Journalism in the public interest for Northeast Texas


Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune

Jim Malewitz, The Texas Tribune has 4 articles published.

Scrap new Texas voter ID law, plaintiffs tell federal judge (Texas Tribune)

in State by

Texas’ softer voter ID law doesn’t fix the discrimination in the old measure, the state’s legal opponents told a judge Wednesday.

A new law softening Texas’ strict voter identification requirements doesn’t absolve the lawmakers from intentionally discriminating against minority voters in 2011 — nor would it properly accommodate those voters going forward, the state’s opponents in a long-running lawsuit argued Wednesday.

“Unfortunately, what the court is in the midst of is a larceny in progress,” Chad Dunn, a lawyer representing some of the challengers, told U.S. District Judge Nelva Gonzales Ramos, accusing the Texas Legislature of trying to skirt responsibility for its sins of discrimination — reminiscent of state actions in the 1950s and 1960s. “It is a litigation strategy masquerading as a legislative function.”

Dunn was speaking about Senate Bill 5, which Texas Gov. Greg Abbott signed into law last week. It loosens a 2011 voter ID law — known as the nation’s most stringent — that courts have ruled purposefully burdened Latino and black voters.

Dunn and other plaintiffs’ attorneys argued Ramos should void all provisions of the 2011 law, known as Senate Bill 14. In doing so, she would effectively invalidate the new law and return Texas to life before photo ID requirements.

Lawyers for Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton on Wednesday portrayed SB 5 as a good-faith effort to fix problems multiple federal judges identified in the 2011 law, and called on Ramos to consider the new law a valid remedy — without levying penalties on the state.

“Mr. Dunn has told you a story this morning,” argued Matthew Frederick, the state’s deputy solicitor general. “He has painted a caricature of this state, a caricature of the Legislature and a caricature of SB 5.”

Ramos, who made no rulings Wednesday, asked parties to file briefs on their positions by June 12.

Last year, the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Senate Bill 14 disproportionately targeted minority voters who were less likely to have one of seven forms of identifications it required they show at the polls. Ramos upped the ante in April, ruling the state discriminated on purpose. Ramos was instructed to consider a remedy for the violations, and her ruling raised the possibility she could invoke a section of the Voting Rights Act to place Texas under federal oversight of its election laws — a process called preclearance.

Seeking to avoid that fate, the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature enacted SB 5, frantically pushing it to the finish line in the final days of the legislative session. In doing so, state leaders made clear that it was aimed at pleasing the courts more than anything.

“I know a court has ruled otherwise, but as someone who was here in 2011, I don’t believe there’s any evidence that we intended to discriminate,” Rep. Phil King, R-Weatherford, the bill’s House sponsor, said last month in a chamber debate.

Ramos temporarily softened the ID rules for the 2016 elections, and the new law somewhat follows its lead.  It would allow people without photo ID to vote if they presented alternate forms of ID and signed affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” kept them from obtaining what was otherwise required.

Those voters could present documents such as utility bills, bank statements or paychecks. Those found to have lied about not possessing photo ID could be charged with a state felony, which carries a penalty of 180 days to two years in jail.

Under the bill, Texans who own a qualifying photo ID must still present it at the polls. Those include: a state driver’s license or ID card, a concealed handgun license, a U.S. passport, a military ID card, a U.S citizenship certificate or an election identification certificate.

“The law as enacted tracks the interim remedy ordered by this Court and agreed to by plaintiffs and defendants,” Paxton argued in a brief this week.

On Wednesday, Frederick asked Ramos to consider whether SB 5 would fully fix the old law’s effects, and to do so before Aug. 10 — to accommodate deadlines at the Texas Secretary of State’s Office.

The state’s legal foes suggested the law wouldn’t a fully address the discrimination, but they argued that question was moot. Ramos should wipe clean all elements of SB 14, they argued, returning Texas to a time when voter registration cards and other non-photo ID sufficed.

“We think, at best, it’s duct tape on a discriminatory law,” Gerald Hebert, executive director of the Campaign Legal Center and an attorney for the plaintiffs, told reporters. “It’s an amendment to a bill that’s gone.”

Under the plaintiffs’ scenario, Ramos would later consider whether she should place Texas under federal electoral supervision.

Read related Tribune coverage:

  • Gov. Greg Abbott on Tuesday called a special session of the Texas Legislature starting July 18. Abbott said that after legislators address a bill to keep some state agencies from shuttering, he’ll add another 19 items to the agenda. [link]
  • A federal judge has ruled — for the second time — that Texas lawmakers intentionally discriminated against Latino and black voters in passing a strict voter identification law in 2011. [link]

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative journalist for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

Aiming to stop suicides, Texas Senate supports crackdown on cyberbullying (Texas Tribune)

in State by

The state Senate Wednesday unanimously approved a bill dubbed “David’s Law” that’s aimed at curbing teen suicides by cracking down on cyberbullying.

The state Senate cleared legislation Wednesday aiming to curb teen suicides by cracking down on cyberbullying — relentless online attacks that have pushed some Texas teens to take their own lives.

Senate Bill 179, dubbed “David’s Law,” unanimously cleared the chamber, after the bill’s Democratic author, Sen. José Menéndez, supported amendments from Republicans who were initially concerned the legislation went too far in levying penalties and requiring action from school districts.

The bill is named for David Molak, a 16-year-old Alamo Heights High School student who committed suicide in January 2016 after classmates online had mocked his appearance for months and threatened physical violence.

“I believe we have the responsibility to act before more children take their lives,” Menéndez, who distributed copies of some of the bullying messages to his colleagues, said in an impassioned Senate floor speech. “The bullies now are on our children’s phones and on their computers.”

The bill classifies cyberbullying as a misdemeanor and allows courts to issue subpoenas to unmask people who anonymously harass minors online. It would also require schools to adopt cyberbullying policies and report instances of such actions to the parents of victims and perpetrators.

“What we’re trying to do is create early awareness if something’s wrong,” Menéndez told reporters.

Before it hit the chamber floor, the legislation also required school districts to report on cyberbullying to police and implement certain cyberbullying prevention efforts. But Republicans added several amendments — accepted by Menéndez — that made such actions optional amid concerns about burdening small districts.

The amendments also narrowed what actions would trigger a more severe Class A misdemeanor for repeat offenders or those who bully a youth who later commits or attempts suicide. The change tightened language that might automatically presume a suicide was caused by the bullying, specifying that the more severe charge was only triggered if the bully intended to provoke such injuries.

State Sen. Brian Birdwell, a Granbury Republican who pushed for some of the changes, said he joined Menéndez in wanting to send a message that Texas would not tolerate cyberbullying, but “I wanted to do without setting what I thought was a dangerous presumptive precedent.”

Another amendment stripped language that would have allowed families to recover damages in court for physical, emotional or mental injuries. Even with the change, however, families could still ask courts for an injunction against an alleged bully.

Menéndez said he was happy to accept the changes and was then thrilled to see all 31 senators support the revised version.

“That sends a message to the House and a strong message to school districts,” he told reporters.

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, a Republican, told lawmakers that their bipartisan effort made him “proud.”

A separate version of the legislation has cleared a House committee.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter for the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

House proposal could claw back billions Texas voters approved for roads (Texas Tribune)

in State by

The Texas House’s chief budget writer filed legislation Friday that would allow lawmakers to claw back billions of dollars that voters approved for state highways, freeing them up for other budget needs.

Texans overwhelmingly voted in 2015 to boost funding for the state’s public roadways and bridges, which have strained under a growing population. Proposition 7 amended the Texas Constitution to route some taxes collected on car sales to the State Highway Fund.

But House Appropriations Chairman John Zerwas, R-Richmond, filed a resolution Friday that would cut that initial cash infusion, aiming to free up money at a time when cash is tight.

House Concurrent Resolution 108 could cut the first transfer under Proposition 7 of nearly $5 billion in half, but only if two-thirds of lawmakers in both the House and Senate support such a move.

It’s a prospect made possible by what some lawmakers have called a “safety valve” in Senate Joint Resolution 5, the legislation that the Legislature approved in 2015 to send Proposition 7 to voters later that year.

Zerwas’ office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Some 83 percent of voters supported Proposition 7, and it was widely cheered by top Texas leaders.

At the Texas Department of Transportation, agency officials have updated long-range plans with new highway projects under the assumption that the agency will have access to all of the Prop 7 money. Gov. Greg Abbott also released a proposed budget in January that called for directing all of the Prop 7 funds to TxDOT as voters intended.

“My fellow commissioners and I view this as a Texas voter mandate,” transportation commissioner Bruce Bugg, an Abbott-appointee, told reporters earlier this week.

But Texas lawmakers this session are trying to craft a budget with less money than the previous legislative session.

Tax cuts in 2015 cut available state revenues by about $4 billion, and a slowdown in the oil patch also shrunk the budgetary pie. A voter-approved transfer of funds to the highway fund would leave even fewer dollars available to put toward areas such as health care, education and the state’s collapsed foster care system.

Brandon Formby contributed to this report.

The article above comes from The Texas Tribune. Jim Malewitz is an investigative reporter at the Tribune. The Texas Tribune is a nonpartisan, nonprofit media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them – about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.


Amid early voting rush, Texas sees voter ID hiccups

in Latest News/Local Government/State by

This much is clear after two days of early voting in Texas: Legal wrangling over the state’s voter identification law is stirring confusion at the polls.

Amid Texans’ mad dash to polling places this week, the front end of 12 days of voting before Election Day, civil rights groups and some voters are questioning how some county election officials are portraying the state’s voter identification requirements, which a federal judge softened in August.

Among the complaints in pockets of Texas: years-old posters inaccurately describing the rules — more than a dozen instances in Bexar County — and poll workers who were reluctant to tell voters that some could cast ballots without photo identification.

Though it’s not clear that anyone walked away from the polls because of misinformation or partial information, civil rights advocates called the sporadic reports troubling.

“Not everybody is an aggressive voter. Some people are shy and laid back, and if you’re told you have to have an ID, it might cause them to get out of line and go home,” said Jose Garza, a lawyer working for groups challenging the state’s strict 2011 voter ID law.

In July, a federal appeals court ruled that the law discriminated against minority groups, who were less likely to possess one of seven forms of acceptable photo identification.  

In August, a federal district judge drew up a temporary fix for the election, which splits Texans into two groups. Those who possess qualifying photo ID must bring it to the polls. Those who cannot “reasonably obtain” one must present a document showing their name and address, such as a utility bill, bank statement, paycheck or voter registration card. They must also sign a statement noting the “reasonable impediment” that prevented them from getting a photo ID.

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