In a year when four justices face reelection, the all-Republican high court has made a slate of controversy-generating decisions, including lifting a moratorium on evictions and — for now — limiting vote-by-mail in this year’s elections.
Typically not top of mind for voters, the nine Republican justices of the Texas Supreme Court have come under the spotlight during the coronavirus pandemic with a slate of high-profile and controversy-generating moves.
Actions on bail, evictions, debt collections, vote-by-mail and a Dallas salon owner named Shelley Luther have foregrounded the court in a year when four incumbent justices face reelection — making it easier, Democratic challengers say, to make the case against them.
Last week, the high court lifted its coronavirus ban on evictions and debt collections, put in place in March as the economy shut down and hundreds of thousands were added to the unemployment rolls. And the justices temporarily put on hold a lower court ruling that expanded vote-by-mail access during the pandemic. Both decisions have infuriated some voters and energized the Democratic Party.
This month, the court ordered the release of Luther, who was jailed for contempt of court after refusing to shutter her salon under coronavirus orders; earlier this spring, it sided with state officials in limiting how many inmates could be released from county jails, which have become hotspots for disease.
“I think people’s eyes are opening up,” said 3rd Court of Appeals Justice Gisela Triana, one of the four women running for Supreme Court on the Democratic ticket this year. “What has been the sleepy branch of government … has woken up.”
The vote-by-mail decision that has drawn particular rancor, is, for now, only temporary — though that hasn’t stopped Democrats from making it a key talking point. Democratic judges on two lower courts had ruled that susceptibility to the coronavirus could be considered a “disability” under state election code, allowing most Texas voters to take advantage of mail-in ballots that are typically available to very few. The Republican high court put that expansion on hold and is set to hear oral arguments on the issue on Wednesday. On Tuesday, a federal court ruled on the same issue — a legal morass that some predict may ultimately be resolved at the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We will make sure every Texan knows who was responsible for putting their health at risk in order to vote,” said Texas Democratic Party Executive Director Manny Garcia, in a press release that called the high court a “death panel.” “Republicans Nathan Hecht, Jane Bland, Jeffrey Boyd, and Brett Busby have constantly put blatant partisan and special interests over the needs of everyday Texans. They are endangering the lives of Texans and making our recovery from COVID-19 more difficult.”
A spokesman for the Bland and Hecht campaigns did not return requests for comment. A spokesman for Boyd declined comment.
Triana, Staci Williams, Kathy Cheng and Amy Clark Meachum are vying for spots on the court, with Meachum seeking the position of chief justice. Meachum, Williams and Triana all currently serve as judges, and Cheng is a Houston attorney in private practice.
In down-ballot, low-information judicial races, voters often make their decisions using only information they can glean from the ballot itself, like party affiliation and gender. Party officials said the candidates are pitching themselves as one consolidated slate, coordinating message and strategy. Judicial candidates typically rise or fall together, winning very similar percentages of the vote.
“While millions of Texans struggle during a pandemic which by all indications is getting worse, not better, in Texas, the Supreme Court has decided that they will return to business as usual when it comes to evictions and debt collections,” she said Monday.
She took particular aim at a tweet by Busby, one of the Republican justices on the ballot this fall, who posted last week about a Texas Supreme Court order that he suggested would help Texans struggling to pay rent.
Many can’t pay rent due to the pandemic, and I and my #SCOTX colleagues are responding with a new order. It ensures evictions from housing covered by the CARES Act are delayed until 7/25. Texans must have safe places to stay to defeat this virus; this order will help us do that! pic.twitter.com/13VWxLOT6d
— Justice Brett Busby (@BrettBusby) May 14, 2020
In fact, the CARES Act eviction protections he referred to are granted by federal law, not by the state court. The Texas Supreme Court order he referred to was the one that lifted a statewide moratorium on evictions.
Triana, Busby’s opponent this fall, dismissed that explanation, emphasizing that the court’s decisions on evictions were not legal rulings stemming from cases, but policy decisions made through the court’s ability to regulate judicial proceedings. The eviction decision was “just cruel,” she said.
Democrats also criticized the court’s decision to hear the vote-by-mail case and to temporarily pause the expanded access lower courts had granted. Acknowledging that it is “not typical” for a sitting judge to make such a statement, Williams said, “as a candidate and advocate for basic constitutional rights for all Texans, I believe the court should carefully reconsider its decision to hear this case.”
Criticizing court decisions is treacherous territory. Codes of judicial ethics restrict judges and judicial candidates — who are supposed to appear impartial — from commenting on cases that might land in their courtrooms “in a manner which suggests to a reasonable person the judge’s probable decision on any particular case.”
This year, the pandemic may dominate the message as it transforms the campaign.
“It’s going to be a much harder time to say, ‘Hey, everything’s okay, and I’m just going to vote for whoever I’ve been used to voting for,’” Triana said. “In the air, there’s a real hunger for change.”
Lots of red hats — but not many COVID masks — at Bedminster ‘Cops for Trump’ event with the president
Enhanced unemployment benefits have expired and there is still no deal on the next COVID-19 stimulus package, but the president of the United States left Washington, DC on Friday for yet another weekend at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster.
"This weekend’s trip to Trump National Bedminster is the president’s 23rd since taking office, and will increase his golf-related taxpayer tab to $142 million in travel and security expenses," HuffPost White House corresponded S.V. Dáte reported Friday. "Trump has already spent 268 days on golf courses that he owns in his 1,303 days in office, of which 85 have been at Bedminster."
Trump declares that Fox News is ‘no longer the big deal’ in the 2020 presidential campaign
Donald Trump on Friday reflected on what he sees as the key differences between his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns.
"The biggest difference between the Presidential Race in 2020 and that of 2016 is the 2016 candidate, Crooked Hillary Clinton, was much smarter and sharper than Slow Joe, we have even more ENTHUSIASM now, and [Fox News] has become politically correct and no longer the big deal!" Trump tweeted after arriving at his Bedminster Golf Club for the weekend.
Trump has grown increasingly frustrated by the network and its polls, which gave him more bad news on Thursday.
‘Very good news’: Law prof praises Kentucky’s bipartisan compromise to allow everyone to vote by mail
The state of Kentucky was praised on Friday after a bipartisan agreement was reached to expand voting by mail during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"Any Kentucky voter wary of the risk of COVID-19 will be able to vote in the Nov. 3 general election by mailing in an absentee ballot. Voters will also have the option of casting a ballot in person during the three weeks leading up to the election, or waiting until Election Day," the Lexington Herald-Leader reported Friday.