRC 2, which broke the initial story.

[…]

Josh Reno, deputy attorney general for criminal justice, testified Monday that the office works with local prosecutors when requested if there is a potential conflict of interest.

“Local county and district attorneys want to be elected, and they are at a disadvantage in some of these cases when they may be prosecuting a very popular individual in their community,” said Reno, a former assistant district attorney tapped by Paxton in November. “I think SB 252 gives another tool in the tool belt for prosecutors who may not have the ability or may not have the political acumen to stand up to these folks.”

That would give the office “incredible power” over local prosecution decisions, said Sen. Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville.

“My concern is — it’s obvious in this case, probably somebody should do something — but in our history, in our state’s history, occasionally we get some renegade attorney generals who if they really didn’t like you could harass the individual official,” Nichols said.

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt, D-Austin, who was a prosecutor with the Travis County Attorney’s office for eight years, said it was “folly” to presume the state’s top attorney would be any less political than a local prosecutor.

“We’re dealing with an attorney general’s office, for which the elected attorney general’s been under indictment for five years, so if you think you’re going to get less political prosecutions out of the current attorney general’s office, I think that’s highly unlikely,” Eckhardt said.

You can say that again. I’m old enough to remember when some people thought that having a Public Integrity Unit in the office of the Travis County DA, which had jurisdiction over crimes allegedly committed by state officials, was ripe for partisan overreach. As with so many other Republican-filed bills this session, there’s no obvious need for this kind of approach. There are ongoing investigations of the allegations, which may or may not lead to a case being brought if the evidence warrants. Bettencourt claims handing the power to investigate and prosecute over to the AG would somehow restore trust in the system, but all he’s doing here is attacking the system before it even has a chance to work. And that’s without taking the deep and flagrant concerns any decent person would have with Ken Paxton.

(Has it occurred to Bettencourt that Paxton could lose next year? He came close to losing in 2018, and he’s now got the FBI dogging him, among other things. There’s no way Bettencourt files this bill if Justin Nelson were the AG. Surely that highlights the clear problem with it.)

The bill did not get a vote in committee, which is not unusual. It may get voted on later, and one of the Senators who will have a vote on it is none other than Angela Paxton. How convenient. Most likely, it dies a quiet death. But add this to the long list of particulars against Paul Bettencourt, who needs to be voted out as much as Ken Paxton does.

Legislative diversity report 2021

It’s a tiny bit more diverse, but not by much.

In a perennial takeaway of The Texas Tribune’s demographic analysis, the Texas Legislature remains mostly white and male.

When the 2021 legislative session begins Tuesday, 3 of every 5 lawmakers in the state House and Senate will be white, although white Texans make up just 41% of the state’s population. That’s largely a function of the Republican dominance of the Capitol and the dearth of diversity in the party’s ranks. All but five of the 100 Republicans in the Legislature are non-Hispanic white people.

Women have seen gains in the Legislature in recent years, but their underrepresentation is underscored by how marginal those gains have been. Four years ago, women held just 20% of seats; on Tuesday they’ll take roughly 27%. And unlike at the start of the legislative session two years ago, there won’t be more lawmakers named “John” than Republican women in the House.

There will be an equal number.

Click over to see the charts. There are 13 Republican women this session, up one from 2019. For what it’s worth, I believe the Trib has undercounted Anglo Democratic legislators. They have it at sixteen, but my count is seventeen. There were eighteen Anglo Dems following the 2018 election, a significant increase over previous years in which retirements and electoral defeats, both in March and in November, had whittled that number down to six. Looking at that list the changes from the 2019 session are as follows:

– Sen. Sarah Eckhardt replaces Kirk Watson, who stepped down to take a job at the University of Houston.
– Rep. Gina Calanni was defeated, but Rep. Ann Johnson was elected, leaving the Harris County share of the contingent unchanged.
– The drop from 18 to 17 is the result of Joe Pickett’s retirement due to health concerns. Rep. Art Fierro won the special election to succeed him.

The number of LGBTQ legislators went up by one as well with the election of Rep. Ann Johnson.

Finally, I should note that if we include the SBOE in this scope, then the Anglo Democrat number goes back up to 18, as Rebecca Bell-Metereau was elected in SBOE5, winning the seat vacated by Republican Ken Mercer. I won’t be surprised if the SBOE is redistricted back to a ten R/five D situation, and of course who knows where the House and the Senate will end up, but for now, this is what we have. Tune in following the next election for further updates.

Rep. Rodriguez concedes in SD14

No runoff after all.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt will succeed former state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, in the Texas Senate after state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez said Monday he is dropping out of the race. Eckhardt and Rodriguez, both Democrats, were poised to face off in a special election runoff for the seat after the two finished first and second, respectively, in the six-way race on July 14.

After Rodriguez’s announcement, Eckhardt said she looked “forward to joining forces with him in the next session to advance our shared progressive values” for the community. Rodriguez congratulated Eckhardt on the race in an email he sent to supporters and said he is looking “forward to working with her to carve a progressive path forward for our shared community.”

Sen. Sarah Eckhardt

Pressure had been building over the past several days for Rodriguez to end his bid for the Senate and instead focus his efforts in the House, where he has served since 2003. Eckhardt finished first in the six-way race for Senate District 14 on July 14 with 49.7% of the vote — just shy of winning outright. Rodriguez, meanwhile, received nearly 34% of the vote for the historically Democratic seat that covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

[…]

Some Eckhardt supporters and Capitol observers argued that Rodriguez was better off helping Democrats gain control of the House, which they are effectively nine seats away from doing, instead of focusing his energy and money on a Senate bid that Eckhardt nearly won outright earlier this month. There were also questions about the timing of a special election runoff and how that could impact Rodriguez’s seat in the House if he were to win the Senate race. Such a vacancy during a legislative session, some argued, could have implications if there is a slim margin between Democrats and Republicans next year.

First, congratulations to Sen.-elect Sarah Eckhardt. This race was a tough choice between two stellar candidates, and I have no doubt she will be a fine, fine Senator.

Second, this is a true team-first move by Rep. Rodriguez. Sure, Eckhardt had a commanding lead and came very close to an outright win on July 14, but Trey Martinez Fischer had a larger lead over now-Sen. Jose Menendez in the SD26 special election in 2015, and we know how that turned out. Because the two candidates were so well-qualified and differed so little on the substantial issues, this would have been the kind of nasty intramural fight over perceived differences and other minor issues that everyone pretty much hates, all happening at a time when we’re otherwise completely focused on November. And yes, you could imagine partisan control of the State House being affected by the need for Rodriguez to resign if he won, since a special election to replace him could not happen until after November. By far, this was the cleanest and least disruptive solution from a holistic perspective.

But even with all that, it’s still asking one person to put aside their legitimate ambition and aspirations for someone else’s, and given how fierce the competition can be to move up the ladder, that’s asking a lot. Rep. Rodriguez deserves a ton of thanks from Texas Dems. If there’s a way that his next preference for something, whether a legislative push or electoral opportunity or whatever, can be prioritized, that would be great. You can see Rep. Rodriguez’s announcement of his concession on Twitter. Go thank him there if you feel so moved.

Early voting for primary runoffs starts tomorrow

Remember the runoffs? It’s time we settle who our nominees are.

Who can vote in the runoffs?

Texas has open primaries, meaning you don’t have to be a registered member of either party to cast a ballot in a primary runoff. You can check your voter registration status here. But you can only vote in one party’s primary, and which one might depend on how you voted in the first round of the primaries in March. People who voted in the March 3 primary are only able to vote in that same party’s runoff election, as they have affiliated themselves with that given party for that calendar year. Those who did not participate in the March primary are able to vote in either primary runoff election.

What’s different this year?

The primaries were originally scheduled for May, but Abbott delayed them until July because of the coronavirus. Abbott also doubled the length of the early voting period for the July primary runoff elections in a move to aimed at easing crowds at the polls during the pandemic. Early voting runs from Monday through July 10.

“It is necessary to increase the number of days in which polling locations will be open during the early voting period, such that election officials can implement appropriate social distancing and safe hygiene practices,” Abbott wrote in a May proclamation.

For Harris County, the early voting map of locations with wait times is here. Please take advantage of a less-busy location if you can. The traditional PDF with the map and hours is here. Please note the new and changed locations. Please also note that there is no voting on Friday, July 3 and Saturday, July 4, due to the holiday. Voting hours are extended on Sunday, July 5 (10 to 7, instead of the usual 1 to 6) and on the last day, Friday, July 10 (7 AM to 10 PM). All other days are 7 AM to 7 PM. We should be able to get in and out safely, and you will need to bring a mask. See here for the Harris County Clerk’s SAFE principles.

My Runoff Reminder series will remind you who’s running: Statewide, Congress, SBOE and State Senate, State House, select county races, and select judicial races. Links to interviews and Q&As are in there as well.

The Chron re-ran a bunch of its endorsements on Friday:

Mike Siegel, CD10
Chrysta Castañeda, Railroad Commissioner
Michelle Palmer, SBOE6
Akilah Bacy, HD138
Rep. Harold Dutton, HD142
Rep. Anna Eastman, HD148

They had endorsed Royce West for Senate in March, and they reran that endorsement on Saturday. (UPDATE: They reran their endorsement of Michael Moore for Commissioners Court, Precinct 3, this morning.)

Also on the ballot for this election: the special election in SD14 to succeed Kirk Watson. I have interviews with the two candidates of interest, Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt. Please give them a listen if you live in this district. I expect this will go to a runoff, which I hope will not need to endure a delay like the May elections did.

All the elections for July 14 are important, but just as important is that this will serve in many ways as a dry run for November, both in terms of handling a higher volume of mail ballots and also in terms of making the in person voting process as safe as it can be in this pandemic. I was on a conference call a week or so ago with a national group, the Voter Protection Corps, which presented a report for policymakers with concrete steps to protect in-person voting and meet the equal access to voting requirements enshrined in federal law and the U.S. Constitution. Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins was one of the presenters in that call. You can see a summary of the call with highlights from the report here. I will be voting in person for this election, but however you do it please take the steps you need to in order to be safe.

Interview with Sarah Eckhardt

Sarah Eckhardt

I have one more interview to present for the July 14 special election in SD14. As noted, there are six candidates running to succeed Kirk Watson, but really just two that merit your attention. Today I have a conversation with Sarah Eckhardt, who just stepped down as Travis County Judge to file for this race. Eckhardt has an LBJ School Master of Public Affairs and law degree from UT. She served six years as Travis County Judge, following two terms on Commissioners Court and eight years before that in the Travis County Attorney’s office. She has served on many boards and commissions, including the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, the Texas Conference of Urban Counties, the Clean Air Coalition, the Texas Freedom Networ, and the LBJ School Dean’s Advisory Council. Here’s what we talked about:

My interview with Rep. Eddie Rodriguez is here. I will be reviewing the primary runoffs of interest going forward.

SD14 special election field is set

There are six candidates in total, but really only two that matter.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

Six candidates, including some well-known Austin-area politicians, have filed to run for the July 14 special election to replace retired Democratic state Sen. Kirk Watson, according to the Texas secretary of state’s office.

Candidates had until 5 p.m. Wednesday to file to run for the seat.

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, a longtime Austin Democrat, and former Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt are widely considered the two most prominent candidates for Texas Senate District 14, a historically Democratic seat that covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

Sarah Eckhardt

Rodriguez has served in the House since 2003 and has support from most of Travis County’s state House delegation. And Eckhardt, whose last day as county judge was Tuesday, has helped to oversee the community’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Two Republicans are also running for the Senate seat: Don Zimmerman, a former Austin City Council member, and Waller Thomas Burns II, who initially filed as an independent.

Former Lago Vista City Council member Pat Dixon is running as a Libertarian, while Jeff Ridgeway is running as an independent candidate. Several others, including Austin City Council member Greg Casar, had been eyeing a run but decided not to join the race.

See here, here, and here for the background. This election was also originally scheduled for May and postponed till July due to coronavirus. I say that only the two Democrats matter in this race because SD14 is a safe Democratic seat. I have a very hard time imagining a scenario where either of the two mainstream, broadly popular Democrats who have previously won multiple elections fail to finish in the top two. One of the could win it outright, but if not then these two will be in the runoff. I may reach out to them for interviews – Lord knows, it will be good to talk about electoral politics again – but in the meantime, you voters in SD14 have a clear decision to make, and can’t go wrong either way.

Paxton threatens county clerks over vote by mail instructions

Seems to me this should get a bit more attention.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton informed county judges and election officials Friday that if they advise voters who normally aren’t eligible to apply for mail-in ballots due to a fear of contracting COVID-19, they could be subject to criminal sanctions.

His warning came in a letter to local officials Friday and two weeks after a state district judge had issued a temporary injunction allowing eligible voters who are fearful of contracting COVID-19 by voting in-person to cast their ballots by mail.

In order to qualify to vote by mail under state law, Texans must submit an application and be either 65 years or older, disabled, out of the county on election day and during early voting, or be eligible to vote but confined in jail.

During a hearing last month, the Texas Democratic Party argued that Texans following stay-at-home orders and exercising social distancing fall under the Texas Elections Code’s definition of a disability, which is “a sickness or physical condition that prevents the voter from appearing at the polling place on election day without a likelihood of needing personal assistance or of injuring the voter’s health.”

In Friday’s letter, Paxton said that while a person ill with COVID-19 would qualify under the state’s definition of “a sickness,” a fear of contracting the virus is simply “a normal emotional reaction to the current pandemic and does not, by itself, amount to a ‘sickness’” that would meet the eligibility requirements to vote-by-mail.

Therefore, officials and “third parties” should not advise voters to apply for mail-in ballots for those “who lack a qualifying sickness or physical condition to vote by mail in response to COVID-19,” the letter reads.

Chad Dunn, the general counsel for the Texas Democratic Party, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said in a statement Friday that the court has already overruled Paxton’s arguments.

“Paxton can keep on stating his opinion over and over again for as long as he wants but the bottom line is he needs to get a court to agree with him,” Dunn said. “We all have opinions. In our constitutional system, what courts say is what matters.”

In his letter, Paxton also said the lawsuit “does not change or suspend these requirements” due to his appeal of the judge’s ruling.

“Accordingly, pursuant to Texas law, the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect during the appeal,” Paxton wrote. “Moreover, even if the order were effective, it would not apply to any county clerk or election official outside of Travis County. Those officials must continue to follow Texas law, as described in this letter, concerning eligibility for voting by mail ballot.”

Dunn disagreed with that assertion, and Thomas Buser-Clancy, a senior staff attorney with the ACLU of Texas, which had also joined the lawsuit, said Paxton’s letter misinterprets the law.

“Ken Paxton’s letter — which is not binding — gets the law wrong and serves no other purpose than to attempt to intimidate voters and county officials. The simple fact is that no Texan should have to choose between their health and exercising their fundamental right to vote,” Buser-Clancy said in a statement.

See here for the background. You can see a copy of Paxton’s letter here, and a copy of the ACLU and Texas Civil Rights Project’s responses here. The Austin Chronicle adds more:

The letter, also distributed as a press release, presumably has been sent to officials in all 254 Texas counties. Asked to respond to the Attorney General’s explicit threats of “criminal sanctions” in the letter and his interpretation of state election law, Travis County Clerk Dana DeBeauvoir said, “This is [Paxton’s] opinion and he’s stated it a couple of times previously. We are waiting to hear from the courts.”

State District Court Judge Tim Sulak recently granted a temporary injunction, ruling that the risk of infection by the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 is sufficient to enable all Texas voters to apply for mail ballots for the July 14 elections (Congressional run-offs and a Senate District 14 election in Travis County, other contests elsewhere). Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, and has adopted the position that while the appeal is pending, “the District Court’s order is stayed and has no effect.”

However, some election officials have said they are planning for a surge in voting by mail. Earlier this week, DeBeauvoir told the Chronicle that Travis County normally receives about two VBM applications a day for an interim election like the July run-off. “Right now they’re running at about 200 a day,” she said.

[…]

An earlier, “advisory” Paxton letter to state Rep. Stephanie Klick – issued prior to the District Court’s official ruling – made the same general argument about the disability provisions of state election law. The latest letter is addressed to County Judges as well as election officials. Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt told the Chronicle that Paxton’s invocation of possible “criminal sanctions” is a “threat designed to suppress voter turnout.”

Eckhardt added that Paxton’s argument that the temporary injunction is “stayed” during the Third Court appeal is simply “one lawyer’s opinion, and the higher court may have a different opinion.”

As for the reiteration of Paxton’s earlier advisory letter, DeBeauvoir said, “He wants to make certain his threat is being heard.”

I mean, I know I’m not a lawyer and all, but usually you have to ask for a court order to be stayed pending appeal. If any of that has been done, then all I can say is that it has not been reported in a form that was visible to me. If there hasn’t been a subsequent order to stay Judge Sulak’s ruling pending appeal, either from Judge Sulak himself or from the appellate court, in this case the Third Court of Appeals. For what it’s worth, the official order from Judge Sulak says at the end:

“It is further ORDERED that for this Temporary Injunction Order to be effective under the law, cash bond in the amount of $0 shall be required of the Plaintiffs and filed with the District Clerk of Travis County, Texas. The Clerk of Court shall forthwith issue a write of Temporary Injunction in conformity with the law and terms of this Order. Once effective, this Order shall remain in full force and effect until final Judgment in the trial on this matter.”

Seems pretty clear to me. As for the matter of the claim that even if there’s no stay on the order it only applies to Travis County, there’s nothing in the text of the order that looks to me (again, Not A Lawyer) like it supports that interpretation. The judge does refer to the Intervenor Plaintiffs and the fact that they represent voters “throughout the state of Texas”. I suppose this could be clarified, but the interpretation that it’s a statewide ruling seems just as reasonable to me. I know Ken Paxton is full of bluster, but this seems to me to dance close to the line of blatantly disregarding the judge’s order. Is he gonna send in the Texas Rangers to arrest Diane Trautman? Maybe the plaintiffs need to ask the judge to please remind Ken Paxton where the lines are here.

UPDATE: The Chron now has a story about this, which mostly draws from the Paxton letter and ACLU/TCRP responses.

SD14 special election date set

A bit of a surprise, to me at least.

Sen. Kirk Watson

Gov. Greg Abbott has postponed the special election for the Austin area’s Texas Senate District 14 due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic.

The election to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat leaving office at the end of April, has been moved to July 14, Abbott announced Monday evening. It ordinarily would have been held May 2.

Two candidates have already announced they’re running for the historically Democratic seat: State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, and Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, who announced last week that she would resign from her position to run for the Senate. Several others have been eyeing a potential run at the seat.

Abbott’s office said postponing the election “is another step the state is taking to protect health and mitigate the spread of COVID-19,” noting that it was consulting with the secretary of state’s office “on additional strategies to ensure public health in relation to any upcoming election.” It’s unclear whether additional action will be taken to delay municipal elections across the state, which are also slated for May 2.

See here for the announcement of Watson’s resignation, and here and here for the declarations by Rodriguez and Eckhardt. I had been assuming that Abbott would not set a date until after Watson’s resignation was official. Perhaps I was overly influenced by the Sylvia Garcia “intent to resign” saga from 2018, I don’t know. Be that as it may, if there had been a previous announcement of a May 2 special election date, I didn’t see it, and I looked at Greg Abbott’s news releases going back to the date of Watson’s announcement. It may just be that this Trib story is not as clear as it could be, as this tweet demonstrates:

Whatever the case, the proclamation is here. Let’s hope that circumstances do not force it to be pushed back again.

Eckhardt declares for SD14

And now there are two.

Sarah Eckhardt

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt resigned from her position Tuesday ahead of a run for the open seat in the Democrat-leaning Texas Senate District 14.

“I’m leaving the warmth and friendship of public service at the county to seek public service at the state as your next state senator,” Eckhardt said during a tearful speech at the end of a commissioners court meeting. “I’m running to succeed Senator [Kirk] Watson. I can’t fill his shoes, but I am running to succeed him.”

Eckhardt is the second candidate to enter the race to replace retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, an Austin Democrat, who will resign from office at the end of April to become the first dean of the University of Houston’s Hobby School of Public Affairs. Over the weekend, longtime state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, D-Austin, became the first candidate to formally launch a bid for the Senate seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County.

[…]

Eckhardt, who was elected Travis County’s first female county judge in 2015, was required under the Texas Constitution to resign from that office before running for the Legislature. Eckhardt and Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, could soon be joined in the race by Austin City Council member Greg Casar, who recently filed a campaign treasurer report for the Senate seat.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of Eckhardt’s statement. Eckhardt had the tougher decision to make, since Rep. Rodriguez doesn’t have to resign to run for this office; neither will the other candidates, with the possible exceptions of Casar and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. I get to be neutral in this one, they all look fine to me. My best wishes to the voters of SD14 who will not only have to make a choice among all these good candidates, but as is the case with what is essentially a primary among contenders who won’t differ much on the issues, will also have to survive another primary-type election, complete with inevitable runoff. Godspeed, y’all.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez announces for SD14

Others are sure to follow.

Rep. Eddie Rodriguez

State Rep. Eddie Rodriguez, an Austin Democrat, announced Saturday that he is running for Texas Senate District 14.

“It is truly an honor to even be running [for] the Senate,” Rodriguez said at B.D. Riley’s Irish Pub in Austin, where he kicked off his Senate campaign with supporters. “I want to run for the Senate because I want to make Texas a more progressive place for everyone.”

Rodriguez, who has served in the House since 2003, is the first candidate to formally enter the special election for the historically Democratic seat, which will be vacated by retiring state Sen. Kirk Watson, a fellow Austin Democrat, at the end of April. The seat, which covers Bastrop County and parts of Travis County, overlaps with Rodriguez’s House seat.

The special election for the seat hasn’t yet been called by Gov. Greg Abbott. The winner will represent the district for the remainder of the term, which ends in 2023.

Rodriguez, flanked by supporters and a fellow member of the House’s Austin delegation, underscored his experience and the relationships he has built while serving in the House — and briefly outlined what he wants to continue working on if elected to the Senate: increasing access to health care and making “sure the government stays the hell out of our bedroom.”

State Rep. Celia Israel, D-Austin, introduced Rodriguez before he delivered his remarks, saying the delegation is “100% behind Eddie Rodriguez being the next senator.”

See here for the background. The election will be called by Abbott after Watson’s resignation becomes official, which should put it in November. I know that Rep. Israel had said she was not going to run, as had Rep. Donna Howard, and this makes it sound like none of the other State Reps from Travis County will jump in. Other potential candidates mentioned in the story include Austin City Council member Greg Casar, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (who has set an agenda item to discuss how her replacement would be named when she resigns as required to run for the legislature), Austin-area attorneys Jose “Chito” Vela and Adam Loewy, and Pflugerville City Council Member Rudy Metayer. And as previously discussed, this is a safe Democratic seat.