Texas Gov. George W. Bush dodged one legal bullet this week when a judge ruled that he could not be subpoenaed in a whistle-blower lawsuit filed by the state’s former funeral commission director, who claims she was fired after attempting to investigate a funeral services company that has contributed large sums to Bush’s gubernatorial campaigns.

Bush was not quite as lucky Monday, when a group of environmentalists filed suit against him personally, as well as the Texas Department of Public Safety, for allegedly violating their first amendment rights by arresting them while they protested peacefully on the sidewalk outside the governor’s mansion this spring.

Astute readers will recall our previous coverage of the enviro arrests. Protesters, including Rick Abraham of the Texans United Education Fund and Tom “Smitty” Smith of Texas Public Citizen, had gathered in front of the mansion to urge Bush to back a bill that would have made certain emissions standards mandatory for Texas industrial plants. Instead, Bush ultimately signed a bill that keeps the standards voluntary for older plants.

On at least four occasions, police officers arrested several of the protesters and made others disband, citing Department of Public Safety rules against such gatherings. Bush himself held a press conference supporting the arrests. When asked to produce the actual rules permitting the arrests, however, both the governor’s office and DPS came up empty.

Hence the lawsuit, which alleges improper enforcement of an apparently nonexistent rule that would be unconstitutional if it existed in the first place. Make sense? It’s really fairly simple. The plaintiffs want to be able to protest and don’t want the state police to have carte blanche to arrest whomever they choose.

As Abraham puts it: “Bush’s police are basically allowed to make up the rules as they go along depending on who they like and who they don’t like in front of the mansion. If you had a protest sign against the governor, you got arrested, and if you didn’t have a protest sign, you didn’t.”

The plaintiffs have lined up ACLU lawyer David Kahne to press their case, though the ACLU itself is not part of the lawsuit. Kahne explained the goal of the suit from his office in Houston: “The governor needs to recognize that the right to express opinions is one of the most important rights of Americans and that his best course of action is to make sure that the sidewalk is open for freedom of expression. The second best outcome [of the suit] would be for a judge to order that to happen.”

The suit was filed in Travis County district court, among the more liberal in Texas. So chances for a favorable ruling are not all that bad. Chances are also good that the state would appeal an adverse ruling to the Texas Supreme Court.

Then there’s always the chance, of course, that Bush could simply come up with a way to mollify the plaintiffs, explain whatever rules currently exist, and allow peaceful protests to continue in a compassionately conservative way. Is that the politically smart thing to do? Probably. Unless you want to hand your general election opponent the argument that you successfully ran a police state for two terms.

Under the Guns in California

Only a couple more weeks until the special election to fill late Rep. George Brown‘s (D) seat in San Bernardino, Calif., and the race is heating up on the Democratic side. The Sierra Club has weighed in with its choice in the race: Democrat Marta Macias Brown, widow of the late rep.

After analyzing candidate responses to a questionnaire, the Sierra Club chose Brown over State Sen. Joe Baca (D) despite Baca’s 100 percent rating from the California League of Conservation Voters in 1998. It was Baca’s record in previous years that apparently wasn’t so hot.

“Marta really impressed our people, one of whom had grown up with Joe Baca, but even he came out really impressed with Marta,” said Terry Wold of the Sierra Club’s San Gorgonio chapter.

Among other things, the endorsement cited Brown’s commitment to “strengthening legislation for the recovery of endangered species … phasing out logging on ecologically sensitive lands … making the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge a wilderness area … decreasing global warming … requiring expansions of GATT or NAFTA to include provisions to protect the environment …”

But the environment figures to take a backseat to another issue in the special election: guns. Brown has been hammering Baca for his long record of opposing gun control and abstaining on a recent vote in the California legislature to ban the sale and production of so-called Saturday Night Specials, the cheapest and most apt-to-malfunction guns on the market.

Baca still has more money and leads in some polls, but in addition to the Sierra Club nod, Brown now has the backing of Handgun Control Inc. and EMILY’s List, the D.C. powerhouse that backs (and helps bankroll) pro-choice Democratic women. The race will go down to the wire with one of the two leading Democrats likely emerging to face GOP front-runner Elia Pirozzi in a Nov. 16 runoff.

Hurricane Mitch

The never-ending, never-progressing, intellectually bereft argument over campaign finance reform is ready to kick up once again in Congress, but maybe, just maybe, things will get more interesting this time around.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is back on the scene to defend the endless gobs of soft money pumped into party committees every year by corporations and labor unions. McConnell’s latest gambit, outed by the New York Times editorial page on Sunday, is to write threatening letters to corporate CEOs who have had the unmitigated gall to join with a business think tank, the Committee for Economic Development (CED), that supports a ban on soft money.

One letter from McConnell excoriates an unnamed executive who dared line up with the lions, tigers, and bears associated with the move to ban soft money, including the Sierra Club and consumer advocate Ralph Nader.

The CED, which includes executives from companies such as Prudential Insurance and International Paper, answered back in a letter reprinted in the Times Wednesday, claiming to feel no shame in being associated with the likes of the Sierra Club on the issue of soft money. It is a truly remarkable harmonic convergence that might begin to thaw the freeze McConnell has managed to put on campaign finance reform.

Most enviros hate soft money because it generally comes from corporations hostile to their interests backing candidates they oppose. Not all corporations are thrilled with soft money either; many would relish the chance to slice the million-dollar line item for filling political party pockets out of their budgets.

Will this little flare-up mean a soft money ban finally makes it through? Who knows. But if McConnell is worked up enough to write these threatening letters, chances are he’s at least a little worried.