Off the Kuff Rotating Header Image

Supreme Court

A few remaining threads from the runoffs

It was, as noted, a smooth and easy night in Harris County, despite the folderol from earlier in the day.

Harris County election drama in the courts did not prevent voting officials from what could be a record speedy count.

At midnight, only two of the 520 ballots boxes used for Tuesday’s election were outstanding, meaning the vast majority were in the hands of officials who were rapidly counting them.

“I will be a happy girl if we get everything in by 1 a.m.,” said Isabel Longoria, Harris County elections administrator. “This is what happens with a well executed plan.”

By 11:30 250 Democratic and 246 Republican polling sites had turned in their ballots, while about 20 more were on site and awaiting a procedural check before officials signed off on the receipt. Each party had 260 locations, which they shared, meaning election counters at NRG Arena had 189 of the needed 520 ballot boxes.

About 150 cars snaked through the NRG parking lot earlier in the night, Longoria said, moving “slow and steady.”

On the official count, five ballot boxes were listed as outstanding at 11:45 p.m., which quickly ticked down.

See here for the background. Still no word from SCOTx as far as I know. It sure would be nice if this “easy night, returns posted in a timely fashion” became the new narrative.

There are still a couple of unresolved elections. CD15 is way too close to call.

With all precincts reporting on Tuesday night, Democratic primary candidate for Congressional District 15 Michelle Vallejo led the race ahead of Ruben Ramirez by only 23 votes. Of the 12,063 total votes reported on Wednesday morning, Vallejo received 6,043 votes and Ramirez received 6,020 votes district-wide.

Hilda Salinas, assistant director of the Hidalgo County Elections Department, said that the race was too close to call on Wednesday morning, with a final result expected on Thursday, June 2.

“We still have to wait for all the out of county ballots and mail-in ballots to come in,” Salinas said. “The Ballot Board will be meeting on Wednesday to finalize everything so that everything can be canvassed on Thursday.”

The canvassing process is the final step before certification of results, and it includes a careful tally of all ballots.

“As per Texas election code, there’s certain ballots that still have time to come in and be counted by our ballot board,” Salinas added.

Both campaigns declined to comment on Wednesday morning on whether a call for a recount could occur over the next week.

Vallejo issued a statement late Tuesday night: “Though the race is too close to call, we are heartened by the clear path to victory.”

A statement from the Ramirez campaign Wednesday morning stated, “Our campaign trusts in the democratic process and integrity of this election. We know that our election workers are doing all they can to get us a result, and we thank them for their tireless work.”

We’ll see what happens. CD15 is the closest district based on the new map and the 2020 returns, and it’s a big target for Republicans, with their candidate already rolling in cash. It would be nice to get this resolved quickly so the nominee can move forward.

And of course, there’s CD28, which is almost as close.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, the last anti-abortion Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, boldly declared victory just before midnight in his nail-biter primary runoff race. But his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, refused to concede, as the race was separated by less than 200 votes with all counties reporting their votes.

“This election is still too close to call, and we are still waiting for every ballot and eligible vote to be counted,” she said in a tweet, shortly after Cuellar declared himself the winner.

Just before midnight in Texas, Cuellar led Cisneros by a mere 177 votes.

At the time he declared victory, no major news organization had called the race.

“Tonight, the 28th Congressional District spoke, and we witnessed our great Democratic system at work,” he said in a statement. “The results are in, all the votes have been tallied — I am honored to have once again been re-elected as the Democratic Nominee for Congress.”

With such a narrow margin, it is likely the race may not be decided for days. Mail-in votes from domestic voters can still be counted if they were postmarked by Tuesday and are received by counties by 5 p.m. Wednesday. The race is also within the margin that Cisneros can request a recount.

I’m ready for this race to be over. Just tell me who won so we can move on with our lives. I fully expect there will be a recount, however.

The election night experience

Let me start off by saying that my heart breaks for everyone in Uvalde. I cannot begin to fathom the pain and loss they are experiencing. I don’t know when we as a society will act to protect people from gun violence, but we cannot act quickly enough. We certainly didn’t for Uvalde, or Santa Fe, or El Paso, or any of too many other places to name.

For the subject that I wanted to be thinking about yesterday, we start with this.

Harris County voters are in for a long election night, with full election results in primary runoff races not expected until well into Wednesday. The night also could be politically turbulent as a dispute plays out over one line in the state’s election code.

One reason for the expected slow count Tuesday is the Harris County Republican Party’s decision to break with the county’s ballot delivery plan, according to Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria. After closing the polls, election judges will hand off ballots to law enforcement officers and deputized county staffers, who will drive the equipment to the central counting station at NRG Arena on the judges’ behalf. The Harris County GOP argues the plan violates state law, so they are advising their party’s election judges to drive the ballots to NRG themselves. The Texas Secretary of State’s office agrees with the GOP’s assessment.

An election judge is the person in charge of running a voting location. In a primary election, each polling location has one judge from each party overseeing their own party’s voting process. In the past, the responsibility of transporting the ballots to the counting station has fallen to these election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day.

Despite the GOP’s criticism, at least 40 Republican judges are choosing to participate in the county’s plan.

The dispute seems to be more about politics than the law, Martin Renteria, a Republican election judge in Harris County, said. He has no problem trusting a law enforcement officer to deliver the ballots, especially in a primary election where a Republican candidate is going to win no matter what.

“A Republican is going to win during the primary election. It’s going to be Republican versus Republican,” Renteria said. “It’s just illogical to me, and this is a part of the story that nobody talks about.”

[…]

Under state law, ballots should be delivered by either the election judge or an election clerk designated by that judge.

At a May 11 hearing with the state House Elections Committee to address delayed election results, Longoria argued the plan utilizing law enforcement officers and deputized staffers is in compliance with Texas law.

“The election code does not speak to the delivery other than the presiding judge must turn over those election records to our election office. So it doesn’t speak to who has to drive to meet the other person to do so,” Longoria said.

The Texas Secretary of State’s office has disagreed with her interpretation and urged the county to change its plan.

“Harris County’s decision to allow volunteers to transport election records — including voted ballots — to the county’s Central Count location on Election Night is incompatible with the Texas Election Code and violates well-established chain of custody protocols spelled out under Texas law,” Texas Secretary of State spokesperson Sam Taylor said in a statement on Friday.

However, Gerald Birnberg, an elections attorney and General Counsel to the Harris County Democratic Party, questioned the Secretary of State’s logic, pointing out that its own office deputizes others to perform certain duties.

“The same way that the Secretary of State is deputizing these people in his office to speak on behalf of the Secretary of State on statutory matters, to perform his statutory duties, the elections administrator is deputizing individuals to carry out duties and responsibilities and functions that are otherwise prescribed to be discharged by the elections administrator,” Birnberg said.

[…]

The Harris County Elections Administrator’s office maintains the Secretary of State’s office knew about the strategy and raised no objections when they implemented the ballot delivery plan during the May 7 election.

In a statement, Longoria said: “In April, the EA’s Office discussed the May 7 law enforcement and county driver program with the Secretary of State’s Office’s Managing Attorney of the Elections Division, specifically requesting guidance and recommendations. The SOS raised no concerns, legal or otherwise, with the program. Further, the EA’s Office discussed the plan for both May elections with both political parties as early as April 7. Both parties had the opportunity to ask questions, review the chain of custody document, and raise issues. Neither party raised concerns.

In fact, the first time any concerns were raised occurred during a public meeting May 11 at the Election Committee Hearing by the Secretary of State’s Office. One week later, just six days from election day, the Harris County Republican Party notified us that its judges would not participate in the program.”

See here for the background. Later in the day, we got this.

With voters walking into polling places and ballots set to arrive at NRG Arena in a few hours, Harris County’s Republican Party has challenged the process election officials will use to transfer ballots from locations to the central counting center, citing concerns with handing the machines over to anyone but precinct judges.

In the 18-page filing to the Texas Supreme Court around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, the local Republican party says despite assurances that election officials have it under control, state election law and past experience make them wary to hand over ballots to emissaries so they can ferry to a central location.

Cindy Siegel, chairwoman of the Harris County GOP, said officials are impeding on the democratic process.

“They are trying to make it as difficult as possible, and talking people out (of driving ballots themselves) by warning them there will be long lines,” Siegel said. “They are scaring people into creating this system that isn’t even legal.”

Lawyers for the GOP argue the county is ignoring state election laws and breaking the mandatory chain of custody for ballots.

“An essential component of the central counting station is the physical delivery of sealed ballot boxes and access to the central counting station is necessary (for) that process to take place,” the filing states.

The petition asks the high court to order Harris County to allow election judges to drive their own precinct ballots to the central counting center at NRG Park.

The request drew a fast rebuke from Democratic Party leaders and Harris County Attorney Christian D. Menefee.

“Their leadership has known about the County’s election day plans for some time, yet they waited until 6 hours before the polls close to now ask a court to throw the plans out the window and put residents’ votes at risk,” Menefee said in a statement. “And in their lawsuit, they flat out misrepresent the county’s plans to the court, making several statements that they know are demonstrably false.”

[…]

“(Longoria’s) office successfully used constables in the May 7 election, and the GOP had no problem at that time,” said Odus Evbagharu, chairman of the Harris County Democratic Party. “Now, someone wakes up on Election Day and suddenly thinks law enforcement officials and deputized election officers are an issue?”

Siegel said that is precisely why the GOP is suing.

It is the May 7 election, and widespread problems that day, that prompted the concerns in the first place. She said Republican judges only learned the day before that election that they would have to hand ballots over at polling sites, rather than drive them downtown themselves. In a handful of cases, no one came to pick up the ballots — leading the election judge to take them home — or couriers failed to drop them off in a timely manner. As a result, the county did not complete its count until Sunday morning, even though fewer than 115,000 ballots had been cast.

Again, I didn’t have a problem with the May 7 reporting. There’s clearly a difference of interpretation of the law here, and if that can’t be resolved on its own then a courtroom is the proper venue. I have a hard time believing that this couldn’t have been litigated before Tuesday afternoon, however. I started writing this post at 8 PM, and as of that time there had been no ruling from SCOTx. I don’t know when they plan on ruling, but at some point it just doesn’t matter.

UPDATE: It’s 10:30 PM, more than a third of the Tuesday votes have been counted, and I see nothing on Twitter or in my inbox to indicate that SCOTx has issued a ruling. So let’s think about this instead:

Well said. Good night.

UPDATE: Here’s a later version of the story about the GOP’s lawsuit over the results delivery process. I still don’t see any mention of a decision being handed down. And for all of the fuss, final results were posted at 1:26 AM, which seems pretty damn reasonable to me. The midnight update had about 98% of ballots counted on the Dem side and about 95% on the GOP side – 70,016 of 72,796 Dem votes and 105,486 of 116,100 GOP votes. Seriously, this was a fine performance by the Elections Office.

Debtors’ court, part 2

Also not good.

One day last September, while trying to pay for groceries, Leslie Alvarez got the shock of her life. All the money in her bank account had disappeared.

The Houston single mother called her bank. An employee told Alvarez that her accounts had been placed on a legal hold. A person she did not know had been authorized to remove money from her accounts.

“I had to tell my kids they had to wait awhile so I could go make money to get what they needed,” she said.

Alvarez was forced to pay up on a $1,500 cash loan as part of a debt judgment issued against her in a Harris County civil court.

Texas doesn’t allow people’s wages to be garnished to pay off debts unless it is to collect child support. By law, however, courts can designate special officers, known as turnover receivers, to force payments by freezing or seizing bank accounts. The legal process became popular in Harris County but has been used all over the state more commonly in recent years, officials say.

“This is the only real way a debt collector can hurt you,” said Craig Noack, a creditor’s attorney in San Antonio who also serves as a court-appointed receiver in Texas.

At issue, though, is whether courts have adequate oversight to ensure a fair process.

Each year, tens of thousands of Texans are subject to a bank seizure as a result of a default judgment that was declared against them because they didn’t show up in court to fight a lawsuit over a debt.

But here’s the dilemma: Most debtors don’t know that they can have their bank accounts cleaned when a debt collector wins a default judgment against them unless they claim exemptions for certain sources of funds, such as child support, Social Security, unemployment benefits and retirement funds. Alvarez had child support payments in her accounts when they were seized.

Just this month, the Supreme Court of Texas took its first steps to establish parameters that would ensure that debtors are informed of their rights to claim exemptions. Under new rules, which took effect May 1, debt collectors must provide at least 17 days for debtors to inform courts that they have funds or property that is exempt from seizure.

“The purpose of these rules and forms is to try to help even out a little bit the playing field so that the debtors get more information,” Texas Supreme Court Chief Justice Nathan Hecht said.

[…]

In the Houston region and other large Texas counties, default judgments rose by 86 percent between 2012 and last year, data show.

“As long as people don’t respond, debt collectors can get a default judgment,” said Ann Baddour, director of the fair financial services project at Texas Appleseed, a consumer advocacy group in Austin. “There’s just this motivation to move forward and sue.”

Even the Texas Creditors Bar Association, a statewide organization of attorneys that engages in debt collections, says it wants to make sure debt collectors don’t take money that is protected by law.

They support the notifications, said Noack, who represented the Texas Creditors Bar Association in discussions before the Supreme Court Advisory Committee about the new rules.

“You’re not going to find a creditor’s attorney out there who wants to take somebody’s Social Security,” he said.

Yet, among the many concerns consumer advocates say still must be addressed is the lack of oversight in Texas courts regarding the appointment of the court officers or turnover receivers.

Texas courts have no way to prevent abuses — or even mistakes — because judges are not required to track their appointments or keep periodic reports on the status of seizures, Houston consumer attorney Benjamin Sanchez said.

“You have these receivers who are doing things but not necessarily reporting back to the court,” Sanchez said.

See here for the previous entry. I hope we can all agree that no one should have their bank account drained as the result of a default judgment where they hadn’t known they needed to appear in court. There needs to be a lot more oversight here, and that’s first a job for the Legislature and then a job for the court system. One possible aspect to a solution might be a public defender system for civil litigation, modeled on the same system for criminal defendants. This is an idea I’ve seen advocated by others, and it makes sense on the principle that everyone should have the right to a lawyer to represent them in court. I’m no expert, I’m just throwing out an idea here. Whatever the case, there’s a real need for reform.

DFPS to resume investigating families of trans kids

Gross and discouraging.

The state of Texas will restart its abuse investigations into families with transgender kids after a recent court ruling that lifted a statewide injunction on such probes.

In a statement on Thursday, the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services said the agency would investigate all allegations of abuse. The statement, while not addressing the investigations into medical treatments for trans youth, indirectly indicated that these probes will now continue.

“DFPS treats all reports of abuse, neglect, and exploitation seriously and will continue to investigate each to the full extent of the law,” the statement read.

Current state law does not explicitly define gender-affirming medical treatments, such as puberty blockers and hormone therapy, as child abuse. A DFPS spokesman did not comment when asked if the agency plans to continue investigating such treatments as child abuse.

Age appropriate and individualized medical treatments for trans youth, including the ones Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has called abuse, are supported by the state and nation’s largest physicians groups including the American and Texas Medical Associations. These groups have opposed the state’s abuse investigations and other efforts to block or alter gender-affirming care for minors.

The state’s announcement came just days after the Texas Supreme Court ruled that the attorney general and Gov. Greg Abbott, who had directed the agency to investigate certain medical treatments for trans adolescents as child abuse, had no authority to do so. It put control over these probes back into the hands of protective services, which opened at least nine investigations into families with transgender children since the governor issued his directive in February.

One investigation into an agency employee who has a transgender daughter will remain paused while the family fights to overturn the abuse policy, the ruling stated.

[…]

Brian Klosterboer, an attorney with the ACLU of Texas who is on the team representing the unnamed DFPS employee, said the state’s decision to reopen the cases is unfortunate and unlawful. He said his team believes that the high court’s decision removes any responsibility for Texans to report trans youth getting treatments.

“We are going to be closely monitoring what the agency does. We would encourage families that have any reason to believe that they have an investigation to seek legal help,” Klosterboer said.

“Abbott’s letter and Paxton’s opinion did not change Texas law,” he added. “Gender-affirming health care is still legal in all 50 states.”

See here for the previous entry. The initial litigation is still ongoing – as is so often the case in these battles, the issue is over whether or not the law or in this case executive order can be enforced while the lawsuit is being heard – so there may still be a statewide injunction at some point. There’s also a clear path for other families to file similar lawsuits to get injunctions for themselves, similar to what abortion providers and funds were facing with SB8. It’s still a mess and a huge burden for these people that have done nothing wrong and just want to be left alone. And it’s another reason to vote these guys out in November. The Trib has more.

SCOTx ponders the questions the Fifth Circuit asked it about SB1

Seems like there’s not that much in dispute, but there’s always something.

Texas Supreme Court justices questioned during oral argument if they should answer certified questions from a federal appeals court about challenges to an election law that created penalties for soliciting voters to use mail-in ballots.

The case, Paxton v. Longoria, concerns a First-Amendment issue over how provisions in Senate Bill 1, a 2021 law, could lead to civil penalties and or criminal prosecution of county election administrators and volunteer deputy registrars.

During a Wednesday hearing before the court, the foremost issue that appeared to concern the justices was whether they should provide an advisory opinion to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals at all.

Since the case has progressed from federal district court to the Fifth Circuit and on to the state Supreme Court, the parties positions have changed and the justices find themselves in the unusual position of being asked to answer three questions where there is very little if any disagreement between the parties.

The Fifth Circuit asks the justice to answer whether a volunteer deputy registrar, or VDR, is a public official under the Texas Election Code; whether speech the plaintiffs intend to use constitutes “solicitation” within the context of the state code; and whether the Texas Attorney General has the power to enforce that code.

The plaintiffs are Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria and Cathy Morgan, a volunteer deputy registrar who assists people with mail-in ballots in Travis and Williamson counties.

The state, represented by Lanora Pettit, a principal deputy solicitor general with the Office of Attorney General, acknowledged in her brief that volunteer deputy registrars are not public officials subject to prosecution; the term “solicit” does not include merely providing information but instead requires “strongly urging” a voter to fill out an application that was not requested; and the Attorney General is not a proper official to seek civil penalties.

Sean Morales-Doyle of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law submitted a brief that was in line with Pettit on the first and third questions, but had a nuanced distinction on the question of solicitation’s meaning.

Justice Jeff Boyd asked Morales-Doyle, “I’m just not sure why the dispute matters. If everybody agrees that the VDR is not a public official, so therefore has no standing, everybody agrees that Ms. Longoria has not … indicated any intent to violate in Williamson County, and everybody agrees the attorney general has no enforcement authority , where’s the case or controversy?”

Morales-Doyle said that Morgan began the case with a reasonable fear of prosecution and while the state has indicated a disinclination to prosecute she does not know the position of the Travis County district attorney, nor what future district attorneys would do.

If the questions are not answered, she would therefore still need to have the temporary injunction in place, he said.

On defining solicitation, because a felony criminal prosecution is possible, Justice Jane Bland asked if the state should limit its meaning to the penal code’s definition, which would restrict the term to situations where a public official induces someone to commit a criminal act.

Morales-Doyle supported that approach, noting that every criminal solicitation statute that he is aware of applies only to solicitation of criminal conduct.

“What is troubling everybody—and apparently troubling the attorney general who wants to give a definition of solicitation that I’m not aware existing in any criminal code—is the absurd result that someone could be held criminally liable for encouraging their fellow citizen to vote,” Morales-Doyle said.

On rebuttal, Pettit argued that sanctionable solicitation is not limited to criminal inducement. She cited the example of barratry, where lawyers unlawfully solicit clients for profit.

See here for the background. The bottom line is that the plaintiffs have asked for a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. The motion was granted by a district court judge and then put on hold by the Fifth Circuit. I think the Fifth Circuit is evaluating whether to put the injunction back in place while the rest of the initial lawsuit is litigated, but we are in the weeds here and I don’t have certainty about that. Let’s see what SCOTx says first and maybe that will clue me in. (Any lawyers out there that want to help, by all means please do.)

SCOTx issues mixed ruling on transgender child abuse investigations injunction

We’ll just have to see what happens next.

Texas’ child welfare agency remains blocked from investigating the family of a transgender teen that sued the state in March, but can once again investigate other families that provide gender-affirming care after the Supreme Court of Texas struck down a statewide injunction Friday.

Though it overturned the injunction on procedural grounds, the high court raised questions about why the Department of Family and Protective Services opened these investigations in the first place. The court affirmed in Friday’s ruling that neither Attorney General Ken Paxton nor Gov. Greg Abbott had any grounds to direct the agency’s actions.

[…]

“The Governor and the Attorney General were certainly well within their rights to state their legal and policy views on this topic, but DFPS was not compelled by law to follow them,” Friday’s ruling reads. “DFPS’s press statement, however, suggests that DFPS may have considered itself bound by either the Governor’s letter, the Attorney General’s Opinion, or both. Again, nothing before this Court supports the notion that DFPS is so bound.”

The ruling does note the myriad “informal mechanisms” through which elected officials can influence a state agency, but “ultimately, however, one department or another has the final say.”

[…]

In this case, the ruling said, DFPS was responsible for deciding whether these investigations aligned with current state regulations — and will now have to decide whether to continue these investigations and allow new ones to be opened.

DFPS employees have told The Texas Tribune that agency leadership has acknowledged that these investigations do not meet the current requirements for child abuse and have said policy would need to be generated to match the governor’s directives.

In March, a district judge granted an injunction blocking the state from continuing these investigations or opening new ones. Paxton appealed that decision to the Third Court of Appeals, which reinstated the statewide temporary injunction.

He then petitioned the Supreme Court of Texas to review that appeal. In Friday’s ruling, the high court agreed with Paxton that the appeals court overstepped — while the appeals court can reinstate an injunction if it “preserves the parties’ rights,” they cannot reinstate a temporary injunction of any nature.

In this case, the justices ruled, the “parties” are the family that sued the state initially — not all parents of all transgender children.

Ian Pittman, an Austin attorney representing two families of transgender children that are under investigation for child abuse, said the injunction had allowed his clients to “breathe a sigh of relief” while their investigations were paused. Although the investigations can resume, he’s hopeful that DFPS will now close out the cases.

“This ruling reaffirms that [DFPS Commissioner Jaime Masters] acted improperly when she acknowledged the directive and said they would follow it,” he said. “She was abdicating her responsibilities as commissioner to a political stunt that has no legal authority.”

If DFPS does not close out the cases, he expects other families may consider bringing suits to get any investigations against them similarly blocked.

See here and here for the most recent entries. There were multiple written opinions plus some concurrences and dissents, so just go here and look for case 22-0229 if you want to slog through them. I’ve seen varying reactions to the ruling and will link to them, but this Daily Kos piece is the closest to my own feelings.

Now, some folks are celebrating Friday’s ruling as a win, as the court does explicitly say the governor does not have the “authority to investigate, prosecute, or impose reporting requirements regarding child abuse allegations.” The court also pointed out that neither Abbott nor Paxton could “bind” the Department of Family and Protective Services’ (DFPS) “investigative authority.”

This all sounds encouraging, but again, the court didn’t rule on the ethics of the situation, but whether or not the lower courts were overstepping with the injunction holds. So … What happens now?

DFPS will decide whether or not to continue investigations, as well as whether or not they will open new ones. According to this ruling, the agency was responsible for determining if the investigations met state regulations, to begin with. Per The New York Times, it is not clear whether the ruling will cause the agency to resume investigations right away (or at all) or not.

If the department closes the cases, we can breathe a sigh of relief. If it doesn’t close the cases? It’s likely many more parents will sue the state.

For me? I’m taking it as a cautious win, but I’m not outright celebrating until the agency confirms those cases are closed and that more aren’t on the way.

I’m open to persuasion on this, but until and unless someone changes my mind, I’m waiting to see what DFPS does next, and hoping that as many parents of trans kids are preparing to file their own suits as possible, just in case. Here are statements from the ACLU and Harris County Attorney Christian Menefee, and the Chron, the Texas Signal, and the Texas Observer have more.

Providers’ federal lawsuit against SB8 is officially buried

From last week.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Tuesday ended a legal challenge to Texas’ nearly total ban on abortion brought by providers across the state, closing out a contentious court battle that reached the U.S. Supreme Court.

The appeals court dismissed the remaining challenge in the suit after the Texas Supreme Court in March said state licensing officials are not responsible for enforcing the abortion ban and therefore cannot be sued.

A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit in January asked the state’s high court to resolve this central question to the case, an unusual move made at the request of attorneys for the state that was expected to significantly delay or end the challenge.

[…]

In December, a divided U.S. Supreme Court dismissed all but one challenge in the lawsuit brought by abortion providers. Justices allowed a narrower case, targeting state licensing officials, to proceed in Texas courtrooms.

But Tuesday’s action by the 5th Circuit officially dismisses the case.

It was all over but for the shouting when the State Supreme Court ruled that state medical licensing officials do not have authority to enforce SB8, but the real villain as always was the Fifth Circuit, which engineered the result it wanted. Like I said, the fix was in from the beginning.

As the story notes, there are two more active lawsuits to watch, one by abortion funds against several anti-abortion organizations and individuals, and one by Wendy Davis. I feel like the former is more promising than the latter, but who knows. A state judge had previously ruled that SB8 was unconstitutional but for reasons still unclear declined to issue an injunction against it; I suppose that could change at some point. Until then, here we are.

UPDATE: Yes, I’m aware of the leaked draft opinion that eviscerates Roe v Wade. I maintain that the Fifth Circuit is the prime villain of this story, given how they completely disregarded normal procedures, but SCOTUS’ villainy cannot be overstated either.

Debtors’ court

This is not good.

In this court and others in Bexar County, debt collection lawsuits more than doubled from 2012 to 2020.

“I’m trying to manage this behemoth, but there are some guidelines I have to follow as well,” said Roger “Rogelio” Lopez Jr., justice of the peace for Bexar County Precinct 4, who operates out of the Loop 410 courthouse.

Similar scenes are playing out from Houston to Dallas to Fort Worth as debt collectors sue a skyrocketing number of Texans over claims of unpaid credit cards, medical bills, student loans and other debts, a Houston Chronicle examination has found.

Debt collection lawsuits filed statewide have exploded by 73 percent from 2012 to 2021, according to a Chronicle analysis of data from the Texas Office of the Court Administration.

For the first time in history, the 374,000 debt lawsuits filed in the Lone Star State last year made up nearly half of all civil cases in Texas, which include traffic tickets, landlord evictions and small claims such as disputes between neighbors. The crush of debt cases raises concerns that overwhelmed Texas civil courts can’t adequately review each lawsuit and deliver justice while juggling higher-priority cases, consumer advocates say.

That means judges face pressure to move debt lawsuits quickly to keep their dockets manageable. With only minutes to review cases, judges can miss important details, consumer advocates say. The rapid-fire justice puts a sharp focus on whether defendants can get a fair shake, said Mary Spector, professor of law at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

“Any public perception that the courts are merely rubber-stamping for the creditors is bad for the system,’’ said Spector, who directs a law clinic that works on behalf of consumers in debt litigation.

Texas adopted key provisions that have spurred debt collectors to crank out more cases in recent years.

From 2012 to 2020, state lawmakers passed legislation that gave debt collectors more flexibility to file cases in justice of the peace courts, where filing costs are lower and it takes less time to move cases on the docket. The changes, which included actions by the Supreme Court of Texas to revamp the debt collection process in civil courts, ultimately made it cheaper and faster for debt collectors to win judgments, consumer advocates said.

The Supreme Court of Texas, which is responsible for adopting processes and rules to ensure that state courts are efficient and fair, has been alarmed by the rise in caseloads, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht told the Chronicle.

“You need to worry about it,” Hecht said. “This is where the public meets the justice system.”

To address those concerns, the Legislature ordered the state Supreme Court to publish new rules that will require debt collectors to provide additional notification to debtors of their rights, he said. The rules take effect May 1.

Big corporations have high-powered attorneys to manage their interests. When they have a problem, they can ask for help from the Supreme Court. Hecht said they also can lobby the Legislature to prompt changes in state law.

“But this is about the little guy,” he said. “What the justice system has to do is to provide justice for the people who come to it. We want everybody walking away from the court saying, ‘Well, thank God for the court. I may have lost, you know, I wish that had not happened, but I got a fair shake.’ That’s why it’s so important to work on these cases.”

A Chronicle review of dozens of court documents, observations of legal proceedings and an examination of statewide data found that:

  • Last year, 45 percent of lawsuits filed in the state’s civil courts were against Texans for debt, according to data supplied to the Chronicle by the Texas Office of the Court Administration, the state agency that collects the data and operates under the direction of the Supreme Court. In 2017, debt lawsuits represented 30 percent of all civil filings.
  • Harris County saw a similar trend. Last year, debt collectors filed nearly 68,000 lawsuits in the county, an increase of 111 percent from 2015.
  • Cases settled by default judgment have increased since 2012. That means more cases are decided with defendants not present to fight a claim, and the court cannot weigh both sides equally before making a judgment. The number of default judgments in the Houston region and other large Texas counties totaled nearly 74,000 cases in 2021, an increase of 86 percent from 2012.
  • No court in the state has seen a more dramatic increase in debt suits than justice of peace courts. JPs, as they are known, preside over weddings, misdemeanors and truancies. Many JPs are not lawyers. Of the hundreds of thousands of debt collection lawsuits filed in Texas in 2021, 80 percent were in JP courts.

There’s a lot more, so read the rest. Hopefully, the new rules will help, but this seem like a much deeper issue than that. Obviously, a lot of this is societal – poverty, access to attorneys, the ability to take time off from work to attend court hearings, and so on – and there’s not much the courts can do about that. But they can do their part to make sure the playing field inside the courthouse is level, and they need to do that. And the Lege needs to revisit this as well.

Abbott and Patrick ask SCOTx to take up Paxton’s whistleblower appeal

They sort of have a point, but they should still butt out.

Best mugshot ever

Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick on Monday urged the Supreme Court of Texas to take up Attorney General Ken Paxton’s appeal to throw out a whistleblower lawsuit against him.

The appeal is Paxton’s latest attempt to avoid a trial after eight of his former top deputies accused him of bribery and abuse of office in late 2020. Within seven weeks of their complaint to authorities, all eight had either been fired or driven to leave the agency. Four of the fired employees later filed a whistleblower lawsuit against Paxton saying they were fired in retaliation for their complaint and have asked to be reinstated to their jobs. Paxton denies wrongdoing.

Paxton, a Republican, has fought that lawsuit, claiming that the state’s whistleblower law — which covers public employees, appointed officials and governmental entities — does not apply to him because he is an elected official. A district court and an appeals court have ruled against Paxton’s lawyers and said the lawsuit could move forward. But in January, Paxton’s lawyers asked the Texas Supreme Court to reconsider the matter and throw out the case.

Paxton’s lawyers argue that allowing whistleblowers to sue the attorney general for firing them could hamper the executive power that the state constitution gives him. It is the same argument two lower courts have already rejected after hearing from the whistleblowers’ lawyers, who argue that siding with Paxton would take away whistleblower protections for employees trying to report the misconduct of an elected official.

Lawyers for the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices did not indicate whether they agree with Paxton’s argument. The two Republican state officials filed friend of the court briefs asking that the high court take up the case because it is relevant to statewide governance and to the powers of an executive office under the Texas Constitution. Because of that, lawyers for the offices argued the case should be considered by a statewide court and not by the local courts that have already rejected Paxton’s argument.

The two lower courts were filled by Democrats. The Texas Supreme Court is made up of nine Republicans.

See here for the background. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to argue that the state’s high court should weigh in on this question. They could, I suppose, simply issue an order denying the appeal request on the grounds that they’re fine with the lower courts’ rulings. Most cases never get close to the Supreme Court. Indeed, one of the themes I saw in the judicial Q&A responses I got from 1st and 14th Court of Appeals candidates in 2018 and 2020 was precisely that those courts are often the last word on a lot of consequential cases. SCOTx has no obligation to take this up. It’s easy to see why they might want to, but in the end it would be unremarkable if they didn’t.

It’s also easy to see that what Abbott and Patrick want is for a court full of Republicans to have the final word, since I’m sure they don’t consider the lower courts to be valid in the same way. One could perversely assert that only a rejection from the all-Republican Supreme Court will settle this matter in a way that might shut up Paxton and his sycophants, though perhaps the Court of Criminal Appeals would beg to differ.

One more thing:

An attorney whose firm represented Paul, the friend and campaign donor to Paxton, also urged the Supreme Court Monday to weigh in on the case, saying it “presents far reaching consequences for our state government.”

Statewide officials like Paxton need to be able to fire or retain employees based on whether they help advance their goals, wrote Kent Hance, founding partner of the Austin-based law firm Hance Scarborough.

“Inferior officers are carefully chosen by an elected official to provide competent policymaking advice in line with the policymaking goals as defined by the elected official,” Hance wrote. “This works well when the goals are in line with the advice, but what happens when they are at odds?”

A political action committee for Hance’s firm — the HS Law PAC — donated $25,000 to Paxton in June 2020, after he intervened in litigation involving Paul, as Hearst Newspapers reported.

Lawyers for one of the whistleblowers pointed to the donation this week.

“Only somebody as shameless as Ken Paxton would get a lobbyist whose firm donated $25,000 to Paxton while it was representing Nate Paul companies to ask the Texas Supreme Court to re-write the Texas Whistleblower Act,” lawyers TJ Turner and Tom Nesbitt said in a statement. They declined to comment on the briefs by Abbott and Patrick.

Hance did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but managing partner Jay Stewart, who is trustee of the PAC, has told Hearst it operates independent of the firm’s litigation section and that the donation had nothing to do with any cases.

Yeah, that’s a pretty good summary of Texas politics. Political donations never have anything to do with getting the political outcome we prefer. Who would ever think such a thing?

Texas Central owes some property taxes

deep sigh

A planned high-speed train between Houston and Dallas, backers say, would allow travelers to avoid costly and time-consuming freeway traffic.

Before it can deliver that relief, however, the company behind the high-speed rail project will have to stop avoiding its own costly property tax bills for dozens of properties across Texas.

At least $623,000 in property taxes owed by Texas Central Railroad are delinquent, according to a brief filed with the Texas Supreme Court in an ongoing condemnation lawsuit, filed by county attorneys from nine of the 11 counties through which the train is planned to run.

“If (Texas Central) cannot afford to pay less than $1 million in property taxes, how will it ever be able to raise the $30-plus billion it needs?” the brief states, referencing what some claim will be the total cost of the project.

Texas Central officials did not respond to a request for comment.

I’m hard pressed to think of a non-embarrassing reason for this. If it was just an administrative screwup, it’s bad but survivable. If it’s something else…hell, I don’t want to know. Just pay your damn taxes already.

SCOTx declines to save Chick-fil-A

But they didn’t kill off the possibility of it being saved, either.

Conservative activists suing the City of San Antonio alleging it violated the Texas “Save Chick-fil-a” law have not presented evidence of a violation, the Texas State Supreme Court ruled Friday morning, as it sent the case back down to a trial court.

The case stems back to a 2019 city council decision to deny the chain’s request to open a restaurant at the San Antonio International Airport because of what a council member described as the company’s support for Christian groups with anti-LGBTQ agendas.

Later that year, Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law — Chick-fil-A cup in-hand — the bill that allows any individual to sue governments that have taken “adverse actions” against corporations due to their support for religious organizations.

A group of people from the San Antonio area, including a conservative activist and former council candidate Patrick von Dohlen, sued the city under the new law. They are represented by lawyer Jonathan Mitchell, a former state solicitor general who helped write the legislation and are backed by amicus briefs from 62 Republican state lawmakers and Abbott.

The justices said the plaintiffs did not “not allege sufficient facts” to sue a governmental body for official action. The court said actions taken before the law was in effect couldn’t be considered as violations of it, and past actions couldn’t be used to assume that the city would in the future violate the law.

“But, more importantly, we do not think the city’s March 2019 conduct standing alone permits a reasonable inference that there exists a “credible threat” of a post-September 1, 2019 adverse action against Chick-fil-A by the city,” the court’s ruling says. “Indeed, the contrary is true. Rather than assume the city would violate (the law), we presume the city would comply with (the law), until the contrary is shown.”

See here, here, and here for some background, and here for the court’s decision, which is fairly technical but still pretty straightforward. The bottom line is that because the San Antonio Council decision to not go with Chick-fil-A was made six months before the dumb “Save Chick-fil-a” law was passed, the justices who joined the majority opinion ruled that the plaintiffs could not claim there was a violation of the law. They also did not accept the argument that the city would have violated the law had it been on the books at the time, which the two concurring justices asserted. They did overturn the appeals court’s dismissal of the lawsuit on the grounds that the plaintiffs should be allowed to make a live pleading with the law now in effect, but I suspect that will be a hollow victory. I say that based in part on the Court’s observation that the city likely would have complied with the law if it had existed at the time, and partly because of this footnote at the end of the decision:

Finally, we note this case may present another jurisdictional issue that has not yet been addressed and should be considered on remand: whether Chick-fil-A’s public statement that it is no longer interested in pursuing a space in the San Antonio airport renders the case moot.

I mean, maybe Chick-fil-A doesn’t want you to try to save it.

Also, too, was the issue of standing, which I noted for its proximity to the state lawsuits against SB8. As is its wont, the Court sidestepped the matter:

Because we hold that petitioners have not demonstrated a waiver of governmental immunity and should have the opportunity to replead, we decline petitioners’ invitation to address standing at this stage. Standing should be determined based on a plaintiff’s live pleading, and it would be premature for us to weigh in on the City’s standing arguments before petitioners have repleaded.

In other words, we’ll deal with it if they sue again. Never decide today what you can put off till tomorrow. Bloomberg and the San Antonio Report has more.

Divorce granted in common-law same-sex marriage case

Good result.

On March 24, a San Antonio jury returned a verdict in favor of Christopher Hoffman, a gay man who sought to prove a common law marriage existed since 1996 with his former partner, Moises Ortiz. The decision clears the way for Hoffman to legally divorce Ortiz and thus be eligible for alimony and other benefits .

Various judges have ruled a same-sex marriage existed before Obergefell vs. Hodges, the 2015 Supreme Court decision that legalized same sex marriage. However, this is the first time a jury in Texas has made such a finding within the confines of a divorce action.

[…]

The four-day trial was held in the 285th District Court of Bexar County, with Judge Aaron Haas presiding, The twelve-person jury voted 10 to 2 in favor of Hoffman. They found the couple was married on February 14, 1996, and that grounds existed for the court to grant a divorce.

In an email to Out In SA, Hoffman’s attorney, Justin P. Nichols, wrote, “To have a jury validate that the couple’s relationship constituted a marriage meant a tremendous amount to Hoffman, who has been fighting for almost three years to have his marriage recognized. This case can have broad implications for thousands of gay couples throughout Texas.”

See here for the background. It is good news, and it should have a positive effect for other same sex couples. I doubt this would be appealed, so the precedent is now there. Given the continued opposition to same-sex marriage among Republicans, though, I would not be surprised to see a bill introduced in the next legislative session to try to overturn this. I hope I’m wrong, but don’t be shocked if it happens.

Paxton appeals to SCOTx to re-allow investigations of trans kids’ families

Of course he did.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has asked the state Supreme Court to intervene to allow child abuse investigations into parents of transgender children. His request comes just days after a Texas appeals court reinstated a temporary injunction blocking the state’s child welfare agency from investigating parents solely because they provide gender-affirming care to their children.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals issued the order as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on behalf of the parents of a transgender teenager who were being investigated by child welfare workers.

“Having reviewed the record, we conclude that reinstating the temporary injunction is necessary to maintain the status quo and preserve the rights of all parties,” three appellate justices wrote.

Paxton has asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that injunction, claiming in a petition filed Monday that the injunction “prevents the State from fulfilling its duty to protect Texas children.”

In a statement, the ACLU of Texas and Lambda Legal said that while Paxton’s petition is “not surprising, it is disappointing and dangerous.”

[…]

Until the Texas Supreme Court weighs in, the injunction will continue to block the ongoing — and any new — investigations into Texans accused of child abuse based only on the allegation that they provided gender-affirming medical care.

See here, here, and here for the background. Not much to add, the main thing to know is what’s in that last paragraph – the injunction remains in place until and unless SCOTx takes it away. They can take all the time they want.

More on the abortion funds’ lawsuits

Good overview in the WaPo.

The Texas law has so far withstood multiple court challenges by employing a highly controversial legal strategy: empowering private citizens to sue anyone who helps facilitate an abortion after the legal limit. Abortion rights advocates have tried to sue a long list of people in federal court in hopes of overturning S.B. 8, including Texas law clerks, judges and medical board officials — but, in each case, courts found that they were going after the wrong people.

After a month of fielding threats from these antiabortion groups on social media, the abortion funds argued in several lawsuits filed last week that the groups targeting them have identified themselves as the ones enforcing the law — and, therefore, the ones for abortion rights advocates to hold to account in federal court.

In these cases, the Lilith Fund and the North Texas Equal Access Fund are suing the America First Legal Foundation and the Thomas More Society, two antiabortion legal groups, in federal court, as well as two private citizens in Texas state court. Abortion funds, which raise money to help low-income patients seeking abortion care, have been instrumental in helping patients reach abortion clinics in other states since the Texas ban took effect.

The Thomas More Society’s “invocation of, and intent to enforce, S.B. 8 poses imminent and existential threats to the fundamental and constitutional rights of Plaintiffs, their staff, their volunteers, and their donors,” the abortion funds wrote in their court filing on Wednesday.

The Lilith Fund and the North Texas Equal Access Fund are filing these lawsuits to “protect themselves, their staff, their volunteers and their donors from the coordinated efforts by people and organizations across the country that have made it clear they intend to enforce S.B. 8 by filing lawsuits against abortion funds,” said Elizabeth Myers, one of the lawyers representing the abortion rights groups.

[…]

Some legal scholars think the new lawsuits by the abortion funds could pose a threat to S.B. 8 now that various people and organizations have made their intentions clear, said Steve Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law, who specializes in the federal courts and has closely followed the Texas abortion ban.

“This case is not hypothetical because these particular defendants are in the process of pursuing various kinds of enforcement actions,” said Vladeck. After six months of trying to block the Texas law, abortion funds are probably thinking: “Now we finally have someone. Get out of our way, let’s go,” Vladeck said.

David Cohen, a law professor at Drexel Kline School of Law who specializes in gender and constitutional law, called the latest lawsuit a “brilliant move.” The abortion funds have built a legal case that “avoids many of the challenging legal problems of the previous lawsuits,” he added.

Even if a federal court judge does block the law, Vladeck said, the injunction will probably only apply to the particular defendants listed in the case. While those specific people and organizations would no longer be able to sue under S.B. 8, any other private citizen could still file a lawsuit.

At that point, Vladeck said, Texas abortion providers will have to decide whether they are comfortable resuming abortion care after six weeks of pregnancy. Abortion clinics and funds could still face other lawsuits, Vladeck said, but a favorable ruling in this case would make them more confident that they would win.

With these cases, Vladeck added, abortion rights groups are “building the defensive position.”

“They’re going to court to obtain a judgment that won’t be completely effective, but will make it easier to defend the lawsuits they will still face.”

See here and here for some background. I found that story on Tuesday, and on Thursday, the Trib had this to add.

“We are hopeful that any judge who looks at this will recognize the civil enforcement mechanism for what it is … and say these cases aren’t really about abortion,” said Elizabeth Myers, an attorney representing the abortion funds.

Instead, she said, their legal challenge is about stopping the “millions of bounty hunters who can sue in a very rigged one-sided court system” under the law’s private enforcement mechanism.

Aspects of this argument have already succeeded in state court, where a Texas judge found the law to be unconstitutional but declined to block it from being enforced. Now, the same lawyers are taking the case to federal court, where challenges to the law have faltered before.

But this attempt will have an advantage that those did not: The federal suits are filed in Chicago and Washington, D.C., rather than Texas, which allows the plaintiffs to avoid the extremely conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The other two suits are filed in state court and have been added to ongoing multidistrict litigation, where all legal proceedings are stayed while the case is appealed.

South Texas College of Law Houston professor Rocky Rhodes said there are potential obstacles to this approach in federal court, but it’s the “best bet” to block the law that he’s seen yet.

“This is a better procedural mechanism to get the case before the [U.S.] Supreme Court … and it addresses many of the issues from the previous challenges,” he said. “And then, of course, a Supreme Court ruling is binding on all state and federal courts.”

[…]

When the Lilith Fund tweeted a request for donations, the Thomas More Society responded by saying “donors could get sued under SB8” and linking to the press release about its efforts to depose the funds’ leaders.

This makes it clear that the anti-abortion groups intend to bring lawsuits under the Texas abortion law, the new filings argue, and thus the groups can be sued proactively to stop them from doing so.

Neither the Thomas More Society or the America First Legal Foundation responded to requests for comment.

Rhodes has argued in several papers that this is a strong angle to challenge the law.

“This mechanism of ‘wait until you know someone is going to sue you, and then sue them in federal court first,’ is one of the best ways to get an offensive challenge teed up to [the law],” he said.

The filings argue that the abortion law violates advocates’ right to free speech by limiting how they talk to clients, advocate for abortion access and spend their donations, which could be considered political speech. In addition, they argue it is so vague that plaintiffs may not know what conduct is allowed or prohibited; it creates special rules that only apply to these lawsuits, which violates plaintiffs’ rights to equal protection under the law; and allows lawsuits to be brought by people who do not have standing because they have not been directly injured.

If a federal judge agrees with some aspects of these arguments, they could grant an injunction, stopping the Thomas More Society and the America First Legal Foundation from bringing lawsuits against the two abortion funds. The lawsuit also seeks a declaration that the law is “unconstitutional, void, of no effect and therefore not usable” — by anyone.

That wouldn’t stop anyone besides these two groups from bringing lawsuits, but it would create federal court precedent that could be cited in future litigation, Rhodes said.

[…]

Unlike previous legal challenges to the abortion law, these lawsuits deliberately sidestep the most highly politicized aspects of the law.

“This [case] is not really about abortion,” said Myers. “We’re not challenging the six-week ban.”

Myers said that’s not because they believe the six-week ban is constitutional, but rather because the courts may be more open to hearing arguments as to why other aspects of the law are also unconstitutional.

You gotta do what you gotta do, and if this can lead to taking the bounty hunting out of the picture, it will be a lot better. Indeed, that would allow abortions to continue in Texas, at least until SCOTUS can do more violence to Roe v Wade. But that day hasn’t happened yet, and with other states adopting similar bounty hunter laws, we have to deal with the immediate threat. Let’s hope for the best.

Fifth Circuit asks SCOTx for help on some SB1 issues

The Twitter summary:

To recap the history here, back in September a group of plaintiffs including Isabel Longoria filed one of many lawsuits against SB1, the voter suppression law from the special sessions. In December, a motion was filed to get a temporary injunction against the provision of that law that makes it a crime for election officials and election workers to encourage voters to vote by mail, whether or not those voters are eligible under Texas law to do so. A federal district judge granted the motion, which would have applied to the primaries, and I’m willing to bet would have helped ease the confusion that led to all of those rejected mail ballots, but the Fifth Circuit, as is their wont, put a hold on the injunction.

It’s not clear to me where things are procedurally with this litigation – and remember, there are a bunch of other cases as well – but in this matter the Fifth Circuit wanted to get some clarity on state law before doing whatever it has on its docket to do. Let me just show you what that second linked file says:

The case underlying these certified questions is a pre-enforcement challenge to two recently enacted provisions of the Texas Election Code: section 276.016(a) (the anti-solicitation provision) and section 31.129 (the civil-liability provision) as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. The anti-solicitation provision makes it unlawful for a “public official or election official” while “acting in an official capacity” to “knowingly . . . solicit[] the submission of an application to vote by mail from a person who did not request an application.” The civil-liability provision creates a civil penalty for an election official who is employed by or an office of the state and who violates a provision of the election code.

Isabel Longoria, the Harris County Elections Administrator, and Cathy Morgan, a Volunteer Deputy Registrar serving in Williams and Travis counties, sued the Texas Attorney General, Ken Paxton, to enjoin enforcement of the civil liability provision, as applied to the anti-solicitation provision. And in response to the recent Court of Criminal Appeals case holding that the Texas Attorney General has no independent authority to prosecute criminal offenses created in the Election Code, they also sued the Harris, Travis, and Williamson County district attorneys to challenge the criminal penalties imposed by the anti-solicitation provision. The plaintiffs argue that the provisions violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments because the risk of criminal and civil liability chills speech that “encourage[s] voters to lawfully vote by mail.

After an evidentiary hearing, the district court granted the plaintiffs’ motion for a preliminary injunction, enjoining the defendants from enforcing and prosecuting under the provisions. Paxton and one of the district attorneys (Shawn Dick of Williamson County) appealed. Because the Harris and Travis County district attorneys did not appeal, only Longoria’s challenge to the civil penalty permitted by the civil-liability provision and the Volunteer Deputy Registrar’s challenge to the criminal liability imposed under the anti-solicitation provision were at issue in the appeal.

On its own motion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has certified the following questions to the Court:

(1) Whether Volunteer Deputy Registrars are “public officials” under the Texas Election Code;

(2) Whether the speech Plaintiffs allege that they intend to engage in constitutes “solicitation” within the context of Texas Election Code § 276.016(a)(1). For example, is the definition narrowly limited to seeking application for violative mail-in ballots? Is it limited to demanding submission of an application for mail-in ballots (whether or not the applicant qualifies) or does it broadly cover the kinds of comments Plaintiffs stated that they wish to make: telling those who are elderly or disabled, for example, that they have the opportunity to apply for mail-in ballots?; and

(3) Whether the Texas Attorney General is a proper official to enforce Texas Election Code § 31.129.

The Court accepted the certified questions and set oral argument for May 11, 2022.

You now know everything I know. Let’s see what happens in May.

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.

Yes, the statewide injunction against investigations into the families of trans kids is in effect

Good.

A Texas appeals court on Monday reinstated a temporary injunction blocking Texas from investigating parents for child abuse if they allow their transgender children to receive gender-affirming care.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals issued the order as part of a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union and Lambda Legal on behalf of the parents of a transgender teenager who were being investigated by child welfare workers.

“Having reviewed the record, we conclude that reinstating the temporary injunction is necessary to maintain the status quo and preserve the rights of all parties,” three appellate justices wrote.

[…]

District Judge Amy Clark Meachum issued the temporary injunction March 11 after the ACLU and Lambda Legal sued.

The same night Meachum’s injunction was issued, Paxton filed an appeal and claimed he froze the injunction, allowing the state to continue investigations. However, experts said the appeal fell into a complicated legal area, and lawyers had challenged such automatic stays before, claiming the state should not be able to overturn an injunction simply by filing an appeal.

With Monday’s order, the injunction for now will continue to block the ongoing — and any new — investigations into Texans accused of child abuse based only on the allegation that they provided gender-affirming medical care.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the Third Court’s order. Note that none of this is about the merits, just that as is usually the case the district court judge and now the court of appeals has ordered that the original status quo be maintained while the legal question is being answered. As noted when the original injunction was handed down, there will be a hearing in district court on July 11 for a permanent injunction, which is when the merits of the case will be decided.

According to the Chron, this decision will likely be appealed to the Supreme Court, though as of this writing that has not been announced yet. I don’t know if the same “automatic suspension of the injunction” policy that Paxton claimed for the first appeal would be in play in that situation or not, but I am sure that if it’s even a theoretical possibility, Ken Paxton will assert it. We’ll know soon enough.

When a divorce helps to define a marriage

Interesting case.

A gay San Antonio man has filed for a divorce in which he seeks to prove a common law marriage existed with his former partner of 25 years when federal law prohibited same sex marriage. The law has since then been ruled unconstitutional by Obergefell vs. Hodges in 2015.

If he is successful in his divorce petition, Christopher Hoffman would be eligible for alimony and other benefits from his former partner Moises Ortiz. It would also mark the first time in Texas that a common law [informal] divorce would be granted to a same sex couple who were together prior to Obergefell.

The Texas Family Code provides two methods for establishing a common law [informal] marriage. The first is to “file a declaration of informal marriage with the county clerk. Tex. Fam. Code 2.40l(a)(l).” The second is by showing that “I) the parties ‘agreed to be married’; 2) that the parties lived together as spouses; and 3) that they ‘represented to others that they were married.’ Tex. Fam. Code 2.401 (a)(2).” Additionally, the partner seeking to establish the existence of a common law marriage “bears the burden of demonstrating the three elements by a preponderance of the evidence.”

According to court documents, Hoffman and Ortiz lived together for 25 years beginning in 1994. Hoffman filed for the common law divorce on July 19, 2019 citing adultery and mistreatment among other reasons. In responding to Hoffman’s assertion, Ortiz denies that a common law marriage existed, saying that he and Hoffman had only been roommates.

On July 30, 2019, Judge Mary Lou Alvarez of the 45th District Court of Bexar County found that Ortiz’s claim that he and Hoffman “were simply roommates that acted as partners to be incredulous testimony.” The judge went on to issue a temporary order requiring Ortiz to pay Hoffman $1,200 monthly for interim spousal support until a final jury trial’s verdict.

On January 22, 2021, Ortiz’s attorney filed a motion for a Declaratory Judgment which would have made a final, legally binding declaration that Hoffman’s petition was not valid.

Ortiz contended that there was no precedent in Texas state law to show that Obergefell applies retroactively to same sex couples. Hoffman’s attorney countered that there had been two incidents (Ford v. Freemen 2020 and Hinojosa v. LaFredo 2012) of courts in Texas recognizing “a pre-Obergefell same sex common law marriage. However no Texas appellate court has issued any binding authority on the issue.”

(Lambda Legal Senior Staff Attorney Shelly Skeen authored a brief in the Hinojosa v. LaFredo case.)

There are a couple of precedents I could cite for pre-Obergefell marriages later getting legally dissolved in Texas. Way back in 2010, a Travis County district court judge granted a divorce to two women who had been married in Massachusetts. Then-Attorney General Greg Abbott sued to undo the divorce ruling on the grounds that their marriage was not recognized by the state of Texas. That case went all the way to the State Supreme Court, which ruled against Abbott, upholding a Third Court of Appeals decision that Abbott didn’t have standing because he waited to intervene until after the original district court ruling. That ruling happened a few months before Obergefell, and SCOTx was emphatic that it was not saying anything about the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, just about the AG’s standing to intervene in that case.

In 2014, there was a divorce and child custody filing in Bexar County, also between two women who in this case had been married in Washington,. That one had been filed eight days before a federal judge ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional; this was the original Texas case filed by Cleopatra De Leon and Nicole Dimetman, and Vic Holmes and Mark Phariss. The judge in that Bexar County case later also ruled that Texas’s law against same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, basing her opinion on the federal case while specifying sections of the state’s Family Code as being illegal. She also cordially invited Greg Abbott to butt the hell out, which kind of makes her my hero. I don’t have any further updates on that case, so it’s my best guess that it eventually proceeded to a normal resolution in the courts.

Finally (yes, I went deep on this one; it’s a topic that fascinates me), there was a post-Obergefell divorce granted in Tarrant County, the culmination of a proceeding that had been filed in 2013. It appears that it was the SCOTUS ruling on same-sex marriage that spurred the case resolution for this one.

So with all that said, and with the usual proviso that I Am Not A Lawyer, I like plaintiff Hoffman’s chances, on the grounds that this is in every other way a pretty normal, boring divorce case that will ultimately be decided on the merits. It’s certainly possible that some bad actors might try to get involved in an effort to pursue a ruling that might draw a distinction between “traditional” marriage and same-sex marriage. I don’t know how that might happen, and I don’t know if it can happen if defendant Ortiz objects to their intervention, I just know that the there are definitely people who would like to intervene in this fashion and for this purpose, and I wouldn’t put it past them. Anyway, I’ll try to keep an eye on this one, just to see how it goes. The trial begins today, so we may know more soon.

Abortion funds file their own lawsuits

It’s good to fight back. I hope it can be successful.

This week, the Lilith Fund and Texas Equal Access Fund, two of Texas’ oldest abortion funds, announced legal action (available to view hereherehere, and here) against two private individuals in Texas and two organizations based outside the state seeking to enforce Senate Bill 8, which has been in place for more than six months.  The Texas bill deputizes private citizens to sue anyone who assists someone with getting an abortion – a move designed to intimidate abortion funds, providers, and the people they serve.

The lawsuits, filed in state and federal courts, would protect abortion funds and the people they support from being sued by anti-abortion extremists in the state and outside organizations.

The filings come as Texas’ abortion ban – the most extreme in the country – has almost entirely cut off access to abortion in a state of more than 29 million people, disproportionately harming people of color and those working to make ends meet who can’t afford to travel for care. Since the ban first took effect, nearly 1,400 Texans have left the state every month and traveled thousands of miles to get their abortions in states as far as Illinois, Washington, Ohio, and Maryland.

“We are yet again being forced to protect the work we do and show up for Texans who need abortions and the people who love them,” said Amanda Beatriz Williams, Executive Director of Lilith Fund. “We won’t be harassed or intimidated out of serving our community, in the courts or anywhere else. We are proud to fight back, even when we have no choice.”

In the face of criminalization and legal attacks, abortion funds have never stopped showing up for their communities. Senate Bill 8, along with the endless restrictions anti-abortion politicians in the Texas legislature have enacted over the last 10 years, has created an unprecedented and unsustainable situation in Texas. Now, with other states passing Texas copycat abortion bans, the impact is permeating far and wide.

“These attacks against our fund are meant to stigmatize funding abortion and prevent us from supporting Texans seeking care,” said Kamyon Conner, Executive Director of Texas Equal Access Fund. “The work we do to help people access abortion helps communities thrive. We will not be intimidated. We’ll continue to stand up to the bullies who have launched this attack on our work, our rights, and our communities.”

Anti-abortion extremists, many of whom don’t even reside in Texas, have one goal to cut off access to abortion, and have targeted abortion funds who help Texans get care. With this legal action, Texas abortion funds are fighting back  to ensure their work and the privacy of the people they serve is not threatened.

I found a DMN story and a Bloomberg Law story about this, but both are paywalled. The two organizations the suits are filed against are the America First Legal Foundation (with a name like that, you know they’re evil) and the Thomas More Society (ditto), and the two individuals are Ashley Maxwell of Hood County and Sadie Weldon of Jack County. If all of those names sound familiar, it’s because those people and those groups had previously filed petitions in state court to be allowed to depose the leaders of the Lilith Fund and the TEA Fund. I don’t know if we can call this a standoff – among other things, we’re in uncharted legal territory, so who knows how the law is going to be interpreted by the various courts – but it’s very much a seismic battle, with unknowable implications.

In the wake of the SCOTx dismissal of the abortion providers’ lawsuit, I noted that injunctions against individuals would need to be on the menu of options for abortion providers going forward. My initial reaction to this was that we were seeing the first of those, but on closer inspection that’s clearly not the case. I do think we will see a whole lot more suits and countersuits in the near future, at least until there’s some more clarity about what will and won’t work in the courts. All I can say for now is that I wish Lilith and TEA all the best, and if you’d been thinking about donating to them, now would be a good time.

Appeals court upholds school district mask mandates

Maybe not the most timely ruling ever, but still nice.

An appellate court on Thursday sided with Texas school districts in their dispute with state officials over mask mandates, which numerous school systems have already lifted as pandemic conditions have eased.

The state’s the 3rd Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s orders that granted school districts temporary injunctive relief from the enforcement of an executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott prohibiting mask mandates.

In its opinion Thursday, the appellate court pointed to its opinion in a similar challenge involving Harris County. In that case, the court considered whether a disaster act gave the governor the authority to stop local government entities from implementing COVID-19 safety measures viewed by the governor as “more restrictive than necessary,” according to the opinion.

“For the reasons previously set forth in our opinion in Harris County, we again conclude that the Governor does not possess absolute authority under the Texas Disaster Act to preempt orders issued by governmental entities and officials,” Thursday’s opinion read.

Many, if not all, school districts that defied Abbott’s order have lifted their mask mandates, including Houston, Dallas, Spring and Aldine ISDs, which were among the plaintiffs.

[…]

With the opinion, the court confirmed the state Education Code gave districts the authority to decide.

“We conclude that the Education Code provisions granting broad authority to local school districts and community college districts to govern and oversee public schools within their districts do not prescribe ‘the procedures for conduct of state business,’” the opinion stated. “In sum, the Texas Disaster Act does not grant the Governor absolute authority to preempt orders issued by local governmental entities, such as school districts, and the provisions of the Education Code relied on by the school districts in issuing their respective facecovering requirements are not subject to suspension under … the Act.”

See here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. As noted before, the Supreme Court has yet to take up this question, though at this point maybe they just won’t since it’s not currently at issue. (That could of course change.) Ken Paxton is never one to take an L so I suspect he’ll continue to pursue this. I also strongly suspect that a top item on the agenda for the 2023 Lege, assuming no changes in the power structure, will be to amend the Education Code to explicitly prohibit school districts from making this policy without the permission of the Governor first. Have I mentioned that this is an important election coming up? Just checking. The San Antonio Report has more.

SCOTx puts the last nail in the federal lawsuit against SB8

The fix was in from the beginning.

The Texas Supreme Court dealt a final blow to abortion providers’ federal challenge to the state’s latest abortion restrictions Friday.

The court ruled that state medical licensing officials do not have authority to enforce the law, which bans abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy. This was the last, narrowly cracked window that abortion providers had left to challenge the law after the U.S. Supreme Court decimated their case in a December ruling.

The law has a unique private-enforcement mechanism that empowers private citizens to sue anyone who, in the law’s language, “aids or abets” an abortion after fetal cardiac activity is detected, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.

The law is designed to evade judicial review, a goal at which it has been largely successful so far. Abortion providers have tried to argue that the law is actually enforced by state officials — the clerks who docket the lawsuits, the attorney general and medical licensing officials who could discipline doctors, nurses or pharmacists who violate the law — which would give them someone to bring a constitutional challenge against in court.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed with all of those arguments but one, allowing a challenge against the medical licensing officials to proceed. That case then went back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent it to the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on.

In a hearing last month, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone argued that there was no “ordinary English interpretation that entertains any possibility of public enforcement.”

On Friday, the justices issued a ruling that seemed to agree with Stone’s “ordinary English interpretation” of the law.

“The Court concluded that Texas law does not authorize the state-agency executives to enforce the Act’s requirements, either directly or indirectly,” they wrote.

Abortion advocates, including those who brought this challenge, were unhappy with the ruling.

“We have been fighting this ban for six long months, but the courts have failed us,” Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health and Whole Woman’s Health Alliance, said in a statement. “The situation is becoming increasingly dire, and now neighboring states—where we have been sending patients—are about to pass similar bans. Where will Texans go then?”

See here for the background and here for a copy of the ruling. I don’t have a good answer to Miller’s question. I don’t have much of anything to say because it’s hard not to feel numb. This is the best I can do:

See here and here for more on the Justice Department’s lawsuit, and here for more on the state lawsuit; you may recall that the judge ruled SB8 unconstitutional but declined to issue a statewide injunction. Maybe the plaintiffs can ask him to reconsider that, I dunno. Vladeck’s option 1 above involves individual providers getting injunctions against individual potential plaintiffs, which should be pursued as a stopgap but is obviously inadequate and unsustainable. That’s where we are today, and you can see why I don’t have much to add. The Chron, the Statesman, WFAA, The 19th, Reform Austin, and Daily Kos have more.

And more people are travelling for abortions

The number of abortions performed in Texas has declined greatly since the passage of SB8. But the number of Texans seeking abortions has remained the same, which is what abortion advocates have always said would be the case.

The number of women leaving Texas to obtain abortions has grown tenfold since lawmakers here banned the procedure after early pregnancy, according to new research from The University of Texas at Austin.

The findings, coupled with a huge uptick in online orders for abortion pills, suggest that the state’s widespread crackdown has not yet led to a large decline in procedures. While abortions at Texas clinics did fall by about half after the new restrictions took effect in September, many women still sought out to end their unwanted pregnancies through other, often more challenging paths.

The law “has not reduced the need for abortion care in Texas. Rather it has reduced in-state access,” said Dr. Kari White, lead investigator at the university’s Texas Policy Evaluation Project.

More than 5,500 Texans traveled to abortion clinics in six surrounding states between September and December of last year, according to the study. That’s nearly 1,400 trips per month, up from about 130 per month in the same period in 2019. The latest tally is likely an undercount, since some clinics did not participate and the study did not include trips to states farther from Texas.

[…]

Abortion rights advocates are already preparing for states to cut access in more than two dozen states across the South and Midwest, and providers are rushing to build out clinic space in northern and coastal states more friendly to abortion rights.

The new findings from Texas may be an early picture of the scramble to come for women in other states. The vast majority of trips out of Texas were to Oklahoma and New Mexico, where clinics are on average several hundred miles from most Texans. Oklahoma has its own “trigger” abortion ban in place if the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision protecting the right to abortion until about 23 weeks of pregnancy.

Women interviewed in the study said they faced heavy obstacles in seeking out abortions since the law took effect, including delays at clinics in and out of Texas. One in four said they had visited crisis pregnancy centers, which often discourage women from getting abortions. Researchers interviewed 65 women in total.

See here for the TexPEP news release, and here for the full report. You can consider this a bookend to the other recent report about the increase in demand for abortion-inducing medication. It may seem like a bit of comfort that there are still options available, but one is much more time consuming and expensive, not to mention about to get more so as states like Oklahoma and Louisiana follow in Texas’ cursed footsteps, and the other is also heavily restricted under state law, with the great likelihood of further restrictions coming in future legislative sessions if Republicans remain in control. It’s just a matter of time before the emphasis changes from “ways to make abortion more illegal” to “ways to increase enforcement of anti-abortion laws and increase the penalties for violating them”. Do not think for a minute that locking up people who seek abortions, and the people who help them, is off the table. I guarantee you, it is not.

In the “I hate it when I’m right” department, later the same day that I wrote this, I saw this on Twitter:

Don’t ask how that could be legal, or how it could possibly be enforced. The terror of it is the point. Scare people into thinking they can be locked up for seeking a legal abortion elsewhere, and you’re done.

And on that cheery note, we have this update about the largely futile efforts so far to stop this travesty in the courts.

In its 1973 ruling in Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court created a constitutional protection for abortion through viability, the point at which a fetus could likely survive outside the womb, usually around 24 weeks.

Since then, states, including Texas, have been stopped by the federal courts when they’ve tried to ban abortions before that point in pregnancy.

But Texas’ law has so far managed to evade a similar fate. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to stop the law from going into effect before Sept. 1, instead allowing lawyers for the abortion providers to bring a pre-enforcement challenge, which was heard in November.

The U.S. Department of Justice also tried to challenge the law, and succeeded in getting it temporarily enjoined by a federal district judge. That ruling was swiftly overturned by a higher court and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually threw out the DOJ’s challenge.

In December, the Supreme Court also threw out the vast majority of the abortion providers’ legal challenge, allowing only one narrow aspect to proceed. That remaining challenge is slowly wending its way through the courts, but even if it is granted, it would not allow abortion providers to resume providing the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.

Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, which is representing the abortion providers, said Thursday that their challenge in federal court “no longer stands a chance” of stopping these lawsuits from being filed.

“The Supreme Court greenlit this law’s unprecedented vigilante scheme and essentially said that federal courts are powerless to stop it,” he said. “There is no end in sight to this nightmare.”

Abortion providers have had more luck in Texas courts, where state District Judge David Peeples ruled in December that the law is unconstitutional. His judgment did not block lawsuits from being filed under the law, and is currently being appealed.

[…]

Immediately after Texas’ latest abortion restrictions went into effect Sept. 1, one San Antonio doctor, Alan Braid, announced in a Washington Post op-ed that he had provided an abortion after cardiac activity was detected.

“I fully understood that there could be legal consequences,” Braid wrote, “but I wanted to make sure that Texas didn’t get away with its bid to prevent this blatantly unconstitutional law from being tested.”

Three people sued Braid, including two disbarred attorneys who indicated they were more interested in seeing the law tested and getting the money than actually taking a stand against abortion.

Hearron, who is also representing Braid, said Thursday that they have filed a countersuit in federal court against the three claimants, seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional and the suits thrown out.

Beyond those initial three claims, no lawsuits have been brought against anyone for aiding or abetting in a prohibited abortion. But just last week, a group of anti-abortion lawyers asked a judge to allow them to depose the leaders of two abortion funding nonprofits to gather information for potential lawsuits.

So things are bad, and there’s no clear path to them being less bad. If you want something to happen at the federal level, we’re going to need to add at least two more Democratic Senators, which might give us enough to make changes to the filibuster, and we need to hold onto the House as well. If not, well, as the story says, there’s no end in sight.

More school districts dropping mask mandates

Unsurprising.

Some of Texas’ biggest school districts are lifting mask mandates for students just weeks before spring break.

Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, and Dallas ISD announced Monday that they would not require students to wear masks. Austin ISD announced Wednesday it would stop requiring masks.

The move comes after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that coronavirus infection rates were slowing.

“It does give people hope for this spring,” said Dallas ISD superintendent Michael Hinojosa.

All three districts enacted mask mandates in early August amid the delta variant surge and in defiance of Gov. Greg Abbott’s May executive order that says Texas schools can’t require masks.

At the time, dozens of school districts went against the governor’s order, and some were sued.

[…]

Candice Castillo, executive officer of student support services in Houston ISD, said recent data points to a dramatic downturn. In a district with about 195,000 students, there are 46 active cases, a 90% decrease in cases from the peak of omicron.

The district’s decision comes after Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo lowered Harris County’s COVID-19 threat level from “severe” to “significant.”

“This is the right moment for us to make this decision,” Castillo said.

In Austin ISD, the district has seen a 97% decrease in cases over the last six weeks, and the current number of active cases represents less than 1% of the total student and staff population.

Stephanie Elizalde, Austin ISD superintendent, said Wednesday during an Austin ISD board meeting that the district is abiding by the CDC’s recommendations, but to keep in mind that the fluidity of the pandemic means that the mandate can come back when necessary.

See here for more on HISD lifting its mask mandate. You can feel however you want about this – I know a lot of people are still very apprehensive about easing off on precautions like masking, and I totally understand. I’m still masking in public indoor spaces, and likely will continue for the foreseeable future. But the point is, the districts got to make the decisions they thought were best, based on the status of the pandemic and the advice and guidance from the CDC. That more than anything is what we wanted and deserved. The fact that they managed to hold out in defiance of Abbott and Paxton for all this time is a victory. It could be a transient one – for sure, someone is going to file a bill next session to force school districts to bend the knee to the governor – but at least we have an election first that can affect that action. Again, that’s all we can reasonably ask for at this time.

On the matter of the still-unresolved litigation over the mandates and Abbott’s executive order banning them in the schools:

I Am Not A Lawyer, but my best guess is that SCOTx will eventually take this opportunity to decline to intervene on the grounds that there’s no longer a reason for them to get involved. I suppose they could order the lawsuits to be dismissed, but here’s where my non-lawyerness comes to the fore, because I don’t know if that’s a thing they normally do. Be that as it may, the stars have aligned for them the sidestep a politically charged case, and that I know is a thing they like to do.

More people are choosing the medical abortion option

It’s not like there are good alternatives right now in Texas.

The demand for abortion-inducing medication spiked in the month after Texas significantly limited abortion access and has remained high since, according to new data from a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin.

The study reviewed requests for abortion-inducing medication made to Aid Access, an international nonprofit that provides the medication via the internet to people who cannot otherwise legally access the procedure. Prior to September 2021, the organization typically received an average of 10.8 requests a day from Texans.

Then, the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 8, which prohibits abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy, a point at which many people do not know they are pregnant. In the first week after the law went into effect on Sept. 1, Aid Access received an average of 137.7 daily requests from Texas, an increase of over 1000%.

“That big of a spike in requests shows us the uncertainty and chaos created by Senate Bill 8 going into effect,” said Abigail Aiken, the lead researcher on the study. “If it’s not certain that you can go to a clinic and get the care that you need, people will be looking around for what other options they have.”

The demand for the medication has remained higher than normal in the months since, Aiken found.

Medical abortion is typically a two-drug regimen of mifepristone and misoprostol that has been shown to be effective at terminating a pregnancy through the first 10 weeks of pregnancy. In December, the federal government lifted a requirement that the medication be dispensed in person, allowing it to be prescribed by telemedicine and sent through the mail.

But Texas law does not allow the medication to be prescribed through telemedicine or mailed and has limited its use to the first seven weeks of pregnancy.

[…]

Aiken, the researcher behind the study, said it’s impossible to know how and when patients use the medication they access through Aid Access — or how many patients are terminating pregnancies through other means.

But as the U.S. Supreme Court considers whether to overturn the constitutional protection for abortion, Aiken said this Texas data serves as a snapshot of what whole swaths of the country may be facing.

“It’s clear from this research and many studies that just because you make abortion harder to get, it doesn’t mean the need for abortion goes away,” she said. “And many people, they will look for other ways of doing that.”

See here and here for some background. The forced-birth contingent is of course not happy with this and murmuring about ways to pursue “legal action” against international and out of state groups like Aid Access. Not sure how they could do that without being extremely invasive, but I have no doubt that such a thought does not bother them at all. On the assumption that SCOTUS is going to gut Roe v Wade in some significant way, the main question is whether people will mostly still be able to get abortion pills freely, or whether they will have to rely on more evasive options. Both seem very much in play. The Chron has more.

2022 primary results: Statewide

That didn’t take long:

Literally one minute after polls would have closed in El Paso. You can’t report any earlier than that. With the first very early batch of results posted on the SOS website, Beto was at 92.82% of the vote, so even though maybe ten percent of the votes had been counted, this seems like a pretty safe call.

Greg Abbott was cruising as well, with just under 70% in very early returns. The Trib says his race was called at the same time; I didn’t see anything on Twitter, but you know how that can go. At least one of his opponents was preparing to concede right out of the gate. Both Huffines and West were in the 10-12% range early on, which makes their attention-to-performance ratio pretty much a “division by zero” error.

Susan Hays was headed for a decisive win for Ag Commissioner on the Dem side, starting out with about 85% of the vote. All of the other Dem statewides look like they’re headed for runoffs. Mike Collier, Rochelle Garza, and Janet Dudding were the clear early leaders for Lite Guv, AG, and Comptroller. The Land Commissioner race was more jumbled, with Sandragrace Martinez and Jay Kleberg the initial frontrunners.

On the Republican side, Dan Patrick and Glenn Hegar easily turned away nominal opposition, while the crook Sid Miller was close to 60% against more substantial opposition. Ken Paxton and Wayne Christian were leading for AG and Railroad Commissioner, but both were in the low-to-mid 40s early on. Dawn Buckingham was at about 45% with three opponents who might be the one to face her in a runoff in the 12-15 percent range. Two Supreme Court incumbents, Evan Young (appointed to replace Eva Guzman) and Scott Walker, were in the mid-to-upper 50s against single opponents.

I found the Trib‘s results page to be faster than the SOS, and it had both Dems and GOP on one page. The only other matter of interest here for now is total turnout. I’m not going to get a handle on that before I go to bed, so let’s put that in the to-be-followed-up file.

More on Abbott’s involvement in “getting the power back on”

Also known as more from the Brazos Electric Power Co-op lawsuit against ERCOT, but that didn’t fit well in the title.

The former chair of the Texas Public Utility Commission testified in court Thursday that during last year’s winter storm and blackout Governor Greg Abbott had ordered her to ride out to the power grid control room in Taylor with one of his top advisers.

DeAnn Walker, who resigned in the political fallout of the blackout, said Abbott told her to, “get the power back on” and keep it on and had a state game warden drive her out to the control room.

“He told me to go out to the Taylor facility and to figure out a way to get the power back on to all the customers and to not go back into rolling outages,” she said in federal bankruptcy court in Houston.

[…]

The utility commission originally ordered power prices to the $9,000 cap on Feb. 16, as power plants began freezing up and dropping off the grid at a fast rate. The next day, as generators were beginning to come back online, there was pressure from some power companies to let the power market resume normal operations.

But Magness and Walker resisted, testifying the grid was still unstable and at risk of falling into a total blackout that could take weeks to recover from.

On Thursday Walker, a former adviser to Abbott who was appointed to the utility commission in 2017, faced questions about why she didn’t call a meeting of the utility commission to consult with other commissioners about keeping power prices at the $9,000 cap.

She replied that she believed the commission’s order from Feb. 16, “was still in place.”

“That was an independent decision I made,” she said. “It wasn’t something as a commission we discussed.”

Asked if she discussed it with anyone else, Walker said, “I don’t remember.”

Walker struggled to remember details of the blackout at numerous times during her testimony Thursday, at times drawing criticism from U.S. Bankruptcy Judge David Jones.

At the end of her testimony, Jones commented, “I see no purpose in simply highlighting the areas of your unreliability.”

“I am disappointed in your conduct and your lack of candor this morning.”

See here for the previous day’s testimony from former ERCOT head Bill Magness. While it may sound like Abbott was ordering Walker to do something good, it contradicts his previous claims that he was not involved in the decisions being made by ERCOT and the PUC. In addition, the crux of this lawsuit is that ERCOT and the PUC mandated that the price cap for energy remain at the maximum level of $9,000 per kilowatt hour for days after the grid began coming back up, which put many millions of dollars into the pockets of some power generators at the expense of companies like Brazos Electric and their customers, which is to say people like all of us. The lawsuit, part of Brazos’ bankruptcy filing, is over how much they actually owe their suppliers. The plaintiff’s argument, which is backed up by a lot of outside experts, is that the max price cap, which ostensibly was to coax offline generators back online, did nothing of the sort. It was just a huge windfall for the providers that were already producing.

Anyway. A favorable decision for Brazos Electric would obviously be good for them, and I would hope good for their customers. It would also cause other power retailers to follow suit, and who knows how chaotic that might get. Not that it would be a bad thing, just a big uncertainty. And if there are a bunch more lawsuits of this nature, ERCOT is going to be very busy defending itself.

The Electric Reliability Council of Texas does not have sovereign immunity from all lawsuits and the Texas Public Utility Commission does not have exclusive jurisdiction over all claims against ERCOT, according to a ruling by an appeals court ruling this week.

The 12-to-1 decision Wednesday by the Fifth District Court of Appeals in Dallas was widely anticipated because it could have ramifications in hundreds of lawsuits pending in Houston courts stemming from the deadly winter storm in 2021 in which ERCOT is a defendant.

In the ruling, judges cleared the path for Panda Power Funds to pursue hundreds of millions of dollars in damage claims in state court against ERCOT. Panda claims that ERCOT committed fraud, negligent misrepresentation and breach of fiduciary duty when it published intentionally inaccurate reports in 2011 and 2012 that projected a “serious and long-term scarcity of power supply.”

As a result of ERCOT’s allegedly false market data, Panda invested $2.2 billion to build three new power plants — operations that have not generated the revenue that ERCOT predicted.

[…]

The Fifth Court opinion, authored by Justice Erin Nowell, also reverses a decision the same court made in 2018 that ERCOT has sovereign immunity.

“To date, the supreme court has not extended sovereign immunity to a purely private entity neither chartered nor created by the state, and this court will not create new precedent by extending sovereign immunity to ERCOT,” Nowell wrote. “ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity and the legislature did not grant exclusive jurisdiction over Panda’s claims to the PUC. To the extent we previously held otherwise, that holding is in error.”

“Although ERCOT argues it has the power to make binding law, which it calls the ‘quintessential sovereign power,’ the applicable statutes do not support this argument,” the court ruled.

Justice David Schenck dissented, but there is no record of a written dissent.

Lawyers on both sides say the case is now headed to the Texas Supreme Court.

The issue of ERCOT’s sovereign immunity is critical in more than 200 individual wrongful death, personal injury and property damage lawsuits brought by victims of the winter storm that name ERCOT among defendants. Those cases have been consolidated before a judge in Houston.

“This is a huge win for both Texas consumers and businesses whose lives and livelihoods were so drastically impacted by the actions and inactions of ERCOT,” said Houston trial lawyer Derek Potts, who represents dozens of victims of the storm. “It is safe to say that more litigation against ERCOT is coming.”

See here, here, and here for more on the Panda Power case, which originated in 2019 and thus has nothing to do with the freeze lawsuits. Well, it didn’t at the time, which was of course before the freeze, but it sure does now. Justice Nowell is now a candidate for State Supreme Court, by the way. Just passing that along.

SCOTx hears SB8 argument

I’ll be honest, I had not realized this was on the calendar.

The Texas Supreme Court got its first chance to weigh in on the state’s new abortion law Thursday, hearing arguments in a narrow challenge to the restrictions, which have blocked access to abortions after about six weeks of pregnancy for nearly six months.

This hearing before the nine-justice high court is an interim step in the ongoing federal lawsuit brought by abortion providers trying to challenge the law. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asked the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on a question of state law before the appeals court proceeds with its own ruling in the case.

The law, passed as Senate Bill 8, is designed to evade judicial review, a goal at which it has so far been successful. It specifically precludes state officials from enforcing it, instead deputizing private citizens to bring civil lawsuits against anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in an embryo, usually around six weeks of pregnancy.

Lawyers representing the abortion providers are trying to prove that the state itself actually will enforce the law, which would open a legal window for them to seek an injunction on some aspects of the law. They argued that the law is enforced by court clerks who docket the lawsuits, judges who hear them, the attorney general and others.

The U.S. Supreme Court threw out most of those arguments in a December ruling that allowed the law to remain in effect. The justices did allow one question to proceed, over whether state medical licensing officials play a role in enforcing the law.

Those agencies would potentially be responsible for disciplining or revoking the licenses of doctors, nurses and pharmacists who violate the law; an injunction would stop them from doing so, but would leave the crux of the law in place.

[…]

At Thursday’s hearing, Texas Solicitor General Judd Stone argued that there was no “ordinary English interpretation that entertains any possibility of public enforcement.”

The justices questioned whether doctors might be obligated by the rules of the state’s medical licensing board to report any lawsuits brought against them for violating the abortion law, and whether that would constitute state enforcement.

Stone said the board could simply make a rule saying that it has no role in enforcement, so even if a report was made, it would be precluded from taking further action, like revoking a doctor’s license.

That argument, and the narrowness of the challenge more generally, presented a problem for lawyers representing the abortion providers, who found themselves in the tricky position of arguing against themselves.

Their current argument is that the state’s enforcement authority, through medical licensing officials, contributes to the chilling effect on abortion providers. If the state Supreme Court decides that medical licensing officials do not have enforcement authority — or the boards add language to their rules confirming that — that chilling effect is lifted.

Justice Evan Young asked Marc Hearron, senior counsel for the Center for Reproductive Rights, whether that would be a win for the abortion providers.

“If you were to do that, that would, at a minimum, provide our clients some certainty,” Hearron said. “It would, however … essentially end our challenge.”

Without state enforcement, there is no one to bring a constitutional challenge against, and the law would remain in effect.

[…]

Abortion providers and advocates are fighting the law on several fronts, including in state court, where a judge in Austin declared the law unconstitutional. He did not enjoin the law from being enforced, though, and that ruling is being appealed.

It is possible that case will eventually return to these same chambers. The justices acknowledged that Thursday’s hearing is unlikely to be the last time they are asked to rule on this unprecedented new law.

Thursday’s case before the Texas Supreme Court is a question of whether the abortion providers can bring a federal “pre-enforcement” challenge.

If that option is foreclosed to them, one option would be to do what a San Antonio doctor did immediately after the law was passed: violate the law, get sued and challenge the statute on its merits in court.

See here, here, here, and here for some background. Perhaps the timing of this hearing on Thursday explains the forced-birthers’ move earlier in the week. I have no idea what SCOTx will do, and there’s no indication from them as to when they’ll do it, but I do know what they should do, and that’s what the federal district court did and would have done again if the Fifth Circuit hadn’t shredded normal practice to put this case before them: Issue a temporary restraining order against any SB8 activity until the matter is resolved in the courts. It’s ridiculous and infuriating how the Fifth Circuit and SCOTUS have played politics with this case. Do what is clearly the right thing under the law, and let the matter proceed from there. I don’t expect them to do this, but they should. The Chron and the Texas Signal have more.

Anti-abortion zealots make their move under SB8

This is where it really starts to get scary and ugly.

For nearly six months, as Texas’ novel abortion law has wended its way through the courts, abortion providers and opponents have been locked in a stalemate.

The law, known as Senate Bill 8, empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “aids or abets” an abortion after about six weeks of pregnancy. With one exception as soon as the law went into effect, abortion providers in Texas have stopped performing these prohibited procedures — so opponents haven’t tried to bring one of these enforcement suits.

But that could be changing. A group of anti-abortion lawyers have taken steps to potentially bring lawsuits under SB 8, claiming in state court petitions that the leaders of two abortion funds have information about illegal abortions they helped patients procure.

This is a significant escalation on the part of abortion opponents, who have so far seemed satisfied with the chilling effect that even just the threat of lawsuits has had on abortion providers and their affiliates.

The petitions were filed by two women, Ashley Maxwell of Hood County and Sadie Weldon of Jack County. They are represented by Jonathan Mitchell, the architect of SB 8 and a former solicitor general for Texas; state Sen. Bryan Hughes (R-Mineola), the law’s chief legislative advocate; and lawyers from the right-wing Thomas More Society and America First Legal Foundation.

Maxwell and Weldon are asking a judge to allow them to depose the executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund and the deputy director of the Lilith Fund before any lawsuits are filed.

If granted, the depositions will allow the petitioners to discover “the extent of involvement of each individual that aided or abetted post-heartbeat abortions in violation of SB 8” so they can “better evaluate the prospects for legal success.”

While abortion providers have reported significant declines in patient loads since the law went into effect, abortion funds have seen a surge in demand from clients trying to access abortions before the deadline or leave the state to seek the procedure.

“What [these petitions] mean to do is chill pregnant people from seeking out the help of abortion funds,” said Elizabeth Sepper, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin. “If someone thinks that their identity and circumstances are going to be revealed to the world at large by a lawsuit … they’re going to hesitate before they pick up the phone and call for help.”

The petitions seek to depose Kamyon Conner, executive director of the Texas Equal Access Fund, and Neesha Davé, deputy director of the Lilith Fund for Reproductive Equity, two nonprofit abortion funds that provide financial assistance to patients seeking abortions.

Conner and Davé both admitted, in sworn affidavits in state court, that their organizations helped fund abortions “after the period in which cardiac activity is usually detectable.” That would put them in violation of SB 8, also known as the Texas Heartbeat Act, and open them up to potential lawsuits.

The organizations helped fund these abortions during a brief period last fall in which a federal district judge had enjoined the law from being enforced. A higher court quickly overturned that ruling; SB 8 specifically notes that an injunction that is later overturned is not a protection from future lawsuits.

That aspect of the law hasn’t been tested in court, and experts say it’s unclear whether it would hold up.

“In part, this attempt to get a deposition is also an attempt to figure out if claims can be brought based on the abortions performed in those few days where SB 8 was not in effect,” said Sepper.

The depositions are also seeking to identify who, in the language of the law, “aided and abetted” in these abortions — and the petitions indicate they’re taking a very wide view of that term. According to the filing, they’re seeking information on the funds’ role in facilitating abortions, the identity of individuals that they collaborated with and access to documents on the funds’ sources of financial support.

See here for the background on the state lawsuit, and here for the federal suit, which as we now know was routed to SCOTx by the Fifth Circuit precisely to keep it from being enjoined again. Make no mistake, the ultimate goal here is not just to go after people like Conner and Davé (who is a friend of mine), but everyone who donated to their organizations. The point of this awful law was to stop abortion, but the cherry on top for them was the chance to get rich doing so. I’m too disgusted to say any more.

On naming a replacement for Judge Briones

I have three things to say about this.

Lesley Briones

Three years ago, Bill McLeod lost his spot on the civil county court-at-law bench in Harris County due to a paperwork snafu.

McLeod, a Democrat, had been presiding over Harris County Court at Law No. 4 in 2019 when he filed paperwork indicating he was seeking the office of chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court. His filing triggered an obscure — but reasonable — provision of the Texas Constitution which considers such an announcement by anyone holding a county judicial bench an automatic resignation. He was required to step down as soon as a new judge was named.

Despite McLeod’s protests, Harris County Commissioners Court swiftly moved to replace him. At the time, County Judge Lina Hidalgo reasoned that keeping McLeod as a holdover judge would invite conflicts of interest that could require him to recuse himself from some cases. A week later, Hidalgo and the two other Democrats on the commissioners court — Rodney Ellis and Adrian Garcia — voted to appoint Houston lawyer Lesley Briones to replace him.

“Judge, this is something we did not create; we wish we weren’t in this situation,” Hidalgo told McLeod during that meeting. “Voters deserve a judge who can be absolutely independent as he was elected to be.”

Briones’ speedy appointment rankled the two Republican county commissioners, who voted against her, calling the vetting process unfair and opaque. It appeared as if the Democrats were ramming through their preferred candidate, the kind of behind-the-scenes scheming that Democrats used to accuse Republicans of when they were in charge.

Now in a twist of fate, or hypocrisy, another potential conflict has emerged, this time involving Briones.

Like McLeod, Briones is running for office. She’s a candidate in the March 1 primary aiming to take on GOP Commissioner Jack Cagle in the November general election. Her November campaign announcement also triggered an automatic resignation from the bench — but unlike with McLeod, the Democrats who run the commissioners court are in no hurry to replace her. She’s kept her bench even as she campaigns.

The commissioners’ rationale for letting her stay in her seat defies logic. Let’s roll the tape.

[…]

Commissioners Court has convened seven times since Briones technically resigned. These meetings are typically all-day, marathon sessions that include scores, or even hundreds, of agenda items. Naming a replacement for Briones has been conspicuously absent from their to-do list. In effect, the commissioners’ indecision on Briones’ replacement leaves her collecting a county salary to run for political office.

While we commend Briones for doing her part by recusing herself from certain cases, this predicament reeks of hypocrisy. The Democratic majority’s excuses for the delay don’t pass the smell test.

Rafael Lemaitre, a spokesman for Hidalgo, said in a statement that the county judge “is not leading the search for a replacement judge given that Judge Briones is deftly and efficiently carrying out her full workload of cases, while avoiding conflicts of interest,” adding that she “remains open to recommendations by her colleagues on a person to fill the position.” Both Ellis and Garcia noted in statements that it’s been a challenge finding someone who is not only qualified but also willing to take on what would be a temporary job, since voters will elect a new judge for Briones’ seat in November.

Really? When Judge Erica Hughes of Criminal Court at Law No. 3 was appointed to a federal immigration bench in December, county commissioners had no trouble finding not one, but two qualified candidates to fill her seat in a short amount of time. They appointed Hughes’ replacement, Porscha Brown, at the next possible meeting on Dec. 14. When Brown declined the appointment, commissioners named Ashley Mayes Guice to the bench at the very next meeting on Jan. 4.

1. I don’t understand the reason for the delay, either. It’s not a good look for Judge Hidalgo or Commissioners Ellis and Garcia. At the very least, give a better explanation for the delay. And in addition to the issue of Judge Briones having to recuse herself for matters involving the county, there are surely lawyers appearing before her now who may be supporting one of her opponents for the Commissioners Court nomination. That can’t be a comfortable experience.

2. That said, I kind of suspect that their ultimate preference would be to name the winner of the primary for this seat to the bench, as that would minimize turnover in the event that candidate wins in November. The main problem with that is that it’s a three-way primary, meaning that a runoff is likely, and thus we wouldn’t get someone named until late May. Briones herself may still be campaigning for the nomination to Commissioners Court through that time, as she too is in a multi-candidate race, or she may have been knocked out of the race. None of this is a desirable outcome.

3. Greg Abbott, of course, appoints judges all the time in a fashion that takes advantage of the election calendar. His appointees are expected to be the nominee for the next election, though they sometimes draw primary opponents. That’s been a thing for a long time, going back well before Abbott. This doesn’t excuse or justify what the Commissioners are doing here, but it is another reminder of my point that a judicial appointment system is no less inherently political than a system of electing judges. You can’t take the politics out of a political process.

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.

Paxton thumbs his nose at open records demand

Water is wet. The sun rises in the east. Ken Paxton DGAF about government, ethics, accountability or any of that other namby-pamby stuff.

Best mugshot ever

Attorney General Ken Paxton said the Travis County district attorney’s determination that Paxton violated open records laws by withholding information related to his trip to Washington D.C. on the day of the Capitol insurrection was “meritless” and that his office had fulfilled its obligation under the law.

Last week, the district attorney’s office gave Paxton four days to turn over communications requested by the state’s leading newspapers relating to his trip or face a lawsuit.

On Friday, Austin Kinghorn, a lawyer for the attorney general’s office, dismissed the district attorney’s findings, saying the office had provided no provisions under the state’s open records law that had been violated and implied that the newspapers had made the requests to publish stories about them.

“In each instance, complainant’ allegations rely on unsupported assumptions and fundamental misunderstandings of the PIA and its requirements,” Kinghorn wrote. “Frustrated that they have failed to uncover anything worth reporting following ‘numerous open records requests to AG Paxton office for various documents,’ complainant newspaper editors have sought to leverage your office’s authority to further their fishing expedition, or worse, manufacture a conflict between our respective offices that will give rise to publishable content for the complainants’ media outlets.”

[…]

In the letter, the attorney general’s office said the newspaper editors base their complaint on an “awareness of a small number of inconsequential documents they believe should have been produced” in public records requests and “baselessly speculate” that Paxton is failing to comply with the open records law.

Kinghorn said the “inconsequential documents” include a text message sent to Paxton’s personal cell phone by a Dallas Morning News reporter and two “spam” emails and an internal email that announced the temporary closure of an office parking garage.

See here for the background and here for a copy of Paxton’s response. This was of course the most predictable event imaginable, and basically serves as the pregame warmup for whatever comes next. Which will be a lawsuit filed in Travis County district court, and after that a million legal maneuvers by Paxton to delay, obstruct, and as feasible ignore the whole process. It will end with a final ruling from the Supreme Court sometime between now and the heat death of the universe. If somehow Ken Paxton is still in office when this is ultimately resolved, it will be incontrovertible proof that we are indeed in the darkest timeline. Adjust your expectations, is what I’m trying to say here. The Chron has more.

SB8 litigation will stay with SCOTx

Another game of Calvinball, same result.

The U.S. Supreme Court denied on Thursday abortion providers’ latest request to intervene in the ongoing legal challenge against Texas’ restrictive abortion law, cutting off one of their few remaining paths to a speedy victory.

The case is currently before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which sent the case to the Texas Supreme Court. That is expected to add months to the legal proceedings.

Abortion providers were hoping the U.S. Supreme Court would direct the 5th Circuit to send the case to federal district court, where a judge previously blocked the law.

[…]

“It breaks my heart every time our clinic staff are forced to deny pregnant people care and turn them away,” said Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and CEO of Whole Woman’s Health, which operates four Texas abortion clinics. “This law is cruel and unconstitutional, and I am deeply disappointed that our judicial system has done very little to stop it.”

The fix is in. The law means nothing. It’s about to get worse. Have a nice day.

SB8 lawsuit moves to SCOTx

Like I said, the fix was always in.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday sent the legal challenge to Texas’ restrictive abortion law to the state’s Supreme Court, a move that is expected to significantly delay the case and that abortion opponents had hoped would occur.

“This decision now keeps the case in limbo — and abortion after 6 weeks in the nation’s second-largest state — a dead-letter, indefinitely,” wrote Steve Vladeck, a University of Texas School of Law professor, on Twitter.

The U.S. Supreme Court has largely declined to intervene in the Texas case three times, most recently in December when justices kept the ban in effect while allowing a legal challenge to move through a lower state court.

[…]

A divided Supreme Court found that most challenges against the Texas law should be dismissed, except for one filed against medical licensing officials. That case was sent that to the 5th Circuit, one of the most conservative appellate courts in the country, rather than a federal district court as abortion providers and supporters had hoped.

The three-judge federal panel, based in New Orleans, wrote in their 2-1 decision Monday that the Texas Supreme Court must certify the case and decide whether the U.S. Supreme Court was correct in allowing a challenge to proceed against the licensing officials. Circuit Judges Edith H. Jones and Stuart Kyle Duncan, both appointed by Republicans, said the state’s highest court should determine whether the Texas attorney general, the Texas Medical Board and other licensing officials can enforce the law if it is violated.

Judge Stephen A. Higginson, a Democratic appointee, argued the U.S. Supreme Court had already decided that matter.

“This further, second-guessing redundancy, without time limit, deepens my concern that justice delayed is justice denied, here impeding relief ordered by the Supreme Court,” he wrote in his dissent.

State supreme courts do not have to take up cases that are sent to them by federal courts, but it’s likely Texas will this time. Lawyers said it’s unusual to ask the Texas Supreme Court to make this decision after the U.S. Supreme Court has already weighed in.

See here, here, and here for the background. I still don’t have anything to say that I haven’t said before. I’m fresh out of invective. The following is part of a longer thread, but these two tweets sum it up nicely:

SCOTUS doesn’t even care about the insult to their authority, because in the end it serves their larger goal. Burn it all down. The Chron has more.

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.