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Third Court of Appeals

City victory in water rights lawsuit upheld

Some good news.

A split Texas appeals court ruled Wednesday that a state law that would have stripped Houston of its interest in an unbuilt water reservoir was unconstitutionally retroactive, siding with a lower court that protected the city’s interests.

Two justices on a three justice panel upheld Houston’s 70% interest in water rights at an unbuilt reservoir on Allens Creek, which has suffered numerous setbacks since permits were first issued decades ago to the city and its partner, the Brazos River Authority. The court said that a law passed by the Texas Legislaturein 2019 to transfer the city’s interests to that partner would have impaired the city’s long-term plans related to the water project and that the partner hasn’t shown an overriding public interest in finishing the project that would overcome those concerns.

Just because the city wasn’t acting with urgency to develop the project doesn’t mean the Legislature had shown an overriding interest in upending previously granted rights through the passage of HB 2846, the court said. For instance, while the Legislature was seemingly acting in the public interest when it moved to strip the city of its rights and force a transfer of interest to the BRA, the justices said that decision failed to show how the beleaguered project would necessarily be completed faster since it had already undergone repeated setbacks and was facing years of work before ground could be broken anyway.

[…]

The city described the majority’s decision as a win with bigger implications for municipalities in the Lone Star State and said the ruling allows the city to avoid the forced sale of its “irreplaceable” surface water rights to the BRA without the option to replace the water.

“This a very important victory for Houston and all Texas cities and towns. Fresh water is an irreplaceable resource and the city has for years carefully planned and acquired scarce and very valuable water rights to ensure that the city, its residents and businesses have sufficient water resources to enable the city to grow and prosper in this century and beyond,” Mayor Sylvester Turner said. “House Bill 2846 punished the city’s foresight and endangered Houston’s and all Texas cities’ water supplies and future growth. No city would have been safe had the bill been allowed to withstand constitutional scrutiny. The city will continue to fight to protect the city’s irreplaceable resources.”

The permits for the project were first granted in 2000, when the Legislature gave the project a deadline for construction to begin by 2018. After Houston and the BRA received a $20 million loan to take on the project together, it was hit with numerous setbacks, leading to an extension of that 2018 deadline by the Legislature that gave them until 2025 to finish the project.

When no progress was made by 2019, lawmakers held legislative hearings and ultimately passed HB 2846.

Houston sued that same year, and the district court granted declaratory relief that the law was unconstitutional, void and unenforceable.

A Brazos River Authority spokesperson said it plans to appeal the appeals court decision.

See here and here for the background. The majority opinion is here, the dissent is here, and the case history is here. Not much for me to add except I hope the city wins the next appeal, too.

Whistleblowers respond to Paxton’s appeal brief

That title is a dry way of saying that they basically accused him of lying in his filing to the 3rd Court of Appeals.

Best mugshot ever

A group of former top aides to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reiterated in a court filing this week that they believe Paxton committed crimes while in office, and suggested that Paxton is intentionally mischaracterizing witness testimony in their whistleblower case against him for political reasons.

The aides are taking issue with a brief and a press release issued on June 2 where Paxton’s lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to throw out the case four aides filed against the state’s top lawyer in which they allege he fired them for reporting his alleged illegal behavior to federal and state authorities. Paxton, who has denied the charges, said he fired aides last year because they had gone “rogue” and made “unsubstantiated claims” against him.

Paxton’s lawyer said in June that in a trial court hearing on March 1, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer would not say he specifically saw Paxton commit a crime, but only that he had “potential concerns” about Paxton’s dealings with real estate developer Nate Paul. Paul is a political donor and friend of Paxton who the whistleblowers allege Paxton helped with his legal issues in exchange for personal favors.

Paxton’s lawyers argued that the appeals court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case.

But in a new brief filed on Monday by the whistleblowers’ lawyers, they argue Paxton’s lawyers took the exchange they cited out of context to argue Mateer never saw Paxton commit a crime. They said Mateer’s comment was in response to a specific question about whether any employees raised concerns about Paxton’s behavior in June 2020, three months before former employees reported Paxton’s behavior to law enforcement.

“This claim distorts Mateer’s testimony,” the brief states. “In fact, Mateer testified unequivocally that he believed at the time of Appellees’ FBI report—and still believes today—that Paxton committed crimes, including abuse of office and bribery.” They also point out that Mateer signed a letter on Oct. 1, 2020 that alerted the attorney general’s office that the whistleblowers had reported Paxton’s behavior to the FBI, further proving Mateer believed Paxton had violated the law.

[…]

The whistleblowers’ attorneys say the AG’s office did not accurately explain to the appeals court that Mateer’s potential concerns were specifically in response to a question about Paxton and Paul’s relationship in June 2020.

“OAG took even greater license in its [June] press release, predicting victory because its brief shows that Mateer “swore under oath that Paxton committed no actual crimes,” the lawyers wrote in a footnote in the brief. “Given the … OAG’s mischaracterization of what Mateer ‘swore under oath,’ perhaps this portion of OAG’s brief was written for an audience other than the justices of this Court.”

A lawyer in the case told The Texas Tribune they believed the press release was written for Paxton’s supporters and Texas voters, rather than to make a legal argument.

See here for the previous update. That last paragraph is both shocking and completely on brand. A press release is of course not the same thing as a legal filing, but in general judges tend to take a dim view of lawyers misrepresenting the facts. If what the plaintiffs are saying here is accurate, I would think that the Third Court justices might have some sharp words for Team Paxton. And yes, as noted in the story, that press release came out just before P Bush officially launched his challenge against Paxton. Totally coincidental, I’m sure.

The lawyers asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to consider this appeal without hearing oral arguments. If the court decides to hear arguments, the aides requested it happen as quickly as possible.

The four former aides also laid out in detail in the filing the specific instances where they believe Paxton broke the law.

We’re familiar with the outline of the charges the plaintiffs have made against Paxton, but go ahead and read on if you want to remind yourself. The reasons behind Paxton’s bizarre, corrupt actions are still unclear – one assumes that financial reward was part of it, and if the allegations about Paxton’s affair are true that likely was a factor as well – but there’s no good way to spin them if they happened as alleged. It’s hardly bold to say that Ken Paxton has no integrity, but it’s still appalling to see the things he is said to have done. And if the Third Court agrees that oral arguments aren’t needed, that would be pretty amazing as well.

Paxton appeals to 3rd Court to dismiss whistleblower lawsuit

Next stop on the train.

Best mugshot ever

In an 85-page brief filed Tuesday with the 3rd Court of Appeals, Paxton’s lawyers argue that under state law, a whistleblower must believe someone has broken the law, but the aides only reported that “they expected laws might be violated.” As a result, they argue, the court should overturn a trial court decision denying the Office of the Attorney General’s plea to dismiss because the court doesn’t have the jurisdiction to hear the case. The lawyers have repeatedly argued Paxton cannot be sued under the Whistleblower Act because he is not a public employee.

This appellate brief was made public hours before Texas Land Commissioner George P. Bush is expected to announce at an event that he will run against Paxton for attorney general. Bush has made the allegations of Paxton’s former aides and separate felony securities fraud charges against Paxton a line of attack as he prepares to announce his run.

In particular, the brief states that at a March 1 hearing on the case, one of the whistleblowers who is not a plaintiff in the suit, former First Assistant Attorney General Jeff Mateer, would not specifically state that he saw Paxton commit a crime.

“Instead, he explained he ‘had potential concerns,’ and that he and his colleagues concluded that ‘had they gone down this path, would be in a position to assist and/or cover up with what … would be a crime,’” the brief states.

“… Speculative concerns about potential future illegal activity do not fall within the [Whistleblower] Act’s narrow scope,” it states.

Mateer did not immediately respond to a request for comment. In a statement, Carlos Soltero, the attorney representing appellee David Maxwell, said the four aides are “far from ‘rogue.'”

“They did exactly what Texans would hope their public servants would do,” Soltero said. “They reported corruption to the FBI and the Texas Rangers. Now, after Paxton lost his first appeal, lost at the trial court again, he brings yet another appeal to avoid testifying like he has something to hide.”

[…]

The brief argues the plaintiffs have not provided specific proof of a bribe by Paxton or Paul, but only speculated they “might” have had business dealings.

“None of these allegations of perfectly lawful conduct come close to making out a claim for bribery,” the brief states.

See here for the update. What Paxton is claiming is that these attorneys, his former top assistants, that he fired do not have any grounds to sue him under the Whistleblower Act because they didn’t have proof that he was committing a crime at the time. They only had serious concerns that he was committing a crime, and that’s not good enough. I guess the average news consumer doesn’t have the wherewithal to understand the finer points of the legal arguments being made – in the end, if he wins he’s just going to claim he was being railroaded by a bunch of whiny liberal losers anyway – but if one tries to parse the lawyerese, it sure doesn’t paint him in the most flattering light. This isn’t a full-throated assertion of innocence, it’s a “well, actually, you can’t prove any of that, so I win”. You play the hand you’re dealt, I suppose. We’ll see what the Third Court makes of it.

Senate approves pointless appeals court

There’s more than one way to attack Democratic appellate court justices.

Sen. Joan Huffman

The Texas Senate passed a bill Wednesday to create a new statewide court of appeals that would hear cases that have statewide significance — including ones that challenge state laws, the constitution or when the state or its agencies are sued.

Currently, when such cases go to the intermediate appellate level, they are mostly heard by the 3rd Court of Appeals based in Austin. That court’s judges are elected by voters in Democratic-leaning Travis County. Senate Bill 1529, though, would send the cases to the new appellate court whose judges would be elected by voters statewide — an electorate that skews Republican.

Some of the state’s highest profile cases could be affected by this proposed court. Bill author Sen. Joan Huffman, R-Houston, said that recent lawsuits surrounding Gov. Greg Abbott’s pandemic emergency orders are examples of types of litigation the proposed court would have jurisdiction over.

Critics say the proposed new court is a Republican attempt to yank jurisdiction of these cases from Democrats.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals has five Democrats and only one Republican. Currently, all statewide elected judges are Republican, including on the Texas Supreme Court — and it’s likely the proposed court would also be all Republican.

“Since the [3rd Court of Appeals] deals with issues facing state government, it’s a thorn in the Republican Party side,” Mark P. Jones, a political science fellow at Rice University, said in an interview. “And so by transitioning that by moving that to a statewide election where Republicans have the advantage, they would be able to, most likely, flip from being a Democratic majority… to a [5-0] Republican advantage.”

Huffman maintains that she wrote the bill to promote consistency — not for partisan reasons.

“The new court has five justices elected statewide so that all Texans have a voice in electing those who decide cases of statewide significance,” she said from the Senate floor Tuesday. “It’s important for judges deciding cases of statewide importance to be familiar with specialized jurisprudence to provide consistent rulings for state litigants.”

[…]

Democrats on Tuesday raised constitutional concerns related to this bill, asking if the Legislature has the authority to create an appellate court with statewide jurisdiction, overlapping the current district system. Huffman maintains that it does.

“We’ll have to see you in court on this one,” Sen. Nathan Johnson, D-Dallas, said.

Darlene Byrne, chief justice on the 3rd Court of Appeals and a Democrat, said in an interview she thinks the bill is “bad policy and bad for statewide jurisprudence.”

Byrne also said the new structure would promote large campaigns.

“I don’t know of a Supreme Court race that costs less than a million dollars per candidate,” she said. “So this new statewide court is going to be mega-big donors infusing big money to influence the judiciary. And I thought we were trying to get away from that — but apparently not.”

Linda Thomas, a former Republican chief justice of the Texas Fifth District Court of Appeals, said she believed the bill was unnecessary.

“As a retired judge, I think it’s a little disingenuous, and in some ways, insulting to the sitting justices of this state to indicate that they are not capable of handling complex business cases,” Thomas said.

I noted this in passing in my initial post about appellate court redistricting, the bill for which has since been withdrawn for the time being. I tend to agree with Justice Thomas, and I also think that insult was a feature and not a bug. Sen. Huffman’s justification for this new court is ridiculous on its face, because all of the lawsuits in question start out in a district court, with a judge that was elected by local voters in far lesser numbers than for appellate court justices. That’s not exactly conducive to “consistent rulings for state litigants”. Why not go whole hog and create an entirely separate court system for “cases of statewide importance” (whatever that means, and I’ll bet that very topic becomes a contentious point of appeals in itself) so as to avoid local yokel judges making insufficiently erudite rulings? One could argue that Sen. Huffman is actually making a back-handed case for ending the election of judges in the first place. At least that would be a more honest approach to this.

I have no idea what the prospects are for this in the House, but I do feel confident that there will be litigation if and when this does pass. That lawsuit would eventually come before a district court of appeals, as one presumes it would be halted from taking effect pending the litigation, before ultimately being decided by the Supreme Court. I’ll leave it to you to sort out where that all lands on the Irony-o-Meter.

Appellate court redistricting bill withdrawn

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

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

(more…)

Let’s get rid of Democratic appellate court justices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Twitter thread from Dylan Drummond gives you the data:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One more thing:

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

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

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

HISD Board wins again in court

They’re still a thing, and Mike Morath can’t do anything about it right now.

The Houston ISD school board earned another win Friday in its effort to stave off Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plan to replace it with an appointed board, this time prevailing in a procedural battle before the state Supreme Court.

In an 8-1 decision, the Texas Supreme Court ruled that a state appellate court had the legal right to temporarily halt Morath’s move to oust HISD’s school board amid an ongoing lawsuit.

The ruling is not final victory for HISD in its fight with Morath. It merely means that the education commissioner cannot immediately move to replace trustees with a board of managers, which could vote to drop the lawsuit. The HISD board’s case remains pending, with an appeal related to the central issues of the case pending before the Texas Supreme Court.

Lawyers representing Morath and the Texas Education Agency argued that a state law precluded the courts from stopping state administrative actions — such as stripping power from school board members and appointing replacements — even if a trial court issues a temporary injunction. A Travis County judge overseeing HISD’s lawsuit issued such an injunction in January 2020.

An appellate court partially agreed with the TEA’s position, but the judges also found that they separately had the power to halt an administrative action under the state’s rules of appellate procedure, which they did in HISD’s case.

Lawyers for Morath and TEA disagreed and asked the state Supreme Court to overturn that finding, but the eight justices sided with the lower court.

See here and here for the background. This is a procedural ruling, which just means that the TEA does not get to take over HISD while the appeal of the ruling that said that the TEA did not properly follow the law while attempting to do the takeover is being litigated. HISD still has to win that appeal, and then have that upheld by the Supreme Court, to get out of the current situation. In the meantime, there’s the Harold Dutton bill that would make all of this moot, though it too would surely be subject to a lawsuit. I dunno, maybe the TEA should try to negotiate a settlement of some kind if they lose again, so we can all get on with our lives? Just a thought.

Paxton whistleblower lawsuit can proceed

First step in a long road.

Best mugshot ever

The 3rd Court of Appeals on Friday denied a petition from Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office to stop a trial court hearing in a suit filed by whistleblowers who claim they were wrongfully terminated after reporting Paxton to law enforcement for alleged bribery and other public corruption.

Attorneys for the office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but they are likely to appeal the decision to the Texas Supreme Court.

“We were pleased, but not surprised, by the 3rd Court’s ruling,” said Carlos Soltero, who represents David Maxwell, the agency’s former director of law enforcement who was fired in November. “This brings us closer to being able to move forward and present our case on the merits, which we are looking forward to doing.”

[…]

A Travis County trial court on March 1 heard a motion by Paxton’s attorneys to dismiss the case. When the judge left the issue under advisement and continued on to entertain an injunction hearing in the case, Paxton’s attorneys appealed, arguing she needed to first rule on the motion to dismiss before proceeding. The appellate court temporarily stayed all further action in the case; the stay was lifted with Friday’s order.

We know about the whistleblower lawsuit. Paxton’s response to the charges against him are that the Office of the Attorney General is not subject to the state’s whistleblower laws and thus this lawsuit is moot and should be dismissed. Travis County judge Amy Clark Meachum denied the motion to dismiss the lawsuit on March 1, and when she attempted to proceed to the next phase of the suit, which involved hearing from the plaintiffs, Paxton’s lawyers objected:

Bill Helfand, an outside lawyer hired to represent the agency in the whistleblower case, argued that the motion to dismiss raised questions about the appropriateness of the lawsuit that needed to be addressed before any other matters could be considered.

Meachum noted that she had made no ruling that could be appealed, but Helfand insisted that “diving into the substantive issues” of the case was no different from issuing a ruling denying the motion to dismiss, allowing him to file an appeal that should have ended matters until the 3rd Court of Appeals could rule.

Meachum disagreed and opened the second hearing, where for the first time a court heard from two of those who accused Paxton of misconduct.

The first was Jeff Mateer, the former second-ranking executive at the attorney general’s office who resigned Oct. 2, two days after joining six other top executives in telling FBI agents that he believed Paxton was misusing the powers of his office to help Austin businessman Nate Paul.

Mateer, a lawyer, said he stood by his accusations against Paxton, but when he was asked to discuss them, he was interrupted by repeated objections from Helfand, who said providing details would violate attorney-client privilege and get into internal office deliberations that could not be discussed in court.

Mateer also testified that the two executives who want to be reinstated to their jobs — David Maxwell, former director of the agency’s Law Enforcement Division, and Ryan Vassar, former deputy attorney general for legal counsel — had performed their jobs well when he ran the office.

The court also heard from Vassar, who was fired in November and testified that he had received no criticism of his job performance or reprimands before speaking to FBI agents last year. Vassar was in the early stages of his testimony and was set to resume Tuesday morning.

The Third Court of Appeals initially ruled for Paxton and halted any further testimony until it issued a decision. This was the decision, which will now be appealed to the Supreme Court. Remember how every little thing in the securities fraud case against Paxton got appealed all the way up to the Court of Criminal Appeals before anything could be done, which is why that case is more than five years old now? Yeah, that’s the likely situation here as well. The FBI can’t arrest his ass fast enough.

Dutton files bill to enable HISD takeover

Whatever else you may say, this is true to his beliefs.

Rep. Harold Dutton

Texas House Public Education Chairman Harold Dutton Jr. filed a bill Tuesday that, if it passes and withstands any legal challenge, would virtually guarantee the ouster of Houston ISD’s school board.

The Houston Democrat’s bill aims to clear the way for Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath to strip power from all nine elected HISD trustees and replace them with a state-appointed board — an effort mired in an ongoing legal battle that has stretched more than a year.

[…]

Dutton’s bill seeks to remedy each issue raised by the Third Court of Appeals, while also explicitly stating that Morath’s decisions on school district sanctions cannot be litigated in courts.

Some parts of the bill would apply retroactively or punish HISD for past performance — which could prompt legal challenges.

For example, the bill states that Texas’ education commissioner must replace the school board in any district with a campus that has not received a passing grade under the state’s academic accountability system since 2010-11 and received more than five failing grades during that time. HISD’s Wheatley High meets that criteria.

“I don’t know if they can do that or not, but it certainly leads to an argument that it’s retroactive legislation,” said Kevin O’Hanlon, a lawyer representing HISD in its lawsuit against Morath.

See here for the last update on the takeover litigation. As noted, the issues that the court ruled on were that the TEA did not follow the law correctly in its takeover bid. I’ve no idea if Rep. Dutton’s retroactive fix will remedy that, but I feel confident we’ll find out if it gets that far. As noted, the original bill that led to the HISD takeover was a Dutton bill, as he has been a longtime critic of HISD for the poor performance of schools in hid district (including Wheatley) and others in predominantly black neighborhoods. It was very much an issue in his 2020 primary race, and I have no doubt it will arise again in 2022.

At least one of Rep. Dutton’s colleagues is not with him on this:

Rep. Wu notes that the TEA could simply take over Wheatley if they wanted to, as it is the sole school that is causing HISD to trigger the takeover law, but that is not what they chose. I have no idea if this bill will make it through, but Dutton is the Chair of the House Public Education Committee, so it will certainly get a hearing.

TEA appeals HISD takeover ruling to Supreme Court

One way or the other, this should get a resolution.

Lawyers representing the Texas Education Agency filed an appeal Wednesday asking the state Supreme Court to overturn a temporary injunction that has slowed Education Commissioner Mike Morath’s plans to strip power from all nine Houston ISD school board members.

The filing comes nearly two months after the Third District Court of Appeals, in a 2-1 decision, ruled that Morath did not follow laws and procedures that would give him the authority to temporarily replace HISD’s school board with a state-appointed board.

TEA pledged in late December 2020 to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. If the state’s highest court overturns the injunction, TEA leaders could install a new board that could vote to end HISD’s lawsuit.

[…]

In their filing Wednesday, state lawyers representing the state argued the Third District Court of Appeals erred in its interpretation of laws and regulations on all three fronts. The lawyers also claimed HISD should not be able to sue the state over an administrative matter.

“This case is of immediate importance to HISD students,” Assistant Solicitor General Kyle Highful wrote in the appeal. “And the court of appeals’ misinterpretations of the law endanger TEA’s future efforts to assist failing schools.”

Each of the three issues considered by the Third District Court of Appeals largely fell along technical lines.

See here for the previous update. The ruling in favor of HISD was bipartisan, so this isn’t an R-versus-D issue in the way some other recent lawsuits have been. No idea how long this may take, so just keep on keeping on until we know more.

Appellate court redistricting

We’ll need to keep an eye on this.

Justice Bonnie Sudderth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

That plan proposes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SCOTx allows Inforwars lawsuits to proceed

Good.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday rejected, without comment, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’ attempt to toss out four defamation lawsuits by parents of children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012.

The parents sued in Travis County, where Jones and his InfoWars website are based, arguing that they were defamed and suffered emotional distress after InfoWars broadcasts disputed the authenticity of the school shooting and the news coverage that followed.

Twenty young children and six adults died in the mass shooting at the Sandy Hook school in Newtown, Connecticut.

Friday’s action by the Supreme Court upheld rulings by two lower courts that had allowed the lawsuits to continue.

The state’s highest civil court also gave the green light to another defamation lawsuit against InfoWars and reporter Kit Daniels by a man mistakenly identified as a suspect in the 2018 shooting at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

[…]

Friday’s announcement by the Supreme Court noted that two members, Justices Jeff Boyd and John Devine, would have granted Jones’ petition for review in the Pozner lawsuit, but the court order provided no reasons for their dissent.

In briefs to the Supreme Court, lawyers for Jones argued that the InfoWars host was engaging in protected speech because he was addressing matters of public concern.

“The pursuit of so-called ‘conspiracy theories’ concerning controversial government activities has been a part and parcel of American political discourse since our Founding, and it is protected by the First Amendment,” they told the court in a brief for the Pozner and De La Rosa case.

Jones also argued that state libel laws required any harmful speech to be directed at specific family members, but the Sandy Hook families were not named in three InfoWars reports in 2017.

But a lawyer for the Sandy Hook families argued that Jones didn’t merely say the school shooting was staged by the government, he also generally accused family members of being actors to help sell a supposed coverup and exploit the event to attack gun rights.

As a result, Jones and InfoWars accused family members of collusion in a hoax “relating to the murder of their son … for nefarious purposes,” lawyer Mark Bankston told the court.

Jones also was reckless in publishing information that was so improbable that no reasonable publisher would have done likewise without substantial confirmation, Bankston argued.

“Mr. Jones’ fantasy about a shadowy government conspiracy to murder first-graders and then exploit the event with the help of the media and actors is the very definition of ‘improbable,'” he wrote.

The lawsuits are by the parents of two of the children that were murdered at Sandy Hook. You never know what can happen, but Jones’ record in defending himself so far isn’t great – he not only lost at the Third Court of Appeals earlier in the year, he was ordered to pay court costs for the frivolity of his appeal. He deserves to lose and to have the full weight of the consequences of his actions come down on him. Law and Crime has more.

HISD Superintendent search is back on

For now, anyway.

Houston ISD trustees kicked off their long-delayed search for a permanent leader Monday, choosing three superintendent search firms to interview later this week.

The initial move comes as the state’s largest district seeks to fill a position that Interim Superintendent Grenita Lathan has held since March 2018, when Richard Carranza abruptly left to lead New York City public schools. HISD’s search has been delayed because of the looming threat of state sanctions, a state order that temporarily halted the first search and lingering uncertainty about the trustees’ ability to hire a quality candidate, among other issues.

Trustees are scheduled to reconvene Wednesday and possibly Thursday to select from the three firms: Austin-based JG Consulting; Illinois-based Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates; and Nebraska-based McPherson & Jacobson. Board members opted against interviewing GR Recruiting and the Texas Association of School Boards’ Executive Search Services.

“I prefer to interview three and give those three more time with us,” Trustee Dani Hernandez said.

HISD trustees have not released a proposed timeline for completing the search. School boards typically take multiple months to choose a lone finalist.

As the story notes, the previous search was halted by conservator Doris Delaney, who cited the investigation into allegations that five HISD Trustees had violated the Open Meetings Act when they voted to bring back Abe Saavedra as interim Superintendent and force out Grenita Lathan. The recent Third Court of Appeals ruling that affirmed an injunction against the TEA takeover stated that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures in conducting that investigation, which sort of brings us full circle.

The injunction did not explicitly say HISD trustees could resume the superintendent search, leading to uncertainty about the board’s authority. However, trustees are interpreting the injunction as giving them the power to restart their search, and TEA officials have not moved to halt the effort.

“Because of the turmoil, it’s been hard to know what has been the long-term vision (for HISD),” Trustee Holly Maria Flynn Vilaseca said in November. “This process will help provide space to hear that, as well as the vision of others, as we do what’s best for kids.”

The potential for a bigger mess if the Supreme Court overturns the lower court rulings is very present, but one way or the other, the district deserves the opportunity to hire a new leader. Let’s just hope this results in less chaos and not more.

TEA still barred from taking over HISD

Still in a state of limbo.

Texas is still temporarily barred from taking over Houston Independent School District, a state appellate court ruled Wednesday, upholding a lower court’s order.

In a 2-1 ruling, the Texas Third Court of Appeals upheld a temporary injunction that stops the Texas Education Agency from replacing the elected school board of its largest district with an appointed board of managers. The appeals court ruling sends the case back to the lower court that in January blocked the state’s takeover effort.

The appellate judges said Houston ISD had a “probable right to relief” since the TEA did not follow proper procedure and acted outside its authority as it moved to sanction the district. It also ordered the state to “pay all costs related to this appeal.”

The TEA plans to appeal the ruling to the Texas Supreme Court. “While the Agency is disappointed with the split ruling from the 3rd Court of Appeals, this is only a temporary setback,” the agency said in a statement. “We are confident that the Texas Supreme Court will uphold the Commissioner’s legally-authorized actions to improve the educational outcomes for the 200,000-plus public school students of Houston.”

[…]

[T]he appellate court’s ruling Wednesday said Texas’ “proposed actions are not authorized by the Education Code.” The opinion stated that the state did not have the right to appoint a conservator to oversee the entire school district in 2019, force Houston ISD to suspend its search for a new superintendent, or impose sanctions based on an investigation, among other things.

The opinion was written by Judge Gisela Triana, who was joined by Judge Jeff Rose in the ruling. In a dissenting opinion, Judge Thomas Baker wrote that Texas is authorized to take over Houston ISD, the injunction should be removed and the district’s claims should be dismissed.

See here and here for the background, and here for a copy of the opinion. The Chron story goes into the opinion in some more detail.

To start, HISD’s lawyers argued Wheatley High School did not trigger a state law requiring the school’s closure or the board’s ouster after the Fifth Ward campus received its seventh straight failing grade in 2019. While the law is intended to punish districts with campuses receiving failing grades in multiple consecutive years, the justices found that the TEA failed to take a technical step — ordering HISD to submit a campus turnaround plan for Wheatley — that it says was required under the statute.

The two justices also ruled that the TEA incorrectly interpreted a state law that says Morath can replace the school board in any district that has had a state-appointed conservator for more than two years.

State officials appointed conservator Doris Delaney to oversee long-struggling Kashmere High School in 2016, then clarified that her authority extended to district-level support in 2019. TEA officials argued Delaney’s presence since 2016 met the criteria for triggering the state law, but the two justices ruled that only her time as a district-level conservator counted toward the two-year requirement, which thus hasn’t yet been met.

Finally, the two justices found that TEA officials failed to follow their own procedures related to a special accreditation investigation, which Morath cited as a third reason for replacing HISD’s board.

For what it’s worth, the “affirm” opinion came from a Democratic justice (Triana) and a Republican justice (Rose), while it was a Democratic justice (Baker) who voted to overturn the district court opinion. I don’t know when this might be resolved – the appeal to the Supreme Court is of the injunction, while the case itself was sent back to the district court – but until there is a final ruling that says the TEA can install its Board of Managers, I’m going to operate on the assumption that there will be HISD Trustee elections this year. I guess there would be regardless, but at least for now those elections mean a bit more, since the Board of Trustees is still running things. The Press has more.

Followup omnibus Election Day post

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll have more thoughts tomorrow.

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

SCOTX upholds Abbott’s limit on mail ballot dropoff locations

I’m shocked, I tell you, shocked.

In what’s expected to be the final ruling on the matter, the Texas Supreme Court has upheld Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting Texas counties to only one drop-off location for voters to hand deliver their absentee ballots during the pandemic.

The ruling, issued Tuesday by the all-Republican court, is the final outcome in one of a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts that challenged Abbott’s order from early this month. A federal appeals court also sided with the Republican governor in an earlier ruling, overturning a lower court’s decision.

The state lawsuit argued that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot hand-delivery locations, and that his order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution. The suit was filed in Travis County by a Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, a voting rights advocacy group and a voter.

In their opinion, the justices wrote that Abbott’s order “provides Texas voters more ways to vote in the November 3 election than does the Election Code. It does not disenfranchise anyone.”

See here for the previous update. In a narrow and technical sense, the Supreme Court is correct. Abbott did in fact expand voting options with his original order, which not only added that extra week to early voting but also allowed for mail ballots to be dropped off during the early voting period. State law only allows for that on Election Day, one of many problems that will need a legislative fix in the near future. But we all know that the purpose of his amended order, more than two months after Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins had announced his plan to have dropoff locations at all 12 County Clerk offices, and several days after people began using those locations, was to issue a rebuke to Hollins for having the nerve to innovate like that, and to throw a bone to the howling nihilists in his own party that were attacking him for taking any step to make voting easier. The limit served no legitimate purpose, and was done in haste and with politics in mind. It is what it is at this point, and as with every other ad hoc obstacle thrown in our path, the voters have adjusted. We’ll be coming for you soon, Greg. The Chron has more.

Try not to get sick before Election Day

If you suffer a late illness that prevents you from getting to a polling place, you will need a doctor’s note to get an absentee ballot.

Texas voters who get sick shortly before Election Day and can’t go to the polls will still need a doctor’s note before they can get an emergency absentee ballot, a state appeals court ruled Friday.

Voting rights group MOVE Texas will not appeal the temporary ruling further. Instead, as a fallback, the group has established a free telehealth service with volunteer physicians to provide the necessary documentation for sick voters seeking absentee ballots starting Saturday, the executive director said.

The Texas 3rd Court of Appeals’ ruling, overriding a state district court order, said implementing the lower court’s ruling “would change the longstanding requirements governing late mail-in ballots and risk voter confusion.” The case will still be reviewed further after the election.

MOVE Texas first challenged existing election law in a Travis County court after reports this summer detailed voters who tested positive for the coronavirus in the days before the primary runoff election struggling to cast ballots.

Unlike applications for absentee ballots received before the general deadline, which was Friday, Texas law dictates that voters submitting applications for emergency absentee ballots must provide certification from a doctor that the voter has developed an illness that would keep them from being able to vote in person.

In the July primary runoffs, two Austin voters tested positive for the new coronavirus and were put under self-quarantine orders shortly after the cutoff date for mail-in ballot applications. They asked a Travis County district judge to waive the requirement for a doctor’s note but lost their case.

On Oct. 2, MOVE Texas filed a challenge in court, arguing that the state’s criteria for applying for emergency absentee ballots is unconstitutional and imposes an undue burden on the right to vote. Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak agreed, ruling against the requirement for a doctor’s note last week.

[…]

Preparing for the loss in the 3rd Court of Appeals, Galloway said the group designed a fallback program to connect sick voters to volunteer physicians who will meet via videoconference.

“It’s completely up to the physician if they want to issue the waiver or not,” Galloway said. “If so, they can do it digitally. That voter is then set and it’s at no cost to them to be able to complete the application and turn it into the elections department.”

Probably for the best at this point. I remember the earlier story, but if I blogged about it at the time, I can’t find the post.

Let’s be clear about three things. One, this is likely to affect a tiny, tiny number of people. The set of circumstances under which someone would be affected by this are super specific. It’s always worth worrying about anyone who faces obstacles to voting, but you can probably count the number of these people on your fingers. That said, if you haven’t voted yet, you could be a person affected by this.

Two, the main reason for all of this is our state’s restrictive laws for voting by mail. In a world where getting a mail ballot is easy – or even the default – problems like this go away. This specific situation could have been addressed by the court, but the big picture needs to be handled by the Legislature.

Finally, this is the argument for voting at your first opportunity. Life is uncertain. I get wanting to vote on Election Day, out of a sense of tradition or because you want to make sure that nothing comes up that might change your mind in a given race, or because a voting location that has meaning for you is only available on Election Day. The risk you take is that the longer you take, the greater the chances that something could come up that will complicate your ability to vote. I’m a committed early voter, and have been for years. Your mileage may vary. Just be aware of the tradeoffs.

SCOTX reinstates Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff location limit

They can move fast when they want to, that’s for sure.

Gov. Greg Abbott’s controversial order to limit Texas counties to one mail-ballot drop-off site was allowed to remain in effect Saturday by the Texas Supreme Court.

The court blocked a previous appellate court ruling that had briefly struck down Abbott’s order, which was widely decried by voting rights groups as a voter-suppression tactic. The lawsuit to overturn Abbott’s order is still pending.

In Harris County, more than 1 million voters have cast ballots during early voting, shattering previous records. Multiple drop-off sites had been set up for voters until Abbott issued his order, which he said would “stop attempts at illegal voting.”

State District Judge Tim Sulak had previously ruled that Abbott’s order would “needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections” and undermine the constitutionally protected rights of residents to vote, “as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things.”

Less than 24 hours after the Third Court of Appeals reinstated the district court ruling that had halted Abbott’s order. Clearly, SCOTX does not have a “we close at 5” mentality. It should be noted that this is not the end of the line. From the Statesman:

Acting soon after receiving an emergency appeal on Gov. Greg Abbott’s behalf, the Texas Supreme Court issued an order Saturday that temporarily barred counties from opening more than one drop-off site for mail-in ballots.

The court order keeps in place Abbott’s 3½-week-old proclamation that barred multiple drop-off locations that had opened in several counties, including Travis County, until the Supreme Court can determine the legality of Abbott’s limit.

With an eye on the fast-approaching Nov. 3 election, the court also set tight deadlines, requiring legal briefs in the case to be filed before 5 p.m. Monday.

A ruling could come as soon as Monday night, though the Supreme Court gave no indication when it might act.

In theory, SCOTX could issue a ruling on the appeal on Tuesday or Wednesday, and we could get a few days of having multiple dropoff locations if the lower court order is upheld. Not great, but better than nothing. I think the odds of that happening are pretty slim, but it’s possible, and this is the best case scenario. At least you know what to hope for.

In practical terms, this means very little at this point. Very few people had ever used mail ballot dropoffs before. Existing law only allows for them to be used on Election Day – Abbott’s executive order extended that to all of early voting, which is an improvement even if his subsequent order limits it to a significant degree. Voting by mail is limited to begin with, and the vast majority of that small universe mailed their ballots in. Allowing people to drop them off at one of twelve locations instead of just one was an innovation, one of many that County Clerk Chris Hollins pioneered, and it was a welcome one in this year of COVID chaos, but losing it is more of an inconvenience than an impediment.

All that said, there is zero justification for Abbott’s order. People who wanted to drop off their mail ballots still had to go to an official County Clerk location, hand their ballot to an election judge, and show ID to have their ballot accepted. Fears of “fraud” and professions of “protecting election integrity” are empty shibboleths, the “thoughts and prayers” of vote suppression. Abbott imposed this limit as a sop to the extremists in his party who were already mad at him for adding an extra week to early voting. Hollins’ innovation made voting easier and more convenient. Abbott’s order made it harder and less convenient. That’s all there is to it.

I’ve said this before, but I firmly believe that a large majority of people like easier and more convenient voting, and support efforts to make it happen. There are lots of things the Democrats should un on in 2022. To me, this needs to be one of the big criticisms of Abbott – and Dan Patrick, and Ken Paxton, and every single member of the Supreme Court – in that election. Being on the side of “easier and more convenient” is the side to be on.

Abbott’s order limiting mail ballot dropoff sites blocked again

But that’s not the end of the story, so hang on.

A Texas appellate court on Friday stepped in to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order limiting counties to just one mail-ballot dropoff site, but Harris County officials said they will wait until the case is resolved before reopening any additional sites.

A three-judge panel of the Third Court of Appeals in Austin ruled that there was “no reversible error” in a lower court’s ruling that put a hold on Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

The Attorney General’s office said Friday that it planned to immediately appeal to the Texas Supreme Court.

The Republican governor had taken aim at Harris, Travis, Fort Bend and Dallas counties — all of which had either opened multiple dropoff sites or planned to do so in an effort to make mail-in voting more convenient and safer during the pandemic.

Abbott’s order, which triggered the back-and-forth legal battles, meant Harris County had to shut down 11 additional dropoff sites, adding to crowds at the main site at NRG Arena, just southwest of downtown Houston.

The appellate panel consisted of Republican Justice Melissa Goodwin and Democratic Justices Chari Kelly and Edward Smith; the latter two were elected in 2018 as part of a wave of 19 Democratic judicial wins that flipped the four major state appeals courts.

“We’re gratified that a bipartisan panel of the Third Court of Appeals agrees that Texans should have the right to return their absentee ballots easily and safely,” said Mark Toubin, regional director for the Anti Defamation-League Southwest, one of the groups that brought the suit.

See here for the background. Statesman reporter Chuck Lindell had tweeted yesterday morning that all the briefs had been filed, and a ruling was expected. Here’s more from his story.

The unsigned opinion by three justices on the 3rd Court — Democrats Chari Kelly and Edward Smith and Republican Melissa Goodwin — did not weigh the legality or constitutionality of Abbott’s order.

Instead, the panel determined that Sulak’s injunction should not be struck down because the judge did not abuse his discretion by issuing it.

“The trial court could have credited the evidence that decreasing the number of return locations leading up to election day would significantly increase congestion and wait times … which in turn would increase the risk of the voters utilizing this method of contracting COVID-19,” the panel said.

Friday afternoon, Paxton’s office told the all-Republican Texas Supreme Court to expect an appeal to be filed over the weekend.

You can see the opinion here. This is a nice ruling, and a bipartisan one, but as of today it means little because Harris County will not open any other dropoff locations until and unless the Supreme Court upholds the injunction. In practical terms, if this takes another week, it won’t mean much regardless. But maybe we’ll get a quicker ruling than that, you never know. The Trib has more.

State judge halts Abbott’s mail ballot dropoff limit order

Remember there was a state lawsuit over the executive order that limited counties to one mail ballot dropoff location? That suit had a hearing this week, and the plaintiffs prevailed. For now, at least.

A Travis County state district judge on Thursday ordered a halt to Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive limiting Texas counties to one drop-off location for hand delivery of absentee ballots. The ruling is the latest turn in a handful of lawsuits in state and federal courts challenging Abbott’s Oct. 1 order, which shut down multiple ballot drop-off locations in Harris and Travis counties..

On Monday, a federal appeals court upheld the Republican governor’s order under federal law, overturning a lower court’s ruling. The Travis County decision, however, applies to potential violations of state law.

A Texas-based Anti-Defamation League, voting rights advocacy group and a voter filed the lawsuit in Travis County district court last week arguing that the governor doesn’t have authority under state law to limit absentee ballot delivery locations. The lawsuit also claimed Abbott’s order violates voters’ equal protection rights under the state constitution.

In a short order Thursday, Travis County District Judge Tim Sulak ruled against Abbott and the Texas secretary of state.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

It’s unclear if and when additional mail-in ballot drop-off locations might be re-opened. Travis County had four drop-off locations before the Oct. 1 order, and Harris County had a dozen in place. But the decision is expected to quickly be appealed to a higher state court.

See here for more about the state lawsuit, which as we had heard was scheduled for a hearing this week. The Statesman has some more details.

In a letter sent Thursday afternoon, state District Judge Tim Sulak, who presided over a hearing in the matter on Tuesday, told lawyers that he will issue a temporary injunction against Abbott’s Oct. 1 order.

“The limitation to a single drop-off location for mail ballots would likely needlessly and unreasonably increase risks of exposure to COVID-19 infections, and needlessly and unreasonably substantially burden potential voters’ constitutionally protected rights to vote, as a consequence of increased travel and delays, among other things,” Sulak wrote.

As the Chronicle notes, this ruling is (very likely) stayed for the time being:

Paxton said his appeal in the case means an automatic stay of Sulak’s decision. The constitutionality of that part of the Texas Rule of Appellate Procedure, which allows governmental bodies’ appeals to supersede lower court orders, is being questioned in a case currently before the Texas Supreme Court.

Plaintiffs did not immediately respond to requests for comment on whether they agree with Paxton’s interpretation.

Remember a million years ago when the Libertarian/Green challenge to filing fees was still in effect despite the lower court ruling because of superseding? That’s the principle here. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to explain if it should be the principle here or not, but that’s where it’s at. The question now is, how quickly does this get to SCOTX? It seems likely to me that the ruling would be upheld by the Third Court of Appeals, but we all know where this is headed. It’s just a matter of when. So offer a halfhearted cheer for now, but keep your expectations in check until it’s all over.

A matter of timing

That’s the stated reason why SCOTX overturned the earlier decision that booted three Green Party candidates off the ballot.

The Texas Supreme Court in a new opinion Friday explained its decision to reinstate to the November ballot Green Party candidates who did not pay their filing fees, saying lower courts denied them the chance to resolve the issue while there was still time under the law.

[…]

Justices acknowledged the strain that adding last-minute candidates may put on county elections officials, who were just days away from sending out their first rounds of ballots before the court’s order was announced on Tuesday. The high court did not publish its opinion in the matter until Friday.

“We recognize that changes to the ballot at this late point in the process will require extra time and resources to be expended by our local election officials,” the opinion read. “But a candidate’s access to the ballot is an important value to our democracy.”

[…]

In the unsigned opinion handed down Friday, justices said Democrats challenging the validity of Green Party candidates failed to prove that the election law requires party chairs to declare candidates ineligible when they don’t pay filing fees, and that the 2019 law doesn’t include a deadline for paying them.

Justices also say the Third Court of Appeals should have given Green Party candidates a chance to pay their fees before declaring ineligible and tossed from the ballot.

See here and here for the background. The opinion is here, and Michael Hurta continues his Twitter thread on this here, with some replies from me at the end. We’re going to need to delve into the opinion, because it’s more nuanced than what this story gives, and also clarifies something else that I hadn’t realized I was confused about.

First, in stating that RRC candidate Chrysta Castañeda “failed to prove the Election Code clearly spelled out the duty of the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible for their failure to pay the filing fee”, SCOTX clears up something from the legal challenge to the filing fees that I had missed.

The court explained that section 141.041 does not set a deadline for compliance but that the requirements apply only to the candidates actually nominated at a party’s nominating convention generally held in March or April of the election year. Id. at ___. Candidates who intend to seek a nomination at a convention must file a notarized application in December before the convention. Id. at ___ (citing TEX. ELEC. CODE §§ 141.031, 172.023(a), 181.031–.033). The advisory, by requiring payment of the filing fee before the nominating convention, expanded the requirements in 141.041 from all nominated candidates to all candidates seeking nomination. Id. at ___. The court ultimately held that payment of the filing fee under section 141.041 was still required, but the court affirmed the trial court’s order temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees on the grounds that the nominees did not pay a filing fee at the time of filing. Id. at ___.

We agree with the Fourteenth Court of Appeals that under section 141.041 only a convention-nominated candidate is required to pay the filing fee. See TEX. ELEC. CODE §141.041(a) (“[A] candidate who is nominated by convention . . . must pay a filing fee . . . .”). Therefore, we also agree that the Secretary of State’s advisory requiring payment of the filing fee at the time of filing an application is not required by, and indeed conflicts with, the Election Code. See id. Section 141.041 does not include a deadline for compliance, but as we explained in In re Francis, when an Election Code provision does not provide explicit guidance, we apply a presumption against removing parties from the ballot. 186 S.W.3d at 542.

I had not understood the distinction between mandating that all candidates who compete for the nomination must pay the fee and just mandating that the candidates who actually receive the nomination must pay it. I’m fine with that. The key to the decision here is the question about deadlines, and how much time the Green Party and its candidates were supposed to have to fix their failure to pay these fees (which as we know they claim are unconstitutional).

Castañeda presented a public record to the co-chairs showing that as of August 17, the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee. As previously noted, section 141.041 requires the filing fee but contains no deadline for its payment, see TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041, and the only potential applicable deadline in the Secretary of State’s election advisory conflicts with that provision. Hughs, ___ S.W.3d at ___. Strictly construing these sections against ineligibility, we disagree that the public document demonstrating that the Green Party candidates had not paid the filing fee as of August 17 conclusively established that they were ineligible. To be “eligible to be placed on the ballot,” the Green Party Candidates were required to pay the filing fee or file signature petitions. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041 (emphasis added). The co-chairs did not have a ministerial statutory duty to declare the candidates ineligible, as the law did not clearly spell out their duty on August 17 when the candidates had not yet paid the filing fee such that nothing was left to the exercise of their discretion. See In re Williams, 470 S.W.3d at 821.

The court of appeals ordered the co-chairs to declare the Green Party candidates ineligible and take necessary steps to ensure their names did not appear on the ballot. ___ S.W.3d at ___. But the court did not address a deadline for payment, nor did it otherwise allow for payment of the fee. And under In re Francis, an opportunity to cure should be provided when a candidate could still comply with Election Code requirements. 186 S.W.3d at 541–42 (noting that an opportunity to cure complies with the purposes of the Election Code and avoids potential constitutional problems that “might be implicated if access to the ballot was unnecessarily restricted”). “The public interest is best served when public offices are decided by fair and vigorous elections, not technicalities leading to default.” Id. at 542. In the absence of recognizing a deadline for paying the filing fee or giving the candidates an opportunity to comply, the court of appeals erred in ordering the Green Party candidates removed from the ballot on August 19.

Emphasis in the original. The opinion cited an earlier case of a candidate who had turned in petition signatures to be on a ballot but failed to correctly fill out all the petition pages with information about the office he sought, and was tossed from the ballot as a result. On appeal, he was restored on the grounds that he should have been given the chance to fix the error before having the axe fall on him. Much as I dislike this opinion, I agree with that principle, and I don’t have a problem with it being applied here, though of course we can argue about what a reasonable amount of time should be to allow for such a fix to be applied. SCOTX left that question open, so if the filing fees are still in place in 2022 and the Libertarians and Greens are still resisting it, look for some judges to have to determine what sort of schedule should be applied to non-fee-payers, in an attempt to follow this precedent.

As I said, I don’t like this decision, but I can accept it. It didn’t immediately make me want to crawl through the Internet and slap someone. But let’s be clear about something, if SCOTX is going to appeal to higher principles in cases like this, which just happen to also align with the desires of the Republican Party, then I’d like to see some evidence that they will err on the side of the voters in a case that doesn’t align with the GOP. Like, say, the Harris County mail ballot applications case. What are you going to do with that one, folks? And please note, the clock is ticking. A decision rendered for Chris Hollins in late October doesn’t exactly mean anything. Let’s see where the SCOTX justices really stand.

The Green Party owes Ken Paxton a thank-you note

He did them a solid, that’s for sure.

Turns out it is easy being Green

In the legal fight to exclude minor party candidates from the November ballot, Republican Attorney General Ken Paxton took a flexible view of time and deadlines.

After the Texas GOP filed suit Aug. 21 to remove 44 Libertarians from the ballot for failure to pay a required candidate filing fee, Paxton told the Texas Supreme Court that there was plenty of time to pursue the challenge.

This week, however, Paxton told the same court that a Democratic bid to oust three Green Party candidates — filed four days before the unsuccessful GOP challenge — was begun much too late and needed to be overturned.

“The (Democrats’) dilatory conduct and unjustified delay in seeking relief imposed an undue burden on the Green Party officials,” Paxton told the court in a brief filed Monday.

[…]

[F]acing an Aug. 21 deadline to declare candidates ineligible, Democrats sued Aug. 17 to strike three Greens running for U.S. Senate, U.S. House and Railroad Commission.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals gave the Greens less than 48 hours to respond, then issued an Aug. 19 order declaring the three Green Party candidates ineligible for failure to pay the filing fee. The 2-1 ruling had two Democrats in the majority and one Republican dissenting.

The ruling drew the notice of Republican Party leaders, who quickly demanded that Libertarian leaders drop a long list of candidates for the same reason.

When those demands were rejected, Republican organizations and candidates asked the 3rd Court of Appeals to follow the precedent set in the Democratic challenge and order the Libertarians removed from the ballot.

But the GOP filed its challenge on Aug. 21, the deadline to declare candidates ineligible, and the appeals court tossed it out, ruling that there wasn’t time to hear from all parties and gather the necessary information before the deadline expired.

The GOP turned to the Texas Supreme Court, arguing that instead of challenging candidate eligibility under an expired deadline, it was challenging the Libertarians’ candidate applications as improper — giving them until Sept. 18 to seek court intervention.

Paxton, in a letter brief to the Supreme Court, agreed with the GOP interpretation of state election law.

“Under Texas law, there is still time for this Court to compel compliance,” Paxton told the court on Sept. 4.

The all-Republican Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Sept. 5 that the GOP and Paxton were looking at the wrong section of the Election Code on deadlines. The court concluded that the Libertarians could not be removed from the ballot because the GOP challenge was filed too late.

[…]

Then on Friday, the Green Party asked the Supreme Court to reinstate its three candidates, arguing that like the GOP, the Democrats relied on the wrong part of the Election Code, rendering their challenge void as well.

The court asked Paxton’s office for its opinion.

In Monday’s response, filed 10 days after arguing that the GOP had not acted too late in challenging Libertarian opponents, Paxton urged the court to reinstate the Green candidates because the Democrats waited too long to act and because the 3rd Court of Appeals engaged in a rushed process that didn’t give the Greens, other political parties and other candidates time to weigh in.

“The 3rd Court abused its discretion,” Paxton wrote.

The Supreme Court’s one-paragraph order to reinstate the Green candidates did not explain the court’s rationale.

See here for the background. We expect SCOTX to publish its opinion on this ruling today, so we may get some idea if it’s all a bunch of sophistry or if they can make a principled argument that the Greens were deprived of their right to respond to the Dems’ legal action in a timely manner, which was a part of the ruling against the GOP in the Libertarian purge attempt. That Ken Paxton was willing to be morally and conveniently flexible on the subject should come as no surprise, given everything we know about him and his character. The Republican Party of Texas has a longstanding willingness to help the Greens whenever they think it might benefit them. This time that support came from an elected official instead of a deep-pocketed donor. Whatever works.

There was a debate in the comments of the last post about ranked choice voting (RCV) being a solution to this kind of legal gamesmanship. The theory is that since the people who voted Green or Libertarian (or independent, or whatever else may have been on the ballot) would still be able to express their electoral support for whichever major party candidate they like as their backup selection, which in turn would reduce the incentive for the major parties to bump them off the ballot. The logic has merit, though the lack of RCV around the country means there’s no data to test that hypothesis.

In this case, the argument that had been made by both the Ds and the Rs is that the other parties’ candidates had violated the law by not paying the newly-mandated filing fees – you may note, the Dems did not challenge the three Greens who did pay their filing fees, just the three candidates who had not – and there is a long history of candidates being challenged because they failed to meet eligibility requirements. If the filing fee law continues to survive the lawsuits against it, and there are Greens and Libertarians who refuse to comply with it in 2022, I would fully expect them to be taken to court again, surely in a more expeditious fashion, and I would expect that even in an RCV-enabled world. This is a basic tool in the political toolbox, one that I would not expect to go away if the method of determining the winner of an election changes. That too is a testable question, and perhaps one day we’ll have an answer for it. For now, that’s how I see it.

SCOTX puts Greens back on the ballot

That sound you hear is my head spinning.

The Texas Supreme Court has ordered three Green Party candidates to be restored to the November ballot after Democrats successfully sued to remove them.

Last month, a state appeals court sided with the Democrats, who were seeking to kick the candidates off the ballot because they had not paid filing fees. The three candidates are David Collins for U.S. Senate, Katija “Kat” Gruene for Railroad Commission and Tom Wakely for the 21st Congressional District.

The Texas Green Party appealed the decision to the state Supreme Court, which ruled Tuesday that the secretary of state “shall immediately take all necessary actions to ensure these candidates appear on the” November ballot. The Supreme Court did not give its rationale, but said a full opinion was forthcoming.

It is the latest development in a spate of legal battles over third parties on the November ballot. At issue is a new requirement that third parties pay filing fees like Democrats and Republicans do. The law, passed last year by the Legislature, is the subject of multiple legal challenges, and many third-party candidates had not paid filing fees amid the pending litigation.

A state appeals court upheld the 2019 law last week.

While the Democrats were initially successful in booting the three Green Party candidates off the ballot, Republicans more recently failed in their bid to remove 44 Libertarians from the ticket for a similar reason. In rejecting the GOP effort earlier this month, the Supreme Court said the party waited too long to raise the issue.

[…]

It is crunch time for finalizing ballots across the state, with a Saturday deadline for counties to mail overseas and military ballots. The state’s most populous county, Harris County, wrote to the Supreme Court on Monday saying that “it is too late to make changes,” even if the court acted that day.

In an email sent to county election officials shortly after the Supreme Court’s ruling, the Texas secretary of state indicated that counties that had already sent out mail ballots would need to send a corrected version “as soon as possible.”

“The Supreme Court’s ruling and ballot change will not be an acceptable excuse for missing the [Sept. 19] deadline,” wrote Keith Ingram, the state’s director of elections. “That deadline must still be met.”

State law requires corrected ballots to include both a written notice explaining the change and instructions to destroy “defective” ballots that have not yet been returned to a county. A defective ballot returned to the county will be counted if a corrected ballot is not returned in time.

See here and here for the background on the Dems’ effort to boot those three Green candidates, and see here and here for more on the Republicans’ failed effort to boot the Libertarians. A fourth Green candidate had withdrawn from the ballot before all this started because he had voted in the Democratic primary this year.

My first reaction on seeing this news was that it was awfully late in the game for further changes to the ballot. Looking at the case filings, the writ was filed by the Greens on September 11, the Dems had till the 14th to respond, and the ruling came down on the 15th. I’ll have an opinion on the ruling when it is available, but until then all I can do is shrug. It is what it is. You can read this Twitter thread, which began with the original rulings in the two cases, for some more context. The Chron has more.

Libertarians will stay on the ballot

Sorry, Republicans. You were too late after all.

The Texas Supreme Court on Saturday rejected an attempt by Republicans to kick 44 Libertarians off the ballot in the November elections.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations had sued to remove the Libertarians, arguing they did not pay filing fees — a new requirement for third parties under a law passed by the Legislature last year. But the Supreme Court dismissed the suit, finding that the Republicans missed the August 21 deadline to successfully boot people from the ballot.

“The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility,” the court wrote in a per curiam opinion. “But the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed.”

[…]

“Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code,” the court wrote.

See here, here, and here for the background. Let me quote from the intro to the opinion, which was released on the Saturday evening of a holiday weekend, to give you the basic gist of it.

Several Republican Party candidates and organizations seek to prevent 44 Libertarian Party candidates from appearing on the 2020 general-election ballot due to the Libertarians’ failure to pay the filing fee required by section 141.041 of the Texas Election Code. The Republicans concede that the statutory deadline to have the Libertarians removed from the ballot using a declaration of ineligibility passed on August 21. See TEX. ELEC. CODE § 145.035. They claim a later deadline applies to their petition, which they describe as a challenge to the Libertarians’ ballot applications governed by the deadline in section 141.034.

For the reasons explained below, the Election Code does not authorize the requested relief. Because the Libertarian Party nominates candidates by convention rather than primary election, its candidates’ applications are governed by chapter 181 of the Election Code, not by chapter 141’s procedures for challenging ballot applications. See id. §§ 181.031–.034. The relators invoke deadlines governing challenges to “an application for a place on the ballot” under chapter 141, but Libertarian Party candidates do not file such applications. Instead, they file “an application for nomination by convention” under chapter 181, which is a statutorily separate type of application governed by a separate set of statutes. Id. The Election Code does not subject the Libertarian candidates’ applications for nomination by convention to the procedures and deadlines for ballot-application challenges on which the relators rely.

Although the result in this instance may be that candidates who failed to pay the required filing fee will nevertheless appear on the ballot, this Court cannot deviate from the text of the law by subjecting the Libertarian candidates’ applications to challenges not authorized by the Election Code. The Legislature established detailed rules for ballot access and for challenges to candidates, and courts must carefully apply these rules based on the statutory text chosen by the Legislature. The available mechanism for seeking the Libertarians’ removal from the ballot for failure to pay the filing fee was a declaration of ineligibility. However, the deadline by which such a declaration can achieve the removal of candidates from the ballot has passed. The Election Code does not permit the relators to bypass that deadline by belatedly challenging the Libertarians’ applications. The petition for writ of mandamus is denied.

In other words, the novel attempt to say they are not challenging the candidates’ eligibility, which the Republicans conceded was too late, but were challenging their applications. The Supreme Court says that the law the Republicans were citing for this challenge doesn’t apply, and as such they’re out of luck. They did say in a footnote on page three that the Green Party could have sought Supreme Court review of that Third Court of Appeals order that forced their candidates off the ballot, and that an Attorney General amicus brief that took no position on that question was filed and considered for this case. They don’t seem to be saying how such a motion for review might have been received, just that it could have been done.

The bulk of the opinion is a tour through the part of the Election Code that governs parties that nominate their candidates by convention instead of by primary election, and how the Legislature treats the two kind of nominating processes differently. I gave it only a quick scan, because life is short and it is a holiday weekend, but feel free to dive in if that’s your jam. I will say, unless the Libertarians win one of their lawsuits challenging the new statute that mandates a filing fee, which was the basis for all of this legal wrangling, both Rs and Ds will be sure to do this again in 2022, since it is clear that they can knock Libertarians and Greens who don’t pay that fee off the ballot. The Ls and Gs may not like this law, but it’s in effect until further notice, and they know what the price of not following it is. And I have to imagine that somewhere, someone inside the Republican Party is getting reamed out by someone else for not being as on the ball about this as the Democrats were. They had a path to get what they wanted, they just didn’t take it in time. From where I sit, they were caught flat-footed and were out-lawyered by the Dems. That’s gotta sting a little for them.

More on the Republican attempt to defenestrate the Libertarians

From the Statesman:

Republican candidates and organizations are asking the Texas Supreme Court to remove 41 members of the Libertarian Party from the November ballots.

All of the Libertarians are ineligible to run, the GOP argues, because they failed to pay a newly created candidate filing fee or collect the necessary petition signatures to avoid the fee. But the Libertarian Party argues that the GOP, which could have challenged the candidates in December, waited too long to seek a court remedy.

“In the midst of pandemic, with life in general taking longer and facing more complications than usual, this Court should not exacerbate the problem by ordering counties across the state to stop preparing ballots so (the GOP) can strip Texas voters of their rights to vote for their chosen candidates,” the party’s leaders told the Supreme Court in a Tuesday filing.

[…]

The Republicans argued that they “fell in the trap” of challenging the eligibility of candidates, too late as it turned out, when they should have challenged the candidate applications as improper under a different section of the state’s election laws. Removing candidates based on improper applications can take place any time before Sept. 18, when ballots are mailed to members of the military serving overseas, the Republicans told the Texas Supreme Court.

Practically, however, the party acknowledged that the Texas secretary of state’s office has been arranging to print and distribute those ballots since Aug. 28, and its petition urged the Supreme Court to act as quickly as possible.

“Should this Court issue relief, the Secretary of State can take corrective action through early September,” said the petition, filed last Wednesday.

One day later, the court gave the Libertarian Party until 10 a.m. Tuesday to file a response. In that filing, party officials urged the court to avoid a rushed decision over a filing fee that many Libertarians see as an unconstitutional poll tax — particularly with two court challenges underway.

In the first, a state lawsuit filed by current and former party candidates in Harris County led to a court order blocking the fee as unconstitutional, though the ruling was halted by an appeals court that has yet to decide the case. The second involves a federal lawsuit by the party and several of its candidates that is set for trial next year.

“There are two constitutional challenges pending,” the Libertarians said. “In this context without the benefit of a more developed record, it would be difficult to say that ineligibility is conclusively established.”

See here for the background. My not-a-lawyer self thought the Republicans’ second attempt to knock off the Libertarians had some merit – certainly more than the clumsy and too late initial attempt had – but I also think the Libertarians make a good point in their response. The successful Democratic attempt to boot the Greens was based on well-established state law, and the facts were incontrovertible. The Republican challenge is novel, and the Libertarians are correct that the facts are still in dispute in this case. The ongoing federal litigation may sway the court as well, though that same appeal did not work for the Greens. We should get a ruling quickly, that much I feel confident saying.

Republicans go to Supreme Court to remove Libertarian candidates

If at first you don’t succeed, make up a new statutory deadline that you claim is the real date that matters.

About a week after Texas Democrats took several Green Party candidates to court and had them knocked off the ballot for failing to pay candidate filing fees, state and national Republicans are taking a similar case to the state’s highest civil court.

The Third Court of Appeals ruled against three Green Party candidates, but in the case of the Libertarians, the court dismissed the case as moot, saying it was no longer timely because the Aug. 21 deadline to declare a candidate ineligible had passed. The Republicans’ petition was filed Aug. 21.

This latest lawsuit filed by the Republicans names 40 Libertarian candidates, including two candidates for Texas Supreme Court, three for Texas Senate, 10 for Texas House and 25 for Congress.

The high court doesn’t have much time to take action: Friday was the deadline for the Secretary of State to certify candidates for the ballot.

“It’s a last-ditch effort on their part,” said Libertarian Party of Texas Chair Whitney Bilyeu. “They’re clearly desperate to do everything they can to remove voter choice at the polls to continue to have a one-party state here in Texas.”

The Libertarians say their candidates chose not to pay the fee for various reasons: some were taking a personal stand against a law they believe to be unconstitutional, some filed with the Secretary of State during a window of time when a judge had temporarily blocked the law, and others simply did not have the funds.

The filing fees in Texas are $3,125 for the U.S. House, $1,250 for Texas Senate and $750 for Texas House. Fifty-three of 70 Libertarian candidates paid theirs, state data shows.

Lawyers for the Republicans wrote that “timing is of the utmost importance” because “each day closer to September 19 — the date ballots are mailed — makes relief less practical.”

[…]

At the Texas Supreme Court, the Texas House Republican Caucus PAC and National Republican Congressional Committee, as well as 27 of their candidates and the GOP parties in Harris, Travis and Tarrant counties, are arguing that while the deadline to challenge eligibility may have passed, the deadline to challenge a candidates’ application is Sept. 18, the day before any mail-in ballots are sent out.

See here for the background. Patrick Svitek has a copy of the writ of mandamus, and honestly the “Relief Requested” section of the document, starting on page 18, explains why this is different in a fairly clear manner:

When a candidate fails to submit the required filing fee, there is confusion whether the appropriate challenge is to the application, under Chapter 141 or the eligibility under Chapter 145. The statute is less than crystal clear on this point, providing that “To be eligible to be placed on the ballot for the general election . . . a candidate must” pay a filing fee or submit a petition in lieu of a filing fee. TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.041(a) (emph. added). At the same time, Chapter 141 provides that a challenge under this section, to provide the application, is not “a determination of a candidate’s eligibility.” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.034(b).

Adding to the confusion, courts and parties have intermingled these two challenges. See In re Davis. No. 03-20-00414-CV, 2020 Tex. App. Lexis 6663 (Tex. App.—Austin, Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding) (granting mandamus relief challenging a minor candidate’s eligibility under Chapter 145 based on a candidate’s failure to pay the required filing fee).

Candidly, in the tight window to seek mandamus relief, many of the Relators fell in the same trap last week when they challenged certain Libertarian candidates eligibility under Chapter 145. The Third Court of Appeals denied that relief, finding it untimely.

But, as an analysis of the statutory scheme and case law bear out, a challenge to a candidate’s failure to submit the application with the required filing fee is a challenge arising under Chapter 141.

This distinction is important because challenges to application— versus eligibility—have different timing requirements. The Third Court of Appeals concluded that a challenge to eligibility must be completed by the 74th day preceding the election. On the other hand, a party can challenge a candidate’s application, including the failure to pay the filing fee “the day before any ballot to be voted early by mail is mailed . . .” TEX. ELEC. CODE § 141.032. That date is September 18.

Relators institute this new original proceeding under Texas Election Code Section 273.061, challenging the candidates’ ability to appear on the general election ballot for failure to submit the required filing fee under Chapter 141. As this is a new action, requesting new relief, this is an appropriate original jurisdiction proceeding before this Court. In this action, Relators ask the Court to compel the Libertarian Party of Texas and its Chair to comply with their statutory duty to reject these applications and to notify the Secretary of State of the rejection. If the Secretary of State is made aware of the rejection, it can take appropriate corrective action.

There is no question of timeliness in this challenge, as it can occur at any time prior to September 18. Practically, though, after August 28, the Secretary of State will begin to make arrangements to print and distribute ballots. Thus, timing is of the utmost importance. Should this Court issue relief, the Secretary of State can take corrective action through early September. However, each day closer to September 19—the date ballots are mailed—makes relief less practical.

Basically, what this claims is that the challenge that the Third Court rejected was made under the wrong law, given the timing. This challenge is made under a different law, where the timing is not an issue, at least not yet. Will it fly? I have no idea, but points for effort.

Two other items of interest here. One is that the long list of relators (again, that’s what you call a plaintiff in a case like this) here includes multiple Republican candidates, presumably all of whom have a Libertarian opponent. You may recall from the previous challenge that the absence of Republican candidates in affected races raised the question of standing. The Third Court did not address that issue because they ruled that the motion was moot, but the Supreme Court would surely have to address it in any race where the candidate was not among the relators. Two, the story says that 53 of 70 Libertarian candidates did in fact pay the filing fee, but the Republicans named 40 of them in this writ and claimed none of them paid the fee. Both of these facts can’t be true, so we’ll see what the court says. My guess is we’ll get an answer in short order.

Republicans try and fail to remove Libertarian candidates from the ballot

From Patrick Svitek:

The Third Court of Appeals decision is here. You may be wondering, why did this same court agree to boot three Green candidates off the ballot last week, for the same reason of not paying filing fees? A good question, with a straightforward answer in the opinion.

Basically, the key difference is timing. By state law, the deadline for withdrawing from the ballot is 74 days before the general election, which this year was August 21. The same date is also the deadline for removing an ineligible candidate’s name from the ballot. A candidate who has withdrawn, or been declared ineligible, or died after this date will still appear on the ballot. Recent examples of the latter include Sen. Mario Gallegos in 2012 and State Rep. Glenda Dawson in 2006. If the ineligible/withdrawn/deceased candidate wins the election (as was the case in those two examples I cited), there is then a vacancy for the office, because that person cannot take office, and thus there is the need for a special election to fill that vacancy.

How that matters in this case is that the plaintiffs (“relators” in Appeals Court-speak) waited too long to take action. The relators included the NRCC, the Republican Party of Travis County, and Rep. Van Taylor. As outlined in the Dem cases against the Greens, they asked via email the Libertarian Party of Texas to disqualify the candidates that didn’t pay the filing fee, and then followed that up with the filing to the Third Court. The problem was, they sent that email “late in the evening on Thursday, August 20”, and filed their mandamus petitions on the 21st (the NRCC in the morning, the Travis County GOP at 9:19 PM). That did not leave adequate time for the Libertarian Party to respond, and it also means that the legal deadline I just mentioned had already passed. Here’s the analysis of the case from the court’s ruling:

“The law is clear that a challenge to the candidacy of an individual becomes moot ‘when any right which might be determined by the judicial tribunal could not be effectuated in the manner provided by law.’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting Polk v. Davidson, 196 S.W.2d 632, 634 (Tex. 1946) (orig. proceeding)). “If a challenge to a candidate’s eligibility ‘cannot be tried and a final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes by officials charged with the duty of preparing for the holding of the election,’ we must dismiss the challenge as moot.” Id. (quoting Smith v. Crawford, 747 S.W.2d 938, 940 (Tex. App.—Dallas 1988, orig. proceeding)).

The Texas Election Code provides that “[a] candidate’s name shall be omitted from the ballot if the candidate withdraws, dies, or is declared ineligible on or before the 74th day before election day.” Tex. Elec. Code § 145.035. However, “[i]f a candidate dies or is declared ineligible after the 74th day before election day, the candidate’s name shall be placed on the ballot.” Id. § 145.039. “If the name of a deceased, withdrawn, or ineligible candidate appears on the ballot under this chapter, the votes cast for the candidate shall be counted and entered on the official election returns in the same manner as for the other candidates.” Id. § 145.005(a).

Because relators waited to file their challenge to a total of 30 candidates until the last possible day this Court could grant the relief they seek, they made it impossible for the Court to obtain the information and briefing needed to afford due process and make a reasoned decision until less than 74 days remained before election day. Accordingly, even if this Court were to conclude based on the mandamus record that respondents have a statutory duty to declare the real parties in interest ineligible, their names would remain on the ballot and any votes cast for them would be counted. See id. §§ 145.039, .005(a); see also Brimer, 265 S.W.3d at 928 (holding that challenge to candidate’s eligibility for general election becomes moot when it cannot be tried and final decree entered in time for compliance with pre-election statutes); accord Smith, 747 S.W.2d at 940 (“This is true, even though the contestant may have good cause or grounds for the contest.”) (citing Cummins v. Democratic Exec. Comm’n 97 S.W.2d 368, 369 (Tex. App.—Austin 1936, no writ)). No order that this Court might enter would be effective to change this result. The Republican Party candidates’ only legally recognized interest in pursuing this mandamus is to avoid being opposed by an ineligible candidate—an outcome that we cannot, at this point, change.

In other words, if the Republicans wanted the Libertarians who didn’t pay the fee off the ballot, they needed to act sooner than they did, in order to meet the statutory deadline for removing those candidates’ names from the ballot and also to give them their due process rights to respond to the allegations. Because they waited as long as they did, the law was clear that the candidates’ names would remain on the ballot, even if they were indeed ineligible. If one of those Libertarians were to win, then (I presume, anyway) there could be a subsequent lawsuit over whether they could take office or not, but that would be a fight for another day. They snoozed, they lost, better lawyering next time.

One more thing, from a footnote to the analysis of the case:

We note that relators seek the same relief that was sought and granted in our recent opinion, In re Davis, No. 03-20-00414-CV, __S.W.3d__, 2020 WL 4931747 (Tex. App.—Austin Aug. 19, 2020, orig. proceeding). There, the petition for mandamus was filed four business days before the statutory deadline. To assure due process to respondents, this Court required responses in one business day, the same as it did here. And in In re Davis, the candidates themselves brought the challenge. While it is clear that “a candidate for the same office has ‘an interest in not being opposed by an ineligible candidate,’” Brimer v. Maxwell, 265 S.W.3d 926, 928 (Tex. App.—Dallas 2008, no pet.) (quoting In re Jones, 978 S.W.2d 648, 651 (Tex. App.—Amarillo 1998, orig. proceeding [mand. denied]) (per curiam)), respondents in this proceeding challenge whether political parties have an interest sufficient to confer standing to pursue mandamus relief. See Colvin v. Ellis Cnty. Republican Exec. Comm’n, 719 S.W.2d 265, 266 (Tex. App.—Waco 1986, no writ) (holding that “voter” who was opposing political party’s chair had no justiciable interest apart from general public and could not bring suit to enjoin candidacy of ineligible candidates). We need not reach this issue or the other legal and evidentiary arguments raised by respondents because we are disposing of the mandamus petitions based on mootness.

In other words, the question of who raised this challenge to the Libertarian candidates would have been an issue for the court to decide if the matter was not moot. I should note that the Brimer v. Maxwell case cited in that footnote was a reference to a challenge brought by then-Sen. Kim Brimer against Wendy Davis for the 2008 election. There had been a prior challenge made by some Fort Worth firefighters who alleged that Davis did not resign her Fort Worth City Council seat in time to file for the Democratic primary, but that case was dismissed because the court ruled those plaintiffs did not have standing. Brimer did have standing, but a district court ruled in Davis’ favor and a subsequent appeal was denied in part because it was way past the deadline to boot anyone from the ballot. You never know what tidbits of interest can lurk in these things. Anyway, that should be that for now.

Weekend voting litigation news

I have two news items about voting-related lawsuits. Both of these come via the Daily Kos Voting Rights Roundup, which has been increasingly valuable to me lately, given the sheer number of such lawsuits and the fact that some news about them either never makes the news or does so in a limited way that’s easy to miss. For the first one, which I have been unable to find elsewhere, let me quote directly from the DKos post:

A federal court has rejected the GOP’s motion to dismiss a pair of Democratic-backed lawsuits challenging a 2019 law Republicans enacted to ban mobile voting locations that operate in a given location for only part of the early voting period. The law in question requires that all polling places be open for the entire early voting period, but because this puts additional burdens on county election officials’ resources, many localities have opted not to operate so-called “mobile” polling places altogether.

Democrats argue that the law discriminates against seniors, young voters, voters with disabilities, and those who lack transportation access in violation of the First, 14th, and 26th Amendments.

This was originally two lawsuits, one filed in October by the Texas Democratic Party, the DSCC, and the DCCC, and one filed in November by former Austin Assistant City Manager Terrell Blodgett, the Texas Young Democrats (TYD) and Emily Gilby, a registered voter in Williamson County, Texas, and student at Southwestern University serving as President of the Southwestern University College Democrats (the original story listed this plaintiff as Texas College Democrats, but they are not mentioned in the ruling). These two lawsuits were combined, and the ruling denying the motion to dismiss means that this combined lawsuit will proceed to a hearing. Now, I have no idea how long it will take from here to get to a hearing on the merits, let alone a ruling, and as far as I know there’s no prospect of an injunction preventing the law in question (HB1888 from 2019), so this is more of a long-term impact than a 2020 thing, but it’s still good news. I should note that there was a third lawsuit filed over this same law, filed in July by Mi Familia Vota, the Texas NAACP and two Texas voters. That one was filed in San Antonio federal court, while this one was in Austin. I do not know anything about that lawsuit other than the fact that it exists. Like I said, this stuff is hard to keep up with.

The ruling is here, and it’s not long if you want to peruse it. The motion to dismiss argued that the Secretary of State could not be sued because it didn’t enforce voting laws, that the plaintiffs did not have standing because the injuries they claimed under HB1888 were speculative, and that HB1888 was constitutional. The judge rejected the first two claims, and said that once standing and the right to sue were established, the constitutionality question could not be answered in a motion to dismiss because the state had a burden to meet for the law to be constitutional, even if that burden is slight. So it’s on to the merits we go. Now you know what I know about this particular offensive against one of Texas’ more recent attempts to limit voting.

Later in the Kos roundup, we learned about a brand new lawsuit, filed by the Hozte clown car crowd, which is suing to overturn Greg Abbott’s executive order that extended early voting by an additional six days.

Conservative leaders and two Republican candidates have filed suit to block Gov. Greg Abbott’s order that added six days of early voting for the November election as a pandemic-inspired safety measure.

The extension, they argued, must be struck down as a violation of the Texas Constitution and state law.

“This draconian order is contrary to the Texas spirit and invades the liberties the people of Texas protected in the constitution,” the lawsuit argued. “If the courts allow this invasion of liberty, today’s circumstances will set a precedent for the future, forever weakening the protections Texans sacrificed to protect.”

The lawsuit was the latest attempt by prominent conservative activist Steven Hotze to overturn Abbott’s executive orders and proclamations in response to the coronavirus.

None of Hotze’s suits to date has succeeded, but the barrage of legal challenges highlights the difficulty Abbott is having with his party’s right wing, which questions the severity of the pandemic and opposes limits on businesses and personal decisions.

The latest lawsuit, filed late Thursday in Travis County state District Court, was joined by Republican candidates Bryan Slaton, running for the Texas House after ousting Rep. Dan Flynn, R-Canton, in the GOP primary runoff, and Sharon Hemphill, a candidate for district judge in Harris County.

Other plaintiffs include Rick Green, a former Texas House member from Hays County, and Cathie Adams, former chair of the Republican Party of Texas and a member of Eagle Forum’s national board.

In late July, when Abbott extended the early voting period for the Nov. 3 election, he said he wanted to give Texas voters greater flexibility to cast ballots and protect themselves and others from COVID-19.

Beginning early voting on Oct. 13, instead of Oct. 19, was necessary to reduce crowding at polls and help election officials implement safe social distancing and hygiene practices, Abbott’s proclamation said. To make the change, Abbott suspended the election law that sets early voting to begin 17 days before Election Day.

At the same time, Abbott also loosened vote by mail rules allowing voters to deliver completed ballots to a county voting clerk “prior to and including on election day.”

The Hotze lawsuit, which sought to overturn that change as well, argued that Abbott’s emergency powers do not extend to suspending Election Code provisions and that the early voting proclamation violates the Texas Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine because only the Legislature can suspend laws.

The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order barring the Texas secretary of state from enforcing Abbott’s proclamation and a court order declaring it unconstitutional.

See here for a copy of the lawsuit. Abbott did extend early voting, though whether it was in response to Harris County Clerk Chris Hollins’ request or if it was something he was always planning to do – remember, he did do the same for the primary runoff election – is not known. What is known is that the State Supreme Court has shown little patience for Hotze and his shenanigans lately. The quote in the story from the lawsuit may be one reason why – there’s a lot more heat than facts being alleged, and even a partisan institution like SCOTX likes to have some basis in the law for what it does. The fact that the extension of early voting for the July runoffs went unchallenged would seem to me to be relevant here – if this is such a grave assault on the state Constitution, why was it allowed to proceed last month? The obvious answer to that question is that there’s a partisan advantage to (potentially) be gained by stopping it now, whereas that wasn’t the case in July. My guess is that this goes nowhere, but as always we’ll keep an eye on it. Reform Austin has more.

Finally, I also have some bonus content relating to the Green Party candidate rejections, via Democracy Docket, the same site where I got the news about the mobile voting case. Here’s the temporary restraining order from the Travis County case that booted David Collins from the Senate race and Tom Wakely from CD21; it was linked in the Statesman story that I included as an update to my post about the mandamus request to SCOTX concerning Wakely and RRC candidate Katija Gruene, but I had not read it. It’s four pages long and very straightforward, and there will be another hearing on the 26th to determine whether the Texas Green Party has complied with the order to remove Collins and Wakely or if there still needs to be a TRO. Here also is the Third Court of Appeals opinion that granted mandamus relief to the Democratic plaintiffs regarding all three candidates:

Molison and Palmer are hereby directed to (1) declare Wakely, Gruene, and Collins ineligible to appear as the Green Party nominees on the November 2020 general statewide ballot and (2) take all steps within their authority that are necessary to ensure that Wakely’s, Gruene’s, and Collins’s names do not appear on the ballot. See In re Phillips, 96 S.W.3d at 419; see also Tex. Elec. Code § 145.003(i) (requiring prompt written notice to candidate when authority declares candidate’s ineligibility). The writ will issue unless Molison and Palmer notify the Clerk of this Court, in writing by noon on Thursday, August 20, 2020, that they have complied with this opinion.

“Molison” is Alfred Molison and “Palmer” is Laura Palmer, the co-chairs of the Texas Green Party. Since the question of the state lawsuit filed by the Libertarian Party over the filing fee mandate came up in the comments on Friday, here’s what this opinion says about that, in a footnote:

We note that although the Green Party and other minor parties and candidates have attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the filing-fee or petition requirement in federal and state court, the statute is currently in effect and enforceable. The federal court denied the parties’ and candidates’ motion for preliminary injunction on November 25, 2019. See Miller v. Doe, No. 1:19-CV-00700-RP, (W.D. Tex., Nov. 25, 2019, order). Although the state district court granted a temporary injunction on December 2, 2019, temporarily enjoining the Secretary of State from refusing to certify third-party nominees from the general election ballot on the grounds that the nominee did not pay a filing fee or submit a petition, the State superseded the temporary injunction, and an interlocutory appeal is pending before the Fourteenth Court of Appeals. See Hughs v. Dikeman, No. 14-19-00969-CV, (Tex. App.—Houston [14th Dist.], interlocutory appeal pending).

Emphasis mine. So there you have it.

Further thoughts on the Dems defenestrating the Green candidates

But first, the Chron story about yesterday’s legal action.

An appellate court on Wednesday blocked three Green Party candidates from the November ballot because they failed to pay candidate filing fees.

The candidates are David Collins, who was running for Senate; Tom Wakely, who was running for the 21st Congressional District, and Katija “Kat” Gruene, who was running for the Railroad Commission. The legal challenge was filed by their Democratic opponents: MJ Hegar, Wendy Davis and Chrysta Castañeda, respectively.

Two members of a three-judge panel of the court sided with the Democrats late Wednesday.

In their majority opinion, Justice Thomas Baker wrote that Wakely, Gruene and Collins are ineligible to appear on the ballot and compelled the Green Party to “take all steps within their authority” to ensure they don’t appear on the ballot. Due to the time sensitivity, Baker said the court would not entertain motions for a rehearing.

Chief Justice Jeff Rose dissented, saying providing no other explanation than that relief was “not appropriate based on the record before us.”

[…]

Davis’ campaign declined to comment. Hegar’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Randy Howry, Hegar’s lawyer in the Travis County case, referred questions about the impetus for the suit to attorney Alexi Velez, who was not available for comment.

Castañeda said the suit was a matter of fairness and that the timing was “based on the fact that the Green Party tactics only recently came to light.”

“I and my fellow candidates worked very hard to get on the ballot, and the statute is clear for all of us,” she said, adding that if the candidates didn’t want to or couldn’t pay the fee, they “could have acquired the signatures to petition to be on the ballot but chose not to do so.”

[…]

Wakely said it was clear to him that the last-minute pile-on of lawsuits was a coordinated strategy to eliminate competition. He added that it was curious that Libertarian candidates, including the one in his 21st District race, Arthur DiBianca, who also did not pay fees, were facing similar scrutiny.

Gruene added that the last-minute nature of the case also seems to be part of the Democrats’ strategy, as it leaves the Green candidates without many options for relief.

Charles Waterbury, a lawyer for the Green Party candidates, agreed that the timing seemed like a tactic and said Democrats should have raised the issue sooner.

“The Democrats waited so long for what I would argue is kind of an artificial emergency,” Waterbury said. “If this is such a huge deal, if keeping the juggernaut that is the Green Party off the ballot is so important, this is something they should have filed way before. … They know the difficulty faced by a party like the Greens is basically insurmountable.”

Gruene said she views the suit against her in the same way as Wakely.

“It’s a way to siderail a campaign to shift into dealing with legal matters instead of campaigning,” Gruene said. “The Democratic Party has always seen the Green Party as their opposition, and they, from 2001 until today, have used lawsuits as a way to bankrupt candidates, bankrupt parties and prevent voters from having the choice of voting for Green Party candidates.”

See here and here for the background. Let me begin by saying that yes indeed, the Democratic Party and the Green Party are opponents, by definition. Only one candidate in a race can get elected, so by definition every candidate in a given race is an opponent to the others. I have no patience at all for the whining of these candidates about how mean the Democrats are being to them because I am old enough to remember the 2010 election, in which deep-pocketed Republican backers paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to help Green candidates get on that year’s ballot, an act of charity that the Green Party was only too happy to accept. Those Republicans did that with the intent of making it just a bit harder for Bill White to beat Rick Perry in the Governor’s race. It turned out they needn’t have bothered, but that wasn’t the point. So please spare me the hand-wringing, and pay the filing fee or collect the petition signatures as long as that is required by law, or face the consequences of your actions.

Along those same lines, I respectfully disagree with RG Ratcliffe:

I have never voted for the Green Party and never will, but it is really chickenshit of Texas Democrats to complain about voter suppression and then try to suppress the choices of voters who want to cast ballots for candidates of a party with ballot access over a filing fee the party candidates did not have to pay until this year. And this is about more than a few candidates, this is about denying the Greens ballot access in the future.

I don’t agree that challenging candidates who did not follow the law as written – and please note, a couple of the Green candidates did pay the filing fee, so it’s not that they all shared this principle or all lacked the ability to pay – is in the same universe as passing discriminatory voter ID laws, refusing to expand vote by mail in a pandemic, aggressively pursuing felony prosecutions against people who made honest mistakes (two words: Crystal Mason), but I’ll allow that filing these motions to oust the Greens is not exactly high-minded. To respond to that, let me bring in Evan Mintz:

Here’s an important lesson: Hypocrisy in politics isn’t a bug. It’s a feature. There is no grand umpire or arbiter who punishes elected officials for inconsistency (besides the voters, and they usually don’t mind). Politics isn’t about truth; it’s about power. If past positions get in the way, change them.

I’d say that’s a lesson they don’t teach you in school, but actually they do. Rice University graduate student Matt Lamb told me it’s the first thing he teaches students in his Introduction to American Politics class: “Politics is about power.”

It’s the power to implement an agenda, impose one’s own morality on others, or distribute resources. It’s the reason people try to get elected in the first place.

Texas Democrats must’ve missed that class, because for the past 30 years or so they’ve acted as if noble intentions alone are enough to merit statewide office. Uphold the process. Act professionally. Do the right thing. Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said essentially that in a May conference call with journalists in response to the governor’s plan on ending COVID lockdowns. “The Democratic Party is not looking at the response through a political lens,” he said. “We’re looking at what is good for the public. If that costs us votes, so be it.”

There’s a slight flaw in Hinojosa’s plan: You can’t pursue the public good if you don’t get the public vote.

I’d say it’s clearly the case that the Democrats took legal action to remove these Green Party candidates from the ballot for the same reason why the Republicans paid money in 2010 to help put them on the ballot: They want to increase the chances that their candidates can win these elections. Obviously, there are limitations to this. One need only look at the utter degradation of the Republican Party and the principles it once held on subjects like free trade and personal morality under Donald Trump, where the only principle they now have is winning at all costs for the sake of holding onto power, to understand this. I’d like the Democratic candidates I support to hold principles that I support as well. But you also have to try your best to win elections, because as I’ve said way too many times over the past decade-plus, nothing will change in this state until the Dems start winning more elections. If that means I have to live with the knowledge that we booted some Green Party candidates off the ballot for the purpose of maybe upping our odds some small amount, I’ll do that. If you want to judge me for that, you are free to do so. I can live with that, too.

More challenges to Green Party candidates

From Patrick Svitek:

As we know, the Green Party candidate for Supreme Court Chief Justice withdrew following a challenge that alleged he had violated election law by voting in this year’s Democratic primary. The writ makes the following allegations:

1) The passage of HB2504, the same bill that lowered the statewide vote threshold from five percent to two percent for third parties to automatically qualify for the ballot also mandates a filing fee (or collection of petition signatures), with the same fees or petition requirements for third parties as for Dems and Republicans.

2) Candidates Wakely and Gruene did not pay the filing fees or collect the petition signatures, and the Green Party was aware of this. Indeed, the Green Party specifically stated in their April newsletter that some of their candidates did pay the filing fee while others (including Gruene, Wakely, the already-withdrawn Waterbury, and Senate candidate David Collins, who for whatever the reason was not named in this mandamus) did not.

3) Both the Greens and the Libertarians filed lawsuits alleging that the filing fee was illegal for them, since the idea of the fee was to help pay for the primary elections, which they don’t have. The Libertarians won a temporary injunction against the fee in December, but that was put on hold by the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, and as of today the filing fee is still in effect. (This had caused some confusion for the Ls and Gs, and I have no idea how many other candidates there may be in this particular boat.)

4) Because of all this, the Green Party was required to disqualify these candidates, and since they did not, the Dems are asking the Supreme Court to do so. They are asking via mandamus because Friday the 21st is the statutory deadline for candidates to be included or excluded from the November ballot.

So we’ll see what happens. In theory, I’ll have an update to this by the weekend. The Libertarians’ lawsuit over the legality of the filing fees is still ongoing, it just won’t be resolved in time for this election. Two side notes of interest that I discovered while writing this: One, Katija Gruene also tried to file for HD51, but was not allowed to file for two different offices by the SOS. Pretty sure it’s clear in state law that’s a no-no. Also, a candidate who had applied to run for HD45 was disqualified by the Greens at their convention because he had voted in the Dem primary. Just like Charles Waterbury, except I guess he was up front about it. So there you have it.

UPDATE: Apparently, there was more than one effort going on.

A Travis County judge issued an order Wednesday that temporarily blocked two Texas Green Party candidates for Congress from appearing on the November ballot.

The 14-day temporary restraining order was granted after Democratic Senate candidate MJ Hegar, joined by two national Democratic organizations, argued that her Green Party opponent, as well as a Green candidate opposing Democrat Wendy Davis, should not be placed on the ballot because they failed to pay a candidate filing fee as required by a new state law.

District Judge Jan Soifer’s order blocked the Texas secretary of state’s office from certifying David Collins, the Green candidate for U.S. Senate, and Tom Wakely, running for U.S. House District 21, to appear on the Nov. 3 ballot. Both candidates were “indisputably ineligible” to appear on the ballot, Soifer said.

Soifer, who was head of the Travis County Democratic Party before becoming a judge, also set an Aug. 26 hearing to determine if the Democrats’ request for an injunction should be granted.

[…]

Hegar’s challenge was one of two that Democrats had recently filed in state courts seeking to keep Green Party challengers off the ballot over failure to pay the fees.

Davis, running for the House seat held by U.S. Rep. Chip Roy, R-Hays County, and Chrysta Castañeda, running for the Railroad Commission, filed an emergency petition Monday asking the Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals to issue an order blocking their Green Party opponents from the ballot.

Hegar, seeking to unseat U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also joined that effort Wednesday. The appeals court has not yet ruled on the request.

Green Party candidates are generally believed to take votes that would otherwise go to Democrats.

The Green Party acknowledges that its candidates – Collins, Wakely and Katija Gruene for railroad commissioner – did not pay the filing fee or collect the needed number of petition signatures to avoid the fee.

But the party believes the fee, as it applies to third parties, is unconstitutional and improper, said Laura Palmer, Green Party co-chair.

Wow. I had wondered about Collins, given that he wasn’t mentioned in the mandamus request. If all of these motions succeed, the Greens will end up with no statewide candidates, one Congressional candidate (in CD36), one State Senate candidate (SD26), and two State House candidates (HDs 92 and 119). That’s not a lot, but even if the Greens prevail they’d still only have seven total candidates on the ballot. Seems like maybe there’s a bigger issue than the filing fee here, but maybe that’s just me.

UPDATE: And here’s a Trib story by Patrick Svitek with further information.

On Wednesday, both a Travis County district judge and a state appeals court blocked the Green Party nominees for U.S. Senate and the 21st Congressional District from appearing on the ballot. The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals additionally forced the Green Party nominee for railroad commissioner off the ballot.

Earlier this week, it surfaced that a Green Party contender for chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court had withdrawn after the Democratic nominee questioned his eligibility.

The Democrats are largely targeting Green Party candidates because they have not paid filing fees — a new requirement for third parties under a law passed by the Legislature last year. The filing fees were already required of Democratic and Republican candidates. The new law is being challenged by multiple lawsuits that remain pending, and the Green Party of Texas has been upfront that most of its candidates are not paying the fees while they await a resolution to the litigation.

[…]

The rulings Wednesday came in response to lawsuits in two different courts that involved some of the same candidates. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, MJ Hegar, had sued in Travis County district court to disqualify the Green Party nominees for U.S. Senate, David Collins, and for the 21st District, Tom Wakely. Meanwhile, Hegar had joined the Democratic nominees for the 21st District, Wendy Davis, and for railroad commissioner, Chrysta Castañeda, to seek an ineligibly ruling for their three respective Green Party candidates before the 3rd Court of Appeals.

In the appeals court’s opinion, Justice Thomas Baker ordered the Green Party of Texas to declare their three candidates ineligible and do all they can to make sure they do not appear on the ballot. Baker said the court would not accept motions for rehearing, citing the “time-sensitive nature of this matter.”

In the Travis County district court decision, Judge Jan Soifer said her order is in effect for the next two weeks. However, she scheduled a hearing for Aug. 26 — two days before the state’s ballot certification deadline — where she could reevaluate the decision.

Four things: One, as of these rulings we are now at the point I mentioned earlier, where there are no statewide Green candidates. Two, this may moot the mandamus request to the SCOTX. Three, apparently I was wrong earlier, because August 28 is the deadline for party nominees to be certified for the ballot. August 21 is the deadline to withdraw. And finally, that strategy of not paying the filing fees while the lawsuit over filing fees carries on, even though there is no injunction stopping the filing fees, sure does not appear to have worked out well for the Greens.

Austin’s sick leave ordinance is officially dead

Killed by the State Supreme Court, which should come as a surprise to no one.

Austin still cannot enforce a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance its city council passed in February 2018 after the Texas Supreme Court on Friday declined to hear its case — during a pandemic that some policy experts argue has shown the need for such policies.

The ordinance — which required most private employers to allow workers to accrue 64 hours of paid sick leave per year — never went into effect, and has been in conservative crosshairs for more than two years. As soon as it was passed, Republican state lawmakers vowed that they would have it overturned with a state law. But so far, the death knell for the capital city’s policy, and similar policies in other major Texas cities, has come from the courts.

Represented by the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation, a group of Austin businesses sued in 2018 to block it, arguing that the city ordinance was unconstitutional because it conflicted with the Texas Minimum Wage Act, which sets a statewide policy. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton weighed in on the side of the businesses.

The Austin-based 3rd Court of Appeals, then dominated by Republicans, ruled in November 2018 that the ordinance was unconstitutional — a decision that will stand after the high court declined to hear Austin’s appeal this week. The court did not offer a reason for denying the appeal in a one-line order.

I never paid that much attention to the Austin ordinance or similar ones like it in San Antonio and Dallas because it was obvious from the jump how this was going to go. Republicans tried to pass a bill in the 2019 session that would have not only forbidden cities from passing sick leave ordinances but gone much farther than that, and only died because Dan Patrick tried to use it as a vehicle to overturn local non-discrimination ordinances, which after the 2018 election was a step too far. There has been some recent energy in Houston for passing a sick leave ordinance, but that is clearly a non-starter now. The only way this is happening is to pass such a bill in the Legislature, and that’s going to mean winning not only a majority in both legislative chambers but a bunch of statewide elections, too. On our side is the fact that paid sick leave polls well, and now is the best possible time to persuade people that forcing sick employees to go to work or lose pay is a Bad Idea. There’s a lot of work to be done to make this happen, but it’s doable.

Supreme Court sticks its nose in

I suppose this was to be expected.

The Texas Supreme Court on Friday temporarily put on hold an expansion of voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic.

Siding with Attorney General Ken Paxton, the Supreme Court blocked a state appeals court decision that allowed voters who lack immunity to the virus to qualify for absentee ballots by citing a disability. That appellate decision upheld a lower court’s order that would have allowed more people to qualify to vote by mail. The state’s Supreme Court has not weighed the merits of the case.

It’s the latest in an ongoing legal squabble that in the last three days has resulted in daily changes to who can qualify for a ballot they can fill out at home and mail in.

Federal and state courts are considering legal challenges to the state’s rules for voting by mail as Democrats and voting rights groups ask courts to clarify whether lack of immunity to the coronavirus is a valid reason for people to request absentee ballots. A resolution to that question is gaining more urgency every day as the state approaches the July primary runoff elections.

[…]

The court also set oral arguments for May 20 on Paxton’s request for it to weigh in on whether the appeals court erred and abused its discretion when it allowed Sulak’s order to go into effect.

See here and here for the background. I just want to remind everyone, early voting for the July primary runoffs begins on June 29, and mail ballots are already being sent to voters who requested them. People are going to have to start making decisions about how they’re going to vote. And whatever the state courts ultimately say, there are those federal lawsuits out there as well. This is going to be a whirlwind of uncertainty for some time. The Chron has more.

Appeals court upholds vote by mail order

Second round goes to the plaintiffs.

A state appeals court upheld a temporary order Thursday from a state district judge that could greatly expand the number of voters who qualify for mail-in ballots during the coronavirus pandemic, rebuffing Attorney General Ken Paxton’s effort to have the ruling put on hold while he appeals it.

In a 2-1 split along party lines, a panel of the 14th Court of Appeals of Texas said it would let stand state District Judge Tim Sulak’s ruling from last month that susceptibility to the coronavirus counts as a disability under state election law and is a legally valid reason for voters to request absentee ballots. Paxton has been fighting that ruling and had argued that his pending appeal meant the lower court’s ruling was not in effect.

[…]

“Eligible voters can vote by mail during this pandemic,” Chad Dunn, the Texas Democratic Party’s general counsel, said in a statement Thursday. “It is time for a few state officers to stop trying to force people to expose themselves to COVID-19 in order to vote.”

In response to the appeals court’s ruling, a spokesperson for Paxton said his office will “look forward to the Texas Supreme Court resolving this issue.”

See here, here, and here for the background. A copy of the court’s order is here, and of the dissent is here. If you believed that Paxton went to the Supreme Court even before the 14th Court ruled on this motion for the purpose of gaining political advantage, the 2-1 partisan split in this ruling is not going to dissuade you. The Supreme Court’s gonna do what the Supreme Court’s gonna do, but that seems to me to not be a great sign. Sorry to be a party pooper, but it’s hard to miss the symbolism of that. The Chron has more.

Speaking of the Supreme Court, they have requested a response from the counties named in Paxton’s writ of mandamus no later than 4 PM on Monday the 18th. I don’t think we’ll have to wait much longer to hear from them.

I should note that despite my pessimism in that first paragraph, there are some Republicans who are fine with pushing mail ballots to anyone who wants them. Like Kathaleen Wall, for example:

[Wall] has sent out mailers in recent weeks telling voters they have the “green light” to vote by mail and that the secretary of state has cleared them to do so if they are worried about contracting or spreading the virus by voting in person.

[…]

The controversy in the 22nd District has caught the attention of state officials. The secretary of state’s office says it “has been made aware of the mailings that have been sent out and have been in touch with representatives of the Wall campaign.”

“We have informed them that certain statements attributed to the Secretary of State’s office are categorically false, instructed them to update voters who have already been contacted, and to immediately cease further distribution,” a spokesman for the office, Stephen Chang, said in a statement.

Wall’s campaign says she is doing her best to keep voters up to date on the fast-changing developments around voting by mail, pointing to posts on her website and social media that have come in addition to the mailers. In a statement, the candidate defended sending out the vote-by-mail applications.

“I’ve distributed over 60,000 face masks to first responders and businesses in CD22 to make sure they have the tools they need to stay safe,” Wall said. “Sending out ballot by mail applications is the same thing. I’m making sure voters know they have options if they want to exercise it and meet the qualifications.”

However, Wall’s questionable vote-by-mail efforts go back to mid-April, when she sent out a mailer with the state seal telling the voters that they had received the “green light” to vote by mail and that their applications would be arriving soon. (Federal candidates are exempted from state law that prohibits the use of the state seal in political advertising.) The mailer also said, “Recently, the Texas Secretary of State ruled that voters’ concerns over contracting or spreading the COVID-19 virus and endangering their health by visiting a public polling place meet the election law requirements to be deemed eligible to vote absentee.”

Wall’s campaign used the same language in the subsequent mailer with the application, which featured the “Disability” box pre-checked.

As the story notes, that’s not exactly what the SOS said in that advisory, and indeed this is basically the Democratic plaintiffs’ position in the nine million current lawsuits that have been filed on the topic. Kathaleen Wall is an idiot who maybe doesn’t fully grasp the politics here. Or who knows, maybe this is a sincere statement of her beliefs, in which case all I can say is welcome aboard. I will admit, it’s still a little weird to me that this has become such a partisan issue, since one would think there are plenty of Republican voters who aren’t over 65 that might like to have this option as well. But here we are anyway, and now we have Kathaleen Wall on our side. Hooray?

Paxton tries a Supreme shortcut

They sure are keeping busy.

In a bit of judicial leapfrog, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is asking the Texas Supreme Court to weigh in on his interpretation of how voters can qualify for absentee ballots during the coronavirus pandemic.

Various lawsuits are pending over whether eligibility for mail-in ballots can be expanded to voters who risk contracting the virus by voting in person. Paxton believes it can’t, and Wednesday asked the state’s highest civil court to issue a relatively rare writ of mandamus preventing local election officials from doing so.

In a motion filed Wednesday, the Republican attorney general asked the Texas Supreme Court to order election officials in some of the biggest, largely Democratic counties in the state to follow his reading of existing eligibility requirements for absentee voting, arguing the court must step in quickly because those county officials intend to apply an “incorrect reading” of state law.

[…]

The election officials Paxton is targeting — county clerks or election administrators in Harris, Dallas, Travis, El Paso and Cameron counties — have generally indicated they will process mail-in ballots that cite a disability in accordance with the law and court rulings.

In his filing, Paxton argued that county election officials are refusing “to discharge” their duty to reject applications to vote by mail from voters who don’t qualify under the state’s existing eligibility criteria.

“They have instead determined that the coronavirus pandemic allows them to unilaterally expand the Legislature’s determination of who is eligible to vote by mail,” Paxton wrote. “To the local election officials of Travis, Harris, Cameron, Dallas, and El Paso Counties —all Respondents here —a ‘disability’ does not mean a ‘sickness or physical condition.’ Instead, it means a generalized fear common to all voters of contracting disease.”

It’s unclear how election officials would be able to reject applications from voters who use the disability category of eligibility as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

Voters who cite a disability to receive a mail-in don’t have to provide any information beyond checking a box on the application form. Election officials can reject applications if they know the applicant is ineligible, but they’re unable to require voters to substantiate their disability.

Paxton argued the election officials’ actions were “not only unlawful; they are also unnecessary” because the state is already making changes to the voting process during the pandemic. Earlier this week, Gov. Greg Abbott doubled the early voting period for the July 14 primary runoff.

This is of course in reference to the state lawsuit. As we know, Paxton had previously threatened county election officials who might be accommodating to people requesting mail ballots on the grounds that the original ruling only applied to Travis County and was stayed pending appeal. The TDP, the plaintiffs in the suit, filed a motion with the Third Court of Appeals opposing Paxton’s actions. I should note that this case has been transferred to the 14th Court of Appeals, which includes Harris County. The Trib story about the complaint filed against Paxton in Dallas County contains a reference to this. Here’s a copy of the briefing schedule for the 14th Court of Appeals, which looks to be set for a ruling in mid-June. Assuming the Supreme Court doesn’t take this out of their hands.

This is basically Paxton getting a second bite at the apple. It’s a writ of mandamus – you may remember, the thing that they acted on in 2015 when they ordered the city of Houston to allow the anti-HERO referendum to go forward – and not an appeal, since the appeals court hasn’t been heard from yet. They don’t have to do anything with this, they could just let the appellate court do its job. As the story notes, there’s no way for clerks to vet or verify anyone’s disability claim. I suppose either court could order clerks to shut up and not tell people that they have the right to ask for a mail ballot if they have a disability. I’m not exactly sure how that would work, but the law can be a funny thing. And of course, there are all those federal suits, over which the State Supreme Court has no jurisdiction. So who knows? I don’t know what else to say, we’ll just have to wait and see what they do. The Chron has more.