Saturday, August 27, 2016

From RT: Shooting the messenger: Citizen journalists jailed for recording police

This is a little scary. I imagine a Supreme Court case is likely in the near future.

- Click here for the article.

Police practices are under fire as more and more recordings of excessive force and racist behavior surface. Some police departments have responded by trying to work with communities to regain trust lost, while others try to silence whistle blowers.
The availability of smartphones and cameras has empowered citizens to become guerrilla journalists who feel protected by the First Amendment. However, many have been shocked to discover revealing police misconduct may result in being targeted and harassed by law enforcement.
Filmmakers David Felix Sutcliffe and Laura Poitras have asked the documentary community to show their solidarity for civilian journalists by signing a petition. So far, the petition has at least 306 names, including multiple Academy Award-winning and nominated documentarians.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has endorsed their petition, saying in a statement, “Arrests of grassroots journalists who record police activities implicate not only the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, but also the very legitimacy of our legal system, which grounds its claim to power in impartiality. Yet, around the country, the law has subjected to penalties people pursuing constitutionally protected activities that enhance transparency, while turning a blind eye to the violence prompting residents to place themselves at risk.”
The petition asks the Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate the arrests of civilian journalists who film police actions. This shouldn’t be a difficult request, because the DOJ has acknowledged it as a problem in prior investigations.
In the DOJ’s 2015 report on the Ferguson Police Department (FPD), they wrote, “FPD officers also routinely infringe on the public’s First Amendment rights by preventing people from recording their activities,” and “the federal courts of appeal have held that the First Amendment ‘unambiguously’ establishes a constitutional right to videotape police activities.”
Despite this, citizens who record police often find themselves in the crosshairs. For example, the day after Chris LeDay filmed the death of Alton Sterling, he was detained after police told him that he “fit the description” of someone wanted on battery charges. He would end up spending the night in jail for unpaid fines, Complex reported.

From the New York Times: Liberal, Moderate or Conservative? See How Facebook Labels You

We're pretty easy to figure out it seems.

- Click here for the article.

You may think you are discreet about your political views. But Facebook, the world’s largest social media network, has come up with its own determination of your political leanings, based on your activity on the site.
And now, it is easy to find out how Facebook has categorized you — as very liberal or very conservative, or somewhere in between.
Try this (it works best on your desktop computer):
Go to on your browser. (You may have to log in to Facebook first.)
That will bring you to a page with your ad preferences. Under the “Interests” header, click the “Lifestyle and Culture” tab. Then look for a box titled “US Politics.” In parentheses, it will describe how Facebook has categorized you, such as liberal, moderate or conservative. (If the “US Politics” box does not show up, click the “See more” button under the grid of boxes.)
Facebook makes a deduction about your political views based on the pages that you like — or on your political preference, if you stated one, on your profile page. If you like the page for Hillary Clinton, Facebook might categorize you as a liberal.
Even if you do not like any candidates’ pages, if most of the people who like the same pages that you do — such as Ben and Jerry’s ice cream — identify as liberal, then Facebook might classify you as one, too.

From Ballotpedia: Preemption conflicts between state and local governments (2016)

We'll discuss preemption in both 2305 and 2306 soon - it is a key part of federalism. Here's a look at the major areas of conflict currently. Texas is not listed, but I have a hunch that's because the legislature is not in session. Next year will be very different.

- Click here for the article.

- And click here for detail about the conflict over preemption across the nation - including Texas.

A tug-of-war between cities and state governments has developed behind the scenes of the 21st century's biggest policy debates. Interest groups advancing policy reforms ranging from bans on fracking to higher minimum wages have led local and state officials to tussle over appropriate responses. Mayors, city councils, and community activists are passing ordinances and initiatives on wages, gun control, and LGBT issues in order to fill gaps perceived in existing law. Governors and state legislators have pushed back against these local responses, citing their interests in creating uniform policies across all local governments in their states.
This struggle continues the decades-long evolution of preemption, a legal concept that allows a state law to supersede a conflicting local law due to the state's power to create cities as granted by state constitutions. The term is also used to describe a similar exercise of power by the federal government over states, but this page only deals with preemption at the local and state level. Preemption jumped into the national spotlight in 2016 as friction increased between cities and states. These tensions are due in part to a common partisan divide: Democrats tend to control large cities, while Republicans tend to control state governments. Entering 2016, Democratic mayors oversaw 67 of the nation's 100 largest cities by population. This contrasts with Republican state government trifectas in 23 states and Republicans holding 30 out of 50 governorships in 2016.
Legislators and governors argue that preemption allows states to create consistent laws across all municipalities. State officials also suggest that they are in better positions than cities to protect the rights of individuals by virtue of a larger view of policy debates.
Mayors, city councils, and county officials argue that preemption takes away local control necessary to respond to specific issues. Local officials also suggest that they are more attuned to the needs of the public given the relatively small number of state officials.

From the Texas Tribune: In Fight over Surprise Medical Bills, Some Lawmakers Target Insurance Regulators

On more item that might end up on the agenda of the next legislative session.

- Click here for the article.

On April 15, 2015, Ed Hagan spent a sleepless night trying to cope with a sharp pain in his back.
When morning came, Hagan, then a teacher at a Dallas middle school, was too sick to work. He headed to the emergency room at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, which he knew was in-network for his health insurance company, Aetna.
Medical tests revealed Hagan had kidney stones. But the news quickly got worse: Doctors suspected Hagan had a rare form of leukemia, and told him he needed to be hospitalized immediately to get tested.|
It was the beginning of more than a year of intensive cancer treatment for Hagan, now 66 and in remission. But the very first day of that ordeal left a lasting — and costly — impression: thousands of dollars in surprise medical bills.
Despite choosing an in-network hospital, the emergency room doctor who treated Hagan wasn't in-network. Neither was the anesthesiologist who worked on Hagan’s bone marrow sampling. Combined, their bills totaled $2,000.|
“Most people don’t know to fight this stuff, or how to write a letter, or how to kick it back at them, saying, ‘You guys got a scam going,’” Hagan said.
State lawmakers have long sought a solution to surprise medical bills — also known as balance bills — as doctors, insurance companies and patients argue over who is responsible for the phenomenon.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Plyler v Doe

This illustrates a few points in class including access to education and how the Supreme Court interprets (and reinterprets) the 14th Amendment.

- US Courts: Access to Education - Rule of Law.
- Oyez: Plyler v Doe.
- Wikipedia: Plyler v Doe.

From Vox: The alt-right is more than warmed-over white supremacy. It’s that, but way way weirder.

Welcome to the world of the neo-reactionaries.

These people do not like democracy - which some refer to as "demotism" - and would prefer a return to some form of monarchy. Their complaints echo those of the Constitution's framers.

- Click here for the article.

. . . the core contention . . . is one that's been common in technolibertarian circles for a long time: Democracy is a failure.
"Democracy is — as most writers before the 19th century agreed — an ineffective and destructive system of government," Moldbug writes. Moldbug doesn't actually like the term "democracy." He prefers "demotism," or rule of the people, a label under which he sweeps modern-day developed democracies like the US or Western Europe but also the former Soviet bloc, Nazism, and fascism. "Universalist lawful democracy is the least demotist of demotisms, Demotism Lite if you will," he writes. "Compared to Communism and Nazism, there's much to be said for it. But this is a rather low bar."
The purpose of government, in the view of neoreactionaries, isn't to represent the will of the people. It's to govern well, full stop. "From the perspective of its subjects, what counts is not who runs the government but what the government does," Moldbug explains. "Good government is effective, lawful government. Bad government is ineffective, lawless government. How anyone reasonable could disagree with these statements is quite beyond me. And yet clearly almost everyone does."
And democratic government, the neoreactionaries insist, is not effective, lawful government. Because the will of the people is arbitrary and varying, it cannot have the consistency of real, durable law, and it creates incentives for wasteful and, worse still, left-wing government. Moldbug started as an Austrian-school libertarian, and most neoreactionaries have general small-government sympathies and express a fear that democracy inevitably leads to ever greater taxation and redistribution, and otherwise encroaches on individual liberty.
"Democracy and ‘progressive democracy’ are synonymous, and indistinguishable from the expansion of the state," Nick Land, the next most influential neoreactionary thinker after Moldbug, writes. "Since winning elections is overwhelmingly a matter of vote buying, and society’s informational organs (education and media) are no more resistant to bribery than the electorate, a thrifty politician is simply an incompetent politician, and the democratic variant of Darwinism quickly eliminates such misfits from the gene pool." The result is a government that grows larger and larger.

From Politico: The 1965 Law That Gave the Republican Party Its Race Problem

For 2305 - and 2306. It wasn't just the Civil Rights Act that set the stage for the current political environment.

- Click here for the article.

During the long, three-year debate over the immigration act of 1965, members of Congress debated the wisdom and morality of removing 1920s-era quotas on immigration to the United States. Not far from the center of this debate was the nettlesome issue of race.

“The people of Ethiopia have the same right to come to the United States under this bill as the people from England, the people of France, the people of Germany, [and] the people of Holland,” griped Senator Sam Ervin, a conservative Democrat from North Carolina. “With all due respect to Ethiopia, I don’t know of any contributions that Ethiopia has made to the making of America.”

President Lyndon Johnson, hoping to tamp down concerns about the immigration act at a time when Congress was engaged in an even more ferocious debate over the voting rights act, sought to downplay the implications of the proposed immigration law: “This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” he said upon signing it. The president, like many other of the law’s supporters, sincerely believed that Europeans were most likely to take advantage of less stringent U.S. immigration policy.

He was wrong.

The Hart-Celler Act, so-called after its co-sponsors New York Congressman Emanuel Celler and Michigan Senator Philip Hart, opened the floodgates to new immigrants when it went into effect in 1968. But the vast majority of them didn’t come from Europe; they came instead from Latin America, Africa and Asia. In 1965, non-Hispanic whites comprised over 85 percent of the American population. Fifty years later, that portion is just 62 percent, and falling.

This is also why, 50 years later, Donald Trump is
winning 52 percent of the white vote (to Hillary Clinton’s 40 percent) on a platform uniquely unappealing to minority voters—but losing the election, according to almost every poll. The Hart-Celler Bill of 1965 turned out to be not only revolutionary, but perhaps also the most revolutionary act of the 1960s. It is certainly the piece of Great Society legislation that has had the most impact on the presidential election of 2016.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From the Houston Chronicle: Shell Oil helped ignite the growth of Houston's downtown skyline - Oil company's consolidation supported city's claim as world's energy capital

This helps underscore a claim we make in 2306 that cities are primarily economic entities.

- Click here for the story.

At the time, it was considered revolutionary to move researchers and engineers away from the oil fields and consolidate them in a centralized locations like Houston because conventional wisdom in the industry held that these specialists would lose their feel for the oilfield. Instead, consolidation allowed for far greater collaboration among workers as they tried to find better ways to discover and exploit oil reserves.
"It was a very high-risk decision," Little recalled. Other companies eventually followed Shell's lead.
The news of Shell's plans to consolidate operations in Houston became public in August 1969. "Shell to Move 1,000 Workers Here," the Houston Chronicle's banner headline blared. The final number was closer to 1,400.
New York, meanwhile, had become increasingly expensive and Shell's president, Dick McCurdy, wanted to shrink the company's footprint there.
Shell started relocating people from New York in 1970 as One Shell neared completion. Shell moved people in shifts: after they finished work on a Thursday in New York, and they'd start on Tuesday in Houston. Only one day of work was lost each week.
Shell also had to hire a lot of new people. Roughly 700 of the New York workers refused to move.
"Let's face it: It was a little bit of a culture shock," Little said. "Most who made the move were pleasantly surprised."
By 1971, only the uppermost Shell Oil executives remained in New York. That soon changed. The new president, Harry Bridges, decided to move the corporate headquarters to Houston and One Shell Plaza.

Is the Texas economy #1 or #21?

It depends on whether you are measuring the overall state of the economy - including unemployment, state GDP, and state personal income per capita - or corporate profits. The later is doing much better than the former.

For more click here: Texas economy ranked 21st in nation - State also ranks near the bottom on education spending, correlation?

The Texas economy ranks 21st in the nation, according to Governing magazine, which used economic data from 2014 to 2016 to create an index.
That's a pretty middling performance for an economy once labelled the Texas Miracle because of how quickly it added jobs following the Great Recession of 2008. It turns out that all of that growth was tied to the oil and gas industry, which has taken a nosedive over the last two years.
The top five economies, according to the magazine, were Massachusetts, Oregon, Delaware, Colorado and California. Those are all blue states, which will surely infuriate Texas conservatives who will still angrily point out that Chief Executive magazine still ranks Texas, and four red states, as the best places to do business.
The radically different perspectives are not mutually exclusive, by the way, since one ranks economic performance as it impacts the population, and the other ranks the places where corporate profits grow the fastest.

List of major topics in recent sessions of the Texas Legislature

I'm posting this for future reference. The Texas House Research Organization publishes lists of topics likely to dominate each session of the legislature prior to its meeting. Below are links to the ones published going back to 1998.

2306 students who are thinking about paper topics related to next year's session might find this useful. The legislature tends to revisit certain issues regularly.

- Click here for the HRO's section on Legislative Session Reports.

Topics for the
- 76th Session. (1999)
- 77th Session. (2001)
- 78th Session. (2003)
- 79th Session. (2005)
- 80th Session. (2007)
- 81st Session. (2009)
- 82nd Session. (2011)
- 83rd Session. (2013)
- 84th Session. (2015)

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

From the Washington Post: New proposals would let lotteries or experts replace voting. Here’s what’s wrong with that.

More evidence that elites are way down on democracy.

- Click here for the article.

Is it time to rethink representative democracy? After the Brexit vote, some voters in the United Kingdom had a case of “regrexit” and called for a second referendum. In the United States, the recent arguments that the November 2016 election may be “rigged” generated a great deal of public discussion, as did concerns that the Republican Party candidate is not qualified for office.
Those who study this topic have been looking at ways to “renew” representative democracy.
Recently, two rival proposals that trace back to classical Greece have resurfaced for a modern audience. Both limit who can vote and seek to stimulate apolitical and rational decision-making:
1) Representatives by lottery.
2) Experts as representatives.

Education in Texas in the News - 8/23/16

For consideration:

All from the Texas Tribune.

- East Dallas High School Plants, Nurtures College Dreams.
- How UNT-Dallas' Grand Law School Experiment Could Be Overruled.
- Education Officials Point Fingers over College Readiness.
- Judge Denies State's Request to Toss STAAR Suit.

Monday, August 22, 2016

From the Houston Chronicle: Texas judge blocks federal directive on bathrooms and transgender students

This is worth discussion.

It applies to a variety of topics we will cover in class including federalism, civil rights, presidential power, the courts, and checks and balances. And probably more, like the role of Texas' attorney general, and electoral politics. And still more!

- Click here for the article.
A Fort Worth federal judge temporarily has blocked the implementation of President Obama's directive ordering public schools across the country to allow transgender students to use the bathroom of the gender with which they identify.
In a 38-page ruling issued late Sunday, U.S. District Judge Reed O'Connor said he was blocking the directive because it contradicted other regulations and because the federal government had not complied with rules regarding public comment and notice.
"This case presents the difficult issue of balancing the protection of students' rights and that of personal privacy when using school bathrooms, locker rooms, showers, and other intimate facilities, while ensuring that no student is unnecessarily marginalized while attending school...," O'Connor wrote. "The resolution of this difficult policy issue is not, however, the subject of this Order."
The Obama administration issued the directive in May, in the middle of a still-ongoing fight over a North Carolina law that requires people to use public bathrooms of the gender of which they were born. The directive implied that public schools could lose federal funding for not accommodating transgender students.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, who led a coalition of 13 states who sued over the directive in May, said he was "pleased" with Sunday's injunction.
"This President is attempting to rewrite the laws enacted by the elected representatives of the people, and is threatening to take away federal funding from schools to force them to conform," Paxton said in a statement. "That cannot be allowed to continue."
Civil rights advocates expressed disappointment with the ruling. The Human Rights Campaign said it would "thousands at risk as they return to school."
"Judge O'Connor's decision to bar the Department of Justice from enforcing this important guidance puts thousands of transgender students at even greater risk of marginalization, harassment, and discrimination as they return to school this fall," said Sarah Warbelow, the organization's legal director, in a statement. "All students, regardless of their gender identity, deserve to be able to learn in an environment free from discrimination."

From Vox: How the first liberal Supreme Court in a generation could reshape America

A likely consequence of a Clinton win in November.

- Click here for the article.

Odds are that very soon, the Supreme Court will become something it hasn’t been in nearly 50 years: made up of a majority of Democratic-appointed justices.
Ever since Abe Fortas’s resignation in 1969, the Court has either been split down the middle or, more often, made up primarily of Republican appointees. Some of those Republican appointees nonetheless turned out to be liberals, but even taking that into account, the Court hasn’t been majority liberal since 1971, when William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell joined.
That hasn’t stopped the Court from evolving in a progressive direction at times. In 1973, GOP appointee Harry Blackmun authored Roe v. Wade, drawing only two dissents; from 1996’s Romer v. Evans to 2015’s Obergefell v. Hodges, Anthony Kennedy and the Court’s liberals steadily expanded the rights of LGBTQ Americans.
But for the most part, over the past half-century liberals have been playing defense as an organized and well-planned movement of conservatives has limited the scope of rights trumpeted by liberals, expanded the power of the state in criminal justice, and issued more business-friendly rulings on campaign finance and regulatory issues.
The Court ruled that states didn't have to give poor black and Latino school districts the same fundingas rich white districts. It ruled thatschool resegregation achieved through white flight to wealthy suburbs was just fine. It ruled that despite declaring abortion a fundamental right, that didn’t mean Medicaid had to extend that right to poor women, and then it reversed course on treating abortion as a fundamental right at all. Itstruck down the death penalty but then brought it back four years later.
And in more recent years, it’s gutted the Voting Rights Act, struck down limits on campaign donations by corporations, strangled Medicaid expansion in the crib, and for the first time in American history declared an individual right to own guns.
All that could be about to change.

From the New York Times: 50 Years of Electoral College Maps: How the U.S. Turned Red and Blue

Another look at a story we cover in both 2305 and 2306 about how the major parties realigned after the election of 1964 - including Texas.

The along graphics are worth your time.

- Click here for the article.

It really begins with the election of 1948 when Southern states pulled support from the Democratic Party following Truman's support for civil rights policies.

- Click here for that story.

By 1947, as the Cold War with the Soviet Union intensified and the nation was becoming increasingly anti-Communist and intolerant, Harry Truman astonished everyone by suddenly supporting civil rights. Truman had been outraged at the murder and assaults on dozens of black veterans of World War II. Although he once held strong racial biases -- he had used the word "nigger" freely in his speech -- in 1947 he decided to make civil rights a national issue. He authorized a fifteen-man committee on Civil Rights to recommend new legislation to protect people from discrimination. Speaking from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Truman became the first president of the United States to address the NAACP. He promised African Americans that the federal government would act now to end discrimination, violence, and race prejudice in American life. Shortly afterward, his panel issued its report confirming that segregation, lynching, and discrimination at the polls had to be ended.
In the election year of 1948, Truman continued to push for civil rights, partially because he felt that it was the right thing to do, and partially because he knew that he had to win the black vote in order to be elected. Although most political analysts predicted a Republican landslide, Truman believed that the election would depend on a handful of cities in the North where the balance of power would be held by black votes. Senator Hubert Humphrey, who was deeply committed to civil rights, had successfully maneuvered the Democratic Party to support a strong civil rights plank in its campaign platform -- much stronger than Truman wanted. One of Truman's strongest arguments in favor of civil rights was that American and Russia were now locked in a deadly "Cold War" and the Russians were using America's Jim Crow policies to win support from the rest of the world. Southerners replied that the civil-rights program was supported by Communists.

Strom Thurmond, Governor of South Carolina, and a group of Southern delegates walked out of the Democratic Convention when the civil-rights platform passed. The dissidents formed the States' Rights party, whose members came to known as Dixiecrats.

From the Houston Chronicle: Histories of TSU and UH marked by segregation Begun as racially separate institutions, schools grew to full public universities

A little know piece of regional history, complex history. One that helped set the stage for Brown v Board of Education.

- Click here for the article.

Both schools began in 1927, when the Houston school board agreed to fund the creation of two junior colleges: Houston Junior College and Houston Colored Junior College.
"Things started very quickly," said Mary Manning, an archivist at UH.
By the fall of 1927, 232 students had enrolled in the white school. Seventy-five students enrolled in the black college. Just seven years later, by 1934, the student body had grown to more than 900 at the white college and 700 at the black college. The Houston school board decided to make them full four-year private universities. The Houston Colored Junior College became the Houston College for Negroes. Houston Junior College became the University of Houston.
The universities eventually moved to permanent homes, just blocks from each other. Millionaire oilman Hugh Roy Cullen donated 53 acres to the black university. He gave money to help UH begin building its campus, declaring that the school must always be a college "for working men and women and their sons and daughters." Left unsaid was that those men and women must be white.
By the 1940s, Texas was becoming a major battleground in the fight to end school segregation. The college that would become Texas Southern was at the heart of it.
In the 1940s, the University of Texas at Austin's law school denied admission to Heman Marion Sweatt of Houston because of "the fact that he is a negro." His case, argued by Thurgood Marshall, for whom TSU's law school is named, would eventually go all the way to the Supreme Court. Before it got there, Texas lawmakers got to work trying to build a case to show black students in Texas had equal - but separate - opportunities in the state. They bought the flourishing black college in Houston for $2 million in 1947 and set to work building a school that at least seemed equal to UT.
And thus, Houston's first public university was born - not as an effort to expand educational opportunities, but to keep the state from having to integrate its flagship in Austin. If state leaders could show black students had their own version of the University of Texas, then the courts, state leaders hoped, wouldn't require the white University of Texas to admit black students.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Judicial challenges to Texas' education funding system

Texas has been front and center - not always in a good way - regarding the constitutionality of education policy.

For consideration:

1973 - San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriquez.
1981 - Plyler v. Doe.
1991 - Edgewood v Kirby.
2015 - Morath et al v. Texas Taxpayer and Student Fairness Coalition et al.

From the New Republic: The Anti-Democratic - Urge With populism on the rise in both parties, it has become fashionable for elites to bash the masses. But we need more democracy, not less.

Democracy has fallen under harsh times recently - with Trump and Sanders and Brexit and all. Elites have recently begun referring to democracy as "mob rule,"just like in the olden days. We may be witnessing a period of excess democracy that might spill over into tyranny, which was a concern of the Constitution's framers. But this author thinks that attitude is misplaced. Critics have it exactly wrong.

This applies to our ongoing discussion of the nature and merits of democracy.

- Click here for the article.

In reality, our political system is far less democratic than it was a generation ago. Over the past 40 years, we’ve seen unions crushed, welfare gutted, higher education defunded, prisons packed to overflowing, voting rights curbed, and the rich made steadily richer while wages stagnated. It’s not the frustration of the people that should terrify us, but rather the legitimate sources of their frustration, which have so long gone unaddressed. Regular citizens struggling to make ends meet have almost nowhere to turn, nothing to join. We shouldn’t wonder that so many voters have seized on this election to make a statement, even a nihilistic one. To insist that the only solution is for the people to get back in line is to refuse to acknowledge that the “establishment” bears any responsibility for the conditions that created the public’s outrage in the first place.
There's no quick fix for this mess. If Hillary Clinton wins in November, it will be tempting to view the ballot-box refutation of Trumpism as a restoration of political sanity. But a Clinton presidency won’t fundamentally change the conditions that led millions of Americans to turn to Trump or Sanders. The only way out is the hard way—building democratic outlets for change patiently, on the ground. We have to build durable movements that support and advance the twin causes of racial and economic justice in a lasting and meaningful manner. And we have to acknowledge that protests are a necessary but insufficient ingredient for social change: They can be galvanizing and clarifying, but, just like political campaigns, they tend to be short-lived and don’t always translate into the sustained, strategic organizing efforts we need.
Above all, in spite of the reports of political chaos—and yes, even stupidity—that daily flood our inboxes and Twitter feeds, we must resist the call of the elites and the tug of the anti-democratic urge. Knee-jerk contempt for democracy—insulting those we disagree with as idiotic, as incapable or unworthy of civic trust and responsibility—has a long and ugly history in this country, where the Founding Fathers were nearly as democracy-averse as Plato, and certainly more hostile to the prospect of redistributing wealth. The non-propertied, non-male, and nonwhite have all had to battle for basic political inclusion—and then real political power—pushing against reactionary conservatives and anxious liberals alike. Our job now is to advance this democratic march, rather than retreat from it in fear. Before we write democracy off, we should at least truly try it.

Political Knowledge Today

This is always a great way to start a semester - especially since I like to begin with a lecture justifying the government requirement.

- Political ignorance haunts 2016 campaign.

A noted libertarian scholar finds ignorance among supporters of both major party candidates. He thinks the problem is that government does more than we can comprehend.
What is behind this public ignorance?
It is not that the voters are dumb, but that they have little incentive to learn. Because there is only an infinitesimally small chance that any one vote can influence the result of an election, even most smart people usually have little motivation to follow politics closely. That helps explain why political knowledge levels have remained low for decades, in spite of rising IQ scores and educational attainment, and despite the increasing availability of information on the Internet.There is no easy solution to the problem of political ignorance. But we can at least mitigate it by limiting and decentralizing government.

- What Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton Can Learn From William James.

The problem isn't bad politicians, its bad citizens.

Good citizens do not merely demand liberty and equality (though they should), but view their liberty and equality as public goods to be used for public ends. Good citizens do not merely study their nation’s glorious past (though they may), but seek to understand its complicated present and shape its uncertain (but certain-to-be-different) future. Good citizens do not merely articulate their interests, opinions and principles in the language of inclusivity, but embrace the hard work, moral humility and imperfect compromises that make an inclusive common life possible.

Who was William James? Click here.

This essay was referred to in the article: The Moral Equivalent of War.

Only 30% of Americans can name the three branches of government - my goal is to make you one of them.

Some food for thought: It won’t happen, but compulsory voting might be the only solution to political ignorance in America.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

From the Texas Tribune: Analysis: Oh, You Thought Your State Government Worked For You?

Negative fallout from a recent Texas Supreme Court decision limiting access to public data.

- Click here for the article.

A lot can happen when you're distracted by presidential politics. The past week offered a few relatively local reminders of why politics matters.
Texas state government can shut down your access to public information — simply by hiring private businesses to do government work that would otherwise be subject to public scrutiny.
What’s supposed to be the virtuous circle of civics — you elect lawmakers, they get to work, you re-evaluate them on that work and then vote again — has been corrupted. It competes with the commercial circle of civics, where elections are paid for by business interests that are rewarded with state contracts that, incidentally, are protected from public scrutiny because of laws passed by those same business-backed officeholders.
You can blame the Texas Supreme Court, if you’d like, for the ruling that exposed what some call a “monstrous loophole” in the state’s public information laws. Or you can blame the lawmakers who wrote those laws.
Either way, as The Texas Tribune’s Jim Malewitz reported, you can’t find out what it cost McAllen taxpayers to hire Enrique Iglesias to sing in a parade, or how many ride-hailing permits Uber got from the city of Houston.
That’s before you even get to the really big contracts that replace entire departments of state government — in child support, health and human services programs, state prisons and data services.It might be your money, but the state doesn’t think it’s any of your business.

From the Texas Tribune: Trump Calls NAFTA a "Disaster." Texas Republicans Beg to Differ.

There's a split among Republicans on the agreement.

- Click here for the article.

Caught between the anti-globalist tirades of their presidential standard bearer and their state's close trade ties with Mexico, Texas congressional Republicans are straddling a tricky political line when it comes to talk of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.
Republican nominee Donald Trump called NAFTA a “disaster” and backed renegotiating the pact in a policy speech in Detroit on Monday. Barring a better deal, he said, the United States should withdraw from the 22-year-old agreement that lowered trade barriers between the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Texas grassroots conservatives also want to abandon the deal. The Republican Party of Texas' 2016 platform demands “immediate withdrawal from the North American Free Trade Agreement.”
But when The Texas Tribune reached out to each of the 27 Republican members of the Texas congressional delegation, not one joined in Trump's call for renegotiating the treaty. None agreed to be interviewed, three responded with written statements and the others either did not respond or declined to comment.
“NAFTA is responsible for increasing trade between Texas and Mexico by almost 110 percent since 2004,” Rep. Will Hurd, R-San Antonio, said in a statement.

From Slate: A Boy Died on This Water Slide—in One of the Many States That Barely Ensure That Rides Are Safe

This is how we get regulations.

- Click here for the article.
Earlier this month, USA Today placed the Verruckt water side at Schlitterbahn Water Park in Kansas City, Kansas, on the top of its list of the “13 Best Outdoor Water Park Rides” in America. “Insanity,” the newspaper proclaimed of the attraction, which is the world’s largest water slide, dropping riders by 17 floors in a few terrifying seconds.
On Sunday, a few days after that article appeared, Caleb Schwab, the 10-year-old son of a Kansas state legislator, died on that ride. The circumstances of his death are still murky, though one Kansas City television station is reporting that parkgoers claim the ride’s harness wasn’t working properly. One thing, however, is almost certain: the dismal state of amusement park regulations in the United States, which allow attractions in Kansas and many other states to effectively evade any serious government safety oversight.
Even as amusement rides are getting more terrifying and death-defying by the year, the amusement park industry actively fights attempts at increased regulation. According to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, surveys reveal that 4 out of 5 of its member organizations say they view “state regulation as the biggest threat to their businesses.”

Annexation History - Planning and Development Department - City of Houston

Governing: Gov2Gov: The Lobbying That Falls Under the Radar Cities, counties and states put a lot of effort -- and money -- into lobbying other levels of government.

For our look at both local governments and lobbying.

- Click here for the article.
Data reported by the Center for Responsive Politicsindicates that states, localities and their associations collectively spent $71 million in federal lobbying last year. The education sector, primarily colleges and universities, spent another $77 million. When combined, more was spent on those two areas of public-sector lobbying than defense, oil and gas, and some other major industries.

Some governments employ dedicated intergovernmental relations staff, and a select few larger cities maintain personnel in Washington. Many contract with private lobbying firms to give them broader reach. State and national associations further represent governments and groups of officials on a range of issues.“Intergovernmental relations is one of those under-the-radar-activities for any city,” says Jeff Coyle, who heads government affairs for San Antonio. “How a city relates to and is governed by states and the federal government is crucially important to people in the community, whether they realize it or not.”

At the federal level, top priorities of state and local government associations include protecting tax exemption for municipal bonds and seeking the authority to collect sales taxes from online retailers. “Whether it’s education, advocating or lobbying, those who are closest to the people ought to have a seat at the table in informing decisions made by other levels of government,” says Carolyn Coleman, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities.

From Governing: Can Counties Fix Rural America's Endless Recession? The inability of most rural places to recover from the economic downturn is fueling political and social problems around the nation.

For our look at counties, as well as the unique problems rural America faces as the economy continues to change.

- Click here for the article.
While some metro areas are thriving, two out of three rural counties have experienced a net loss in their total number of businesses since 2010, after the recession had technically ended. According to a recent report by the Economic Innovation Group, half the new businesses started throughout the nation since 2010 were created in just 20 counties, out of more than 3,000 nationwide.
Urban America recovers from recessions, but rural America no longer seems able to. “You look all across this country and some of these places are dying,” says Seth McKee, an expert on rural politics at Texas Tech University. “They’re either going to be wiped off the map, or they’re getting smaller and smaller and there’s nothing to sustain them.”
That may be overstating the case, but it’s no longer far-fetched to talk about permanent, Appalachian-style poverty spreading across rural America. There just aren’t enough jobs. By now, it’s a familiar story that many manufacturing plants have shut down or moved and taken their jobs with them. The prevailing fear of the moment -- that robots are going to take over all the work -- has already happened in agriculture. A machine knows more about the exact fat and protein content of the milk from every cow it touches than a human hand ever would. Farmers are becoming almost as likely to plant sensors as seeds, helping them map out where their drones should apply fertilizer. Already, farms account for less than 1 percent of employment, but the number of agriculture jobs is projected to decline another 6 percent by 2024.
The old notion that jobs in timber, farming and small-town manufacturing are secure and will last for life is not just outdated but antique.

. . . Lincoln County actually has a lot of things going for it. Local officials have been able to leverage the presence of the coast not only to promote tourism and maintain a sizable fishing fleet, but also to develop marine science as an economic driver. What was at one time home to a single oceanographer’s lab has become the nexus for a range of enterprises that constitute a growing share of the local economy. Oregon State University (OSU) runs the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which houses an alphabet soup of state and federal agencies. There’s an aquarium next door that pairs well with the town’s beaches as a tourist magnet. A few years ago, Newport’s harbor became the headquarters for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific fleet, nabbing the ships from Puget Sound.
All of these projects, along with many others, came about because the Newport area has managed to build a collaborative culture, with city, county, port and state officials pulling together with private-sector actors to make things happen. “This cluster didn’t happen by accident,” says Gil Sylvia, an economist at the Hatfield center. “You start with something small and you build out the components.”

Thursday, August 4, 2016

From Vox: Can panicked Republicans rid themselves of Trump? Here are 7 options.

A look at campaign strategy, as well as the unique and troubled relationship that exists between Trump and the Republican Party establishment.

- Click here for the article.

Here are the options:

1) Kick Trump off the ticket and find another candidate2) Convince Trump to drop out (or hope he drops out on his own)3) Officially disavow Trump4) Un-endorse Trump5) Quietly shift to down-ballot races6) Hope Trump will start behaving himself7) Learn to stop worrying and love the Trump

From 538: Tighter Restrictions Are Losing In The Battle Over Voter ID Laws

The federal courts are checking state legislatures.

- Click here for the article.

The struggle over who can vote on Election Day is becoming more heated in courtrooms, judges’ chambers and statehouses across the country, paralleling the intensity of the presidential race. And at the moment, the side that wants fewer voting restrictions seems to be winning.
The battle began in earnest after 2010, when several Republican state legislatures began tightening identification requirements on voters. It has reached a new level in the 2016 election, when voters in 17 states faced new restrictions that ranged from photo ID requirements to cutbacks on early voting and same-day registration. Republicans said the laws were necessary to prevent fraud; Democrats and voting rights advocates said the restrictions were really designed to reduce participation by minority groups and young voters who traditionally support Democrats.
“It’s the biggest rollback of voting since Jim Crow,” said Jonathan Brater, an attorney at NYU Law’s Brennan Center for Justice, which compiled the list of restrictions.1
But in just the past few weeks, several of these laws have been blocked or overturned by federal judges. On Monday, a District Court judge issued a preliminary injunction against a voter ID law in North Dakota. In the previous 10 days, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ID law in Texas violated the Voting Rights Act, a panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a law in North Carolina, and a District Court judge in Wisconsin ruled that elements of the law there were unconstitutional. There is also major voting-law litigation ongoing in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Kansas, Ohio and Virginia.

For a look at HB 4 (78th Regular Session) ...

.. the legislation leading to tort reform in Texas: click here.

Two posts on tort reform,

An author from the Texas Public Policy Foundation gives it a thumbs up on its tenth anniversary.

- Click here for it.

Ten years of tort reform have provided greater access to health care and helped make Texas the nation’s leading job producer. Indeed, by recognizing the causal connection between economic prosperity and efficient, fair courts, the Texas legislature passed and Governor Rick Perry signed House Bill 4 (HB4)—powerful tort reform legislation that is the foundation of the Texas economic miracle. Yet, despite the awesome economic growth and increased access to health care triggered by HB4, members of the trial bar are still working to overturn this reform. While Texans should stand their ground and rebuff efforts to undo HB4’s successful tort reforms, all Americans should take notice of Texas’s remarkable transformation and look to enact similar reforms in their own states.

 A critic of Missouri's effort to do the same argues that tort reform violates the 7th Amendment.

- Click here for that.

The 7th Amendment to the United States Constitution provides for the right of citizens to have their disputes tried to a jury of their peers. Under the Missouri Constitution, “the right to trial by jury as heretofore enjoyed shall remain inviolate“.
Inviolate. That is not a word used very often in today’s language. “Inviolate” means “free from violation, injury, or outrage” and, alternatively, as “not infringed.”
And yet, our constitutional right to jury trial is under attack nearly constantly in legislatures across the country. Yesterday, Governor Jay Nixon vetoed two attempts to violate, injure, and infringe upon Missourian’s right to jury trial.
SB 847 would give a negligent defendant a discount on paying damages based on insurance or benefits purchased or obtained by the injured victim. This bill would have taken the insurance paid for by the victimand given those benefits to the defendant.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

From SE Texas Record: Watchdog group asks Texans to keep arbitration out of insurance policies

For our look at civil law, among other things - including the possible agenda of the 85th Texas legislative session.

- Click here for the article.
Texas Watch, a self-proclaimed consumer protection group, recently launched a campaign urging Lone Star residents to tell the Texas Department of Insurance to keep arbitration out of insurance disputes.
“Arbitration clauses force consumers with disputes into closed, costly, and biased proceedings without any appeal or public record. For years, TDI rightfully rejected policies with these dangerous clauses,” reads a May 18 Texas Watch email sent to supporters.
“But, a new policy submitted to TDI could reverse this longstanding rule. The policy includes a binding arbitration clause, which would strip unaware consumers of their constitutional rights (to sue) in exchange for a discount.”
In December, Texas, after being absent from the top 10 for several years, reappeared on the American Tort Reform Association’s annual “Judicial Hellholes” report for the thousands upon thousands of lawsuits filed in Hidalgo County after a couple of 2012 hailstorm strikes.
Now, trial lawyers advertise heavily after every major storm in Texas, seeking to sign up as many clients as possible. As a result, hundreds to thousands of lawsuits are filed against insurance companies following a destructive weather event.
Steve Badger, a commercial insurance attorney and partner at Zelle LLP, says Texas Watch is directing their concerns at the wrong group.
“The insurance industry didn’t wake up on morning and say ‘hey, let’s add an arbitration provision to our policies,’” said Badger. “Instead, the insurance industry is reacting to what is going on in the market place – and that is thousands of hail damage lawsuits.”

From the New York Times: Tim Huelskamp, Anti-Establishment House Republican, Loses Primary in Kansas

Committee membership and constituency service still seems to matter, even in the age of the Tea Party.

- Click here for the article.
Representative Tim Huelskamp, a member of the hard-line conservativeFreedom Caucus, lost to a political newcomer on Tuesday in the Republican primary for his Kansas district.

Mr. Huelskamp, who was elected to Congress in 2010 and quickly earned a reputation for frustrating Republican leaders, was defeated byRoger Marshall, an obstetrician from Great Bend, in the primary for the First Congressional District, which covers western Kansas and much of the state’s center.

Mr. Marshall won with the support of business groups and the agriculture lobby, which had turned its back on Mr. Huelskamp after Speaker John A. Boehner had him removed from the Agriculture Committee in 2012, a crucial position for a legislator from a farm state. Mr. Huelskamp was a frequent critic of Mr. Boehner, who resigned last year amid strife with the Republican Party’s right wing.

“Getting kicked off the Agriculture Committee is a crime that can’t be forgiven,” Brian Scheideman, a 52-year-old driver’s education instructor, said after voting for Mr. Marshall in Wamego, The Associated Press reported. “I don’t mind the independent voice, but you’ve got to figure out how to work with people.”
Mr. Marshall had the support of the Kansas Farm Bureau, the Kansas Livestock Association, the National Association of Wheat Growers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, according to The A.P. Mr. Huelskamp had the backing of the billionaire Koch brothers’ political network, the Club for Growth and conservative colleagues who visited the state to campaign for him.

From Governing: Some Officials Are Getting Schooled in Running Elections

Running elections ain't easy. The University of Minnesota is trying to change that by offering a programs in elections administration.

For our look at county governments and the management of elections.

- Click here for the article.
The demands on election administrators have been growing in recent years.
Federal laws passed in the wake of the Florida recounts in the 2000 presidential election imposed new requirements on everything from voting equipment to provisional ballots to voter databases.
States have added to the complexity, too. Some have imposed voter ID laws that require election officials to apply a new layer of scrutiny on would-be voters. Others have added to administrative duties by expanding early voting, increasing access to absentee ballots and starting Election Day registration.
Meanwhile, social media and the 24-hour news cycle can easily turn a local bureaucratic snafu into a national news story -- like when voters in the Phoenix area had to wait hours to cast votes in this year's presidential primary.
Sharing expertise in the field has been difficult, but Doug Chapin, the director of the University of Minnesota's election administration program, hopes they can fix that.
"Because elections are so localized in this country, people tend to become experts on how things work in their own jurisdiction," he said. "This program allows them to put it in a larger national and thematic context. It's the first step in creating what I like to think of as a profession of election administration."
Because the program is online, it allows elections officials from across the country to connect with one another. The diversity of their experiences is important, said Gelms, because states handle various issues differently. And even in the same state, populous areas face a whole unique set of problems from spread-out rural areas.
An introductory class covers broad themes, including what Chapin characterizes as the three central tensions in election administration: central control vs. local control; access to the ballot vs. integrity; and fairness vs. finality. Other courses explore law, design, communication and even transportation -- and how they affect election administration.

From Vox: Delaware death penalty law declared unconstitutional by state’s highest court

Add this to our discussion of criminal justice, the Bill of Rights, due process, juries, state judicial systems, and political culture - among other things.

- Click here for the article.
Delaware’s death penalty is unconstitutional, the state’s Supreme Court declared on Tuesday.
As Jessica Masulli Reyes reported for the News Journal, the 148-page opinion struck down how the death penalty is applied in Delaware, declaring it a violation of the Sixth Amendment–sanctioned role of a jury. The ruling follows the US Supreme Court’s January decision against Florida’s death penalty on similar grounds.
So this doesn’t mean that Delaware’s death penalty is completely dead, since it could be revived by the state’s legislature if lawmakers alter how a death sentence is carried out.
But if Delaware’s legislature does not act, New Hampshire will become the only state in the northeastern part of the country that still allows the death penalty

From the Texas Tribune: Texas Supreme Court Upholds School Funding System

A repost from a few months back - a look at Texas' top civil court, and education policy in Texas, and the meaning of the Texas Constitution.

- Click here for the article.
The Texas Supreme Court on Friday issued a ruling upholding the state’s public school funding system as constitutional, while also urging state lawmakers to implement "transformational, top-to-bottom reforms that amount to more than Band-Aid on top of Band-Aid."

But without a court order directing the Legislature to fix specific provisions in the system, school groups worry that lawmakers will either do nothing or something outside the box.

“Our Byzantine school funding ‘system’ is undeniably imperfect, with immense room for improvement. But it satisfies minimum constitutional requirements,” Justice Don Willettwrote in the court’s 100-page opinion, which asserts that the court’s “lenient standard of review in this policy-laden area counsels modesty.”
There were no dissenting opinions; Justices Eva Guzman and Jeff Boyd delivered concurring ones.

"Good enough now ... does not mean that the system is good or that it will continue to be enough," Guzman wrote. "Shortfalls in both resources and performance persist in innumerable respects, and a perilously large number of students is in danger of falling further behind."
Friday’s ruling is the second time the state’s highest civil court has upheld the state’s school finance system. Since the 1980s, school districts have repeatedly sued the state in an attempt to increase public education funding, and have often prevailed. The latest case, brought by more than two-thirds of Texas school districts, is the seventh time such a case has reached the state Supreme Court.

For background:
- Edgewood v. Kirby.
- Rodriquez v. SAISD.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016


A look at the current Chief Justice of the Texas Supreme Court and the role he has played in using the courts to push the conservative agenda.

- Click here for the article.
Hecht’s brief moment as a major public figure thus illustrated one of the larger themes of recent American political history: the centrality of the United States Supreme Court to the conservative movement. But the story of the following eight years in Hecht’s judicial career suggests something nearly as important: the transformation of state supreme courts into engines of conservative change.
For much of American history, state courts were relatively sleepy outposts for lions of the local bar. But starting in the nineteen-eighties, state supreme courts (particularly in states where judges are elected rather than appointed) became political battlegrounds. This was especially true in Texas, where a young political consultant named Karl Rove ran the campaigns that turned the Texas Supreme Court from all-Democrat to all-Republican. When Hecht first won election to the Court, in 1988, Rove ran his campaign. Led by Hecht and other Rove clients, the Texas Court became a firm ally of local business interests, especially the insurance industry.

Regarding the Texas Judiciary

A few items in the news.

All from the Texas Tribune.

- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton Launches Final Appeal in Securities Fraud Case.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is appealing the securities fraud charges against him to the state's highest criminal court, in one last bid to dismiss the case before it potentially goes to trial.
Paxton's attorneys filed the appeal Tuesday with the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, asking the Austin-based court to do away with the three felony indictments facing the attorney general. The case, now more than a year old, centers on allegations that Paxton misled investors in private business dealings from before his time as attorney general.

"Ken Paxton has been charged with a crime that simply doesn't exist, using a grand jury that was improperly impaneled," Paxton lawyer Bill Mateja said in a statement. "This petition was filed with the Court of Criminal Appeals to not only correct the lower court's mistake but to end this improper prosecution."

- Tiny Nordheim Sues State Over Drilling Waste Dump.

A tiny South Texas town is continuing to fight plans for an oil and gas waste site half its size, even after state regulators gave developers the go-ahead to build it.

A citizen's group in Nordheim — population 316 at last count — is suing the Texas Railroad Commission, challenging the petroleum regulator’s decision to permit a facility that would store waste including drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic oilfield leftovers.
Filed late last month in Travis County district court, the lawsuit argues that the commission's three members erred in May when they unanimously approved the development by San Antonio-based Pyote Reclamation Systems.

Lawyers: Fetal Remains Rule Could Lead to Lawsuit.

Texas' proposed rules requiring the cremation or burial of fetal remains "will almost certainly trigger costly litigation," reproductive rights lawyers say.
In a letter to the Texas Department of State Health Services, lawyers with the Center for Reproductive Rights on Monday argued that the new rules — proposed at Gov. Greg Abbott's directive — are "plainly in violation" of the legal standard abortion regulations must meet to be deemed constitutional.

Paxton Says "Frivolous" Campus Carry Lawsuit Has No Merit.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Tuesday called a lawsuit brought by three University of Texas at Austin professors against the state’s campus carry law “frivolous” and said the professors have no valid reasons for opposing guns on campus.
Paxton filed a brief in response to the lawsuit Monday, saying the professors' request to block the law — which went into effect Monday — before the first day of fall classes is unconstitutional.
. . . UT Austin professors Jennifer Lynn Glass, Lisa Moore and Mia Carter filed a lawsuit opposing the state’s campus carry law last month. They asked a federal court judge to grant an injunction that would block students from carrying guns into university buildings before the first day of class, which will be Aug. 24. Paxton's brief opposes the request for an injunction, saying it would be unlawful to ban concealed carry of guns on campus. A hearing on the case is scheduled for Thursday.

From The Texas Observer: The Interview: Judge John Dietz on Texas’ School Finance Crisis

Deitz was the district judge who ruled that the recent cuts by the Texas Legislature in school finance were unconstitutional. This was overturned by the Texas Supreme Court.

Her reacts to the decision in an interview.

- Click here for it.
Texas Observer: When the Texas Supreme Court held the school funding system was constitutional, the justices spent plenty of time explaining why your ruling was wrong. What did you think about theirs?
John Dietz: Well, I don’t think they thought too much of my judgment, and I didn’t think too much of their decision. The way I viewed it was, [in the past] the Supreme Court has said this system needs to be fixed and you need to fix it now. The Legislature has never done that, unless you make them. They want to be told to do this because it gives them cover. I think that was an attempt, in my opinion — and it’s not a learned opinion — to get out of the school-finance litigation business altogether.
The law says that the Legislative Budget Board shall come up with a number. Nobody’s ever followed that law. So it’s always guesswork as to how much an accredited, adequate education costs. There is a criticism, which [Supreme Court Justice Don] Willett alludes to in the opinion, that there’s not a perfect correlation between the amount of money and the results. Now, there’s not no correlation. [It could be] that it’s inversely correlated, that the more money you get, the worse the outcome. Nobody’s saying it’s that way. Nobody, I think, really knows what the answer is. I think a lot of that has driven testing and accreditation. “Gosh, we’re giving ’em all this money and we’re not necessarily seeing the results.” That same test could be applied to just about anything the government does.

From Ballotpedia ....

- The Texas Supreme Court.
- The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals.

From the Corpus Christi Caller-Times: Courts are chipping at public’s right to know

A critical look at the Texas Supreme Court.

- Click here for the article.
Those of us who keep a close eye on Texas' evolving open government laws watch the state Legislature for signs of change. We also look at how local and state government agencies carry out these laws to see if they are working.
But we must focus on the courts, too.
Troubling rulings by the Texas Supreme Court and lower courts are watering down our Texas Public Information Act, long considered one of the strongest in the nation.
The momentous law, enacted in the early 1970s amid citizen frustration after the
Sharpstown stock fraud scandal, is based on the public's right to know. It presumes government records are open.
If a governmental body wants to withhold information, it can attempt to do so using one of the exceptions spelled out in the law. In most cases it must ask the Texas Attorney General's Office for permission to do it on a case-by-case basis.
That said, some cases end up in court, and the Texas Supreme Court twice last year interpreted the law in ways that made it easier to keep information secret.
The court decided the non-profit Greater Houston Partnership did not have to open its financial books to the public because it was not a governmental body, even though it performed economic development duties for the city of Houston and was supported in part by public funds.
Another disturbing decision involved the aerospace company Boeing operating in San Antonio. The court ruled that a private party doing business with the government can have its information in government documents withheld if releasing it would give advantage to a competitor. Furthermore, governments can now more easily withhold their own information on those grounds.
The result? Information is getting closed off in seemingly straightforward cases of public interest, such as the city of McAllen keeping secret how much taxpayer money it paid for singer Enrique Iglesias to perform at a holiday concert. The city says it doesn't want to be at a competitive disadvantage when negotiating with entertainers.

From Mother Jones: How Dark Money is Taking Over Judicial Elections

Is justice being bought in Texas?

- Click here for the article.

Most people don't think about judicial elections until they find themselves staring at a group of unfamiliar names on the ballot. But judges are selected by voters in 39 states, whether in an initial election or a retention election after being appointed. The explainer below details how special-interest money has increasingly flooded the system over the last several decades—including the first ever set of data on campaign money in lower court races.

StateLower-court contribution
New York$3,933,427

The Hidden Spending on Lower Courts

Campaign funding in races for lower courts is even more obscure—despite the fact that these races produce the vast majority of judges, and those most citizens will face. The first ever set of data on these races, compiled for 10 states, shows that more than $55 million was raised during the 2011-12 election cycle alone.

From the New York Times: Critics See Efforts by Counties and Towns to Purge Minority Voters From Rolls

Perhaps this addresses the question posed in the previous post.

- Click here for the article.
. . . the purge of Sparta voters is precisely the sort of electoral maneuver that once would have needed Justice Department approval before it could be put in effect. In Georgia and all or part of 14 other states, the 1965 Voting Rights Act required jurisdictions with histories of voter discrimination to receive so-called preclearance before changing the way voter registration and elections were conducted.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court declared the preclearance mandate unconstitutional, saying the blatant discrimination it was meant to prevent was largely a thing of the past.
But since the Supreme Court’s 5-to-4 ruling in the voting-rights case,Shelby County v. Holder, critics argue, the blatant efforts to keep minorities from voting have been supplanted by a blizzard of more subtle changes. Most conspicuous have been state efforts like voter ID laws or cutbacks in early voting periods, which critics say disproportionately affect minorities and the poor. Less apparent, but often just as contentious, have been numerous voting changes enacted in counties and towns across the South and elsewhere around the country.
They appear as Republican legislatures and election officials in the South and elsewhere have imposed statewide restrictions on voting that could depress turnout by minorities and other Democrat-leaning groups in a crucial presidential election year. Georgia and North Carolina, two states whose campaigns against so-called voter fraud have been cast by critics as aimed at black voters, could both be contested states in autumn’s presidential election.
Kristen Clarke, the president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a leading voting-rights advocacy group, said that before the Supreme Court’s Shelby County ruling, discriminatory laws and procedures had been blocked by the preclearance provisions.
Now, she said, “We’re seeing widespread proliferation of these laws. And we are left only with the ability to mount slow, costly case-by-case challenges” to their legality.

From the Texas Tribune: Analysis: See How Texans Turn Out, Vote in Presidential Elections

There's a reason Republican candidates dominate statewide office.

- Click here for the article.

Republicans have had the upper hand in Texas elections for the past two decades, winning every statewide election starting in 1996. Since 2000, the size of that advantage has changed from year to year; in the latest two presidential elections, it shrank, expanding again in the interim years when Texas elects its governors and most other statewide officeholders.
The numbers here represent the averages for Republicans and Democrats in statewide elections where both major parties had candidates. Races that featured a Republican and one or two third-party candidates were not included since this is a measure of the strength of the major parties.
The average margin for this period was the smallest in 2008, when the average statewide candidates were separated by 8.6 percentage points, and the largest in 2010, when they were 23.9 percentage points apart.
The general elections will be competitive again when the lines cross, which they haven’t done since 1994.

From mySA: Federal judicial vacancies in Texas still an emergency

A reminder that Texas - as the rest of the states - has a dual judicial system. On is elected, the other is appointed.

- Click here for the article.
A year ago today on this page, I criticized the troubling obstructionism by U.S. Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas.
They have repeatedly failed to fill vacated seats in our state’s federal appellate and district courts, including their opposition to potential nominations of qualified district judges originally recommended by Republicans.
In his response letter, Sen. Cornyn objected to my comments and pointed out that he is working hard to fill these seats and to “ensure Texas has some of the best and brightest judges in these important posts.” 
It has now been a year since Sen. Cornyn’s response. Our state’s federal judiciary is in abysmal shape, as there are still two vacancies on the 5thCircuit Court of Appeals and 10 vacancies — three more than last year — in Texas’ U.S. District Courts. The oldest vacancy goes back to 2011. Additionally, several federal judges are expected to retire in the next few years.
In comparison, there are no appellate vacancies under Missouri and Louisiana, both part of the 5th Circuit. Missouri does not have a U.S. District Court vacancy. Louisiana has three, with one vacated a month ago and two in 2015, both of which have already had Senate hearings.
The Judicial Conference of the United States, headed by Chief Justice John Roberts, has marked all the Texas vacancies as a “judicial emergency,” accounting for 29 percent of the judicial emergencies nationwide — a feat not achieved by any other state. This designation implies that the courts’ current caseload is both excessive and unmanageable. Even if these seats are filled tomorrow, the conference has asked Congress to add many new judgeships to the federal district courts in Texas.

- Click here for Wikipedia's entry on The Judicial Conference of the United States.

From the Texas Tribune: The Brief: Fatal Balloon Crash Raises Safety Concerns


Does Texas even have a hot air balloon policy? Is this fully national?

- Click here for the article.
Sixteen people died in a hot air balloon crash outside Lockhart on Saturday that left no survivors, raising questions about the safety of hot air balloons and how they are regulated.
The Austin American-Statesman reportsthat the balloon “had been gliding along a portion of Caldwell County near Jolly Road, about two miles west of Lockhart, when witnesses said it appeared to strike high-voltage power lines and catch fire.” The Statesman called the crash “one of the most deadly single incidents to hit the Austin area” and “the worst such accident since a 2013 balloon crash in Egypt killed 19.”
The tragedy drew a reaction from Gov. Greg Abbott, who said in a statement that “the investigation into the cause of this tragic accident will continue, and I ask all of Texas to join us in praying for those lost,” as well as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and other Texas officials. Pope Francis also offered his condolences.
As the Statesman reports, the National Transportation Safety Board called for federal officials to more strictly regulate hot air balloons more than two years ago, given what it described as the potential for a “high number of fatalities in a single air tour balloon accident.” Just months ago, the Federal Aviation Administration rejected those recommendations.
“It’s unclear whether the safety recommendations could have prevented Saturday’s catastrophic balloon crash near Lockhart,” the Statesman writes. “But it seems likely that the foretold crash will renew calls for enhanced safety regulation of an industry that has experienced a number of deadly accidents in recent years.”