News Roundup: Council and the Court

Scalia's death shakes up high court; Council continues Uber battle

Friends, family, and members of the trans community gathered at Alamo Park on Fri., Feb. 12 to remember Monica Loera, the trans woman who was murdered outside of her North Austin home in January. Representatives from Revolutionary Alliance of Trans People Against Capitalism (RATPAC) asked those in attendance to talk about ways we can, as a community, stop this from happening again. (photo by jana birchum)

In this week's News Roundup: City Council sends the transportation network company ordinance to the voters; the Lions Municipal Golf Course wins nomination support for the National Register of Historic Places; the 450th state district court race gets weird; a U.S. Supreme Court justice dies in Texas; and more ...

Oxygen Deprivation: The big news emanating from last Thursday’s City Council meeting was the vote not to adopt the petition-initiative ordinance on transportation network companies – primarily Uber and Lyft – that was Council’s only option if a May 7 referendum election on the question were to be avoided. Council voted 8-2-1 to reject the ordinance (Council Members Ellen Troxclair and Sheri Gallo voted approval, CM Don Zimmerman abstained), because they say it is inadequate on public safety and because it is accompanied by an ultimatum from the TNCs that if it is not enacted, they will cease doing business in Austin. Council did not yet officially set the election – that should happen this week, at one of three posted special-called meetings – but as Mayor Steve Adler said in voting against the ordinance: “It’s [the election] going to be expensive. And it’s going to suck a lot of air out of our universe for the next three months.”

Among other actions Thursday, Council:

• Approved on second and third readings a change in voting standards concerning planned unit developments for previously unzoned lands – requiring a three-fourths supermajority Council override vote only when a Planning Commission rejection was also a supermajority (with the none of the dais melodrama that occurred on first reading). The standard on previously zoned lands — Council supermajority required on any PC rejection – remains the same.

• Approved a resolution in support of the nomination of Lions Municipal Golf Course in the National Register of Historic Places, following testimony from Austin golfing legend Ben Crenshaw, among others (partly an attempt to preserve the land from commercial development by the University of Texas, which owns it).

• Initiated a planning process that may result in a November bond vote on "multi-modal" transportation projects.

For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition. – Michael King

Low Tax, High Cost: In one of the more bizarre background stories emerging from the primary campaign season, an old case has come back to haunt criminal defense attorney Chantal Eldridge, who is running for the bench in the new 450th state district court. In 1998 and 1999 in Tennessee, Eldridge briefly represented Byron (Low Tax) Looper (he had officially changed his middle name) who was accused and eventually convicted of murdering his opponent (incumbent Tommie Burks) in a state Senate race. Eldridge represented Looper not only on the homicide charge (although Looper eventually ran through half-a-dozen lawyers) but also in a futile attempt to retain his position as Putnam County tax assessor, even while he was in prison under indictment for murder. Eldridge has defended her representation of Looper’s position as part of her responsibilities, and accused her opponent, attorney Brad Urrutia, of dirty politics in spreading the Looper story. Her campaign has posted a letter from Tennessee attorney Frank Buck defending Eldridge as a “true blue Democrat with democratic ideals and principles.” (Buck does not mention the Looper case.) In a letter to the Chronicle, Eldridge supporter Tom Gilliam repeated Eldridge’s charge of an unfair attack, and in turn accused the Chronicle of foolishly endorsing Urrutia: “Funny that a paper that prides itself on its anti-death penalty reporting would go for a guy whose reputation is that of a ‘lay down lawyer’ who didn't even bother fighting for a change of venue for Brandon Daniel.” (Urrutia represented Daniel, convicted of the 2012 murder of Austin police officer Jaime Padron.) – M.K.

Senator Who? There's nothing quite like a presidential campaign paying attention to local details, and the Hillary for Texas campaign exhibited that by announcing that "State Senator Kirk Warren" would be present to open the Hillary Clinton campaign's Austin office on Mon. 15. The release was actually referring to Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who jovially Tweeted about the misnaming, "I don't know him, but Sen. Kirk Warren is supposedly taller and has more hair than I do. #proofread". – Richard Whittaker

Scalia Dead: On Feb. 13, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead, and Republicans immediately used his death as an opportunity to attack the White House.

New Jersey-born Scalia was appointed to the Supreme Court in 1986 by Pres. Ronald Reagan, replacing William Rehnquist when he was promoted to chief justice. According to reports, Scalia fell ill on Feb. 12 after spending a day quail hunting at Cibolo Creek Ranch in West Texas, and died in his sleep. He was 79. Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed his demise, saying in a statement: "His passing is a great loss to the Court and the country he so loyally served."

His death signals a major potential change for the Supreme Court. As he was one of its most conservative, many would say obstructionist, justices it would be near impossible for the Obama administration to not nominate a markedly more liberal or progressive justice. However, barely was the news out than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, claimed that it was "standard practice over the last 80 years to not confirm Supreme Court nominees during a presidential election year." McConnell's point ignores the fact that Supreme Court seats only come up due to either the death or retirement of a justice, and presidential election cycles have nothing to do with anything. Moreover, his use of the deliberately vague term "standard practice" ignores the fact that the Senate has approved five nominees in that time with less than a year left in the president's term: Frank Murphy in 1940, William Brennan in 1956, Lewis Powell and Rehnquist in 1971, and incumbent justice Anthony Kennedy in 1988.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, echoed this sentiment, saying that the selection should be left until 2017: “The American people‎ should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president."

However, the leading Democrat on Grassley's committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, rejected the Republican plan to leave an empty seat on the nation's highest bench for the remaining 11 months of the Obama administration, and however long after that it takes his successor to pick a replacement, have their nomination approved by the new Senate, etc etc etc. "It is only February," Leahy wrote with exasperation. "The president and the Senate should get to work without delay to nominate, consider and confirm the next justice to serve on the Supreme Court.”

With the Obama administration unlikely to let the bench go understaffed for a year, several names are already being touted as Scalia's replacement. The list includes: Attorney General Loretta Lynch; Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge David Barron; and DC Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Sri Srinivisan, seen as a front-runner. – R.W.

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Antonin Scalia, Supreme Court, Chantal Eldridge, Brad Urrutia, Byron (Low Tax) Looper

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