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The Lege

Runoff results: Around the state

After the primary, I rounded up the Democratic runoffs we’d have in May. I’m going to use that post to round up the results from last night, as best as I can tell as of when I gave up the ghost and went to bed. I started filling this in around 10 PM.

Statewide Dem

Lite Guv – Mike Collier vs Michelle Beckley.
AG – Rochelle Garza vs Joe Jaworski.
Comptroller – Janet Dudding vs Angel Vega.
Land Commissioner – Sandragrace Martinez vs Jay Kleberg.

Garza and Dudding were both up 61-39 as of 9:30 PM, with Garza being declared the winner. Collier (54.8 – 45.2) and Kleberg (52.2 – 47.8) were leading but it was too soon to say with them. Kleberg was up 62-38 in Harris County, and Collier was up 60-40, so that bodes well for them.

Congressional Dem

CD01 – JJ Jefferson vs Victor Dunn.
CD15 – Ruben Ramirez vs Michelle Vallejo.
CD21 – Claudia Zapata vs Ricardo Villarreal.
CD24 – Jan McDowell vs Derrik Gay.
CD28 – Rep. Henry Cuellar vs Jessica Cisneros.
CD30 – Jasmine Crockett vs Jane Hope Hamilton.

Jefferson (75%), Zapata (62%), and Crockett (75%) all had huge leads and were on their way to victory. Henry Cuellar (52.75 – 47.25) had a smaller lead but looked to be in pretty good shape. The other two races were ridiculously close – Ramirez was up by 78 votes, McDowell up by 20 votes. You’ll want to check them again today, and don’t be surprised if they wind up in recount territory.

SBOE Dem

SBOE1 – Melissa Ortega vs Laura Marquez.
SBOE2 – Victor Perez vs Pete Garcia.

Ortega (58%) and Perez (56%) looked to be in good shape.

State Senate Dem

SD27 – Morgan LaMantia vs Sara Stapleton-Barrera. LaMantia was at 57% and appeared to be in good shape.

State House Dems

HD22 – Joseph Trahan vs Christian Hayes.
HD37 – Ruben Cortez vs Luis Villarreal
HD70 – Cassandra Hernandez vs Mihaela Plesa.
HD76 – Suleman Lalani vs Vanesia Johnson.
HD100 – Sandra Crenshaw vs Venton Jones.
HD114 – Alexandra Guio vs John Bryant.

Lalani (64%), Jones (70%), and Bryant (62%) looked to be headed to victory. Lalani would be the first Muslim to serve in the Lege. Jones is openly gay and HIV positive and was the subject of a bizarre homophobic rant by his opponent, so his win is especially sweet. Bryant, who is 75 and served in Congress 30 years ago, wins one for the old white guys.

As of 10 PM, the other races were too close to call, with Hayes (50.86%), Villarreal (52.44%), and Plesa (52.91%) holding the advantage.

Republicans

Ken Paxton easily beat George P. Bush, which launched multiple (likely written in advance) eulogies to the “Bush dynasty” in Texas. Good riddance, if P is what that had fallen to. Dawn Buckingham (Land Commissioner) and Wayne Christian (RR Commissioner) were also cruising to victory.

UPDATE: All of the Dem statewide candidates that were leading when I signed off won. Michelle Vallejo (50.1%) edged ahead in CD15, while Jan McDowell (51.15%) increased her lead. It got super tight towards the end, but yes, Henry Cuellar (50.2%) once again came out ahead. All of the state office candidates that were leading last night were still ahead this morning.

Runoff results: Harris County

As with the statewide roundup, here are the results from Harris County. As of 10 PM, 99 of 260 voting centers had reported, so while these results aren’t final, it seems likely to me that not much will change.

Congressional Dem

CD38 – Diana Martinez Alexander vs. Duncan Klussman. Klussman had a 67-33 lead after early voting (65-35 as of 10 PM) and looked to be an easy winner.

SBOE Dem

SBOE4 – Coretta Mallet-Fontenot vs Staci Childs. Childs was up 56.5 to 43.5, and was leading big in early in person voting (62%) and Tuesday voting (65%), which helped her overcome a 1,200 vote deficit in mail ballots. Given that trend, I’d say she’s on her way to winning.

State House Dems

HD147 – Jolanda Jones vs Danielle Bess. Jones was up 55-45, and unlike the special election led in mail ballots (by 300 votes) and early in person voting (by 200 votes), while running nearly even on Tuesday (the tally was 520-508 for Bess as of 10 PM). She seems likely to hold on.

Harris County Dems

185th Criminal District Court – Andrea Beall vs Judge Jason Luong. Beall led 54-46 and had the advantage in all three forms of voting.

208th Criminal District Court – Beverly Armstrong vs Kim McTorry. Armstrong had a big lead in mail ballots, while McTorry had small margins in in-person voting, but it doesn’t look like it will be enough as Armstrong was up 52-48.

312th Family District Court – Teresa Waldrop vs Judge Chip Wells.
County Civil Court at Law #4 – Manpreet Monica Singh vs Treasea Treviño.

Waldrop (63%) and Singh (65%) were in command from the beginning. I believe Manpreet Singh will be the first Sikh on the bench if she wins in November.

Commissioners Court, Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones vs Ben Chou. Briones led 55-45, with similar margins across all three voting types.

Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1, Place 2 – Sonia Lopez vs Steve Duble. Duble also led 55-45, using a 59-41 advantage in early in person ballots to overcome a modest deficit with mail votes.

Republicans

Alexandra Mealer cruised to victory for the County Judge nomination, while Jack Morman got his rematch in Precinct 2. The HD133 race was too close to call, with less than 100 votes separating Mano DeAyala and Shelley Barineau. Check on that one in the morning.

UPDATE: All of the Dems that were leading last night won. Mano DeAyala won in HD133 51-49.

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.

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

With an opinion from a Trump judge, no less.

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans threaten businesses over abortion access

If you didn’t see stuff like this coming, you haven’t been paying attention.

With Texas poised to automatically ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, some Republicans are already setting their sights on the next target to fight the procedure: businesses that say they’ll help employees get abortions outside the state.

Fourteen Republican members of the state House of Representatives have pledged to introduce bills in the coming legislative session that would bar corporations from doing business in Texas if they pay for abortions in states where the procedure is legal.

This would explicitly prevent firms from offering employees access to abortion-related care through health insurance benefits. It would also expose executives to criminal prosecution under pre-Roe anti-abortion laws the Legislature never repealed, the legislators say.

Their proposal highlights how the end of abortion would lead to a new phase in — not the end of — the fight in Texas over the procedure. The lawmakers pushing for the business rules have signaled that they plan to act aggressively in the next legislative session. But it remains to be seen if they’ll be able to get a majority on their side.

The members, led by Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, laid out their plans in a letter to Lyft CEO Logan Green that became public on Wednesday.

Green drew the lawmakers’ attention on April 29, when he said on Twitter that the ride-share company would help pregnant residents of Oklahoma and Texas seek abortion care in other states. Green also pledged to cover the legal costs of any Lyft driver sued under Senate Bill 8, the Texas law that empowers private citizens to file lawsuits against anyone who assists in the procurement of an abortion.

“The state of Texas will take swift and decisive action if you do not immediately rescind your recently announced policy to pay for the travel expenses of women who abort their unborn children,” the letter states.

The letter also lays out other legislative priorities, including allowing Texas shareholders of publicly traded companies to sue executives for paying for abortion care, as well as empowering district attorneys to prosecute abortion-related crimes outside of their home counties.

Six of the 14 signers, including Cain, are members of the far-right Texas Freedom Caucus. How much political support these proposals have in the Republican caucus is unclear. House Speaker Dade Phelan, R-Beaumont, declined to comment. Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick and Gov. Greg Abbott did not respond.

Since the legislative session is more than seven months away, Cain said in an email that “a quickly drafted and sent letter can hardly be said to reflect the pulse of my Republican colleagues.” He was confident, however, that his ideas would find some support in the Senate.

“Knowing that chamber and its leadership, I’m willing to bet legislation targeting this issue will be promptly filed in January,” Cain said.

But doing so would likely mean targeting companies that the state has wooed as potential job creators. Tesla, for instance, announced this month that it would pay for employees’ travel costs when they leave the state to get an abortion. Abbott celebrated the electric car company’s move to Austin last year and this year urged its CEO, Elon Musk, to move Twitter’s headquarters to Texas, too, if he completes his purchase of the social media firm.

Joke all you want about how Republicans used to be the party of big business, because that hasn’t really been true for awhile. They’re the party of “give us your donations and keep your mouth shut about anything we don’t like regardless of what your employees and customers and stockholders say and maybe we’ll leave you alone and toss you a tax cut” now. You may say that it’s unthinkable that Republicans might actually chase large employers out of the state, but a lot of unthinkable things have been happening lately. Remember how the business community helped defeat the “bathroom bill” in 2017, and issued sternly-worded statements about voting rights and further anti-trans bills last year? How’s that been going?

We are living in Briscoe Cain’s Texas now. If he doesn’t get what he wants now – and mark my words, he wants to arrest people who have anything at all to do with abortion – he’ll get it next time, as long as his Republican Party is in charge. The business community needs to recognize that they are right in the crosshairs along with the rest of us. Daily Kos has more.

The STAAR is back

Missed this last week.

For the first time since the pandemic began, Texas public schools will be rated based on how students score on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness — more commonly known as the annual STAAR test.

It’s the latest big step toward normalcy for the state’s 8,866 public schools — which includes 782 charter schools — since the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures in early 2020.

But this year’s ratings come with a few changes. For this year only, schools will receive an A-C rating. Districts and schools that score D or F will receive a “Not Rated” label instead. Schools who fall in those bottom tiers will also evade possible sanctions from the Texas Education Agency during the 2022-2023 school year.

The news comes as thousands of students in grades 3 through 12 are taking the exam this spring. Last year, students had the option to take the STAAR test and results were not held against them or the district.

The ratings, those letter grades affixed on school buildings across the state, are typically released by the Texas Education Agency in August. But when the coronavirus began appearing in the United States more than two years ago, schools were shut down and as a result, standardized testing school testing was canceled for the year.

The new A-C rating this year will allow districts that still have a D or F from 2019 to have a shot of getting a better grade.

[…]

Last year, STAAR results showed that the pandemic had a significant impact on student learning with far lower scores than before the pandemic, especially when it came to math. Also, schools that relied more heavily on online class instruction had students who scored significantly lower than those school that were able to open and offer in-person instruction.

There’s fear that this year’s test scores may be impacted again because of pandemic-related school closures and teacher absences that occurred during surges in infection caused by the delta and omicron variants of the coronavirus.

Even though the rating system has been changed this year, not everyone is a fan of the school rating system to begin with.

Matthew Gutierrez, superintendent of the Seguin Independent School District, near San Antonio, believes the STAAR will be helpful to gauge students’ academic level, but the letter grades should’ve been postponed this school year as well because of the continued COVID-19 disruptions. Seguin, along with other districts, had teachers and substitutes out with COVID-19 during the omicron surge this past winter.

“We had students who went days without support from their certified teacher,” he said. “You had situations where you were combining classrooms and having really creative staffing, so it’s not optimal for learning.”

Gutierrez is also concerned about the “Not Rated” label. He said if a district scored an F in 2019 and then a D this school year, that district won’t get credit for that progress.

Yeah, last year’s STAAR results weren’t great. They might be better this year, but as a whole we’re likely still pulling ourselves out of the ditch caused by the pandemic. We could just do like last year and skip the grades, since we’re essentially giving the schools that don’t get good results a break. I’m not sure what the point of this halfway-accountable system is, and I’m also not sure that we missed anything by not going through this rigmarole the past couple of years. It’s been a hard year for everyone. Let’s accept that and make it a little easier on ourselves.

The coming fight over medical abortion

Sure is a good thing SCOTUS will leave this up to the states, isn’t it?

Republican-led states are moving swiftly to restrict access to medication abortion.

The efforts so far have focused on regulations around the pills, such as banning them from being shipped or prescribed. But can states ban the actual abortion pill itself, even though the Food and Drug Administration has approved it? That question could be the next frontier in the abortion wars.

The short answer comes down to this: The issue isn’t settled law and will likely be litigated in the courts. Some argue states may be hard-pressed to ban the federally approved medication, though antiabortion advocates disagree.

[…]

Some states have introduced bills focused on banning abortion pills, but they haven’t gotten a lot of traction, per Elizabeth Nash, an interim associate director at Guttmacher Institute, a research group that supports abortion rights. (A recent exception is Oklahoma, whose Republican governor is poised to sign legislation banning abortions – including medication abortions – from the moment of “fertilization.”)

Rather, states are banning the practice of medicine around the pills. For instance: At least 19 states ban the use of telehealth for medication abortion, and some states have additional restrictions, like prohibiting pills from being mailed.

Yet, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, some states may try to ban the actual medication. And states already have gestational limits and other abortion bans on the books that could kick in quickly if Roe is overturned — and those likely encompass limitations on the pills, experts said.

Can states ban a medication the FDA has signed off on?

There’s no clear precedent here.

Some states may argue they can ban medication abortion because states have the authority to regulate the practice of medicine. The FDA, on the other hand, is the acknowledged authority on medical products, such as the abortion pill. But the line between medical practice and medical products is not always clear.

And if a state squared off against the federal government over an FDA-approved drug … “We don’t know how the court would rule. It’s an open question,” Patti Zettler, an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and former associate chief counsel in the FDA’s Office of the Chief Counsel.

See here for some background. Reminder #1: The state of Texas has made it a felony to provide abortion medication after seven weeks, after having already banned anyone but doctors from dispensing such medication, and only via an in-person office visit – no telemedicine. You can be sure that Texas will take this to the next level in the next legislative session if it is in position to do so.

Reminder #2: The same medicine that is used for abortion is also used to treat miscarriages. Needless to say, women who are suffering through a miscarriage will face – and as that story notes, are already facing – barriers to medical care that could threaten their health, their future ability to get pregnant and carry a child to term, and even their lives. That’s our future, and if you think I’m being alarmist, go back and read all those soothing articles about how this Supreme Court was never ever going to overturn Roe v Wade because it would cause too much upheaval.

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.

We really missed counting a lot of people in Texas

Over half a million, by the latest estimate.

Tripped up by politics and the pandemic — and with only a last-minute investment in promotion by the state — the 2020 census likely undercounted the Texas population by roughly 2%, the U.S. Census Bureau said Thursday.

The once-a-decade national count put Texas’ official population at 29,145,505 after it gained the most residents of any state in the last decade, earning two additional congressional seats. In a post-count analysis using survey results from households, the bureau estimated that the count for people living in Texas households — a slightly smaller population than the total population — failed to find more than half a million residents. That’s the equivalent of missing the entire populations of Lubbock, Laredo and then some.

The undercount means that many residents were missing from the data used by state lawmakers last year to redraw congressional and legislative districts to distribute political power. For the next decade, the undercount will also be baked into the data used by governments and industry to plan and provide for communities.

Texas is just one of six states that the bureau determined had a statistically significant undercount. The others were Arkansas, Florida, Illinois, Mississippi and Tennessee.

[…]

Even as other states poured millions of dollars into census campaigns, Texas left local governments, nonprofits and even churches to try to reach the millions of Texans who fall into the categories of people that have been historically missed by the count — immigrants, people living in poverty and non-English speakers, to name a few.

Already without state funds, the local canvassing and outreach efforts relying on in-person contact were shut down by the coronavirus pandemic just as they were ramping up in the spring of 2020. The bureau extended time for counting by a few months, but the Trump administration later accelerated the deadline.

As Texas fell behind in the counting compared to other states, organizers struggled to reach groups at the highest risk of being missed as the pandemic continued to ravage their communities. It wasn’t until the 11th hour that Texas quietly launched a sudden pursuit of a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to promote the count using federal COVID relief dollars.

By then, with just a month of counting to go, the self-response rate for Texas households had barely topped 60%. As census workers followed up in person with households that hadn’t responded, the share of households accounted rose, but Texas remained far behind several other states and several percentage points behind the national average.

[…]

Because it’s based on comparing the 2020 census to a followup population survey, the Texas undercount is more of a statistical guess and carries a margin of error. In the case of Texas, the bureau estimates the undercount could have been as large as 3.27% or as small as .57%. By limiting its analysis to people living in households, it leaves off people living in college dorms, prisons and other group quarters.

The bureau did not report any statistically significant undercounts after the 2010 census.

The bureau will not be providing more detailed undercount figures to determine which areas of the state or residents were missed in the census. But earlier this year, it reported the communities were not equally left off. Nationally, the census significantly undercounted communities of color, missing Hispanic residents at a rate of 4.99% — more than triple the rate from the 2010 census. Black residents were undercounted at a rate of 3.3% and Native Americans at a rate of 5.64%.

The 2020 Census also had a larger undercount of children under the age of 5 than every other census since 1970.

A previous estimate had the undercount at around 377K. That could still be accurate – note that this is a range, not a single number – but it is likely that it was higher. We certainly could have added one more Congressional district if the Republicans had given a damn, but since the undercount was mostly people of color, what did they care? Cities can still file a challenge to their official tally, but so far none have. It is what it is at this point. The Chron has more.

So what did happen with the HD147 special election?

I was alerted by a comment on an earlier post to this.

Danielle Bess

Things are getting heated in the race to replace State Representative Garnet Coleman in District 147.

Jolanda Jones narrowly won the race in Saturday’s special election with 202 more votes than Danielle Keys Bess, according to Harris County.

But Bess is calling for an audit of Saturday’s special election results with a focus on mail-in ballots.

In an open letter to the Harris County Elections Board Administrator Thursday, Bess questioned the number of mail-in ballots counted.

She said the there were twice as many mail ballots Saturday compared to the March primary. But the early voting and election day turnout numbers were much lower Saturday than during the primary.

Jones responded by accusing Bess of “taking a page straight out of Donald Trump’s playbook.”

“Just like Donald Trump, and with absolutely no evidence whatsoever, my opponent is trying to overturn the results of a valid election with a bogus audit of mail ballots,” Jones said in a statement. “I expect she will next announce the hiring of Rudy Giuliani to lead the effort and organize a riot at Commissioners Court on the day the valid election results are certified.”

You can see the open letter on Instagram. I know what an election contest is, and I know what a recount is, but this was new to me. So I asked the elections office, and I was told that this was a reference to the post-election audit, also known as the Partial Manual Count. This audit is required for all elections that have paper ballots. It’s not something a candidate can request or specify a race for. The SOS selects a number of precincts and races to review, and the elections office has to hand count the paper ballots to ensure they match the digital records. Local election officials do not have any control over what is asked to be audited or what precincts are chosen for the audit.

I am told that the SOS selected ten precincts from the State Proposition 2 election for the Partial Manual Count. The deadline for the results of the PMC to be reported is May 28.

I also called Danielle Bess and asked her if she was requesting a recount or filing an election contest, and she said not at this time. Unless that changes, this is the end of the story for the HD147 special election.

Is there something unusual about the mail ballot totals in the HD147 special election? Bess’ open letter talks about how much greater a portion of the final vote total mail ballots were in the May special election than they were in the March primary. In the May special election, HD147 mail ballots were 29.4% of all ballots cast. But mail ballots were 26.0% of all ballots cast in Harris County in the May election (31,157 mail ballots cast in May out of 119,721 total). If that had been the proportion in HD147 there would have been 1,273 mail ballots instead of 1,440, a difference of 177. Jolanda Jones won by 205 votes, so you can’t make up the difference this way.

Mail ballots in HD147 in March were 9.58% of the total. Mail ballots overall in Harris County in the Democratic primary were 10.59% of the total. So mail ballots were proportionally a larger share of the total in HD147 in May than in March, but not by enough to raise my eyebrows. These were different elections, and Team Jolanda clearly had an incentive to push mail ballots, since she did so well with them in March. As I said before, this looks like the successful execution of a strategy to me. Mail ballots are clearly a big part of the vote in the primary runoff right now, but that can change as there’s still Runoff Day to be had, and there will surely be a push by all candidates to get people out to vote on Tuesday. I’ll check and see what those numbers look like afterwards.

Texas asks SCOTUS to not block its stupid social media law

As you’d expect.

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

On reporting election night results faster

Not sure about this.

Ahead of next week’s primary runoff elections, Harris County officials are recruiting county staffers to help speed up the results by picking up ballots at polling locations and driving them to the county’s central count location. Harris County was the last of the state’s largest counties to finish counting ballots in an election held earlier this month, even with assistance from law enforcement officers who took on delivery duties.

In the past, the responsibility of delivering the ballots has fallen to election judges, the final task at the end of their 15-hour day. Starting with the May 7 election, law enforcement officers with the Harris County Constables offices and the Harris County Sheriff’s Office picked up the ballots and made the delivery instead. The change didn’t do much to cut down on reporting time. While Dallas County and Tarrant County sent complete results to the state shortly after midnight, Harris County’s results came in around 9:37 a.m. Sunday, according to the Texas Secretary of State’s office.

This week, Harris County officials plan to train and deputize full-time county staffers from various departments to take on those delivery duties, as well. An email sent to county staffers on Tuesday from Harris County Administrator Dave Berry and Harris County Elections Administrator Isabel Longoria requested volunteers to help expedite the process.

“What’s required? Drive to a single polling location and pick up two sets of voting equipment, from both the Democratic and Republican sides, for the May 24th Primary Runoff Election. Return the equipment to NRG and be greeted with snacks, water, and a big THANK YOU for your service,” officials wrote in the email.

Each participating law enforcement officer or county employee will be assigned on average two polling locations, which will cut down by half the total number of cars lined up at central count at the end of the night, according to a spokesperson with the Election Administrator’s office.

While all Texas counties must comply with the state election code regulations — which were modified significantly when Senate Bill 1 went into effect last year — the Election Day ballot counting process varies considerably depending on the county.

At a May 11 hearing with the House Elections Committee, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers his county speeds up results by using multiple dropoff spots on Election Night, instead of one central count location.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional dropoff locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Rep. Mike Schofield, a Harris County Republican, told Longoria and committee members he was alarmed by Harris County’s plans to deputize county staffers to make deliveries.

“I would be very, very troubled to find out in November that we were just deputizing whoever the elections office thought it wanted to deputize to go touch my election results and bring them to the central counting station,” he said. “So let’s make sure that we know what the law is and that we’re following it because that’s not kosher. Or at least doesn’t seem kosher.”

According to the story, Keith Ingram of the SOS office said he disagreed with Harris County’s interpretation of the law in question. He’s not a lawyer and that’s not an official pronouncement, but that sounds to me like it’s maybe not the best plan to pursue, as there could be unwanted consequences from it. I will say, it’s not clear to me why this would be illegal. I can’t think of any reason why trained county staff would be any less reliable or trustworthy than election judges, who had to be trained by the same election office people to do the same thing. Maybe this is just a quirk of the law if in fact it is not in compliance with it, maybe there was some nutball conspiracy theory reason for county election workers to be not on the sanctioned list of vote-equipment-deliverers, or maybe there’s a legitimate reason that I’m not aware of. All I can say is that at first glance it’s not clear to me why it should be off limits.

That said, rather than risk a confrontation over this, maybe the multiple dropoff points plan is better, as that seems to be how other counties do it. I will confess total ignorance here about why that might not work for Harris County. Maybe it’s just not a thing we’ve done before and so we don’t have a workable plan in place. I’d say one of the first questions we should be asking the next Election Administrator is what they think about this.

There’s also this:

The Harris County GOP is urging Republican election judges to break with Harris County’s election night plan for next week’s primary runoff, arguing the county’s ballot delivery protocol violates the law. Earlier this week, Harris County officials sent an email to county staffers asking for volunteer drivers to help expedite the ballot counting process for the upcoming primary runoff. With hundreds of polling locations spread out over 1,700 square miles, the state’s most populous county has a history of delayed election returns.

In hopes of speeding up election results, the Harris County Elections Administrator’s office also used this plan earlier this month in the May 7 election — deputizing law enforcement officials and full-time county staffers to deliver ballots from the polling location to the county’s sole central counting station. However, the Harris County GOP is pushing back on that plan and instructing Republican election judges to drive ballots to central count themselves.

While the Harris County GOP is opposing the county’s ballot delivery plan, in an email to the Chronicle, party chair Cindy Siegel outlined strategies they would support in order to speed up election results. Those included better tracking of equipment and improved training for staffers receiving ballots.

Their key recommendation: “Include multiple drop off locations around the county with livestream video of the drop off process.”

At the May 11 hearing, Tarrant County Elections Administrator Heider Garcia told lawmakers that’s the system they use to speed up results.

“Because we are a large county, we use regional drop-off locations for the poll workers to deliver the materials to us. If we had 350 poll workers queued up outside our office, election night would become election week,” Garcia said.

Under the tenure of former Republican County Clerk Stan Stanart, Harris County used four drop-off locations to count ballots. Stanart reassured voters the system of transmitting ballot counts was secure.

When the county clerk’s office flipped to Democratic control in 2018, the new County Clerk Diane Trautman intended to use multiple locations, as well, but scrapped the plan after the Texas Secretary of State’s office said the county would violate state law prohibiting the transmission of election results via the internet. Trautman told Commissioners Court in November 2019 she believed her system to relay results was legal, but rather than risk a lawsuit, Harris County would begin to count votes at a single location.

In this year’s primary election on March 1, Harris County used four drop-off locations to shorten the drive time for election judges, according to the Elections Administrator’s office spokesperson Leah Shah. She said they’ve returned to one drop-off location while trying to implement a program to reduce the need for multiple locations.

In response to the Harris County GOP urging judges to transport ballots themselves, Shah said the Elections Administrator’s office has sent out an email to GOP election judges notifying them that they can “opt in” to the county’s plan if they don’t want to drive the ballots themselves. Thirty-one GOP judges have opted in so far, according to Shah.

Someone is going to need to explain to me what Tarrant County is doing differently than what Harris County would have done under Diane Trautman’s plan. Having multiple dropoff locations makes sense to me, so let’s figure out what needs to happen from there and go forward with it. Make that a top priority for the next elections administrator. And again, election night reporting for the earlier May election was fine. If we have a similar experience on Tuesday night, that too will be fine.

How will abortion bans be enforced?

The good news is that anti-abortion zealots don’t yet know how they’re going to force women to give birth. The bad news is we cannot count on that to continue to be true.

Right there with them

It took next to zero effort for pandering Republican state legislators to obtain cut-and-paste, ALEC-generated laws banning and criminalizing all abortions in their states, then brag and fundraise after such laws were passed by a willing Republican governor. But now that the Supreme Court is apparently set on overruling Roe v. Wade, the much harder part—as Republicans are about to find out—is figuring out how such laws terrorizing pregnant people will actually work in practice.

How do you go about catching and punishing someone who violates these laws? What tools of law enforcement will be necessary? How do you collect the evidence necessary for a prosecutor to charge someone with “aiding and abetting” an illegal abortion, for example? Can you dangle a lesser sentence if they agree to confess or cooperate against the suspect? And once the unrepentant offender has been apprehended, what sort of forensic examination methods or interrogation techniques should be utilized to prove their “crime?” Under what conditions?

[…]

None of the states that provide “exceptions” in cases, for example, involving rape or incest, or to protect the health and life of the mother could provide any guidance as to how such determinations would be made. As Einbinder and Kaskins point out, nearly two-thirds of rapes go unreported, so what type of evidence would be required to apply such an exception? Idaho, Mississippi, and Utah require that the rape be reported to law enforcement before an abortion will be “permitted,” while other states do not. Do prosecutors expect the rapist to voluntarily confirm his behavior?

And what type of medical testimony would be sufficient to establish that a person’s life was actually threatened by their pregnancy? Would there exist a ready cottage industry of experts used by prosecutors to rebut such a claim? Would doctors in a state that provides no such exception be forced to simply sit and watch the pregnant person die?

As Einbinder and Kaskins observe, no one in any of these states so eager to criminalize reproductive choices seems to know the answers to any of these questions. Most of Insider’s requests yielded no records (one district attorney from Shelby County, Tennessee, called their inquiries “political grandstanding”), or were met with bland statements that the agency was not involved in “enforcement”.

It seems clear to me that a big part of the playbook is just having laws that criminalize abortion in whatever form on the books. As we know from the SB8 experience, that by itself serves to intimidate and scare many women away from exploring whatever options they may still have, and also incentivizes fellow zealots to rat out anyone they suspect of engaging in behavior they don’t like – remember, it was someone involved in Lizelle Herrera’s medical care that reported her to law enforcement. If that’s not enough, the next step will be to make it easier for law enforcement to investigate the women in question, which will necessarily mean invasive searches of medical records, Internet and phone records, and who knows what else. Just look at the DFPS investigations of the families of trans kids for a preview of what that might resemble.

It’s likely that at least at first, enforcement of new anti-abortion laws will be uneven, as prosecutors will exercise their discretion as they can. The current Bexar County DA has already said he won’t prosecute abortion cases, and he won’t be alone in that. But DAs can lose elections, and with Ken Paxton actively seeking to bulldoze over DAs who refuse to go along with his agenda, authorizing the AG to pick up these prosecutions will be on the agenda if the zealots deem it necessary. There are no norms or traditions or existing laws that will stop them.

There do remain some ways for blue cities and suburbs to put up resistance even with all that.

Data. Immigration sanctuary cities responded to shifts in federal law during the Trump administration with a data management strategy. Do you need someone’s immigration status? If not, don’t write it down or put it in a database. Local hospitals, whether in red or blue states, should carefully consider what kind of records they must keep about people accessing care related to abortion or miscarriage, along with other kinds of soon-to-be-banned care. County hospitals can also commit to objecting to subpoenas requesting medical records, and instead force courts to compel their cooperation. They can choose not to question a patient’s narrative; they can decline to allow police to question a hospitalized patient.

Nonprosecution. Progressive district attorneys have won election in cities across the country in recent years, including in red states. Some in red states have already said they will refuse to prosecute criminal cases involving abortion. We need to demand that progressive prosecutors nationwide use their broad discretion to decline to prosecute doctors and patients for accessing abortion, for “suspicious” miscarriages, and for using types of birth control outlawed by state abortion laws that mistake pregnancy prevention for pregnancy termination. Even in states like Texas and Florida, it is often local elected prosecutors who will be making those determinations, at least for now.

On the flip side, advocates should be partnering with civil liberties organizations to scrutinize local police departments’ use of big data technologies, which could be used to identify and locate those who have accessed abortion care. Some cities, such as Oakland, California, have privacy task forces that must approve any new technology used for surveillance purposes. Such government bodies could, for example, refuse to approve any technology that makes use of data from period- or fertility-tracking apps. Cities might also consider directing their own police departments not to run searches of residents’ internet searches related to health care.

With the right resources, public libraries could also provide a space for residents to search for information related to self-managed abortion without leaving a search history on their personal devices. Blue cities in red states could provide funds to advertise the availability of library computers, purchase more devices if needed, and even set up the physical space in a way that affords computer users some degree of privacy.

Advice. Another important role cities play is giving advice to their agencies and hospitals and to the public at large. Cities can advise OB-GYNs concerned about their own vulnerabilities, particularly given laws that seek to criminalize routine care even when performed out of state and to deputize citizens to sue health care providers. These localities should develop a clear channel for providers to ask questions about how best to protect themselves while still providing care. Many local governments already have systems in place for disseminating information. During the pandemic, cities have used websites, automated texts, central phone lines, and more to make rapidly changing information and guidance available about COVID-19. Drawing on these strategies, local librarians and public health departments can play an important role in providing information about self-managed abortions. Cities need to think about how their employees might provide guidance, such as by handing out informational pamphlets or via websites and transit ads, and explore strategies for protecting employees and residents alike from liability.

These are all good ideas, but we’ve already seen in Texas that the Republican legislature and state leadership will not let cities stand in their way of anything. As long as they have the power to pass laws that overrule local ordinances or compel cities to do things, they will. It always comes back to the same truth that until we change who’s in charge of the state, we’re not going to be safe from this kind of abuse. We can brainstorm and strategize all we want, and we will have to for at least the short term, but in the long term that’s a losing battle. Winning more elections is the only way forward.

Sure hope our grid can handle a bunch of crypto

I have three things to say about this.

With interest surging in digital currencies and the blockchain technology behind them, more and more investors and operators are turning to Texas, lured by its cheap energy and hands-off regulatory approach. The rush, like those underway in Wyoming, South Dakota and other states, has been welcomed by energy executives and some elected officials who see it as a catalyst for job growth and tax revenue.

But it is also adding massive new demand to the state’s fragile electricity grid and putting pressure on legislators to harness the growth in ways that are sustainable — and that don’t price out residential consumers.

The Energy Reliability Council of Texas, which manages the state’s grid, is projecting that the explosion in cryptocurrency and other “large load” operators could bring as many as 16 gigawatts of new electricity demand by 2026. That’s about a quarter of the grid’s current capacity and enough to power over 3 million homes on a summer day.

“I don’t think anybody thinks all of that will be built, but it’s still a tremendous amount,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

For a state that failed so spectacularly to secure the power supply during last year’s winter blackouts, piling on more demand will be a critical new test, especially in the face of climate change. Last week alone, unseasonably high temperatures drove electricity demand to midsummer levels. Late Friday, the state asked Texans to conserve power after six natural gas-fired power plants tripped offline.

Leaders in the crypto industry say their entrance will improve reliability by bringing uniquely flexible loads — often sprawling, power-hungry data warehouses — that can shut down within minutes and put electricity back on the grid when demand peaks.

[…]

Joshua Rhodes, a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who has consulted for a crypto mining company, said the same hallmarks of the state’s deregulated electricity market that helped lead to such growth in wind and solar over the past two decades could make it hard for leaders to rein in bad actors.

“They have the ability to be part of the energy transition that we need, but I’m becoming less convinced that the majority of them care enough to do it,” Rhodes said of the industry.

Any new regulation will have to wait until next year’s legislative session. Last cycle, the House and Senate set up a study group that includes two Republican members and the president of the Texas Blockchain Council, a trade group whose lobbyist is a former top aide to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott. The group will meet to take public testimony this month.

Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, has been leading the crypto push in the House. He said his focus is on helping the industry grow with minimal restrictions and on ensuring there is enough power to meet demand, including new generation from fossil fuels and possibly nuclear power.

“It’s all about creating a level playing field so that folks know what the rules of engagement are, and therefore can be successful,” Parker said.

If new rules are on the way, many in the industry aren’t worried that they’ll stifle growth.

“We just had a gubernatorial race where we had three candidates tripping over each other to be the most bitcoin candidate there was, so I don’t see regulation coming now,” Griffin Haby, co-founder of Limpia Creek Technologies, told attendees at a crypto conference last month in Houston, referring to the Republican Party primary. “But you never know.”

1. This story weirdly does not mention the utter mess that the crypto market is in right now. I’m hardly a crypto expert, and things change quickly over there, so one might simply say that it’s all a bit of minor turbulence that will have no effect on the longer term projections. Fair enough, but the volatility of the market, the zeroing out of some entire currencies, the huge loss of investors’ capital, you’d think it would have at least merited a sentence or two.

2. We all know that the Republicans will do absolutely nothing to bolster or protect the grid as they roll out the red carpet for coinminers. They did nothing after the freeze last year, so it would be delusional to think they’ll do anything here. Maybe those “large load” operators will come swarming in, and maybe the coinminers themselves will have a bit of civic responsibility. That’s about the best you can hope for as long as the Republicans are in charge.

3. It’s going to be a long, hot summer. Forget the future projections, hope that the grid doesn’t crap out on us tomorrow or next week or (God forbid) in August.

DMN/UT-Tyler: Abbott 46, Beto 39

Here’s the story, which I currently can’t access. A very brief summary of it is in this Current article. The data is here and I’m going to riff on that, with references to the February version of this poll, for which the data can be found here. I will note that there are some primary runoff results in this sample, and I am ignoring all of them – that kind of polling is too tricky to be worth worrying about.

“In a race for Governor would you vote for Governor Abbott, Beto O’Rourke, or someone else?” I’ll generally be quoting the poll questions, which thankfully are the same in each sample. In May, as noted in the post title, it’s 46-39 for Abbott, basically identical to the 45-38 Abbott result from February. The shape of those numbers are a bit different. In February, possibly because both Beto and Abbott were in contested primaries, there was a considerable amount of crossover support for each, Dems were only 76-16 for Beto, while Rs were just 76-11 for Abbott. In May, those numbers were 82-9 among Dems for Beto and 85-7 for Abbott among Rs. Independents were 36-29 for Abbott in February and show as 16-6 for Abbott now, with 29% going to the Libertarian (there is a Green candidate named as well, who also gets 6%) and an astonishing 38% for “someone else”. This has to be a mangling of the data – among other things, given the size of the Indy subsample, it would have put the Libertarian candidate at nearly 10% overall, but the topline result gives him just 3%. Most likely, the 38 is for Abbott and the 29 is for Beto, or possibly all of these numbers are just wrong. I will shrug and move on at this point.

For approval numbers, President Biden checks in with 39-58 approval, which is obviously not good. Greg Abbott is also underwater at 46-50, while Beto has a 42-44 approval rating, which is the only one of the three to improve since last time. It was 39-57 for Biden, 50-46 for Abbott, and 40-46 for Beto in February.

Weirdly, Dan Patrick has 50-41 approval, and Ken Paxton has 42-41. Usually, Abbott does better in approvals than any other Republican, in part because fewer people have opinions about the rest of them. A separate question about Paxton asks “do you agree or disagree that he (Paxton) has the integrity to serve as attorney general?”, and it’s 30 for agree, 37 disagree, and 33 unsure. He was at 34-33-33 in February, so a bit of a dip there.

For some other questions of interest, the numbers are not bad for the Dems, and usually a little better than they were in February.

“If the general election was today, would you vote for a Republican candidate or Democratic candidate for the Texas House?” That was 49-48 for Republicans in May, 52-45 for Republicans in February.

“On orders from Governor Abbott, Texas Child Protective Services recently began investigating families who provide gender-affirming care to transgender children. Was this action” needed or unnecessary, with various reasons for each? There were three sub-options for each of those choices, and if you add them up it comes to 52-48 combined for “unnecessary”. Honestly, that’s better than I expected. There was no February comparison for this one, as that order had not yet been given at that time.

“Should the Supreme Court overturn its Roe v. Wade decision and allow states to decide abortion policy?” This was 53-46 for “no it should not be overturned” in May, and 50-47 in February. Again, a little better than I might have thought, and a tick up from before, which is to say before the draft opinion got leaked. Put those numbers in your back pocket for the next time someone claims that Texas is a “pro-life” state.

“Do you agree or disagree that K-12 teachers should be permitted to discuss how historical examples of discrimination in our laws apply to inequalities today?” Here, 61-24 strongly or somewhat agreed in May, and it was 59-22 for Agree in February. That means that for abortion, trans kids, and book banning, the Republican position is the minority one. Obviously, one poll and all that, but there’s nothing to suggest Dems should be running scared on any of this. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Now as we’ve said a zillion times, it’s one poll, opinions on issues often don’t drive voting behavior, and we’re still months away from an election where many other factors will affect the outcome. I’m quite scared of another COVID wave, especially if Congress doesn’t get some more funding for vaccines and treatments and whatever else passed in the very near future. But for now, and bearing in mind that it’s still a 7-point lead for Abbott, the numbers ain’t that bad. We’ll see what other polls have to say.

SCOTUS asked to again block that stupid social media censorship law

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

“Silver loading”

I did not know this.

Sen. Nathan Johnson

The latest state to take strong action to improve affordability in its ACA marketplace is … Texas?

[…]

But let me explain some background details first. Below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (that is, $25,760 for an individual or $53,000 for a family of four in 2022), benchmark silver plans on the exchanges are both very cheap—costing nothing up to 150 percent of FPL, and just 0 to 2 percent of income between 150 and 200 percent of FPL—and further enhanced with cost-sharing reduction (CSR) subsidies, which make them roughly equivalent to platinum plans.

At incomes over 200 percent of FPL, however, the marketplace’s offerings will be greatly improved by Texas’s new state-enforced pricing regime.

More than two-thirds of Texas enrollees in ACA plans (69 percent) have incomes below 200 percent of FPL. But thanks to the more generous subsidies created last March through 2022 by the American Rescue Plan—which removed the prior income cap on subsidy eligibility—2022 enrollment in Texas grew fastest at higher incomes. Enrollment at incomes over 200 percent of FPL rose 57 percent, to 566,000. Those enrollees stand to gain most by the change in law. At higher incomes, silver plan deductibles average over $4,500 (though many services are not subject to the deductible). Gold plan deductibles, by contrast, average $1,600.

So if gold plans have lower deductibles, why should they be cheaper than silver plans? As mentioned above, for low-income enrollees, CSR raises the value of silver plans (by reducing out-of-pocket costs) to a roughly platinum level, with average deductibles under $200 for the lowest-income enrollees and $800 at the next level (150 to 200 percent of FPL). In Texas, 89 percent of silver plan enrollees have incomes below 200 percent of FPL, and so the average silver plan sold in the state really does match a platinum-level “actuarial value,” or the percentage of the average enrollee’s costs the plan is designed to cover.

During the Obama administration, the federal government reimbursed insurers directly for providing CSR, and silver plans were priced as if no CSR were attached. When Trump abruptly cut off those direct CSR payments in October 2017, however, almost all state regulators responded by allowing or encouraging insurers to price the value of CSR directly into silver plans—a process that came to be known as “silver loading.”

Here’s where the quirk comes in. Because ACA premium subsidies, designed so that the enrollee pays a fixed percentage of income, are set to a silver plan benchmark (specifically, the second-cheapest silver plan), higher silver premiums mean higher premium subsidies across all plans—and discounts for subsidized buyers in bronze and gold plans.

But silver loading has stopped halfway. As the author of the “focused rate review” bill, Texas state Sen. Nathan Johnson, points out in the bill analysis, “insurers have not approached silver loading in a uniform manner. The resulting misalignment of premiums has caused Texans to lose out on hundreds of millions of dollars in federal marketplace subsidies, making coverage less affordable.”

Why? Since a majority of marketplace enrollees have incomes below 200 percent of FPL, silver is still the most popular metal level, and so when insurers are in a competitive market, the price of a silver plan gets competed down (though when there is just one insurer, or a dominant insurer, they can and do take advantage of the rules, often to create huge discounts).* In most of the country, gold plans are still priced well above silver, and bronze plan discounts are not as big as analysts (including the Congressional Budget Office) expected them to be when anticipating Trump’s cutoff of direct payments for CSR. A handful of states, however, have effectively ordered insurers to fully price the value of CSR into silver plans.

With Johnson’s bill, Texas joined them. S.B. 1296 directed the Department of Insurance to, as the bill analysis phrases it, “focus its rate review in a manner that uniformly maximizes the benefits of silver loading, making coverage more affordable.”

On March 28, the Texas Department of Insurance issued a proposed rule to flesh out that legal directive. The rule directs insurers to use a “CSR pricing factor” of 1.35—that is, to price silver plans at 1.35 times what they would charge if there were no CSR. That rule effectively prices silver plans close to a platinum level. Gold plans are generally priced at about 1.2 times the cost of silver with no CSR.

The CSR pricing factor is slightly below the level implemented in 2022 in New Mexico, 1.44, which led to the lowest-cost gold plan in each rating area being priced an average of 11 percent below the benchmark silver plan. In New Mexico markets, several gold plans are priced below benchmark. Accordingly, in 2022, 69.5 percent of New Mexico enrollees with incomes above 200 percent of the federal poverty level chose gold plans, compared to 24.4 percent of Texas enrollees above the same threshold.

The rest of the story is about how momentum for this idea came from a couple of conservative actuaries plus a former aide to Greg Abbott now working at the non-partisan think tank Texas 2036, who were able to get Republican buy-in for the idea, and the House sponsor for Sen. Johnson’s bill, Rep. Tom Oliverson. The details are wonky and I definitely don’t understand all of them, but the bottom line is that in Texas another 200,000 people now have access to affordable heal insurance. And the guy that wrote the bill to make it happen is the guy that escorted the vile Don Huffines out of the Senate in 2018. Not too shabby. Charles Gaba, who brings even more wonkiness, has more.

Primary checkup

Let me start this post off by once again noting that I cannot find any reporting, like at all, about how many mail ballots were rejected for the May elections. Just nothing. It’s as if interest in the subject by anyone but me disappeared after all of the March stories. Maybe that will change with the primary runoffs, I don’t know. But man, am I discouraged by the lack of curiosity about this.

In searching for such stories, I came across this instead.

Texas lawmakers returned to the state Capitol on Wednesday to examine the reasons for election result delays and the effectiveness of new requirements for poll watchers.

When Texans took to the polls on March 1 for the first primary of the 2022 midterm elections, it was the first time statewide voting had taken place under a controversial new law that made several changes to the state’s voting system. Senate Bill 1 was passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature last September, after months of Democrats rallying and using procedural measures to block any action from being taken on it.

The Texas House Elections Committee began Wednesday’s meeting by asking state and county election officials why election results were delayed for the March primary election.

Speaking first before the committee was Isabell Longoria, elections administrator for Harris County, the state’s largest county and home to Houston. Longoria said that many challenges larger counties face in reporting election results quickly are caused by the state’s new paper ballot system and rigid requirements on when to report results.

“This paper ballot system that we are moving to, I think has some, let us call it, paper challenges that have not yet been contemplated by the Texas Election Code,” Longoria told the lawmakers.

The challenges she cites include issues keeping track of and recording ballots that could be up to two pages long. In Texas, a person’s ballot is first inserted into a machine that records the choices made and prints them out on a physical copy. After that, the ballot is inserted into another machine where the votes are recorded and the paper ballot is stored before being transported to a central counting facility.

When asked by Representative John Bucy, D-Cedar Park, what else could be done to alleviate challenges for election workers, Longoria responded that defining what timely reporting means would be helpful. She pointed to the time needed to ensure every voter in line by 7 p.m. has an opportunity to vote, the time it takes to transport ballots through traffic and the time required to correct human errors. All of these factors lead to delays, Longoria said, stressing that the best solution could be to give larger counties more leeway, so they are not held to a strict time requirement.

The Chron also covered this. I get the concern, and I agree that Harris is an outlier, though the other big urban counties are also geographically large and have bad traffic, too. As I said, I thought Harris County’s reporting on the May election was basically fine, with the posting of regular updates going a long way towards alleviating anxiety about how it was going. Final results were available by the time most people would have been getting ready to begin their day on Sunday. I don’t see why anyone should freak out about that.

Which again isn’t to say we can’t or shouldn’t try to do better. I strongly suspect Harris County could crib a bit from other counties’ processes. If there is some change that could be made to SB1 to make it easier on them, that should be considered as well – if we all care about getting results in a timely fashion, that should be an easy sell. But we should also note that in some states, like the ones that actually promote and widely use mail ballots, sometimes final results are not known for a few days. I don’t remember there being much discussion about the effect that adding paper ballots might have on election reporting as SB1 was being passed. Harris is also one of the newcomers to using printed ballots along with their electronic voting machines. There have been a lot of changes – maybe we just need to let things work themselves out a bit.

This story did at least mention the topic that now obsesses me:

Notably absent from the committee’s agenda was the increased number of rejected mail-in ballots as a result of a new Identification requirement in SB 1. The law requires voters who fill out a mail-in ballot to provide their driver’s license or Social Security number, depending on which was used to register to vote in the state.

Of the over 3 million ballots cast in the March primary, 24,636 mail-in ballots were not counted due to the new requirements. In many instances, voters failed to include the identification number on their ballot and others put a number that did not match the form of identification they used to register to vote, leading to their ballot being rejected.

[James Slattery, senior staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project] said that the issues discussed during the committee hearing should not have been their primary focus.

“The most important issue facing our elections right now is the catastrophic rate of vote-by-mail rejections that SB 1 caused,” said Slattery. “The committee is not facing this crisis of democracy that they caused.”

The absence of this issue was also noted by Representative Bucy before the meeting came to a close.

“We have 24,000 vote-by-mail ballots thrown out this last primary, did you say we will have a hearing to address that?” Bucy asked committee Chairman Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park. “I just think that is a crisis and I want to make sure this committee is on top of it.”

“Yes,” Cain responded. “The chair intends to do so.”

Cain said that after the May 24 runoff election, the committee will have more information to better examine the issue, leaving the impact of SB 1 still under the watchful eye of lawmakers, election officials and voters.

I mean, there’s still no reason why reporters at the newspapers can’t ask their local election admins about this. Surely there are some numbers out there to be had.

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.

That stupid social media censorship law has been unblocked

The Fifth Circuit continues to debase itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Republicans are not going to stop passing anti-abortion bills

It’s what they do. There is no finish line for them.

During their 20 years in control of the Texas Legislature, Republican lawmakers have steadfastly worked to chip away at abortion access.

Bound by the limits of Roe v. Wade, which stopped them from enacting an outright ban on the procedure, lawmakers got creative. They required abortion clinics to have wide hallways and deputized private citizens to sue providers in an effort to shut down facilities that offer the procedure.

Future lawmaking on the topic will likely not require such ingenuity. A leaked draft of a U.S. Supreme Court opinion, published last week by Politico, suggests the court will reverse the landmark abortion ruling in the coming weeks, allowing states to regulate abortion as they see fit. Texas has a “trigger law” that would make performing an abortion a felony, which would go into effect 30 days after the Supreme Court overturns Roe.

Their decadeslong goal achieved, Republican lawmakers said there’s still work to be done. Texas GOP leaders and members of the Legislature said it is now time to turn their attention to strengthening the social safety net for women and children and investing in foster care and adoption services.

“It only makes sense,” said Rep. Steve Toth, R-The Woodlands. “The dog’s caught the car now.”

At least some of the more conservative members of the House said they also want to ensure strict enforcement of the abortion ban and to prevent pregnant Texans from seeking legal abortions in other states.

“I think I can speak for myself and other colleagues that align with my policy beliefs — we’ll continue to do our best to make abortion not just outlawed, but unthinkable,” said Rep. Briscoe Cain, R-Deer Park, a member of the far-right Freedom Caucus.

Texas already has an arsenal of statutes to punish virtually anyone involved in the procurement of an abortion, said University of Texas at Austin law professor Liz Sepper. These include last year’s Senate Bill 8, which empowers private citizens to sue anyone who “abets” an abortion after six weeks of gestational age, as well as unenforced pre-Roe abortion statutes criminalizing a person who gets the procedure, which the Legislature never repealed — some dating to the 1850s.

“If Roe is overturned, there’s already a criminal ban, there’s already an aiding and abetting ban, there’s already a ban on mailing medication abortion,” Sepper said. “In terms of law’s ability to change behavior, they’ve almost filled all the gaps — with the exception of criminalizing the pregnant person involved in an abortion.”

And you better believe that’s where they’ll be going next, though to be sure there are plenty of other avenues for them to pursue as well. This is what gives creeps like Briscoe Cain their purpose in life. If somehow they do eventually run out of things to ban, next up after that is increasing penalties and making it easier for law enforcement to go after whoever the likes of Cain thinks are getting away with something. Listen to what they’re saying – they are not being coy at all about this.

Now as for the claims that maybe now it’s time to do a little something to “strengthen the safety net”, well, let’s just say that they are starting from a position of abolutely no credibility.

With a near-total abortion ban looming in Texas, advocates and experts say the state’s support systems for low-income mothers and children are already insufficient — and won’t easily bear an increase in need.

“When you say ‘social safety net’ in Texas, it sounds like a joke,” said D’Andra Willis of the Afiya Center, a North Texas reproductive justice group. “Everything they could have set up or increased to protect people if they really cared, they’re not doing it here.”

Pregnant women in Texas are more likely to be uninsured and less likely to seek early prenatal care than the rest of the country. They’ll give birth in one of the worst states for maternal mortality and morbidity. And low-income new parents will be kicked off of Medicaid sooner than in many other states.

This would make many Texans want to avoid pregnancy altogether. But learning about, let alone accessing, contraception can be a challenge in a state that does not require sex education and has narrowed family planning options in recent years.

Republican lawmakers, many of whom have focused on restricting abortion access in recent years, have said strengthening the state’s social safety net will now become a top priority. But advocates who have been working on these issues for years say any help will likely be too little, too late.

“People fail to realize that this is bigger than abortion access,” Willis said. “We’re going to be setting people up for generational poverty.”

As with so many other policy items, like boosting mental health care as their prescription to reduce mass shootings, the single biggest thing they could do to achieve that goal would be to expand Medicaid. More than 55% of all births in Texas are paid by Medicaid. I think you can guess how high that is on their priority list. But even if you want to give them a tiny bit of benefit of the doubt, note that it’s just now that they are on the verge of achieving an abortion ban that they’re even beginning to think about maybe doing something to benefit those who are pregnant and have given birth. Look at their priorities, that will tell you how much that counted for them. Why would you expect that to change going forward?

Crystal Mason’s conviction to be reconsidered

Good news.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals has told a lower appeals court to take another look at the controversial illegal voting conviction of Crystal Mason, who was given a five-year prison sentence for casting a provisional ballot in the 2016 election while she was on supervised release for a federal conviction.

The state’s court of last resort for criminal matters on Wednesday ruled a lower appeals court had wrongly upheld Mason’s conviction by concluding that it was “irrelevant” to Mason’s prosecution that she did not know she was ineligible to cast a ballot. The ruling opens the door for Mason’s conviction to ultimately be overturned.

Mason’s lawyers turned to the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals after the Tarrant County-based Second Court of Appeals found that her knowledge that she was on supervised release, and therefore ineligible to vote, was sufficient for an illegal voting conviction. Mason has said she did know she was ineligible to vote and wouldn’t have knowingly risked her freedom.

On Wednesday, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the lower court had “erred by failing to require proof that [Mason] had actual knowledge that it was a crime for her to vote while on supervised release.” They sent the case back down with instructions for the lower court to “evaluate the sufficiency” of the evidence against Mason.

[…]

In Wednesday’s ruling, the court held that the Texas election code requires individuals to know they are ineligible to vote to be convicted of illegal voting.

“To construe the statute to mean that a person can be guilty even if she does not ‘know[] the person is not eligible to vote’ is to disregard the words the Legislature intended,” the court wrote. “It turns the knowledge requirement into a sort of negligence scheme wherein a person can be guilty because she fails to take reasonable care to ensure that she is eligible to vote.”

The court on Wednesday ruled against Mason on two other issues. They rejected her arguments that the lower court had interpreted the state’s illegal voting statute in a way that criminalized the good faith submission of provisional ballots, and that the appeals court had wrongly found she “voted in an election” even though her provisional ballot was never counted.

See here, here, and here for some background. Of particular interest is that the recent voter suppression law played a positive role in this outcome.

Insisting they’re not criminalizing individuals who merely vote by mistake, Tarrant County prosecutors have said Mason’s case is about intent. The case against her has turned on the affidavit she signed when submitting her provisional ballot.

But the legal landscape underpinning Tarrant County’s prosecution shifted while the case was under review, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals noted.

Last year, the Texas Legislature included in its sweeping new voting law several changes to the election code’s illegal voting provisions. The law, known as Senate Bill 1, added new language stating that Texans may not be convicted of voting illegally “solely upon the fact that the person signed a provisional ballot,” instead requiring other evidence to corroborate they knowingly tried to cast an unlawful vote.

The Legislature’s change to the election code — along with a resolution passed in the Texas House regarding the interpretation of the illegal voting statute — are “persuasive authority” that the lower court’s interpretation of the law’s mens rea requirement was incorrect, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ruled on Wednesday.

Good. This isn’t over for Mason, as this is just about the appeal of her conviction. Even if the appeals court ultimately throws it out after reconsideration, Tarrant County could still pursue this case and who knows, they might be able to convict her again. It sure seems like the spine of the case against her has been removed, though. And no matter how you look at it, she has already suffered consequences far in excess of her original sin, however you measure it. Please let this be over for her. The Dallas Observer has more.

Is there anything to say about Jolanda Jones’ win in the HD147 special election?

First, here are the facts.

Jolanda Jones

Democrat Jolanda Jones edged out her opponent Danielle Keys Bess in a special election on Saturday to finish the term of former state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston.

According to unofficial returns, Jones got 52% of the vote, with 48% going to Keys Bess. They were separated by a difference of 202 votes, which means the election is eligible for a recount if Keys Bess petitions for one. Keys Bess did not respond to a request for comment.

Jones is a former member of the Houston City Council and Houston ISD board. Keys Bess is a real estate agent with a background in political campaigns.

Coleman resigned in February after announcing last year that he would not seek reelection due to health reasons. His Houston-area district favors Democrats in November.

A win for Jones means she would hold the seat through the end of this year, but the Legislature is not set to meet again until January.

Jones and Keys Bess are also candidates in the May 24 primary runoff for the next full term in the seat, which begins in January. Jones got 42% of the vote in the crowded March primary, while Keys Bess received 20%.

As the story notes, both candidates got some endorsements from various elected officials. What was potentially of interest was how Jones won. Campos explains.

Commentary is kind of surprised that former H-Town city council member and HISD Trustee Jolanda Jones only squeaked by in the special election this past Saturday with a 52% to 48% win. She won by 202 votes over Danielle Keys Bess.

Jones won mail ballot voting by 364 votes. Bess won in person voting by 162 votes.

[…]

Mail ballots for the runoff have already been sent to voters so Jones will probably maintain that advantage. Early voting in person begins next Monday and only lasts for five days.

I am curious to know why mail ballot voters who for the most part are 65 and older would support Jones. Just like I would like to know why in person voters would favor Bess. Could it be that momentum was swaying toward Bess toward the end?

A lot of folks said this race was supposed to be a slam dunk for Jones. It wasn’t.

Here’s a chart for the votes by type each candidate got:


Candidate  Mail  Early  E-Day
=============================
Jones       845    769    691
Bess        481    817    805

Does it matter? Mail votes count as much as any other kind. When a race has this shape it can look like one candidate has late momentum, which I get and am subject to myself, but I feel it’s an illusion. You could argue that if there has been more time to vote, maybe Bess would have eventually caught up to Jones. You could also argue that if Bess had done better in mail voting, she wouldn’t have needed more time. Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

For what it’s worth, Jones dominated mail voting in the March primary, too. She had 56% of the mail vote, and she led in both the early and e-day voting, though by smaller percentages each time. Looks to me like this is a successful strategy so far.

The March primary had 11,800 voters, the May 7 special election had 4,400 voters; I’d guess the runoff will be in between the two. Jones won in each, in the same way. Unless there is something to suggest that the May 7 election actually took a turn late in the race, I’d say she’s in solid shape for May 24. We’ll know soon enough. The Chron has more.

TDP officially applies for early primary status

They’ll have a lot of competition.

More than a dozen states and at least one territory are applying to be among the first to vote for Democrats’ next presidential nominee — with the biggest pile-up coming out of the Midwest, where states are jockeying to take Iowa’s long-held early spot.

Fifteen state parties and counting, plus Puerto Rico, have submitted letters of intent to the Democratic National Committee ahead of a Friday deadline to be considered as a 2024 early state, according to a POLITICO tally. The process — the first major reimagining of the early-state presidential order in years — is being run through the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which will hear pitches from different states in late June and recommend a new early-state lineup to the full DNC by July.

The roster of states looking to go early hails from all over the country, including New Jersey, Washington, Colorado and Georgia. But a particularly intense competition is brewing in the Midwest, where Iowa — whose lack of diversity and messy caucus process drew Democratic ire in 2020, sparking the new look at the calendar — has been forced to reapply for its traditional slot. It is under pressure from five other states seeking to be the regional representative in the early-state lineup, depending on how broadly the DNC defines the region: Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

The shakeup is part of a broader move by forces in the Democratic Party that want to eliminate caucuses and give more influence to voters of color. While Democrats moved Nevada and South Carolina forward on the calendar in 2008 to increase the racial diversity of the voters who get an early say on presidential nominations, the party voted this spring to fully reopen the nominating process, including the first two spots occupied for a half-century by Iowa and New Hampshire.

“Nothing is locked in,” said Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party and a member of the rules committee. “There are no sacred cows here.”

The sixteen state and territory Democratic Party organizations applying for early-state status in the next Democratic presidential primary: Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

See here for the background, and here for the TDP’s statement on the matter. As I said before, I’m fine with where we are now in the primary process. Mostly, I don’t want to move the primaries any earlier, and I definitely don’t want to separate the Presidential primary from the rest of the races. It’s far from clear we could get the Lege to move the primary date up anyway, so this may just be an academic exercise. We’ll see what happens.

May 7 election results

Very briefly…

The two constitutional amendments passed overwhelmingly. I began writing this post at around 8 PM when all we had were early voting results, but statewide in early voting both propositions were over 85%. They were at 86% and 83% in Harris County.

Jolanda Jones had the early voting edge in HD147, leading by about eleven points. That was a gap of about 300 votes out of 2800 cast, so it’s possible it could get closer, but even without seeing the election day returns, I’d say Jones is the winner.

In the HCC special election, Charlene Ward Johnson (40%) and Kathy Lynch Gunter (36%) were the clear leaders and should be the candidates in the runoff. Maybe the Chron will pay attention to this race and (heaven help us) make an endorsement for it. No, I’m never going to stop being salty about that.

I’ll see what happens in the other races in a later post. Maybe we’ll finally learn something about how many mail ballots were rejected, too.

UPDATE: John Coby reports on the CCISD results.

Abbott sees another opportunity to hurt children

He is definitely making this a habit.

Gov. Greg Abbott wants to “resurrect” a court challenge over a 1975 Texas law withholding state funds from school districts for kids who were not “legally admitted” into the United States. That law was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1982.

He made the remarks in an interview Wednesday on the Joe Pags radio show.

“The challenges put on our public systems is extraordinary,” Abbott said before referencing Plyler v. Doe, the ruling that overturned the Texas law. “I think that we will resurrect that case and challenge this issue again because the expenses are extraordinary and the times are different than when Plyler v. Doe was issued many years ago.”

In that case, the court ruled that “education has a fundamental role in maintaining the fabric of our society,” and withholding it from the children of immigrants in the country without paperwork “does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice.” People living without documentation in the country remain people “in any ordinary sense of the term” and are thus entitled to the same basic rights as anyone else in the country.

We’re going to see a lot more of this, because people like Abbott have realized that SCOTUS is now a cheat code for achieving whatever policy ends they want, without having to legislate them. You could say that the policy he seeks to achieve here is the reversal of one that had been done via the court and not the legislative process. The difference is that the litigants in the Plyler case had to win on the merits and could have lost. They didn’t get to count on having a majority on the court that was ideologically on their side and willing to use their power towards that end.

If you can’t see what a public policy disaster it would be, not to mention a moral catastrophe, to prevent children from getting an education, I’m really not sure what to tell you. As Stace says, it’s yet another reason to vote Abbott and the rest of his crew out of office in November. TPM, Daily Kos, the Texas Signal, and Amanda Marcotte have more.

I’m just going to say this one thing about the pending evisceration of abortion rights

Chris Tomlinson gets at the issue but doesn’t take it all the way.

The Supreme Court’s apparent decision to allow state lawmakers to make women’s health care choices puts chief executives in a tough spot, forcing them to choose between their employees’ rights and right-wing backlash.

Disney’s recent experience defending LGBT rights against Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s demagoguery will sadly encourage cowardice.

Millions of Texans are waiting to hear how their employee health insurance will handle abortion coverage when the procedure becomes a first-degree felony punishable by life in prison.

Texas Republicans have made banning abortion their marquee issue for decades. In addition to prohibiting government health insurance from paying for abortions, the Legislature also banned state-regulated plans from covering them.

Employers of 60 percent of Americans with company-sponsored health insurance, though, use self-funded plans. These are exempt from state regulations, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, a health care research organization. Only 14 percent of self-funded plans exclude some or all abortions.

Polling shows 59 percent of Americans think abortion should be legal under all or most circumstances, according to Pew Research.

After Gov. Greg Abbott allowed Texans to privately prosecute other Texans who seek an abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, many companies stepped up. Amazon, Citigroup, Salesforce, Apple, Bumble, Levi’s, GoDaddy, Match, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, have all promised to help employees get abortions outside Texas.

“We are pro-woman. We will support a woman’s right to make health care decisions for herself, even if that means traveling out of state. It’s an investment that’s not just right, but good business too,” Curtis Sparrer, a principal at Houston-based PR firm Bospar told me in an email.

The company will pay for travel and other expenditures should a Bospar staff member need reproductive health care banned in any state where they live, Sparrer added.

“We want other companies and PR agencies to join the fight, especially since many are composed of women and are led by women. The rights of women are not just on the line,” he added. “As someone who credits his same-sex marriage to the legacy of Roe, I am imploring my colleagues and friends to end their silence and speak truth to power.”

Taking a stand on anything, though, is becoming more perilous for corporations and executives who would rather generate profits than controversy. Employees, especially younger workers, expect their company’s leadership to reflect their values.

“More than half of consumers will buy or advocate for brands based on their beliefs, while six in 10 employees will choose employers based on shared beliefs and values,” according to Edelman, a global PR firm. “A stunning 81 percent of respondents want CEOs to be front and center discussing public policy.”

The first thing to realize is that the forthcoming overturn of Roe and Casey is the beginning, not the end. Next up will be a nationwide ban on abortion, for which Senate Republicans are already writing a bill. Now that they will no longer have to pretend that this has anything to do with women’s health, rape and incest exceptions will go away, and it won’t be just doctors who are targeted for arrest and prison. I guarantee you, lowlife creeps like Briscoe Cain cannot wait to throw women in jail for anything that looks like an abortion. Lizelle Herrera was not an aberraion.

If you think I’m being alarmist, go find a copy of that draft opinion and read it for yourself. Note carefully the section in which Sam Alito claims that this opinion is only about abortion and not all of those other things that people like him despise and want to get rid of, like the previous SCOTUS decisions on same-sex marriage and contraception and “sodomy”. I will remind you that most if not all of the justices who have signed onto Alito’s opinion also swore under oath during their Senate confirmation hearings that they considered Roe to be “settled law” and that they respected precedent. There’s no reason at all to believe anything that a known liar says.

So get mad, get organized, and get everyone you know who has the same concerns as you to vote. Businesses are going to have to do more as well, if they actually do care about their employees. But it’s on us, to vote and to put pressure on the people we’ve voted for to act. The clock has struck midnight. What are we going to do about it?

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.

More on the constitutional amendments

From the inbox, from State Rep. Gene Wu:

Rep. Gene Wu

Please share with your neighbors, family, tenants, parishioners, and community partners.

Governor Greg Abbott issued a proclamation setting Saturday, May 7, 2022 as the special election day for two proposed constitutional amendments in Texas.

The League of Women Voters of Texas has prepared a Voters Guide for the 2022 Special Constitutional Amendments Election using the analyses language from the Texas Legislative Council.

The League’s nonpartisan Voters Guide is available in English or  Spanish. And if you’d rather listen to their YouTube video on the proposed constitutional amendments you may find them at Proposition One and Proposition Two.

It is an honor to serve and represent you.

The LWV explainers are simple and straightforward, with the proposition text and arguments for and against for each. The TLC docs are more thorough but also more dense and with all of the legislative background that you may or may not care about. Together they do a fine job of telling you all you need to know about the amendments on the ballot. Go forth and vote.

End the “tampon tax”

I approve.

Rep. Donna Howard

A coalition of menstrual health organizations is appealing a decision by the Texas Comptroller’s Office to deny its protest against the state sales tax, which they say unfairly and unconstitutionally does not exempt tampons, pads and other hygienic products.

If the dispute isn’t resolved on the administrative level, Meghan McElvy, partner at the Houston-based international law firm Baker Botts, said she plans to take the case all the way to the Texas Supreme Court if necessary. The law firm is taking up the case pro bono on behalf of the Texas Menstrual Equity Coalition.

“It’s just kind of a no-brainer issue to me,” McElvy said. “(Male) libido enhancers are tax-exempt, but medically necessary products for women are not.”

The group, which includes a large number of youth-led advocacy organizations, has asked for a re-determination hearing from the Comptroller’s Office. It comes after the agency denied their original request for a refund of sales tax on tampons, pads and panty liners bought by a Harris County woman.

This is just the latest effort in a national movement that kicked off in the 2010s aiming to end the so-called “tampon tax.”

As of now, a slim majority, or 26 states, tax menstrual products, while the rest do not, either because they have exempted them or because they’re one of the five states that don’t levy a sales tax, according to Period Law, an advocacy and legal organization.

States with exemptions include Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

In Texas, state lawmakers in recent years have attempted to pass bills on the matter without success. Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who chairs the Texas Women’s Health Caucus, has filed a bill every session since 2017. In 2021, House Bill 321 got out of committee but never made it to the House floor — the most progress any such bill has ever made.

Howard credited young women in high school and college, many of whom belong to groups that run donation drives to help low-income people access the products, with moving the needle last year by showing up in Austin to testify on the bill. She said she hopes to to build on their progress in the upcoming legislative session.

“We know there are a large number of Texas girls and women who do not have enough money to afford these products,” she said. “(A sales tax exemption is) not going to go a long way, but it’s a step in right direction.”

Howard said most of the pushback at the Legislature comes from members concerned about the budget. The Comptroller’s Office estimated in 2021 that the bill would have cost the state about $42 million in lost revenue in the next two-year budget cycle.

“In the grand scheme of things, this is a very small fiscal impact,” Howard said. “I keep going back to the discriminatory part of it because at some point, you make decisions because they’re the right decisions to make.”

I say they’re necessary health products, and on those grounds they should be exempted from the sales tax, as many other items are. The amount of revenue it would cost the state is pocket change in context of the budget. Legalizing marijuana, as Oklahoma has recently done, would generate far more than that to make up for it. Don’t even get me started on the various property tax loopholes and exceptions that could be fixed as well. This is a small thing we can do to make life a little easier for a lot of people. As Ms. McElvy says, it’s a no-brainer.

Where are the endorsements?

As you know, early voting has begun for the May 7 election, which includes two Constitutional amendments and the special election for HCC District 2. As of last night when I drafted this, I see no endorsements in any of these elections on the Chron’s opinion page. Are these elections not worth it to them, or have they just not gotten around to them yet? I sure hope it’s the latter, and that they will rectify that quickly. I don’t know what they’re waiting for.

Seventeen days after that election will be the primary runoffs. A quick check of the Erik Manning spreadsheet confirms for me that in all of the Democratic primary runoffs for which the Chron issued a March endorsement, their preferred candidate is still running. In ballot order:

CD38 – Duncan Klussman
Lt. Governor – Mike Collier
Attorney General – Joe Jaworski
Comptroller – Janet Dudding
Land Commissioner – Jay Kleberg
SBOE4 – Staci Childs
HD147 – Danielle Bess
185th Criminal Court – Judge Jason Luong
208th Criminal Court – Kim McTorry
Commissioners Court Precinct 4 – Lesley Briones

You may or may not agree with these, but those are who the Chron picked. They have no races to revisit among them. They do, however, have three more races to consider, which were among those they skipped in Round One:

312th Family Court – Judge Chip Wells vs Teresa Waldrop
County Civil Court at Law #4 – MK Singh vs Treasea Treviño
Justice of the Peace, Precinct 1 Place 2 – Steve Duble vs Sonia Lopez

The links are to my judicial Q&As for those who submitted responses. You can find all the Q&A and interview links from the primary here. More recently I interviewed Staci Childs and Coretta Mallet-Fontenot in SBOE4; I will have an interview with Janet Dudding on Monday. There’s no need to rush if the Chron wants to circle back to these races they ignored originally – they can wait till after the May 7 election, but not too long since early voting there will begin on May 16. It’s only three runoff races (*), plus those two Constitutional amendments and that one HCC race. C’mon, Chron editorial board, you can do this.

(*) There may be some Republican runoffs for them to revisit as well. I didn’t check and am obviously not as interested. I doubt most Republican runoff voters are either, so whatever. The HD147 special election is between the same two candidates as in the primary runoff, so we can assume the endorsement for one carries over to the other.