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Taking Texas to trial: the latest on the state's court battles
Austin
Texas has a host of high-profile legal battles in the works, ranging from voting rights to political maps.

by Cassandra Pollock and Emma Platoff
Texas Tribune

The state of Texas has a host of high-profile legal battles in the works, covering issues like voting rights and political maps. We looked into some of the most significant cases, and we'll update this page as new developments happen. Want to follow along? Bookmark this page.

The “sanctuary cities” law

The backstory: Gov. Greg Abbott in May signed Senate Bill 4, a high-profile measure that seeks to ban “sanctuary” jurisdictions in the state. The measure allows local law enforcement to question detained or arrested people about their immigration status and requires jailers to honor all detainers. Officials who don’t comply with federal authorities could face jail time and penalties that exceed $25,000.

The case: Cities, local governments and immigration rights groups began suing the state over SB 4 soon after Abbott signed it, arguing it would unfairly target minorities and open the door for racial profiling. Proponents of the law argue it’s constitutional and not pre-empted by federal immigration law. Key parts of the law were temporarily halted before its Sept. 1 effective date, including that requirement for jailers to honor all detainers. But a panel of judges on the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that the detainer provision can go into effect as the case plays out in court.

The latest: The 5th Circuit is set to hear arguments in the case Nov. 7.


Redrawing the state’s House and congressional maps

The backstory: The Legislature drew new boundary maps for state and federal lawmakers on the heels of fresh census data in 2010 — maps minority rights groups say discriminate against black and Latino voters. A panel of San Antonio judges drew temporary ?maps ahead of the 2012 elections?, and lawmakers enacted similar maps in 2013. ?Texas has been using those ever since.

The case: The legal battle, which has been six years in the making, reignited when the same trio of judges ruled in March that three of Texas' 36 congressional districts?, as drawn in 2011,? violated the U.S. Constitution and Voting Rights Act and ?flagged ?violations ?on the state's House map soon after that. In August, that panel ruled parts of both current? maps? needed to be redrawn? ahead of the 2018 elections? to address intentional discrimination that carried over from 2011.? Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton ?has? appealed both rulings to the U.S. Supreme Court.

The latest: The high court in September halted those lower court rulings while ?it considers Paxton’s appeal. Efforts to redraw the two maps are now on hold, making it more likely the current ones will remain intact for the 2018 elections.

State ban on second-trimester abortion procedure

The backstory: In a dilation and evacuation abortion, which is the most common second-trimester abortion procedure, doctors use surgical instruments to grasp and remove pieces of fetal tissue. Critics have decried the procedure as “dismemberment abortion”; medical professionals consider it the safest way to terminate a second-trimester pregnancy.

The case: Senate Bill 8, which Abbott signed into law in June, includes a provision that bans dilation and evacuation abortions unless the fetus is deceased. That ban was set to go into effect Sept. 1 but was temporarily blocked this summer by U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel after several abortion rights groups sued the state over the provision.

The latest: Yeakel’s block remains in effect until Nov. 22. Meanwhile, arguments in Whole Woman’s Health, et al. v. Ken Paxton, et al closed Nov. 8. A ruling is likely to come before the block expires. But that ruling would likely be appealed to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Fetal remains

The backstory: At stake are the rules surrounding how health providers must handle the remains of aborted fetuses. Anti-abortion lawmakers, citing the importance of respecting “the dignity of the unborn,” argue that fetal remains should be buried or cremated. But abortion groups and health providers argue that these rules are overly burdensome.

The case: In January, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks blocked Texas from enforcing a rule requiring that fetal remains be buried or cremated, saying that the regulation, part of the state’s administrative code, imposed an “undue burden” on the right to an abortion. But Senate Bill 8, signed into law this June, put the same language on fetal remains into state law.

The latest: The legal challenge is still pending.

Voter ID

The backstory: In 2011, the Texas Legislature passed what was widely considered to be the nation’s strictest voter ID law, requiring citizens to present one of seven forms of identification at the polls. For proponents, that law was critical for defending the integrity of elections; for critics, it disenfranchised minority voters less likely to have certain forms of identification.

The case: After the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the 2011 law disproportionately burdened minority voters, the Texas Legislature this year passed Senate Bill 5, a softened version of the voter ID law that permitted Texans without photo identification to vote if they presented certain acceptable alternatives and signed affidavits swearing a “reasonable impediment” prevented them from obtaining the identification. But a federal judge threw out that law, too, ruling that it intentionally discriminated against black and Latino voters and failed to correct the 2011 law’s problems.

The latest: Blocking that ruling, a three-judge panel from the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in September that Texas may use its revised voter ID law for future elections. That means the softened law could take effect as soon as Jan. 1. But that could change next month — the 5th Circuit is set to hear oral arguments on the case Dec. 5.

Language interpreters

The backstory: In 2014, late Williamson County resident Mallika Das brought her son to the ballot box to help her vote due to her limited English proficiency. But he wasn’t allowed to help her cast a ballot because an election official said he didn’t meet the state’s language interpreter requirements, which required him to be registered to vote in the county.

The case: Das’ dilemma prompted groups to sue the state, challenging Texas’ election requirements for language-minority voters. In August, a three-judge panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the requirements violated the Voting Rights Act.

The latest: It remains unclear whether the state will appeal the court ruling. Depending on the outcome, thousands of Texas voters could be impacted — millions of households in the state speak languages other than English.

Same-sex marriage benefits

The backstory: After the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal in all 50 states in June 2015, public employers in Texas extended marriage benefits for spouses of current and retired gay and lesbian employees.

The case: Two taxpayers — represented by same-sex marriage opponents — sued the city of Houston over its benefits policy. Those plaintiffs lost in a lower state court and appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which in June tossed out the ruling and suggested the case legalizing same-sex marriage didn’t fully address the right to marriage benefits.  

The latest: Houston filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court on Sept. 18, asking it review that ruling, and has continued providing benefits to all of its married employees. The high court hasn’t announced whether it plans to take up the case.

Child welfare

The backstory: Texas’ child welfare system has long been criticized for failing to properly serve the tens of thousands of children in its care.

The case: In 2015, U.S. District Judge Janis Jack ruled that Texas had violated foster children’s constitutional rights by placing them in a system where they “often age out of care more damaged than when they entered.” Texas has responded that it is the role of the Legislature, not the courts, to fix the problem. Abbott signed four major child welfare bills into law this May.

The latest: State efforts to reform the agency continue while the federal court case is still pending.