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Texas Prop 4 and Separation of Powers

When I initially heard about Prop 4 (S.J.R. 6 from the 85th Reg. Session) on the November ballot, I was concerned that it encroached too far on the judicial sphere and imperiled the ability of plaintiffs to get relief from unconstitutional laws.  However, after reviewing it, the amendment only requires the notice and “waiting period” before a final judgment is entered, and does not encroach on a court’s ability to enter injunctive relief against an unconstitutional state law.

Texas Government Code sec. 402.010, passed in 2011, requires that, where a party to litigation challenges the constitutionality of a state “statute,” the court must provide notice of the challenge to the Texas Attorney General’s office.  Further, “[a] court may not enter a final judgment holding a statute of this state unconstitutional before the 45th day after the date notice required by Subsection (a) is served on the attorney general.”  The idea is to ensure the State has notice of any court challenges to state statutes so that the State may intervene to defend it, if it wishes to do so. In most civil cases, when a party is challenging the constitutionality of a state statute, the plaintiff will be suing the appropriate state official or institution, the Attorney General’s office will be involved in the defense, and this provision is not triggered.  However, it is not uncommon for cases to arise in which a party brings a constitutional challenge to a state statute where the State is not a party.  One prime example: the Texas Election Code authorizes a candidate or PAC to sue a political adversary for alleged illegal contributions or expenditures. See Tex. Elec. Code 253.131-.32. Those cases arise with some regularity, and the party sued often raises (with good reason) constitutional objections to the statutes at issue. A recent example is the Texas Democratic Party’s lawsuit against King Street Patriots, a nonprofit organization which the TDP alleged had violated various Election Code provisions, with KSP arguing (successfully) the statutes could not be applied to it. See King Street Patriots v. Tex. Democratic Party, 521 S.W.3d 729 (Tex. 2017).

The notice-and-waiting-period requirement in Gov’t Code sec. 402.010 would apply in such a case, but it was held unconstitutional as a violation of the separation of powers by the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals. Ex parte Lo, 424 S.W.3d 10 (Tex. Crim. App. 2013). The Court had previously recognized that part of the “core judicial power” is the power to “enter final judgment based on the facts and the law,” and held that “the 45–day time frame provided for in subsection (b) is a constitutionally intolerable imposition on a court’s power to enter a final judgment and a violation of separation of powers.” Id. at 29. The Legislature responded with S.J.R. 6, which essentially says that, despite the express separation of powers provision in the Texas Constitution, the Legislature is authorized to do what it did in section 402.010. The proposed constitutional amendment expressly provides that section 402.010 will be “validated and effective” if Prop 4 is approved at the polls, and will apply to any challenges filed beginning in 2018.

If Prop 4 is approved, it should not at all harm the ability of plaintiffs to get timely relief from unconstitutional statutes. The 45-day waiting period limits only the court’s ability to “enter a judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.”  The word “judgment” has a particular meaning, and includes only the final disposition in a case, disposing of all parties and claims. A “judgment” is therefore different than other orders a court may enter on a party’s motion, such as TROs, temporary injunctions, and anything else short of a final judgment. See, e.g., Lindley v. Flores, 672 S.W.2d 612, 614 (Tex. App.–Corpus Christi 1984). The statute (sec. 402.010) actually makes this more apparent since it uses the term “final judgment” (whereas the constitutional provision says “judgment”), but the word “final” is not necessary, as there is only one type of “judgment” in Texas practice, and any temporary order (such as an injunction prohibiting the government from enforcing the offending statute while the litigation is pending) would not be subject to the 45-day waiting period.

This reading is the only legitimate interpretation of S.J.R. 6, based on its plain text (and that of sec. 402.010), and it is further supported by the federal counterpart to S.J.R. 6.  Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 5.1 imposes a similar waiting period, stating that the party and the court must provide notice to the attorney general of a constitutional challenge and permit same to intervene within 60 days, and during that 60 days, the court “may not enter a final judgment holding the statute unconstitutional.” The federal advisory committee’s note explains that “[p]retrial activities may continue without interruption during the intervention period, and the court retains authority to grant interlocutory relief.” Senator Zaffirini, the sponsor of S.J.R. 6, expressly justified the amendment as the state counterpart to the federal rule.

A couple of takeaways:

First: it is clear from the language of the amendment (and the statute that it would resurrect) that Prop 4 will not establish any hindrance whatsoever to a Texas court’s ability to enter timely and effective relief against an unconstitutional Texas statute through entry of a TRO or temporary injunction. This is true regardless of whether the sponsors and those who voted for the amendment in the Legislature would be surprised to hear that. Therefore, I don’t think it presents any problem, and is good policy to notify the AG of such challenges.

Second: the Texas Constitution is entirely too easy to amend. This exercise does point up a danger that the Legislature could someday draft an amendment that does real violence to the principle of separation of powers. While a bad constitutional amendment, if passed, would mean that the thing accomplished would by definition be consistent with the constitution (as amended), the constitution should not be amended in ways that undermine sound principles of separation of powers. (For example, if the Lege proposed an amendment to authorize imposing the waiting period on even preliminary orders like temporary injunctions.) Legislators have a duty to guard against this, and voters have a duty to pay attention and reject bad amendments when they are proposed.

NLF Release: Zimmerman Explains Why TEC Must Dismiss Groundless Complaint Filed by Political Opponent

AUSTIN, TEX.—This week, Austin taxpayer-advocate and former District 6 Councilmember Don Zimmerman explained to the Texas Ethics Commission why it must dismiss a groundless complaint filed by a political opponent in 2015.

Zimmerman, a conservative activist who has long rankled the tax-and-spend liberal establishment in Austin, really riled up his opposition when he won a seat on the City Council in December 2014.  That was Austin’s first election cycle with district (rather than at-large) elections.  Many powerful local Democrats had fought aggressively to retain the all-at-large electoral system, fearing that a district-based system would break up the “progressive” stranglehold on local politics.  They lost that battle, and then when Zimmerman actually won the District 6 seat, the opposition intensified further.

Soon after Zimmerman took his seat on the Council, Bill Aleshire, the former Democratic Travis County Judge, filed a complaint with the TEC alleging that Zimmerman had paid his wife $2,000 “from political contributions” for campaign work in violation of the Election Code.  The relevant statute provides that a candidate “may not knowingly make…a payment from a political contribution” to the candidate’s spouse or dependent child “if the payment is made for personal services rendered by…the spouse or dependent child.”  Tex. Elec. Code § 253.041(a).  Zimmerman has confirmed that his wife Jennifer worked tirelessly for the campaign, helping with fundraising, proofreading, blockwalking and organizing volunteers.  He estimated the value of her work at a minimum of $10,000, and he was embarrassed to pay her only $2,000.

Aleshire’s complaint acknowledges that it is based only on Zimmerman’s campaign finance report (which accurately disclosed the $2,000 payment to Jennifer Zimmerman for “campaign office and field work”) and news reports.

However, if Aleshire reviewed Zimmerman’s campaign reports, he must have also been aware that Zimmerman had deposited $20,000 of his personal funds into the campaign account, because those deposits were properly reported as loans as required by law.  Of course, Aleshire had no good-faith basis for alleging whether the payment came “from a political contribution,” which would implicate the statute he cited in his complaint, or from Zimmerman’s personal funds, because he had no access to Zimmerman’s campaign bank statements or any knowledge of Zimmerman’s internal campaign operations.

In response to the complaint, Zimmerman voluntarily provided his campaign bank statements to the TEC, which show that the first deposit was $10,000 from Zimmerman’s personal funds (the first loan, as disclosed on his campaign report).  Between that first deposit and the payment to Jennifer, the balance never dipped below $2,900.  Therefore, more than enough personal funds remained in the account from which to draw the $2,000 payment.

Zimmerman filed a legal memorandum with the TEC this week explaining that Texas law does not require candidates to designate or use any particular accounting method.  This is something Former TEC Chair Paul Hobby has expressly recognized, when he chastised a group responsible for filing numerous complaints based merely on assumptions from information on the face of candidates’ reports.  See Letter from Chair Hobby (Dec. 31, 2014).  Even if a formal accounting method were required, applying “last in-first out” accounting, a generally accepted accounting principle, more than $2,900 of Zimmerman’s personal funds remained in the account when the payment was made.

“The TEC has recognized that the campaign finance reporting system is not an accounting system,” said attorney Jerad Najvar, “but even if formal accounting were required, it’s clear that sufficient personal funds remained in the account.”  Najvar continued: “But we don’t even need to go that far.  Zimmerman had loaned the campaign $20,000, something everyone knew because it was properly reported.  So the idea that he ‘knowingly’ used campaign contributions doesn’t make sense.  He could have written a check to ‘Don Zimmerman’ as a partial loan repayment and put the money in his pocket, instead of writing a transparent check to his wife for a small part of the invaluable assistance she provided to the campaign.”

The TEC is expected to consider the complaint at an upcoming meeting, either March 30 or May 17.

Jerad Najvar practices political and appellate law and is founder of the Najvar Law Firm in Houston.  He served as co-counsel to Shaun McCutcheon in McCutcheon v. FEC, in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the federal aggregate contribution limits, and lead counsel in Catholic Leadership Coalition v. Reisman, in which the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a waiting period on Texas PACs.

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Texas Ethics Commission v. Empower Texans: Comprehensive Update and Preview of What’s to Come

Empower Texans (dba “Texans for Fiscal Responsibility”) is an influential 501(c)(4) nonprofit corporation dedicated to promoting free markets and limited government; Michael Quinn Sullivan is its President.  Empower sponsors a separate general-purpose committee (Empower Texans PAC, registered in 2007) as permitted under Texas law.  Also, since 2012, Empower Texans (the nonprofit) has elected to exercise its First Amendment rights to make its own independent expenditures for political activity, periodically endorsing candidates and measures under its own name.  One of Empower Texans’ signature, non-campaign activities since 2007 has been to compile a “Fiscal Responsibility Index” grading legislators based on their votes and sponsorship of legislation.  The Index is published online and sometimes distributed by mail to registered voters.

Two nominally-Republican legislators criticized by Empower were State Representatives Jim Keffer and Vicki Truitt.  In April 2012, Keffer and Truitt filed four complaints with the Texas Ethics Commission (TEC) against Empower and Sullivan.  Keffer and Truitt each lodged the same allegations against Sullivan and Empower.

As to Mr. Sullivan, they claimed he failed to register as a lobbyist after receiving compensation for contacting legislators on behalf of Empower Texans.

As to Empower Texans, Keffer and Truitt claimed that the group had violated the Election Code in one of two ways: either by engaging in campaign activity that turned the group into a “political committee” without having first appointed a campaign treasurer with the TEC; or, if Empower Texans did not qualify as a political committee, that it had nonetheless failed to file reports of independent expenditures, as required for corporations making campaign expenditures with their general treasury funds.

These complaints have spawned important litigation regarding many issues, including Texas campaign finance statutes, Texas lobbying statutes, the authority of the TEC and the TEC’s abuse of said authority.  These issues will be covered in more detail on this blog, but first it’s helpful to set out the background and current status of this sprawling litigation.

As to the complaints against Sullivan, the TEC held a formal hearing and issued a final decision on July 21, 2014.  The TEC issued a $10,000 civil fine against Sullivan, ruling that he failed to register as a lobbyist after directly communicating with legislators, on behalf of Empower Texans, in order to influence legislation. Sullivan appealed this decision in district court, and the proceedings are ongoing.

As to Empower Texans, the basic legal theory underlying the enforcement action was that, while Empower Texans is a 501(c)4 “social welfare” organization, it became a “political committee” under Texas law by engaging in activity regulated under Texas’s campaign finance statutes.  In an interesting and revealing twist, after a four-year investigation and multiple rounds of invasive subpoenas, the TEC suddenly dismissed the complaints against Empower Texans in October 2016.   Empower’s claims for declaratory judgment, which include constitutional challenges to the TEC’s theory as how a corporation can “morph” into a PAC, and for attorneys’ fees, remain pending. Future posts will explore how the TEC’s sudden change of heart, while welcome as the TEC finally dropped its ill-conceived enforcement, was disingenuous and self-preserving.

Sullivan Challenges the TEC finding that he violated lobbying disclosure statute

The TEC theory that Sullivan must register as a lobbyist is premised on his contact, on behalf of Empower Texans, with legislators seeking to influence legislation.  Sullivan (a former newpaper reporter) claims that Empower qualifies as a media organization and that he remains a journalist currently, and therefore is exempt under the media exception, which excepts from registration:

a person who owns, publishes, or is employed by a newspaper, any other regularly published periodical, a radio station, a television station, a wire service, or any other bona fide news medium that in the ordinary course of business disseminates news, letters to the editors, editorial or other comment, or paid advertisements that directly or indirectly oppose or promote legislation or administrative action, if the person does not engage in further or other activities that require registration under this chapter and does not represent another person in connection with influencing legislation or administrative action.

Tex. Gov’t Code 305.004(1).

After the TEC fined Sullivan on July 21, 2014 for failing to register, Sullivan sought review of  the agency’s decision in state district court under Texas Government Code § 571.133.  That statute provides for de novo review of final decisions of the Ethics Commission, which means that the court does not give any deference to the TEC’s factual or legal findings.  See Tex. Ethics Com’n v. Sullivan, No. 14-06508-16 (158th Jud. Dist., Denton Cnty.) (filed Aug. 22, 2014).

Sullivan filed the suit in Denton County.  In addition to claiming the media exemption, Sullivan argued that the TEC’s enforcement action should be dismissed under the Texas anti-SLAPP statute (the Texas Citizens’ Participation Act (TCPA), Texas Civil Practice & Remedies Code ch. 27), on the basis that the enforcement action was based on Sullivan’s exercise of his First Amendment rights, and sought attorneys’ fees under the TCPA.  The TEC hired a private investigator to collect evidence that Sullivan was not a resident of Denton County to support a motion to transfer venue to Travis County.  The TEC also argued that the TCPA was not applicable to an administrative-enforcement respondent’s appeal by trial de novo.

On February 18, 2015, Judge Steve Burgess denied the TEC’s motion to transfer venue, and granted Sullivan’s motion to dismiss under the TCPA.  However, five days after the February 18 ruling, the TEC filed a motion to recuse Judge Burgess, in part because the Judge followed Sullivan on Twitter.

The regional presiding judge granted the TEC’s motion to recuse and, on March 9, 2015, assigned Judge David Cleveland to preside in the case.  On March 11, 2015, Sullivan filed a motion for an award of attorneys’ fees based on Judge Burgess’s previous order dismissing the TEC complaints under the TCPA.  The TEC asked Judge Cleveland to reconsider the venue issue.  On March 18, 2015, Judge Cleveland granted Sullivan’s motion to dismiss but denied any court costs or attorneys’ fees, and effectively denied the TEC’s venue argument.

The TEC appealed the denial of its motion to transfer venue.  The Second Court of Appeals in Fort Worth held that the district court had erred as to venue, and ordered the case transferred to Travis County for further proceedings.  Tex. Ethics Com’n v. Sullivan, No. 02-15-00103, 2015 WL 6759306 (Tex. App.—Ft. Worth Nov. 5, 2015), pet. denied (No. 15-0917).   This case doesn’t appear in Travis County’s online docket system yet, but presumably will resume soon.  The issues Sullivan has raised are important, both as to the scope of the media exception and of the TCPA, and this case could yield important precedent.

TEC investigation of whether Empower Texans became a political committee; litigation ensues after “absurd” subpoenas

With characteristic overreach, the TEC kicked off its investigation of Empower Texans with an April 2013 subpoena demanding the “name and address of each person that made a contribution” to Empower in 2011, along with dates and amounts of contributions.  The TEC also demanded (among other things) the account number for every Empower bank account.  This initial subpoena immediately raises red flags, because the TEC doesn’t need the identities of all contributors in order to determine whether a nonprofit became a political committee under the theory advanced by the TEC.  Empower immediately objected and refused to provide the information.  Empower did provide some federal tax documents requested by the TEC, and appeared in two preliminary hearings.  Following these proceedings, the TEC recognized that “there is insufficient credible evidence of violations of laws administered and enforced by the commission,” but issued a Notice of Formal Hearing.

Empower and Sullivan participated in a Pre-Hearing Conference on February 12, 2014, and raised due process objections for the TEC’s failure to adopt procedural rules governing the upcoming formal hearing, despite being statutorily required to adopt such rules (Tex. Gov’t Code § 571.131(c)).  Ironically, that same day, TEC voted unanimously to issue new subpoenas to Empower and Sullivan, requesting documents by March 5, but providing that pre-hearing motions would not be heard until March 14 (i.e., after the deadline for compliance with the subpoenas).

These subpoenas were startlingly broad.  As to Empower, the TEC demanded, for a period of more than three years, “all written communications” sent by or on behalf of Empower Texans supporting and opposing candidates, officeholders and measures and “any” communications “regarding” Empower’s solicitation and use of political contributions and making political expenditures.  These requests are written such that they would require not only Empower’s solicitations themselves (that is, e.g., copies of emails sent to supporters seeking funds), but all drafts and internal communications related in any way to Empower’s solicitations, or even internal communications regarding their “acceptance” and “use” of “political contributions.”

Empower and Sullivan went to federal court on February 26, 2014, seeking to quash the subpoenas.  Empower asserted that the TEC’s theory—that a corporation that receives contributions and then makes “direct campaign expenditures” (independent expenditures) becomes a political committee because it is deemed to be working in concert with others (the contributors)—was being asserted for the first time and violated First Amendment rights.  Empower pointed out in its complaint that, on the same day the TEC issued the new subpoenas, it had also proposed a new rule expanding the disclosures required by nonprofits that make independent expenditures.  (Proposed Rule 20.68 would have presumed a contribution is a campaign contribution based on that contribution’s use by the recipient, irrespective of the contributor’s intent, contrary to the preexisting Election Code definition.) Empower and Sullivan alleged that “[t]he TEC is attempting to ‘out’ any source that have contacted Plaintiffs or had communications with them so that these sources may be silenced.”  Compl. para. 53.

Judge Sam Sparks held a temporary restraining order hearing and stated that the subpoenas were “absurd” and “overbroad,” but ultimately dismissed the case on abstention grounds, holding that Empower must raise its constitutional claims in the TEC enforcement proceedings before bringing them in a federal suit.  (This abstention holding is important because the court found that TEC administrative proceedings are an “adequate opportunity” for plaintiffs to present their constitutional claims.)

The TEC held a meeting on April 3, 2014 and withdrew its third-round subpoenas which a federal judge had described as “absurd” and served Empower Texans and Sullivan with a fourth round of subpoenas.  While the TEC maintains that the revised subpoenas were more narrowly drawn than the requests at issue in the federal lawsuit, in many ways they were broader and more objectionable.  These April subpoenas now defined “Empower Texans” to include “any other affiliated or subsidiary entities” (even though the complaint was filed only as to Empower), and requested many new invasive categories of information (e.g., “telephone and personnel directories”; “personnel files”; “records or evidence of incoming and outgoing telephone calls”; “accounting and bookkeeping records”; lists of recipients of Empower’s emails; and calendars and time records documenting Sullivan’s and other staff time.  [Note that Empower later pointed out that the TEC’s purpose in requesting time records later became clear, when TEC proposed a new definition of “principal purpose” (Rule 20.1(20)]).

Empower/Sullivan raised constitutional objections at the April 3 meeting, prompting TEC Counsel John Moore to advise the Commissioners that it’s not the TEC’s responsibility “to determine whether something is constitutional or not.”  See Transcript of Apr. 3, 2014 hrg.  Sullivan and Empower filed a lawsuit in Travis County district court on April 30, 2014, seeking an injunction against the subpoenas.  Tex. Ethics Com’n v. Empower Texans, Inc. and Michael Q. Sullivan, No. D-1-GN-14-001252 (53rd Dist. Ct., Travis Cnty.).  Empower and Sullivan asserted that the subpoenas should be quashed for violating First Amendment rights. They also argued the subpoenas were not supported by probable cause and thus violated the Fourth Amendment, and that the sworn complaint proceedings violated due process for lack of procedural rules.

Apparently inspired to take Empower’s objections a little more seriously now that their actions were under review in another court, the TEC discussed Empower/Sullivan’s objections in a meeting May 28, 2014, and pared back the subpoenas.  While these modifications did slightly scale back the scope of the requests, they still requested bounds of unnecessary information.  Empower and Sullivan filed renewed objections and responses with the TEC.

At this point, coincidentally, another Texas judicial decision was issued that burnished Empower’s position.  On December 19, 2014, the Third Court of Appeals in Austin released its opinion in the long-running case of Sylvester v. Texas Association of Business, 453 S.W.3d 519 (2014)Sylvester involved a similar claim that a nonprofit entity (TAB) had incurred regulation as a political committee by engaging in a limited amount of communications which losing legislative candidates argued were not merely “issue” ads but “campaign expenditures” in opposition to their respective candidacies.  Importantly, Sylvester applied a textually-sound interpretation to the political committee definition—holding that an entity can have only one “principal purpose”—and held that TAB could not be considered a political committee (even assuming, arguendo, that the ads were express advocacy) because TAB’s principal purpose was to be a trade association, not to influence elections.  Id. at 529-30.  Sylvester additionally explained that “[w]ere we to interpret ‘principal purpose’ in the definition of ‘political committee’ as suggested by appellants so that corporations making independent political expenditures morph into political committees under the Election Code…when they made the expenditures, the definition would be an affront to the First Amendment.”  Id. at 529.

Four days later, a senior TEC attorney emailed TEC legal staff and, with quite a dose of understatement, noted that Sylvestercould be used against us by those wishing to argue that a corporation cannot be a political committee.”  In fact, Sylvester stated directly that a corporation can have only one “principal purpose” for purposes of determining political committee status, directly precluding the TEC’s position that a committee can have multiple principal purposes.  It seems pretty clear that Empower’s principal purpose is to operate as a 501(c)(4) organization, with independent expenditures (and their supporting solicitations) constituting only a minor part of its overall activity.

Nonetheless, TEC staff argued in a memo on May 25, 2015, that the Commission should continue pressing its investigation and, specifically, should seek enforcement of the subpoenas in district court.

The TEC Goes on Offense

Following the staff’s recommendation, the TEC voted on June 11, 2015 to file a lawsuit against Empower/Sullivan, seeking a judicial order to enforce the subpoenas.  The suit was brought under Texas Government Code sections 571.137(c) and 2001.201.  Section 571.137(c) states that when “a person to whom a subpoena is directed” refuses to comply with the subpoena requests, the TEC must “report that fact to a district court in Travis County.” Section 2001.201 authorizes an administrative agency to file suit, in a district court in Travis County, to enforce an administrative subpoena.  The TEC filed their suit on October 5, 2015.  Tex. Ethics Com’n v. Empower Texans, Inc. and Michael Q. Sullivan, No. D-1-GN-15-004455 (345th Dist. Ct., Travis Cnty.).

In response to the TEC’s petition, Empower and Sullivan filed a counterclaim seeking declaratory judgment that a corporate entity cannot be turned into a political committee under the TEC’s “morph-into-pac” theory, and alleged that the TEC complaints were a frivolous claim by a state agency under Texas Civil Practice and Remedies Code, Chapter 105 and that TEC should be liable for Empower/Sullivan’s attorneys’ fees.  Essentially, these counterclaims advanced the same legal theories that Empower and Sullivan were simultaneously asserting in the lawsuit they filed against the TEC.

Empower/Sullivan’s Request for Injunctive Relief is Denied, but TEC Suddenly Drops Investigation

Meanwhile, the suit initially filed by Empower/Sullivan progressed.  In November 2015, Plaintiffs filed their Second Amended Petition.  Primarily, Empower/Sullivan argue that “the TEC does not have an authorized purpose [supporting its subpoenas] because there is no statute it can clearly identify EMPOWER may have broken pursuant to the complaints to authorize the issuance of a subpoena.”  “In fact,” Plaintiffs argue, apparently referring to the Sylvester holding as to principal purpose, “the law is conclusively decided against the TEC’s claim” that Empower may constitute a political committee.  Plaintiffs also sought judicial declarations restricting the definitions of “principal purpose,” “campaign expenditure,” “in connection with,” and “campaign contribution,” and declarations that Empower did not violate the Election Code based on the Keffer/Truitt allegations, and mandating that the TEC adopt certain procedural safeguards governing sworn complaints.  Plaintiffs also seek to force the TEC to pay their attorneys’ fees as a result of the TEC’s frivolous position ignoring governing caselaw. Plaintiffs argue:

[T]he Commissioners have known for one year [that] the interpretation of the Election Code they seek to apply against Empower has been directly disavowed by controlling case authority….Even with the knowledge of the controlling authority eviscerating its case, the Commissioners will not rule on the merits….Instead, they seek to harass the Plaintiffs with multiple subpoenas, hearings, and orders to obtain constitutionally privileged…documents, the result of which is to intentionally and knowingly cause an unnecessary expense of time, cost and attorneys’ fees to EMPOWER.

Second Amended Pet., para. 106.

A temporary injunction hearing was scheduled for December 21, 2015.  Four days before the hearing, the TEC once again modified its subpoenas.  This time the TEC was represented by an attorney from the Texas Attorney General’s office, and drastically reduced the scope of the requests, basically seeking only enough information as necessary to determine how much Empower received from contributors who intended to fund “independent expenditures” (as opposed to, e.g., general operations of the nonprofit, or issue ads) in response to five specific emails Empower had distributed requesting funds for that purpose.  This was now the fifth permutation of the subpoenas.

On December 29, 2015, the district court denied the request for an injunction, in an order stating that Empower/Sullivan’s pleadings were “without merit.”  The court order does not explain its reasoning.  Empower filed an interlocutory appeal.  See Empower Texans, Inc. and Michael Quinn Sullivan v. State of Texas Ethics Commission et al., No. 03–16–00019–CV (Tex. App.—Austin).

The TEC, in its appellate brief filed on June 30, 2016, stated that it would not go forth with any further proceedings related to the Keffer/Truitt complaints if Empower Texans either affirmed that there was no more responsive information, or affirmed that the total amount of funds raised from the solicitations for “independent expenditures” was less than $500.  TEC’s Brief at 2-3 (filed Jun. 30, 2016). (The “political committee” definition includes a $500 threshold.)  In a reply brief filed August 19, 2016, Empower affirmed that the total funds raised were less than $500:

Empower Texans did not request political contributions. Instead, it sent out five e-mails with a donate button, where the accompanying text read: “Our work is made possible only through the generous support of friends like you. Please consider making a monthly or one time contribution of $5, $10, or $25 to fund independent expenditure activities that promote conservative leadership in the Lone Star State.”  (E.g., RR4:DX16 at Ex. 3.) The complaints are based entirely on that statement’s appearing in five e-mails.  However, independent expenditure activities is not a defined term in the Texas Election Code and does not trigger TEC supervision or reporting obligations. Nonetheless, even if the term triggered an obligation to file reports with the TEC, the total amount of all electronic donations during the timeframe the donate button could have been used is $375 from 11 separate donations.  (RR4:DX15.) It is not possible to determine whether the e-mails’ donate button was ever used. The $375 is all electronic donations from every possible source.  If it is assumed that the donate button was used for all electronic donations, the total amount still falls below the $500 threshold that the TEC asserts applies.

After this reply, the TEC moved quickly to dismiss all remnants of the enforcement action regarding the claim that Empower Texans had become a political committee.  The TEC filed a notice of non-suit on September 6, 2016, dropping its request to enforce the subpoenas (in the 345th District Court) against Empower and Sullivan.  On October 13, 2016, the TEC dismissed the underlying Keffer/Truitt sworn complaints against Empower Texans.  A week later, on October 21, 2016, the TEC filed a plea to the jurisdiction requesting that the court dismiss certain of Empower/Sullivan’s counterclaims pending in the 345th, arguing that they were moot because the TEC had dismissed the Keffer/Truitt complaints.

The TEC also moved quickly to argue that, since it had now dismissed the underlying Keffer/Truitt complaints, the appeal in Empower Texans’ own case filed against the TEC (in the 53rd Dist. Ct.) was moot as well. The Third Court of Appeals agreed and, on November 22, 2016, dismissed Empower Texans’ appeal without ruling on any of the underlying legal issues.  Empower Texans, Inc. v. State of Tex. Ethics Com’n, No. 03-16-00019, 2016 WL 6946810 (Tex. App.—Austin Nov. 22, 2016).

Last week, the Attorney General’s office withdrew from the case, so the TEC is now represented only by Eric Nichols of Beck Redden LLP. There have been no other developments in this case since the Court of Appeals’ decision.  While the interlocutory appeal was dismissed, Empower/Sullivan’s underlying claims for relief remain pending.

TEC’s authority under the Texas Constitution: Legislative or Executive Agency?

As noted above, Empower and Sullivan have argued that the TEC’s underlying theory that Empower Texans could morph into a PAC was frivolous (based on Sylvester), and asked the courts in two separate cases to order the TEC to reimburse the attorneys’ fees incurred in defending against that theory.  Texas law allows a court to order a “state agency” to pay fees, expenses, and attorneys’ fees to an opposing party if the agency asserts a cause of action that is “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.”  Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 105.002.  In order to be considered a “state agency” within the meaning of this provision, the agency must be “in the executive branch of state government.”  Id. § 105.001(3).

The TEC claimed that it could not be liable for attorneys’ fees and expenses because it is not an executive branch agency but is in fact a legislative branch agency.  The TEC is, in fact, established under the article of the Texas Constitution establishing the legislative branch.  Tex. Const. art. III (the “Legislative Department”), § 24a.  The TEC challenged the district court’s jurisdiction to hear several of Empower’s counterclaims, including this request for attorneys’ fees, arguing that the attorneys’ fees provision clearly did not apply since TEC is under the legislative branch.

Empower/Sullivan responded by arguing that the TEC was too cute by half: if the TEC is not an executive agency, then the TEC can have no authority to make rules, enforce laws, issue orders, or collect fines under the constitutional separation of powers.  Empower added a claim requesting that if the court found the TEC was not a “state agency,” to find that it was a legislative agency as claimed by TEC, and order that it therefore had no enforcement authority.

The district judge granted the TEC’s plea to the jurisdiction, but did not explain a rationale as to any provision dismissed.  Empower’s request for a declaratory judgment that TEC was an executive agency or, in the alternative, a legislative agency without enforcement authority, was dismissed; its request for attorneys’ fees for TEC’s allegedly frivolous theory was dismissed with prejudice.  Order Granting TEC’s Plea to the Jurisdiction (November 28, 2016), in Tex. Ethics Com’n v. Empower Texans, Inc., et al., No. D-1-GN-15-004455 (345th Jud. Dist., Travis Cnty.).

Empower/Sullivan filed an interlocutory appeal on December 19, 2016; the case is pending in the Third Court of Appeals as No. 03-16-00872-CV and all district court actions are stayed pending a decision on the interlocutory appeal.  Empower’s brief is due March 23, 2017.  Note that these same issues (raised in the plea to the jurisdiction) are still potentially live in the case Empower initiated in the 54th District Court, although it is unclear if any action will be taken there pending this appeal.

Texas Supreme Court hearing in Texas Democratic Party v. King Street Patriots, Inc.

The Texas Supreme Court heard arguments today in part of Texas Democratic Party v. King Street Patriots, Inc.  The Texas Election Code allows private parties to sue political opponents for alleged violations of campaign finance law, and the Texas Democratic Party and some of its candidates sued KSP in 2010 for allegedly acting as a “political committee” as defined in Texas law without registering with the Ethics Commission, and for making corporate political contributions, which are prohibited.  (There is no allegation that actual money was transferred; the allegation is that KSP’s activities resulted in deemed in-kind contributions to certain candidates by training poll watchers, etc.).

I went to Austin to watch the argument.   More to come on this case later, but I wanted to post an initial reaction to the argument.  Among other things, because the plaintiffs are claiming KSP made an illegal corporate contribution, KSP brings a facial challenge to the Texas ban on corporate contributions (which applies to both nonprofits and for-profit corporations).  The attorney for the Democratic Party focused his argument on convincing the Court that if the Texas corporate contribution ban is struck down, it will “open the floodgates” to anonymous contributions funneled to campaigns through sham corporations set up to serve exactly that purpose.  This is misleading.

In fact, just like federal law, Texas law already bans undisclosed earmarking.  In other words, it is illegal in Texas to give money to an intermediary (individual or organization) earmarked for a campaign, without disclosing the true source of the contribution (that is, without informing the campaign of the true source of the funds so the campaign can report the true source).  TEC Rule 22.3 (effective since 1993) states that “[a] person may not knowingly make or authorize a political contribution or political expenditure in the name of or on behalf of another unless the person discloses the name and address of the person who is the true source of the contribution.”  1 Tex. Admin. Code 22.3.

The U.S. Supreme Court has already indicated that the government cannot point to a hypothetical horrible that is “already illegal under current campaign finance laws” to justify additional restrictions on First Amendment-protected contributions.  McCutcheon v. FEC, 134 S. Ct. 1434, 1456 (2014).  Notably, the hypothetical rejected by the McCutcheon Court relied on already-illegal earmarking, just as the hypothetical offered by the Texas Democratic Party attorney today.  In McCutcheon, the government claimed the aggregate limits were necessary because, otherwise, a single person could write a huge check to a joint fundraiser, where each participant would then conspire to transfer its portion of the contribution to a pre-ordained ultimate recipient, which would then spend the money to support a single candidate.  The Court correctly pointed out that “this speculation relies on illegal earmarking.”  Id. at 1455.

There are many aspects of this case.  But the Democratic Party clearly wants to scare the Texas Court into following this theme of anonymous corporate cash. It is a ruse that ignores current Texas law (although nobody cited this provision today). The Court would err if it were to take the bait, as McCutcheon instructs.

Election Manipulation Dies Hard in Weslaco, Texas

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The testimony above is from the Feb. 4, 2014 deposition of Maria Berrones, a proud Weslaco voter who has some experience with current candidate for Wesalco Commission District 5, Lupe Rivera, Jr.

Recently, Rivera, Jr. announced that he would challenge Letty Lopez for the District 5 Commissioner seat, providing another chapter in this ongoing struggle against illegal voting practices in South Texas.

After a four-day trial in March 2014, Letty Lopez, represented by Najvar Law Firm, won a landmark election contest.  She proved 30 illegal votes were cast in the November 2013 election between Lopez and Lupe Rivera, Sr, nearly twice the margin of victory. Ten of those votes were cast by friends and relatives of Lupe Rivera, Sr., who registered to vote in District 5 but did not live in District 5. Twenty votes were illegal because the Rivera campaign had violated one or more Election Code statutes specifically passed to protect against coercion or fraud in mail-in balloting. The district court ordered a new election. Najvar Law Firm successsfully defended the case on appeal, and that opinion–from Texas’s Thirteenth Court of Appeals in Corpus Christi–provides a valuable precedent enforcing the residency requirement in the Election Code, and the anti-fraud provisions regarding mail-in ballots.

Back to Maria Berrones.  Her testimony proved devastating to Rivera’s defense, because here-for once-was a rare example of someone willing and able to testify to exactly the type of coercion and abuse of elderly mail-ballot voters that is commonplace in South Texas elections. She said she requested a mail-in ballot because Lupe Rivera, Sr. had come by her house and suggested that she vote by mail. He told her to call him when the ballot arrived, and not to give it to anyone else. He showed up at Berrones’ house after it arrived, even before she called. She handed it to him and he filled it out. He didn’t ask how she wanted to vote. He handed it to her to sign, then left in a hurry because he had to visit other people.

Berrones’s family was incensed when they heard what happened, and tried to take her to vote in person with them, hoping they could cancel the mail ballot. Berrones testified that she wanted to vote for Lopez. But the poll workers told her that the mail ballot had already been counted, so she could not vote:

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After trial, the district court found the evidence sufficient to conclude that the ballot was illegal, and that since Rivera had completed the ballot, he had “voted for himself,” and the court deducted the vote from Rivera’s total.

Apparently Lupe Rivera, Jr., who had helped his father collect the mail ballots, had an idea that Berrones’ testimony would be devastating. So after she had been subpoenaed by Lopez for a pre-trial deposition, Rivera, Jr. went to her house and tried to convince her not to show up.

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Thankfully, to her great credit, Ms. Berrones showed up and testified courageously.  Her testimony was critical to the case and provides a window into the tactics used in coercing and taking advantage of ballot by mail voters. There were 29 other votes the court also threw out.  Weslaco got a new election, and Letty Lopez defeated Rivera Sr. in the rematch in November 2015.

Weslaco residents filed a criminal complaint with the Texas Secretary of State based on evidence from the election contest, and the Attorney General’s office filed 16 misdemeanor charges against Lupe Rivera, Sr. and two against Lupe Rivera, Jr.  Senior pled guilty to unlawful assistance of a voter, i.e., “while assisting Maria Berrones…knowingly prepar[ing] the voter’s ballot in a way other than the way the voter directed or without direction from the voter,” and got a year in jail (suspended during community supervision) and $500 fine. The state prosecutor testified in a legislative hearing in Austin in September that the Weslaco case illustrated an example of how elections are tained by manipulation of voters through false pretenses. Apparently the prosecutors dropped charges against Junior on account of Senior’s guilty plea.

So, naturally, Lupe Rivera, Jr., who desperately tried to convince an elderly woman to disobey a subpoena, is now running to take back the seat that his father lost after Lopez proved in court that the Rivera campaign had harvested 30 illegal votes.

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One lesson from this is that rooting out these practices and restoring integrity to elections in South Texas–famous for Lyndon Johnson’s “ballot box 13” that miraculously put him over the top in 1948’s Senate elections–will require a sustained effort. I hope the voters of Weslaco turn out in droves in November and send a message in this election.

Federal court enjoins Houston blackout period on political fundraising

NLF represents Trebor Gordon, candidate for Houston City Council at-large in November 2015’s elections.  We filed a lawsuit November 4 challenging Houston’s ordinance that prevents fundraising by city candidates until February 1 of the election year.  The fundamental argument is that Gordon has the right to fundraise for his campaign whenever he wants; he does not have to wait until February 1 to start raising money.  Today, the court issued an order granting Gordon’s request for a preliminary injunction.

SEE ORDER HERE

Jerad Najvar to speak to Hidalgo County Republican Women about #VoterFraud and #RGV Political Corruption

I’m scheduled to speak October 25 at the Hidalgo County Republican Women’s Club’s luncheon in McAllen, TX.  I’ll talk about political corruption and voter fraud in the Rio Grande Valley.  I am honored by the invitation and looking forward to it.  The luncheon is at the McAllen Country Club at 10:30 a.m.

Prof. Hasen of Election Law Blog on Perry’s indictment

Prof. Hasen runs what is probably the most-visited blog on political law, the Election Law Blog.  Politically, he’s not friend of Rick Perry. Here is an excerpt from his take on the indictment:

Perry joins the list of other politicians prosecuted under controversial or dubious theories, including Tom DeLay, John Edwards, Scott Walker, Don Siegelman, and Ted Stevens. Some go to jail; some don’t. Some get convicted by juries; some don’t.  Some have their prosecutions overturned on appeal; some don’t.

The common thread here is the criminalization of politics.

I agree, and I said the same thing about the John Edwards prosecution at the time.  Although I admit that in that case, I had to fight the instinct for schadenfreude as I watched a liberal politician fall victim to an aggressive campaign finance-based investigation after he had benefited from what liberal campagin finance reformers would surely have called an illegal in-kind contribution if it had been anyone other than a liberal democrat.

Prof. Hasen’s piece also points to a post by Prof. Eugene Volokh, criticizing the soundness of the indictment.

City of Houston’s stated ground for invalidating thousands of ERO petition signatures is unconstitutional

The Houston City Attorney has argued that thousands of signatures on the referendum petition submitted to repeal the Equal Rights Ordinance are invalid under the Charter for several alleged defects.  While it is unclear whether the City Attorney even has the authority to override the Secretary’s determination that the petition was valid (the primary issue raised at present in the plaintiffs’ emergency lawsuit to validate the petition), this post addresses another issue that may prove determinative, even if the City Attorney establishes that he has authority to review the petition himself.

The City Attorney’s memo leaves much to be desired in terms of clarity.  For example, the first category of defective pages states that “Legal was not able to confirm that the circulator also validly signed the petition.”  This purported defect, according to the City Attorney, affected 347 pages with 2,694 signatures.  It is not immediately clear, at least from the memo itself, whether this means the signatures within this category are allegedly invalid because the City Attorney could not verify whether the circulator signed at all, or that the circulator’s signature was not “valid” because though she signed, she was not a registered Houston voter.

The Houston Chronicle reported that:

Most pages were thrown out because those who collected names for the petition were not registered Houston voters or did not sign the petition themselves. Those errors invalidated more than 2,000 pages with about 11,300 signatures

While we lack clarity as to exact numbers, it appears that given a blatant constitutional infirmity with part of the circulator requirement, and the structure of the language of the relevant charter provision, the requirement that the circulator be a petition signatory herself may be unenforceable.  If so, at least those 2,694 signatures in the City Attorney’s first category, and possibly many more, would be effective.

Under the Houston City Charter, only “qualified voters” of the City may sign a recall petition, Charter art. VIIa, § 2, and in this context, the Texas Election Code defines “qualified voter” as “registered voter.” § 277.0021. This same requirement applies to the referendum petition filed by the opponents of the City’s Equal Rights Ordinance, because referendum petitions must be “signed and verified in the manner and form” required for recall petitions. Charter art. VIIb, §§ 2, 3.  So, one must be a registered Houston voter to sign a referendum petition.

The signatures also must be verified in one of two ways.  The first option is for each petition signer to sign the petition in the presence of a licensed notary or other “officer authorized by law to take acknowledgments and proof of deeds.” Charter art. VIIa, § 3; art. IX, § 3. This is plainly burdensome on the petition process; petition gatherers do not typically travel door to door with a notary.  Alternatively, a petition circulator may complete an affidavit swearing that all of the signatures on a petition page were made in his presence on the date the signature indicates. Charter art. VIIa, § 3. The circulator, however, must be one of the signers of the petition. Id. Since only registered Houston voters may sign a petition, these provisions together mean that the Houston Charter requires that petition circulators also be registered Houston voters.

Here we have the blatant constitutional infirmity:  the requirement that the circulator be a registered voter of the jurisdiction has been unconstitutional since the Supreme Court decided Buckley v. American Constitutional Law Foundation, 525 U.S. 182 (1999).

Buckley held that circulation of an initiative petition constitutes core political speech, and that the registered-voter requirement as applied to petition circulators reduced the total quantity of speech by reducing the pool of potential circulators.  525 U.S. at 195-97.  This burden was not justified, Buckley held, because the government could achieve its stated interest (in ensuring that circulators are amenable to legal process in order to police lawbreaking) by requiring that they simply file a statement of residence rather than actually being a registered voter.  Id. at 197.

This holding has been applied in many other cases to strike down registered-voter requirements for initiative circulators, and has been extended to strike the same requirement as applied to petitions for a candidate to get on the ballot.  This year, Congressman John Conyers successfully advanced this argument to force Michigan election officials to place him on the primary ballot after initially being declared ineligible because some of his circulators turned out to have not been registered voters.  Moore v. Johnson, 14-cv-11903 (E.D. Mich. May 23, 2014).

[Interestingly, Gov. Rick Perry sued Virginia officials in 2012 seeking to be placed on the presidential primary ballot, arguing that the Virginia law requiring circulators to be registered voters was unconstitutional. See Perry v. Judd, 840 F. Supp. 2d 945 (E.D. Va. 2012), aff’d 471 Fed. App’x. 219 (4th Cir. 2012).   That case was rejected on standing grounds; the court held that Perry was asking it to assume that he would have gathered enough signatures if he hadn’t been hindered by the requirement.  The Perry case was distinguished by Moore v. Johnson.]

It is unclear how many petition pages the City Attorney has called invalid due to the determination that the circulator was not a registered Houston voter.  However, it is clear a great number of pages were invalidated for an alleged inability to determine that the circulator had “validly” signed the petition himself.  To the extent that any circulator has been deemed to have not “validly” signed the petition because the circulator was not a Houston registered voter, such determination is unconstitutional under Buckley, and those pages would be reinstated.  But the issue may be even broader than that.  The text of the circulator statement–provided in the charter itself (art. VIIa, sec. 3)–does not make any distinction between circulators who are registered Houston voters and those who are not.  All circulators are required to affirm they signed the petition.  If it’s unconstitutional to require a circulator to be a registered Houston voter, it’s unconstitutional to require circulators to affirm that they signed a petition which they are only eligible to sign if they are a Houston voter.  The circulator statement may be facially invalid, unenforceable to the extent it requires any circulator to affirm they signed the petition.

A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 15.  As of now, the plaintiffs’ petition alleges that the City Secretary has already validated the petition as sufficient and that interference from the City Attorney’s office does not excuse the city from following through with the consequences of certification.  The petition doesn’t specifically challenge the substantive validity of the circulator requirement.  But I suspect it will come up at the hearing.

Lupe Rivera wants to delay new Weslaco election; Letty Lopez responds

On June 12 the district court announced that Letty Lopez had proved by clear and convincing evidence that last November’s election for Weslaco District 5 Commissioner was tainted by more illegal votes than incumbent Lupe Rivera’s margin of victory.  (NLF represents Lopez.)  Rivera immediately claimed he would appeal.  Lopez requested that the district court sign a judgment that includes an expedited appellate schedule, so that District 5 may finally hold a free and fair election as soon as possible.  Rivera has notified the court that he objects to the proposal to expedite the appeal, but he hasn’t provided any reason why.  Instead, he has requested a hearing, which he says can’t occur until his attorney is available July 28 at the earliest.  This is Lopez’s response, filed today.