- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Dallas Morning News. July 23, 2016.

5th Circuit is right to ding Texas on its voter ID law - again

When Texas lawmakers passed the voter ID law back in 2011, there was plenty of testimony about how it would suppress voting among minorities, the elderly and the poor. Lawmakers also were well-advised that the problem the bill was designed to fix - identity fraud in the voting booth - was virtually nonexistent.

Neither fact has kept Gov. Greg Abbott or Attorney General Ken Paxton from defending the bill wherever they could, no matter the cost and regardless of how many times judges have ruled against Texas.

All of this makes the hammering of Texas by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans even more distressing.



Consider: The 5th Circuit’s first task was to determine whether lawmakers had passed the bill with the purpose of depressing voting among minorities or whether they had passed it for other reasons and merely didn’t care whether that was the impact. The federal judge who first heard the case had come overwhelmingly to the former conclusion and struck down the law.

The 5th Circuit decided that in making that call about lawmakers’ discriminatory intent, the district judge placed too much weight on some of the evidence gathered at her nine-day bench trial. For instance, that Texas lawmakers used to pass blatantly racist laws should not have been given much weight, the appeals court ruled. As a result, the court has sent this part of the case back to the trial judge to re-examine whether the remaining evidence supports her conclusion that lawmakers had intentionally discriminated against minority voters.

The trial judge may still find that discrimination was intentional, given other evidence presented at trial. One example may be the fact that so much energy was put into passing the bill even though the problem it purports to solve is so small.

“Ballot integrity is undoubtedly a worthy goal,” the 5th Circuit ruled. “But the evidence before the Legislature was that in-person voting, the only concern addressed by SB 14, yielded only two convictions for in-person voter impersonation fraud out of 20 million votes cast in the decade leading up to SB 14’s passage.”

This distinction over whether the bill’s discrimination was one of the reasons the Legislature passed it or whether the discrimination was merely coincidental is important. If lawmakers didn’t intend to pass the law because it is discriminatory, then courts may ultimately allow it to stand - though with fixes.

So for now, and in light of the pending elections, the court has ordered the judge to try to tweak the law to ease its impact on voters who do not have photo IDs. One solution, the court noted, could be for Texas to mail every registered voter a voter registration card and allow that to stand in for a photo ID.

There will be time after the election to decide whether intentional discrimination means the law will have to go altogether. Meanwhile, that Texas even has to have this discussion over a bill that accomplishes so little is disheartening.

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Houston Chronicle. July 22, 2016.

Symbolic gesture: Killing a cop in Texas already is a capital offense, punishable by life in prison or death

It’s easy to understand why Gov. Greg Abbott would propose legislation making the targeted killing of a law-enforcement officer a hate crime in Texas. Almost anything to help prevent the horror of police officers being ambushed as they were in Dallas or Baton Rouge would seem to be appropriate.

“At a time when law enforcement officers increasingly come under assault simply because of the job they hold, Texas must send a resolute message that the state will stand by the men and women who serve and protect our communities,” the governor said in a statement recently.

Under his proposed Police Protection Act, Abbott would extend to police officers the same strengthened penalties that the state’s hate-crimes statute provides for crimes motivated by race, religion, sex, disability and sexual orientation. A hate crime is defined in part as a crime intended to harm not only a victim but also by extension an entire group of people. Chronicle columnist Lisa Falkenberg offered the example recently of an interracial couple who finds a burning cross on their front lawn. The crime intimidates not just the intended victims but all interracial couples.

Texans do, indeed, stand by their police officers, but a deeper examination of Abbott’s proposal would suggest that codifying the murder of a police officer as a hate crime is unlikely to accomplish what he intends. The state’s hate-crime law, enacted in response to the notorious dragging death of James Byrd, Jr., in 1998, has been used only a few times, in part because it’s hard to prove hate. The hate-crime label also is unlikely to have a deterrent effect, since an individual crazed enough or desperate enough to kill a cop is not likely to be considering the consequences.

Killing a police officer in Texas already is a capital offense, punishable by life in prison or execution. If the governor or state lawmakers want to provide additional protections for police officers, beyond the largely symbolic gesture of attaching the hate-crimes label, a more sensible alternative would be to roll back the state’s open-carry provision. Police officers have made that very request, although they must realize, as do we, that the right to openly carry a weapon of death is a cause the gun lovers among us hold with near fanatical zeal. To Second Amendment absolutists it matters not a whit that open carry makes the work of law enforcement more difficult (and probably more dangerous).

Louisiana earlier this year became the first state to add law enforcement officers to its hate-crimes list, even though the state already had a law that increases penalties for crimes committed against emergency responders. The hate-crimes statute provides that up to five more years can be added to the prison sentence of a person convicted of a felony if the court finds that the victim was chosen based on prejudice against certain groups.

Abbott is probably looking for something similar for police officers when the Legislature returns to Austin in January. Given the times we live in and the opportunity for lawmakers to stand up for law and order, a bill is likely to pass.

Given the horrors we’ve witnessed recently, it seems almost churlish to note that violence against police officers is near an all-time low. That’s a fact, though, according to data compiled by the FBI and private groups. With that fact in mind, we would urge lawmakers to explore what cops really need as they carry out the duties of their inherently dangerous job. They shouldn’t settle for the symbolic.

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The Brownsville Herald. July 25, 2016.

Don’t panic

The Supreme Court deadlock on President Obama’s 2014 executive orders on immigration is disappointing for many, but it was expected.

What isn’t expected, and people shouldn’t fear, is a sudden wave of deportations. We have no reason to fear that groups of law enforcers will start sweeping through the streets looking for people to deport.

High court justices deadlocked 4-4 on the orders, known by the acronyms DACA and DAPA, that protected about 4 million U.S. residents from deportation. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ensured protections for people who were brought to the United States as children and were raised here. Deferred Action for Parents of Americans protected foreign-born parents of people who were born in this country and thus are native-born Americans.

The orders formalized long-held U.S. immigration policy that sought to keep families together. What’s more, Obama offered assurances that this goal would stay in place, although foreign-born residents who fall in these categories now can face deportation if they are arrested or otherwise make their presence known to federal authorities.

President Obama issued the executive orders in response to Congress’ inaction on much-needed immigration reform. Texas and 25 other states sued the federal government, claiming that the president doesn’t have the authority to make such policies - that only Congress can do so.

U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen, of Brownsville, sided with the states, and the Supreme Court deadlock leaves Hanen’s ruling in place.

While this is a major blow to those who have hoped for some action on our inadequate and outdated immigration laws, it should not lead anyone to panic.

The ruling only affects people to whom DACA or DAPA applied.

The cancellation of those orders means the people they protected no longer will be able to apply for work permits so they can feed their families and pay taxes to their communities.

Injunctions already had stopped the application of those orders months ago.

Perhaps worst of all, the development essentially means that if Congress refuses to act on immigration, the president can’t take matters into his own hands by issuing executive orders. Whether or not that affects a president’s authority to issue orders on other issues remains to be seen.

It’s worth noting that the deadlock might not have happened if Obama had acted on the issue sooner. Although he pledged during his 2008 presidential campaign that immigration reform would be one of his top priorities, he did nothing to address the issue during his first term. Not that it would have mattered.

While some people bemoan the deadlock as proof that the Senate needs to act on the presidents’ efforts to fill the vacant seat on the court, it’s certain that the late justice Antonin Scalia, who died in February at a Texas hunting ranch, would have ruled with other conservatives and affirmed Hanen’s ruling if the court had heard the case sooner. It’s also unlikely that the current Republican-led Senate would have confirmed any nominee who might have ruled the other way.

Most importantly, the Supreme Court’s inaction doesn’t end the need for substantive immigration reform. We can only hope that voters in November elect to Congress people who recognize that need, and take steps to enact workable, humane immigration policies.

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Waco Tribune-Herald. July 21, 2016.

State lawmakers need to revisit decision to cut therapy for disabled children

The state of Texas has an overriding obligation, whether in education or health care, to ensure our children can one day become independent and productive members of society, even if poor and disabled. Some state officials have apparently lost sight of this priority.

Kudos to Republican state Rep. Charles “Doc” Anderson, who is among several dozen lawmakers, Democratic and Republican, valiantly resisting state health funding cuts of $150 million that could severely limit if not eliminate physical, speech and occupational therapy for up to 60,000 children across Texas. This month, no less than the Texas Supreme Court found the concern legitimate enough to temporarily halt implementation of these cuts.

As the Tribune-Herald has reported, Anderson’s concern focuses on outreach such as the Waco-based Klaras Children Center program, where cuts of up to 25 percent to Medicaid billing could significantly hamper its Early Childhood Initiative. It sends therapists into the homes of some 350 disabled children and helps caretakers adopt therapies to assist their young charges. While those supporting the cuts say they target overly expensive health care services, a Klaras official says the local program is already “lean and barely able to squeak by.”

And so who’s right? Fair question. Indications are that legislators, in their scramble to cut Medicaid funding last year, failed to lend much guidance about those cuts, leaving it to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission to decide. In response to a lawsuit filed last summer by families of children with disabilities and in-home therapy groups, a district judge ruled that, because of a commission decision based on incomplete data, “plaintiffs will probably suffer irreparable injury because the minor children represented in this lawsuit, plus thousands of other Texas children receiving pediatric services under the Texas Medicaid program, will probably be deprived of those critical services.” Since then, the matter’s been tied up in the courts.

This month’s order by the Texas Supreme Court obviously finds some merit in the lower court ruling, as do lawmakers such as Anderson. Let’s hope the subject ultimately can be revisited with far more analysis about whether Texas isn’t doing more long-term harm than good through such cuts. After all, if these therapy programs can ensure children prevail over their various disabilities today, their potential for personal and professional success in life could benefit us all.

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Fort Worth Star-Telegram. July 26, 2016.

Put a pin in Texas’ infrastructure troubles

We already have to deal with construction, distracted drivers, weather, road damage and accidents while driving down a Texas road. We don’t even consider the potential dangers of the soil holding it up.

Texas infrastructure is on unstable ground. The soil shrinks and expands depending on moisture, which can crack even the best-built road over time. The soil could also start eroding, causing the entire street to slope.

The Texas Department of Transportation will spend about $8.9 billion on maintaining the highway system in 2016-17.

One University of Texas at Arlington professor found a way to trim down that cost.

Civil engineering professor Sahadat Hossain and his team have been using plastic pins to combat the eventual sifting of soil since 2011. In places with pins, the slope only moved about 2 inches. In areas without pins, the slope moved anywhere from 9 to 15 inches.

Soil treatment with pins cost only about $100,000 and could be a long-term fix for infrastructure woes.

We need more solutions like this.

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