AUSTIN — A federal judge on Feb. 27 ordered Texas Secretary of State David Whitley not to purge the names of voters whose registrations he challenged as being potentially fraudulent.

The order came in a voting rights case filed by the League of United Latin American Citizens and other plaintiffs.

U.S. District Judge Fred Biery denied defendants’ motion to dismiss the suit. Biery then ordered officials not to remove anyone from the current voter registration list until authorized by the court.

However, Biery added that local officials may continue to determine whether someone who is not a citizen is in fact registered to vote, so long as it is done without communicating directly with any particular individual on the list.

Biery’s ruling, which came after three days of hearing evidence and arguments in the case, stated: “Out of 98,000 new American voters on the list, thus far approximately 80 have been identified as being ineligible to vote.”

Plaintiffs filed the case after Whitley, acting as the state’s chief elections officer, on Jan. 25 issued an advisory to county voter registrars regarding voter registration list maintenance activities, one of which was to identify any non-U.S. citizens registered to vote in Texas.

The advisory came after the secretary of state’s elections division reported that some 95,000 individuals identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as non-U.S. citizens have a matching voter registration record and that approximately 58,000 voted in one or more Texas elections.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton reacted to the ruling, saying it “deprives state and county election officials of the capacity to faithfully execute their duties under state and federal law to maintain voting rolls.” Paxton also said, “We are weighing our options to address this ruling and to continue making our case that ineligible voters should not vote and counties are free to continue to follow the law and keep their voter rolls clean.”

Meanwhile, Whitley, appointed as secretary of state by Gov. Greg Abbott in December, is undergoing the confirmation process in the Texas Senate. The body’s nominations committee last week voted along party lines to forward his nomination to the full Senate for consideration.

Aid request is granted

The White House on Feb. 25 granted Gov. Abbott's request for a presidential disaster declaration for 33 Texas counties.

This action provides access to the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Public Assistance and Hazard Mitigation grant programs for communities that are recovering and rebuilding following severe weather and flooding this past fall.

"I thank the president and FEMA for granting this disaster declaration," Abbott said. "As communities continue to recover and rebuild from the aftermath of these devastating floods, we remain committed to working with our federal and local partners to ensure that Texas is more resilient than ever before."

The following counties are included in the president’s disaster declaration: Archer, Baylor, Brown, Burnet, Callahan, Comanche, Coryell, Dimmit, Edwards, Fannin, Franklin, Grimes, Haskell, Hill, Hopkins, Houston, Jones, Kimble, Kinney, Knox, Llano, Madison, Mason, McCulloch, Menard, Nolan, Real, San Saba, Sutton, Throckmorton, Travis, Uvalde and Val Verde.

Abbott reacts to ruling

Gov. Abbott on Feb. 28 sent a letter to appointees and state agencies following the Texas Criminal Court of Appeals' Feb. 27 ruling that struck down a key provision of the state's open meetings law.

In question was the law’s prohibition against members of a governmental body meeting privately in numbers of less than a quorum to discuss public business. In writing the majority opinion, Presiding Judge Sharon Keller described that part of the law as “unconstitutionally vague.”

The court’s split decision came in a case pitting the State of Texas against a county judge who was alleged to have broken the law.

In his letter, Abbott instructed recipients to continue to follow the spirit of the Texas Open Meetings Act, despite the ruling. “Texas has long been, and will continue to be, a leader in governmental transparency,” Abbott wrote.

“Regardless of yesterday’s ruling, my standard and expectation is for all agencies and boards to continue to follow the spirit of the law. You should not waver in your commitment to providing transparency in the work you perform for Texans at your respective governmental entities,” he added.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is working with advocates of government transparency and accountability on legislation addressing the appeals court’s criticism of the law.

The bill-filing deadline for the current legislative session is Friday, March 8.

Abbott reappoints Morath

Gov. Abbott on Feb. 27 announced his reappointment of Mike Morath as state commissioner of education for a term to expire on Jan. 16, 2023.

The reappointment is subject to confirmation by the Texas Senate.

Morath has served as chief executive of the Texas Education Agency since January 2016.