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Texas 31 sees more fatalities; project aimed at preventing crashes years away, unfunded
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Fatal wrecks on Texas 31 between Kilgore and Tyler have increased this year after several years of fewer deaths on the road long known as “Bloody 31.”

In 2016, the stretch of road between FM 1639 and Loop 323 in Tyler saw seven fatal wrecks that killed eight people. Then the number of fatal wrecks decreased after the Texas Department of Transportation made safety improvements to the road, including widening Texas 31 to create more passing lanes.

In 2018 and 2020, the stretch of road saw no fatal wrecks. One wreck killed one person in 2019, according to information the News-Journal previously reported.

“They made significant improvements to 31 over the years,” said Ryan Riley, chief of the mostly volunteer rescue unit in Kilgore that helps respond to wrecks on Texas 31 along with the personnel of Emergency Services District No. 2. “There used to be a lot of fatalities on the road. The improvements they made, widening it, have really cut down on accidents significantly out there.”

This year, though, through Aug. 4, the road has seen six fatal wrecks that killed nine people, including one in May in which four people died, according to TxDOT data. Two boys ages 3 and 5 and two adults died when an eastbound vehicle crossed over into the westbound lane and struck another vehicle.

TxDOT is planning a project that could help prevent those types of wrecks, but funding for it has not been identified, and it’s years away from construction, according to TxDOT.

“TxDOT has preliminary plans to expand State Highway 31 from Loop 323 in the city of Tyler, east to FM 1639 in Gregg County” TxDOT’s online project tracker says. “The project widens the existing two-lane roadway to a four-lane divided highway with flush and depressed medians to address safety concerns along the corridor....

Enhancements include:

Widening from a two-lane roadway to a four-lane highway with flush and depressed medians;

Redesigning the roadway’s alignments to meet current design standards; and

The addition of curb and gutter in the urbanized areas.

The project will require the acquisition of new right-of-way from adjacent property owners, according to TxDOT.

Riley speculated that the increase in fatalities on the road this year could be a result of people emerging more from the pandemic, traveling for fun and work, for instance.

“I think it’s just more of an influx of drivers being out of the road,” he said. Riley also added that “distracted driving,” with people using their phones and texting, also is a “significant” contributor to many of the wrecks.

Fighting Texas abortion law could be tough for federal government
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Foes of the new Texas law that bans most abortions have been looking to the Democratic-run federal government to be a saving grace — to swoop in and knock down the most restrictive abortion law in effect in the country. But it’s nowhere near that simple.

President Joe Biden, who denounces the law as “almost un-American,” has directed the Justice Department to try to find a way to block its enforcement. And Attorney General Merrick Garland says his prosecutors are exploring all options. But legal experts warn that while the law may ultimately be found unconstitutional, the way it’s written means it’ll be an uphill legal battle.

Known as SB8, the new state law prohibits abortions once medical professionals can detect cardiac activity — usually around six weeks, before some women know they’re pregnant. Courts have blocked other states from imposing similar restrictions, but Texas’ law differs significantly because it leaves enforcement to private citizens through civil lawsuits instead of criminal prosecutors.

Pressure is mounting not only from the White House but also from Democrats in Congress, who want Garland to somehow take action. Nearly two dozen lawmakers wrote to him on Tuesday calling for the “criminal prosecution of would-be vigilantes attempting to use the private right of action established by SB8.”

But what action can the Justice Department take? How?

So far, the attorney general has said only that federal officials will not tolerate violence against anyone who is trying to obtain an abortion in Texas. At the forefront of that plan is enforcement of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act.

That law, commonly known as the FACE Act, normally prohibits physically obstructing access to abortion clinics by blocking entrances or threatening to use force to intimidate or interfere with someone. It also prohibits damaging property at abortion clinics and other reproductive health centers.

Garland says that while his department is still urgently exploring options to challenge the state law, Justice will enforce the federal law “in order to protect the constitutional rights of women and other persons, including access to an abortion.”

However, that federal action could be limited by the fact that the act is geared more toward physical acts of intimidation or violence than lawsuits, said Mary Anne Franks, a constitutional scholar and professor at University of Miami School of Law.

“The nefarious cleverness” of the Texas law is that “you can’t do anything until someone actually attempts to use this law,” she said. “And that’s really late in the game.”

And even if an abortion provider — or people who help a woman get an abortion — should successfully defend a lawsuit, that wouldn’t block a stack of future suits. A Texas judge’s decision last week temporarily shielding some some abortion clinics from being sued by the state’s largest anti-abortion group, for example, didn’t affect any other groups.

“That raises real concerns about any efficacy of any of the actions DOJ could take,” Franks said.

Still, there are tools the federal government could use, she said. Prosecutors could bring criminal charges under civil rights measures originally written to root out the Ku Klux Klan. Those say that private citizens working with the state to deprive people of their constitutional rights could face criminal violations.

There’s also a tool on the civil side, called a Section 1983 action, that allows people to sue someone else who is blocking them from exercising their constitutional rights. Those civil lawsuits must be filed by the person under attack rather than the government, but federal attorneys could join suits already filed, she said.

Those actions, she said, could have their own chilling effect on abortion foes: People opposed to abortion who might want to sue providers might reconsider if they could potentially face federal criminal charges.

As for more direct action against the Texas law, legal experts say the Justice Department will likely work to help overturn it with a so-called friend-of-the-court brief, which could help bolster an already existing lawsuit challenging the state law.

Jonathan Turley, a constitutional law professor at George Washington University Law School, sees the law as likely to be eventually struck down in court, since it prohibits abortion long before the fetus is viable outside the womb.

“It’s very likely it will be found unconstitutional. The framers, the drafters themselves understood that ... they have set a line well below existing case law for banning abortions,” he said. “Courts are likely to make fast work of the Texas law.”

But if Democrats take action in Congress aimed at preserving access to abortion on the federal level, as some are calling for, he warned it could end up backfiring since there’s existing case law establishing that states can make laws related to the procedure.

Such a federal law, if passed by Congress, would almost certainly end up in court and could ultimately lose ground for abortion-rights supporters if a ruling is made that strengthens the states’ ability, he said.

Meanwhile, the Texas law’s citizen-enforcement mechanism is something that Democrats may not want to see limited widely either, since the concept is also a key piece of enforcing environmental laws. Courts have limited people’s ability to file civil suits before, as in defamation suits that could run afoul of the freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court declined to block the Texas law in a 5-4 decision, though it did not rule on whether the law itself was constitutional.

Turley argues a graver threat to abortion access is an upcoming case on the Supreme Court docket: Mississippi, is asking to be allowed to enforce an abortion ban after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

By taking up that single question, the justices will be considering whether states can impose limitations on abortion before the fetus is viable outside the womb. There are no other questions at play, no other ways the case could be more narrowly decided. If the high court sides with Mississippi, that would open the door to other states passing similar laws.

“That is a more important threat,” he said.

Kilgore man pleads guilty to injuring two in 2019 drunken driving crash

A Kilgore man pleaded guilty Wednesday to two charges of intoxication assault related to a drunken driving crash in October 2019.

John Blayne Montalbano, 31, was charged with two counts of intoxication assault with a vehicle causing serious bodily injury.

Montalbano entered his plea in front of Judge Alfonso Charles of the 124th District Court and will be sentenced at a later date after a pre-sentencing investigation.

According to the grand jury indictments, Montalbano was intoxicated while driving Oct. 13, 2019, when he hit a vehicle driven by Melissa Allums, seriously injuring her. He also was indicted for injuring a person known by the initials “BA,” who was a passenger.

Charles said the charges carry possible penalties of two to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine for each count.

Details of Montalbano’s plea agreement were not immediately available.

Charles said he will consider the agreement, but it is dependent on Montalbano following all pre-sentencing protocols during his release. He must check in with a release officer and cannot drive, use alcohol or illegal drugs, violate any laws or miss hearings for his case, Charles said.

Montalbano was initially arrested in February 2020 and released March 31, 2020, after serving time for a probation violation on a theft charge. He was arrested by Gregg County sheriff’s deputies at the courthouse on the grand jury indictment June 10, 2020, and was released on $15,000 bond the same day.

An affidavit to surrender on his bond put him back in the Gregg County Jail on Aug. 5, 2020, and he was released the same day.

On Dec. 9, Montalbano was booked back into jail on bond forfeiture for both charges and was released Dec. 15.

Another affidavit to surrender on the bonds occurred April 14, and he again was booked into the jail. He was released on personal recognizance Wednesday.

COVID-19 surge in the US: The summer of hope ends in gloom
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WASHINGTON — The summer that was supposed to mark America’s independence from COVID-19 is instead drawing to a close with the U.S. more firmly under the tyranny of the virus, with deaths per day back up to where they were last March.

The delta variant is filling hospitals, sickening alarming numbers of children and driving coronavirus deaths in some places to the highest levels of the entire pandemic. School systems that reopened their classrooms are abruptly switching back to remote learning because of outbreaks. Legal disputes, threats and violence have erupted over mask and vaccine requirements.

The U.S. death toll stands at more than 650,000, with one major forecast model projecting it will top 750,000 by Dec. 1.

“It felt like we had this forward, positive momentum,” lamented Katie Button, executive chief and CEO at two restaurants in Asheville, North Carolina. “The delta variant wiped that timeline completely away.”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. More than six months into the U.S. vaccination drive, President Joe Biden held a White House party on July Fourth to celebrate the country’s freedom from the virus, and other political leaders had high hopes for a close-to-normal summer.

Then the bottom fell out.

The summer wave was fueled by the extra-contagious delta variant combined with stark resistance to vaccinations that formed along political and geographic lines, said Dr. Sten Vermund, of the Yale School of Public Health.

“The virus was more efficient in spreading among the unvaccinated so that you blunted the expected benefit of vaccines,” Vermund said.

The crisis escalated rapidly from June to August. About 400,000 COVID-19 infections were recorded for all of June. It took all of three days last week to reach the same number.

The U.S. recorded 26,800 deaths and more than 4.2 million infections in August. The number of monthly positive cases was the fourth-highest total since the start of the pandemic.

The 2021 delta-driven onslaught is killing younger Americans at a much higher rate than previous waves of the pandemic in the Northeast last spring, the Sun Belt in the summer of 2020 and the deadly winter surge around the holidays.

During the peaks of those waves, Americans over 75 suffered the highest proportion of death. Now, the most vulnerable age group for death is 50 to 64.

Overall, the outbreak is still well below the all-time peaks reached over the winter, when deaths topped out at 3,400 a day and new cases at a quarter-million per day.

The U.S. is now averaging over 150,000 new cases per day, levels not seen since January. Deaths are close to 1,500 per day, up more than a third since late August.

Even before the delta variant became dominant, experts say there were indications that larger gatherings and relaxed social distancing measures were fueling new cases.

“We had been cooped up for over a year and everyone wanted to get out,” said Dr. David Dowdy, an epidemiologist at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “In the face of that kind of strong change in behavior, even getting almost two-thirds of our adult population vaccinated wasn’t enough.”

The COVID-19 vaccines remain highly effective against hospitalization and death, but many tens of millions of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated. Nearly 40% of Americans 12 and older are not fully protected.

Yale’s Vermund sees reasons to be cautiously optimistic about the next few months. Cases in most states appear to be plateauing and are likely to decline in the fall, buying health authorities more time to vaccinate adults and teenagers before flu season.

“If we can continue making progress between now and Thanksgiving, we may be able to substantially blunt the coronavirus surge in flu season,” Vermund said.

While the economy has been rebounding strongly over the past several months, hiring slowed sharply in August in a sign that the variant is discouraging Americans from flying, shopping or eating out.

And on Monday, unemployment benefits — including an extra $300 a week from the federal government — ran out for millions of Americans.

Button, the North Carolina chef, was feeling great heading into the summer. Her team was mostly vaccinated in May and restrictions were loosening. But the crisis soon changed direction.

Button supports the mask mandate that was recently reinstated in her county but said her employees are exhausted by having to enforce it. And since she has no outdoor seating, some diners have been less comfortable coming in.

“It’s hard to take a step forward and then take three steps back,” she said.


Durbin reported from Detroit.