This week in Texas, 666 new laws took effect. Aside from its satanic implications, that seemingly large number has no special significance, since most of the bills neither shrink nor expand government in any substantial way. But the new laws include several that libertarians will be inclined to applaud, along with some that are bad in ways that conservatives tend to be bad, such as mindless cultural warfare, tough-on-crime posturing, and ideologically motivated interference with local decisions. Here are some of the highlights.
As of Wednesday, Texans 21 or older who are legally allowed to own handguns no longer needed a special license to carry them in public places. H.B. 1927 makes Texas the 20th state, and by far the most populous, to adopt that policy, which is based on the premise that law-abiding people should be able to exercise the constitutional right to bear arms without jumping through bureaucratic hoops. Handguns remain banned in certain places, including courthouses, polling places, prisons, state-run hospitals, government meetings open to the public, schools, racetracks, airports, amusement parks, and bars.
Texas stores are now allowed to sell beer and wine anytime after 10 a.m. on Sundays; the previous cutoff was noon. H.B. 1518 also lets hotels sell alcoholic beverages to registered guests on any day and at any time. Outside of hotels, the sale of distilled spirits remains illegal on Sundays, except for "mixed beverages" in bars and restaurants. Baby steps.
H.B. 567, which Lenore Skenazy has covered for Reason, specifies that the grounds for terminating a parent-child relationship do not include "allowing a child to engage in independent activities that were appropriate and typical for the child's level of maturity, physical condition, developmental abilities, or culture." The Department of Family and Protective Services is "prohibited from taking possession of a child based on evidence that a parent allowed a child to engage in such activities." Nor would the fact that a parent has tested positive for marijuana justify removal, unless "the department had evidence that the parent's use of marijuana had caused significant impairment to the child's physical or mental health or emotional development." The new law also tightens the definition of child neglect.
S.B. 69 imposes new limits on neck restraints, saying police may use them only when it is "necessary to prevent serious bodily injury to or the death of the officer or another person." The law also requires officers to intervene when a colleague uses excessive force.
H.B. 929—known as the Botham Jean Act, after the man who was killed in 2018 by Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who said she mistook his apartment for hers—requires that police officers keep their body cameras on during an active investigation. As the NBC station in Dallas notes, testimony in Guyger's murder trial revealed that "Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata asked another officer to turn off a camera inside a squad car at the scene of the shooting so Guyger and Mata could speak privately."
Criminal Justice Reform
When people commit misdemeanors that are not punishable by incarceration, H.B. 569 requires that judges reduce the fines and fees they owe by $200 for each day they spent in jail for a prior offense. The official bill analysis explains the rationale for that reform:
Upon release from incarceration, many people go home to find out that they have outstanding tickets, fines, and warrants for fine-only misdemeanors, which can preclude the person from securing a driver's license or identification necessary to find employment and pay off their debts. This can lead to formerly incarcerated individuals sometimes driving to work without a license or ID in order to pay off their outstanding debts at the risk of receiving another ticket, which can result in further debt and the possibility of more jail time related to warrants for arrest. This cycle of compiling debt and warrants for arrest related to that debt costs localities time and money and makes successful reintegration into the community for formerly incarcerated individuals extremely difficult.
S.B. 8, which took effect on Wednesday and remains in effect because the Supreme Court declined to issue an emergency injunction blocking its enforcement, should trouble even people who would like to see Roe v. Wade overturned. The law prohibits abortion when a "fetal heartbeat" can be detected, which happens around six weeks into a pregnancy, before many women even realize they are pregnant. It therefore bans the vast majority of abortions—at least 85 percent, according to the organizations challenging the law. The only exception is for a "medical emergency," so the ban applies to cases involving rape, incest, or predictably lethal fetal defects.
S.B. 8's enforcement mechanism—which relies on civil lawsuits that can be brought by "any person" and promises plaintiffs a $10,000 bounty per abortion, along with reimbursement of their legal costs—is designed to avoid constitutional review, although the law is plainly inconsistent with the Supreme Court's abortion precedents. This strategy easily could be used to attack other rights that the Court has said are guaranteed by the Constitution.
Legislators could, for example, prohibit gun possession or "hate speech," either of which would be clearly unconstitutional under the Court's precedents, but try to frustrate legal challenges by making the ban enforceable only by private litigation. Taking a page from the Lone Star State's book, they could decree that prevailing plaintiffs are entitled to attorney's fees while prevailing defendants are not. And like Texas, they could limit the defenses available to the targets of such lawsuits.
While S.B. 8 says women who seek or obtain abortions cannot be sued, potential defendants include a wide range of ancillary actors in addition to people directly involved in the procedure. Anyone who "aids or abets" an abortion is liable for at least $10,000 in "statutory damages." That provision explicitly covers people who help pay for the procedure and also could apply to people who offer other kinds of help, such as transportation or child care. Someone can be sued not only if he actually performs or facilitates an abortion but also if he "intends" to do so, which invites lawsuits based on speculation about the defendant's thoughts and plans.
"You can be sued if you *intend to* (but have not) aided or abetted the abortion," Texas appellate lawyer Rafi Melkonian noted on Twitter in September, before S.B. 8 was enacted. "That's *bananas* when applied to constitutional rights."
In response to the "Defund the Police" movement, H.B. 1900 penalizes local governments that reduce their police budgets. It says municipalities with populations of more than 250,000 will lose some of their tax revenues if they cut police funding by a percentage greater than their overall budgets. That means a city could suffer financially if, for example, it reassigned certain functions (such as mental health interventions) from the police department to another agency. The threat unreasonably interferes with local decisions that might make perfect sense and are a far cry from a wholesale "defunding" of the police.
Crimes Against Public Servants
H.B. 624 increases the penalties for certain criminal offenses when the perpetrator knew his victim was a "public servant" or a member of that person's family or household and "the offense was committed in retaliation for or on account of the service or status of the person as a public servant." The covered offenses are arson, criminal mischief, criminal trespass, breach of computer security, harassment, stalking, and fraudulent use or possession of identifying information. All of those things are already illegal, but H.B. 624 makes them more illegal when they affect government employees such as elected officials, bureaucrats, police officers, and public school teachers. Unsurprisingly, Texas legislators think crime is especially abhorrent when it targets members of the privileged class to which they belong.
Road Obstruction Penalties
H.B. 9 changes obstructing an emergency vehicle or hospital entrance, previously a misdemeanor punishable by up to 180 days in jail and a maximum fine of $2,000, to a state jail felony, punishable by at least 180 days in jail, up to two years of incarceration, and a maximum fine of $10,000. Critics of the bill argued that the previous penalties were perfectly adequate and that the new penalties are excessively harsh for a nonviolent offense. They also warned that the law "could be used to criminalize peaceful protests and could have a chilling effect on the rights to speech and assembly."
H.B. 465 eliminates parole for people convicted of certain "human trafficking" offenses but makes an exception for parole eligibility that is part of a plea agreement. By boosting the effective penalty for going to trial, the new law will increase the pressure on defendants to plead guilty, even if they might have been acquitted by a jury.
Under S.B. 19, state agencies and local governments may not buy goods or services valued at $100,000 or more from contractors that refuse to do business with firearm companies or trade associations. Although that measure was obviously appealing as a retort to anti-gun politicians and businesses, it does taxpayers no favors, since it requires state and local officials to make contracting decisions based on political considerations rather than price and quality. If that results in less cost-effective contracts, taxpayers will foot the bill for affirming politicians' conservative credentials.
H.B. 3979 decrees that public schools may not "require an understanding of The 1619 Project," the controversial package of New York Times articles that sought to "reframe the country's history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of Black Americans at the very center of our national narrative." This restriction not only stops schools from treating the 1619 Project's arguments as gospel; it also stops them from even discussing the controversy over the project, which might actually be enlightening and encourage critical thinking.
National Anthem Mandate
S.B. 4 requires professional sports teams to play "The Star-Spangled Banner" before games as a condition of any arrangement that "requires a financial commitment by the state or any governmental entity." While this is the stupidest sort of patriotic signaling, it does have an upside: Teams that would rather play "God Bless America," "America the Beautiful," or nothing at all have a new incentive to eschew subsidies they never should have received to begin with.