Wednesday, March 8, 2017

From GovTrack: A liberal circuit court struck down Trump’s travel ban. This bill would divide that court into two.

Extreme checking and balancing - perfectly constitutional though.

- Click here for the article.

Mere days after President Trump signed a controversial executive order temporarily banning U.S. entry for immigrants or refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, it was struck down by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. This put national focus on that court, which encompasses both some of the most progressive and conservative states, yet generally issues liberal decisions — making it despised many Republicans.
A new bill in Congress could make it less likely for that court to issue decisions like striking down the Trump executive order.
(Rather than appeal to the Supreme Court as he originally promised, Trump plans to issue a revised executive order that his administration believes is more likely to withstand judicial scrutiny.)
Why many Republicans hate the 9th Circuit Court
Below the Supreme Court on the judicial hierarchy, there are 13 “circuit courts,” which decide cases of federal law in different geographical areas of the country. The Supreme Court takes up cases where two or more lower courts disagree, as well as other cases that raise consequential or novel constitutional issues.
The 9th Circuit Court covers the west coast and covers more than 20 percent of the U.S. population. It encompasses left-leaning states like California, Hawaii, and Oregon, and Washington, but also right-leaning states like Arizona, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana. But its judges clearly lean left: of the 44 judges serving on the court, 28 were appointed by Democratic presidents, and only 16 by Republicans.

From the Pew Research Center: What the unemployment rate does – and doesn’t – say about the economy

For our future look at economic policy in 2305.

- Click here for the article.

Every month, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a flood of data about employment and unemployment in the U.S. And every month, the lion’s share of the attention goes to one figure – the unemployment rate, which was a seasonally adjusted 4.8% in January. (The February report comes out on Friday.)
But the unemployment rate is just one indicator of how the U.S. economy is doing, and it’s not always the best one. Simply being out of work isn’t enough for a person to be counted as unemployed; he or she also has to be available to work and actively looking for work (or on temporary layoff). In any given month, the unemployment rate can rise or fall based not just on how many people find or lose jobs, but on how many join or leave the active labor force.
There are, in fact, five other monthly measures of what the BLS calls “labor underutilization” besides the official unemployment rate, as well as scores of other measurements – labor force participation rates, employment-population ratios, average weekly wages, average hours worked and more. Knowing what those other data points are, where they come from and how they’re calculated is critical in understanding what they do – and don’t – tell us about the nation’s workers.

From the NYT: House Republicans Unveil Plan to Replace Health Law

It begins.

- Click here for the article.

House Republicans unveiled on Monday their long-awaited plan to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, scrapping the mandate for most Americans to have health insurance in favor of a new system of tax credits to induce people to buy insurance on the open market.
The bill sets the stage for a bitter debate over the possible dismantling of the most significant health care law in a half-century. In its place would be a health law that would be far more oriented to the free market and would make far-reaching changes to a vast part of the American economy.
The House Republican bill would roll back the expansion of Medicaid that has provided coverage to more than 10 million people in 31 states, reducing federal payments for many new beneficiaries. It also would effectively scrap the unpopular requirement that people have insurance and eliminate tax penalties for those who go without. The requirement for larger employers to offer coverage to their full-time employees would also be eliminated.
People who let their insurance coverage lapse, however, would face a significant penalty. Insurers could increase their premiums by 30 percent, and in that sense, Republicans would replace a penalty for not having insurance with a new penalty for allowing insurance to lapse.

House Republican leaders said they would keep three popular provisions in the Affordable Care Act: the prohibition on denying coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, the ban on lifetime coverage caps and the rule allowing young people to remain on their parents’ health plans until age 26.
Republicans hope to undo other major parts of President Barack Obama’s signature domestic achievement, including income-based tax credits that help millions of Americans buy insurance, taxes on people with high incomes and the penalty for people who do not have health coverage.
Medicaid recipients’ open-ended entitlement to health care would be replaced by a per-person allotment to the states. And people with pre-existing medical conditions would face new uncertainties in a more deregulated insurance market.
The bill would also cut off federal funds to Planned Parenthood clinics through Medicaid and other government programs for one year.

For graphical looks at what will and wont change:

- NYT: The Parts of Obamacare Republicans Will Keep, Change or Discard.
- WAPO: How the House Republicans’ proposed Obamacare replacement compares.

From 538: The Eight Power Centers Of The Trump Administration

A nice look at the battles within the Trump Administration.

It also provides a great overview of the various groups that exist within each party - in this case the Republican Party

- Click here for the article.

Whenever a new administration starts, top aides to the president battle for authority and power, and the Washington press corps pushes for scoops on the “palace intrigue.” Those senior aides try to get reporters to write profiles that pump up the aides’ influence, while the reporters hope a favorable profile results in a grateful aide leaking them information in the future.
Usually, no part of this process matters to anyone outside of Washington. In 2009, President Barack Obama named a combination of ex-Bill Clinton aides, senior Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill, veteran Washington figures and a few of his longtime allies from Chicago politics to key jobs in the White House and in the Cabinet. The people in top jobs may have been slightly different than if Hillary Clinton had been elected president but not by much. Obama, like Hillary Clinton, was a center-left Democrat from the party’s congressional wing, campaigned as such and picked a team to govern that reflected the prevailing ideology in his party.
But now, White House staffers, cabinet secretaries and other advisers matter. Bigly. President Trump didn’t come from any existing wing of the Republican Party. He didn’t run as a tea party-type like Ted Cruz or in the center-right style of George W. and Jeb Bush. There is no nationalist, Trump-style faction of the Republican Party in Congress that can be plucked to fill out an entire administration.
. . . Indeed, Trump’s administration has at least eight major factions, which has become clear based on statements and decisions by his advisers since the November election but also confirmed by interviews with veteran Washington figures who are dealing with his team. And to understand what is happening and will happen in this administration, it is crucial to understand these power centers, which are cooperating but also competing with one another.

Here's the breakdown:

- The Bannon Wing
- The Pence Wing
- The McCain Wing
- The Friends and Family Wing
- The Party Wing
- The Wall Street Wing
- The Bureaucrats
- Other important figures

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

From Politico: Is Trump’s New Travel Ban Constitutional?

The new version is designed to deal with the court cases brought against the first one. A win for checks and balances.

- Click here for the article.

Version 2.0 of President Donald Trump’s travel ban was written to solve a specific problem: The federal courts were poised to hold the first version unconstitutional. But it’s not at all clear that the new order will survive judicial scrutiny, either.
Yes, Monday’s revised executive order suspending the entry of refugees and restricting entry by people from six Middle Eastern countries is more carefully crafted than its Jan. 26 predecessor. Some of the changes, like the exemptions for children and for people who already have visas, will likely obviate some constitutional objections to the earlier order.
But the darkest constitutional shadow hanging over the first travel ban hangs over the second one as well. If the current order is motivated by anti-Muslim prejudice, it violates constitutional guarantees of religious freedom, equal protection of the laws, or both.
To be sure, it would be highly unusual for the courts to strike down an executive order as purposefully discriminatory. For one thing, federal courts almost never strike down any sort of federal enactment on that ground, if only because federal courts—composed of people nominated by presidents and confirmed by senators—tend to have roughly the same mainstream intuitions about what counts as objectionable discrimination that the federal government’s lawmakers have. (The laws that get struck down as purposefully discriminatory are overwhelmingly state laws, usually from states where the relevant norms don’t quite line up with nationally predominant intuitions.)
Courts are also loath to second-guess executive branch decisions in the realms of national security and foreign affairs. But everything about this case is already highly unusual. The order’s history betrays the discriminatory purposes that today’s revised version is intended to conceal, and some of the new order’s particular content points in the same direction. As the courts will surely understand.

From the Washington Post: Supreme Court sends Virginia transgender case back to lower court

More policy change due to the change in the White House.

- Click here for the article.

The Supreme Court on Monday vacated a lower court’s ruling in favor of a Virginia transgender student after the Trump administration withdrew the federal government’s guidance to public schools about the controversial bathroom policy.
The justices were scheduled to hear the case later this month. But after the federal government’s position changed, the court said the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit should reconsider the dispute between the Gloucester County school board and 17-year-old Gavin Grimm.
The 4th Circuit had relied on the federal government’s guidance that school should let transgender students use the bathroom that corresponds with the student’s gender identity.
The Trump administration withdrew that guidance, which was issued by the Obama administration.
Both the school board and Grimm’s attorneys had asked the Supreme Court to let the case proceed, saying it presented a reading of the civil rights law Title IX that the court ultimately will have to settle.

Grimm, whose birth gender was female, has become a celebrated figure in the transgender-rights community because of his lawsuit, with profiles in national media. His case was thought to be an important milestone on the issue.
While the Obama administration said anti-discrimination laws required allowing transgender students to use the bathroom of their choice, the Trump administration said it needs more time to study the issue and put forward its own view of the law.

For more:

- NYT: Supreme Court Won’t Hear Major Case on Transgender Rights.
- ScotusBlog: Justices send transgender bathroom case back to lower courts, no action on same-sex marriage cake case.

ScotusBlog has a full record of the case here: Gloucester County School Board v. G.G.

From the Texas Tribune: Analysis: A political fishing guide for the 2018 elections in Texas

For our look at elections in Texas.

- Click here for the article.

Election numbers recently released by the Texas Legislative Council point to some soft spots in this red state’s political underbelly — places where Republicans hold office now but where Democrats at the top of the ticket have recently done well.

Specifically, they are the districts where Republicans won federal or state legislative races in 2016 while the same voters electing them were choosing Democrat Hillary Clinton over Republican Donald Trump.

Trump won Texas, but not by as much as Republicans normally do.

The non-prediction here is that every single one of these officeholders might win re-election next time they’re on the ballot.

On the other hand, a political fishing guide, in this instance, would tell you that these are districts Democrats should examine if they’re trying to win seats in the congressional delegation or in the Texas Senate or House.

The November results are more a commentary on the voters themselves — and on the Republican candidate who became president — than on the Texas candidates. These aren’t districts where everything was nominal except for the Texans. They’re districts where — for Republicans — something wasn’t working according to plan.

From the Texas Tribune: Republicans expected to revise Texas "bathroom bill"

The changes are presumably to make the bill more likely to pass.

- Click here for the article.

With the measure scheduled for a committee hearing Tuesday, Texas Republicans are expected to offer a new version of the controversial “bathroom bill” with two significant changes.

The modified bill removes a section that would have increased penalties for certain crimes committed in a bathroom or changing facility, according to a copy of a committee substitute obtained by The Texas Tribune. It also adds a new “legislative findings” section that would write into statute the reasoning that the bill's lead author, Republican state Sen.
Lois Kolkhorst, has provided in pushing for the bill.

Senate Bill 6 would require transgender people to use bathrooms in public schools, government buildings and public universities that match their “biological sex.” The measure would also pre-empt local nondiscrimination ordinances that allow transgender residents to use the bathroom that matches their gender identity.

Those regulations are largely unchanged in the substitute language expected to be presented tomorrow, but the modified bill does not include a lesser-known section that would have increased penalties for certain crimes in bathrooms by one degree. That would have meant that the punishment for an individual who commits an assault, for example, would have been higher if the assault occurred in a bathroom versus a parking lot or on a sidewalk.

The new “legislative findings” section appears to be intended to lay out the purpose of the bill. That section states that the “federal government’s mandate to provide students access to bathrooms, showers and dressing rooms based on an individual student’s internal sense of gender is alarming and could potentially lead to boys and girls showering together and using the same restroom.”

That appears to be an apparent reference to since rescinded guidelines issued by the Obama administration that directed public schools to accommodate transgender students. The Trump administration pulled back those guidelines on Feb. 22.

From the Texas Tribune: To fight anti-"sanctuary" bill, Democrats may highlight "sanctuary industries"

For the many 2306 students looking at "sanctuary city" legislation. Some strategy to attempt to derail it.

- Click here for the article.

As Texas Democrats strategize how to continue pushing back against state-based immigration proposals, they’re considering a tactic often embraced by some far-right members of the Republican Party to assist their efforts.

“I would just say that all options are on the table to expose the hypocrisy of only focusing on immigrants and not on Texas businesses that rely heavily on them,” state Rep.
Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, told the Tribune. “There may be a multi-tiered strategy to expose the hypocrisy and bring business to the table.”

Anchia, the chairman of the Mexican American Legislative Caucus, made his remarks last week, a day after he was in the middle of a bruising debate on the House floor. Anchia unleashed a six-minute tirade on the floor after state Rep.
Mark Keough, R-The Woodlands, offered an immigration-enforcement amendment to legislation that would create a new system of monthly payments for relatives caring for children in their families who have been abused or neglected. The amendment would have prevented undocumented families in the same circumstances from receiving state aid.

“If this is how the session’s going to go, and you guys want to talk about ‘illegals’ and you guys want to talk about immigrants and you guys want to talk about sanctuary cities, well, we’re going to start talking about sanctuary industries,” Anchia said during the debate, coining a new term about businesses that don’t fully vet their employees’ legal status.

Monday, March 6, 2017

A couple items about criminal justice reform.

State Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, on Thursday filed House Bill 2702, dubbed the Sandra Bland Act.
The exhaustive piece of legislation would expand what qualifies as racial and ethnic profiling; mandate people experiencing a mental health crisis and substance abuse be diverted to treatment over jail; and create more training and reporting requirements for county jails and law enforcement.
The legislation is named in honor of Sandra Bland, a black, 28-year-old Illinois woman who was found dead in an apparent suicide in the Waller County Jail in 2015.

- Texas Senate to vote only on law enforcement-related bills Monday.

Next Monday is the first day that the House and Senate can consider non-emergency items, and it will be all about law enforcement in the Senate, Lt. Governor Dan Patrick announced Monday.
Bills on other subjects will not be considered Monday, Patrick said.
"All of our first responders, every day, when they go to work, commit to do something that none of the rest of us do in Texas," Patrick said. "So we need to do all we can to make sure we're always for them, 'cause they're always there for us."

From the Texas Tribune: Tensions mount between Dan Patrick and the Texas House

No one likes being checked.

- Click here for the article.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick celebrated a milestone Wednesday: His Senate had acted on all four of Gov. Greg Abbott's emergency items with many more days to go in the 85th legislative session.
"It's the earliest ever that anyone knows of that either body ... has already passed all the emergency items," Patrick said in a radio interview. Abbott's top priorities are "out and done" in the Senate, Patrick boasted — a not-so-subtle contrast with the Texas House, which tackled its first emergency item this week.

It's not the only bone Patrick has to pick with the House these days. As its resistance to some of his top priorities has come into focus in recent weeks, the lieutenant governor has become increasingly vocal about the tension between the two chambers.

"The brow-beating — I think the volume's up a lot higher than we've seen in the past," said state Rep. Lyle Larson, an ally of House Speaker Joe Straus, a fellow San Antonio Republican. "Using a brow-beating approach in governing never bodes well for anybody."

From the Texas Tribune: House proposal aims to limit increases in Texas property tax bills

Some 2306 students are focusing on property tax reform for their papers.

- Click here for the article.

Saying there needs to be more transparency in how property taxes are assessed in Texas, the head of the House Ways and Means Committee unveiled legislation Friday that would reduce the maximum increase allowed in taxes on individual properties.
House Bill 15, dubbed the “Property Taxpayer Empowerment Act” and authored by state Rep. Dennis Bonnen, R-Angleton, would reduce the maximum increase in taxes for a property — from 8 percent to 4 percent. The legislation would also require local governments to annually publish a “No New Taxes Rate" — which is the rate that would raise the same amount of money as the previous year — and restrict debt service taxes to debt that has been approved by voters.
“Government only works when citizens can hold their leaders accountable, and accountability begins with transparency,” Bonnen said in a news release. “Our property tax system is needlessly confusing and discourages citizens from taking an active role in the local rate-setting process. The Property Taxpayer Empowerment Act will give Texans the information and clarity they need about their tax bill to hold local leaders accountable.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

From the Texas Tribune: Texas Supreme Court Justice, House Corrections Chair Want to End ‘Unconstitutional’ Practice of Debtors’ Prison

We discussed whether the constitutional ban - in the Texas Constitution mind you - against debtors prisons is routinely violated when people are sent to jail for unpaid tickets. Apparently some in the legislature agree.

- Click here for the article.

Drive with an invalid license, drink one too many beers in public or let your dog run free where leash laws say you can’t, and you could get hit with a fine. If you don’t have the money to pay, you could end up serving time in jail instead.

Republicans, including the Texas Supreme Court chief justice and the chair of the House Corrections Committee, want to dismantle that practice, which they say violates the U.S. Constitution and traps thousands of indigent Texans in a cycle of debt.

Jailing a person for his or her inability to pay a fine is illegal under state and federal law, and multiple
U.S. Supreme Court rulings have declared the practice unconstitutional. The Texas Constitution states, “No person shall ever be imprisoned for debt.” Yet de facto debtors’ prisons still operate across the state.

During his
State of the Judiciary address earlier this month, Chief Justice Nathan L. Hecht said more than half a million minor offenses resulted in defendants sitting out fines in jail last year. Texas judges presided over 7 million such cases, which produced more than $1 billion in fine revenue in 2016, he said. The majority of defendants paid and moved on with their lives, but in 640,000 cases, defendants ended up behind bars.

“It’s very problematic when we’re confining people who cannot pay,” state Representative James White, R-Hillister, who heads the House Corrections Committee, told the Observer. “We’ve got constitutional issues, cost issues, common sense issues and compassion issues here.”

From the Texas Tribune: Texas Supreme Court to take up same-sex marriage case

Traditionalists in the state are finding ways to push back against Obergerfells v Hodges.

- Click here for the article.

Almost two years after same-sex marriage was legalized nationwide, Texas Republicans are still fighting the ruling — and they’re getting another day in court.
The Texas Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments on Wednesday in a Houston case challenging the city’s benefits policy for married same-sex couples. Though such policies have been in place since the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 2015 ruling in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges, Texas conservatives are betting the Houston case opens up a path to relitigate the high court’s decision.
“This particular opinion will go to the U.S. Supreme Court and is a potential vehicle for overturning Obergefell given the changing composition of the court,” said Jared Woodfill, one of the lawyers leading the lawsuit filed against Houston on behalf of two taxpayers, and a prominent conservative activist in the city. “Ultimately, I would like to see Obergefell overturned.”
At the center of the Houston case is whether Obergefell, which legalized same-sex marriage across the country, requires the city and other governmental agencies to extend taxpayer-subsidized benefits to same-sex spouses of government employees.
In Obergefell, the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015 ruled that bans on marriages between couples of the same sex are unconstitutional and that states must recognize same-sex marriage as legal. Following that ruling, public employers in the state quickly extended benefits for same-sex spouses of public employees.
But opponents argue that interpretation was far too broad.
“Obergefell may require states to license and recognize same-sex marriages, but that does not require states to give taxpayer subsidies to same-sex couples — any more than Roe v. Wade requires states to subsidize abortions or abortion providers,” lawyers challenging the Houston policy wrote in a filing with the Texas Supreme Court.
They argue that the right to marry does not “entail any particular package of tax benefits, employee fringe benefits or testimonial privileges.” (In a separate case against the state’s now-defunct ban on same-sex marriage, the Texas Attorney General’s office actually argued that marriage is a right that comes with benefits the state is entitled to control.)
A spokeswoman for Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner declined to comment on the upcoming hearing, saying the city prefers “to offer our arguments in the court and our filings.”

Update: Treat same-sex couples the same as others, Texas Supreme Court told.

Monday, February 27, 2017

For 2306 today - and tomorrow

All from the Texas Tribune: 

- Texas proposal would keep cities from restricting short-term home rentals.

A legislative proposal that would limit local government control of short-term home rentals in Texas has reawakened a fight over regulations that has already played out in cities across the state. Senate Bill 451 by state Sen. Kelly Hancock, R- North Richland Hills, would prevent Texas cities from banning or restricting short-term rentals. Austin, San Antonio and Fort Worth are among the cities that have enacted such restrictions. Critics of the bill said it would lower property values and allow Texans to rent houses to people who might host disruptive parties and increase traffic in their neighborhoods.

- Unlikely allies: some homeschoolers fighting to kill school choice bill.

Nicki Truesdell is a product of homeschooling and would never enroll her four younger children in a public or private school. Corrine French has spent the last five years serving on the board of a rural public school district in North Texas. Both are terrified a "private school choice" bill will pass this legislative session. The longtime friends say they were surprised to find themselves on the same side of an education policy fight as state senators consider a bill to give parents debit cards to pay for private school and homeschooling, using taxpayer money. The polarizing issue has brought together unlikely allies, with some homeschoolers, rural conservatives and public education advocates fighting what they see as an encroachment on their schools.

- Analysis: In bathroom bill, politics disguised as policy.

The proposed bathroom bill percolating in the Texas Legislature doesn’t do what its supporters say it is supposed to do. Here’s the caption — the legal description at the top of Senate Bill 6: “relating to regulations and policies for entering or using a bathroom or changing facility; authorizing a civil penalty; increasing criminal penalties.”
That’s pretty straightforward, because it has to be, but the rhetoric around the bill is more florid — and misleading. It purports to protect Texans answering nature’s calls from people of the opposite sex. It has a logical flaw, however, because it doesn’t protect them in most of the public restrooms in the state — only the public restrooms in public buildings.

- The Brief: Bill banning wrongful birth lawsuits heads to Senate committee.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

From the US House of Representatives: Presidential Vetoes 

A summary of the history of vetoes.

- Click here for it.

Article I, section 7 of the Constitution grants the President the authority to veto legislation passed by Congress. This authority is one of the most significant tools the President can employ to prevent the passage of legislation. Even the threat of a veto can bring about changes in the content of legislation long before the bill is ever presented to the President. The Constitution provides the President 10 days (excluding Sundays) to act on legislation or the legislation automatically becomes law. There are two types of vetoes: the “regular veto” and the “pocket veto.”

The regular veto is a qualified negative veto. The President returns the unsigned legislation to the originating house of Congress within a 10 day period usually with a memorandum of disapproval or a “veto message.” Congress can override the President’s decision if it musters the necessary two–thirds vote of each house. President George Washington issued the first regular veto on April 5, 1792. The first successful congressional override occurred on March 3, 1845, when Congress overrode President John Tyler’s veto of S. 66.

From GovTrack: A review of the 2015–2016 Congress, the last Congress of the Obama Administration

A summary of the 114th Congress

- Click here for the article.

The 114th Congress, the session that ran from January 3, 2015 through January 3, 2017, was historic. Republicans regained control of the Senate for the first time in eight years. After four years in which Republicans controlled the House, President Obama for the first time faced a Congress where both chambers were run by the Republicans. Yet some pieces of meaningful legislation were still enacted, and there were many others which didn’t quite cross the finish line due to election-year caution or presidential vetoes, but should be viewed as trial runs for successful versions to come in 2017–18 under President Trump.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A grab bag of items from Congress

Sen. Susan Collins said she thinks the Intelligence Committee could subpoena President Donald Trump’s tax records as part of its investigation into Russian interference in last year’s election if that’s where the evidence leads. “I don’t know whether we will need to do that,” the Maine Republican said Wednesday. “If it’s necessary to get to the answers, then I suspect that we would.”

- Brat Gets an Earful at Virginia Town Hall.

Judging by the reaction of the crown, Rep. David Brat, R-Va., might not have accomplished his mission in a town hall meeting on Tuesday. Brat was heckled and booed in a restaurant conference room in Blackstone when he defended President Donald Trump and his stances on health care and immigration, The Associated Press reported. “People are very nervous and anxious after the Trump win,” Brat said. “So my goal tonight is to help allay some of those anxieties.”

- Supreme Court Nominee Gorsuch’s Hearings to Begin March 20.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley announced Thursday that the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Judge Neil Gorsuch will begin March 20. Grassley's office indicated in a statement that the opening statements will take place on Monday, March 20, and Gorsuch will face the committee the following day. The hearings are expected to last three to four days and include testimony from outside experts.

From NBCNews: Assault Weapons Not Protected by Second Amendment, Federal Appeals Court Rules

This will very likely end up in the Supreme Court.

- Click here for the article.

Maryland's ban on 45 kinds of assault weapons and its 10-round limit on gun magazines were upheld Tuesday by a federal appeals court in a decision that met with a strongly worded dissent.
In a 10-4 ruling, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia, said the guns banned under Maryland's law aren't protected by the Second Amendment.
"Put simply, we have no power to extend Second Amendment protections to weapons of war," Judge Robert King wrote for the court, adding that the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller explicitly excluded such coverage.
Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh, who led the push for the law in 2013 as a state senator, said it's "unthinkable that these weapons of war, weapons that caused the carnage in Newtown and in other communities across the country, would be protected by the Second Amendment."
"It's a very strong opinion, and it has national significance, both because it's en-banc and for the strength of its decision," Frosh said, noting that all of the court's judges participated.
Judge William Traxler issued a dissent. By concluding the Second Amendment doesn't even apply, Traxler wrote, the majority "has gone to greater lengths than any other court to eviscerate the constitutionally guaranteed right to keep and bear arms." He also wrote that the court did not apply a strict enough review on the constitutionality of the law.
"For a law-abiding citizen who, for whatever reason, chooses to protect his home with a semi-automatic rifle instead of a semi-automatic handgun, Maryland's law clearly imposes a significant burden on the exercise of the right to arm oneself at home, and it should at least be subject to strict scrutiny review before it is allowed to stand," Traxler wrote.
National Rifle Association spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said, "It is absurd to hold that the most popular rifle in America is not a protected 'arm' under the Second Amendment." She added that the majority opinion "clearly ignores the Supreme Court's guidance from District of Columbia v. Heller that the Second Amendment protects arms that are 'in common use at the time for lawful purposes like self-defense.'"

From the Pew Research Center: 5 facts about crime in the U.S.

File this under fact checking.

Number 3 might be the most important fact listed.

- Click here for the article.

Donald Trump made crime-fighting an important focus of his campaign for president, and he cited it again during his inaugural address in January. With the White House and Justice Department announcing steps to address violence in American communities, here are five facts about crime in the United States.

1- Violent crime in the U.S. has fallen sharply over the past quarter century.
2 - Property crime has declined significantly over the long term
3 - Public perceptions about crime in the U.S. often don’t align with the data.
4 - There are large geographic variations in crime rates.
5 - Many crimes are not reported to police.

From the National Law Journal: Order to Reveal Detainee Names May Grow List of Plaintiffs Challenging Travel Ban

More checking and balancing of the Trump Administration from the courts.

- Click here for the article.

A Brooklyn judge's ruling for the Trump administration to produce a list of travelers who were detained under a controversial travel ban it issued in January may help plaintiffs' attorneys in the New York case challenging the ban to grow their clients' ranks.
Eastern District Judge Carol Bagley Amon ruled on Tuesday that the government has until 5 p.m. on Thursday to submit the names of all those held by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents under the Trump administration's executive order from 9:37 p.m. on Jan. 28, when Eastern District Judge Ann Donnelly issued a ruling to stay deportations, to 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 29.
In a news release, Healy Ko, a law student intern for Yale Law School's Worker and Immigrant Rights Advocacy Clinic, said Amon's order was an "important step in the fight to repair the damage done" by the executive order.
"We are aware of reports that CBP officers deliberately ignored the court's order in the hours after the decision came down, and are confident that the court's decision will help to identify individuals that were unlawfully removed and provide them a chance to return to the United States," Ko said.
In addition to counsel from Yale Law, the plaintiffs are also represented by the National Immigration Law Center, the International Refugee Assistance Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton.
The Justice Department did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Amon's order partially granted a motion to compel filed by the plaintiffs, who include doctors, refugees and students affected by the order. The plaintiffs have also moved for class certification, but there has been no ruling on the motion.
The plaintiffs' motion to compel also contained a proposed order for the government to return any individuals who were removed from the United States as part of the order.

- Click here for the Judge Amon's Wikipedia page.

From the Texas Tribune: Judge: Texas can't kick Planned Parenthood out of Medicaid

Here's a current example of cooperative and/or coercive federalism - depending on your ideological point of view.

- Click here for the article.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled Tuesday afternoon that Texas clinics affiliated with Planned Parenthood can continue to care for patients under the state’s Medicaid program, a phew-worthy victory for reproductive rights advocates and a loss for the state's GOP leaders.
In a 42-page ruling, Sparks wrote that the state's arguments in the case were "the building blocks of a best-selling novel rather than a case concerning the interplay of federal and state authority through the Medicaid program."
"After reviewing the evidence currently in the record, the Court finds the Inspector General, and thus [the Texas Health and Human Services Commission], likely acted to disenroll qualified health care providers from Medicaid without cause," the ruling read. "Such action would deprive Medicaid patients of their statutory right to obtain health care from their chosen qualified provider."
The ruling comes more than a year after Planned Parenthood first sued Texas to stay in the joint federal-state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. Texas had begun the process of kicking Planned Parenthood out — even though its participating clinics provided reproductive health care and cancer screenings, not abortions — in October 2015. But the state did not send a final notice to those providers until December 2016. The affiliates in the lawsuit include Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and Planned Parenthood of South Texas.
. . . Shortly after the ruling, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton said in a news release he was disappointed with the decision and plans to appeal. He said the videos provided sufficient evidence and "exposed a brazen willingness by Planned Parenthood officials to traffic in fetal body parts."
"No taxpayer in Texas should have to subsidize this repugnant and illegal conduct," Paxton said. "We should never lose sight of the fact that, as long as abortion is legal in the United States, the potential for these types of horrors will continue.”
In court, Planned Parenthood attorneys argued that not allowing the reproductive health provider to stay in the Medicaid program, which is largely funded by the federal government, would severely curb access to care for poor Texas men and women seeking preventive and sexual health services. The attorneys also argued that the state did not have the capacity to deliver these services in the same way Planned Parenthood does and reiterated that state and federal law already prohibit taxpayer dollars from being spent on abortion services.

- Click here for the ruling.
- Click here for Judge Sparks' Wikipedia page.

Monday, February 20, 2017

From GovTrack: A constitutional amendment to reapportion House seats based on citizenship, not residency.

Here's focus on a resolution introduced to change a key component of the Constitution.

- Click here for the article.

Seats in the U.S. House of Representatives are apportioned based on the number of residents of each state. That includes undocumented immigrants, green card holders, and other non-citizens. House Joint Resolution 30, introduced by Rep. Steve King (R-IA4), is a proposed constitutional amendment that would change House apportionment to be based upon citizenship instead of residency.
What the constitutional amendment would do
A 2015 Congressional Research Service report analyzed the effect such a change would produce, using 2013 citizenship figures. Compared to the current numbers, California would lose four House seats, while Texas, Florida, and New York would each lose one. Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia would each gain one seat. The total of 435 seats in the House is fixed by a 1929 law.
The report also adds: “Using citizenship status to apportion the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives tends to benefit states with smaller immigrant populations and cost states with larger immigrant populations.” This is likely the real motivation here, as King has also introduced the Birthright Citizenship Act, which would end the policy of automatic citizenship to anybody born on U.S. soil regardless of parental citizenship.
The bill failed in years past, but the tide may turn under Trump
Rep. Candace Miller (R-MI10), who served until this past year, introduced a similar amendment three times before, in 2005, 2007, and 2009. If cosponsors are any indication, the idea actually became less popular by the year, as the amendment received 37 cosponsors, then 31 cosponsors, and 28 cosponsors. The resolutions proposing the amendment never received a vote in the House Judiciary Committee, and no member of Congress introduced it after that — until this year.
But now has the tide turned? The populist election of President Trump and a newly emboldened and more-conservative Republican congressional majority are resulting in new policies taken against non-citizens such as a Muslim refugee ban and withholding federal funding from sanctuary cities.

Texas Republicans like President Trump

And they suddenly like the direction the country is headed.

Big surprise. Both stories are from the Texas Tribune.

- UT/TT Poll: A new president, popular with Texas Republicans.

- UT/TT Poll: A change in party control prompts a change in Texans’ moods.

From Mother Jones: Trump Expected to Sign Executive Orders Hitting the EPA

I'm posting this because it contains the following quote:
"I read the constitution of the United States, and the word 'environmental protection' does not appear there."

- Click here for the article.

Scott Pruitt will almost certainly be the next head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The Oklahoma attorney general's nomination is expected to sail through the Senate—possibly as soon as Friday—despite Democrats' protests that he is unfit to lead an agency that he has repeatedly sued. The administration has already imposed a freeze on the EPA's social media, halted its rulemaking, and reportedly mandated that all agency research be reviewed by a political appointee before being released to the public. But next week, once Pruitt is sworn in, the real frenzy will begin.
According to Reuters, President Donald Trump plans to sign between two and five environmental executive orders aimed at the EPA and possibly the State Department. The White House is reportedly planning to hold an event at the EPA headquarters, similar to the administration's rollout of its widely condemned travel ban after Defense Secretary James Mattis took office. While we don't know what, exactly, next week's orders will say, Trump is expected to restrict the agency's regulatory oversight. Based on one administration official's bluster, the actions could "suck the air" out of the room.
Trump may have hinted at the forthcoming orders in his unwieldy press conference on Thursday. "Some very big things are going to be announced next week," he said. (He didn't make clear whether or not he was referring to the EPA.)
Former President Barack Obama's array of climate regulations, including the Clean Power Plan limiting power plant emissions, are certainly high on conservative activists' hit list. So, too, is the landmark Paris climate deal, in which Obama agreed to dramatically cut domestic carbon emissions and provide aide to other countries for clean energy projects and climate adaptation. The EPA's rule that defines its jurisdiction over wetlands and streams is also a prime target. As attorney general, Pruitt launched lawsuits against a number of these regulations.
"What I would like to see are executive orders on implementing all of President Trump's main campaign promises on environment and energy, including withdrawing from the Paris climate treaty," said Myron Ebell, who headed Trump's EPA transition and recently returned to the Competitive Enterprise Institute, in an email to Mother Jones.

From C-Span: Presidential Historians Survey: 2017

Just in time for Presidents Day.

This is the first with Obama - he ranks 12th according to the historians

- Click here for the list.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

From the Texas Tribune: Federal judge sanctions Texas in voter registration lawsuit

More on both voter registration, and conflict between the state of Texas and the national government.

- Click here for the article.

A federal judge has ordered sanctions against the state of Texas for blowing past deadlines and ignoring a court order to hand over thousands of pages of documents in a lawsuit challenging its voter registration practices.
Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s office’s “months-long delay” in producing the documents “has been disruptive, time consuming, cost consuming” and has burdened plaintiffs in the lawsuit, U.S. District Judge Orlando Garcia of San Antonio wrote in an order signed Thursday. Garcia ordered the state to pay some of the plaintiffs’ legal fees, including those tied to the sanctions request.
The Texas Civil Rights Project last March sued on behalf of four Texans who allege the Department of Public Safety denied them the opportunity to cast a ballot — and violated federal law — by failing to update their voter registration records online.
The group, hoping for quick action during the 2018 election cycle, argued in a motion for sanctions last month that foot-dragging from Paxton’s office was hampering its case. State lawyers turned over less than 2 percent of the 55,000 requested pages by Jan. 17 — a court-ordered deadline set after Texas asked for several extensions.

A very worthwhile rant

So to be completely honestly I can rant on and on about a number of things, but I guess Ill just pick one for this assignment. I'm going to complain about makeup companies and their shade ranges. Now I know that every single makeup company cannot have a shade for every single skin color in the whole universe but come on now. There are so many makeup brands that come out with foundation or concealer that only have like 6 colors and are only for white people. Like its getting ridiculous. There are so many brands of foundation I would love to buy but their darkest color is called “deep” but I'd really actually just for someone with a tan. I take it very offensively because they are making it seem like the black community doesn't wear are up as much so let's just not even give them shade options. Now I'm not saying give one for every shade of black there is but at least make an effort to have some options for the darker complexions. You know what works my nerves even more than not having darker shades at all? It is when the brand comes out with a shade that says “deep” or “ebony” but it is my skin color… like I am not even that dark that is absolutely ridiculous. That's just being stupid because in what world is a light skin person considered deep or ebony.

From the Monkey Cage: Trump wants voter registration investigated. This is how 20 states are already doing it.

Here's a topic that bridges 2305 and 2306.

- Click here for the article.

In a Wednesday morning tweet, President Trump returned to his campaign refrain of widespread electoral problems and called for “an investigation into voter fraud, including those registered to vote in two states.”

Within hours, it was revealed that at least five people close to Trump — daughter Tiffany, son-in-law Jared Kushner, adviser Stephen K. Bannon, treasury nominee Steven Mnuchin and press secretary Sean Spicer — are registered to vote in more than one state.
They are not alone. A 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts report estimated that 2.75 million Americans were on the voter rolls in more than one state and that 1.8 million dead people remained on the rolls.
Like Trump’s family members and associates, these are people who registered to vote legally, but when they moved or passed away, their names were not deleted from voter lists.
It’s not illegal to be registered to vote in more than one state, but it is illegal to vote more than once. By holding more than one registration, a voter could conceivably drive across state lines to cast ballots in different places. Or a voter could request an absentee ballot in one state and vote in person in another state. Such scenarios, even if only a few instances have actually occurred, concern many Americans.
Whose responsibility is it to ensure that voter lists are accurate?
Is it the job of the voters? When they move and register in a new state, should they remember to contact the clerk’s office in their former state to cancel their registration? Should relatives or friends of a person who just passed away be charged with notifying the county clerk?
Some diligent Americans do this. But most expect that the state will find out about a move or a death through government records. This is where the system breaks down.

From the Pew Research Center: A basic question when reading a poll: Does it include or exclude nonvoters?

In some 2305 sections we've been discussing polling. Here's an important reminder of what can throw polls off.

- Click here for the article.

The early days of a new presidential administration produce not just a blizzard of news but a blizzard of numbers. Pollsters of all stripes race to get and report Americans’ first impressions of their new president. But, frustratingly, those reports don’t always match up as precisely as the Type A among us might wish.
Take the past three weeks of polling on President Donald Trump. Depending on the poll, Trump’s approval rating between Feb. 5 and 13 could have been as high as 53% or as low as 39%. So which was it?
There are a number of possible reasons for polls arriving at different estimates – from the mode used to collect data to how people are selected for a survey – but here we’ll tackle one of the most basic: Did the poll include or exclude the 45% of adult Americans who didn’t cast a vote last November?

From the Houston Chronicle: HOUSTON Lawmaker's bill reopens debate over $105M Astrodome parking plan - Lawmaker requires voter approval; local government calls it 'micromanaging'

We covered the initial proposal - which did not require additional revenue, meaning no need for voter approval - in the fall. Here's the latest.

- Click here for the article.

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett voiced concern Tuesday that a bill filed by a veteran state senator jeopardizes the county's plan to revitalize the Astrodome, adding that county representatives would continue to try to persuade legislators to support the $105 million project.
Emmett said state Sen. John Whitmire's bill, the Harris County Taxpayer Protection Act, was misleading and that Whitmire's statements that some Astrodome renovation funds could be spent on Minute Maid Park or the Toyota Center were "demonstrably incorrect."
"This bill is an example of state government making it more difficult for local government to do its job," Emmett said.

Whitmire's bill would require voter approval for a county plan to spend $105 million to raise the floor of the iconic, domed stadium and create 1,400 parking spaces and space for events or festivals.
Emmett, a Republican, said the county would delay a "comprehensive analysis of future operation and maintenance needs at NRG Park" until the bill's fate were decided. NRG Park includes the 52-year-old Astrodome, NRG Stadium, home of the Houston Texans and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, and event venues NRG Arena and NRG Center.
At a press conference Tuesday in Austin, Whitmire and other state senators from the Houston area gathered to express their support of legislation that would effectively block - or at least delay - Emmett's plan.

For more: More on the Whitmire Astrodome bill.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

From the Austin American-Statesman: Texas conservatives launch next fight on religious liberty

More evidence of Texas' traditionalistic political culture. This sets up a constitutional conflict: The First Amendment vs the Equal Protection Clause.

- Click here for the article.

Conservative Republican senators and representatives Wednesday unveiled a dozen bills designed to protect religious practice, including efforts to allow Christians to opt out of serving gay couples if same-sex marriage violates their beliefs.

Unlike the 2015 session, when efforts to approve broad constitutional amendments to protect religious practice fell far short, the bills filed thus far focus on specific issues and were the result of a concerted effort to “make sure that religious liberty bills are at the forefront this session,” said state Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth.

“Religious liberties are the bedrock of what our state and our country were built on, and we want to make sure we are protecting those, preserving those and advancing those liberties as much as possible,” Krause said during a Capitol news conference.

Many of the bills have already attracted spirited opposition from critics who say they would authorize state-sanctioned discrimination.

“Religious liberty protections allow us to worship freely and to be vocal about what our religious beliefs are,” said Chuck Smith with Equality Texas. “But religious liberty does not allow me to exempt myself from laws or allow me to use my religious beliefs against other people. That’s discrimination, that’s not religious liberty.”

“There’s no discrimination here,” Krause said. “We’re just trying to open it up to where people can continue to work and do what they love to do in the way that they want to do it.”

One of the farthest reaching proposals, known as the First Amendment Defense Act, would not permit state or local governments to penalize people for acting on religious beliefs opposing gay marriage.

From the Houston Press: DA Ogg, Police Leaders Announce Landmark Marijuana Diversion Program

A product of the fact that county officials are elected by county voters.

- Click here for the article.

District Attorney Kim Ogg and heads of local law enforcement announced Thursday that, starting March 1, all police agencies in Harris County will no longer arrest people caught with four ounces or less of marijuana, and the DA's office will no longer be prosecuting those cases.

The remarkable move, which Ogg had championed throughout her 2016 campaign, pushes the third largest county in the nation to the forefront of marijuana reform in places where it is still illegal. Harris County will join only the Brooklyn County District Attorney's Office in New York in choosing to divert misdemeanor marijuana defendants away from jail entirely, saving taxpayers millions of dollars and saving thousands of people the lifelong burden of a criminal record.

Instead of being arrested and hauled off to jail, low-level potheads and casual smokers will instead be asked to take a four-hour decision-making class, at a cost of $150 (exceptions will be made for indigent people). Harris County Sheriff Ed Gonzalez, Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo and Mayor Sylvester Turner joined Ogg in developing the landmark policy. It replaces former district attorney Devon Anderson's First Chance Diversion Program, which only applied to first-time offenders caught with less than two ounces, which Ogg had criticized as being too narrow.

“At 107,000 cases over the last ten years, we have spent in excess of $250 million dollars collectively prosecuting a crime that has produced no tangible evidence of improved public safety,” Ogg said. “Additionally, the collateral damage to our workforce is immeasurable — because what we have done is we have disqualified, unnecessarily, thousands of people from greater job, housing and education opportunities by giving them a criminal record for what is in effect a minor law violation.”

And of course, there's an effort to push back against the initiative.

- Houston Chronicle: Ogg under fire for new marijuana plan.

A nice and pointless rant - Animal naming scientists need to get their act together.

Animal names are stupid. So are the scientists that classify the animals. Who decided that whales belong in a category of mammals such as lions and bears and not with other aquatic animals? The whale is clearly a fish. It has fins, lives in the water, and swims. Who cares that its babies are born alive? That's not how we should be classifying animals. The only difference between a frog and a toad is warts. I guess the animal scientists wanted to receive credit for discovering a new species rather than tolerate the idea that a frog can have acne. We see a similar situation with crocodiles and alligators. One of the reasons experts say that crocodiles are different from alligators is that the 4th tooth on the bottom sticks out. So somebody looked at an alligator and decided that they discovered an entirely new species rather than thinking that the gator has messed up teeth. People have messed up teeth all of the time and we have to go get braces to fix it. Alligators cannot walk into an orthodontist and get braces, so they have to live with their imperfections. A loss of access to an orthodontist does not constitute a new species. Another thing that really bothers me is the color that scientists use to name animals. If you look at the red panda and the red squirrel you will come to my conclusion that they are not red. They are orange. Not red. Orange. Animal naming scientists need to get their act together.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Texas Attorney General in the news

Both form the Texas Tribune:

- Texas Attorney General first in country to file brief backing Trump travel ban.

Attorney General Ken Paxton issued an amicus brief Wednesday expressing his support of President Donald Trump's travel ban, effectively becoming the first state attorney general to back the controversial executive order.

Under the executive order, travelers from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Libya are barred from entering the United States for the next 90 days. Last month, the ban immediately created chaotic scenes in major airports across the country, where refugees in transit were detained.
“The law makes it very clear that the president has discretion to protect the safety of the American people and our nation’s institutions with respect to who can come into this country,” Paxton said in a news release. “The safety of the American people and the security of our country are President Trump’s major responsibilities under the law.”
Last week, a three judge panel from the 9th Circuit Court upheld a temporary restraining order which blocked parts of the order. In his brief, Paxton said the "president’s immigration order is a lawful exercise of congressionally delegated executive power over foreign affairs and national security."

- Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton hangs on politically as criminal trial looms.

That case has now dogged Paxton for over 18 months, hanging over most of his first term as Texas' attorney general. And yet, for all the rancor, Paxton appears to be surviving politically, a reality reflected here Monday night as he spoke to the NE Tarrant Tea Party, trumpeting his past legal victories over former President Barack Obama, looking forward to the Donald Trump era fully ramping up — and yes, addressing what one questioner delicately referred to as "your case."

The public's curiosity over Paxton's legal situation is sure to only increase — both inside and outside rooms like the one he addressed Monday night. In less than three months, Texans will watch as their attorney general stands trial on securities fraud charges, facing up to 99 years in prison. For many, it will be the first time they have heard in any detail about the allegation that Paxton misled investors in a company from before his time as attorney general.
The case goes back to August 2015, when a Collin County grand jury indicted Paxton on two counts of first-degree securities fraud and one count of third-degree failure to register with the state securities board. The most serious allegation is that Paxton, while a state representative, duped the investors in the company, a McKinney technology startup called Servergy, by failing to disclose he was making a commission. The U.S. Securities Exchange Commission brought a similar, civil case against Paxton in April 2016, and while a federal judge dismissed those charges in October, the SEC has kept the case alive by filing amended allegations.

Paxton and his allies have increasingly argued in recent months that he is the subject of a revenge plot by political foes he made before — and during — the 2014 attorney general's race. It's a theory that many of his supporters have also adopted — and could be key to his prevailing in at least the court of public opinion.

From Politico: Doubts grow that GOP can repeal Obamacare - Probably only Donald Trump can whip the party's warring factions in line, but so far he's sent vague and conflicting messages.

Repeal is tougher than it seems.

- Click here for the article.

Republicans have reached a gut check moment: After spending more than six years vowing to fix the flagging patient that is Obamacare, it’s the GOP’s own repeal effort that’s on life support.
Undoing the health care law despised by conservatives seemed to be a straightforward proposition for the party after it won the White House and retained control of both chambers of Congress. Instead, Republicans are sniping over how much of the law to scrap, what to replace it with and when. At this moment, it's far from a sure thing any plan could get through Congress.
Consider Paul Ryan's feel-good meeting with Senate Republicans on Tuesday. The House speaker trekked across the Capitol to reassure senators that lawmakers are making more progress toward repealing the health care law than the media are reporting.
But not everyone was buying it. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) left before it was over, having heard enough of a conversation that he says centers around keeping Obamacare's Medicaid expansion intact and creating tax credits that he called a "new entitlement program," though a Republican in the room rebutted the notion that the topic of Medicaid expansion came up in the Tuesday meeting with Ryan.
“I hear things that are unacceptable to me,” Paul said in an interview afterward. “If they don’t seem to care what conservatives think about complete repeal of Obamacare, they’re going to be shocked when they count the votes.”

Limiting Trump

Here are four out of a number of articles detailing how aspects of the governing system - both internal and external - are limiting efforts of the Trump Administration to quickly implement its goals.

I've mentioned in class that inertia is built into the constitutional system, here's proof.

1 - Lawfare: Bannon in Washington: A Report on the Incompetence of Evil.

Steve Bannon has proved himself to be so monumentally incompetent that I am fairly certain the Republic is safer than I could have believed three weeks ago, at least from Bannon’s flailing efforts to maximize whatever supposed contradictions he believes he has identified.
Bannon isn’t an arch-villain. And he’s not the guy who’s going to destroy American democracy. Instead, as I’ll explain, he’s just an internet troll.
Bannon’s ineptitude has become clear in the context of his role at the center of the refugee order’s botched writing and rollout—strangely, the same context out of which emerged the portrait of him as the sinister, all-knowing eminence grise. To paraphrase Benjamin Wittes, the executive order was both deeply malevolent and profoundly incompetent.
. . . it’s very hard to dismantle major democratic institutions without a certain degree of capability. The establishment of authoritarianism takes both effort and cunning. And I’m much less worried than I was that these folks have the kind of cunning and focus it would take to take down the American experiment.
And for that I say, thanks, Steve Bannon.

2 - Lawfare: The Real Constitutional Danger.

The real story in the last week, and indeed of the Trump presidency, is (as predicted) how well our constitutional checks and balances are working in reaction to an unorthodox, norm-breaking, law-indifferent President. It is increasingly clear that the main danger in a Trump presidency is not that it will be too strong, but that it will be too weak.

In November I argued that “the permanent bureaucracy, including inspectors general and government lawyers; the press; civil society; Congress; and courts … will operate in much more robust fashion to check President Trump than they did to check President Obama,” and that “Trump’s seeming indifference to the rule of law and his pledges to act unlawfully will cause the checking institutions to judge all of his actions with much greater scrutiny and skepticism.” That is precisely what has happened.

3 - Washington Post: In the early weeks of the new administration, the humbling of a president.

For Trump, nothing has proved as easy as it might have looked on the campaign trail, despite the flurry of executive orders and actions that flowed from his desk in the first days after the inauguration. He has signaled a radically different direction for the country, but only that. Senior policy adviser Stephen Miller’s claim that Trump has accomplished more in a few weeks than most presidents do in their entire administrations should be seen as the fanciful boast that it is. The record is only beginning to be written.
The powers of the president are vast, but they are not unlimited. Trump has come face to face with the checks and balances built into the Constitution and with the difficulty of commanding a huge bureaucracy of federal workers who value their role as public servants. He has seen anew the power of a free press to dig and report and hold those in power accountable. He has felt the power and sting of leaks from inside the government. There’s nothing new about any of this. It has been true for past presidents. Trump is learning the lesson painfully.

4 - The New Republic: Donald Trump Is on the Ropes.

Trump’s obsession with the leakers, and those who are eager to publish these leaks, is consistent with his longtime political strategy of demonizing the press and professional bureaucrats. The leaking issue allows him to pair these two alleged foes as a united enemy—a characterization his base will no doubt devour—and also allows him to have his cake and eat it, too: He can bemoan the “illegally given” information on the one hand, and then claim it’s all “fake news” anyway. Further, this obsession is also consistent with his propensity for conspiracy theories. The very anonymity of leakers makes it easy to portray them as shadowy conspirators plotting against him.
This isn’t just a matter of rhetoric, though. It’s also a reflection of Trump’s approach to governing. He’s being undermined by leakers because he doesn’t know how government works, is isolated and alienated from the professional bureaucracy, and has been slow in appointing his own people to key spots. The result is an utterly chaotic, confused administration—and where there’s chaos and confusion in government, there are usually leaks, too.

A look at checks and balances on the state level - the case of North Carolina

Slate - which tends to be a bit to the left - details what the Republican dominated legislature in North Carolina to limit the power of the incoming Democratic governor, as well as the response of the courts.

It's a great look at checks and balances.

First: North Carolina Republicans’ Legislative Coup Is an Attack on Democracy.

Republicans in the North Carolina General Assembly staged a shocking legislative coup on Wednesday night, calling a second special session and proposing a raft of measures designed to strip power from the newly progressive state Supreme Court and governorship. This last-minute power grab marks an alarming departure from basic democratic norms—a blatant attempt to overturn the results of an election by curtailing judicial independence and restructuring the government to seize authority lawfully delegated to the incoming Democratic governor.

- The article goes on to list the specific measures introduced to limit both the governor and the courts.

Second: The North Carolina Supreme Court Just Blocked Republicans’ Unlawful Election Board Power Grab.

Note that the North Carolina Supreme Court has argued that the changes - at least those related to the Board of Elections - violate the separation of powers.

There is, however, a serious constitutional flaw in the bill. North Carolina’s constitution creates strict separation of powers, requiring that “the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers … shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.” It vests “the executive power” in the governor and states that he or she must “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” Fortunately for Cooper, the State Board of Elections is an executive agency, and county election boards are arms of that agency. That means Cooper has a constitutional requirement to “take care” that the boards fully implement election laws.

Yet as Cooper pointed out in his lawsuit to halt the attempted restructuring, Republicans have deprived him of that ability. “By creating an evenly divided board structure and then imposing a super-majority voting requirement for all actions,” the suit states, “the legislative appointees can effectively hamstring the myriad actions required for the proper administration and execution of elections and elections laws.” Similarly, the evenly divided county boards would be “consistently deadlocked and unable to act,” and thus “unable to carry out their [statutory] duties.”

“In short,” the suit concludes, the Republican restructuring “ensures that the New State Board and county boards will be unable to execute the State’s election law, and it strips from the Governor any ability to change that circumstance. Accordingly, it prevents him from fulfilling his constitutional duty to see that the laws are ‘faithfully executed.’ ”

The North Carolina Supreme Court appeared to agree with this theory in halting GOP changes from taking effect. And although Monday’s decision was only preliminary, it seems quite likely that the court—which vigorously safeguards separation of powers—will ultimately agree with Cooper on the merits. Here, as in its effort to block Cooper’s cabinet appointments, the legislature simply overstepped its constitutional bounds. And for the time being, North Carolina’s courts remain independent enough to halt the GOP’s unlawful power grab.

From CityLab: The Stadiums That Ate Texas Why are these Dallas suburbs funding the most expensive high school football stadiums ever built?

Good question.

For 2306 - mostly.

- Click here for the article.

In Texas, the old hands say there are only two seasons: spring football and fall football. But lately there’s a year-round game getting played as well: the competition to build the most expensive high school football stadium in the world.

Why would relatively small exurban school districts like McKinney build enormous football stadiums that will sit empty most of the year (and are often less than half-full even on game day)?
Part of the answer involves the area’s projected future growth. The town’s population has tripled over the past fifteen years. In the 2000 Census, McKinney had 54,369 residents. The most recent estimate (July 1, 2015) put the population at 162,898. Rick McDaniel, superintendent of the McKinney ISD and a former high school football coach, seems to be confident that the spectacular new McKinney stadium will soon fill up. “We’re visionaries,” he told the Dallas Morning News, and said that the stadium was part of “a vision for McKinney ISD that will propel us forward for a long time.” (His office did not respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The structure of the Texas school system also seems to encourage such infrastructure spending. By law, each ISD board has the power to call referendums when they choose to raise bond money. They act and can raise funds separately from their local municipal governments. But the bond money can go only toward construction and renovation of facilities, acquisition of land, and purchase of equipment, not toward expanding education opportunities for students or paying for teachers. (Texas ranks 38th out of 50 states in per-pupil education spending; in McKinney, per-pupil expenditures totaled $7,345 in 2013, compared to a national average of $11,841, according to an Education Week analysis of federal data.)
Curtis Rath, a McKinney community activist and blogger on city politics, has been an aggressive critic of this arrangement on his site, Texas Transparency; there, fans and foes of the McKinney stadium project hotly debate the issue in the comments. Rath argues that firms that stood to benefit from construction projects joined forces with local landowners, contractors, boosters, and school officials to market the benefits of high-profile school structures to McKinney voters. “They sold it by overstating the need for the new stadium,” he says.
Along with the political and business forces pushing to build new facilities for which there may be questionable need, there’s also the “wow” factor. Like many fast-growth Sun Belt communities, the burgeoning municipalities north of Dallas span vast landscapes interlaced by highways, office parks, and new housing developments. With all of these towns scrambling for residents and businesses to move into their new neighborhoods and shopping centers, splashy sports facilities serve as branding tools.
McKinney City Manager Paul Grimes says that the new stadium will help him better market the town as it competes with Allen, Frisco, Plano and beyond. “While it is a significant investment,” he says via email, “the stadium will…help to attract visitors and families to our rapidly growing community.”

Monday, February 13, 2017

From the Texas Tribune: Analysis: Texas makes do with broken but legal school finance system

Texas' complex system for funding education might be at a breaking point.

- Click here for the article.

As the Texas Legislature searches for a solution to the state’s persistent school finance problems, the Houston Independent School District is asking voters to reconsider its property tax policy, and Austin ISD is warning voters that a big chunk of their school tax dollars aren't going where taxpayers might think they’re going.
It’s a confusing time in school finance — a maelstrom of local and state governments trying to master a byzantine system that is broken in every way but the most important one: It remains, according to the Texas Supreme Court, constitutionally sound.
Many lawmakers and school districts had expected — some in hope, others in dread — that this would be a legislative session focused on building a new school finance system for Texas. They thought the court would force lawmakers to set things right.
Maybe the session will turn out that way without the court’s help. The Senate Finance Committee has dispatched a team led by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, to try to rewrite the whole thing during the current legislative session.
Will it work? That’s a decent acid test to find out whether you are essentially optimistic or pessimistic. Whatever your disposition, a bona fide remedy designed by a committee with a short timeframe and no legal axe over its head would be unprecedented.
Until that or another effort changes the system, districts around Texas are wrestling with the current school finance system — a complicated and ramshackle machine that is supposed to get enough money to every school district in the state to adequately educate Texas children.

From the Texas Tribune: Texas lawmakers search for ways to avoid wasted college credits

This might hit home for many of you.

- Click here for the article.

As four-year college degrees grow more costly in Texas, state leaders have encouraged students to consider a cheaper solution — spending the first two years at a local community college.
But many students who have heeded that advice have hit a frustrating roadblock: When they transfer to a four-year school, their course credits don't always come along with them.

Classes taken to save cash end up being a waste of money.
The problem is vexing for state lawmakers, who say they receive calls year after year from angry students and parents. An estimated two-fifths of Texas students lose all of their credits when they transfer schools, according to Texas-based foundation. That helps add up to about $60 million in wasted tuition payments in the state each year.

This legislative session, lawmakers are in search of a true fix. “We’re going to try to do something that we haven’t been able to do in the last 20 years,” said Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

Late last month, Senate Finance Committee Chairwoman Jane Nelson asked West to lead a working group on the issue. Nelson, a Republican from Flower Mound, said she and other legislators were “growing impatient” with the schools’ inability to solve the problem.
There's no easy solution. Higher education experts and officials cast the blame up and down the community college-to-university pipeline. And in Texas, home to dozens of colleges and university systems with their own chains of command, there’s no single person with the power to make a statewide fix. No state agency has the authority to enforce rules on transferability, and degree plans can differ within university departments — let alone among different schools.

“We have a state in which we have a plethora of systems and colleges that are very used to operating independently,” Rex Peebles, an assistant commissioner at the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, told lawmakers recently. “But they also have different missions and goals in mind, and their curriculum tends to reflect that.”