Thursday, June 22, 2017

Houston council joins #SB4 lawsuit on 10-6 vote

The good news -- beyond what's revealed in the headline -- includes the fact that no conservative had the stones to tag it (postponing the vote a week), and that the mayor cast his ballot in favor even though that's typically done (by rule of Roberts) only when there is a tie.  Jack Christie got up and left before the counting, marking him an abstention.

The noes were Greg Travis, Mike Knox, Michael Kubosh, Brenda Stardig, Dave Martin, and Steve Le.  All but Le were easily predictable.  The vote was purely and politically symbolic; the constitutionality of the law will be decided in the courts, and as Sophie Novack at Texas Monthly has shown, this is why the Legislature overreaches (on voter ID, on women's reproductive freedoms, and all the rest): it takes years for the judges to slap them down.

Let's join this topic to another; the pending decision by the Supreme Court of Texas as to the scheduling of Houston's municipal elections this year, or in two years.

As Charles pointed out yesterday, it's getting to be late in the game for city elections to happen in 2017.  What he didn't mention is that should the SCOTX rule on a writ of mandamus filed by Republican attorney and city council gadfly Eric Dick, on behalf of his client PP Bryant, then we may actually get those elections this year.  Or not.

The November 2015 voting cycle in Houston included one ballot result that surprised many: the decision to extend the term limits of city officials from three two-year terms to two four-year terms. The result was so unexpected, it immediately raised controversy, eyebrows, and the question, “Did the voters of the City of Houston actually mean to extend term limits?”

Phillip Paul Bryant filed a lawsuit to invalidate Proposition 2 because he believes the ballot language misled Houston voters. Annise Parker and the City of Houston have a rich history with misleading voters when it comes to ballot language. Indeed in 2015 alone, Texas Supreme Court has found that Annise Parker and the City of Houston have used inappropriate ballot language twice.

On November 3, 2015, registered voters of the City of Houston were asked to vote on several propositions, including a proposition extending term limits (“Proposition 2”). The ballot language for Proposition 2 reads:
  • (Relating to Term Limits for City Elective Office) Shall the City Charter of the City of Houston be amended to reduce the number of terms of elective offices to no more than two terms in the same office and limit the length for all terms of elective office to four years, beginning in January 2016; and provide for transition?
The voters of the City of Houston passed Proposition 2 on November 3, 2015.

Phillip Paul Bryant’s attorney argues that the language of Proposition 2 was misleading for several reasons:
  • The ballot language suggested that it would “limit” term length instead of extending it from two year terms to four year terms;
  • The ballot language read as if it was shortening the total amount of time an elected official could stay in office when it actually extended it from six years to a total of eight or ten years;
  • The ballot language omitted a chief feature of the proposition -  it suggested that it shortened the amount of times an elected official can serve to two terms when in fact there were hidden exceptions that unfairly benefited incumbents.
Indeed, Mayor Annise Parker literally said:
  • "There may have been some voter confusion out there. I don't know that they realized that they were giving council members more time in office.”
As further evidence that the City of Houston misled voters, the Houston Chronicle reported that the underlying ballot language was obscured:
  • “Political scientists were not convinced Tuesday's result was proof of radically shifting attitudes, however. The ballot language did not spell out the effect on incumbents or that the item would loosen the existing restrictions.
  • ‘It was ballot confusion or obfuscation,’ Texas Southern University political scientist Michael Adams said. ‘The way it was written, some people may have thought they were voting to limit the terms rather than extend them to two four- year terms.’
  • That take made sense to Rice University political scientist Bob Stein, who added, ‘Nobody reads the ballot when they walk in there. They don't have to read it to vote.’” 
In addition, Houston Public Media reported that the ballot language didn’t tell the whole truth:
  • “’When we informed voters that the adoption of the two four-year (terms) would take place immediately in 2016 and advantage incumbent council members, support swung the other way and it was a deficit of 17 points against,’ Stein said.
  • But that information was not in the ballot language. In fact, it didn’t even mention that it would actually extend term limits.” 
On June 2, 2016, a writ of mandamus was filed with the Texas Supreme Court asking them to invalidate Proposition 2. If you would like clarity as to whether Houston has municipality elections in 2017, please contact the Texas Supreme Court justices and encourage that they rule on the pending writ of mandamus. We are not asking for a specific ruling, we are only asking for a decision to be made so we know whether or not we have City of Houston elections in 2017. 

Contact Barrister Dick and he'll explain how to ask the Court to rule, and while you're there, order one of his Sixties-era T-shirts.

With respect once more to yesterday's vote on SB4: Turner didn't have to give Council a say.  He could have just exercised his authority, like mayors in all the other Texas metros (save Cowtown) did two weeks ago, as the regular legislative session ended and the bill outlawing sanctuary cities was signed into law by Greg Abbott.  Let's give Sly the benefit of the doubt and presume he was playing three-dimensional chess with those who would be running whenever elections are held, giving some bold Democrat somewhere ammunition to use against dem dat voted against joining the SB4 lawsuit.  In other words, against the conservatives who aim to replace Stardig and Christie, and also the conservatives seeking to replace the Democrats who voted 'aye' yesterday, all of whom are term-limited off Council: Jerry Davis, Ellen Cohen, Mike Laster, and Larry Green.  (Only Cohen's and Laster's seats appear so much as mildly vulnerable in this scenario, from my POV.)

So we wait now for the first hearing on the SB4 lawsuit, a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of the law filed by the city of El Cenizo and to be heard by US Judge Orlando Garcia on Monday morning, June 26.  (More on the legal maneuvering from Gus Bova at the Observer.)  We'll watch how that matriculates through the courts, eventually up to the Fifth Circuit and perhaps the SCOTUS, while we also play a parlor game about who might file and where if the SCOTX rules favorably on holding Houston city council elections this year.

Seems boring as hell, so perhaps it will get a little more exciting as it plays out.

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