More from Scott Shackford, Reason: “Oppressive subpoenas like this happen all the time, which is probably why Houston didn’t even realize it was poking at a hornet’s nest. Cities across the country fight back like this against citizens attempting to exert their right to influence municipal policy. … If the targets hadn’t been pastors, would we even had known about the subpoenas?”
Massively overbroad discovery demands are among the most common abuses in civil litigation, and it’s hard to get judges or policymakers to take seriously the harm they do. But the City of Houston, represented by litigators at Susman Godfrey, may have tested the limits when it responded to a lawsuit against the city by a church-allied group by subpoenaing the pastors’ sermons along with all their other communications. [KTRK, Houston Chronicle; text of subpoena request; motion to quash] The city has already backed off in part, saying it will narrow the demands to focus on the issue of whether the plaintiffs were aware of petition procedures. [Jacob Gershman, WSJ]
Eugene Volokh has a useful analysis (more) of how churches, like reporters, do have some additional First Amendment protections against being asked to disclose just anything. But a way to protect litigants and third parties more systemically would be to narrow the scope of discovery generally (e.g. to information relevant to the actual claims and defenses in the suit) and shift more burdens of cost and proof to the demanders’ side.
I hope the city is shamed into calling off the fishing expedition entirely. That having been said, I find it fascinating that so much of the coverage in the conservative press downplays or omits the fact of the ongoing litigation (Todd Starnes buries it in paragraph 8, and Ted Cruz’s statement never even mentions it) thus leaving many readers with the impression that the city is using police or administrative powers to demand the information, which would pose an entirely different set of challenges for public liberty.
[Title updated 9 a.m.]
P.S.: This contentious courtroom dispute may previously have featured troublingly broad discovery demands from the other side, if one accepts as valid the comments of “Mike in Houston” at Stephen Miller’s post: “there’s no mention of the subpoenas coming from the anti-HERO side that have targeted a whole range of city employees, private citizens, nonprofits and pastors who spoke out in favor of the ordinance (and assisted with the pro-HERO organization efforts.)” Yet more: Sarah Posner, Religion Dispatches (various liberals, moderates, church-state separationists, and pro-LGBT figures critical of requests’ overbreadth).
Revelations that a single senior Houston police officer served on at least ten grand juries have been an eye-opener to those who might have assumed that the grand jury as constituted in Harris County (Houston) was random or representative in its composition. Radley Balko:
…critics allege that the “key-man” system that many Harris County judges use to pick grand jurors selects for law enforcement officials and their friends, family, and acquaintances. Critics say it’s too easily manipulated, and results in grand juries continually picked from the same pool of people — cops, retired cops, friends and family of cops, and older, whiter, wealthier, more conservative people who both have the time and money to serve, and are familiar enough with the system to even know to volunteer to serve on a grand jury in the first place.
Adding to the problem, grand jury members are invited to go on police ride-alongs, are given free time at police shooting ranges, and are invited to participate in 3D shooting simulators designed to make them empathetic with police officers. Those same grand jurors are then asked to assess the validity and credibility of the police officers who testify before them, not just in routine investigations, but in investigations of the killing of police officers, alleged abuse by police officers, police shootings, or police corruption.
Meanwhile: Houston judge reported to have issued what law professor Josh Blackman calls “blatantly unconstitutional” gag order requiring Google not only to remove all records of certain allegations against an individual, but also to refrain from discussing the gag order itself [Houston Chronicle]
It’s no longer a specifically enumerated crime to do that on the streets of Houston in an annoying or flirtatious way [Volokh]
Another survey of late-night TV lawyer ads, this time by 99 Percent Invisible at Slate “The Eye”, and some, like “We’ll Change Your Pain Into Rain,” previously unseen by us. Audio podcast (21:04) here:
And Above the Law highlights this very…. unusual video by an intellectual property lawyer in Houston:
Someone must have deactivated the Dallas Morning News’s B.S. detectors [Amy Alkon] The paper’s editors uncritically cheer new proposals from Texas Sen. John Cornyn and Rep. Ted Poe for legal changes including wider use of forfeiture and more draconian sentences for johns. More: “There have been two compelling-prostitution cases filed in Harris County this year. Not 300,000. Two.” [Mark Bennett] Yet more: the paper corrected 11/24.
A former Houston Texans punter “alleges that [Reliant] Stadium’s practice of piecing together 1,200, 8?x8? palettes of grass prior to every home game creates an ‘unsafe turf’ condition,” resulting in a torn ligament and bone fracture. At Abnormal Use, Nick Farr says we haven’t heard a whole lot about turf seams as a playing field hazard up to now, and notes that the player in question may have had some other difficulties going on with his career aside from this “career-threatening injury.”
“Two Houston adult entertainment clubs this week agreed to settle a federal age discrimination case with a former waitress who alleged younger, male managers called her ‘old’ and said she showed symptoms of memory loss. The owners of Centerfolds and Cover Girls agreed to pay $60,000 to Mary Bassi. She was 56 when she was fired in 2006 ‘without provocation or explanation,’ according to a lawsuit the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed on Bassi’s behalf.” [Houston Chronicle; earlier]