Sam Sparks

Photo Credit: Chris Foxx | Daily Texan Staff

Over the past couple of decades, Austin’s population has grown enormously. This has forced many city residents to engage in the ever-frustrating sport of house hunting. However, it seems that most Austin residents are eventually able to find a desirable living space — excluding, unfortunately, those with housing vouchers. 

To provide a little context, the Housing Authority of the City of Austin provides housing vouchers, funded by the federal government under the “Section 8 Program,” to residents who earn less than 50 percent of Austin’s median income. These vouchers are meant to help lower-income residents pay for rent without overwhelming them financially. Because of this, residents with vouchers are supposed to have a greater choice of places to live. The Housing Authority’s own website boasts that it helps 5,100 families a month afford safer and better housing. 

At least, this is how it’s supposed to work. Regrettably, many homeowners and rental apartment complexes have refused to accept vouchers. Therefore, even those who had received vouchers were forced to stay in the same lower-income areas from which they had hoped to escape. Due to many landlords’ refusal to rent to tenants using vouchers, the program was ineffective in preventing concentrations of poverty in Austin. 

Last April, there was an apparent breakthrough when the Austin City Council decided that landlords couldn’t discriminate against potential tenants on the basis of whether or not they use housing vouchers. The ordinance was passed in December, but U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks ruled to temporarily stop enforcement of it in early January after the Austin Apartments Association challenged it in court.  A hearing Jan. 26 allowed supporters and opponents of the ordinance to present evidence and make their case. Sparks announced that he would decide in the next couple of weeks whether or not to order that the ordinance be stopped indefinitely. 

Sparks, who was nominated to the bench by President George H. W. Bush, stated at the hearing that he was concerned that the ordinance was “an act of bullying” toward landlords. Sparks’ concern in this regard is misplaced. In fact, at least 12 states and 30 local jurisdictions have enacted provisions prohibiting landlords from discriminating against tenants based on their source of income, according to a 2014 Austin Chronicle article. Far from being bullying, the City Council’s action on this issue reflects sound and mainstream public policy aimed at integrating the less fortunate into the wider community.     

The real problem in this matter is not the ordinance but the attitudes of landlords that made the ordinance necessary. According to a 2012 survey by the Austin Tenants Council, fewer than 10 percent of Austin landlords accepted Section 8 vouchers. Surely the refusal to accept Section 8 vouchers is based mostly on stereotypes that demonize lower-income families. It is an understatement to say that it is unfair to discriminate against families who want safer or more convenient housing simply based on their method of payment.  

In general, the pattern of debate on this issue seems to be that liberals support the ordinance whereas conservatives wish to strike it down.  Indeed, a conservative Republican state Senator, Charles Perry, recently introduced a bill in the Texas Senate that would prohibit local communities from enacting ordinances requiring landlords to lease to tenants who pay with housing vouchers. This stance by Perry is confusing.  Housing vouchers are a way for poorer residents to afford better housing for themselves and their families. This also has the effect of providing them with more employment, educational and social opportunities throughout the city.  If conservatives like Perry truly believed in empowering individuals instead of the government, they wouldn’t oppose measures like the Austin ordinance which seek to maximize the opportunities for low-income individuals and families to move up the economic ladder. We certainly don’t have all the answers, and there are undoubtedly legal nuances for Judge Sparks to navigate. However, it seems obvious to us that everyone deserves a chance to enjoy the opportunities Austin offers, not just “bullied” landlords. 

Dolan is a journalism sophomore from Abilene. Follow Dolan on Twitter @mimimdolan.

On April 12, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin rejected the Texas division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans’ efforts to get the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles board of directors’ approval to issue license plates bearing the Confederate battle flag. The Sons and the nonprofit group’s leaders alleged that Texas DMV board members violated their First Amendment rights by denying approval of the proposed plates and wanted the judge to order the agency to approve the proposed plates.

In his ruling, Sparks surmises that the Texas DMV board members rejected the Sons’ plates because of the Confederate battle flag, which he says “is a symbol which conveys different meanings to different audiences.” But Sparks concludes that it is also a symbol that “has been co-opted by odious groups as a symbol of racism and white supremacy.”

In November 2011, when the Texas DMV board held a public hearing and voted against approving the license plates, the witnesses were numerous and emotional and included high profile politicians. According to an account in the Austin American-Statesman written at the time of the hearing, U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Houston, testified against the plate as a racist symbol and displayed a photograph of a Ku Klux Klan member in full white-sheet regalia holding up the Confederate battle flag. “Texas is better than this,” she said.

Another African-American individual testifying, Sparks writes, echoed the sentiments of many when he told his story, which the judge quotes in footnote to the ruling: “When I was 10 years old we walked to school, to the black school. There was a white school where the white kids rode the bus, there was another white school that was a private school, and every morning as we walked on the sidewalks as black people, the white private school bus would slow down as it passed us, while the kids on board spit out the window in our faces and displayed a Confederate battle flag. Every year in our school when they talked about the death of M.L.K., the white kids would bring in the Confederate battle flag and hold it up as a symbol of power.”

But at the same meeting, Texas General Land Office Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who supported the Sons’ bid for the plates, started off his remarks “by quoting infamously ironic statements by Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee, the former suggesting the Great Emancipator in fact harbored racist sentiments, and the latter tending to show General Lee opposed slavery and desired to see all slaves emancipated,” Sparks writes. The judge then adds, “While these quotes help illustrate the complexity of the causes of the Civil War, they also further confirm the problem with the specialty plate at issue here has nothing to do with the [Sons organization] itself or any viewpoint it holds, but with the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, which has, unfortunately, become inseparably connected with racial tensions.”

In his 47-page ruling, Sparks notes that plenty of other states have allowed for similar commemorative plates, including the states of Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

According to Sparks’ ruling, both statutes and regulations govern the Texas DMV board’s review of proposed plates. Those rules, he writes, quoting them, allow the department to “refuse to create a new specialty license plate if the design might be offensive to any member of the public.”

 Why, then, does the judge agree that such a clause, as applied to the rejection of the proposed license plates, does not trigger a violation of the Sons’ First Amendment rights? The logic of Sparks’ ruling takes three steps — at least.

First, he concludes that the license plates do not constitute a public forum. “[L]icense plates, rather than being a place for people to gather,” are discrete pieces of government equipment to serve the purpose of vehicle identification, he writes, comparing them to mailboxes.  “When the forum is nonpublic, the First Amendment still applies — albeit with reduced force,” he writes. He then concludes that previous precedents have established that “courts must uphold a governmental restriction on speech in a nonpublic forum as long as the restriction is reasonable and viewpoint-neutral.”

To illustrate why the Texas DMV board’s decision was viewpoint-neutral and not discriminatory, Sparks offers a hypothetical example of a World War II-focused historical society that wanted a specialty license plate issued with a logo that included the insignia from all sides in that conflict. The United States’ white star, the British tri-colored roundel, Imperial Japan’s rising sun, the Soviet Union’s hammer and sickle and Nazi Germany’s swastika. “If the historical society sought a specialty license plate using its composite logo, the design would properly be rejected under the specialty plate rules, not due to the (entirely unobjectionable) viewpoint of the society, but due to the derogatory content of its logo, specifically the swastika,” Sparks writes.

Sparks’ opinion offers much for constitutional scholars to chew on, and the lawyers for the Sons are considering an appeal. The last image we want to see on the back of vehicles as we drive down Texas highways is the Confederate battle flag on government-issued property. We know the difference between a private display and government-sanctioned messaging, and therefore we understand the careful path Sparks has taken on this issue. But at the same time, we would welcome an appeal of his ruling, because First Amendment violation allegations are worth looking at a second  — and even third — time.

New sonogram law struck down

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks struck down key provisions of a sonogram law passed during the legislative session last spring, according to The Associated Press. The law, which would have taken effect today, requires women seeking an abortion to view a sonogram and listen to the heartbeat of the fetus at least 24 hours before the procedure.

“[It] is difficult to avoid the troubling conclusion the Texas Legislature either wants to permanently brand women who choose to get abortions, or views these certifications as potential evidence to be used against physicians and women.”
— Sparks in his decision, which issued a preliminary injunction against the sonogram law.

“Every life lost to abortion is a tragedy and today’s ruling is a great disappointment to all Texans who stand in defense of life.”
—Gov. Rick Perry in a statement released Tuesday in response to Sparks’ decision.

“We look at this ruling as a huge victory for women in Texas and an important signal that the Legislature went too far when it passed this law.”
—Julie Rikelman, a lawyer with the New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights, which sought the injunction, in response to the decision, according to the Austin American-Statesman.

And it’s goodbye to A&M

Texas A&M announced Wednesday in a press release that it will leave the Big 12 Conference effective next summer if accepted by another conference.

“After much thought and consideration, and pursuant to the action of the [Texas A&M University System] Board of Regents authorizing me to take action related to Texas A&M University’s athletic conference alignment, I have determined it is in the best interest of Texas A&M to make application to join another athletic conference.”
— Texas A&M President R. Bowen Loftin in a letter Wednesday to conference commissioner Dan Beebe on A&M’s decision to leave the Big 12.

“There is no question as to which conference offers a better long-term outlook for A&M.”
—The editorial board of The Battalion, the student newspaper of Texas A&M, in an editorial last week suggesting A&M should leave the Big 12 and join the Southeastern Conference.

“As Texas’ third largest school and one of only three of the state’s Tier One public universities, it makes absolutely no sense that [the University of Houston] is not part of a major athletic conference.”
—Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston, in a post on his blog last week pushing for the inclusion of the University of Houston in the Big 12 Conference.

AUSTIN — A federal judge on Tuesday blocked key provisions of Texas’ new law requiring a doctor to perform a sonogram before an abortion, ruling the measure violates the free speech rights of both doctors and patients.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks upheld the requirement that sonograms be performed, but struck down the provisions requiring doctors to describe the images to their patients and requiring women to hear the descriptions.

The law made exceptions for women who were willing to sign statements saying they were pregnant as a result of rape or incest or that their fetus had an irreversible abnormality. Sparks questioned whether the Republican-controlled Texas Legislature was trying to “permanently brand” women who are victims of sexual assault.

The law — one of dozens of anti-abortion measures that advanced through state capitals across the United States this year — takes effect Thursday. The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights had sued to block it.

Supporters argued the law ensures women fully understand what an abortion entails and said some women have regretted having abortions. They said the law would lead to fewer abortions in Texas. About 81,000 abortions are performed every year in Texas.

Opponents argued that requiring doctors to describe a fetus’ features would force them to say things against their will and would violate medical ethics requiring doctors to respect a patient’s autonomy and act in the patient’s best interest.

The Texas Medical Association opposed the law because it dictated when a doctor must perform a procedure and how the doctor must deal with a patient. While a pre-abortion ultrasound is routine, it is not considered medically necessary.

Sparks wrote that forcing doctors to discuss the results with a patient who may not want to listen “compels physicians to advance an ideological agenda with which they may not agree, regardless of any medical necessity and irrespective of whether the pregnant women wish to listen.”

Sparks was particularly troubled by the requirement that victims of sexual assault or incest sign statements attesting to that fact to get around the provision. That would require women to disclose “extremely personal, medically irrelevant facts” that will be “memorialized in records that are, at best, semi-private,” Sparks wrote.

“[It] is difficult to avoid the troubling conclusion the Texas Legislature either wants to permanently brand women who choose to get abortions, or views these certifications as potential evidence to be used against physicians and women,” Sparks wrote.

Sparks also struck down several enforcement penalties for doctors who faced losing their medical license and possible criminal misdemeanor prosecution if they did not comply.

The ruling is a “huge victory for women in Texas and a clear signal to the state Legislature that it went too far when it passed this law,” said Nancy Northup, president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.

The group said it had already received notice the state plans to appeal.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican running for president, was critical of Tuesday’s ruling. 

A reproductive rights group asked a federal judge Wednesday to block a new Texas law requiring doctors to conduct a sonogram before performing an abortion, arguing it is vague and unconstitutional.

The New York-based Center for Reproductive Rights has filed a lawsuit to overturn the law. Wednesday’s hearing was on a request for U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks to block the law from taking effect on abortions performed starting Oct. 1, pending the lawsuit’s outcome.

Sparks said he would issue a ruling on the injunction request before Oct. 1.

The law requires doctors to describe the fetus’ features and allow pregnant women to hear the fetal heartbeat. The law doesn’t allow women to opt out of the description, with exemptions for cases of rape or incest and when a fetus has fatal abnormalities.

The center argues that the law forces doctors to say things against their will and violates medical ethics.

The law “damages the relationship of trust between physician and patient, and with compelled and unwanted speech imposes stress and emotional strain on women as they prepare to undergo a medical procedure,” the center argues in its lawsuit.
Supporters say the law is necessary to make sure women fully understand what an abortion entails. They cite cases where women later regretted having an abortion, and they insist the law will lead more women to decide against having one. About 81,000 abortions are performed in Texas every year, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Republican Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes abortion, signed the bill into law and says he believes it’s necessary to protect unborn life.

“Even in Texas, where we pass the toughest laws in the nation, tens of thousands of lives are lost,” Perry said when he signed the legislation. “This is a tragedy we must all work together to stop.”

Texas abortion providers who do not comply with the law would face loss of their medical license and possible criminal misdemeanor prosecution and fines up to $10,000.

Sparks, who represented doctors and hospitals for about 30 years when he was an attorney before being appointed a federal judge in 1991, questioned the sections of the law requiring sonograms be performed “in a quality consistent with current medical practice” and that results be described “in a manner understandable to a lay person.” 

Printed on 07/07/2011 as: Debate arises over legality of pre-abortion sonogram