Showing posts with label Texas. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Texas. Show all posts

Monday, February 22, 2021

Sovereign immunity shields Texas power overseer from liability for now: not so privatized after all

NASA satellite image of Houston with area blackouts, Feb. 16
The cold-induced electric-power disaster in Texas is raising questions about the accountability of "ERCOT," the Electric Reliability Council of Texas.

ERCOT is responsible for about 90% of the Texas electricity market.  During the storm and record cold of last week, Texans experienced rolling outages and some prolonged blackouts.  Deaths and injuries, from hypothermia and carbon monoxide poisoning, are attributed to the cold and blackouts, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.  Governor Greg Abbott has blamed ERCOT for failure to prepare the state's electrical system for a foreseeable winter weather event and promised an investigation.

National Weather Service Tower Cam, Midland, Feb. 20
Naturally, many Texans are wondering about legal liability for ERCOT.  I noticed a tweet from Houston Chronicle business reporter Gwendolyn Wu, who said that ERCOT has "sovereign immunity."  I found that hard to believe.  Wu cited a Chronicle story (subscription), from the bygone innocent age of fall 2019, in which business writer L.M. Sixel said just that.  As it turns out, the problem of ERCOT immunity is sitting, undecided, in the Texas Supreme Court at this very moment.

Legally, ERCOT is a nonprofit corporation formed in 1970 to oversee electric power distribution in Texas.  Because Texas has its own grid that doesn't cross state lines, the power system is not regulated by the federal government.  ERCOT has been at the heart of Texas's love affair with deregulation and privatization, a push that began in earnest in 1999 and found no bounds at the threshold of critical infrastructure.  State legislation in 1999 called on the Texas Public Utility Commission (PUC) to designate an exclusive "independent system operator" to oversee the Texas power grid, and ERCOT easily got the job that it more or less already had.

Yet ERCOT is neither wholly private nor a success story.  Its near monopoly control of Texas power comes with PUC oversight.  Despite that oversight, ERCOT has posted a remarkable record of abuse and failure.  As Sixel recounted in the Chronicle, executives went to prison in the 20-aughts for a financial fraud aggravated by lack of transparency and exposed by whistleblowers.  About the same time, Texans saw rolling blackouts, even while their deregulated electricity prices shot 30% over the national average.  Then, in 2011, a winter storm with single-digit temperatures caused blackouts across Texas.  It was that event that led federal regulators to recommend that ERCOT and the PUC winterize the system, a recommendation that was never heeded.

Frmr. Gov. Rick Perry tours ERCOT on March 14, 2012.
Apparently, an embarrassing record has not dampened the mood at ERCOT.  The "nonprofit," which is run by a board majority comprising power industry heavyweights, brought in $232m in revenue in 2018, Sixel reported in 2019, and chief executive Bill Magness took home $750,000 in 2017.  Sixel described ERCOT HQ (pictured below) near real-estate-red-hot Austin: "Its sprawling, modern glass and metal building has plush interiors with on-site fitness facilities that include a gym and sport court for volleyball, basketball and pickleball."  In contrast, the PUC "operates from two floors of crammed cubicles in ... a dilapidated structure close to the campus of the University of Texas at Austin.  DeAnn Walker, the commission chairman, earns $189,500 a year."

It was also in 2011 that ERCOT set out toward the immunity question now pending.  After the rolling outages of the 20-aughts, ERCOT wanted to see new sources of power added to the system.  Enter Panda Power, which invested $2.2bn to construct three power plants.  Alas, Panda later alleged in court, ERCOT had deliberately inflated market projections to incentivize investments; the power plants delivered only a fraction of the anticipated returns.  Panda sued ERCOT for $2.7bn in damages on theories including fraud and breach of fiduciary duty.

After almost a year of defending the case, ERCOT devised a new theory of sovereign immunity in Texas common law.  ERCOT performs exclusively governmental, not private, functions, it alleged, and works wholly under the control of the PUC.  Despite its statutory role as an "independent system operator," ERCOT insisted that it is not an independent contractor.  Rather, ERCOT styled itself as "a quasi-governmental regulator, performing an essential public service."  Panda argued that ERCOT is not entitled to sovereign immunity because it is "a non-governmental, non-profit corporation that receives no taxpayer dollars and retains discretion," particularly, Panda exhorted, when it furnishes false market data to power providers. 

In April 2018, reversing the district court, the Texas Court of Appeals agreed with ERCOT.  In a functionalist analysis, the intermediate appellate court grounded its decision in the legislative delegation of ultimate fiscal authority over ERCOT in the PUC.  The court wrote (citations omitted):

[A]s to separation-of-powers principles, [the statute] shows the legislature intended that determinations respecting system administration fees and ERCOT's fiscal matters, as well as any potential disciplinary matters or decertification, should be made by the PUC rather than the courts. Further, as the certified [independent service operator] provided for in [the statute], ERCOT is a necessary component of the legislature's electric utility industry regulatory scheme. A substantial judgment in this case could necessitate a potentially disruptive diversion of ERCOT's resources or a decertification of ERCOT not otherwise intended by the PUC.

According to Sixel, that decision rendered ERCOT "the only grid manager in the nation with sovereign immunity."

Pixabay image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images
Panda appealed to the Texas Supreme Court, which heard oral argument (MP3, PDF) on September 15, 2020, but has not ruled.

Meanwhile, a curious procedural imbroglio arose in the lower courts to gum up the works.  While Panda was busy lodging its appeal with the Texas Supreme Court, it didn't head off the intermediate appellate court's mandamus order to the district court to dismiss the case, which it did.  Panda then appealed that dismissal on a separate track, and the intermediate appellate court stayed oral argument on that second appeal, waiting to see what the Supreme Court would do with the first appeal.

One month after the Supreme Court heard oral argument, it ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs, which they did in November 2020 (ERCOT, Panda), to answer whether the district court's dismissal mooted the case in the Supreme Court.  Panda insisted that there is a live controversy still before the court.  ERCOT wrote that Panda should have asked for a stay of dismissal in the lower court, and it didn't.  Bad Panda.

House chamber in the Texas Capitol (picryl)
It looks to my outsider eyes like the Supreme Court badly wants not to decide the case.  And that was before the winter storm of 2021.  If the court does kick the case, the intermediate appellate court's ruling for sovereign immunity will stand, and any 2021 complainants will be out of luck.  ERCOT's supplemental brief read anyway with a good deal of confidence about how things would go in the Supreme Court, so maybe it's only a question of which appellate court will bear the people's ire.  While the courts dithered, Panda Energy, a division of Panda Power Funds, folded, and Texas froze.

The best answer to the people's woes lies in their state legislature.  Maybe Texas legislators can be made to understand that privatization is not really privatization when the reins, along with sovereign immunity and a market monopoly, are simply handed over to a nominally independent and hardly nonprofit oligarchy.

Or maybe legislators are on their way to Cancún and points warmer.

The case is In re Panda Power Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 18-0792 (now pending), appealing Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC v. Electric Reliability Council of Texas, Inc., No. 05-17-00872-CV (Tex. Ct. App. 5th Dist. Dallas Apr. 16, 2018), reversing No. CV-16-0401 (Tex. Dist. Ct. 15th Grayson County 2017).  The latter appeal is Electric Reliability Council of Texas v. Panda Power Generation Infrastructure Fund, LLC, No. 05-18-00611-CV (oral argument stayed Aug. 20, 2019).

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Texas indictment surfaces problem of elected prosecutors; First Amendment protects Netflix film

Actor, model, and District Attorney Lucas Babin
(Steve Stewart CC BY 4.0)
A Tyler County, Texas, grand jury has indicted Netflix for lewd depiction of TV girls in the French film, Cuties (2020).  Sadly, the indictment says more about Texas and American criminal justice dysfunction than about Netflix or contemporary media.  

The film plainly is protected by the First Amendment, rendering the indictment more political stunt than serious legal maneuver.  I wasn't going to watch Cuties, but now I feel like I should, so score one for Netflix, nil for District Attorney Lucas Babin.  Or, I should acknowledge, this might be good campaign fodder for an elected D.A. in East Texas, so it's win-win, minus transaction costs.  

Using the criminal justice system as a means to political ends is a deeply disturbing phenomenon; John Oliver featured the issue in 2018 commentary on Last Week.

Besides being an attorney, Babin is himself, or was, an actor and a model.  His father is dentist and U.S. Rep. Brian Babin (R-Tex.).

The September 23 indictment (image from Reason) relies on Texas Penal Code § 43.262, Possession or Promotion of Lewd Visual Material Depicting Child.  The statute reads:

(b) A person commits an offense if the person knowingly possesses, accesses with intent to view, or promotes visual material that:

     (1) depicts the lewd exhibition of the genitals or pubic area of an unclothed, partially clothed, or clothed child who is younger than 18 years of age at the time the visual material was created;

     (2) appeals to the prurient interest in sex;  and

     (3) has no serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

The latter conjunctive element (3), lacking in serious value, is a typical savings provision meant to bring the law into conformity with the First Amendment, which certainly protects the film.

Promotional image of Cuties French release
Cuties, or Mignonnes in the French original, is a 96-minute drama about a Senegalese-French girl coming of age in contemporary Paris.  She struggles to reconcile her conservative Muslim upbringing with the popular culture of her schoolyard peers in the social-media era.

A Sundance 2020 award winner in dramatic world cinema, the film was written and directed by Parisian born Maïmouna Doucouré, herself of Senegalese heritage.  In a September 15 op-ed in The Washington Post (now behind pay wall), Doucouré wrote:

This film is my own story. All my life, I have juggled two cultures: Senegalese and French. As a result, people often ask me about the oppression of women in more traditional societies. And I always ask: But isn't the objectification of women's bodies in Western Europe and the United States another kind of oppression? When girls feel so judged at such a young age, how much freedom will they ever truly have in life?

The sexualization of the girls in the film is already familiar in the life experience of an 11- or 12-year-old, Doucouré further wrote. Still, a counselor was on set, and French child protection authorities signed off on the film.

Some of the flap over Cuties, and probably precipitating the Texas indictment, was Netflix's initial promotion of the film with an image of the child stars in sexually suggestive outfits and pose (see Bustle).  Netflix apologized publicly and to Doucouré and withdrew the portrayal.

Here is the trailer for Cuties.

The case is State v. Netflix, Inc., No. 13,731 (filed Tex. Dist. Ct. Tyler County Sept. 23, 2020).

Friday, May 29, 2020

Law prof joins 'Taps Across America,' honors Texas soldier, attorney, Justice Floyd A. Shumpert

My longtime colleague, mentor, and friend, Professor J. Thomas Sullivan, joined Monday's "Taps Across America" remembrance (Facebook), organized by CBS News correspondent Steve Hartman.



Justice Shumpert
Emphatically, if unnecessarily to my ear, asserting his amateur proficiency, Professor Sullivan played especially to honor his father-in-law, Floyd Allen Shumpert.  In 2008, Professor Sullivan dedicated a law review article to Justice Shumpert, writing:
This article honors my father-in-law, Floyd A. Shumpert of Terrell, Texas, who served as an Associate Justice on the Texas Court of Appeals for the Fifth Judicial District from his appointment in 1983 until his defeat in the 1984 general election. Judge Shumpert began his career in public service following his return to Kaufman County, Texas, after World War II. During the War, he served in the 8th Infantry Division, 28th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion of the United States Army. He suffered a severe injury requiring amputation of his lower leg when he stepped on a land mine in the Huirtgen Forest in Germany only a few days before commencement of the German counter-offensive known today as the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart. Upon his return from Europe, he was elected County Clerk and later, after earning his law degree from Baylor University, County Judge. He left the bench for private practice for over fifty years in Kaufman County, interrupted only by his appointment to the court of appeals. He is the most courageous and the kindest man I have ever known.
J. Thomas Sullivan, Danforth, Retroactivity, and Federalism, 61 Okla. L. Rev. 425, 425 n.* (2008) (direct download).  The video is © 2020 J. Thomas Sullivan, used here with permission.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Revenge porn law can survive First Amendment scrutiny by requiring 'actual malice'


Last week a Tyler, Texas, appellate court struck the state’s criminal revenge porn law as fatally overbroad, so facially unconstitutional, under the First Amendment to the federal Constitution.  The ruling garnered headlines heralding the unconstitutionality of revenge porn law, which could have big implications in privacy law and policy nationwide—even ramifications for U.S. foreign relations.

However, the court’s ruling was not so broad as headlines have suggested.  In fact, the court gave wise and constructive feedback on what a revenge porn law needs to look like to pass constitutional muster—which it can.  It seems in the end that the Texas law was just not well drafted.  Accordingly, the revenge porn laws that have proliferated in the United States, now in 38 states (collected at Cyber Civil Rights Initiative), should be scrutinized and, if necessary, corrected.  (Constitutional problems with Vermont and Arizona laws were mentioned just today by the U.K. Register, here.)

The Texas case, Ex parte Jones, No. 12-17-00346 (Tex. Ct. App. Apr. 18, 2018), involved a criminal information against Jones under Texas Penal Code section 21.16(b), which criminalizes the “unlawful disclosure of intimate visual materials.”  The statute reads:


A person commits an offense if:
  (1) without the effective consent of the depicted person, the person intentionally discloses visual material depicting another person with the person’s intimate parts exposed or engaged in sexual conduct;
  (2) the visual material was obtained by the person or created under circumstances in which the depicted person had a reasonable expectation that the visual material would remain private;
  (3) the disclosure of the visual material causes harm to the depicted person; and
  (4) the disclosure of the visual material reveals the identity of the depicted person in any manner[.]


The statute, section 21.16(a), furthermore defines “visual material” broadly (“any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide or any photographic reproduction that contains or incorporates in any manner any film, photograph, videotape, negative, or slide,” as well as electronic transmission) and “intimate parts” specifically (““the naked genitals, pubic area, anus, buttocks, or female nipple of a person”).

The court’s First Amendment analysis was sound.  The court applied de novo review to test the constitutionality of a criminal statute.  The court rejected a narrow construction that would confine the law to mere obscenity, as stringently defined by federal precedent.  Because the statute is then a content-based restriction of expressive content, the court charged the government with the burden of rebutting presumptive unconstitutionality.  The State conceded at oral argument that the law must survive strict scrutiny, i.e., advance a compelling state interest and be narrowly tailored to do so.  Intimate privacy passes muster on the first prong, but the statute facially fails narrow tailoring.  The court acknowledged that overbreadth doctrine is “strong medicine”; nevertheless, the statute could not measure up.

The court illustrated the statute’s fatal flaw with a hypothetical, unattributed so presumably original, that seems drawn from a law school or bar exam:


“Adam and Barbara are in a committed relationship. One evening, in their home, during a moment of passion, Adam asks Barbara if he can take a nude photograph of her. Barbara consents, but before Adam takes the picture, she tells him that he must not show the photograph to anyone else. Adam promises that he will never show the picture to another living soul, and takes a photograph of Barbara in front of a plain, white background with her breasts exposed.

“A few months pass, and Adam and Barbara break up after Adam discovers that Barbara has had an affair. A few weeks later, Adam rediscovers the topless photo he took of Barbara. Feeling angry and betrayed, Adam emails the photo without comment to several of his friends, including Charlie. Charlie never had met Barbara and, therefore, does not recognize her. But he likes the photograph and forwards the email without comment to some of his friends, one of whom, unbeknownst to Charlie, is Barbara’s coworker, Donna. Donna recognizes Barbara and shows the picture to Barbara’s supervisor, who terminates Barbara’s employment.”


“In this scenario,” the court observed, “Adam can be charged under Section 21.16(b), but so can Charlie and Donna.”

Therein lies the problem: not necessarily as applied to Adam, but as applied to Charlie and Donna, who are ignorant of the circumstances under which the photo came to be.  Certainly Charlie, who received the photo from Adam “without comment,” might as well believe that Adam ripped the photo of a stranger from a pornographic website.  However indecent the photo, both Charlie and Donna have a First Amendment right to communicate the photo “downstream.”  Yet without Barbara’s consent, Charlie and Donna run afoul of the revenge porn law.  Given the ease with which persons can share visual images in the age of electronic and online communication, the court found “alarming breadth” in this potential criminalization of expression.  In First Amendment overbreadth doctrine, a facially overbroad criminal law must be ruled unconstitutional even if it might be constitutional as applied to the defendant before the court.

The court distilled the law’s flaws in two dimensions related to culpability.  Typically of a criminal prohibition, the statute requires intent.  But intent pertains only to the republication of the image.  The statute does not require that the actor have “knowledge or reason to know the circumstances surrounding the material’s creation, under which the depicted person’s reasonable expectation of privacy arose.”  Second, the statute does not require “intent to harm the depicted person,” or even knowledge “of the depicted person’s identity.”  Borrowing the language of civil law (meaning common law tort), one would say that the statute requires volitional intent, but not intent to commit a wrong or to cause an injury.

The requisite intent to survive constitutional challenge may be likened to “actual malice,” which is used in both civil and criminal defamation law to describe “knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of truth or falsity.”  In the context of revenge porn, a constitutional law might require “actual knowledge of the depicted person’s reasonable and continuing expectation of privacy in the image, or reckless disregard of same.”  If Charlie knew the identity of Barbara, so might infer the circumstances under which the photo had been taken, then the State might at least allege recklessness.  Donna, who did know Barbara’s identity, might be charged.  But she should be entitled to defend upon a qualified privilege, borrowed again from common law defamation, to share information in the interest of a recipient or third party when the defendant should disclose according to general standards of decency.  A corrected statute would hold Adam accountable without a constitutional problem.

Also just last week, the Rhode Island legislature (my home state) passed a revenge porn bill (2018-H 7452A) that has the support of the Governor Gina Raimondo (AP).  Raimondo vetoed a revenge porn bill in 2016, objecting on free speech grounds (Providence Journal).  Her position now is bolstered by the Texas decision in Jones.  Beefing up the intent requirement is precisely one of the R.I. legislative fixes that brought the latest bill to fruition.  The Rhode Island bill requires that the defendant intentionally disseminated, published, or sold “[w]ith knowledge or with reckless disregard for the likelihood that the depicted person will suffer harm, or with the intent to harass, intimidate, threaten or coerce the depicted person.”

I still have qualms about extending the “reasonable expectation of privacy” (REP) standard—which is drawn from Fourth Amendment jurisprudence as a bulwark against improper state action—being extended into the realm of private criminal or civil liability.  REP is potentially much broader than the intimate-depiction definitions of revenge porn laws.  And criminalization and civil liability are not the same.  Even though criminal defamation is constitutional when qualified by actual malice, contemporary human rights norms discourage the criminalization of expression at all.

At the same time, I have argued in favor of evolving U.S. law to recognize downstream control of private information, in consonance with both American values in the information age and emerging global legal norms.  Revenge porn laws—as against Adam, to the exclusion of Charlie and Donna—are a modest step in that direction, which European observers will welcome of us.  We will have to remain vigilant to continue to protect freedom of expression in tandem with expanding privacy rights, especially in a time in which the latter at the expense of the former is the fashion.  Conscientious actors such as the Jones panel (Worthen, C.J., and Hoyle and Neeley, JJ.) and Governor Raimondo are doing well, so far.